May 11th, 2018

When Action Isn’t a Good Thing in Your Novel

I took one acting class in college. In addition to discovering I didn’t want to pursue drama, but simply storytelling, I learned some of the challenges of portraying a character’s persona to an audience just beyond the stage.

One tidbit was my takeaway that you need something to do with your feet, your hands, your body. Enter props.

Theater horizontal banner scenario actors masks decorations performance compere

Photo credit: ©Matrioshka

When a partner and I performed a scene in class from Extremities (yes, the one made into a film that Farrah Fawcett starred in), I started the scene with a cigarette in hand. Looking back, I now realize that cigarette had zero to do with what was happening. It was merely a crutch to keep my hands busy so I didn’t look like an idiot standing there with no movement or gesturing wildly.

This happens to us authors with the page too.

For example, we need to write a scene with two characters talking, but something should be happening besides dialogue, right? Enter props. We put them at a kitchen table and give them tea to pour into cups. We put them in a car where they can fiddle with the radio dial and glance in the rear-view mirror. We get them to fiddle with their clothes, their jewelry, their wristwatch.

But is that action actually related to what else is happening in the scene? Does the action reveal something about the characters or the plot? Or is simply to keep our characters busy? 

Let me lay out two examples below. The dialogue and setting will be the same for both. But contrast how the action doesn’t really matter in the first scene, but pulls its weight much better in the second.

Example 1

Mary grabbed coffee cups from the cupboard and turned on the pot. “My sister’s arriving at noon. Or so she says.”

John leaned against the counter and watched the coffee. “When she gets here, you need to explain what’s happened.”

Mary had no idea how to have that conversation. How could she explain to her sister what she didn’t understand herself?

The coffee hadn’t finished percolating, but Mary shoved a cup under the stream anyway. Once it was full, she handed it to John and returned the pot to its place. She could wait for her own cup.

“Why don’t you tell her?” Mary asked. “You’re more diplomatic than I am.”

John added sugar to his coffee, three packets. “I don’t think diplomacy is your best bet. More like pulling off the Band-Aid, one quick yank and be ready for the scream.”

Example 2

Mary pushed aside the family crest coffee cups and grabbed a nondescript one from the back of the cupboard, then turned on the pot. It was barely eight a.m., and she was headed toward a third cup. “My sister’s arriving at noon. Or so she says.”

John leaned against the counter and watched the coffee, as if it was a focal point to avoid eye contact. “When she gets here, you need to explain what’s happened.”

Mary had no idea how to have that conversation. How could she explain to her sister what she didn’t understand herself?

The coffee hadn’t finished percolating, but Mary shoved a cup under the stream anyway. Impatient with the coffee, impatient with the situation, impatient with her life.

Once the cup had filled, she handed it to John. “Why don’t you tell her? You’re more diplomatic than I am.”

The hot plate sizzled, and she returned the coffee pot to its place. She could wait for her own cup. By now, she should be used to standing in line for what she wanted.

John added sugar to his coffee, three packets. If only Mary could add that kind of sweetener to bad news. “I don’t think diplomacy is your best bet,” he said. “More like pulling off the Band-Aid, one quick yank and be ready for the scream.”

# # #

In the first example, there’s action in that they’re drinking coffee. But who cares! It doesn’t say anything about the two of them or the story. In the second example, that action is used to illuminate more about the characters and what’s going on.

Sure, you still don’t know what’s going on, because I purposefully kept it vague, but you have a much better feel for the characters and the mood. Even Mary pushing past her family crest coffee cups to get a different cup tells you something.

Because the action in your novel should matter. If it doesn’t, you need to either take it out or give it meaning.

Here are some places where you might find non-meaningful action in your work-in-progress:

  1. During a scene focused on dialogue, where you have to put your characters somewhere doing something. The above examples above show what that looks like.
  2. When your characters need to get from one place to another, and you end up describing every detail of the journey. But readers don’t need to see people walking to the car, opening the car door, turning on the engine, shifting into gear, etc.
  3. When your POV character is alone in a scene sorting through something that happened or what to do next, and they’re fiddling with papers or getting dressed or the like.
  4. When a character is anticipating something, and you need something for them to do while they wait.

Of course, you need actions in your novel that show the character moving about and going from place to place. And yes, sometimes the character wipes lint off his pants just because. So please don’t go hacking out every instance of “she walked to the door.” In an effort to compel the reader, don’t confuse the reader. Instead, maintain the continuity of a scene.

But make sure the overall action of a scene reveals character, advances plot, and/or provides tension.

Have you struggled with writing meaningful action? (I have — especially the driving thing!) How have you learned to add better reveal character, advance plot, and provide tension with seemingly unimportant action?

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About Julie

Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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