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

image By Ned Hickson

This is the second part of a two-part post 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…?”

imageNed 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.

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

  1. How do you do it, Young Ned? Give me such good insights in such a funny way? Once again, I see your point, even while laughing hysterically. LOVE the interviews! I could clearly imagine each celeb in turn. But I also love the message you’re getting across, and am thinking about ways to do dialogue better, next time. Thanks so much for all you contribute here. You ROCK! (And I’ve tweeted this article. Hope others will do so, as well.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Being on painkillers is the only state in which to write dialogue, if you ask me. Thanks for both of these posts, and especially the reminder of the importance of body language. (Yet another parallel to my dating life. Egads.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Ok, speaking of body language stutterers, at some point I will have to find a way to write about my date from Sunday. It involved trimming the tree at my house. I can sum it up by saying that the Yuletide was not the only thing that appeared to be gay.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Well, if he wasn’t dating material, after all, I hope you at least got a very well decorated tree out of it. 🙂

          (Yeah, I know not ALL gay men are snappy dressers and room designers…just all the ones I know personally, and they’d be the first to tell you, too. 😉 )

          Liked by 2 people

          • Had i let him, he’d have created a very classy tree. I had to break it to him that, in my house, one does not aim to achieve an aesthetic so much as sentimental coverage, which means the Spam ornament is not an ornament understudy but rather a headliner. He went along reluctantly but, when we had put up only 2/3 of the ornaments, made the outrageous suggestion that we stop because it “looks like enough.” There is no room for taste in my house!

            Liked by 2 people

            • Oh, this just cries out for PICTURES!!! I want…no, NEED…to see the Spam ornament. 😀 This Sentimental vs Stylish, Classy or even Trendy thing, is why I have several trees. My old-fashioned one has a kajillion Santas on it that I’ve been collecting for decades, but it also has all the vintage ornaments from my kids’ childhood, and yes…from mine. There are several moth-eaten things on there from more than 50 years ago, and NOBODY better suggest getting rid of them. There are actual family members I’d get rid of, first. 🙂

              But my living room tree is all blue, white, and silver, to go with the room, and though there are a couple of older ornaments on there that just happened to fit in with the scheme nicely, I really love the frosty look of it, and wouldn’t dream of putting anything on there that didn’t.

              And then I have two trees filled with nothing but teeny-tiny Santas, and a Wizard of Oz tree, complete with ruby slippers, and a large Glinda, the Good Witch of the North hanging on the wall above it, waving her wand over Dorothy, Toto, and crew. It’s only three feet tall, and my granddaughter usually helps me put it together, but it’s a lot of fun.

              I’m really TRYING to cut back some this year, because as luck would have it, I’m editing one book and writing another, and I really don’t have time. So I’ve sworn I will stop on Saturday, and anything not on display will go back to the attic for next year.

              Work or not, it makes me happy when it’s all done, and I can sit in the Comfy Chair at night, surrounded by colored lights, and Santa Claus, and memories from years gone by. Or I can go into the living room, and sit amidst snow and icicles, and try to pretend it isn’t 85 degrees outside. 😀

              I’ll share pictures if YOU will, Karen. EVERYONE should! It would be fun!!

              Liked by 1 person

        • If “trimming the tree” is meant as inuendo for something, it might explain why your date didn’t get it. Or why you didn’t get it. Or something like that.

          Whatever the case, YES, it needs to bee written about!

          Liked by 2 people

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