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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Different Kinds of Outlines

Outlines–you’ve probably heard of them but keep getting mixed messages, “They’re great!” “They’re okay.” “I never use them.” “I never stick to the outline.” You don’t know what to think of them, so let’s break it down.

In school you learned the traditional outline for an essay:

I)

    A)

         a)

         b)

    B)

    C)

II)

And so forth.

In writing, there are several ways to do an outline. The first one is the Skeleton Outline, which is very similar to the essay outline—just without the ‘I)’ ‘A)’ and ‘a)’. Here is an example from a random, time travel story I wrote just for fun, and the character ‘Elf’ is not an elf but an ELF—Energy Life Form. He is pure energy with a wicked sense of humor and can ‘possess’ objects making them come alive as long as he’s inside them.

Late that night, the city sleeps (here we introduce the setting)

       Weston mutters in his sleep (important details of what happens)

       A breeze flutters the drapes

       Weston awakes to the horror of Elf, who threatens him

       Elf disappears, leaving a very disturbed Weston

Elf returns to Sindric and reports (new scene)

       Sindric is pleased (what happens in scene)

       Sindric turns back to Helen’s letter

You can recognize the essay format. This is the barest of all outlines. It introduces the scene, then lists the basic details of what happens in the scene. Usually no dialogue is listed unless it absolutely important.

The next form of outlines is the Block Outline. This one contains much more detail and differs greatly from the Skeleton Outline. Here’s an example using the same scene from above:

<~>~<~>~<~>

Later that night when all is sleeping, a draft disturbs the drapes in Weston’s room. He mumbles in his sleep something about stubborn horses and not enough to drink. Breeze comes into the room. Weston ignores it and tries to sleep, but then he suddenly senses the presence of something in the room. He quickly wakes and is startled by the glowing wraith of Elf. Weston tries to get away, but Elf flies into his face. He warns him about betraying countries, etc. When Elf is certain Weston is too scared for the night, only then does he vanish with a wicked laugh he picked up from a movie before everything went bad. Candles blow out. Terrified, Weston doesn’t know if it was a dream or not.

Still giggling at himself, Elf flies through the empty streets and slips into Sindric’s window. Sindric is waiting for him. Elf announces his success and declares he should do that more often; it was fun! Sindric is amused but returns to his conversation with Helen on the paper.

<~>~<~>~<~>

Each paragraph is a scene, and it contains as much detail as you want to remember. It can include specific dialogue if you have anything in mind. This form of outline is a great way to get all the details out of your head and not rely on your memory to remember them.

As you can see, these paragraphs are blocks, and the paragraphs can get long—sometimes taking up an entire page. No indentations at the beginning of them, and that is done purposely because you want a clear distinction between the outline and the story. These outlines can look as daunting, messed up, and overwhelming as you would like because no one else will ever see it.

This is also always written in third person present tense. When written this way, the voice is very telling and not showing. This form of outline can be so thorough, you may feel that you’ve invested all the energy required for the scene, but if you purposely have the voice telling, you know you’re not finished with the story yet. You need to convert it from telling to showing.

Here is the scene I wrote based on that outline:

<~>~<~>~<~>

Once everyone retired to their respective chambers, Weston crawled into bed unable to hinder the content smile on his face. Everything was falling into place. It would be perfect, and thus he drifted off to sleep with such ideal thoughts.

A night phantom breeze breathed into the room, twisting the drapes into a ghostly figure before slipping further into the room. Its touch ruffled the feathers on his blanket and stirred pages of open books.

Weston mumbled something in his sleep, “Stubborn horses…” He murmured some more, “Didn’t get enough to drink…” He then turned onto his side, tugging the blanket closer to his chin. A lurking thought latched onto his mind, but the knight dismissed it. He tried to slip back into a deeper sleep, but his trained body sensed what his mind had yet to comprehend.

Weston’s eyes shot open.

“Hello,” Elf’s glowing face greeted him.

“AH!” Weston leapt back as far as he could while lying flat on his bed.

