There are two reactions I get from pretty nearly all my beta readers and critique partners, regardless of the story:
“I don’t know exactly what your characters look like; don’t you ever describe them?”
“Holy smokes, your action scenes are really detailed.”
These may be phrased in various ways, but the general gist is almost always there. And it’s a problem for me.
I’m not terribly visual about people. Never have been. I have honestly not even known someone’s race when the question came up, on at least three occasions I can think of. So naturally, I don’t spend much time describing characters’ appearances. I’m personally much more interested in what they do.
Most readers, however, want to know more about what the characters look like. So I try, I really do. But there’s just never going to be much of it.
Ariana slid onto the bench and untangled a few dark strands of hair from a pack strap.
That’s about it. Ariana has dark hair. Bits and pieces, a little at a time.
But I’m very interested in what characters do, and they tend to do quite a lot, especially in my action scenes. When I write a fight, the first draft could be used for choreography notes. Later drafts could still be used for movie storyboarding.
(This is exactly how I like my movie action too, incidentally. Tightly-choreographed, detailed sequences? Oh, yeah. Jittery shots jumping too fast to follow the action, and I’m looking at you, Michael Bey? Boring.)
This kind of makes sense, considering my day job in behavior; I do not care about the color or breed of dog, or its coat type, or its tail feathering, but people’s safety might depend on how I observe eyes shifting or a tongue flicking across the lips. Actions, or lack of actions, matter. Looks don’t.
So I’m having trouble with one very short bit of action. I’m really happy with the next 600 pages of action-y fights and escapes and magic, but this one bit right in the first chapter is making me pull my hair out.
Shianan Becknam (of Shard & Shield) is a pretty slick guy. The reader doesn’t know it yet, but he’s a distinguished combat veteran and an instructor for hand-to-hand fighting. So it’s not surprising that he ends a bar fight before the first swing even connects.
And I know exactly how he does it, with a neat little taijutsu move called oni kudaki (overthrowing an oni). It’s shown here with a hanbo, or half-staff, but Shianan pulls it off with a wooden spoon. (He’s good, I told you.)
Now, in a sentence or so, describe that sequence of interrupting the punch, getting the stick under the upper arm and over the wrist, and then dropping the attacker to the floor. And make it sound cool, not clinical.
Yeah, kinda awkward.
I don’t want to take too long, because the entire thing is over so quickly. It shouldn’t take a paragraph to describe a second or less of action. But too brief, and I’m just confusing readers.
I’ll get there, eventually. But in the meantime, if someone tries to get rough over a beer, you can reach for a spoon.