Be specific with actions

A reminder to myself. Be specific.

When I’m cleaning up my stories, I go through and search for the word “looked” because I frequently use it as shorthand for generic body language.

For example, “The AI looked genuinely unhappy”

Okay… what specific piece of body language does my POV character recognize as looking genuinely unhappy? If I take a moment and picture the scene in my head, I can pick one element and describe that to create a more specific image. For instance, “The droop of the A.I.’s eyes drew a portrait of genuine unhappiness.”

Another example from a different story. “She looked away.”

Uh-huh… what exactly did she look at? “She pressed her face against the mattress and would have counted every fibre in the cotton ticking rather than face him.”

It’s way too easy to let the generic stuff slide because it isn’t actually broken but it also isn’t working as hard as it could.

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13 thoughts on “Be specific with actions”

  1. omg, THANK YOU!!

    I am a TERRIBLE abuser of the “he/she/I looked” and am always struggling to figure this out. I think you just made me understand something I was missing. 🙂

    — Maria

  2. Very cool–thank you for sharing this tidbit!

    One of my bugaboos is “s/he could,” as in “On the far side of the street, he could see . . . ” or “From her perch above the wall, she could hear . . . ” instead of, you know, “he saw” and “she heard.” Or, even better, “Across the street, the shopkeeper turned out the light and yanked the door shut,” or “She held her breath as the security guard walked below her, crunching the loose gravel,” without actually mentioning the obvious fact that these are being seen or heard.

  3. You know, this is one of those simple show/tell issues that I think a lot of us could be better at.

    However, this also falls solidly into the “More detailed vs shorter length” problem. The best writing is usually also the most concise writing–but the best writing is also often the more specific writing.

    Any time we decide to show instead of tell, we’re choosing length over concision. This is generally the right move to make. But it is something to be aware of, and there has to be a balance. In a different kind of example, we could say “A dog lay on the side of the street.” Or we could say “A soggy black mongrel with patchy fur, a broken leg, and a snarl on its lips crouched in the shadows of a grime-stained alleyway.” One is certainly more vivid. One also takes far more words, and if we describe EVERYTHING this way, we’ll never get anywhere.

    Likewise, I’ve found myself using too many visual beats in a dialogue, distracting from the actual words being said. It seems to me that half the time, the answer (for my own writing) isn’t to change the beat to say where, specifically, she looked–but to cut the beat entirely, because the dialogue conveys the right emotions already without the distraction a lot of readers will skip.

    (p.s. Mary, got a copy of your novel in the mail, and am going to do my best to give it a read before it comes out.)

    1. Ah, yes the choice of which things to show. I should probably have been more specific in my discussion of specificity. You are totally right that too much detail is useless and just muddies things. There are times when “looked” is appropriate and trying to avoid it would lead to silliness.

      I guess in this case, I was jumping over something that probably isn’t actually a given. That’s the idea that the details I’m showing are there for a reason. Advancing plot, building character, establishing geography… that sort of thing.

      On its own, “make everything specific” would become quickly dreadful. As a tool in the larger box though, I think it is useful.

      I don’t know that I agree that specificity means fiction gets longer. Take the cotton ticking line from my example. With that one line, I’ve let you know her location and her state of mind. My idea of being specific isn’t to add mounds of additional detail but to make sure that every word on the page counts.

      (Edited to add: Awesome and exciting that you have the book!)

    2. I find that my writing does tend to get shorter as I revise anyway, because I end up deciding that some of the things I focused on were things that were fun for me to write about, but not necessarily things that moved the story forward. What I took from the OP was more about verbs than about description.

      (BTW, I’m really enjoying The Gathering Storm right now–especially Egwene’s story. She’s been my favorite character in the series for several books now, so I’m loving all the screen time she’s getting!)

  4. This is useful, I never would have even thought about it! Now I’m going to have to go back and reread all my things for better usage. Are there other “grey” words like “looked”, do you find? One of mine is reminding myself that “said” is invisible, you can use it many times and be fine but using lots of synonyms for it leads down the path of destruction…

    1. I often find myself overusing “turned” in various ways.

      And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with using any of these words. The larger question is if you can get a sentence to do more by introducing specificity.

    2. “Just” and “only” are junk words for me and for a lot of other wannabe’s too. I think “suddenly” is too–it can be an attempt to insist to a reader that the story is exciting

      While developing your own eye, you might find a software tool that searches for repeated words and phrases to be useful. In a story I’m revising right now, I found that I used “for a moment” five times in five thousand words. I think those times when I use the same phrase over and over can be a sign that I’m using a phrase as a shorthand for something I don’t feel like going through the effort to show. Nothing necessarily wrong with the phrase “for a moment,” but there might be something wrong with the fact that I use it so often.

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