A wicked grin claimed Elf’s face, revealing all his pointy teeth. The ELF flew into his face and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “Now listen here, buddy, and listen close. We all know you’re just a good-for-nothing stupid knight wanna-be, whose got less skill than a 4-year-old. We know your plans, and you will NEVER succeed. Do ya hear?” Elf demanded, bringing his bright glowing face centimeters away from Weston’s death pale features. “Well, do ya?”

Unable to form any coherent words, Weston stuttered and stumbled over his words, nodding fast. “Y-y-yes!”

“And if I even catch you even attempting to carry out your plan, I shall summon all great and evil spirits from the afterlife, and we will torment your mind so much, you will wish for death! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

“Y-y-yes!”

“Yes what?” Elf growled.

“Sir?” Weston’s voice cracked under the strain of the single word.

Elf smiled with evil smirk and backed off. “Very good,” he nodded still hovering in the air. “Remember that.” With that, he spun around ready to dart out of the window, but Weston stopped him.

“W-w-wait!” the knight gulped when the night terror turned back to him. Managing to find his voice and gather his courage, Weston asked, “W-what are you?”

The smile returned but this time cold and unforgiving. “Your worst nightmare.” Candles blew out with a gust of wind, and Elf flew away faster than an falcon with wicked laughter in his wake.

 

“BWHAHAHA! I always wanted to say that!” Elf exclaimed as he came to a landing on the windowsill of Sindric’s room where the Scriptor waited.

“Say what?” Sindric opened the window to allow the ELF in.

Adopting the same voice he used to scare Weston witless, Elf demonstrated, “I am your worst nightmare. BWHAHAHAHA!”

Sindric looked at him with furrowed brows. “Did you really laugh like that?”

“Well, of course!” Elf sounded offended. “You can’t possibly be a good bad guy without the evil villain laugh. BWHAHAHAHA!”

“I see,” the words crawled out of Sindric mouth before he decided not to bother trying to understand Elf’s strange perspective. He focused on the task at hand and folded his arms across his chest. “How did it go?” the Scriptor inquired of their mission.

“Perfectly smooth!” Elf slid his palms together to illuminate just how smooth he meant. “If he does anything after this, then he’s denser than a hardheaded rock!”

Sindric decided to let the comment slide. He turned to his desk, unfolding his arms as he approached. Papers spread across the surface in a loose order, but that did not concern Sindric. He sifted through the paperwork before singling out a specific paper. Holding it up, he scanned it over and smiled. His plan was in motion.

<~>~<~>~<~>

So you see, the scene is much more alive now that it was fleshed out. With the outlines, we merely had a body, but when you write the actual scene, you breath life into that body, and it takes on a life of its own.

Are outlines necessary? I mean, do I have to use one when I write a story?” Of course not. I both use and don’t used them. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I find when I don’t use an outline, I don’t finish the story about 80% of the time, but then there are times when I don’t have an outline, and the story just takes off, and all I can do is hang on for dear life.

“Do I have to use these forms of outlines?” No. If you have a style that works for you, do that. I’ve seen many writers stress out over outlining because they don’t know how to do it, so these ideas are merely examples of how it can be done. If it doesn’t work for you, find out why it doesn’t work, and tweak it to work for you if you intend to use an outline when writing. 

Note: When co-writing though, outlining is important, but we will go into more detail on that when we discuss co-writing.

Next week I will show you another form of outlines useful when writing historical fiction or any kind of writing that requires a lot of dates, and then we’ll get into more details of the pros and cons of outlines.

Overview of the Different Tenses

Let’s examine the different tenses. Next week’s post will show how important tense is especially when handling a flashback, but today, let’s familiarize ourselves with the basics.

Tense can be simple or very, very complex—depends on however you want to make it. Simply put, tense tells us when something was or will be done—past, present or future. There four categories of tenses, and each category has a past, present and future tense. This is where the confusion comes in, so let me just show you:

Tense Categories:

Simple

Progressive

Perfect

Perfect Progressive

Simple Tense:

Past: John tried cooking yesterday

Present: Hannah knows better than to let him cook again.

