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Aug
14
2019

How much is too much -- by Todd Mcgee

In the three years I've been a member of Critique Circle, I've noticed a few common threads among us newbies--too much telling, passive voice, an abundance of adverbs, POV shifts and all the other deadly sins of creative writing.

One area I have been emphasizing in my own writing is limiting play-by-play descriptions of my characters' physical movements. Too many new writers feel compelled to describe every movement a character makes, no matter how small or irrelevant, in the belief they are painting a picture for the reader. It’s not enough to know a character lights a cigarette. We need step-by-step details of how it got lit.

Michael pulled a rumpled pack of Marlboro’s from his shirt pocket and shook out a cigarette. He returned the pack to his pocket and stuck the cigarette between his lips while searching the end table for the lighter he always left there. He found the lighter hiding underneath a stack of unpaid bills, struck it three times before it fired, and lit his cigarette. He returned the lighter to the table and leaned back in his chair, puffing away. What a day.

I don’t know about you, but after reading that, I have no interest in smoking. Who knew it took so much effort to light a cigarette?

Let’s break that paragraph down. How many different character movements did the author describe?

  1. Michael took out a pack of cigarettes.
  2. He shook out a cigarette.
  3. He put the pack back in his pocket.
  4. He stuck the cigarette between his lips.
  5. He searched the end table for the lighter.
  6. He struck the lighter three times.
  7. He lit his cigarette.
  8. He put the lighter back in the table.
  9. He leaned back in his chair.
  10. He puffed on his cigarette.

Ten different steps at eighty-two words to describe the simple act of lighting a cigarette. Now let’s look at this version.

Michael lit a cigarette and leaned back in the chair, ignoring the unpaid bills in the end table. What a day.

Two movements and twenty-one words to describe the same thing. This paints the same picture, keeps the one piece of scene-setting (the stack of unpaid bills) and enhances the pace of the story. Does the reader need to know where he kept the lighter? That it took three tries to make the lighter work? Do you have to tell the reader Michael put the pack of cigarettes and the lighter back? Wouldn’t the reader assume that’s what he did?

Unless a particular detail is relevant to the story—e.g. the location of the lighter comes into play later—then leave it out. Don’t bore us with descriptions of everyday actions.

If this passage is part of a larger scene with back-and-forth dialogue between Michael and another character, the movements can serve as action beats for Michael.

Michael pulled a rumpled pack of Marlboro’s from his shirt pocket and shook out a cigarette. "You wouldn't believe the day I had."

Steve sat in the chair across from him. "What happened?

Michael stuck the cigarette between his lips and searched the end table for the lighter he always left there. "I walked in on my boss having sex with a co-worker on his desk."

"That's disgusting. What's his wife going to think?"

"She's going to be sick to learn her husband is gay. He was having sex with Adam."

Steve's mouth fell open. "What did you do?"

Michael found the lighter hiding underneath a stack of unpaid bills. He lit the cigarette and leaned back in his chair. "I ran out of there as fast as I could. Man, what a day."

In this example, the reader is not bombarded with a laundry list of mundane details about lighting a cigarette. Instead, interspersing the movements throughout the passage breaks up a long stretch of dialogue.

As with anything in writing, finding the right balance is key. Including just enough so we know what the character is doing keeps the story moving and the reader engaged. It also frees up your word count to provide more real estate for your story—you know, the plot, character development, action scenes, dialogue, scene-setting, etc., that are the real reasons people read your novel.

