Monday, 28 November 2011

A is for Action

Action is everything for a writer, both in terms of their writing and in what they do.  Action in writing is simply the stuff that happens - it's not necessarily all singing, all exploding, car chases, fights and the like, it can be interior stuff such as realisations or changes in attitude, as well as external actions like going shopping or meeting a friend.  

The sort of action you find in a novel determines the type of novel it is.  Something by Anita Brookner, for example, has very different actions compared to a novel by Dan Brown, but both are full of actions.  

But action in itself doesn't make for interesting reading.  It has to be action with meaning, action that carries change with it.  When you're starting out writing it's often easy to forget this aspect of action.  Characters may be doing lots of things, but they can be staying in the same place, whether it's on a action filled journey that is just one event after another, never moving the story forwards, or a character hanging about thinking things over but never moving on.  

I think it's also one of the reasons people get stuck at about 30,000 words.  The initial burst of energy gets them quite a long way along, but then the action begins to dry up.  Characters and the writing get stuck.  The solution is to move the action along through change.  Raymond Chandler is supposed to have suggested having a dame enter holding a smoking gun, Terry Pratchett suggests a naked woman bursting in brandishing a flaming sword.  Not necessarily advice to be taken literally (especially if you're writing a contemporary rom com) but the point is to change the situation dramatically.

Action is also important in a writer's life.  If you don't DO stuff, then nothing will happen.  Doing means writing, then putting the writing out there (if being read by others is what you want).  Even if you're famous you've got to make some effort  (a celebrity once came to one of my novel writing classes, complete with an agent and a publisher, but was stuck at doing the writing - several years later, there's still no sign of a novel).  

Do it, without fretting too much about the end result.  Do it, get it done, and then fret - but do it first.  As Goethe said, 'Action has magic and power in it.'


JO said...

I think 'doing' also means having a life outside writing. Spending time with friends, family, gardening, walking, cooking - anything that fills our heads and makes us feel good. (I accept that my travelling is a rather extreme example.)

Writing is wonderful, but if we don't have other things in our lives, then we are reliant solely on our imaginations - and they need feeding by non-writerly things sometimes.

Dan Purdue said...

Glad I'm not the only one that found the first-third 'bump' a hard one to get over.

Action is one of those things that takes a while to learn to use. I'm probably quite typical of newer writers, who started off writing ping-pong dialogue, then discovered how much more natural it seemed when the characters performed actions between the lines of dialogue. That way, more description of the scene can be woven in, through the characters interacting with their surroundings.

Finally, the penny drops that these actions can be far more than just filler to break up a long exchange between characters. Those little gestures can replace lines of dialogue, and/or reveal thoughts that would be very hard to get across to the reader in a natural way.

And now I'll take your advice and actually DO some writing today...

Sarah Duncan said...

Jo - oh yes, one's got to have a life. I think that's why sometimes younger people find it harder to write, or write fantasy, because they haven't yet had that many life experiences. And for older writers, if you don't relax and do other stuff, the well of creativity tends to run dry.

Dan - yes! yes! I spend a lot of time trying to persuade people to do the stuff between the dialogue. Then, as you say, the penny drops and they're off. Have fun with the doing today.

Penny said...

Thanks for this, Sarah!
I love the 'action has magic and power in it' quote, because, yes, it can feel wonderful to be caught up in writing an action scene. My first NaNo attempt consisted almost entirely of such :-). So it's got to be Timely Advice to add emotion, change, or other involvement for the sake of your readers!

Sarah Duncan said...

Penny, hope Nano has gone well for you this year and you've got lots of action and emotion in your writing.

Philip C James said...

Sarah, now that you're up to 'C' in the alphabet, it's probably cruel to point out the Blog as a whole would read better on the screen if you'd started with 'Z' and ended on 'A'.

So I won't.

Or did you intend it to be appear in reverse alphabetical order?

Sarah Duncan said...

Tsk, Phil, you've spotted the flaw in my brilliant plan. But I don't think I could do it backwards, it would feel all wrong.