Graduate Essay: “Description through Character, into Setting, and Driving Action” by Scott Gray (Part 2 of 2)

Scott Gray is a passionate writer living in New Hampshire. He developed a love of stories as a young boy, especially those that transported him to other worlds. To this day, Anne McCaffrey’s dragon riders and J. R. R. Tolkien’s hobbits hold a special place in his heart.

His love of fantasy drove him to try his hand at writing. Scott discovered that the magic found in the reading of a great story also existed in its telling. Since then, he has written horror and fantasy-based short stories and is working on an epic fantasy series.

He is a graduate of the 2020 Odyssey Writing Workshop and a winner of the George R. R. Martin Miskatonic Scholarship. His current job titles include Loving Father (to two adult daughters), Supportive Husband, Patient Cat Dad, Impatient Adjunct Professor, and General Nerd.

Scott hopes that in the future, teenagers and adults get lost in the worlds that he creates.

The following essay was adapted from a lecture Scott did for the 2022 TNEO (aka The Never-Ending Odyssey), an invitation-only workshop exclusively for Odyssey graduates.


Part 1 of this essay, posted last Monday, is available here.


Describing Action

Good stories move. They have a forward momentum that pulls the reader through the work. Monica Wood says this momentum is twofold: physical and emotional. The physical momentum moves the plot from beginning to end, and the emotional tracks the character arc. When both the physical and emotional move together, they enrich each other.

Description then mirrors the internal emotional state of the POV character at that specific point in the story. How descriptions change should lead toward a discovery or turning point in the story. The story’s pace then is set by physical and emotional changes that drive toward that turning point, which is controlled through description.

I think Wood is on to something here. Jack Bickham, in his short book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them), agrees with Wood that fiction is movement but cautions that description, for its own sake, tends to be static. He says beginning writers often get caught up in describing sunsets, as though pretty prose is an end to itself. When descriptions are divorced from character emotion, they exist simply to paint the scene. Everything in our writing should be doing double duty; therefore, descriptions should have momentum.

Bickham breaks apart the elements of prose and categorizes them based on their momentum. From static prose to high forward momentum, he lists exposition, description, narrative, dialogue, and dramatic summary. This spectrum is an interesting way to think about your writing. However, if your writing is like mine, these elements are tightly wound around each other. There is a give and take, an ebb and flow, that, if done so that each element supports the others, can leave the reader with an emotional experience.

The best emotional experiences in fiction can often be found in an action scene. The stakes are high, and everything is immediate. But where should you focus your descriptions? In his video on writing fight scenes, Timothy Hickson says you want to describe the differences in the characters’ combat styles at the beginning. Once you’ve set that up, you can use shorthand descriptions of the style and let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. Our bodies are fragile, so descriptors like “soft stomach” and “cracking ribs” remind the reader of their frailty. Pick verbs that add punch to the sentences based on the POV character. Slow down the pace and give more description when the action reveals something about the character. Allow the reader to linger with the weight of the emotional impact when something dramatic happens in the fight. Although I’m using a fight scene here, this still applies to any category of action scene. Therefore, spend time at the beginning with important descriptions, use shorthand and strong verbs as the action picks up, and then slow down and describe the emotional points of the scene.

Regarding fight scenes, Hickson points out a pattern that Brandon Sanderson uses. This technique moves the POV character toward or away from their goal. When moving toward a goal, the character will react to what just occurred, pause to consider, and then act. When moving away from the goal, the character will pick their goal and encounter some conflict, escalating that conflict into a disaster. You can use the two techniques together. Here is an example Hickson uses from Brandon Sanderson’s novel Skyward:

I got in close and speared the Krell ship with my light-lance. Then I turned, pulling [goal] the Krell ship out of line with Bog. The cockpit trembled [conflict] around me… sending us both into a frantic out-of-control spin [disaster]…

“I cut [react] my activity ring, spun [pause] on my axis, then overburned [act] right back downward.

The POV character identifies a goal, but things go wrong, they react, adjust, and then get back into the action. This pattern can be used in a few sentences or spread across several paragraphs, depending on the situation and the pacing you are trying to achieve.

Action will trigger the flight, fight, or freeze response in the POV character. Adrenaline will cause the heart to pump more blood and the lungs to work more efficiently. The brain and muscles get a sudden infusion of blood, oxygen, and sugars. Pupils grow larger, vision sharpens, and the body sweats. Instead of describing these physical changes, change the patterns in your prose. For example, you could show a quick heartbeat through rapid-fire descriptions. Feeling dizzy can be demonstrated through the sway of the setting. The POV character will focus on any threats or seek an escape, which is what you should describe.

