Updated: Jul 4, 2020
Series A Contents:
Introduction to the Levels of 'Show
Components of Narrative Storytelling
Narrative Type Part 1: Dialogue
Narrative Type Part 2: Dramatic Action
Narrative Type Part 3: Exposition
Narrative Type Part 4: Pacing & Rhythm
Continuing our discussion on Narrative Type, we now get to narrative action. And today I am feeling Homer-esque, so you get plenty of GIFs to help you understand.
Narrative Action is ...well... action. Characters doing things, moving the plot. It doesn't always have to be characters—objects, settings, weather, and more can also do things. Dramatic action can all be boiled down to happenings.
But as the name suggests it should be interesting. That's just good writing. We don't want to read about things that don't matter or are boring and not dramatic.
Dramatic action involves things as menial as a smile or as exciting as a sword fight. To be honest, most writers have this narrative type down. The one thing that many writers forget to do is return to it.
And this is an immediate scene problem.
Dramatic Action in Immediate Scene
The key to Showing through immediate scene is to keep us in it for as long as possible. The biggest problem I see in immediate scene is writers veering off into long info-dumps of description or narrative summary, or tangents of exposition that take readers out of the story completely.
You must keep the action coming, otherwise, readers will forget the image you were trying to make for them. Or worse still, lose interest in the narrative and put the book down. You do not want to let the reader's mind drift very far from the action. That is another reason to use dramatic action to drive your dialogue rather than dialogue tags, but we need to be doing the same thing when there is no dialogue as well.
I won't leave an example for this, because I think you can all figure out how to keep the action going in your own stories. But I will leave you with two rules of thumb (thumbs?).
1. Try not to go more than 100 words without returning to the action (the less the better).
2. Make sure your plot is always moving forward. Dramatic action that holds no bearing on the plot it worse than none at all.
The second problem I find with dramatic action and immediate scene is something I have coined perforated action.
Perforated Action is when you create an image for the reader through action and then add details later that force the reader to go back and change that image.
Here are a few examples of perforated action.
Paul inserted his key card and walked through the door, running his sweaty palms over his hair, he took out the elastic holding it back to fuss it about.
.... story goes on....
....Shirley came in a few moments after he was done his morning tests. "Paul, your hair is tied back today. Looks good up."
This is a subtle example, but the first line creates on image of him with his hair down. Later, when the Shirley describes his hair, the reader is forced to change that image. And it is jarring.
Some writer's realize this and add lines after to try and remedy, such as this:
..."Paul, your hair is tied back today. Looks good up," she said. He had tied it back up after it was suitably dried from that morning's run.
It may seem like this helps but it really doesn't. Your reader will still need to adjust the image to follow along with the new information. Not to mention it is a passage of narrative summary that really isn't necessary.
This happens all the time in stories, especially with how readers view characters, and we will talk about it a little more in a minute with Dramatic Action in Description. However, it happens a-plenty in big action scenes as well.
The beaker exploded, sending acid and shards of glass into Shirley's face. She screamed an awful high-pitched noise that trailed off into a pained gurgle. Paul ran for the emergency kit at the other end of the room, by the time he had made it back to Shirley, she had managed to pull herself off the floor and was blindly feeling her way toward the door.
Did you catch it?
The perforated action happens with the words "she had managed to pull herself off the floor."
Now, if the image you got of Shirley after being pelted with glass and acid, was her falling to the floor screaming, you might not have noticed a problem at all. But for the many readers who imagined something else, her suddenly pulling herself up may have made them rewind and try again.
Granted, in a little passage like this one, the missing action might not phase you, but in important action that spans many paragraphs or pages, the hole will be VERY noticeable.
In a book I recently edited, there was a character who was described as a tall, handsome, German man, with striking grey eyes. Now, I immediately thought of him as a blond. If in the next few paragraphs or even pages, I had found out differently, it might not have been such a big issue. However, near the very end of the book, I was suddenly hit with the fact that he had black hair! I had a very hard time reconciling this with the image I had already made of him.
