According to author Ian Irvine, there are three main components to a story: Conflict, action, and resolution. I reviewed the importance of conflict in our latest podcast, and for this blog I want to focus on action.
Action is vitally important within writing. Your mind may immediately jump to an epic battle, as seen in The Lord of the Rings, as the epitome of action within writing. But, action is just as important on a smaller scale. Let’s say your character is running late for work. You want the action to be appropriate to the event, but also interesting enough to keep readers attentive.
Just as conflict has its place in writing, action is a tool that, if used correctly, can make or break a story. Think of it as the tool by which your characters get from one side of your story to the other. Or, the tool by which you, the author, gets the characters from one side to the other. You make decisions for your characters and ACT on those decisions to drive the story forward.
One thing that really stuck in my brain after years of creative writing courses was the sound advice to “show, don’t tell”. This is especially true when it comes to writing action. You wouldn’t want to be in the midst of a great book, when the going gets tough for the characters, and all of a sudden have the writer say something along the lines of, “The ship was leaving, and Katie with it. Ian ran to the dock and watched it sail away. It was too late.”
How boring is that? If we’re invested in the characters and this is a crucial point to the story, wouldn’t you want something more along the lines of “The sea breeze tasted bitter on Katie’s tongue as the sailors pulled up the anchor. The ship rocked with their chants of, “Heave! Heave! Heave!” before finally, the loud clank of the anchor landing aboard. As the ship slipped into the east driven winds, Katie tugged at her bottom lip with her teeth, searching the pier one last time.”
That’s my bit of writer spewing, but you get the point. Hopefully. When it comes to action, show your reader what is going on, don’t just tell them. You need to trust that your readers will get the point with the action, thoughts and imagery, rather than a summarization of what happened. Indeed, it is much more enjoyable to read something riddled with taste, sound, action, etc., and not just a summation of what has happened. That way, the characters come to life for your reader. And, isn't that a major goal in writing?
Author, Anton Chekhov, once said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” We’ve used this quote in the past on a podcast I believe, but it sums up the “show, don’t tell” very well. When reviewing some of your own writing, I suggest you go back through some of those pivotal scenes and determine whether you are following this or not.
When it comes to writing action, you want to make sure that it is justified. I know that sometimes you may be tempted to throw something random in the mix just to get things moving again. Often times, this doesn’t work. Every Fast and Furious movie comes to mind when I think about this, oftentimes because the action doesn’t seem justified, and because it’s usually fairly ridiculous. Now, those are meant to be over-the-top action movies, and I understand that. If that’s what you’re going for in your writing, then do it! But, on the off-chance you want your writing to be seen in a more serious light, I suggest that you make sure the action is justified.
To get the best out of your writing, you also want to make sure that you are balancing things out. What I mean is, you may not want it all, “Pow, pow pow!” but may instead want to balance the action with things such as dialogue, narrative, etc. In a post from Gloria Kempton on the Writer’s Digest site, there is some great advice to be found. Kempton wrote the following:
STRIKING A BALANCE
There are no hard-and-fast rules about when and when not to blend dialogue, action and narrative. To weave them together well is to find your story’s rhythm. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself about your story, especially in the rewrite stage, that can help you know which elements are most effective for a particular scene, and which might be better used elsewhere.
Is the story moving a little too slowly, and do I need to speed things up? (Use dialogue.)
Is it time to give the reader some background on the characters so they’re more sympathetic? (Use narrative, dialogue or a combination of the two.)
Do I have too many dialogue scenes in a row? (Use action or narrative.)
Are my characters constantly confiding in others about things they should only be pondering in their minds? (Use narrative.)
Likewise, are my characters alone in their heads when my characters in conversation would be more effective and lively? (Use dialogue.)
Is my story top-heavy in any way at all—too much dialogue, too much narrative or too much action? (Insert more of the elements that are missing.)
Are my characters providing too many background details as they’re talking to each other? (Use narrative.)
That’s some pretty straightforward, sound advice, right? It’s always good to step back and ask yourself some questions to determine if you’re doing the right thing for your writing. When it comes to action, balance can be very important, as Kempton so clearly demonstrates.
Now that you know a bit more about writing action, let’s go over some ways that you can maximize your skills.
1- Keep up the pace when writing action. A post from Ginny Wiehardt on a site called, The Balance, has this to say about pace: “In action writing, the pacing of your writing is part of what conveys the action. This means that the writing should speed up along with your characters. Action writing doesn't call for long descriptions of setting or character. Everything you write should pertain to the action.”
2- This one’s a no-brainer, but read up on how some of your favorite authors deal with action in their stories. As writers we should strive to learn from the best, right? If you’ve read a lot of fantasy novels and are attempting to write one of your own, then sit down with one of said novels and study the action within those pages. Take notes on how the author creates tension, sets their characters in motion and creates great action scenes.
3- Make the action believable to your writing. You want there to be an element of truth to your writing, whether that means making some of your characters have physical weaknesses that show up in important action scenes, or whether a certain fear is evoked in the middle of the action. You don’t want your main character to seem invincible to a fault, do you? So, make the actions of your characters and in your scenes believable and true to what you are writing.
That’s only a few points, but I hope you have a better understanding and appreciation for action in writing. This is definitely an element of writing that you want done right, and done well. I challenge you to look on some of your own action scenes and make sure you are following some of the advice seen in this blog. Am I saying you have to follow all of it? No! I’m saying that you should follow what struck you as important and have that reflected in your own writing, whether that be the “show, don’t tell,” or mimicking great published authors.
Keep up the writing, and keep your characters moving on, one action at a time. Only then will they come to life.
Writer’s Digest, Gloria Kempton:
The Balance, Ginny Wiehardt