Chugging down the editing tracks, let’s explore the exciting component of action.
We know plot and characters drive our stories. Like rum in a Mai-Tai, they should have a knock-you-over factor. Action is equally important and we’re not necessarily referring to staunch Detective Roberts slamming villainous Tim Smith on his as—uh—butt.
Action, as an FYI, can be dialog, an event or deed, a consequence or reaction. Action at the onset—the prologue / first chapter—is a good thing because it reels in your readers. And if it’s well written and maintained, it hooks them to the very end.
Reading the novels of successful authors is a splendid way to understand what great action makes. You’ll discover that it can be composed of powerful and graphic detail just as it can be conveyed with minimal description. Some actions scenes are long; others are short. There are no rules per se, but there is a skill factor which, like anything, comes with practice and time.
Major action yanks your readers through plot twists. An example: the trio from the Triple Threat Investigation Agency confronts a crazed, ranting killer in an isolated location—but is he the one they’ve been diligently searching for? Think of slasher flicks as another example. Every time a couple of unsuspecting teens round a corner in a dilapidated house, something major (fatally gruesome) happens and stunned, curious viewers are riveted.
Minor action is the commonplace things characters do daily, like you and me. Example: Rey meets JJ at a local bar to review the latest case findings. A simple scene like this might allow you to get a feel for Rey’s melodramatic nature, learn the two love Mai-Tais, and discover they’re cousins who’ve grown close in recent years.
To make your story work and be compelling you need to incorporate both. And regardless whether major or minor, use action at the right time for the right purpose.
Genre will play a part; some stories will be slower than others and incorporate progressive development differently. Whatever the genre, though, you’ll still need a clincher of an opening. A dynamic beginning will grab your readers’ attention and hold it throughout.
The beginning of your tale should incorporate major and minor action, with the major being the “problem” or “incident” or “event” that pushes your main character on that path to resolution. Think of it like a call-to-action button. The minor (commonplace) transpires as a character is strolling (or racing, as the case may be) along that winding or precipitous path.
To sustain attention, action has to keep the story surging, sometimes taking different or unexpected directions. Remember the post about conflict and tension? Make sure both are consequences of action. Collectively, they serve like the holy trinity in Cajun cooking: essential flavoring.
One action may lead to one discussion, or several. It may prompt a response, or many. It will trigger a reaction, or two. That action doesn’t necessarily have to be physical, either; it can be emotional, mental, or verbal. Dialog can prove quite forceful. Instead of having two characters punching and pushing, have them screaming and/or crying. Maybe John yells “enough” and flings a laptop at the wall (testy technology annoys the guy big-time). Lee, never a sucker for sentimentality, might actually cry at viewing something “cute”.
Like subplots and dialog, and that narrator’s voice, action must vary in intensity. While things should connect, they don’t need a 1-2-3-4 approach. Mix things up; have readers guessing. Try 1-7-3-2. But ensure all is logical. Variety truly is the spice of life.
As an FYI, action doesn’t necessarily end upon the story’s climax. It may (and should) continue—perhaps to clarify the reasons for all that has transpired or to provide foreshadowing of a sequel.
When editing action, make certain it:
- is appropriate to the genre
- complements the story
- is necessary
- is logical/relative
- suits the characters (given their personalities and backgrounds)
- doesn’t stagnate by being drawn out or over-detailed
- continues to the end and doesn’t stop with the climax.
As you’re editing scenes, consider whether the action belongs. Is it [truly] moving the scene/plot along? Are your readers going to benefit from it (like learn more about a character or situation)?
Do the actions seem plausible? If one of my P.I.s gets punched or beaten, she’d be sporting a bruise or two. In real life, chances are if we’re involved in an altercation, we wouldn’t be looking like we’re walking the Oscar red carpet. In fact, we may limp down it—with a groan or two. Do due diligence, as appropriate. What might someone look like after an accident or fight? What would be the medical and physical repercussions? If the main character is racing down a deserted road in the rain, might he/she veer off when wheels lock or slow down as anxiety takes control? What will the outcome(s) of action(s) be?
Something you’ve undoubtedly heard countless times: show, don’t tell. That holds true with action. Don’t tell readers; show them.
Examples—which works better?
- Fred sighed, obviously unhappy.
- Fred sat in the chair and looked unhappy.
- With a loud lengthy sigh, Fred closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.
- Sighing softly, Fred tossed back the brandy in one loud gulp. “Why’d Lisa walk out on me like that?”
Take action by breathing “life” into your story.
Next post, let’s take a quick gander at reaction.