Posted On August 28, 2009 by Print This Post

Ask an Editor: Two Types of Action

Sherry Weddle writes,

One area I seem to have problems with is passive writing. I have to work to make my first draft more active, and it takes too much time! I’d like to be able to write, not just the exciting, action scenes, but the rest of the story without being passive.

Hi, Sherry, and thanks for your question. This is a common problem in romance because so much emphasis is placed on the characters’ internal states. We all like to read a good, emotional, even angsty story, but all that emotion needs something to anchor it. Pages and pages of “I wonder what he thinks of me” just doesn’t make for a strong narrative. All that emotional analysis is in danger of feeling disconnected, like a free-floating thought bubble, without something to anchor it to the page.

And that anchor is action.

Now, let’s define what we mean by action. There are two ways this term is used, and both are relevant if you want to avoid passive writing.

First, action can refer to action scenes in which a particular activity is the point of the scene. Think about fight scenes, sex scenes, chase scenes, and the like. The activity – fighting, making love, fleeing – is the basis for the entire scene. Remove the activity, and the scene no longer exists.

Do you have enough of these scenes to sustain the book? How many is enough? For romance, the number is probably fewer than for other kinds of genre fiction, but that doesn’t mean that a light touch is best. Err in favor of action, and your book will feel more dynamic. Here’s one tip for figuring out if you have the right blend of action scenes and introspection or emotion. Count them. Yes, sounds simple, doesn’t it? Count them in your manuscript, and count them in a sample of books from the line you’re targeting. If you’re having trouble figuring out where scenes start and end and how to count pieces of scenes, then count pages instead. A rough estimate is okay. After all, you’re not calibrating a nuclear submarine but are just trying to figure out if your book is dynamic enough.

Action scenes are the first type of action. Second, action can refer to movement or activity within another type of scene such as a sequel or a dialogue scene. These are smaller bits of character movement that can ground a scene. Remember the formula for a scene? A scene is composed of

1-  Purposeful character(s)

2-  in motion

3-  against a background.

Action fits into the second prong of the formula. (So does dialogue, but don’t think this is a substitute for real action. It’s not.) Even if the point of the scene is something quiet and contemplative, there still must be motion.

Let’s look at an example. Our heroine Jane Survivor has promised to meet the hero, Detective Rake, at a coffeehouse to discuss some of the details of her sister’s disappearance. But the last time they were together, Rake tried to kiss her, and then she saw him leave in a sportscar driven by a glamorous young girl. Rake’s arm was draped across the back of the girl’s seat, and he toyed with her long hair as he leaned close to talk to her.

Now Jane believes that Rake is, well, a rake. She’s at home, and she’s trying to decide whether to honor her promise to meet Rake for coffee. Is this a date or a business meeting? She has to puzzle it out and decide how to handle herself in advance.

You could have pages of Jane’s thoughts as she sorts through the details. It might even be crucial to the plot that she does exactly this. But how do you make it less like free-floating thought bubbles and more like a scene?

Give her something to do. Put her in motion, but make that motion meaningful. Before you even start writing the scene, brainstorm some activity she can do which would be symbolic of her inner state. Is she running at top speed on the treadmill as a way of burning off some stress and confusion? Is she finely dicing vegetables as a way of getting some control over the details? Is she trying on six different outfits and spending half an hour on hair and makeup, all the while denying that she’s interested in him?

Once you have your symbolic activity selected, the rest should be fairly easy. Just weave the activity into the interior monologue – the “thinking” parts – so that you avoid having pages of free-floating thoughts. Ground those thoughts with action but make sure those actions are made important by their symbolic weight.

I have one final tip for making your pages feel more active: limit exposition. It’s a pace-killer. It’s often necessary to fill in the reader on backstory or to compress narrative by “telling” rather than “showing” minor details. But that doesn’t mean you have the luxury of spinning out long explanations about your research (as Melville did in Moby Dick). Nix the narrative wanderings. Keep your transitions short and tight. Remember that your job is to entertain and to engage the reader’s emotions. 

