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Including or Ignoring Action

09-12-11, meshmar2, port orleans gator Should you include action in your work or exclude it?

The answer? Well, it depends.

This post examines where three different authors for three different reasons have used or ignored action in their work. Action is not just James Bond or Lara Croft heroics, it is also the simple acts of walking across a park or motions of ordering books on a shelf. You could also refer to it as motion and in this post action and motion both mean the same thing – your character is doing something physical.

In a recent interview, thriller writer J.C. Hutchins talked about the times where as he reviews his work he finds dreary stagnant stretches of dialogue, this is poor form in his action/thriller genre so he then injects the illusion of action by including some physical activity for the characters to do. In the interview he states that a story with nothing physical happening, is not as engaging for the reader as one where the characters are holding the same conversation whilst they are moving or doing a physical task.

An extreme use of this using action to support dialogue can be found in “Temple Of The Winds” by Terry Goodkind. In the early books of the series, Terry had built a rich and complex world and in the opening of the third book he needed to provide a massive information dump within the first chapter. To do this he has a principal character walking though her palace on her way to interrogate a wizard recently captured within the palace walls. During the long, (very long), walk through the palace Terry slips information into the dialogue that is happening between the character and her aide. Details of backstory, details about the palace, details of time elapsed between books, detail about the characters they pass (or should have passed, except they are busy doing…), and snippets about unknown wizards, snippets that with each new telling increase the potential threat that the current captured wizard represents. The result is that the motion supports the information dump provided by the dialogue, whilst the threat from the wizard, increasing with every step, hooks the reader and holds them through an otherwise incredibly dry passage.

Once all the world information has been conveyed to the reader, the poor wizard is killed off, his purpose now complete.

So, is action/motion a good thing? Well, it depends.

Holly Lisle mentions in her podcast “Episode 4: The One On Deadline” that she “only writes the parts that interest me”, she then reads an excerpt from her novel “I See You”, where a Para-medic team responds to a distress call, in the excerpt they travel from a response point to the victims rear porch.

This is a scene which intrinsically includes action as they travel across town.

However, from the point where they receive the call up to the point the ambulance arrives at the scene, the only parts of the journey she mentions are two sentences. One is about other vehicles moving or not moving out of the way and the the second and final one is about pulling up in the neighbours drive.
Instead of mentioning journey details she had the paramedics talking about and betting on the circumstances surrounding the destination throughout the journey time, and considering the call was because of an alligator attack, there was plenty of interesting speculation.
There was no “wailing up the highway” or “took a left into the busy evening traffic,” nope, she cut out all that action and just focused on “only…the parts that interest me”, which in this case was the destination.

Of course there is action here, even if it is not mentioned directly, but the reader never gets a chance to engage with the action because his/her attention is redirected towards far more engaging events that potentially surround the destination.

In Holly’s case the action didn’t support the needs of the story and so it was not included.

So, how should we approach action/motion?

Like so many rules guidelines on writing, it depends.

If your story is going through a stagnant patch, or a patch which is crammed full of dialogue or backstory, then give it some supporting action to keep your reader interested. However, if everything is jogging along nicely because of other, more compelling, elements then leave it out, since it will clutter your narrative. If in the second case a journey is necessary then all you need is a mention of the destination and a mention of arrival.

In between those two extremes you will need to use your own best judgment, but by being aware of the effect action and motion have on the readers interest, will allow you to find an appropriate balance.


Podcasts referenced above

Joanna Penn Interview with J.C. Hutchins on Writing Thriller Novels and Publishing Success

Holly Lisle On Writing: Episode 4: The One On Deadline


Photo; Port Orleans Gator, cc Meshmar2

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4 comments to Including or Ignoring Action

  • I often try to spice up dry action with dialogue. Sometimes, even an action scene can be quite dry – police moving into position, C&C instructions on the radio, shooting, manoeuvring, people dying – there’s a lot going on but it’s cliched, even stereotyped. It helps if there’s something interesting going on in dialogue between a couple of characters at the same time.

    • Graham, that’s a good point. Reminds me of the saying, “Man can not live by cake alone.” A little bit of diversity keeps the reader involved on more than one level.

  • Nice timing, Shack. Just hit this in my SF story – at the bit near the start where some background needs to be laid out or it’ll all be too vague. It’s tough getting the balance of action, dialogue and description to convey what’s needed without any one part becoming tedious.