In fiction, action is presented from a specific perspective within the storyworld. That perspective belongs to the point-of-view (POV) character. Along with dialogue, description, interior monologue and interior emotion, it is one of the five scene elements that are used to express a fully realized point-of-view. But the word gets used in various ways:
“The action in the story” — refers to the external events of the plot, usually the high-conflict moments.
“The character’s actions” — the thing we are discussing in this article: what the characters do with their bodies.
“The action in this sentence” — the verb involved in saying something happened. Sometimes the verb indicates speech (“Yes,” I said), or it may indicate thought (it occurred to me that this was a bogus deal). These are not the character’s external actions, but they’re related to how the POV character acts and reacts, and how we write the actions of non-POV characters.
Characters take action in response to motivating stimuli. As with all the five scene elements, a character’s action should reflect a change in his/her state of mind (even if that change in state of being is a resistance to change). That change should also have purpose. Randy Ingermanson advises, “An exploding helicopter with nobody in it means nothing. An exploding helicopter with your 3-year-old daughter in it means everything. Never show an action that doesn’t mean anything to one of your characters.” (Writing Fiction for Dummies, p. 179)
I’d go one further and say, never show an action that doesn’t mean anything to your character’s journey. In real life, we have a lot of things going on. Life pulls us in many directions, and we assign meaning to all those directions. Part of the purpose of story is to refine it down to one meaningful direction, even if we throw in some twists and turns and don’t let the reader in on the true direction right away.
How does that work? Let’s look at the way action comes together with two other scene elements: what characters say, and what they think.
Action and Interior Monologue
The point-of-view character cannot know for sure what change of state is truly behind other characters’ actions. When showing the actions of non-POV characters, it is important to show them as perceived and interpreted by the POV character. When we see others do something, we know what they’ve done, but we can only guess at why. Our guesses are based on what we know of their past actions and the things they say they believe.
“Nice decorating job,” Lindsay said, and actually thought it was. She smiled at me.
Nope. Not cool. Nobody can crawl inside another’s head and know the exact truth. For that matter, we’re not the greatest at knowing the truth about ourselves either.
Actions of non-verbal communication should be given their context by the internal state (interior monologue) of the POV character, whether they’re performed by the POV character or another character in the scene. To refer to the internal state of a non-POV character is a point-of-view violation.
Action and Dialogue
Action beats are sentences that create a pause in the story. Their natural habitat is between lines of dialogue. They are a way of showing, instead of telling, that the speaker has taken a breath or is adding an emphatic pause to what they say next. They’re a natural part of conversation. They also provide perspective and context to the dialogue.
Immediate story tension begins to rise when characters misinterpret and/or assign negative moral weight to each other’s actions. It becomes full-blown when characters act to directly oppose each other, as in a physical fight, a race, etc. A misunderstanding in a conversation can be ignited or inflated through actions that seem to imply meanings at odds with the words used, or actions that indicate the real intentions behind what the character is saying.
“Nice decorating job,” Lindsay said.
She smiled like a pro. I had seen her back-stabbing in action often enough, though. That was the smile of a shark that’s just smelled blood.
The description of Lindsay’s smile arises from the POV character’s interpretation. Now, if Lindsay turns out to be sincere, we have a story twist coming, because the POV reaction has guided the reader’s interpretation. We don’t speak from the writer’s all-knowing perspective, and we don’t climb inside Lindsay’s head to hear what she’s thinking. The action is not presented just as an objective fact, but subject to human perspective.
Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue
Even if we’re sitting there in two chairs as we converse, we’re still doing little things. We don’t just parrot back and forth. We look into the fire, fidget with the doily on the arm of the chair, notice the ash on the hearth. Very importantly, we focus in on objects that relate to what we’re thinking under the surface. For instance, if I’m really mad at you, that poker iron is going to have an appeal to my eye that it normally wouldn’t. My thoughts and feelings will shape how I interact with my surroundings.
Lindsay perched in the wing chair by the fireplace and surveyed the room. She smiled. “Nice decorating job.”
I forced myself to sit back in the other chair. Shoulders down, posture loose. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help scanning the hearth for stray ash. That was the smile of a shark that’s just smelled blood. My blood pressure was on the rise already, and I perused the poker iron’s shapely handle and sharp tip as Lindsay spoke again.
When your character does that, it cues the reader to what’s really going on in the story. Action integrates powerfully with both the internal “talk” and the external talk to create tension in a scene. This dissonance between private thoughts, verbally stated intentions and actual course of action is crucial to maintaining reader interest. We want to see how these tensions resolve on a page-by-page basis, carrying us from one scene to the next and leading us along between the minor and the major plot points.
Action, Reaction and Sentence Structure
One character per paragraph. It’s a margin note I issue regularly. When showing actions and reactions, each character should have their own paragraph break so that the flow is easy to follow. This establishes a back-and-forth that lends rhythm and pacing to the scene. Attaching a name tag to a bit of action or dialogue is not necessarily enough to keep it clear, if the next sentence in the paragraph is someone else’s action. Further, unless summarizing is called for, paragraph breaks lend the feel of the POV character moving from one moment to the next. Me do, you react. You do, me react.
Narrative summary can be used to tell something that matters to the story, but doesn’t create change in the character right now. In that case, it’s acceptable to group action and reaction into a single paragraph. But this is for low-tension, low-change stuff that merely strings the rest of the story together as part of a sensible sequence. If used during high conflict or high action, it’ll interfere with the reader’s emotional connection to the story by skimming rather than immersing.
It’s also crucial to understand good sentence structure in order to express action as effectively as possible. This is all about the verbs, the most powerful tool in English communication. Actions and reactions must be clearly delineated, just as it’s necessary to express them from the right point of view. If we can’t tell who’s doing what, or if the POV character’s actions and reactions are muddled together, the reading experience loses its attractiveness. Read here for more on how to write great sentences.