Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 30: Describing Character Movements

Incorrectly describing character movements ranks surprisingly high among common writing mistakes.

Within the confines of a story, a character can do only three things: he can think, he can talk, and he can move. Out of the three, the first two lend themselves most gracefully to written literature, since words are their very foundation. Movement, although no less important, is a little trickier.

You might think the most difficult aspect of describing character movements would be the descriptive challenges of showing readers exactly what your characters are doing with their bodies. But, actually, the most difficult part is simply remembering to describe those movements in the first place.

Like vanishing settings, less than thorough character choreography can end up leaving readers with either nothing to imagine or, even worse, strangely nonsensical actions in which characters appear to jump from one side of the room to the other or magically end up with a prop in a previously empty hand.

Are You Really Describing Character Movements?

Writers see their stories in perfect Technicolor, right down to the tiniest detail. We see the gold flecks in our heroine’s green eyes. We see the frayed seam in her kid’s sock. We see the expiration date on the milk she’s pouring in his cereal bowl—even before they both gag at its sour smell.

But here’s the sticky part: our readers don’t see all this stuff.

Yes, their own imaginations can and should fill in the blanks. But they can’t paint on the canvas unless we’re giving them the proper paints and brushes. Readers may not need to know about the gold flecks, or the frayed seam, or the expiration date—but they do need to know whenever you character makes an important move. Take a look:

Allie hoisted Jax into his booster seat. They only had ten minutes to eat before she had to be at her job interview.

Jax slapped both hands against the empty tabletop.

Milk, milk, where was the milk? She opened the fridge and slopped milk into the bowl in front of his seat.

By the door, he grabbed Floofy the cat and giggled.

“Get back in your seat and eat your breakfast, right now!”

He stuck out his pink tongue. “Can’t. Smells bad.”

In the windowsill, the cat stopped licking his paw. Even he seemed to wrinkle his nose. Jax was right: the milk did smell suspicious.

How did that bowl end up at Jax’s place at the table? How did Jax end up over by the door with Floofy? How did Floofy end up on the windowsill?

No doubt, smart readers will be able to fill in the blanks and realize that Allie, Jax, and Floofy all moved somewhere in between paragraphs. But they’re not likely to realize that until after they’ve blinked several times in confusion.

It’s one thing to omit unnecessary or blatantly obvious character movements. It’s another thing entirely to create gaping holes in the realism of your story by leaving out causal choreography. Readers will probably realize Jax didn’t just teleport out of his booster seat and Floofy didn’t fly over to the window—but, you gotta admit, that’s what it looks like at first blush.

Describing Character Movements—for Real

Let’s try that again. And this time, we’re going to describe every movement that matters.

Allie hoisted Jax into his booster seat and set a bowl and spoon in front of him. They only had ten minutes to eat before she had to be at her job interview.

Jax slapped both hands against the tabletop, then wriggled out of his seat and ran across the kitchen to where Floofy the cat slept behind the door.

Milk, milk, where was the milk? Allie opened the fridge, grabbed the milk, and turned to slop it into Jax’s bowl.

He grabbed Floofy and giggled. Floofy twisted free and leapt onto the windowsill.

“Get back in your seat and eat your breakfast, right now!” Allie said.

He stuck out his pink tongue. “Can’t. Smells bad.”

In the windowsill, the cat stopped licking his paw. Even he seemed to wrinkle his nose. Jax was right: the milk did smell suspicious.

And the veil lifts! Suddenly, with just a little attention to the details, the scene makes twice as much sense.

You’ll note that correctly describing character movements doesn’t necessarily mean you have to describe every single detail. Readers probably don’t need to know that in between putting Jax in the booster seat and opening the fridge, Allie swiped hair out of her face, blinked twice, licked her lips, took exactly two steps, and flicked aside the towel slung in the fridge door handle.

Then again, maybe readers do need to know all that stuff! But those decisions are going to come down to artistic license. Your first and most important task is to simply make sure the scene makes sense. A simple workmanlike scene will beat the pants off an artistically confusing one any day of the week.

