Action can be easily overwritten, and when I say action I don’t necessarily mean fight scenes. In this context I mean any sort of movement, and we all do it, whether it’s mentioning every time a character crosses a room, excessive shrugging, or every shade of smile.
This isn’t a problem in a first draft, it can help us orientate ourselves in a space, figuring out how a character moves, or simply help us with the flow as we write. The problem comes when we don’t streamline these because a reader can begin to find our prose repetitive and clunky. This isn’t to say that we need to eradicate every instance, the entire problem is based on the fact that these are things that people do and they do them a lot which is how we fall into the trap of overwriting them. I know I’ve read back my Weekly Serial and found too many instances of characters crossing rooms and shutting doors behind them, which they often would as they’d shut them after they went through, though not in every instance.
Once again the rule of repetition is rearing its head because, part of the issue, is that repetition creates emphasis and if we have too many shrugs in a scene they begin to become conspicuous. Once they become conspicuous the reader may begin to think, ‘I wish they’d react a different way’. Once again, may we encounter the problem that some people do shrug a lot and it can be a fine line between a character trait and excessive repetition. Yet another problem.
At this point you might be wondering why I’m pointing out all these issues with no solutions. I want to reassure you that falling into these traps are not an indicator of bad writing. They are some of the easiest and most common to fall into. I also want to reassure you that I don’t expect you to cut out every instance. Using movement in our characters is a good thing, it makes them more vivid and real because real people don’t just stand around with their hands in their pockets, they are rarely still. Even when people are ‘still’ it’s very rare for them to be completely still. They may shift slightly, wriggle their fingers nervously, move their head in reaction to sound.
When we find ourselves with repetitive actions we need to ask: Is this necessary? Is there a different way to describe it? Is there something different we can do?
Now, that second question ‘is there a different way to describe it’ can be perilous in itself. One of the reasons these simple actions are repeated is because they’re direct. As I’ve said before, sometimes a duck is a duck. We don’t need long descriptions for simply things, it can slow down our prose when we might not want it to, sometimes it can be useful to give use a sense of a slow deliberate action but more often than not a shrug isn’t. At this point we may find ourselves in a pickle if we don’t want to overwrite but we don’t want to be repetitive.
We’re going to have to look carefully at this…
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.