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.


Description Slows Down the Story…or Does It?

The common argument is, “Dialogue is quick while description can slow down a story.” Is this true in regards to description? Yes and no. It depends on the type of description. If the description is body language, this can actually give the story a good, steady pace without interrupting the flow. If the description is narrative, there is potential of slowing the story. Let’s break each of these down, but keep in mind that at this time we are not discussing description that sets the scene or describes a character.

Body language is important to add immediate depth to a character, but some writers hesitate employing it. Yes, too much body language has the ability to slow down a scene, but if you use the proper expressions, it can actually add to the action. Take a look at the following examples:

Dialogue tag without body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Dialogue tag with body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked as they ran through the darkened corridors.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said glaring at his friend. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Body language without dialogue tags:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason darted a quick look over his shoulder once more time as he raced through the darkened corridors with William.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William glared at him but then jutted his chin ahead as he kept running. “Of course I’m sure.” He took a sharp right and gestured for Jason to follow. “Now this way!”

Now, all three of these methods are valid ways to write. The first one is the bare minimum. You see what’s said and who’s saying it, but that’s it. It’s pretty fast-paced. The second one has a bit more. You also see what’s said, who said it, and a bit of what they’re doing. In the third one, you see what’s said, and you know who said it based on whose body language is attached to the dialogue. In addition, you get more action because there’s more shown between “Of course I’m sure,” and “Now this way.” Yes, there’s more to read, but did it slow down the action or add to the scene?

You see, the way body language can slow the pace is if you try to show every tiny expression of a character and draw out emotion. For instance, the sentence with Jason could have read like this:

“Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason panted as he darted a quick look over his shoulder while he ran with William. His lungs hurt from running, but his heart pounded in his ears telling not to stop, not to give up. He had to keep going even though he had no idea where William was leading him. Did William really know where they were going? Or was he leading him into a trap? Jason shook his head as these doubts came to mind. William was his friend. He wouldn’t betray him like that.

All right, all that description slowed down the pace. Why? Imagine it unfold like a movie, and these two guys are running down the hall full of fright, and then Jason looks over his shoulder. Suddenly everything is in super-slow motion as all these thoughts and doubts creep into his mind. That’s how it feels to me because in my mind I know in this situation it won’t take William that long to reply to Jason. This happens because narrative description was added to the scene. This is when the character’s thoughts are shown to the reader, and this has the potential to slow down the scene because it takes time to process thoughts.

Should the writing in that paragraph I showed above be avoided? No, not always. It entirely depends on the moment in the story. If it’s a slower scene with a lot of time to contemplate without concern of conversation, then have the character get lost in thought by using narrative description. However, if a character does in the middle of a conversation, the reader may forget what was said before all the thoughts bombarded them, so when the conversation continues, the reader have to backtrack again to refresh their memory. Something like this:

So how do you know Silas?” Chandler raised his brows as he lowered himself into the seat across from Demetrius.

The mention of his old friend caused Demetrius to frown a little. Their history was a long one. Both of them had been orphans and ended up in the same foster family home with several other children. Lots of the children enjoyed teasing and taunting Silas because he wasn’t a big kid but rather scrawny. One day Demetrius made it his personal mission to be Silas’ body guard. The two became fast friends and remained friends even after both of them were adopted into separate families. They ended up going to the same college, but their interests were vastly different. Demetrius enjoyed sports and girls while Silas thrived on intellectual talk and politics.

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change. “I grew up with him.” Demetrius nodded to Chandler.

Now, I don’t know about you, but reading all that description of his past friendship with Silas, I get lost in the past and memories that I forget there was a conversation occurring at this point in the story or what was said to prompt this flashback from Demetrius. I have to pause for half a second to remember the question before moving on. Sometimes I can’t remember, so I have to go back a few paragraphs to find the last piece of dialogue then skip all the description and tie it in with the response to see the flow of the conversation.

Is there a better way to do this? There are two ways you could smooth out the transition. First, you can have the first character yank the second character out of his thoughts and repeat the question. It would look something like this:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

Demetrius?” Chandler snapped his fingers in front of Demetrius’ face, jerking him out of his thoughts. Seeing he had his attention once more, Chandler frowned. “I ask you how you knew Silas, and you go all zoned-out. You all right, man?”

Yeah.” Demetrius nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry, was thinking.”

So how do you know Silas?”

Demetrius shrugged as he reached for his beer. “I grew up with him.”

It’s okay to have your characters get lost in thought and brought back abruptly. That’s realistic and makes them more human, but be careful how often you use this method. It can get tiresome after a few times.

However, another way could be having the character recall the question at the end and then answer it:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

But why was he thinking about Silas now? Demetrius furrowed his brows then looked up at Chandler and recalled how Chandler had asked him how he knew Silas. Nodding, Demetrius reached for his beer on the table. “I grew up with him.”

The key to remember with any description is: Is the placement logical in the sense of timing? Then you need to make sure the transition is smooth. If you, the author, need a reminder as to where the conversation or scene was going before the description detour, your readers might need a similar reminder, and you’d want to weave one in without being too obvious.

So yes, narrative description can slow down a scene, but you can use this to your advantage. At the same time body language can add to the action, but too much body language that includes every little micro-expression might slow down the story. It’s a fine balance and something to keep in the forefront of your mind as you write. However, don’t obsess over it. Trust the story and your own writing ability. Remember, you can always go back and revise.