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Description Tricks That A Writer Could Learn From An Actor

Movies are just like books in some ways. They begin a story, display characters, arrive at an arch, and then come to an end. But they have differences as well, such as:

  1.      A movie creates visuals for a viewer to see; all you need to do is follow the story. A book on the other hand, through well-crafted words, is able to lead you to develop the visuals in your mind as you follow the story.
  2.      A movie story is more or less summarized into two hours, otherwise broken into parts, while a book is only as fast as the reading pace of a reader.

These two differences are products of one exquisite similarity that movies and books share.

They both Show, Not Tell.

How is this so, you may ask.

You would realize that in a book, monologue is present. As a reader, you are allowed access into a character’s head. However, in a movie, it is not always the case. In fact, rarely so.

How then do you know what a character is thinking, or how he/she is feeling in a movie?

Simple. Gestures.

The time and space the writer spends to create monologue, the actor sums it up into gestures and accomplishes it in a matter of minutes, sometimes even, seconds, with or without dialogue.

There is a lesson that a writer can learn from here. While we cannot replace monologue, we can learn a few tricks from our fellow artists, the actors. As writers, we are also required to show, not tell when it comes to expressing emotions.

Ask yourself, “In that movie, when the character was afraid, or anxious, or joyful, or angry etc, and dialogue wasn’t present to explain, what body language or gesture did the actor use to pass on the message?”

By watching the gestures and body movements of the actor, you can master the craft of description.

Let’s assume we are looking out for fear in a scene. Here are some key questions that can help lead you in the right direction:

Did they dart their eyes back and forth? If not, what did their eyes do?

How did they work their eyebrows?

Did they snap their knuckles?

Did they speak in hushed, cracked or quivered tones?

Did they tap their feet in reflex?

Did they constantly smooch the back of their neck?

The list could go on. The key is to take note of every detail of their actions. This could be tricky because everything could pass in seconds. So pay attention. You could watch the scene over and over to be sure you don’t miss anything.

And this can be done for every kind of emotion. There are a variety of characters that express a single emotion in different ways. All you have to do is sift through movies and scenes to find the character that best matches what you are trying to describe.

This exercise is especially good because this way, you don’t limit the possibilities of your creativity to what your mind can conjure. You feed it with material.

So there you have it.

In what other ways do you think movies and books are similar? And how can this help you better your craft as a writer? Click here to comment.


  1. Great tip! 🙂 It’s definitely too easy to fall back into labeling emotions rather than showing them… I’m sure I do that more than I care to realize! After just finishing A Light in the Window by Julie Lessman, I have to say that she does a great job of showing the various gestures of the characters in various emotional states. 🙂


    • Amber! Good to have you here! Labeling emotions? I know! So many times I’ve had to go back and edit what I’ve written to make my writing more colorful. And the three or four line description end product could be the result of a thorough two-three day brainstorm work! Phew!

      I’m so glad you found this tip useful. How’s your writing going? Noticed your WIP progressed from 25k to 30k. Congratulations! Looking forward to reviewing that book. 😉

      ~ Miranda

  2. Pingback: Keeping The Creative Juices Flowing, #2 | To Be A Person

  3. Pingback: Keeping The Creative Juices Flowing, #3 | To Be A Person

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