Shelley Widhalm

Getting that action in novels

In Writing, Writing action, Writing Processes on September 25, 2016 at 11:00 am

Writing action into novels isn’t all about kicks and punches but is what gives the novel pacing, tension and movement.

Without action, the novel is reduced to description, character, setting and dialog full of meaningless talk, going nowhere. The action needs to have a purpose to the development of the plot, while also making sense to the main character or protagonist’s goals that push the story forward.

The action doesn’t have to focus on a high stakes fistfight or an escape but can involve a surprise phone call or visit or a dose of bad news that forces the protagonist to quickly respond, rather than reflect. She not only responds but also acts, so that she’s taking control of her situation.

If she’s reactive, the protagonist bores readers, because she becomes a victim of her circumstances, letting things happen to her. If she acts, she is showing her capacity to deal with her problems and the conflicts she encounters.

If she gets involved in a fight, whether physical or verbal, she isn’t that victim if she resolves the conflict immediately, creates more of it resulting in even more tension or continues on in the same vein, planning her next move.

To write a good action scene, here are some techniques to keep the protagonist moving and the pace at a quick tempo, while avoiding disrupting the flow of the story with unnecessary distractions:

  • Use short sentences that include high-energy verbs, like zap, whip and snap, and the subject-verb-object, the simplest form of construction in English. Also, use simple words and choppy sentences that keep the beat moving, instead of longer, more descriptive (and slower) phrasing.
  • Keep dialog to a minimum, so that’s it short and snappy. Use few descriptions and dialog tags, such as “she said, while looking into her coffee cup, contemplating how the ice failed to melt in the overly cool room.” When characters are excited with the adrenaline flowing, they aren’t going to use long sentences or philosophize about their situations; they won’t have time to think but will be acting and reacting.
  • Avoid long descriptions of character and setting. The setting, however, can be described if it’s exciting, such as a roof’s edge or a dark alley where a false move or lurking danger makes it more difficult for the characters to act and move about. Putting in a “ticking bomb” creates a deadline for the characters’ needs to accomplish something or to get away. If the characters fail, there will be consequences.
  • Make sure to keep actions in chronological sequence and in real time. Don’t put in any back story.
  • And don’t analyze what’s happening. Just explain the “what” without the “why” or “how.”

In essence, an action scene ends up revealing character in how the protagonist responds and the choices she makes without time to think. It gives her identity.


Improving a novel’s subplots

In Subplots, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 18, 2016 at 11:00 am

A single plotline typically isn’t enough to carry a story to the end, so complications in the subplots are employed to add depth, complexity and tension to its unfolding.

The subplots aren’t separate from the main story, but often involve characters and action close to the point-of-view or main character. They are the stories within a story that support or drive the main plot. The smaller stories are woven into the main story, moving back and forth from one to the other, not parallel with one forgetting the other.

In one of my young adult novels, the main plot follows the course of a teen girl seeking to belong at home and in school, while two of the subplots involve her neglectful father who engages in part-time parenting and an alcoholic mother who has reasons, or excuses, for drinking. As I tell their stories, I add depth to the teen’s story by explaining why the family is falling apart.

The subplots in a novel involve less action and present less significant events than does the story of the main plot. They have to have a purpose and affect the outcome of the main plot, connecting in time, place or thematic significance.

My subplots in the YA novel demonstrate neglect and the resulting feelings of not being accepted or wanted on multiple levels. How the character handles her responses will show her growth.

Subplots enhance a novel in various ways, such as by:

  • Adding an idea.
  • Impacting the novel’s resolution.
  • Introducing secondary characters or depicting characteristics of the main character readers otherwise wouldn’t see.
  • Underlining the storyline’s actions or providing relief from the story if it’s heavily packed with action or is dark in mood.
  • Serving as a way to complicate the main character’s life—private, personal or professional—such as through a budding romantic relationship or a complication in the workplace from a jealous co-worker.

If the subplots have other characters, called supporting or minor characters, the subplot characters need to interact with the main character at some point in the telling of the story. Otherwise, the different stories remain separate.

If there are too many subplots, they distract the reader from the main plot. The subplots have to contrast with the plot but not repeat or compete with it, taking away too much attention or scattering reader’s attention.

They also need to be complete stories with a beginning, middle and end, just like the main plot.

Escalating tension in stories, novels

In Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 11, 2016 at 11:00 am

Like pacing, tension in a short story or novel is what compels readers to turn the pages.

Pacing is a structural and line-level element of the writing process, while tension centers on conflict.

Tension, according to the dictionary, is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.

A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue and plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, the peak or most intense part of the telling. The drive toward that climax is the point-of-view or main character’s unmet goal or need, moving the story forward.

Stories with a good level of tension make the reader want to find out what will happen next and next and so on. Will the romantic girl get her guy, despite all the obstacles to their love, or will the (fill-in-the-blank) solve, find, resolve or get something?

The main character faces external and internal opposition through the story’s beginning, middle and end in the story’s movement. External opposition comes from life events or the other characters blocking the main character from getting the main want. Internal opposition comes from the character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.

The opposition is the result of both internal conflicts, which are about characters, and external conflicts, which are about plot.

As the story progresses, the tension escalates. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation. The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense.

Instead, the tension needs to vary, as well as the pace, to add interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace—the tempo or rate of the story’s progression—shows the different moods and action in the story.

A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and short, clipped dialogue, creating a lot of white space on the page. A slow pace

emphasizes important moments in the story; a quick pace hurries it along.

Tension is what keeps the story tight through those slow and fast movements.