Assembling the Pieces

You now have a good idea of how to describe character, setting, and action, and how these elements are related. Now it is time to show how important they are to craft a compelling action scene.

The best action scenes work when the reader already knows the character and the setting. To do this, there needs to be a setup phase before the action scene. Stories that start with an action scene often leave readers uninterested in the events because they have failed to establish character and setting. You don’t need a lot of setup. Just look at the opening ten minutes of the original Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, to see this done effectively (see Thallon, 2021, in references).

The setup should contain a clear understanding of the character. This allows the reader to guess what the POV character might do during the action sequence. Knowing their goals and desires in advance will lend emotional weight to the scene when they are achieved or not.

Hickson emphasizes the importance of understanding the physical space before the action starts. Trying to describe the space during the action will slow down the pacing. You should identify a few unique features of the setting beforehand to use as references later. The setting itself can up the tension of the scene. Knowing in advance that avalanche conditions are high can increase the suspense in a scene where two people are downslope fighting in the snow over a revolver. The setting description can also increase expectations. For example, if there is an avalanche shelter near the two people, the reader may envision that they will have to make a run for that location. Remember, describing the physical space must be done through the POV character.

The payoff, the action scene itself, now becomes easier to write. Having described a few key locations in the setting, you can now use shorthand descriptions as the action moves through the space. Apply the concepts found under the Describing Action section above. Show the flow of the action in more detail at the beginning, then focus more on the character’s movements, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks from what has already been established. Hickson ends his discussion by telling us to periodically remind the reader where the characters are in the setting, and their orientation toward each other, during the fight.

At this point, you might wonder, “What if the action takes place somewhere the character hasn’t been before?” You will likely have several of these scenes in a novel. When that occurs, you want to ensure the reader has a firm grasp of who the POV character is. How they discover the setting should make sense to the reader. You will need to intersperse description with action; however, only describe what the character would focus upon. Keep it straightforward. I would avoid this type of scene for major encounters like the climax. If the setting is new to the POV character for one of those scenes, take a moment to describe the setting before jumping into the action.

An important point to clarify is that the POV character doesn’t have to encounter the setting in advance, but the reader does. This could be through another POV character (even the antagonist), scouts reporting what they’ve seen, drawings found on a cave wall, a map, etc.

Okay, let’s walk through an example of this in a book. In Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, he introduces Logen Ninefingers, who will later battle another character in the third novel. We’ll meet Logen, get descriptions of a setting, and enter a fight scene between the two. There are some spoilers in this section (of Logen’s dark side and whom he fights in the third novel), but I’ve left out the outcome of that fight.

First, let’s meet Logen after he survives a desperate battle against a humanoid attacker (the Shanka) in the opening pages of the first book.

“I am still alive,” he croaked to himself. Still alive, in spite of the best efforts of nature, Shanka, men and beasts. Soaking wet and flat on his back, he started to chuckle. Reedy, gurgling laughter. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a survivor.

Notice we don’t get any physical descriptions of what Logen looks like in this snippet as the POV is a close, limited third person. It becomes clear early in the story that Logen is physically and mentally tough. But he isn’t cocky. He laughs because he is still alive despite his life up to this point. That mindset is something he carries with him throughout the trilogy.

In the third novel, Logen Ninefingers agrees to fight The Feared—a monstrous man protected from injury and exuding fear, both through magic. As is tradition, soldiers form a circle of stones in a clearing, where the two combatants will face each other. On the night before the fight, West, a military man who is foreign to this custom, asks Logen how these fights work. Here is a clip from that exchange:

[West, the outsider] “How does this business work?”

[Logen] “They mark out a circle. Round the edge men stand with shields, half from one side, half from the other, and they make sure no one leaves before it’s ended. Two men go into the circle. The one that dies there is the loser.”

We see other descriptions of people clearing the field and getting it ready. The castle walls overlook the area, and on the morning of the fight, people stand on those walls and cheer for one of the fighters. As a reader, we have a pretty good idea of what this setting looks like before the fighting starts. Even so, Abercrombie gives the reader a closer description through the POV of Logen as he enters the ring on the day of the fight.

[Logen, entering the ring] They all had their shields, all the men that Logen had picked to hold them, standing in a solemn knot by the walls. West was one, and Pike, and Red Hat, and Shivers too. Logen wondered if he made a mistake with that last one…

The focus has shifted to describing those behind him with their shields and the concern on Logen’s mind. Describing the ring of stones at this point would have been a mistake. Things are getting too personal as Logen is about to fight for his life.

