Learning how to write action right is the one thing that separates wannabe writers from writers whom others wish to read. Failing to do it is the fast-lane to boring the shit out of everyone who picks up your work.
If there’s one thing that I have absolutely no tolerance for, it’s poorly rendered action. For example, I am editing a book at the moment—a book with real promise—that commits all of the following sins:
- the main characters somehow know what other characters are thinking, without speech, telepathy, or any other kind of messaging between them
- the author breaks the third wall to make moral comments about a situation going on in the book (which is not only tedious but unnecessary), without any other purpose than to feel good themselves
- there are no pictures being painted, just words scattered on the floor.
Of three of those sins, it’s the last one that really gets me. And the reason is because it creates heart-wrenchingly boring reading. While it’s a very short work (approximately 15,000 words), getting through the first third is very, very difficult because of all the telling.
Sometimes telling someone what’s going on can work for you. If you’re writing a parable, or a folk story, you can absolutely get away with being a narrator. The reason is because the context makes narration admissable. However, you’ll notice that even in these types of stories, there is the occasional picture: A facial expression, a way of walking, something that demonstrates a character’s state.
Most of the time, though, it causes the reader’s mind to switch off. Such as in the book I’m editing.
How do you write action right?
First of all, it comes from understanding what action really is.
If you’re an avid consumer of film, it’s likely that you equate action with ‘action sequences’: Car chases, fights, rock climbing, arguments, sex. The big moments and events in which people do active things.
But this is incorrect.
- any kind of external demonstration of what’s going on inside of someone, such as body language shifts, facial expressions, gestures, movements
- the things that people do while on the way to doing something else
- the things that people do while engaged in something else, whether that it interactive or not
- movement, event, or interaction-based.
An external demonstration of an inner state could be something like this:
Jenny pushed a hand through her hair. ‘I dunno man,’ she replied, looking around. Then, leaning forward over her crossed legs, whispered: ‘What if she fights back?’
Jenny is clearly anxious. She’s edgy, looking around. She’s closed her body off from whoever she’s talking to, and is looking for a way out of a situation.
Movements on the way to something else could look like this:
The doorbell rang. Missy, the curly retriever, padded over to the doorway. John absent-mindedly scratched her ears as he looked through the front door to see who it was.
You immediately know that John’s tendency is to pat his dog whenever she’s nearby.
Things people do while engaged in something else could look like:
Julie’s head popped around the corner. ‘Phone call for you.’
Kuyo looked at the clock and screwed up his nose. He’d hoped to get at least half an hour. ‘Urgh. Who is it?’
Julie shrugged. ‘A wailing Karen complaining about something someone didn’t do for her.’
Kuyo pushed his chair back. ‘Tell her I’ll be there in a moment. Oh, and Julie,’ he drained his coffee, put the mug back on the sink. ‘Please stop calling the customers Wailing Karens.’
Perhaps the most important of all, the movement in between other things paints a picture without telling you about an environment or an interaction. In this situation you know that Kuyo is in a kitchen or lunch room; there’s a clock; there’s a sink; there is coffee. Kuyo is always busy, Julie is always interrupting him.
Observation is your key skill here
Characters are people, stories are about what happens to people (fantastical or otherwise), so your best avenue of study is… People! 😀
I’ve written about observational practices many times (but chiefly in discussions more than ten years ago about music journalism and related ethnography skills). Truthfully, if you are wanting to capture a scene quickly and easily, without devolving into narration, observation is where to start.
The two facets of writing that have served me the best in my career have been:
- A keen ear for dialogue, and patterns and cadences of speech
- A keen eye for human interaction.
Happily, practising this stuff is as easy as doing your weekly shopping. Your challenge is switching on your inner observer and allowing it to work.
Decide to record everything in your day
One of the best ways to switch on your observational skills is simply to decide to do so. Make the decision early in the morning that you’ll record—subconsciously—everything that goes on around you in your day. Then, at the end of the day, sit down and journal it out. How much can you recall?
The more you do this, the better at it you’ll get.
It’s also helpful to do this in any given situation. Going to the park? Decide to be The Observer. Going shopping? Decide to be The Observer.
The more you can do this without taking notes, the better; but remember, you will have to journal it out so you capture it.
More exercises to level up your observation are in the ethnography module of Music Journalism 101.
Every time you write an interaction, replace marker words (said, commented, replied) with an action.
Every time you have your character making a decision, pair action with it.
Every time you’re sitting down to write, pretend that you have no idea what’s going on in your character’s mind. Instead, you have to judge what’s going on by way of his or her outward appearance.
And then, if you’re super keen, attempt writing an entire scene using only second-person perspective as if you’re watching a film… But I might write more about that another time. Let me know in the comments if you’re keen.