You probably have great ideas for a book. Maybe one of these ideas keeps popping up in your brain over and over again. It’s calling to you, begging you to release it from its prison and find its way to the outside world. But do you have the patience to foster it? Do you have the motivation to take care of it and not let it meander aimlessly? And last but not least…do you have the strength to let go of it when the time is right and allow it the freedom you feel it deserves? If so, read on.
If you’ve been writing for a while now and have gone as far as to have novelists, editors, and/or beta readers read portions of your work, then you’re probably familiar with the phrase “show, don’t tell.” When I taught my creative writing courses, this was one of the toughest concepts for my students to grasp. Even seasoned writers sometimes forget to liven their stories with what I like to call “Active Action.” But I am going to break it down into the simplest possible explanation.
What is Active Action?
Active Action is when the writer uses specific vocabulary that enhances engagement with the reader. It’s when the scene is written so that the reader pictures what is happening in the story through sensory detail.
What do you picture when you read this sentence? A woman walks into a room and grabs a baseball bat from the closet.
Think about what you see in your mind. Probably you picture a nondescript woman (or maybe she resembles you or your sister, wife, mother). Your imagination might place her in a room with white walls, maybe a couch. Most likely the baseball bat is already in her hands by the end of the sentence, and you haven’t pictured her opening the closet door.
That’s because the scene isn’t described in a way that helps the reader see what’s happening. The reader is told what information they should know. And not only does it not explain what’s happening, but it’s…well…dull to read.
How does a writer create Active Action?
Let’s pretend this event with the woman and the baseball bat is happening in a movie. Does a woman walk into a plain, white-walled room and suddenly have a baseball bat in hand? And let’s say this is the beginning of the movie and we have no idea what she wants with that baseball bat. Is she heading to a softball game? Does she hear a burglar in the house and feel the need to have protection? Did she decide to clean the closet and wants to put all the outdoor gear in the garage?
A movie starts out with a picture. We will see this woman, note how she is dressed, how she walks, guess at her age and possibly career or education. We will watch for nonverbal cues and gestures. Is she trembling with fear? Is she angry? Is she tired? Does she run to the closet or take her time? Maybe on the way to the closet, she’s picking up jackets and children’s backpacks from the floor. All of these are clues as to what might be happening.
A good start to creating Active Action is to picture your scene as if it’s a movie. Jot down the environment you see. Make notes on what this character looks like, getting as specific as you can, right down to her shoes. (You will not use most of these descriptions in your story. More on that later.) Now imagine her heading towards a closet. Pretend she’s just heard someone break into her home. Now here is the hard part: What emotion plays upon her face and mannerisms? It’s not enough to say, “She’s panicking.” People panic in different ways. One person might shriek and yank at the closet doorknob, nearly tearing it off its hinges. Another might grit her teeth and remain silent, maybe glance behind her shoulder before quietly opening the door so no one knows she’s there. Yet another person might be shaking so badly, she struggles to make it to the closet door and perhaps even has trouble opening it because her fear is so intense.
How might she react differently if she’s grabbing the baseball bat to go after the raccoon that keeps tipping over her garbage? Or if she’s letting the neighborhood kids borrow it?
Active Action helps describe what is happening in such a way that we feel we are in the scene. That we are the character.
I still don’t understand. Why can’t I just tell the reader that the character is so frightened she can’t open the door?
You can. But it won’t create tension or emotion, and both of those are necessary for the reader to connect with the character and feel empathy. I can say that Cathy is so scared, she can’t open the door. And then someone touches her shoulder. Or I can say that Cathy’s fingers tremble as she grips the doorknob. But it won’t turn in her sweaty palm. Her hand slides around it as if it’s been coated in oil. Her legs weaken. Her heart pounds in her ears. She rubs her hand against her jeans. Dry, damn you! But before she can reach for the doorknob again, a heavy hand falls on her shoulder.
Which puts a stronger picture in your head?
Five rules to follow that will create Active Action in your work.
1) DO NOT use -ly adverbs. Why say “quickly ran” when you can say “bolted” and produce a better image in the reader’s head?
2) DO use one of more of the five senses in your scenes: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, tasting. Senses help create mood, tension, and strong description.
3) DO NOT bog down your scene with too much visual description. It’s common for writers, especially new ones, to feel the need to describe every visual detail right down to the weather, even if it doesn’t pertain to the story line. Writing descriptions for your own personal Vision Board is a great way to keep track of details so that when you return to your manuscript after a break, you have something with which to refer. But putting all those tiny, unnecessary details into a story stops action in its tracks and forces the reader to look around the imaginary room for longer than they would if they actually participated in the scene. Now, if you have a detail-oriented character, perhaps this might be part of his or her quirkiness. But even so, throw in some action, will ya?
4) DO keep the scene flowing. This goes along with the previous rule, but I’m adding that every scene MUST fulfill a purpose! That woman isn’t going into the closet to fetch a bat just for the sake of carrying a bat around all day (unless, again, your quirky character does that kind of thing). Once you’ve shown your character snatching that bat from its rightful place, be prepared to use it in this or an upcoming scene.
5) And last but not least: DO NOT forget characterization! If your character is emotionless and flat, your story will be boring. As in, your reader will put down the book to grab a snack and never pick up that book again. Though he might yank a bat from the dark confines of a closet so he can get outside for fresh air and a little batting practice. If that was your intent, perfect! But if you were hoping for someone to read the book cover to cover…well….I suggest you bring your character alive with inner dialogue, perception, and environment.
So to tie this up…
Think of your book as a movie that plays in a reader’s head. Make it come alive with Active Action. Jot down every part of the picture you see, then edit it to make it appealing and understandable to the person who is reading your novel.
Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words. So why only use one short sentence?