Friday, January 29, 2010

Fiction Action

by Jean Henry Mead

I read a magazine article titled, “Action, the Heartbeat of Fiction” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld that I thought was worth noting. Rosenfeld said, “Action is a dynamic word that calls to mind a director hooting into a megaphone at his actors. It's also the heartbeat of good fiction that keeps readers riveted to the page. Action is comprised of all the elements a reader can 'witness' taking place. From physical movement to spoken dialogue, action transports your readers into your writing and brings your writing to life. Despite all this, many writers have a tendency to shuffle important action ‘offstage,’ relying on pace-dragging narrative summaries and recaps instead.”

The solution to preventing pace-dragging scenes is to write them within a framework. By presenting scenes as though they were happening on a theater stage, all the drama takes place as it happens, not offstage and something for the characters to discuss. Readers remember what happens on stage and can make their own deductions. They needn’t wait for the characters to endlessly discuss what has just taken place.

The scene’s momentum keeps the reader reading and her heart pounding as the action accelerates if the plot situation seems real, particularly when the character is in danger. Instead of characters talking about a past experience, replay the scene in flashback action. By reliving it in living color, the reader can experience it for himself.

Another good way to involve your reader in a scene is to reveal information in dialogue. A good plot reveals new information in each chapter and one of the best ways to deliver the news is to have the characters act it out. Give the narrator a rest. It’s much more powerful to have events happen now than to hear about it later, secondhand.

Character movement is essential in a good scene, whether the protagonist throws a chair through a window in anger, or flicks ashes from a cigarette into his cup. Don’t leave your characters standing around without something to do. Body language is a giveaway when a character’s motives are in question. If a man drops his head when asked if he killed someone, it usually means he’s guilty or knows who committed the crime. If a woman lifts a palm to her chest while denying something, changes are she’s telling the truth.

If your character comes to an important decision or suddenly realizes that he has the answer to a problem, avoid internal monologue as much as possible. The realization will have more impact if it happens in someone else’s presence because it raises the emotional stakes for all concerned, as well as your storyline.

And finally, turn your backstory into frontstory whenever possible or delete it from the plot. Backstory is your character’s past, which you feel needs to be included. It’s usually spooned in as narrative summary instead of dialogue and lacks the elements of scene writing. Because it doesn’t take place in the present, there’s no dialogue or scene setting or action taking place. When that happens, the best part of backstory is casually written off without the slightest hint of emotion. And as I've said before, emotion drives the plot.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, emotion does drive the plot and I am sad to learn your illness will prevent you from posting future articles on this blog. Thank you for your many wonderful contributions and get well soon.

Beth Terrell said...

You nailed it, Jean. As Don Maass says, tension comes from within the character.

We will miss you and your wise words.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, Jean. Keeping a good thought for you,hoping you will be back good as new before long.

Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, blog mates. Your kind words move me to tears.

Bill Kirton said...

All good advice Jean, and succinctly put as ever. I, too, am sorry to hear you're leaving and send lots of get well soon thoughts and wishes.

Chester Campbell said...

Good stuff, Jean, and just what I needed for the writing I'm doing now. It's always good to be reminded of something you know but let slip in the thick of things. To second what others have said, we'll miss you and there'll always be a place for you when you can get back. Take care!