Tell me your opinion: Has a critique partner or editor ever suggested you weren’t fully describing character movements?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 30: Describing Character Movements

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. You’re right, description of movement is one of the most common mistakes with novel writers. Although writers can screw up in all sorts of areas, this is probably the most notorious since it’s not word based and more visual like in a film. Unfortunately, I think many writers think they can compensate by over describing every little action and using extremely specific vocabulary which often makes things more confusing and tends to turn their stories into tree killers if they don’t have proper editing done.

    • Yep, for every mistake, there’s also the mistake at the other end of the spectrum. Whenever we correct, we have to make sure we’re not overcorrecting. It’s a delicate balance.

  2. You are so right, KM. It is easy for writers to stray on either side of this line. Too many books OVER do the movement details in the belief that somehow they are lending mood, setting, tone… no, they are adding extraneous and unnecessary clutter. (And this from a fantasy writer who simply adores description and detail… used correctly) And then others leave people popping up here and there as if they possessed their own personal transporter. In one ms I read the main character entered the first chapter seated by the door, and in the final moments of the chapter suddenly appeared in the garden… in a wheelchair. ??? It can be a puzzlement to be sure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good reminder to also always mention unusual props or appearances up front. Readers will never assume a character is wheelchair-ridden, unless we tell them in the beginning of the scene.

  3. A.C. Trethowan says:

    The one thing that bugs me is that my character always has his backpack with him. There he is, pulling something out of his pack and I think, ah, when did I last mention this? I don’t want to beat my readers to death with constant mentions of “and he shrugged his backpack on his shoulder” moments, but sometimes I forget about it because I know it’s there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most readers are good at remembering props after they’ve been referenced a few times. As long as your character isn’t in a situation where the backpack wouldn’t be intuitive (e.g., the bathtub), you’re probably safe just having him go ahead and pull his gear out of it.

  4. This is something I often have to work on!! You’d think it’d be so easy to remember to move them about like chess pieces but sometimes it just doesn’t come to mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We see scenes play out in infinite detail in our minds as we’re writing. It’s easy to think we’ve included all the necessary details–until an objective source voices confusion.

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    I haven’t had to be criticised on such a front, however it would utterly be nothing but short of honesty to say describing character movements has been an easy endeavour for me.

    Getting the character movement description versus story narration balance right:

    For me, one of absolute hardest things to strike.

    (Another expert-class post Katie – I’m in awe of you)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The moment we master balance is the moment we master the novel. None of us ever get there. :p

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Exactly.

        In my own case I’m fortunate – as a text, most of The Representative (a laugh, it’s only 4,500 words!!) is CMD-free: it’s by and large not even a traditional story, rather just a presentation.

        Think of it like a portrait of a story, than an actual one itself. (That’s how unprecedentedly unique it is – and why I’d describe myself as the exact antithesis to someone like Charlotte Bronte).

  6. Nodding all the way!

    I’ve usually fixed it before anyone else sets eyes on a draft, but there are so many times when I re-read what I thought was a working scene and end up wondering what on earth I was thinking. People moving as if by magic, objects turning up and vanishing at random – guilty of it all!

    The trap of reading what you think you’ve written rather than what your words actually say/show is so easy to fall into, glad to hear it isn’t just me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I know I’m in trouble when I read back through a scene – and even I’m confused by what my characters are up to!

  7. For me, this is one of the hardest parts of writing–I struggle a lot with trying to get everyone where they need to be, without losing the rhythm of the story. Sometimes telling the reader that Jane walked across the room just doesn’t fit there, but the reader REALLY needs to know. Then it’s a matter of perhaps rewriting a paragraph or two that you really like, in order to work Jane’s trans-kitchen journey in in a way that seems organic.
    I sometimes write myself “stage directions”–block out where people are going to be standing, what they’re doing with their hands, and where they’re moving throughout the entire scene. This helps me keep track of all my “actors”, and helps me visualize what each and every person is doing in my own mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Clever. I’ll often get out of my chair to physically choreograph complicated scenes–but then I still have to remember how it all worked out, piece by piece.