This example is more a description issue than an action issue, which we will get into more maybe in another post. But the idea is the same. The longer you let a reader's image of what happened linger, the worse it will be when they need to change that image.
Watch out for fight scenes, and high action. Passages that are fast-paced need to be thought out carefully. Holes in your action can really slow it down for a reader and make the whole thing confusing. When you are writing them, you should be planning well ahead of time. Make your version of a film storyboard beforehand to help fine-tune the details.
Dramatic Action in Narrative Summary
Dramatic action in narrative summary can basically be anything the discusses past action that happened before the immediate scene.
Let's break that down.
As we know, narrative summary is the summation of things that have happened offstage.
He had wrapped the cookies in a cloth and left for the train. He opened them and screwed up his face when he saw them covered in white lint from the dryer.
The first sentence is action in narrative summary. Simple.
Now, there are a few things to remember when writing action in narrative summary.
1. Don't let correct grammar bog down your sentences with too many had's. All editors regularly come across sentences like these and cringe:
He had placed it on the table but had to leave before he had had the chance to eat it.
Had only needs to be in a sentence once to set up the past perfect, then get rid of the rest where possible. Even if it sometimes breaks the strictest of grammatical rules.
The above sentence should read something like:
He had placed it on the table then left before getting the chance to eat it.
Had and Was are some of the most repeated words in English fiction. And YES, they are noticed by readers, even if they don't realize what it is that is putting them off.
Of course, not all narrative summary is dramatic action. But it is a good idea to tell your narrative summary through dramatic action as much as possible, even when you don't need too. Then it will not feel as much like a summary. It goes back to creating an image, and we need something to base that image on.
For instance, if you are explaining the history of your world, give us a character to see while you do it, or something equally vivid to bring it to life. Instead of:
The building was erected by one million slaves.
Gord the Great lashed the flesh off one million slaves to erect this house of horrors.
The action there being "lashed the flesh."
Dramatic Action in Description
While the things described above apply to all the components of fiction, there are a few specific techniques I would like to talk about when it comes to describing through dramatic action.
Particularly with characters, description can and should almost always be done through dramatic action. This is the heart of characterization. Characterization is how you reveal your character's personality, physical and psychological traits, and emotions.
Working on a developmental edit for one novel, I found the protagonist to be a little bland. The author and I spent some time discussing who the character was, imagining him walking into the room, having a conversation with him. We discovered that the character was always thinking too much, almost like he had ADD, his brain was moving fast and his body (particularly his mouth) couldn't catch up. We then found specific actions at every opportunity to show this trait. When he left a room, he would walk one direction before turning around to the go the other way, he would say things he would immediately regret. He would forget things and need to go back for them...etc.
These are called character markers. Actions that signify to the reader what kind of person your character is without ever having to tell us.
(This example of Homer is one of the most well-known character markers out there.)
Traditional Show v. Tell advice talks about not describing your character's emotions with words like sad, angry, frustrated. This is the level of show that they are talking about. Almost all descriptions of character's emotional states can be told through the use of dramatic action in the form of emotional markers. Things that your readers will be able to readily recognize as signifying a certain emotion.
However, this presents us with a new problem. Sometimes, NOT using the direct terms for emotions is STILL telling. "He smiled," is still a telling statement. In my opinion, it is just as bad as saying, "He was/looked happy." Partly because the term is so overused, but also because it doesn't evoke any image different than the other, at least not significantly enough to matter.
An important part of showing on this level is to be unique and different, and create something that your readers will notice, and add to the image, rather than disregard it as just another word. Overused/weak descriptions are like fillers to your reader. Like "said," they read them to get the point, but it wouldn't change the image in their head if it were gone.
Sometimes "he/she said" IS the perfect term to aid the image you are trying to create, but please let it be a purposeful choice made because it is the best phrase to use, not because you are too lazy to try harder. Read the post Don't be a Dick: Get a Dictionary to learn more about this issue.
I'm going to end this one here. I have the flu and can't think straight, but I wanted to finally get this post out anyway. Forgive me, if I wake up tomorrow and it turns out all the great stuff I wrote is actually an incoherent jumble of keyboard mashed potatoes.
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