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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Summary of Former Blog Posts

Today’s blog post is going to be a recap of all my previous posts with links to each one. People ask me about specific elements of writing, and I realize I’ve already discussed those elements, so I direct them to that post. Here’s a chance for everyone (including myself) to get caught up on the different topics I’ve covered. I may do these kinds of posts periodically to keep everything in perspective.

Post 1: Let’s Talk About Telling – This post discusses what exactly ‘telling’, so it’s easier to identify in your own writing in order to help you ‘show’ better.

Post 2: How ‘Said’ is Redundant – The common dialogue tag is ‘said’, but due to punctuation, it is also redundant and lends itself to telling rather than showing.

Post 3: More on Dialogue Tags – Dialogue tags have their place in writing, but these days they are often used as a cheap way for the writer to write a conversation between characters without putting much effort into it. However, the writing can be stronger and much more vivid by using body language in place of the tags.

Post 4: The Adverse Adverb – Stephen King says, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” While I wouldn’t go that far, most of the time adverbs only weaken the structure of a sentence and the writing. They can be replaced by more concrete words therefore creating a stronger experience for the readers.

Post 5: The Playground Experience – In order to know anything, you have to learn about it. Sometimes you learn the hard way, but sometimes your learning experience can be fun. The ‘Playground Experience’ is writing stuff that you never intend to publish only because you’re writing it for the practice.

Post 6: Practice Makes Perfect and then Publication – With writing, we’re not immediate masters of the craft, and we need to recognize that. Instead, we need to take the time to stretch ourselves in writing different things in order to learn this or that element of writing rather than the sole purpose of writing for publication.

Post 7: The Personality of Writing – If you ignore your writing obligations or skills, writing will give you the cold shoulder when you turn back to it. The longer you go on ignoring it, the harder it will be to write when you finally decide to pick up the pen. Is it worth it? Absolutely. The persona of writing simply wants to make sure you have the commitment to sit down and write before it floods you with ideas and inspiration.

Post 8: Paint Pictures With Words – ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the common rule among writers, but are you supposed to show every single detail?? No, and this post shows you how to determine what to include in description and what you could leave out.

Post 9: Movement in Description – There should be motion in the words that describe the scene. To me, the scenes play out like a movie scene, and the camera is always moving—in a logical manner that doesn’t sicken the viewers. The description of writing should reflect that, but how? This post shows.

Post 10: Shifting Points of View (POV) – Writers are commonly encouraged not to switch POV in the middle of a scene. While I see their point, I disagree. Multiple POV’s in the same scene takes practice to master, but it must be practiced (and therefore allowed) in order to master. Once this tool has been well-refined, it can show the scene in ways that limited POV cannot, and this broadens the horizon of the story.

Post 11: The Key to Dialogue: Listening – A lot of people struggle to write dialogue. One way to overcome this is to listen to others talk. As writers we tend to get caught up in our own thoughts and not pay attention to what is being said around us, but we write about people, so we should take the time to stop and watch them and listen to them. Pay attention to their speech pattern, choice of words, etc.

Post 12: Speaking of Dialogue – There are some elements of speaking which do not transfer well in writing, and this limits your audience. We discuss it in this post.

Post 13: Necessary Narration – ‘Narration’ can be another word for ‘telling’, and because of this, a lot of people won’t talk about it since you’re not supposed to ‘tell’. However, narration is important. Through this tool, we can get inside our characters’ minds, feel their emotions, and relate to them. The key is to balance the ‘telling’ with the ‘showing’.

Post 14: The Origin of the Narrative – Most writers begin their writing career as a child writing in their diary. This means they start writing in ‘first person’, and when they finally begin writing actual stories, those stories tend to be in ‘first person’ as well. Eventually they may dabble in ‘third person’ writing or may opt to stay with ‘first person’. All of this determines the narrative of the story.

Post 15: Punctuation of Cinemagraphic Writing – How should punctuation be used today? The semicolon is losing ground. The ellipsis should definitely be limited as should the colon. The one that’s gaining more ground surprisingly is the dash, and this post goes into more detail in it.

Post 16: Determining the Person – Should your story be written in first person, second person, or third person? Here we discuss the pros and cons of each one.

Post 17: Overview of the Different Tenses – Usually most writing is done in ‘past tense’, but it is becoming more and more common for stories to be written in ‘present tense’. However, there are more tenses than merely ‘past’ and ‘present’, and this post discusses them.