Any questions? Post them in the comments and we’ll tackle them together. And don’t forget, if there’s a topic you want me to address, send your questions to and you might be featured in a column!

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12 Responses to “Ask an Editor: Two Types of Action”

  1. Theresa –

    I just love this column! Is it wrong that I get as much out of it as our readers? 🙂

    I’m curious as to some of the most effective backdrops for character internals that you’ve encountered in your years as an editor. Were any of them particularly strong or strange?


    Posted by KelseyBrowning | August 28, 2009, 12:00 am
  2. Kelsey,

    No it’s not wrong. I love this site. I keep sending people to this site because of all of the invaluable information. I love that you all keep the information up so we (your readers) can come back to reread something.

    I love the questions and the answers. Sherry thanks for asking the question and Theresa thank you for your in depth answer. I printed it out to read it over and allow it to penetrate. LOL



    Posted by Dyanne | August 28, 2009, 7:04 am
  3. This was great! I have a problem with passive as well at times and trying to fix it can be agonizing :D. Thanks for the great tips. I think it will make the process a little easier for me now. Terisa Wilcox

    Posted by Terisa Wilcox | August 28, 2009, 7:33 am
  4. Hi Theresa! Thanks for another informative post. I seem to be struggling with all the “rules” right now. I’m so paranoid about having too much or too little passive voice. Your formula above will be a big help.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | August 28, 2009, 8:43 am
  5. Great article Theresa! thanks!

    I admit, I did the thought bubbles for quite some time…and then I started really paying attention to how other writers did their dialog/thoughts..and yup, it was with an action going on at the same time….everything from making a pot of tea to pouring cement for a sidewalk. “Put her in motion, but make that motion meaningful.” Now that’s a handy bit of advice! I’ve been putting mine in motion, but not sure it was really more meaningful..something to go back and check on (and revise – again!)

    great article!


    Posted by carrie | August 28, 2009, 8:43 am
  6. Fabulous post! I love how you can simplify what seems like a daunting task. The “Theresa” file is getting fat! May have to start a new one. With categories!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | August 28, 2009, 9:29 am
  7. Thanks for such a really useful post. I do appreciate how you can make such a complex problem (for me at least — I do tend to run off at the mouth) into something that is relatively easy to recognize, which is obviously the first step to fixing it. It’s a wonderful gift.

    Posted by Beppie Harrison | August 28, 2009, 10:01 am
  8. This is my first visit. Thank you for a great post. I’ll be double checking to “make the motion meaningful”. Great advice. Thanks!

    Posted by Jenna Rutland | August 28, 2009, 10:58 am
  9. Great post…always worth hearing words of wisdom. Thanks for the question Sherry. Thanks for the answer, Theresa. Thanks, Romance U!

    Posted by Chris | August 28, 2009, 11:22 am
  10. Wow, Theresa!
    You gave me more easily understandable insight into active writing in this one post than I’ve gotten anywhere else. I should be able to apply your suggestions with confidence.
    I thought if I could write mystery or suspense, and have my characters in physical danger, I’d have a much easier time of avoiding passive writing. Since I don’t write those types of books, I have had problems with getting the inner conflict to be strong enough to carry my scenes. Sure, I can write some scenes where my characters are dealing with car accidents or an injury, and those are easier to write actively, but in the other parts, with none of that type of drama, I have trouble.
    In my critique group we just did a ‘teaching’ on body language, so I’ll be conscious to incorporate more of this type action in my scenes.
    Thanks again, Theresa, and Tracey, Adrienne, and Kelsey for bringing us these experts!

    Posted by Sherry Weddle | August 28, 2009, 12:26 pm
  11. Hi, everyone! Thanks for the comments! And don’t forget to keep the questions coming.

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 28, 2009, 7:12 pm
  12. Thank you so much for the insightful advice.

    Posted by Brenda | August 31, 2009, 12:14 pm

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