  8. spacechampion says:

    I think a case can be made that with the cat, it being a cat, a character might not notice how it moves from one place to another, it just appears somewhere inexplicably. It could add humour to the piece by leaving the cat’s movements out.

    Writer James Alan Gardner says a descriptive passage is the story of a character’s encounter with a person, place or thing. ( http://www.sfnovelists.com/2012/01/23/the-skill-list-project-writing-descriptive-passages/ ) with a beginning, middle and end, and injected with point of view to write not what is happening in the scene, but how your point of view character experiences the encounter with that person, place or thing. Different characters should experience the person / place / thing in different ways.

    Of course, description of movement is a subset of the descriptions in your story, and ought to be simpler than entire descriptive passages, but I think there is something worth considering there.

    Perhaps if it’s the POV character moving, the description could be more about the POV’s “encounter with himself” so to speak? Injecting the character’s subtle self-judgment about his/her low or high self esteem as they move would be an interesting characterization, if not overdone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “personality” of a POV is definitely something to keep in mind. But, ultimately, this issue is about avoiding reader confusion more than anything. “Don’t obfuscate” should always be the author’s first credo.

  9. Yes. That was the number one critique of my first novel: good plot, but put more of the world I’ve imagined on paper. I had even neglected to describe the main characters. I’m conscious of it now and make a point to provide details.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The key to achieving that perfect balance between not enough description and too much is always keeping in mind exactly what details readers will need to properly envision the scene–and then including no more and no less.

  10. Nasir Deen says:

    Thanks for more great tips! I’ve been rereading A Little Yellow Dog by Walter Mosley and his vivid descriptions of character movement help suck me into the world. Hopefully my novella will be able to capture that.

  11. Jennifer says:

    I’ve had a scene where it was suggested I tell how the girl got from the top bunk to the bottom bunk. I thought, that makes sense, so I added in her hopping down before saying her next line. Then another reader said that it was wasting words to add in how she got down. I didn’t listen to that reader, because the original one made more sense.

  12. You are so right. This is an area that I’m aware of my shortcomings except I have a tendency to not have them move much especially while they are sitting and having dialogue. Those quirky little things people do while talking often get left out.

    On the other hand, I have beta read some things where the author felt a need to describe so much movement that it was distracting.

    Well, I guess that’s where the balancing act pops back up.

    God bless you in your efforts for HIM.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Character movement, like anything aspect of fiction, should only be there if it progresses the story. That said, it *is* often valuable to keep characters moving. Imparting a sense of motion to a scene can help it from feeling static. Movement gives readers’ brains something to envision during dialogue scenes.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Perhaps character movement could “be” the story; it’s only a talented storyteller who can extrapolate an entertaining narrative out of an everyday situation.

        …Plus make the common experience into an either fun reading or watching one.

    • Nora, I was thinking about too much explanation too. A character walks here, a character walks there, too much movement and not enough story. Because I’m so afraid of having gaps in movements, I have the tendency to over-explain what the character is doing. This means reworking and then reworking some more.

  13. This was an especially interesting challenge for me on my last MS because after chapter 3, my character is blind. So things that I normally wouldn’t describe–the number of stairs climbed on a staircase, the number of steps to the bathroom down the hall–became immensely important to her reality as a newly blind individual. It was an odd experience, writing from that perspective without any visual clues, and knowing just how confused she was in a new place, newly blind.

    I hope my time spent intentionally overwriting movement in that MS will help me avoid talking head syndrome (which, admittedly, a first draft of a scene I wrote yesterday was really REALLY guilty of).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always encourage writers to use all five senses in their descriptions. But it’s actually a wonderful exercise to deliberately eschew one of the senses. It automatically makes us hyper-aware of the senses that remain and brings some interesting perspectives to the descriptions.

  14. “Tell me your opinion: Have you ever had a critique partner or editor tell you weren’t fully describing character movements?”

