Writing Physical Action

Writing physical action in stories—how do we do this? When you’re writing, you write multiple kinds of sentences—narrative, dialogue, description (when it comes to the setting and the environment), but also physical action. How much of this action should you include? When and how often should you include it? Why should you even include it?

Let’s address the ‘why’ first. Our characters are physical beings—they may not be human, and sometimes they may be supernatural, but they still possess the ability to move and interact with their environment and others around them. This interaction then moves the story onward, but it also reveals something about each character. Their mere action can add immediate depth to their personality.

When should this action be insert into a story? Well, my question to you would be: when does the character move? I’m not saying you need to record every little physical movement they make, but there are subtle ones which speak volumes of an individual in any situation. For instance, let’s say you have a character who reluctantly committed a crime, and the police as questioning him—not quite realizing he is the criminal—and they ask a specific question that makes him uncomfortable, so he reaching up and rubs the back of his neck as he shrugs and offers an answer. That mere movement says tells us he’s uncomfortable—that there’s something more beneath the surface. Any eagle-eyed detective would zero in on this and try to slowly corner the man into revealing what makes him so uneasy. Further body language such as nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing indicate to anger while increased blinking hints at something they’re trying to keep hidden. Shifting eyes are uneasiness with the situation while sudden stillness in their bodies and eyes deliberately locking with the detectives and calmly answering each question could be an indication of lying. All of these little physical actions build character. You need to determine who your character is and what he’s feeling at that moment. Is he frightened? Angry? Upset? Nonchalant? All of these will have different body language, and when you use these actions in a scene, the reader will pick up on it, probably not completely understand the exact meaning behind the movement, but they know something is up and can come to conclusions.

So, one good place to put these small physical movements is during a conversation. As an experiment, remove the dialogue tag (said, answered, asked, replied, etc) and insert body language because dialogue tags are redundant as I explained in a previous posts (here and here), but the body language captures the personality of the character, and this is vital for a story.

Now just how much of these physical movements should you include? As much as is important to the story. There is a delicate balance—much like any description in a story. I can’t tell you exactly how much or how little to use because you will have to determine that for yourself. There is no magic formula. However, a few things to keep in mind when trying to determine what physical movements you should include:

  1. the main character: their personality, their mood in that moment of the story, their connection to others in the current scene, and anything they may not want revealed.
  2. the other characters in the scene and their connection to one another
  3. the environment (physical setting)
  4. the atmosphere (mood of the setting/characters)

If you think too hard about this, it will seem daunting. Rather, try to imagine it like a scene in a movie. You can visualize it clearly in your head. Everyone moves at all times even if it’s simply narrowing eyes or taking a deep breath or clenching the jaw. Does this mean you should show every movement of all the characters? No. The ‘camera’ (the character through whom we’re viewing the scene) doesn’t focus on all the characters at once. Whomever we’re looking at is whose body language and physical action you should be concerned with. Now, say you’re focusing on one character but there’s another character behind the one you’re focusing on, so you can see both, but you’re not really focusing on the second character. However, that character in the background could wave his arms or silently start mocking behind the back of the first character. This would draw your attention, and you can show it, but it’s up to you whether or not you let the first character become aware of what’s happening behind his back. If you don’t let him know, that’s all right. It’s just a funny instance that reveals to your reader what that other character really thinks of that first character.

Basic things to think of when trying to determine what physical action to use:

  1. Does it reveal something about the character’s personality? (do they experience a flash of anger when they should be unaffected?)
  2. Do the actions arrange the characters in the room in a manner important for the following actions and scenes? (a character may enter a room and begin a conversation with the other character in the room but walk around to the window to look out. Several things could happen. a) the character at the window could be shot by a sniper, b) someone comes dashing into the room announcing there’s an emergency, so both character race out of the room, but the one furtherest from the door is a little further behind. An ambush could befall them, but because that one character a further behind than expected, he might be able to turn the situation on its head…or maybe he’s the one behind the ambush).
  3. Do the actions add and show necessary tension? (two characters agree to meet for a talk, but they don’t trust each other. They enter the room but then walk around each other—orbiting one another. Sometimes this may be obvious, but other times it may be more subtle as in one character going to the bookshelf in the middle of the conversation and pretend to skim over the book titles while engaging in conversation. The other character goes to the bar on the other side of the room and pours himself a drink. The character at the bookshelf then goes to the window, so the character at the bar moves toward the door.)
  4. Does the action add to the flow of the story or slow it down? (adding every single TINY detail will bog down the story whereas adding only the details important to show what the character is feeling in that moment leading up to the next big action pushing it forward.)

Of course there are many other things to keep in mind when writing this, but I can’t think of everything. However, throughout all this, one important fact to remember: this take practice to master. Don’t think about it too much. Don’t over-worry about it. Be aware of it and try to apply what I’ve said. The more you do it, the easier it’ll become for you, so be patient and don’t stress out. You will do well.

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