Active descriptions are key to believable characters; Activia descriptions are not

image Around here, Fridays are reserved for my Nickel’s Worth on Writing, when I take the literary landfill of experience I’ve gained from 15 years as a newspaper columnist and break it down into handfuls of writing compost that Publisher’s Digest has called “…writing tips that are completely full of [fertilizer]…”

Or what The Master of Horror® Stephen King heralded as, “…literary soil that could bring back a dead cat…”

But enough accolades!

This two-part NWOW is about earning a reader’s trust through effective character dialogue and active description — and how earning that trust means the difference between a reader taking a leap of faith or a flying leap. Here’s a brief re-cap from the first part of this post, which focused on three forms of dialogue: Narrative dialogue, fictional dialogue based on a real person, and “real” dialogue from a fictional character…

1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. Do You HEAR ME! Oops, sorry. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative like this:

See what I mean?

Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.

2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context requires thinking of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Especially if they have big ears.

3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. That’s because, when we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.

‘Tis truth I speak.

Now that we have recapped three key points about dialogue, let’s talk about defining a character and building your readers’ trust even more through active description. So what is active description?

POP QUIZ! The term “active description” refers to:

a) When a writer who is seeking to lose weight and get published writes their novel while riding a stationary bike
b) Long paragraphs describing the sweat-filled pores of someone doing something exhausting.
c) Using a character’s subtle actions and habits to help define them and break up monotonous dialogue tags, such as “He said,” over and over again in a repeatedly repetitious fashion many times.

(Please explain your answer on the back of this blog.)

If you picked “C,” give yourself a gold star and bring this blog with you to the front of the class. If you picked either “A” or “B,” give yourself a gold star anyway because no one fails here. Unless it’s me doing a face-plant while pole dancing.

Active description is a way to add another level of believability in a character through the subtle nuances of how they move, their body language and actions. It’s also an effective tool in breaking up dialogue patterns that quickly begin to feel contrived. Lastly, it relays information about the character in ways that feel natural to us in actual conversation. Remember: What is being said is only half the conversation. The other half is the non-verbal communication happening at the same time. The more you can capture that feeling in your writing, the more believable your characters will be.

I realize that was an entire paragraph without a single quip or bodily function joke, but I assure you it’s really me talking. Which is why I can offer this snippet from my Long Awkward Pause “interview” with Kevin Spacey as a way to show how active description can help quickly sketch a character — fictional or otherwise — and establish a believable pace for their dialogue. For the “interview,” I met Spacey at a nacho bar called Casa de Papitas (House of Chips) in Hollywood…

He then graciously offered me a seat before settling into his, legs crossed, one arm resting on the chair-back, leaving the other free to rummage through the chips basket. It was clearly my signal to start the interview, which I opened with the question I’m sure is on every LAP reader’s mind.

“Why did you agree to an interview with us and be a guest on our upcoming podcast? I mean, it seems either one of those would be bad enough.”

Spacey smiled and examined a chip, then popped it into his mouth. “Did you ever see the movie Albino Alligator?” he asked, referring to his directorial debut, which grossed $339,000 and cost $6 million to make.

“I think we all did. Everyone at LAP thought it was great.”

“Bingo,” said Spacey.

Before I could ask my next question, a waiter approached the table for our order. Spacey, noted for his Hollywood impressions, chose to forgo the nacho bar and order from the small menu as Clint Eastwood.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Spacey, who squinted and began speaking through clenched teeth. “Will he order the number six chimichanga platter or only five. In all this confusion I sort of lost track myself. So I gotta ask myself: Do I feel lucky?”

“Well — DO you, PUNK?!?” I chimed in, then immediately regretted it.

The waiter gave me a nervous glance.

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” said Spacey.

To establish believability in this mock interview with Spacey, I opened up with active description that establishes his natural intensity and self assuredness in order to add credibility and believability to his dialogue — which is quick and direct. Just like the way he would eat his chip; no tiny bites, but in one quick pop. Also, by describing the way he took to his chair, by crossing his legs and throwing one arm over the chair back all in quick succession, the impression is of a decisive man who already knows he wants to leave one hand free for chips long before he sits down.