    Shouldn’t there be another “you” in there? i.e. “tell you you weren’t fully…”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hmm, you’re right! The eye is faster than the brain. I’ll get that fixed. Thanks!

  15. 🙂 and thanks for the article. It’s like Stephen King says: show, don’t tell.

  16. My issue was describing every little detail. I’d have these giant descriptions that, even reading back over myself, got really boring. Do you have any advice on the right amount of detail to put in fight scenes? When I shorten a description, there seem to be gaps. When I fill in the gaps, it takes a paragraph to explain a few seconds:(. This article was extremely helpful to me. So are your others. Thank you for your time and knowledge.

  17. Amy Vitt says:

    I peer-reviewed for a writer who always described a character turning doorknobs. Not for dramatic pause, not to note important sensory details, just because he subconsciously thought the reader wouldn’t otherwise understand how the character entered a room.

    I struggle with describing movement, too. It’s hard to be perfectly clear without bogging down a paragraph or hitting the reader over the head with the obvious.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Know the scene – that’s the answer I’d give. Writing perhaps out an outline of the scene’s entire action, beginning to end, and then instilling into yourself a real knowledge of the scene’s sense – its mood.

      Knowing the scene’s what would help determining the how and when of describing specific movement and actions.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As with so much of fiction, it’s all about balance. And sometimes the only way to know if we’ve struck that balance is by running the scene by objective readers. If they’re confused – or overwhelmed by unnecessary details – we know we need to go back and make some changes.

  18. Great post (as always)!

    My problem was the opposite. In my first manuscript – which is still under the bed and shall no doubt remain there – I described EVERYTHING. I remember a critique partner saying, “A lot is going on but nothing is happening.” I didn’t understand what that meant until much , much later as I wrote more and learned more about the craft. The biggest problem I had at that time, was getting characters from point A to point B. “Transitions” were lost on me. I thought to use them was to cheat. So, again, I filled in every detail. What an exhausting read that turned out to be. Live and learn. A LOT. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s always a balance to be sought. For every mistake, there’s usually an equally weighty mistake at the end of that spectrum. Once we learn that perfect balance, we’ll be master authors!

  19. Hi there, KM,
    I only found your site today and I just want to leave a short message here to say thank you for this article.

    As both an aspirant writer and a non-native English speaker, some of these expressions come even less naturally. Nevertheless, I make a point of translating my own manuscripts before I submit them for any editing. That’s why this is the most frustrating part of writing certain things: lacking the exact vocabulary to describe with maximum precision.

    I’ll definitely be stopping by once in a while, when I have the time to write. Thanks again, and take care!

  20. I do this too. Those examples were great. I went and fixed a few chapters that had this proble. Like how did she get diwn the stairs? And did he port to the other end of the roon? Oops! I’m finding lots of mistakes as I work past the firat few chapters.

    I’m doing one last revision (lies l, lies I tell you edits and revisions never seem to end. ) on all of them as the plot has been “tweeked” a bit. So figure might as well look for other mistakes while I’m in there.

    The other problem is there’s a stark difference in the writing of the chapters that have been revised and edited several times compared to the older ones.

Trackbacks

  1. […] K.M. Weiland takes a break from character arcs and returns to her most common mistakes series with this post and podcast about describing character movements. […]

  2. […] Surprisingly, the most difficult part of describing character movements is simply remembering to describe those movements in the first place.  […]

  3. […] Curated from Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 30: Describing Character Movements – Helping Writers Become … […]

  4. […] Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors – K. M. Weiland’s podcast is based around writing methods and editing strategies. It’s focused on the writing process, not so much marketing or publishing. I always turn to her podcast when I’m struggling with editing a scene or before beginning an outline. Her podcast episodes made me reconsider everything from where a book ending should be set to how realistic my dialogue truly is. No matter what stage of the writing process you’re at with your MS, she’ll definitely help you improve your current draft. Some of my favorites: “Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All”  and “Most Common Writing Mistakes: Describing Character Movements” . […]

  5. […] Most Common Writing Mistakes: Describing Character Movements […]

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