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.

 

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