At this point in the novels, the reader understands who Logen Ninefingers is and how he fights. We also know how dangerous of an opponent he is facing. The setting is clearly described, and the reader understands the rules. The reader can fully anticipate what might happen during the fight. They get to play along and guess the outcome. As expectation rises, the reader is pulled into the fight and won’t stop reading until it ends.

Let’s see how Abercrombie describes the start of the fight.

The Feared seemed to fill the circle, one half bare and blue, the other cased in black iron, a monster torn from legends. There was nowhere to hide from his great fists, nowhere to hide from the fear of him. Shields rattled and clashed, men roared and bellowed, a sea of blurred faces twisted in mad fury.

[The two clash and many shield holders behind Logen fall as he is thrown into them.]

The Feared turned his writhing face towards Logen. Behind him on the ground the felled men whimpered under the wreckage of [The Feared’s] shield. The Carls on either side of him shuffled in to close the gap with some reluctance.

The giant took a step forwards, and Logen took a painful step back.

“Still alive,” he whispered to himself. But how long for, it was hard to say.

Notice how the description, through Logen’s POV, is focused on The Feared. His opponent seems to fill half of the circle. Then the word “hide” is used twice when describing The Feared’s great fists and the fear coming off him. The sounds of shields rattling and clashing, of men roaring and bellowing, lend to the chaotic nature of the fight. The last two paragraphs in this section form the first two parts (react and pause) of the fighting pattern that moves the POV character toward a goal (i.e., react, pause, and act). The pause here is very telling. Throughout the books, we see Logen marvel that he is still alive after dangerous encounters. Here, Logen says it during a fight, and one he is losing. The question raised by Logen, “But for how long…” is now the question in the reader’s mind. By understanding the character, the tension is increased.

Logen has a dark side that we learn about in the first novel. He slips into a berserker rage when things go poorly, killing anyone nearby. Others refer to him as the Bloody-Nine when he is in that state. During the fight with The Feared, Logen enters this berserker state. Notice how the descriptions change.

The world burned.

His skin was on fire. His breath was scalding steam. The sword was a brand of molten metal in his fist.

The sun stamped white-hot patterns into his prickling eyes, and the cold grey shapes of men, and shields, and walls, and of a giant made from blue words and black iron. Fear washed out from him in sickly waves, but the Bloody-Nine only smiled the wider. Fear and pain were fuel on the fire, and the flames surged high, and higher yet.

[…]

The circle was a cauldron. On the walls above the crowd surged like angry steam. The ground shifted and swelled under the Bloody-Nine’s feet like boiling oil.

Same setting and event, but the POV character has essentially changed, and so have the descriptions. If I saw The Bloody Nine and The Feared fighting, I would be heading in the other direction.

Conclusion

Well-crafted POV characters are essential to creating compelling settings. Critical events work best in a story when the author has previously established the character and setting. Descriptions of these elements are not divorced from each other, but are related. Character guides the setting and both inform action. The next time you become engrossed reading an action scene, go back and see if the author created an effective setup before the action started. I’m pretty sure that most of the time you will find it.

Now that I’ve spent a year working on a “quick fix” in my writing, I need to pick something else. Luckily, I have a fresh set of critiques and a new box of tissues.

So, what will you work on next?


References

Abercrombie, J. (2006). The Blade Itself (The First Law Trilogy, 1). Orbit.

Abercrombie, J. (2008). Last Argument of Kings (The First Law Trilogy, 3). Orbit.

Bacigalupi, P. (2012). The Windup Girl. Night Shade Books.

Bickham, J. (1992). The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). Writer’s Digest Books.

Ishiguro, Kazuo (1989). The Remains of the Day. Faber and Faber.

Hickson, T. (2020). On Writing: Fight Scenes. https://youtu.be/jKkKNKUK_GE

Hickson, T. (2021). On Writing: Great Character Descriptions. https://youtu.be/vL0q15Kkews

Jones, S. G. (2020). The Only Good Indians. Saga Press.

Lombardi, C. (2003). Description: To Picture In Words. Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction. Bloomsbury USA.

Martin, G. (2000). A Storm of Swords. Bantam Spectra.

Sanderson, B. (2019). Skyward. Ember.

Thallon, C. (2021, May 3). How Raiders of the Lost Ark reveals everything you need to know about Indiana Jones in 10 minutes. Insider. Retrieved June 25, 2022, from https://www.insider.com/how-indiana-jones-created-10-minute-movie-in-one-scene-2020-7

Vandermeer, J. (2018). Wonderbook: The Illustrative Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Revised & Expanded). Abrams Image.

Wood, M. (2000). Description. Writer’s Digest.

Advertisement

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s