Future: He will burn the house down next time.

Progressive:

Past: John was taking cooking lessons.

Present: Hannah is trying to convince him that pouring oil on a heated pan is not a good idea.

Future: John will be returning to class.

Perfect:

Past: Hannah had scrubbed the stains off the pan.

Present: John has asked for her not to throw away all the food.

Future: Hannah will have gotten new plates tomorrow.

Progressive Perfect:

Past: John had been trying to become a chef for a long time.

Present: He has been working very hard.

Future: Next week, he will have been taking cooking classes for exactly three years.

Confused or bored? Yeah, so am I. The good news is we’re not going to focus on every category, but let’s summarize:

Progressive uses helping verbs (am, is, are,was, were, will be) attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.
Perfect uses forms of ‘have’ (have, has, had) attached to a verb ending with ‘ed’
Progressive Perfect uses ‘have’ and ‘been’ attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.

In other words, all three of those forms are telling rather than showing because they make the verb passive rather than active. That is why we try to avoid those and work with the simple tense

95% of stories are written in Simple Past Tense. More recently there has been a rise in Simple Present Tense, but it’s still not as popular as past tense. This is because the roots of storytelling go back to oral tradition, and such a tradition began by the boasting of adventures and accomplishments our ancestors did. No one sat around the fire listening to Homer tell what ‘is happening’ to Troy; he told the story as it had happened. Go to any storytelling competition, and see how many stories are told in present tense.

Is writing in present tense wrong?” Not at all. Simply be aware that it is not the most popular or preferred tense in the reading world because it feels unnatural. When I see a book is written in present tense, I often put the book down because I don’t want to know what ‘will’ be happening. I want the story to be finished and completed before I even pick it up. The past tense gives me the reassurance that the events in the story are the past, and the consequences have already been realized.

Now, some people prefer present over past, and that’s all right.

The single pet peeve of any reader (be it your audience, fellow writer, or editor) is shifting tenses within a story. If the story begins in past tense, keep it in past tense. If it starts in present tense, don’t change it to past because you want to.

What about flashbacks? If the story is written in present tense, can’t the flashbacks be written in past tense?” Ah, flashbacks—a complicated creature, but we will discuss that in next week’s post since there is a connection to flashbacks and tenses. 

The Adverse Adverb

An adverb modifies the verb. It is a word that describes how or when something was done–most commonly recognized with the ending ‘ly’ but not always. 

Growing up, I heard the saying, “Don’t use adverbs,” so I avoided them as best I could. It wasn’t until I listened to Stephen King’s audiobook ‘On Writing’ that I finally understood.

Adverbs exist for a purpose. So far, in the two paragraphs above, I’ve used three adverbs—‘commonly’, ‘always’, and ‘finally’. You might ask since this post is about avoiding adverbs, why am I using them? To prove a point. That point is the proper place of adverbs such as conversational blog posts or casual essays. Such easygoing writing styles are informative and bring the reader in by sounding like a friend.

Adverbs have an important role in communication. What I propose today is the role of adverbs in short stories and novels—works of fiction. This is where the rule “Don’t use adverbs” comes into play. The most typical use of adverbs is tied with dialogue. For instance:


You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix said angrily.

Now, I’ve already mentioned the use of ‘said’, but where does that leave the adverb ‘angrily’? After all, it tells us how he spoke. It tells us how he spoke—doesn’t show.

What does it show us about his character? All right, he’s angry, but that doesn’t narrow down anything since everyone gets angry. He could be a hot-headed drunk whose wife just confronted him about his drinking:

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix threw his bottle across the room and ignored when it shattered against the wall.

Or he could be a determined detective in the interrogation room as a difficult suspect twists the truth to probe at the detective’s dark past.

You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Felix narrowed his eyes on the suspect in the center of the room, but he forced himself not to uncross his arms and strangle the man.

