How to Write Your Characters' Actions with Clarity

How to Write Your Characters’ Actions with Clarity

How to Write Your Characters' Actions with ClarityHave you ever tried to watch an old film? Not a digitally remastered edition or a corrected copy, but a genuinely old film, silent and sepia-toned. Some frames are misplaced or backwards. Some aren’t there at all.

You can follow the action well enough, filling in the gaps where they appear—but that doesn’t mean you don’t see the gaps. Maybe the story is interesting, and maybe the cinematography is compelling, but the experience is jerky and abrupt. That’s fine if you’re watching out of historic curiosity, but not so much if you’re trying to engage with the story.

If you’re writing a novel or memoir, this is exactly the reading experience you risk when the action you write is inexact or incomplete.

What Is “Action” in Fiction?

When I talk about action, I don’t just mean fast car chases or massive explosions. I mean any and all action, like the simple act of walking into the kitchen to boil a cup of tea. A story is based upon action big and small, and your readers’ investment in your story has a lot to do with their ability to imagine the action you describe.

But writing action—action that isn’t jerky and inconsistent like an old film, but rather clear and effective—is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it’s one of the greatest challenges faced by authors. As a book editor I see such struggles frequently, and they take on a few different forms.

How to Use Context to Create Clear Actions

Suppose I told you I walked to my computer so I could write this blog article. Simple enough, right? Readers know what walking is. Readers know what a computer is. This act is not difficult to imagine.

But consider this: Where is the computer?

Some people keep their computer in the living room or the kitchen. Some may write at an office or in a coffeehouse. My computer happens to be in my bedroom, and if that’s what I imagined when I wrote that first sentence, then I failed to convey that to my readers. I didn’t provide the necessary context.

Context is the information readers need at any moment to understand your writing in the way you intend. In this instance, our concern is context in the form of setting. Because I didn’t establish the physical location of my computer, readers were left without the information needed to understand the action I described.

But I didn’t just fail to mention where exactly I was walking to. I also didn’t mention where I was walking from. And without basic and necessary details like where I’m starting from and where I’m going, even the very basic action of walking becomes confusing and impossible fully to understand.

In the context of film, imagine frames so faded over time you can no longer see the background. When the picture is incomplete, much of the meaning is inevitably lost.

The depiction of action requires the same details readers would need were they navigating the real world. My computer is in my bedroom. I’m walking to my bedroom from the living room. To reach my bedroom from the living room requires traversing a hallway past the laundry room and the kitchen. When I enter my bedroom, my computer is against the near wall directly to my left. With each new bit of context the action becomes clearer.

How Incomplete Actions Pull Readers From Your Story

Where a lot of authors really struggle is skipping not only the context, but the action itself.

Suppose I’ve walked from the living room to my computer in the bedroom to write this blog. I hear a knock at the front door. Then I open the door and find a package by my feet.

Again, none of the action here is all that complicated. Yet once again, I’ve omitted something: not so much context and setting, but rather the action that enables me to open the front door. I never get up from my computer. I never leave my bedroom. I never walk to the front door. I’m just suddenly there.

Readers are smart. They can infer the action that must have happened in between. But it’s just like the old film: yes, the viewers can and will fill in the gaps, but the effort means they’re never really absorbed in the action. A story with incomplete and missing action—a story that includes missing frames—is a jarring, awkward experience.

How to Craft Clear Transitions and Scene Changes

So you’re watching that old film, and you’ve come upon a sequence that’s actually pretty well-preserved. The frames are complete. The action is clear and easy to follow. And more than that: it’s really, really good.

Then, without warning, you find yourself in the middle of the action-packed climax. What the heck happened? How did you get here? No matter how absorbed you were in the film a moment ago—in fact, especially if you were deeply absorbed a moment ago—you’ve just been thrown right out of your suspension of disbelief.

For an old film, this may be the result of a missing reel. In a novel or memoir, it has more to do with writing like this:

I sat back down at my computer and carried on writing my blog post.

I honked my horn at the car in front of me. “Come on! Move it!”

Now, obviously, my computer is not in my car and I’m not writing my blog post while driving. (Never blog and drive, kids.) After a moment of confusion, readers will realize the intent here is a change of scene.

But that doesn’t make the transition any less abrupt.

So what do we do? We have a few options. We can write or summarize the action in between these two scenes. For example, I can explain that, as soon as I sit down at my computer, I realize I need to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. I get into my car and get stuck in traffic. So now I’m in my car, honking the horn.

Alternately, if writing or summarizing the action in between is tedious—if it doesn’t serve the story—I can instead write a transition. A transition can be pretty simple. It might look like this:

A half hour later, I sat in the driver’s seat honking at the car in front of me.

By adding “a half hour later” and slightly tweaking the sentence, I convey to readers this is a new scene. Because I take the time to do so, the shift from one scene to the next is less abrupt.

Finally, I can utilize a section break—that is, a gap between the sentences, often marked by punctuation (typically, asterisks). Used in moderation, this is a clear designation indicating the end of one scene and the start of another.