For contrast, here’s a snippet from another “interview,” this time with Clay Aiken. Once again, setting the tone with his actions lends credibility to his dialogue — and builds the kind of trust you need with readers in order for them to buy your book take a leap of faith with you…

As I sat on the back of his bedazzled Vespa motor scooter, Aiken seemed to take pride in his city, as well as take corners so sharply I had to squeeze his waist. Though he formally announced his bid for Congress a week ago, Aiken told me more than once that he’s no politician.

“I’m no politician!” he shouted over his shoulder, then swerved to avoid a cloud of mosquitoes. “Woooo! Shields down!”

Some speculate that his run against Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers is a publicity stunt aimed at putting him back in the spotlight for the release of his next album, Aiken for Change, which coincidentally happens to be his campaign slogan. When asked about this, the American Idol star abruptly brought the scooter to a stop in a rundown South Raleigh neighborhood known for its high crime rate and low employment. He removed his helmet and raised a finger, prepared to reply with a well-thought rebuttal, then quickly put his helmet back on.

“Oh darn,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to stop in THIS neighborhood!“

I hope this two-part tome has been helpful. If not, please blame Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who suggested this subject in an email when she asked, “Have you ever tried writing dialogue when you’re on pain killers…?”

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

30 thoughts on “Active descriptions are key to believable characters; Activia descriptions are not”

  1. Um, so…you’re going to think I’m a stalker. I haven’t looked at my WP ALL day (cuz, real job) and something made me click it open just now. There you are, here THIS is (only 5 minutes pressed) and well…here I am. PLEASE hold off on the restraining orders at least until next week.

    Okay. This is exactly what I was looking for when I originally asked the question. It’ll be another one of your posts that I print and keep in my little folder (right next to the letter that exposes Area 51).

    I remember reading your “interview” with Mr. Spacey and seriously, needed to stop my pain meds and read again to figure out if it was real or not. Mission accomplished, Mr. Hickson!
    I’ve been doing some character study of my own and made my grown husband and 14-year-old son watch “Frozen” the other night because the Disney writers have always done a great job of character consistency (and they didn’t protest because Sven the reindeer reminded them of our dog).

    I can see that you went to a lot of work to put this together–I really appreciate the great lesson and all that you do. You rock!

    *waiting for gold star and more pole-dancing videos.

    1. I’m so glad to hear this was helpful, Michelle. Pole dancing is very technical and requires thee dexterity of a bloated gazelle with…

      Oh wait! You meant the part about dialogue! Sorry! I’m happy that was helpful too. You know, you’ve inspired many topics for my NWOW, and I’m appreciative for that and always inspired by your beautifully written posts.

      Making your family watch “Frozen” was just plain cruel, though. So please: Let it go.

      1. You owe me a new computer.
        I was good until you told me to “let it go.”
        Now I gotta refill my mountain dew!
        Thanks, Ned! I always look forward to reading your stuff 🙂

  2. I sometimes forget just how active that maelstrom you call a brain actually is, Ned. If I ever finish my next book, I’ll have to reference this post and its like. Nice work, Putz.

  3. Having the experience of trying to write a blog post while on pain meds for chronic pain, let me tell you, it doesn’t work, all you get is gibberish. At the same time, trying to write dialogue when you are sleep walking doesn’t work either (yes I have tried that too, but the only thing I was successful at was whacking my head with the cupboard door when I tried to rearrange towels, again).

  4. Very well written and quite enjoyable although I must ask the question…. how much more mileage do you think you’ll get from your faceplant video?

  5. But Ned, I ALWAYS speak in terse bullet-point lists before breaking out the Shakespeare stuff and the Joyce-esque rants. Does the inconsistency throw my listeners off? If so, this would explain so, so much about my life.

    1. Thanks, Susan 😉
      One of my goals is to have a book version of my NWOW done by my birthday (we’ll see…) where I’m expanding on some of these posts. You know, instead of just expanding…

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