Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part II — Action

In Part I, I discussed what to do when you find your writing lacking narrative depth–description, internal monologue, and world-building. Today I’m going to tackle one of the other three major components of a text: action.

For context, when I say “action” I’m not talking about it in the narrow sense of “action” movies–fight scenes, explosions, and car chases. In this sense, I mean it quite literally–action is when something (a character or part of the environment) acts in some way. John walked across the room. A broken tree branch fell to the ground. Lily tossed her hair indignantly. The little boy cried because his ice cream fell off the cone and onto the sidewalk.

In every case, something is happening. This is your opportunity for strong verb choice–there’s no “to be” conjugations found here. (At least, not as primary verbs. Because English tenses get funky, they’ll still show up as auxiliary ones, but that’s another post.)

How can you tell your writing lacks action? Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to focus more on narrative or dialogue, and that’s fine if you’re doing it deliberately. But if you have long passages of narrative (be they description or exposition dumps) your writing can feel flat or monotonous. If you focus too much on dialogue, you end up with what’s often called the “talking heads” effect–characters constantly speaking back and forth without moving, thinking, or stopping to observe their environment or each other. That can be useful in short or tense exchanges, but over longer conversations it can feel bouncy, ungrounded in reality, or confusing.

The solution, of course, isn’t to drop a fight scene where one doesn’t belong or crash a helicopter into the forest you’re describing. You don’t need to change the plot as a whole or the focus of the scene, to insert more action. (You can, but you don’t have to.) You just need to ask yourself a few questions, depending on context:

  • Could my characters be moving right now, and if so, how could that enrich the scene? A conversation that used to be sitting in a booth at a diner could move outside instead while characters are walking, giving you a less static environment for them to interact with. If it has to stay at the diner for whatever reason, how are your characters gesturing as they speak? When do they take a bite of their sandwich? Who’s the one more likely to look over every time the door opens? There’s no hard rule for balancing dialogue with action, because the needs of every scene will be different, but in general, break up more than three or four changes in speaker by inserting an action. If you’re using lots of one-liners, you might be able to go a little longer; if you’re using bigger blocks of dialogue, maybe every two or three. If your characters are discussing something serious and you want a slow pace, you can use action with every chunk of dialogue, though that is its own trap as well. The demands of the scene come first, but be conscious of when a lot of one thing becomes too much.
  • Can something or someone from the environment interact with my characters in a useful way? We’ve all seen the meet-cute where the wind blows something out of one character’s hand for another to pick up and return to them; but it doesn’t have to be so forced. If you need a character to pause for a beat before they answer a question, have that wind blow their hair across their face, so they take the time to push it aside. If one person would rather not be having this conversation in the first place, they might seize on any distraction the setting offers them–a blaring car alarm, a flock of birds taking flight, a lost child in need of rescue. Sure, that last one’s a bit dramatic, but I don’t know what your story needs–it’s just an example. To go back to my diner setting from above, if a character jumps in their seat when they hear a dish crashing in the kitchen, it could tell your readers a few different things, depending on the effect you want: that they’re anxious in general, or about this situation in particular; that they weren’t paying close attention and the noise “woke them up”; or alternately, that they were so focused on their conversation partner that the noise reminded them where they were, because they’d tuned it out. Blank rooms may be a description problem, but blank environments don’t let your characters exist in a real, living space. Give them something to do beyond the scope of the person they’re talking to.
  • Have I gone too long without mentioning a character at all? A long paragraph of description about the forest your protagonist is hiking through might include “action” sentences, like a bird darting from tree to tree or a deer passing at a distance. But if the majority of the block of text is clearly for descriptive purposes, it might be time to refocus on the hiker. What was the last thing they did or said? How long ago was that on the page? Did you remember what it was before you found it, or has it been so long on the narrative tangent that you weren’t sure? Just like long passages of dialogue, too much description, exposition, or world-building can be broken up with brief bits of action to keep momentum going. It can be trickier if you’re explaining a necessary bit of fantasy-world politics or history, of course; world-building has a host of challenges I can’t begin to cover in the narrow context of underwriting action. But if you can’t find a way to insert action, it might be a sign you’re info-dumping and you need to trim it down or chop it into smaller pieces to scatter through the story more naturally.
  • Can I replace any dialogue or narrative directly with action? This is a more advanced/limited technique, but it has its moments. A character doesn’t need to think that a sunset or a scenic view is pretty, or say so to a companion, if you show them climbing a big rock to get a better vantage point. In a chase scene, you wouldn’t need the pursuer to state that they lost their target if you show them coming to an intersection and twisting in every direction to catch sight of them. (I bet you could imagine that one easily–movies use it all the time, but they often double down by having the pursuer say “I’ve lost them” out loud, even when it’s obvious to the audience. If they’re informing a third party listening in on the phone or another communication device, okay, I’ll grant that. But simply saying it to themselves? Totally unnecessary. I’d rather they swear at the end of the scene to show me they’re frustrated by their failure!) Converting a story beat from one type to another can be challenging, but this is the pinnacle of the adage “show, don’t tell” and can liven up any scene, cut down on repetition, and prove you trust your readers to connect the dots on their own.

As with my first post on narrative, this is meant to be an overview on adding/improving the action in your writing, not a comprehensive list of all possible issues, and definitely not a “one size fits all” solution. These questions are a set of tools I’ve developed for myself based on my own observed weaknesses; other authors handing out their own writing advice will offer other perspectives. If mine don’t suit your needs, I hope you’ll use this as a jumping-off point for further research into solutions that work for you!

Coming soon: Part III, on dialogue!

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