3 Rules of Thumb for Clear Action

What can you do to make sure you’re writing effective action? Here are some ideas to keep in mind.

1. Your role as a writer is to guide readers from one moment to the next. Always consider not only where you want them to be, but also how they get there.

2. Setting is fundamental to action. Be sure to define your setting, especially when it changes. Remember: you may see setting and action clearly, but readers can’t if you don’t show them.

3. Whenever there’s a change in place and/or time, it’s critical we see either action, a transition, or a section break.

Don’t forget that even the best, most impressive story in the world will fall short if the frames are missing or the film is incomplete. Be clear in your action and watch your story come to life.

If you’d like to receive a free checklist to guide you toward clearer action in your writing, visit the Writer’s Ally!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you clearly indicated your character’s actions in your current scene? Tell us in the comments!

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About Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick

Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at The Writer's Ally.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Harrison!

  2. Well done Harrison. Excellent reminders for all writers.

  3. I was always worried about putting in too much detail, that I was unnecessarily writing every single movement the characters were making. I think you’ve showed me the middle ground.

    • Finding that middle ground is sometimes one of the most frustrating parts of writing. We worry we’re writing too much, and consequently wind up writing too little–or we worry we’re writing too little, and consequently wind up writing too much. We try to resolve the problem and go in the other direction. The process of finding the right amount is something I call calibration, and through the revision process you ultimately get there.

  4. I think about this constantly while writing that first draft; but until now I never actually analysed how I approach the problem of continuity. Transitions, yes. Section breaks, yes. Cause-and-effect, yes… those are the mechanics.
    But the way I approach it is by visualising the scene. The vision comes first. If you *see* it in your mind’s eye as you write… If you SEE it as it happens you will show it to your reader as you write.
    Is this at all clear?

    • Lyn, it absolutely is. Where I think a lot of writers run into trouble, though, is in assuming–unintentionally, of course–that the reader sees what they see. Consequently the details in their own heads never actually make it onto the page. When I work on novels and memoirs that struggle with underwriting, this is often the reason.

  5. I just experienced this type of correction. While editing, I decided to combine two chapters into one. Therefore, locations and movements had to be adjusted. In one chapter, some of the characters are in a wagon, and later in the other chapter they are outside of the wagon. There’s also spots where someone is standing and with a paragraph from a later chapter they are sitting.
    Besides the standard edit, that particular chapter needed adjustments to continuity as well. I’m glad I spotted the problem, but thanks for pointing it out to others.

  6. Good stuff, Harrison – as I rock in chair on my deck overlooking Medina Lake, in Texas. Thank you. 😎

  7. For rule number 2 I try to do an “establishing shot” so that readers aren’t whiplashed by objects materializing where they’re not expected to exist. That is, I’ll indicate that the character has an efficiency or studio apartment so that it’s not surprising that a character sitting in bed can just take a step or two to the front door.

    If there are unexpected objects in the room, then I make a point of mentioning them from the get-go: “I kept a toaster next to my laptop in my bedroom, that way I could ‘chain eat’ Pop Tarts while blogging…”

    I like scene breaks. I especially like it when publishers mark them with fleurons (symbols) that reinforce the setting of the story. Think bats or gargoyle faces for horror, or unicorns for fantasy, katanas for jidai geki (fantasies in Japan’s historical eras) and so on. If you’re going to self-publish, those could be an extra touch to consider.

  8. Strangely enough, when reading other people’s works I usually have a stunning idea of the setting, even if it’s not fully detailed. My imagination fills in the gaps. (This sometimes becomes jarring or humorous if I make up something contradictory to what the author details later. Sometimes my initial picture is so strong that I continue to imagine it, even after being corrected.)

    However, when I’m writing my own works, this does not apply. I get so frustrated because even though I’ve told myself where the characters are — say, at their church — I cannot fill in the details in my head like that. There are literally blank patches in my imaginative vision, like an old film. I’m not even kidding. Do I need to go through and design every aspect of the building? That is very tedious to me, and I tend to forget where things are even after I’ve written them down. Should I hire a contractor?

    Signed,
    Your Very Lost Friend
    (seriously, I lost myself in a McDonald’s PlayPlace tunnel once)

    • I have this problem as well. It generally doesn’t interfere with my narrative, or make me mix up details, but I can often picture settings much more fully when I’m reading someone else’s vs. writing my own.

      • Faith and Meredith, I sometimes struggle with that myself. Some writers have access to a near endless well of specific detail in setting–a natural gift that can bring any location to life. But we’re all stronger in some areas of writing than others–we all have our weaknesses–and one of the ways to account for *not* having access to that well is to focus on just a small number of clear, specific details. For example, you might note that there’s a tear in the yellow wallpaper on the far wall. This doesn’t convey to readers every single aspect of the room, but it provides enough of a clear visual hook to make the place feel real–for readers for sure, and maybe for you as well.

  9. When will you announce the Freewrite Contest winner?

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