Anger is an emotion. Everyone responds to emotions differently. Showing the body language of the character through that emotion solidifies that character in the reader’s mind.

Another common use of adverbs is to describe an action such as: He tiptoed quietly into the room. ‘Tiptoed quietly’ is redundant, so the adverb ‘quietly’ is unnecessary. Have you ever tried to tiptoe loudly?

Is there ever a right time to use adverbs?” Of course. There are always exceptions to the rules, but it depends on the context. Just as it is with ‘telling’, you must know which adverbs you are using and why. If you can’t justify it, and if you can easily take it out and the sentence still gets your message across, then the adverb is unnecessary. However, if it is very important to show how a character did something because it intensifies the scene in simple ways, then leave it. Consider this:

Felix hesitated in the doorway of the hospital room then slowly stepped inside the dark room.

In that sentence, I could have taken out ‘slowly’, and the sentence would read fine. However, leaving it in, places an emphasis on the action and hints at his great reluctance to enter the room because he feels responsible for the patient getting harmed in the first place. When an adverb is the only word that can get the message across clearly and simply, then use it.

How ‘Said’ is Redundant

Professors, authors, and editors say tagging dialogue with ‘said’ is all right because it is an invisible word. Dialogue tags merely there to tell you who said what. That may be true, but that has not been my experience. Instead of being invisible to me, any dialogue tag is a massive billboard screaming at me and yanking me out of the story.

The reason is this: a dialogue tag tells you who said what. Notice, I said, “It tells you who said what”—doesn’t show

Let’s break down a piece of dialogue and dissect it:

Let’s go to the store, John,” Anna said.

Said’ implies someone verbally spoke, but did you know having the dialogue tag is redundant? The quotation marks show me the same thing. So we don’t need to know something was said—we already see that.

As for who said it, ‘Anna said’ tells us Anna did, but what does it show you about Anna? What does it show you about her character? What is she doing right now? Where is she? You might think she’s at the front door in her family’s house with keys in hand and ready to go to Wal-Mart to pick up milk—impatient, average, young American woman. What if I told you Anna and John were actually assassins, and the ‘store’ she’s talking about is a weapons shop in town, and she’s going to pick up more ammo before heading out on a job? That paints a completely different picture, doesn’t it? She might be Russian now, and her real name could be Anastasia.

How could you write that same sentence and hint at her real meaning? Here’s a suggestion:

Let’s go to the store, John.” Anna tossed him the keys, which he caught with practiced ease. She remembered he insisted her Russian driving habits would kill them sooner than any bullet, and on this rainy day Anna didn’t want to tempt fate. She wanted to go to the shop, pick up more ammo, then set out on the job.

Sure, it’s longer, but it also shows you more about both characters.

Not every conversation can afford to have lengthy sentences attached to it. Some conversations are short, choppy, and fast. If it’s between only two characters, stick with facial expressions:

You’re late.” John frowned.

Anna arched a brow. “Car trouble.”

Flat tire?”

Hijacking.”

John’s eyes darkened, but Anna smiled.

So what if there are three or more characters in a conversation? Then what?” Good question. If the conversation is natural and not quick-paced, the first option I demonstrated for you works with any number of characters. However, if the scene is an argument, and it is crucial for readers to understand whose opinion is whose, but nobody physically moves in the scene, this is the only time ‘said’ or any dialogue tag should be used. Consider the following:

You have two options.” John placed his palms on the interrogation table and leaned toward their suspect. “Tell us—”

Why should I believe you?”

Because you’ll die otherwise,” Anna said—not moving from her position against the wall with arms crossed.

What about when there is supposed to be a pause in a sentence? Dialogue tags help with the pause.” That’s true, but before you rely on a tag, talk with your character to see if he physically does anything.

Well, you see,” said John, “that’s not going to happen.”

Well, you see…” A smile tugged at the corner of John’s lips. “That’s not going to happen.”

These little moments can be an eye-opener into the character.

