Thursday, May 19, 2011

Writing tips - Showing action in writing

by Vivian Zabel     
 Lights! Camera! Action!
(Showing action in writing)

          “Action” brings to mind a movie director starting the filming of a scene. Writers should keep that in mind when writing action whether in a love story, an adventure, or any other genre. Action should be included in scenes, framed portions included in the story line. 

          According to Betty Wilson Beamguard, (“Actions speak louder,” The Writer, September 2005), writers should step back and observe each scene being written as if the writer were a movie director. Each character in the scene should be active, doing things to enhance his words. The action activity should convey a message that fits. Action is portrayed through the use of strong action verbs, not with passive voice or state of being verbs.

          “Narrative summary can drag down the pace, while physical movement, dialogue and scenes engage your reader,” says Jordan E. Rosenfeld in the February 2007 issue of the same magazine. He calls a scene a frame “a little ‘container’ of action and description that reveals plot information and engages the reader.”

          Even when a story is given in written form, the reader should be able to “view” it, see what is happening, as if a drama or play is unfolding. This need for action must be explored so that readers stay focused on the plot. Rosenfeld states, “What you put 'onstage' in your scenes is what your audience members can see for themselves.” This action allows readers to participate and be affected by what happens.

          If too much expository is used or the scene isn’t interesting, a reader becomes frustrated and starts skipping paragraphs, even pages. The author has, in effect, lost his audience, the reader. Most information given in descriptive or narrative paragraphs can be presented through dialogue and action, woven through the plot in a way to provide new information and to advance the story. The conflict, setting, setup, and “what happen next” components necessary for a good plot can be developed more interestingly through action (dialogue, movements and actions of characters, body and facial behavior, and use of action verbs and active voice).

          One point that Quinn Dalton makes (The Writer, December 2006), “A scene’s action must be connected to the central concerns of the story.” Action needs to be connected to the plot, not thrown in just for the fun of it, as padding.

          Any stories or novels, even poetry, requires some powerful action. The reader needs to “see” the chase, the fight, the escape. Short sentences with strong action verbs helps make the action tough and invigorating. That doesn’t mean that each sentence should be so short that the writing becomes too choppy, but long, complex or compound sentences distract from the action portrayed. 

          Authors need to think like movie directors and develop scenes of action that become visions in the minds of readers. Which leads to a lesson about  

Show, Don’t Tell

         Well-written material allows the reader to see, hear, and feel what is happening rather than being told what happened. This show, don’t tell idea makes stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, and poetry live in the mind of the reader. News stories haven’t yet come under the umbrella of showing, but the purpose of straight news items is different. Let’s look at the difference between telling and showing through the following examples:


         The couple walked down the road until they reached a house. The man hurried around the side of the house to peek around the corner as the woman knocked on the door. When an elderly man opened the screen, the hidden man jumped onto the porch with a gun in his hand, shooting the older man in the chest.

Showing through dialogue and action:

         “Jason, I don’t think we should be a doin’ this.” Marla pulled against the scraggly-haired man forcing her along the country road. “Look, we can manage some other way, can’t we?”

         With a sharp curse, Jason jerked her to a stop. “We’ll do what we planned to do. You better not back out now. Don’t even be thinkin’ that way, or I’ll make you hurt real bad.”

         Tears pooled in Marla’s eyes as she shuffled along the side of the dusty road. She wiped her nose on the arm of the faded sweatshirt she wore with tattered jeans. “Okay, okay, I’ll do it. Jest don’t hurt me any more.”

         With a rough push in her back, Jason caused her stumble a few steps before she caught her balance. “Jest get on up the drive to the house and don’t knock on the door until I get hid.” He ran ahead of her, up the steps to the wrap-around porch, and behind the corner of the house. He waved for Marla to knock on the door when she paused at the top of the steps. When she hung her head without moving, he hissed until she glanced toward him. Once he had her attention, he glared at her and shook a fist in her direction before jabbing a finger toward the door.

         Marla’s shoulders rose as she took a deep breath. She stepped to the door and lightly rapped with her fist. She started to turn away when the screen creaked open. An wizened man with wisps of gray hair standing away from his head stood in the opening.

         “What’s ja need?” he asked, leaning against the door jam. 

         Jason leaped from behind the corner of the house, a gun in his right hand. The elderly man jumped back and tried to slam the door, but he couldn’t move as rapidly as the younger man. Jason fired the gun twice. Marla stood staring at the blood squirting from the man’s narrow chest.

         He doesn’t look like he could of had that much blood, she thought as she backed away, a hand at her throat.

Showing through action:

         The couple moved in stops and starts down the country road. The young man with the stringy hair pulled the stumbling woman, no more than a teenager, and she resisted. They stopped, and the man shook the girl, yelling at her. The girl’s shoulder heaved, but she no longer fought him as they proceeded to a house set back from the gravel road.

         The man hopped onto the wrap-around porch and hid behind the corner of the house. He motioned to the girl to knock on the door. She hesitated. He pumped his fist in her direction and pointed to the door. She lowered her head but did as directed.

         When an elderly man opened the screen, the younger man leaped from behind the corner of house, a gun in his right hand. The elderly man jumped back and tried to slam the door, but the younger man was faster. He fired the gun twice. The girl stared at the blood squirting from the older man’s narrow chest.

         If we as writers try to write as if the narrator is an observer living the actions, behavior, and story as it unfolds before him, then we are showing, not telling. We're providing a mental "movie" in the reader's mind.

         Does that mean that a writer never "tells" anything? No, but we need to be sure we don't have "information dumps," where information is "told" in large doses, slowing or halting the flow of the story we want to bring to life. Small bits and pieces of information should be scattered throughout our writing in a way that keeps the reader's interest and allows the plot to continue to more forward, adding to the reader's understanding and enjoyment.

         Action creates a more interesting story.

Vivian Zabel, author of Midnight Hours


  1. Actually, I did comment on this article, but have no idea why it didn't show up. I value the action and conversation in any book I read. Pictures are always painting themselves as I read. If a book can't do that for me I am likely to put it down.
    In some cases I can HEAR the sounds of rustling silk, the horses clip clopping steps, the wind moving trees until they bend and the sound of rain on a tin roof. At other times I have actually heard MUSIC when I read through some passages. Great article, Vivian.

  2. Thanks, Ginger.

    I think Cyber Space does whatever it wants to do, even play tricks. Ish.