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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.