Monday, 4 April 2016

Notes on How to Write Action

Greetings from the writing cave as I plod my way to a May deadline. Before we begin, may I just say this: AAAAAAARGH!

That's better.

So how do you feel about writing action? Not just the fun action like battles and fight scenes a la Jackie Chan  but all the movement that happens in a story. Characters DOING things. Getting from one place to another. Or when a character is building something, like a rocket or a time machine. Or when your character is living out his dull life and time is passing so that you can get to the part where story kicks in.

As I soldier on with my current work in progress, I constantly ask myself, why am I writing it this way? Is there a better way to get my character from A to B?

Screenshot of my Scrivener notes
I've been jotting down my thoughts on action in the Project Notes section of Scrivener (don't you love Scrivener?). I thought I'd share a beefed up version of these notes here.

How you lay down your action should reflect the overall tone of your novel. 

I read lots of books as I write, hoping that a brilliant line here, a fascinating twist there will spark the same in my writing.

Two books I've been dipping into a lot are Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moon's - books that are extremely different from each other.

I am not looking at the stories (though they are great), I am looking at the way Gaiman and Creech are moving their scenes along.

Gaiman does so deliberately (I almost said slowly). A character fills a bowl with porridge. She pours cream on it. The boy swishes it around. He eats. It tastes perfect.

Creech moves her character with dialogue, movement, noise. Unlike Gaiman, we fly from scene to scene, the grandparents cry 'Huzza, huzza!', and our heroine hears whispers, 'hurry, rush, hurry'.

I read Gaiman to remind me to pay attention to detail, to be in the moment and stop myself reporting the story. I read Creech because it's perfectly pitched middle grade. The way the story hurtles along mirrors the road trip that forms the backbone of the story, as well as the child characters who snap and bristle and chatter the narrative along.

Choreograph the action, then make the words work.

Too many words can suck the thrill out of action.

Watching an action sequence on screen is not the same as reading about it. The first time I write an action sequence it sounds something like 'And then this happened, and that happened, and this happened.'


But laying down the words is important because you've got to get your choreography right first. Once choreographed, you can edit the words for impact.

Action is about expectation and pay off, cause and effect

When you're working with words, you haven't got the advantage of a moving camera that can hide and reveal surprises.

So generating thrill and surprise will not happen with merely describing an action. It happens because of reader expectation and your story's fulfilment/disappointment of that expectation.

In the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, we follow Katniss Everdeen with our hearts in our mouths because Collins is constantly setting us up to expect Katniss's failure and death. Although we know she will survive (she must!), we are so anxious, her every victory is a delicious thrill.

Seeing a scene from an unwary character's point of view and internal dialogue will have the same effect. For example in Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie by Jeff Norton, Adam is blithely unaware that he has turned into a zombie. He doesn't feel dead, he's still pathologically afraid of germs, and he's concerned about missing three season finales. Then his Mom leads him to a mirror.

Every action must deepen character or advance the plot.

At creative writing talks, I often use the Pixar movie Finding Nemo to illustrate this. There are no random events in Finding Nemo. Every scene has a purpose.

Dory and Marlin defeat the Angler Fish to get the goggles that have the address where they can find Nemo. Dory and Marlin joust with Bruce the Shark because we need a scene that establishes that scaredy Marlin can cope with a big adventure. The scene with the jellyfish is designed to signal the moment when Marlin realises he cares for Dory.

But this is tougher than it sounds especially if you're a pantser, and are figuring your plot out as you go along. Should your character stop and cook lunch? Isn't it unbelievable that your character never goes to the bathroom? Isn't it important to show the character on the bus if he's commuting to the next scene?

If the story was on a stage, the author would be in charge of the spotlight

But how do you decide what bit of action you write and what you don't?

Think of yourself as the guy in charge of the spotlight in a theatre. The story is a mass of action and character on the stage. As the person in charge of the spotlight, you decide which bits of the unfolding story the audience gets to see. So. Which part of the stage would you shine that light on?

