Most Common Writing Mistakes: Scenes That Focus on What Isn’t Happening

Here’s a little-known secret about stories: they’re about what your characters do.

Okay, so maybe it’s not so little known. I mean, duh, right? Your characters do something, and then they do something else—and, presto, you have a plot! And yet, writers often spend a lot of time describing what their characters aren’t doing. It’s true this allows you to show, by way of contrast, what your characters are doing. If they’re not smiling, they’re probably frowning. Readers aren’t likely to be confused. So what’s the big problem here?

The Problem With Non-Action in a Scene

Take a look at the following sentences:

Mark didn’t look at Shannon.

Shannon didn’t think about Mark while dancing with Geraldo.

Geraldo was surprised chills didn’t run up his spine.

All we know here is what these characters aren’t doing. In essence, we’ve created a vacuum of action. They aren’t doing anything. Or rather, they are doing something, but readers have no idea what that something might be.

When you emphasize non-actions, you aren’t giving readers clues for what they should visualize. If you fail to give them further cues to help them see what the characters are doing, they are left with a great big blank.

The Power of Positive Action in a Scene

When you focus on what your characters are doing, rather than what they’re not, you can paint specific pictures for your readers. Consider these rewritten examples:

Mark kept his gaze on the torn Valentine Shannon handed back to him, so he wouldn’t have to see her dancing with Geraldo.

Shannon sighed ecstatically. What a divine dancer Geraldo was!

Geraldo was surprised how calm he felt.

Focusing on what is happening gives readers’ imaginations something to grab onto. It also fills in that non-action vacuum with further insights into the characters’ emotions, reactions, and purposes.

The Exception: When You Should Choose Non-Actions for a Scene

Although you generally want to focus on what your characters are doing, thinking, or feeling, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Sometimes, what your characters aren’t doing will end up being what is most important.

For instance, you may decide that saying, “Mark didn’t look at Shannon,” speaks volumes more to his state of mind than any positive action on his part. It’s not as visceral, since it doesn’t allow readers to see through Mark’s eyes and visualize whatever he’s looking at in Shannon’s stead. But it’s certainly pithier.

Pairing non-actions with positive actions can often be repetitive. If you say Mark is looking at the torn Valentine, then readers know he can’t possibly be looking at Shannon.

However, sometimes you can get more mileage from your descriptions with a clever pairing. If you want the emphasis to be on Mark’s efforts to avert his eyes—but you also want to give readers something positive to visualize–you can piece the two together:

Mark didn’t look at Shannon dancing with Geraldo. He fingered the ragged edge of the Valentine that she had ripped in two and shoved back in his face.

Bottom line: Keep readers focused on what is happening–except when what’s not happening is legitimately more important to their understanding and experience of your story.

>>Click here to read more posts in the Most Common Writing Mistakes Series.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! When do you think its better to tell what a character isnt doing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Just found your blog recently. As a first time novelist currently revising my second draft, I must say it’s one of the most useful and well written I’ve come across. Thanks for writing all this K.M.!

  2. Interesting post. It’s always helpful to become more consciously aware of what we’re writing.

  3. @Leslie: Thanks for stopping by! So glad you’ve found the blog helpful.

    @Cayman: Absolutely. Art is very much a product of the subconscious, but the more aware we are of what works and what doesn’t, the more purposeful we can be in guiding our subconscious onto the page.

  4. I think the only time I show what *isn’t* happening is when my character(s) have reached a point of indecision… Then, I guess I’m showing what is happening in their thought process.

    Agree with your assessment though. Only show non-action when it clues us in to the mood of the characters and feeds the emotional tone of the story. 🙂 Great, thought-provoking post. Personally, I don’t think I have that problem of having non-action in my WIPs. Usually, they’re a bit too feverish in how much *is* happening!

  5. Once we’re aware of the problem, it’s interesting to realize how often we do it without even realizing it. I still catch myself doing it all the time.

  6. Interesting thing to be aware of. I was just told that I did not include enough description in my work. Now I am also aware of what NOT to spend time describing.
    It also occurs to me that anything I take the time to describe should also have something to do with the story. It should either support or be an actual part of the plot.

  7. NoahDavid Lein says

    The use of non-action is like cayenne pepper – without it, the dish will be lacking; too much of it, you’ll bring your audience to tears.

    I’ve found the best uses of non-action occur when a character is experiencing significant change or loss. It’s best saved for those crucial moments when the character, and the reader, have come to expect something, but it is no longer there.

    “Gerold say good-night, this time to no one, before he prayed to a god that was no longer there.”

    “She entered her home a stranger; children’s footsteps and giggles did not echo from unseen corridors. Not anymore.”

    Great tip and post!

  8. William might object.

    SONNET 130

    My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
    Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
    I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
    And in some perfumes is there more delight
    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
    I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
    That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
    I grant I never saw a goddess go;
    My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

  9. Great pointers and I like how it came together in the last example. I agree there are times that non-action can be stronger than action if used appropriately. Nice post!

  10. @Steve: The old “what’s the point?” question is always a good measuring stick for our descriptions. Why are we choosing to describe certain things? Why are we choosing certain details? How are they influencing the readers’ perception of the story and advancing the plot?

    @Noah: The strength of both your examples is that they *are* showing what the characters are doing. Gerold *is* saying goodnight and praying. The woman *is* entering her home. The “non-action,” as it were, comes from a contrast in details not a lack of action.

    @cafemoi: Well, Shakes *is* a genius. 😉

    @Debbie: Balance, balance, balance. That’s really all writing comes down to.

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  12. Wow, I really needed to read this. I thought back to my own writing realized I use non-actions more than I should, but never realized what I was doing. Thanks for the post! 🙂

  13. @Sarah: Hard to know to stop doing something when you don’t know you’re supposed to stop doing it, isn’t it? :p

  14. *Cough cough.* I need to show this to my husband. Every time I see “tried not to” or “decided not to” I wanna throttle him. XD

  15. As a dinky-dye Australian, I find this simultaneously useful and infuriating.

    We habitually describe things by negative. When a child asks “how long until we get there”, the correct form of reply is “not for awhile” or “not long”. Never respond in the positive, or with detail. It’s not right.

    If one wants an alternative, the acceptable form is diversion. That is the only case in which you may answer positively. “When?” he asks. “Three towns over,” you answer. Even in such instances, it is better to say “Not far”.

    An example of a true-blue introduction.

    “Who’re you? Are you of Irish descent?” asks Stranger.

    Australian nods. “Not O’Sullivan, I’ll tell ya that much.”

    After which Stranger learns Australian’s nickname through overhearing. In the unlikely event he spies Australian’s full name written somewhere, it isn’t without trouble. No! Suppose he spots an expired driver’s licence. He won’t immediately connect it. First, he’ll have to wipe away the grime. Then, he must squint and tilt it just-so into the light. Finally, he must use deduction, since it could be the neighbour’s. (Why, you ask? Indeed.)

    I must’ve been about 17 when I learnt my nan’s name wasn’t ‘Betty’. Grandad was more obvious, ‘Ted’ and ‘Teddy’ are self evident.

  16. This makes so much sense, thank you very much.

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