OK so that’s more for films, but I couldn’t resist the cheap pun. So you have set the scene, your characters have learned their lines, and now we come to what they actually do; the big, important bit of the story.
Unfortunately, it’s the aspect I have the least affinity for. When editing, I tend to get the dialogue more or less as I want it first try, the descriptions take a little work, but with action I’m constantly banging my head against a wall. Hopefully, my iteration of some of the basic guidelines will be useful but if not… you have been warned!
The simplest way to approach action is as a description of what people are doing. Instead of “Jody was” you have “Jody did” and the rest, to a point, is much the same – vocabulary, sentence structure, and considering the structure overall are valuable ways to improve the quality of your writing.
This is perhaps a bit of a cop-out this early in the piece, so let’s go into more detail. On vocabulary, verb choice is the most important. “Went” stands out as one to avoid; like “said”, there is a huge array of alternatives.
The biggest point to focus on for action is sentence structure. Sure, variety is good for descriptions, but for action it is absolutely pivotal. The first strongly recommended stylistic point is to completely avoid the “passive” voice and always have the characters “active”. This is the difference between:
- Passive: The ball was caught by Ben – the object had something done to it by the character.
- Active: Ben caught the ball – the character did something to the object.
With this in mind, the other big determinant when writing action is sentence length. Shorter sentences are more tense and dramatic, and longer sentences keep things slow and relaxed. If you are staying true to these two ideas, the ways you can vary your sentence structure is somewhat limited:
- Gary walked to the bar and peered over, getting the barman’s attention.
- Gary walked to the bar, peering over and getting the barman’s attention.
- Walking to the bar and peering over, Gary got the barman’s attention.
- Walking to the bar, Gary peered over and got the barman’s attention.
No one of the above is better than another – they are all the same length and Gary is always active – but what’s important is that they all read differently. What you are trying to avoid is a block of text in which all of the sentences are structured in the same way. Of course there are other ways to mix it up, such as changing the perspective – ‘the barman saw Gary walk to the bar and peer over’ – or adding in descriptive clauses but, particularly for dramatic sequences where shorter sentences are recommended, this can be ill advised.
This leads me on to talk about writing action. Not just characters performing actions, action. So… use short sentences. Not just when your characters are doing something, but when describing the scene. ‘The wind howled’. ‘A door banged shut’. Onomatopoeic words are particularly useful for tense scenes too. Also, notice that, although part of a description, these examples are the environment doing something. It’s adjectives that bog down action-packed pieces.
The other way description can be used mid-action is to create mini cliff-hangers, particularly for longer scenes such as battles. You can have a section of short sentences and tension followed by a slower-paced description, and then plough on. If you think of a slide or roller coaster with a bump half way, the second descent feels that much faster for the break.
That feels like about all I want to say. I know this is a shorter piece than usual, but as always I am open to questions or your own comments and opinions, either below, on the forums, or on twitter @mark_opera. You can email email@example.com, but I have temporarily forgotten how to access that so one of the other ways might be better this week.
Throughout November I am going to be doing NaNoWriMo, so Eilidh’s Diary will see no new entries but I will try and do a blog post every week, just summing up my progress and hopefully the progress of the other CoT participants too. It’s not too late to sign up and join us!