4 Things I Can’t Write to Save My Life

1. Physical Descriptions

I have a very clear idea of what my characters look like, and while I might drop a few lines of description near their introduction, odds are, that’s the last time I’ll mention their physical appearance. This is due in part to the fact that it honestly doesn’t occur to me to keep bringing up their black hair and azure eyes, or whatever disgusting way you can think of to say blue without actually saying “blue”. The other part is that I’m afraid of straying into the territory of over-describing my character’s’ physical appearance. After all, I’m not writing a bodice ripping romance with Fabio on the cover.

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I couldn’t describe those lustrous locks if I wanted to.

I’m also terrible at writing setting descriptions. It’s hard for me to find a balance between too much and not enough. Most of the time, the description sounds purple and it always sounds clunky. I want to be one of those writers who might give two lines of description–just enough to jumpstart the reader’s imagination and then let it do the rest. But every time I try that, I always end up being afraid that I’m being too vague. I can’t settle.

2. Action Scenes

Every time I come up on writing an action scene, I freeze. There are just so many conflicting strategies and tips.

Write short sentences to make the pace seem faster.

Write long sentences to make the action flow and to keep the reader from coming to a full stop at every period.

Describe every move made by a character.

Describe vague moves and focus on the emotion of the action.

Ugh, I can’t keep them straight. I’ve played around with all of those, but I can’t seem to find anything that really works. It doesn’t help that I happen to be completely tone-deaf when it comes to writing action scenes. I know a good action scene when I read it, but looking back over my own and trying to judge and edit them? God, I am hopeless.

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As hopeless as Loki in the clutches of the Hulk…

There are a few resources that have helped me out, like this one. But only thing I’ve found that helped me a lot is Action! By Ian Thomas Healy. He takes the stance that you need to write action scenes like they do in film, mainly because in the 21st century we’re writing for a movie-first audience. He even breaks down the fight scene’s components and labels them like they would be labeled in a movie script. That new vocab was handy.

The most useful part of his book is an engagement set-up worksheet he describes in the book. There was a link to a website, but the last time I tried, something was funnky with his website and I was never able to find the worksheet he himself made. However, I was able to make my own and tweak it to work for me. Planning it out ahead of time definitely made the actual writing easier, even if the planning process was still painful.

3. Strong Emotions

The little emotions–the grace notes you hit on your way to something else, the little feelings that build up to the big ones, the emotions people feel and then repress two seconds later–I own those. (At least, I think I do. Like I said, sometimes I’m a bit tone-deaf when I read my own work.)

The big, strong, climactic emotions? I am super lame when it comes to those. A few years ago I had a beta reader looking over a project. There was a particular exchange between my hero and the villain and I thought it was great, I really did. But when my beta got to that section, she said she literally laughed out loud at it. So, yeah, tone-deaf, but also now I have no confidence at all in writing the big, broad strokes emotional stuff. Every time I go to write a big moment, it falls flat, like… Well, like this:

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I think another contributing factor could be that I always love the rising action sections of stories way more than any other section. I’m the most into a story when the characters have some information about whatever plot is afoot, but it’s just enough info to show just how much they don’t know. I like the mystery of it. The intrigue. Then when all the mysteries are solved and the characters are headed off to the climax, I feel a bit… not disappointed, but certainly less interested. The only thing I like about the climaxes usually is the big emotional payoff that you get but, as this point is trying to prove, I can’t write them!

4. Climaxes

Based on points 2 and 3, we all should have seen this coming. I can plot a climax and an ending. I can work all the little plot threads together and tie everything up neatly. But just because it’s all wrapped up, does not mean there’s a payoff. You need emotion and excitement for that, and I’ve just spent several hundred words describing how terrible I am at those two things.

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A visual representation of me writing a climax.

Because of the type of stuff I usually write, my climaxes tend to involve action, and every climax should have some strong emotions. So this is a serious struggle for me.


Wow, that was a downer. Maybe my next post will be Things I DO Write Well, just to give me a confidence boost.

Anyway, I’d love to hear any tips and tricks for my writing weaknesses, or maybe we can even commiserate about an area of writing you’re not confident in!

Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts

  1. I can certainly relate to a lot of these!

    When it comes to physical description, I tend to race over it – if I’m completely in the scene, my hands struggling to get the words out as fast as I can think them, then chances are I’m writing all about the play-by-play, what’s happening, what’s moving. I drop or miss so many details that are important in building the scene; so my solution to this is quite simply, editing. When I edit, each read through has a specific focus. That isn’t to say I don’t work on / change things as I come across them, but I’ll be focusing on a specific issue for each round of editing – 1. details – descriptions (adding in the gleam of the stars above, the chirping crickets, the way his fingers snag in her curls, etc.); 2. filling plot holes (what happened to the mysteriously vanishing backpack she had??); 3. sentence structure and phrasing. You get the idea. I can’t say much on the “how much is too much” front, because honestly I think that’s a writer-to-writer variant; some writers pour out full pages of description and others give two sentences. Personally, I aim for a middle-ground.

    For action scenes, I personally find that run-on sentences work wonderfully (you know, imo). I kind of use short, snapping sentences, but instead of separating them with full-stops, I use “and” and “;”. To me, this gives the needed fast-pace, giving a play-by-play of each move.

    Emotions can be really hard. Sometimes I seem to hit the nail on the head, but I recently wrote a scene where Olivia fights with Regan, the only parental figure she’s ever had, and he essentially walk out on her after telling her what a disgrace she is. It’s meant to be a really heart-wrenching scene. To me, it feels completely flat.
    One thing I’ve found in writing is to edit an emotional scene when you are actually experiencing (or at least, recently experienced) that emotion. This obvi isn’t possible all the time, but damn if I’m feeling that pain I find the words I reach for are so much more descriptive and work so much better for me. Beyond this, you know, when you cant summon a fiery murderous rage or the pain and suffering of your lover excommunicating you, I don’t really have a lot of advice… it’s a kink I’m still working out of my own writing.

    As for climaxes, I’ve just realized I’ve only written one… The rest of my projects haven’t reached that stage yet – though I have some good images for Tiger’s Eye – but I did complete the manuscript for Forbidden… and thinking back on it… there wasn’t really much of a climax there… I mean it was my first book, and I was like 14 when I wrote the climax, but, I’m really hoping I do a better job when I reach that point for Tiger’s Eye….
    So I don’t have any advice here, either, but I see your point – the action, the description, and the emotion really are key to these events. I think once you get those down, your climax will probably flow beautifully.

    Good luck, and sorry for the mini essay!

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    1. haha I loved your mini essay! Thank you! It’s just difficult because like you said, things like this vary a lot from writer to writer. We can all experiment, of course, but it’s really handy to have some mentor texts to look at and try to emulate. That gets complicated when you want to keep things fresh and original.

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