Posted by Todd Mcgee 14 Aug at 01:30
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Responses to this blog

Jewells64 16 Aug at 05:48  
I agree with everything in this blog. Describing or showing how a protag/antag smokes a cigarette should divulge character attributes or frame of mind. Way, way back in the fifties and sixties everyone in a movie smoked and it often did just that. In writing showing how any mundane movement can be vital, but if it's not then it should be omitted. Lighting a cigarette with a pregnant pause can highlight interest or tension in dialogue. Lotsa luck.
Paulpowell 16 Aug at 06:08  
Only show us the one time where he doesn't smoke his cigarette the way he usually does. We can guess as to how all the other times probably appear.
Andymather 16 Aug at 06:42  
In the movie John Wick, there's a scene where a guy sees John at a gas station. He lights a cigarette and holds it backward in his hand, the way they do in eastern Europe. Then, with his lit cigarette, he strolls over to where John is pumping gas. That tells you a lot before he even opens his mouth.
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Marisaw 17 Aug at 23:09  
Andymather
In the movie John Wick, there's a scene where a guy sees John at a gas station. He lights a cigarette and holds it backward in his hand, the way they do in eastern Europe. Then, with his lit cigarette, he strolls over to where John is pumping gas. That tells you a lot before he even opens his mouth.
I don't get it.
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Andymather 18 Aug at 05:30  
What kind of character walks up to you with a lit cigarette while you're pumping gas?
__________________
Never utilize "utilize" when you can utilize "use".

Jewells64 18 Aug at 07:03  
Andy, you're a technical writer, but in writing fiction you have to know personality and character traits. It's evident that in one action Wick discloses a lot about his character. He seems to be an individualist, a person thinks he's different from others, and feels exempt from living as everyone else does. He's a melancholy dreamer, disdainful, decadent, and sensual, living in a fantasy world. Self-pity and envy of others leads to self-indulgence, and to becoming increasingly impractical, unproductive, effete, and precious.
Marisa may say she doesn't get it, but I've read enough of what she's posted to think—Hell, I'm sure she does. In learning to write, we have to give each protag/antag a backstory and know how they'll act in any given situation.

Go to the website www.enneagram.com and use their models as guidance. Otherwise, take a course in psychology. Lotsa luck.
Andymather 18 Aug at 08:36  
The guy with the cigarette is Josef - Wick is the one pumping gas. But yes, you have described Josef very well. He is also reckless, dangerous, and immature, not linking actions to their consequenses.

Fiction has been a steep learning curve for me, but after a few years I'm getting better at it. I gain something new every time I log into CC. My degree is in psychology, but that was a long time ago. I'm familiar with ennaegrams, but haven't revisited them in quite a while. I will do so on your recommendation.
__________________
Never utilize "utilize" when you can utilize "use".

Teepack 20 Aug at 19:37  
Good points all. Mundane actions really aren't mundane if they reveal something about your character.
West4east 22 Aug at 03:44  
I am surprised about POV shifts having become a sin. Novels like Taipan from James Clavell, Till Morning Comes From Han Suyin, and almost all novels from Morris West wouldn’t even work without at least five or six POV shifts per chapter. Has omniscient third person view become something like smoking? Airplanes used to come in smoking and non-smoking categories.
Waldronl44 22 Aug at 05:43  
West4east
I am surprised about POV shifts having become a sin. Novels like Taipan from James Clavell, Till Morning Comes From Han Suyin, and almost all novels from Morris West wouldn’t even work without at least five or six POV shifts per chapter. Has omniscient third person view become something like smoking? Airplanes used to come in smoking and non-smoking categories.
It's not POV shifts in the third person omniscient sense, there are always distinguished breaks between when we move focus from one person to another. It's more unfocused POV switches.

"Paul leant back on his chair and took a long drag of his cigarette. It’d been a long day, but he knew it was about to get worse. Jane would come in any moment and add another heap of shit on to the mound that was his Thursday. 
On queue, she stormed into the room, “Where the fuck where you?” she didn’t know why Paul had to be such a loser all the time. Why wasn’t he here today?"

This unfocused POV is jarring and confusing for the reader.
Paulpowell 22 Aug at 08:31  
I start out writing a scene and a first sketch is merely that "Smith" (tall physically fit, German) is testy and impatient when he meets a man named "Jones" because Jones is simply the kind of fellow-German he hates: short, fat, food-loving, egghead.

