Friday, February 20, 2015

Action is the Heartbeat of Ficion

by Jean Henry Mead

I once read a magazine article titled, “Action, the Heartbeat of Fiction” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, which I thought was worth discussing. 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. Cozies are exempt, of course, because violence and murder take place offstage. 

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. 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 emotion definitely drives the plot.


Bill Kirton said...

Excellent and succinct advice Jean. It's particularly apt for me at present as I struggle with a particular scene in my WIP. My problem is that the actions concerned aren't directly confrontational or particularly physical - they involve a character gathering information which will affect various relationships and conveying it to others in a domestic situation. I don't despair, though. I know she'll find a way of doing it that satisfies me and (I hope) readers.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Bill. I recall reading an article about confrontation and conflict which said that when there is verbal sparring between characters within a scene, there should always be a "knockout" punch in conclusion.