A heartbeat is not a regular pattern

I don't think I have to tell ya that a story must have a heartbeat.

But have you ever looked at the jaggedy pattern of a heartbeat? It stabs high then stabs low then it's high again. For a story to hold its audience, the rise and fall of action must vary. A story in which every event has a saminess in the level of excitement and reward is a boring book.

When in doubt, write it ... but don't get too attached to it. 

Unsure whether a scene should be included or not? Write it anyway. Sometimes you might be tempted to write a scene because 'Wouldn't it be cool if...' -- Even though that scene does not further your story. I write those scenes down as well. It will not do any harm. In fact, the scene might come useful later on in the plot (or in another book).  Sometimes these extra scenes develop and morph into something significant in the plot.

At the start of a piece of writing, you are creating your world, and you need every piece of information.

Once you've drawn your landscape (as in written the whole novel), the weeds become fairly obvious. The important thing is this: you must not love your words so much that you cannot let them go. You must, must, must give yourself permission to dump scenes that are not useful to your story.

Learn to cut like a movie editor.

Cinema is a concise medium - with only two hours or so to tell a story, there is no time to show your character tying his shoes, or spend a year falling in or out of love.

For children's writers like me, especially, the comparison with cinema is relevant. We do not have the luxury of excess wordage.

Mind you, the Hollywood montage with the cheesy background music is so overused, it's almost a signal to take a toilet break before the real action begins. But pay attention to the way film cuts from scene to scene, eliminating what author Lee Weatherly (latest book: Broken Sky) calls 'domestic detail'.

The Jump Cut - in which there is an abrupt transition from one scene to another.

The Cutaway - in which you interrupt a continuous scene with a scene elsewhere, then return to the original scene.

Parallel-editing cut - Showing things happening in parallel this way creates tension and excitement and all sorts of opportunities for the reader to compare and contrast.

The Match Cut - in which you cut from one image to a similar looking image in another context. I've done this in writing terms, ending a chapter with a word and starting the next chapter with the same word.

Well those are my notes so far, and that is all the time I have for this blog post. I'm going back into the cave now. Wish me luck! You might also want to read my blog post The Ordinary World is about Context not Setting here

PROUD SLUSHPILE MOMENT! Warm congratuations to Notes from the Slushpile blogger Jo Wyton on the birth of Henry on 26 March. Not content with that considerable feat, Jo has also been longlisted for the Times Chickenhouse Children's Fiction Competition for her novel The Invention of Colour. Huzzah!


  1. Thanks Candy - useful and thought provoking. The message to me here is - get on with your first draft and worry about the detail later.

    1. I once read a blog post by Scott Westerfeld (Uglies) in which (I paraphrase) he says: yes, it's okay to change your mind and write a scene in a completely different way.

      We are serving our stories not our egos!

  2. great job Candy, I especially loved your examples of Neil Gaiman and Sharon Creech and how you use their texts as a writer to see how they handle action and stay in the scene . Thanks. Lucy.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Lucy!

  3. Candy this is brilliant. Brilliant.

  4. So useful as I do another..possibly final edit of my book. Thank you, Francesca

  5. Um, how long did this take you?? This is GENIUS.

    1. Heh thanks. I did have the notes already in my Scrivener t turn into the blog post when I realised that it was Monday.

  6. Thanks Candy, great notes!
    Hoiking out Sharon Creech now.

    1. Walk Two Moons is one of my favourite books to read over and over again.

  7. Thanks, Candy. Good luck in your cave. And huge congratulations to Jo -on both counts.

    1. The cave is too noisy. I wish Jo lived nearby so that I can hold the baby.

    2. I'm sure we'll make it down to London before too long!

  8. Funny how we do things instinctively and realise later that there's a name for it. Parallel-editing cut - who knew? Great post, shows how much integrated thought is needed to birth something from the turgid 'this happens and then that happens'.

  9. Interesting advice Candy, thanks. I would never normally write a scene that I didn't think was going to make the final edit, but maybe I'll try it. After all, even scenes that I thought would be integral have been slashed out later on!


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