When Not to Show the Action in a Story

Action is given a lot of emphasis these days. It can manifest differently according to the needs of genre and the individual story, but the necessity for it never changes. However, within all this emphasis put upon showing action instead of telling it, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are moments when our stories will actually be better off not including or showing the action.

And so you ask, “What are these moments?”

To be honest, they’re a little hard to pin down, since the context will depend on the rhythm and the requirements of the individual story. Generally though, what we’re talking about here are scenes in which the action actually ends up being tedious instead of thrilling—simply because readers want to be somewhere else. They know something good is coming up, and they’d much rather focus on that, rather than the lengthy action required for the characters to battle through the courtyard to finally get to that showdown with the evil king.

As an example, consider Jim Butcher’s fantasy Academ’s Fury, in which he demonstrates a keen sensibility for when to show the action and when not to. In general, this is an extremely action-packed book. But there’s a notable exception late in the Second Act. Here, we find the hero breaking into a prison to free a friend so they can both get back to the main conflict.

Butcher shows the action, the conflict, and the tension as the character is breaking into the prison. But when it comes time to sneak back out, Butcher obviously realized readers aren’t going to be nearly as interested in retreading the same action—perilous and exciting though it may be. What readers want is to get back to the relational conflict back at the base. And that is exactly what Butcher offers by neatly skipping back to the good stuff. It’s an example we can all learn from.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! When you do feel action is better not being shown? 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. This was terrific, and timely, and put into succinct explanation something I can sometimes tell and feel in my writing and sometimes cannot. You’ve added clear reason to my spotty intuition on how much action.

    Thanks, keep ’em coming!

  2. So, essentially, no “random encounters” should make it into the book.

  3. @John: Nothing is more valuable to a writer than his intuition, but it’s always helpful to understand *why* we intuit things. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    @Adam: Definitely!

  4. Is the answer “when what happens is supposed to remain ambiguous” (think “A Passage to India”) too obvious?

    I think a point always to be made is to think in terms of story: action, rest, dialogue, narration/description — it all needs to move the story forward. What are you trying to say? Why are you trying to say it? What (and why) do you want us to feel? If it doesn’t move any of those things forward, it’s useless. It’s when we confuse plot with story that we begin to think all action is good, as long as all the action moves the plot forward. To use your example, yes, the characters had to escape the prison as well as invade it. But it didn’t serve the story for us to see it.

  5. Exactly. The point about “what do you want readers to feel” is an especially valid one. If the only thing you want them to feel in an action scene is a general sense of excitement, that’s not good enough. If the scene is going to matter to the readers, it first has to matter to the characters on a plot- and theme-deep level.

  6. I find if I am bored with an action scene my readers will be bored also.

  7. This is from a movie, but in The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, there’s a point early on when the two lead characters have got into a situation where they’re going to have to duel. They’re both military men, honour has been offended, and the only way to settle it is with swords. The tension builds up, the rivals and their seconds gather in a gymnasium at night in the middle of a snowstorm, then just as the duel begins the camera sweeps up and up and leaves the room – and we cut to the aftermath. It works brilliantly in the context of the story, though this was written and directed by Powell and Pressburger, who always knew exactly what they were doing.

  8. @thebigguy: Always a good rule of thumb – for any type of scene.

    @Dave: Haven’t seen the movie, but I gonna have to, just because the title is so great!

  9. KM,
    Good insights here. The reader needs a break from non-stop action to process events and the writer needs to be aware of when to slow down. What we’re really talking about is pacing. I like your comment about the reader wanting to be somewhere else. Writers need to realize when that is the case. Thanks for a great post.

  10. It’s always a good idea to stay in touch with our own feelings about scenes. If we’re bored as we write them, chances are good are readers will be bored too. But there *will* be scenes we love writing that wouldn’t wow us if we were objectively reading them. Those are always harder to identify.

  11. There’s so many reminders to ‘show, not tell’ but sometimes I don’t do either. If the results of an action are obvious and the transition is smooth, readers aren’t stupid… they’ll figure out what happened.

  12. “Telling” (or, as I prefer to call it, “summarizing”) absolutely has a valid place in fiction. Stories simply wouldn’t work without it.

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