How to describe looking and moving in your novel.
Updated: Jun 10
Body movements and stage direction.
Looking and moving; arms, legs, shoulders and eyes, walking here and there.
This is one thing I see very often in manuscripts that I edit. I have seen it discussed in Facebook groups, where budding authors invariably receive a mixture of good and bad advice from other novice authors, adding to the confusion. Alternative words are suggested, but no, replacing ‘walked’ with ‘strolled’, ‘marched’ or ‘stepped’, and ‘eyes flicking’ with 'glanced' or 'peeked' do not fix the writing.
I will start with an extreme example:
I walked up the steps and stepped out through the doorway and into the bright sunlight. I moved through the courtyard and walked up to the old door. I lifted my head and my eyes flicked around as I checked over my shoulder to see if anyone had followed me. I lifted my hands, bracing them against the wooden door and pressed it open. I stepped through the door and then I hurried down the corridor to my room. I lifted my hand, gripping the handle, turned it and stepped into the room. (93 words)
I wrote this in ten seconds flat, and it shows.
(This passage could be considered as an unnecessarily long narrative summary depending on its purpose, and it is for demonstration purposes only)
As a draft, perhaps it is okay, laying out the essentials of getting to one place from another. But it reads like a policeman’s notebook (or a screen play/director in a movie). You can almost see the storyboard. The character above is a marionette, moving their stiff body through a blank world and we are simply observing them.
Breaking it down; it is a focus on the mundane, describing body parts in motion moving through construction furniture. I have added some variations on walked, but they offer nothing new, in fact ‘moved’ leads me to imagine she is floating above the ground. Or are they moving in a crazy way, like Cat from Red Dwarf?
So let us try to rewrite it.
Remember, this is first person point of view, so we are inside the character. First person gives us unique insight into the senses and thoughts of the character. The passage above, whilst being very boring, also throws all that opportunity away.
Edited example of the same paragraph:
The warmth of the evening sun, as I finally stepped through the crumbling stone arch, was welcome after the chill of climbing the long flight of stone steps. Across the tangle of brambles and wildflowers in the overgrown courtyard, stood the old door, its aged wood grey and split. Weeds threatened to trip me as I hurried on, checking back nervously to see if they had followed me. Heart pounding, I braced against the wooden door, feeling relief at its rough warmth. Wincing as the rusted hinges groaned loudly in the empty corridor, I cursed the echo of my heavy boots as I hurried down the narrow stone passage. The round brass handle slipped through my sweaty fingers as I gripped it before slipping silently into the room. (126 words)
Okay. So, I took the passage, entered my imagination, and rewrote it. This took me ten minutes. You can see the difference, but more importantly, you can feel it.
There are hints of summer, with the warm sun and flowers. They are up to something, hints of danger.
Where the character is going and the steps they take are not as important as how they experience getting there.
This character so far is faceless, their purpose unknown. It is empty of context and the character’s reasoning and motivation are still missing and a sprinkle of those all-important character, world-building and plot elements could be added, for depth and richness.
The paragraph is not perfect. I could have added much more, and I could have taken more away. This is where your own personal writing style shines through. Then I would edit it again.
How would you rewrite it?
Need my help? I am always open for free samples or just a chat.