3 Reasons Action is Important, 3 Reasons It’s Not

You know how everyone’s always telling you “Show, Don’t Tell”? Well, that means “Write Scenes, Not Exposition.” So we’re spending three weeks covering the three aspects of scenes: description, action, dialog. Last week we did description. Next week we’ll do dialog. And this week we’re doing action.

Action is important because:

  1. Fiction is about movement

    This is the fundamental purpose of fiction: to get a protagonist from point A to point B with the greatest difficulty possible.

    Don’t make it easy on them, whatever else you do. The excitement lies in the complications, the many and varied ways in which you can pull the rug out from under your characters and force them, time and again, to scramble to their feet with every ounce of strength and wit they’ve got.

    And the very best way to pull the rug out from under them is to give them needs and internal conflicts that make them pull it out from under themselves.

    It may be possible to write an entire novel without action, but I’ve never seen it work. Even Virginia Woolf’s alarmingly passive classic To the Lighthouse is about—what else could it be?—a trip to a lighthouse. It’s not a long trip, and it gets canceled at least once. But, yeah. She did eventually have to send them there.

    And a novel packed with action is not only thrilling but gets from point A to point B. Making that journey the gist of the novel is the very stuff of great storytelling.

  2. Readers are fascinated by characters in motion

    You know how interesting people are when they never move? Uh-huh. Just about that interesting. How much time can you burn up watching your co-workers stare at their computer screens in their lonely little boring cubes?

    You just fell out of your chair, didn’t you?

    Now ask yourself why mysteries, paranormal, thrillers, romance, urban fantasy/sci-fi (contemporary Westerns) are such long-time staples of best-selling fiction. Because the characters never sit still.

    In mysteries they’re always rushing around tracking down the activities of the other characters—except Rex Stout’s canonical Nero Wolfe, who spends most of his time tending his orchids and drinking beer while his sidekick Archie does the rushing around (there’s a really good reason those stories are told from Archie’s point-of-view rather than Wolfe’s).

    In paranormal not only do the characters move, they move in really weird ways.

    In thrillers they move at top-speed in terror for their lives (and thriller is the number one best-selling genre after romance).

    In romance, of course, the ways they move tend to do things to the readers’ gonads.

    And although Westerns have faded—to be replaced by urban fantasy/sci-fi, the new Wild West—it’s all about action. Westerns were riveting to generations of men who’d been raised to be intensely active boys and then wound up working rather less-active jobs in their adult lives. Urban fantasy/sci-fi readers can’t get enough of an industrial landscape much like the cities and even modern rural environments where children these days learn what adult activity is all about. . .sadly enough for those who grow up to while-away their days among endless five-foot carpeted walls.

  3. Action creates that essential Visceral Response

    Of course, the whole purpose behind the purpose of fiction is Visceral Response.

    Readers read for experiences. They want to suffer your characters’ traumas and learn through that suffering how to survive. They want to learn how it feels to survive.

    That means in their bodies. In their guts. In their hearts.

    Have you ever read an action scene that made the hair stand thrillingly up on your head? That Visceral Response is the Whole Point of action scenes.

    And if you can create that in your reader, you have earned the right to call yourself a writer.

However, action is not important because:

  1. Action is easy to screw up

    And. . .that’s why not everyone who wants to become a best-selling thriller author does. Because action must be meticulously choreographed, tightly worded, designed and polished exactly right for maximum impact.

    Aspiring writers screw up high-tension action scenes all the time, writing them long, writing them disorganized, writing them without even realizing they need to shape them perfectly, which means cutting every single word possible.

    It is far easier to learn to shape scenes around simpler internal conflict—a conversation in which the characters misunderstand each other, or an exchange of information, or a moment of regaining balance—than around external conflict or action that requires perfect timing.

    I spend a lot of my time teaching clients how to shape action scenes exactly right. It’s not easy. But it is essential if you want to use them.

  2. Action is not plot

    You can write all the action scenes you like, and if they don’t move your plot forward they’re just churning mud. An endless number of perfectly-shaped fight scenes will eventually lose all but the most die-hard fight fans. And even those guys are probably already watching cable.

    Every word you put into a story must be essential to getting the protagonist from point A to point B. If an action scene doesn’t do that. . .throw it out.

  3. Action without meaning is just a windmill

    Because, in the final analysis, we don’t read simply to learn how to act. We read to move alongside characters through their worlds toward and through their worst nightmares. It is the movement through the nightmare that has meaning. Everything else is set-up for that.

    That meaningful action teaches your reader how to live.