Post 18: Flashbacks and Tenses – Flashbacks are tricky, but with the proper use of tenses, the transition between past and present events can be smoother.

Post 19: Author-Based Characters – Due to the fact that most writers begin by writing in their journals then transfer over to story writing, they usually write the main character as themselves. This is dangerous because readers can sense it, and it will turn the readers away from the story.

Post 20: Author/Character Relationship – There are two kinds of authors: Interactive and Static. Interactive authors are constantly communicating with their characters throughout the process of writing, but Static authors are set in their way of how they’re going to write, and the characters must do their will.

Post 21: Describing Your Character Upon Introduction – When your character is first seen in the story, natural instinct is to pause the flow of narration to give a full description of your character. This disrupts the story and can be jarring to your readers. There is a smoother way to bring your character to life.

Post 22: Notice What You Notice – In order to write description of a scene better, it’s important to recognize for yourself what you notice when you walk into a room. This helps you write more realistically.

Post 23: Immortal Words – Our words have a lasting effect, especially those printed on paper. Yes, there are ways such words could be destroyed, but if preserved, they could essentially last forever. It’s important remember the far-reaching effect your story may have on future generations.

Post 24: Plot: The Spine of the Story – What is the story about? Sure, we can have fantastic characters, but if we don’t have an actual plot to follow, the story won’t be memorable.

Post 25: Different Kinds of Outlines – Outlining a story is one way to stayed organized and motivated to write, but there are different approaches to outlines.

Post 26: Timeline Outline – This specific outline draws everything on a horizontal line rather than vertical. It helps keep dates straight as well as what’s happening where when there are multiple plots to a story.

Post 27: When TO Use an Outline – Outlining isn’t for every writer, so there is a time to outline and a time not to use an outline. This post discusses the proper time when to use this tool.

Post 28: When NOT To Use An Outline – A continuation from the previous post, this one focuses on the other side. It discusses when it’s proper not to use an outline.

Post 29: When To Step OFF An Outline – You might have completely outlined your story, but then the story decides to change direction on you. This is all right, and you should heed the direction of the story even through it takes you off the outline you had planned.

Post 30: Production Writer’s Block – Unofficially there are two kinds of Writer’s Block, and here we discuss the first kind which is ‘Production Writer’s Block’. It can also be described as ‘In-Progress’ writer’s block. It’s when you’re working on a story and hit a brick wall.

Post 31: New Project Writer’s Block – The second unofficial Writer’s Block is when you’ve finished your story and now aren’t sure what to write next.

Post 32: Always Try To Write Your Best – There are a lot of influences out there in the world, and there’s a lot of pressure of how you should conform your writing to what’s acceptable and marketable. However, you should only write the best you can at that time in your life. Always try to sharpen your skill. As time goes on, you’ll look back with fresh eyes, and you won’t be happy with what you wrote, but at that time you wrote the best you could write.

Post 33: A Method of Revision – When you go back to your old work and decide to finally do something with it, the work will need some polishing up, and the first thing you need to do is revise it. This post discusses an approach to revision to help familiarize you with the process.

Post 34: Steps To Editing – The next step of polishing your work is to edit it. This post goes into detail of how to approach editing.

Post 35: An Approach to Proofreading – The final step of polishing your work is proofreading, and this post shows how proofreading differs from editing and gives a warning that most writers don’t consider when they’re polishing their work.

Post 36: The Etiquette of Readers Part 1: Casual Reader – Sometimes we all need encouragement and motivation. What we really need is a cheerleader. We don’t need them to criticize us when we make a mistake but to cheer us to get back up and keep going. This is where the Casual Reader comes into play.

Post 37: The Etiquette of the Reader Part 2: Beta Reader – Unlike the Casual Reader, it is the Beta Reader’s job to critique our work. It’s not fun, but it’s an important step.

Post 38: Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel – Emotions are fundamental to human life, to our experiences, and how we react. Due to its great importance in real life, emotions shouldn’t be skimmed over in significant scenes of our stories. It might make us feel uncomfortable, but we need to let our characters feel.

Now we are entirely up-to-date.  I have a lot more material to cover, but you’ll just have to wait until next week to see what will be discussed next. Thank you for your patience. See you then!