“Be specific,” they say. “It will help your story,” they say.
This is good advice, but it’s not always true. “Be specific” does not mean “be specific with every word you write.”
The wrong kind of details won’t help, especially in action sequences. Painting a vivid image is all about balance. Readers will be overwhelmed by too many details, and the image will drown under the weight. If no details exist, readers can’t picture anything at all. But, when we purposefully add details and delete unnecessary ones, the words disappear, and readers lose themselves in the worlds we create. To achieve such epic results, we must know how much description to include and exclude during action sequences.
Suppose I’m diving into my first action scene. Showing every facet of the fight will drag the pace. Yet, I want readers to understand my character’s movements. So I write something like this:
Oliver grabbed the arrow with his right hand. He notched it, fingers tripping over themselves.
The wolves drew near. Their sharp teeth gleamed in the sunlight, ready to latch onto human flesh and bone. Their fur waved as they bolted forward. Their beady eyes zeroed in on him.
Oliver drew back the string with his fingers. He bit his lip, narrowing his eyes to focus on the space between the first wolf’s eyes. One heartbeat. Two.
Readers won’t dig this section because I inserted irrelevant details. I referenced body parts at least eight times, which is jolting, because mentioning a small segment of something draws attention to it. Overemphasizing individual body parts distracts from the larger conflict. It’s like watching a battle through a camera zoomed in on a villain’s fingers or toes.
I also created floating body parts. Singling out a hand or thumb can give the illusion that the appendage is moving independently, and readers may forget about the rest of the character. In my draft, it sounds like Oliver’s fingers are literally tripping over his other digits without being attached to his hand. I don’t want readers to picture that. He needs his fingers.
Decluttering the Conflict
In the end, an action scene hinges on conflict. Readers won’t care which hand Oliver nocks an arrow with. They’re anxious to find out if that arrow flies true and whether he survives the wolf attack. They’re focused on the bigger picture.
As a general rule, don’t concentrate on body parts during an action scene. Details aren’t as important in danger-filled moments. Cutting out the nuances will condense your sentences and provide a clearer image. Overexplaining means you don’t trust readers to figure out what’s happening. The purpose of description isn’t to make readers see exactly as you do, but to help them connect the dots with their imaginations.
Here’s my piece with fewer details:
Oliver grabbed the arrow. He struggled to notch it. The wolves drew near, their fangs sharp and ready to latch onto human flesh.
He drew his bow, focusing on the fur between the first wolf’s eyes. One heartbeat. Two.
It’s not as fancy as the previous version, but it does the trick. In action scenes, less is more. Now readers won’t stumble over my words to try to discover Oliver’s fate.
A time and a place exists for specificity. Sometimes a subtle motion must be highlighted, like a finger tightening on a trigger. But before you rake in the details, ask a few questions.
First, is the involved body part obvious? In my paragraph, I pointed out that Oliver drew an arrow with his right hand. But I don’t need to mention that because readers will assume he’s using his hand, not his teeth or toes.
Second, is the detail meaningful? If Oliver is left-handed and draws the arrow with his right, that’s significant. Perhaps his other hand is wounded and he’s about to miss because he’s clumsy with his right. But if he’s simply right-handed, readers don’t need to know. It doesn’t intensify the conflict.
However, an action scene may contain moments that call for a slower pace. Perhaps a wolf has pinned Oliver and he’s helpless. Describing his surroundings and his thoughts can underline the horror of the situation.
You can’t pick any old detail though. If Oliver is worried about his impending doom, he likely won’t notice how the wind scatters the fall leaves across the forest floor. He’ll probably be focused on the wolf’s teeth, the claws piercing his tunic, and the weight pressing him to the ground.
The Key to Vivid Pictures
Remember, to create vivid pictures, balance is crucial. Both underwriting and overwriting produces the same result: readers won’t be able to visualize the scene. Be selective with details or risk bogging things down. Make sure every detail has a purpose, whether spotlighting an important action or drawing out a tense moment. Being intentional with details can bring your story to life in a reader’s mind.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.