16 thoughts on “3 Reasons Action is Important, 3 Reasons It’s Not

  1. Thanks for doing this series. I’m referring to these post to keep me on track as I rewrite my first novel

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, excellent, Cathryn. The more you write in carefully-constructed scenes, the more vivid and addictive your novel will be. Always be thinking about how you’re throwing the reader, scene by scene, forward toward your inevitable nightmare Climax.

  2. Lydia Sharp says:

    I don’t usually comment, but I always tweet your articles. Just wanted to tell you, personally, how much I enjoy reading and applying your advice. Every single one of your articles is helpful. Thanks so much for all the hard work you put into this. I sincerely appreciate it. 😀

    1. Victoria says:

      Thank you, Lydia! I do see you retweet my stuff all the time. You’re very kind.

      I do work hard to make sure every article is worth the read. There’s so much advice about writing in the blogosphere these days, and yet writers still come to me with questions about the gaps in their understanding of the craft. I’m working to fill those gaps.

  3. Naomi says:

    Woke up, yawned, clicked computer on, and up came this post in my RSS feed reader. Action! Thank you, this is a very timely reminder, not only in my WIP which, I realise, is lagging for lack of action, but also in my Wednesday morning, which is lagging for lack of motivation. You have helped me find both.

    1. Victoria says:


      This is great, Naomi. Any time you can find the link between your writing of fiction and your life, you’re identifying the whole reason you do this.

      That’s art.

      1. RG Pyper says:

        I want to squeeze this post. love it. YES great art intertwines into great lives until you can’t tell which one is the tree and which one the ivy. (hm. hoping that’s not a destructive type of ivy… never mind.)

  4. Great post 🙂

    I love action.

    Internal conflict not only is simpler, but it is ambiguous; it might appeal or not to a reader. What an internal conflict is to someone, might not be to someone else and thus, a person might not be able to connect to that. Internal conflict is more subjective.

    External conflict, if constructed right, is more objective. Thus many readers can understand it and connect to it. And action plays a substantial role in external conflict. Action is not limited to movement, it can be a dialogue. It’s hard to construct it properly and in the right position, but it has great effect.

    Thank you for the very interesting post 🙂

    1. Victoria says:

      Irene, you’re welcome. I’m going to be talking about dialog next week. I know technically it’s an action, but it’s such a very specialized action I list it independently of physical movement.

      Internal conflict is shown through all three aspects of scene, making it both broader and more subtle than external conflict. I love the way external conflict communicates internal conflict. That’s one of the wonderful complexities of this craft.

  5. Ben says:

    It seems to me that action is one of the facets of the writing craft that’s often neglected in how-to books and advice columns. You can find metric tons of information about dialog and description, but relatively little about action. I think a lot of people take it for granted. After all, action is just describing what people do, right? I think that’s the reason you spend so much time teaching people how to craft action scenes. There’s not enough information out there about it. I vote that you revisit action in the near future and teach us how it’s done right!

    1. Victoria says:

      Thanks for the vote, Ben!

      It’s true: action isn’t talked about the way description and dialog are. That’s because so few teachers and mentors these days understand it. All you have to do is compare an action scene from a cheap 1940s paperback to an action scene from a contemporary mass market best seller to see that the craft of action scenes has been sadly neglected in the years since editing became a minor issue to publishers.

      I do talk in-depth about how to construct action scenes in the lab and The Art & Craft of Fiction. I’ll also be writing more chapters on it for The Art & Craft of Prose, scheduled to come out next year, most of which will appear in the lab first.

      There are examples of how I edit action scenes in the Free Edits, too.

      It’s all about focus.

  6. Jeffrey Russell says:

    This is a good post, Victoria. I’d been waiting for it. Shame I didn’t notice until just now that it’s here. I must have looked at the headline too quickly the last few days, without noticing it was the new post on ACTION. I’d thought it was still last week’s post on DESCRIPTION.

    There’s a lesson in there somewhere – which I need to learn!

    1. Victoria says:

      We’re doing all three. . .stay tuned for dialog next.

      You’ve got some tricky action in some of your scenes because you’ve got multiple characters interacting at the same time. Remember the chapter on “Entangling Characters” in Art & Craft? That’s what you did in Ellie’s big scene: you gave the scene to her and let her do her stuff, even though it’s not her POV. That wonderful focus is why it turned out to be such an intensely powerful scene.

  7. Carol Riggs says:

    I popped over here from a Tweet–this is great stuff! It inspires me to want to write action scenes that makes the “hairs stand up thrillingly.” 🙂

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