Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Reported Action Sucks

I was looking at a friend's work and there's a big scene which happens off stage, as it were. It's very dramatic, but by the time the viewpoint character gets onto the scene, the main drama is over and he's left to deal with the aftermath. But first, another character has to tell him what happened.

Oh dear. It just didn't work. The action, even though it was as dramatic as it could be, was rendered completely colourless by coming as a report. It created the same effect as being told a long and complicated story about some friends of your friend. You don't know them, so you're not really that interested and let your mind wander off, however animated your friend is.

You can't afford to let your readers wander off. You want them glued to your writing, living the action along with the characters. So, you've got to get your view point character there, in the thick of it, when it's happening. You're the writer - you can manipulate events to suit your craft.

But sometimes that's impossible. You simply can't get them there at the crucial time. In which case you're going to have to simply cut the scene. Sorry. Summarise the event in the speech as quickly as possible, then concentrate on the reactions of your character. That's where your action is.

NB There is an exception to this, which is the classic detective story where the detective interviews each suspect in turn. In effect, this is one long series of reported actions. The interest comes in the detective - and reader - finding clues and discrepancies. That's the action, not the event.


Liz Harris said...

You've highlighted an incredibly difficult aspect of writing a book, but one in which it's essential to get the correct balance.

It's something I need to be constantly reminded about - it's all too easy to fall into the trap of detailing at great length what's happened off stage, and failing to remember that the reader is quite capable of filling in a few gaps.

Liz x

Sarah Duncan said...

The correct balance in my incredibly humble opinion is 100% on stage, 0% off stage! Well, maybe that's not always true, but it's a good ratio to aim for.