Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 11, 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.

51 comments on “When Action Isn't a Good Thing in Your Novel”

  1. Thank you! My favorite line: "By now, she should be used to standing in line for what she wanted." Her attitude gives the sequence so much life.

  2. Julie, you raise some excellent points about purpose in action!

    Elizabeth George in her book, WRITE AWAY, lists a passel of what she calls THADs, or talking head action devices.

    I try to limit my character-building details, though, to only one or two per dialogue scene. Each time you put one in, you are pulling your reader away from what the characters are actually saying.

    As a writer, you've got to choose which is more important.

    1. Ack, why haven't I read that book?! Putting in my TBR pile. Thanks!

      And I think genre affects how you treat those character-building details. For instance, in women's fiction, you'd probably have more, but in suspense, likely less. Thanks, Lakota!

    2. I don't have that Elizabeth George book either, Lakota! All of us at WITS are rushing to check out and buy that book, I can tell. Me and THADs...we go way back!

  3. Good article. My characters tend to do way too much nodding, shrugging, and lifting eyebrows. I'm a cut to the chase reader, and my writing follows my preferences, but this is definitely something to keep in mind as I go through edits.

    1. Ha! My characters tend to shruggers and eye-rollers (YA, of course). And indeed, you don't have to have ALL those tidbits I included — mainly to get across the point — but action can easily pull a little more weight even a little extra for the reader. Thanks, Terry!

  4. Wow Julie - this was a good lesson, but the example brought it all into focus! Thanks so much. Going to check my critical scenes for THADs (Thanks, Lakota).

  5. I take little notice of such bits of business in dialogues as a reader and largely omit them as a writer. I also minimise attributions, particularly in duologues. If the result looks a bit like a script I'm happy! Michael Crichton famously did likewise in his later novels. Mind you, action that is needed for purposes other than punctuating dialogue is a different matter.

    1. Michael Crichton has a very different writing style from mine, and we all approach these things a bit differently. But action still needs to pull its weight if it's there. Thanks, John!

  6. I learned about THADs from my book doctor editor, who stated many times, "Situate, situate, situate." Guess I also need to add action that implies (show - don't tell) more than meets the eye. Thanks for this eye-opener.

    1. Thanks! Yes, action can pull double-duty, telling us what's going on but also telling us something about the characters or plot. 🙂

  7. Great post. I really loved the before and after examples. The after example gave life to the scene and made each word and sentence serve a purpose. This came at the right time because i struggled with "filler" during dialogue. I am bookmarking this!

  8. I noticed that the action in the two scenes IS EXACTLY THE SAME. The difference is in the motivation. The internal meaning you added behind the action. The meaningful details. Every scene, every action needs its emotional content included. And for novelists, that’s done by including the internal stuff. ?

  9. A very timely post, Julie! I'm editing a novella and taking out a whole bunch of that sort of thing. I love your second example of making it meaningful. That's awesome and gives me great ideas!

    1. Yep, been there! I definitely cut, but you have to have something there sometimes and you might as well make it matter. (Can't wait to read your novella!)

  10. Great post with good information and wonderful examples. Sometimes working action in comes naturally, like what you'd do yourself when speaking to someone and feeling stressed or happy or whatever. But other times I get so into the dialogue, it runs away and takes over. I solve it by after writing of a long conversation, I immediately go back and reread & edit, looking for where to insert activity that enhances the characters words. Thanks so much for sharing this valuable info!

  11. I'm lucky. I don't remember Tiffany Yates Martin ever talking about this problem. Of course, there were so many others, maybe we didn't get here, but my books are so physical-action driven, dialogue usually takes place in busy, loud spaces. But I'd going to check for this in P.R.I.S.M. 2, so thanks, Julie!

    1. Actually, if it wasn't pointed out, it probably isn't a problem for you. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. But it's always good to double-check and make sure we're not missing something. Thanks, Fae!

  12. Ahhh, the trusted THADs. I am so very guilty of those and I always have to cut them (or one of my trusted pals like Laura cuts them for me). Thanks for this post. This kind of reminder can never come too often!

    1. Ha! Yes, the wonderful critique partner can be the one who said, "Oh my goodness, cut this!" (I'm looking at you, Christina, wherever you are.) Thanks, Jenny!

  13. Thanks for this timely bit of advice! I'm currently working on a sequel scene after my main character has made an alliance to solve the problem, which will alienate those he loves. These techniques are helping me ramp up the tension in an argument with his roommate/best friend/foster brother.

    1. Ooh, I love when I read something crafty and immediately think of where to apply it in my WIP! Glad you've got your plan. Thanks, Dominique!

  14. Great examples, Julie. This is one of those things I see easily in someone else's manuscript but am blind to in my own. And now, I'm remembering a couple of scenes off the top of my head that may need another run through the fingers.

    1. We often have those blind spots with our own writing, which is why I love critique partners and editors helping us out with those. I'm sure you'll nail your scenes, Lynette!

  15. Thank you Julie - such a useful post for my writing. Making THADs do so much more or... delete!
    Being a practical learner, your examples nailed it for me.

  16. Brilliant post. I'm shocking with this sort of stuff. When I was teaching, we called it busy work - stuff you get kids to do just because they have to do something. My poor characters do so much eye-rolling and shrugging they're liable to get RSI.

  17. I love how the second was so much better.

    I don't mean this to sound petty, but she couldn't have been percolating coffee; she was brewing coffee. A percolator is the old-fashioned pot on the stove top (though now there are electric ones) with the tube which continually forces boiling water up into the basket. She was brewing coffee in a drip system. It's not interchangeable. My grandma always percolated coffee. I know I shouldn't be hung up that, but as a reader, it stopped me and I had to figure out what was going on because it didn't make sense. Just like a French press or pour over or single serve all operate differently.

    Apologies if you felt I was overthinking it or causing offense, but I know people who take coffee making seriously.

    And, yes, I know there are some people who say they will percolate over something when they want to stew on it or think it over.


  18. This post came at an excellent time. I am on my umpteenth edit/revision of my WIP. I will look for action that can be eliminated or changed to actually reflect the characters emotions. Thanks.

  19. I've found that, as a science-fiction and fantasy writer, having a "prop" is an excellent way of conveying rules of the universe immediately without having to editorialize. When people ask how to build their world quickly, I often suggest having a character use an object that represents what kind of world it is. So if it's traditional Tolkien, have them use a magical sword. If it's more complicated, like a combination of magic and technology, have them use a magical gun, even if magical swords exist.

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