Go back through your writing and see what tags you use. Try to take out the tags and replace them with body language. This gives your character a chance to stretch and grow. Of course, there is a need for balance. You don’t want to overuse the same body gesture. Sometimes a tag is best for that moment, but it should be your last resort. Consider investing in a book about body language because there is so much the body says without speaking.

Are dialogue tags absolutely forbidden? No, but we have an overabundant dependency on them. Much like helping verbs from the previous post, we should limit dialogue tags in our writing in order to grow in creativity and craft our writing voice. Once you’ve discovered how to work without dialogue tags, when you absolutely need a tag, you can use it.

One final note: please avoid using ‘ask’ or ‘question’ or even ‘exclaim’. Questions marks (?) and exclamation points (!) exist for a reason. If a sentence inside quotation marks end with one of these, it is repetitive to tag the dialogue as ‘asking’ or ‘exclaiming’.

Let’s Talk About Telling

 “Show—don’t tell.” Everyone focuses on the ‘showing’ part because it is natural to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’. However, to avoid something, you must know exactly what it is you are to avoid. Being unaware of the boundaries of telling and showing is like swimming in the ocean and pretending there are no great white sharks, humpback whales, and other breathtaking and unimaginable creatures in the depth below you.

What is telling? How can you recognize telling in your own writing? Thankfully telling is easy to identify. Pick up a story—could be yours or anything within reach. Study the sentences. Do they include any of the following words (outside of dialogue)?

Am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

Have, has, had

Do, does, did

May, might, must

Can, could

Shall, should

Will, would

Said

Except for the last word in the list, all these are helping verbs. They make the passages passive instead of active. In and of themselves, these words are not evil. No need to blacklist them. They exist because they have a purpose and a proper place; we simply need to rediscover that purpose and that place.

When writing anything, you need two ingredients to form a proper sentence: a subject and a verb. In essays, articles, letters, and copy, any form of verbs can be used. However, stories or poetry contain movement to convey the story or the image, and action verbs are best suited for such movement.

Example 1: Mary was walking down the street when she noticed the approaching storm.

Revision: Walking down the street, Mary noticed the approaching storm.

Example 2: It had been a long time since Nathan last spoke with his brother.

Revision: Years passed since Nathan and his brother last spoke.

There are many ways to revise in order to eliminate helping verbs from sentences to make them active rather than passive. It is good exercise, and it stretches your writer’s mind to set such limitations and force yourself to get creative.

Should helping verbs be completely forbidden in novel writing? If only it were that easy, but no. Writing is much more complex than to allow such a simple solution. There are three steps to determine whether to tell a sentence or show it:

          1. try to show it, but if it interrupts the flow of the writing and is awkward then
          2. determine whether the sentence is absolutely necessary. If it is then
          3. write the sentence telling.

The key is being aware of what you are showing and what you are telling.

“When I’m writing, do I have to be so strict and thorough with everything I do?” —short answer: yes. Every word, every sentence, paragraph, and scene must have a meaning to be structured the way it is. If you cannot explain the reason, then it is unnecessary.

Am I giving license for everyone to justify writing errors that are obviously wrong just because they don’t want to go back and fix things? No. A true writer will seek to understand his own reason for writing the way he did and be willing to explain it. “What was your purpose with this?” someone might ask a writer, and if the writer gives an answer, the person might be able to say, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then maybe you should rephrase this because that’s where I get confused.” And the writer should consider this advice.

Later I’ll talk more on how to edit cinemagraphic writing, but first as you begin to write cinemagraphically, I would encourage you to exclude those listed words from your writing. Once you have mastered the ability to show without them, then you can slowly allow those words back into your writing vocabulary.

EXCEPTION: Using helping verbs in dialogue is the only exception. Dialogue is a different creature than narrative, and each character has their own unique voice. If you attempt to eliminate passive voice in dialogue, you run risk of losing your character’s voice altogether.

Next we will discuss the last word on that list—’said’.