Pretty thin so far. Later drafts: Smith is an outdoorsy, peaceful, nature-loving German, his background is in chemistry, he has a fondness for poetry. He hates fellow-Germans like this man Jones because Jones is an engineer, works in industry, is part of the new wave of industrialization and militarization sweeping their homeland in the late 1930s.

Next draft: both Smith and Jones come from the small town of Marburg, Germany. They were each students at the university immediately after WWI; they courted the same girls; but each took different paths in life. Neither have been back in years but the town is deeply altered in their absence; it is now a hotbed of right-wing politics. Smith is dark-haired and brown-eyed; Jones is tall, blonde, and Aryan and involved with the Party. Smith was forced to quit school to serve in the war and afterwards, suffers a metal plate in his head; and it just so happens that Jones fashioned it for him in the factory he works in.

Thus —at this point in the writing —when these two meet to transact some business, it is not difficult to imagine things they might say to each other. Also. now their names are Schmidt and Jahn.


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Cwotus 5 Sep at 13:31  
A lot of new writers (and many who should absolutely know better) can lose up to half their readership with simple unforced errors such as "Marlboro's" for "Marlboros"... (or substituting "loose" for "lose", and so forth).

Aside from that ...
Michael pulled a rumpled pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket and shook out a cigarette. He returned the pack to his pocket and stuck the cigarette between his lips while searching the end table for the lighter he always left there. He found the lighter hiding underneath a stack of unpaid bills, struck it three times before it fired, and lit his cigarette. He returned the lighter to the table and leaned back in his chair, puffing away. What a day.
It may be useful, perhaps even vital in some stories, to know that Michael smokes Marlboros and that he keeps the packet (soft pack, I note) in his shirt pocket. After that, it's not so important to have the mechanics of the smoker shaking out the cigarette, placing it between his lips, or whether or not he returns the pack to his pocket. ["Packet to pocket" could be a nice phrase for a certain type of work, though, if it's somehow relevant.] Whether he "always" keeps the lighter on the end table or not is probably immaterial to most stories ... except this could later be a clue in a murder mystery, or a key to an arson investigation. The "stack of unpaid bills" on top of the lighter is actually confusing, from a process standpoint. Does he not smoke very often, in which case the mail / bills have been allowed to "stack" on top of the lighter, or did the complete stack of bills just come in today's mail? [I once worked with a gentleman who did only smoke on weekends, but as far as I know he paid his bills promptly. In a story about him, such a detail of 'hunting for the lighter' might be relevant.] It's an interesting but probably irrelevant detail that he had to strike the lighter three times to get a flame: is it out of fuel, is the flint worn, or the striker wheel, is the environment wet? After that, "puffing away" seems like a superficial description of a smoker written by a non-smoker. I'm not a smoker, myself, but I've watched them sometimes, and they don't just "puff away". But your point is made.

I do agree that the words may not have to paint a "full" picture of the scene ... and the scene has to matter. Also, to the extent that process details are being introduced, they have to be accurate and fair. One of the primary things that I harp on in my crits is faulty or incomplete process descriptions, especially when the process matters very much to the narrative. When those descriptions are or seem false and not even relevant to the story, then I'm not reading it to crit in the first place.
Geoff 7 Sep at 14:00  
Marisaw
Andymather
In the movie John Wick, there's a scene where a guy sees John at a gas station. He lights a cigarette and holds it backward in his hand, the way they do in eastern Europe. Then, with his lit cigarette, he strolls over to where John is pumping gas. That tells you a lot before he even opens his mouth.
I don't get it.
That's quite an accomplishment.

Writer01 1 Nov at 10:54  
I raise my hand high and admit to being guilty of weighing down my stories with excessive descriptions. It wasn't really something I realized I was even doing until I found CC. I wonder if there is a way to recognize this flaw, something that will stop you from throwing an unwieldy paragraph into your story when a sentence or two will do.
Bellaamaya 8 Nov at 11:44  
Don't bore us, get to the chorus. Too many details doth a stew spew.

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