Describing Actions: Play by Play Narration

It’s time to get back to business with a craft-related post about writing description and describing actions. I’ve been reading some manuscripts where the writers lapse into what I always call “play-by-play narration.” It’s the narrative equivalent of a chronological grocery list of events:

First we did this. Then we did that. He did this, and then he did that. After that, we did this. And then, that. A little bit later, we went and did such and such.

describing actions
Lists are great for keeping your life organized — not so much for writing description.

Plot is More Than Transcription

When you’re writing descriptions, it’s not just your job to transcribe what you imagine happens in a character’s day and think that you have yourself a plot. That’s not how it works. A large part of narration and storytelling is acting as a curator of the story. You’re supposed to maximize what’s important and minimize what’s not and keep directing your reader’s attention from paragraph to paragraph and page to page. When you’re filling up your pages with play-by-play narration, you’re describing actions that aren’t essential to the plot:

Anna went into the kitchen. She opened up the refrigerator and got out some mayonnaise, some mustard, and a head of lettuce from the crisper. The tomatoes and white bread were already on the counter. She got out two slices of bread and put them on a dinner plate, then spread one slice with the mayonnaise, the other with the mustard. Halfway through making her sandwich, she realized she’s forgotten the cheese and sliced deli meat in the fridge. Huffing to herself and blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she turned on a heel and headed back to get the rest of her fixins.

Describing Actions: Compress and Move On

Or, you know, you could just say, “Anna made a sandwich” and then move on to describing actions that actually matter to your plot. If it’s not important, it doesn’t need to be described in such painstaking detail. You only have about 300 pages to work with in the average novel. Don’t waste any time writing actions that aren’t important. If you need your characters to do something inconsequential, just sum it up in compressed narration, as I did in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Mirroring the Patterns of Our Lives

How do writers get stuck in this pattern of writing description that’s unnecessary? When you don’t know better, there’s a tendency towards describing actions that take the reader through a character’s day from dawn (probably why so many manuscripts start with a character waking up– check out dreams in fiction) to dusk. Why? Because that’s the pattern we’ve followed every day of our lives. Our days go this familiar route, so we send our characters through the same paces. This is a trap, and it makes for deadly dull reading. Break your characters out of play-by-play narration and get them moving on to the next plot point in your story. (Show, don’t tell, anyone?) We don’t really care how Anna makes her sandwich. In fact, we don’t really need to read about her eating at all. The same goes with her bathroom routine, her shower, her picking out clothes, her driving to school, etc.

If you feel like you may be guilty of giving your readers the “play-by-play,” ask yourself about the actions you’re describing. Are they absolutely essential information for your reader? Do they factor into your plot? If not, maybe cut those passages and refocus on action that does move the story forward.

Are you striving for tighter, cleaner prose? When you invest in my manuscript editing services, I’ll point out instances of play-by-play narration that you can compress or trim from your work.

27 Replies to “Describing Actions: Play by Play Narration”

  1. This is a great reminder to focus on telling the story – anything that doesn’t further the plot or contribute in some essential way to our understanding of the character is extraneous.

  2. Great topic. 🙂

    I’ve found that if I focus more on the emotion of the viewpoint character as they go through the scene–what’s going on on the *inside*–I am less likely to get stuck in the rut of describing all the physical–everything they do on the *outside.* Good writing has a balance of both.

    I also think writers sometimes forget that they can advance the time by minutes, hours, even days, from one paragraph to the next without the reader missing a beat.

  3. I think another reason writers lapse into this is that it’s fairly rare for beginners to be good outliners yet, and without a pretty good idea of a story’s shape, at least when you’re starting out, it’s a lot easier to project what happens half an hour later than two days or two weeks later. So it’s the sort of fumble forward method of (non)plotting.

    Obviously, there are good reasons to have a story take place over a tight time frame, where a good part of the day may actually need to be shown… but it’s also pretty clear when that’s not the case.

    To your larger point, though, Donald Maass also has some excellent ideas about the balance of internal/external and how to imbue even mundane scenes with tension in The Fire in Fiction.

  4. This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy when I’m critiquing!

    An excellent example of how you can use voice to skip over all the boring parts is Rachel Hawkins’s HEX HALL. It really jumped out at me how well she avoids this issue by covering only the interesting bits in only the most interesting way.

  5. This is always my favorite writing advice!

    And the comments are helpful too – love that Donald Maass technique.

  6. I’ve come to distinguish between scenes that the writer does for herself, as a way of finding out about the characters, and scenes that are integral to the story. A revision pass can identify those scenes that are for the writer alone. They can then either be deleted completely; any crucial bits of information can become details in another scene.

    I’m posting “Focus only on those actions that move the story forward” where I can see it during my next revision round. It’s another way of saying “How does this advance the plot?” but the question makes it possible to justify unnecessary scenes in a way that the statement does not.

  7. @Gwenda- I love Maass’ books. Tension, Tension, Tension. I always whisper this to myself when I write… May not be great to do a Starbucks, but what’s a girl to do?

    Thanks Mary, great reminder.

  8. Ooh so timely! I’ve been trying to read while noticing when the author goes into detail like this and then trying to figure out why. Sometimes it seems to be because they’re giving me an insight into personality/character (like, for eg, showing that Anna is fastidious in her sandwich making and all other aspects of life), other times it’s because it’s relevant to the plot in some way (Anna is about to start a career as a sandwich maker)… but on occasion, I have to admit, I’m clueless as to why the detail’s there but I still enjoy it! Of course, I’m reading great books by great authors, so they’re probably giving me some subtle information that I’m not clever enough to pick up on.

  9. Good information. I know I’ve done (and most likely still do) this. The trap is, I want it to feels so realistic, just like the reader is there with the MC, that I take them through each action. But yeah, you’re right, it makes for a boring read.

  10. I guess Mary has never read “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

  11. I recently dug out some stories I wrote in fifth grade (before 9-pin dot matrix printers were even available, for those of you keeping score at home), and I laughed out loud when I read them. They were full of that kind of play by play. I see it in my son’s writing now (he’s in fifth grade), and I’m proud to say my skills have moved beyond that. This is one of those “ten thousand hours” things–eventually you just get used to leaving all that stuff out so you can focus on the things that the reader will care about.

  12. What a great reminder. This is something I look for in revisions because it can be so easy to slip into a play by play. I figure, if I’m bored re-reading it then it’s not essential. And, well, snip snip snip.

  13. This is a great advice. In a story, I think Id much rather learn about a character by the way the plot is unfolding and their reaction to it, rather than how they pick their clothes or how they make their lunch.
    Great reminder Mary ^^

  14. Great advice. I’m sooo linking to this post from another forum.

  15. Jenn Jones says:

    I can relate, Peter! I recently found a picture book I’d written when in 4th Grade. It was called “Andrew and the Dragon.” There were five pages of “He walked up the hill. There was a rock. He stepped over it.” and then on the last page, I’d apparently run out of room, so the story abruptly ended with “He saw the dragon and killed it. The End.” Ha!

  16. When I was in Journalism class at college, we had one class on how to caption photos–Rather than describe the picture, put it into context of the news story:
    Eg., rather than identify the photo as “Sen. Smith at today’s Senate hearings”, it’s more of a “story” to describe the image as “Sen. Smith rubs his brow during a break at the eight-hour hearings on the recent banking scandal”.
    One is a picture, one tells us what’s really happening.

    Similarly, if we’re getting a representative snapshot of what’s happening in a story scene, a character can make a sandwich, but if there’s something characteristic about HOW they make a sandwich (do they still slop together strange ingredients the same way they did after school when they were eight and their mom wasn’t home? Do they take pains to make the expert peanut-butter-and-jelly, as only the few know how?) we don’t really need to know the details in the longrun.
    YOU paid for the paper, try to use only as much of it as will accomplish your Larger Thematic Goal. 🙂

  17. Fabulous advice – it’s an easy trap to fall into and a hard one to get out of! I try to keep in mind that a good story is like good gossip – only interesting and exciting bits allowed!

  18. I was reading a novel once and noticed that the main character always seemed to be going to the bathroom (for stuff like fixing her hair or showering). That’s what really brought home to me that there are some parts of our daily routines that are not really story worthy!

  19. I agree with both Katherine and Gwenda above, that over-description of detail usually happens when writers are trying to figure out what to do next. I did it all the time before I figured out what makes plots go. Some of my crit partners do the same thing.

    I still write too much detail at times, on purpose, when I’m getting to know a character and need to figure out how she thinks about mundane things. For me that’s part of finding a character’s voice. But that’s not for the reader, it’s just background work.

  20. Great to be aware of this. On another note,I really want your twitter/facebook/like buttons at the top of your posts for my blog. Where oh where did you get them?

  21. I don’t think I’ve fallen into this trap. If anything, it’s the opposite. One minute the characters are in the kitchen having lunch, and the next they’re in the car on the way to the airport. It’s like, “Wait, they didn’t even get to finish their sandwiches! And did they bring any luggage? Are they just going to fly to Antarctica with the clothes on their backs?”

    When I write, I picture my scenes like a TV show. The characters say and do what’s important to move the story ahead, then cut quickly to the next situation.

  22. Yes! This is one of the things that bothered me in a certain bestselling series. Never understood how they got praised for that style (listing and step-by-step, etc). It has made me more aware when I go on tangents in my own writing. I agree that often it is because I am either trying to figure out what the character will do next or in order to give the char some “thinking time” (i. e. Peeling a banana and remembering a childhood habit). I will definitely be revising most of those passages anyway.

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