Sharing the thrill of mystery.
When Action Isn’t a Good Thing in Your Novel
By Julie Glover
I took one acting class in college. In addition to discovering I didn’t want to pursue drama, but simply storytelling, I learned some of the challenges of portraying a character’s persona to an audience just beyond the stage.
One tidbit was my takeaway that you need something to do with your feet, your hands, your body. Enter props.
When a partner and I performed a scene in class from Extremities (yes, the one made into a film that Farrah Fawcett starred in), I started the scene with a cigarette in hand. Looking back, I now realize that cigarette had zero to do with what was happening. It was merely a crutch to keep my hands busy so I didn’t look like an idiot standing there with no movement or gesturing wildly.
This happens to us authors with the page too.
For example, we need to write a scene with two characters talking, but something should be happening besides dialogue, right? Enter props. We put them at a kitchen table and give them tea to pour into cups. We put them in a car where they can fiddle with the radio dial and glance in the rear-view mirror. We get them to fiddle with their clothes, their jewelry, their wristwatch.
But is that action actually related to what else is happening in the scene? Does the action reveal something about the characters or the plot? Or is simply to keep our characters busy?
Let me lay out two examples below. The dialogue and setting will be the same for both. But contrast how the action doesn’t really matter in the first scene, but pulls its weight much better in the second.
Mary grabbed coffee cups from the cupboard and turned on the pot. “My sister’s arriving at noon. Or so she says.”
John leaned against the counter and watched the coffee. “When she gets here, you need to explain what’s happened.”
Mary had no idea how to have that conversation. How could she explain to her sister what she didn’t understand herself?
The coffee hadn’t finished percolating, but Mary shoved a cup under the stream anyway. Once it was full, she handed it to John and returned the pot to its place. She could wait for her own cup.
“Why don’t you tell her?” Mary asked. “You’re more diplomatic than I am.”
John added sugar to his coffee, three packets. “I don’t think diplomacy is your best bet. More like pulling off the Band-Aid, one quick yank and be ready for the scream.”
Mary pushed aside the family crest coffee cups and grabbed a nondescript one from the back of the cupboard, then turned on the pot. It was barely eight a.m., and she was headed toward a third cup. “My sister’s arriving at noon. Or so she says.”
John leaned against the counter and watched the coffee, as if it was a focal point to avoid eye contact. “When she gets here, you need to explain what’s happened.”
The coffee hadn’t finished percolating, but Mary shoved a cup under the stream anyway. Impatient with the coffee, impatient with the situation, impatient with her life.
Once the cup had filled, she handed it to John. “Why don’t you tell her? You’re more diplomatic than I am.”
The hot plate sizzled, and she returned the coffee pot to its place. She could wait for her own cup. By now, she should be used to standing in line for what she wanted.
John added sugar to his coffee, three packets. If only Mary could add that kind of sweetener to bad news. “I don’t think diplomacy is your best bet,” he said. “More like pulling off the Band-Aid, one quick yank and be ready for the scream.”
# # #
In the first example, there’s action in that they’re drinking coffee. But who cares! It doesn’t say anything about the two of them or the story. In the second example, that action is used to illuminate more about the characters and what’s going on.
Sure, you still don’t know what’s going on, because I purposefully kept it vague, but you have a much better feel for the characters and the mood. Even Mary pushing past her family crest coffee cups to get a different cup tells you something.
Because the action in your novel should matter. If it doesn’t, you need to either take it out or give it meaning.
Here are some places where you might find non-meaningful action in your work-in-progress:
Of course, you need actions in your novel that show the character moving about and going from place to place. And yes, sometimes the character wipes lint off his pants just because. So please don’t go hacking out every instance of “she walked to the door.” In an effort to compel the reader, don’t confuse the reader. Instead, maintain the continuity of a scene.
But make sure the overall action of a scene reveals character, advances plot, and/or provides tension.
Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
By Penny Manson
The folks at Outskirts Press have a point -- self-published authors "carve their own paths and create their own destiny." With that in mind Outskirts Press gives writers five (5) reasons to be thankful for Self-Publishing.
By R. Franklin James
Eventually every writer must come to face to face with a vacant screen or blank sheet of paper, and the words that are stored in our head start to pour out—or they don’t. The compelling story we thought we had to articulate, evades us and we fall back on the mechanical: word counts, details, research—words on a page.
And that’s okay.
Writing fiction is learned. It requires craft and discipline and more than anything it requires inspiration—the inspiration that comes from listening to the voices in our head. Voices which convert to words, which lead to characters, to scenes, to the interaction of character and scenes, and how they all build upon each other to tell a story that transports the reader.
Writers must have the courage of convictions that words, and the joining of words into sentences and the melding of sentences into paragraphs and the linking of paragraphs onto pages, will produce a book that we hope will entertain, educate and perhaps make a difference.
Because at the core of it, at the very base of our being, writers are idealists with an incessant urge to get our thoughts and stories out of our heads, onto paper, and into the hands of people we want to reach.
But what about that muse?
Our muse is always with us, except for the times we ignore her presence. We may struggle with conjuring up the right word or the next scene, and beg that she appear. She looks at us in amazement because she has never left our side.
Our muse is our imagination.
She is the free flowing ideas that pour out of our fingers and onto our keyboards. If we hit a wall or become blocked it is likely because we are trying too hard. The quickest way to turn our back on our imagination is to “think” about it. Stuck? Then take a few minutes to get up and walk around, or step outside or watch some inane show on the TV. Still stuck? Then talk to your protagonist. Ask him or her what’s going to happen next? Who’s going to walk through that door, or cause the phone to ring, or send a letter in the mail? Try to imagine the unexpected, and let your imagination kick-in.
Maybe read a book. The author, Annie Proulx is quoted: You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.
But be careful, reading can be captivating but it’s not writing, read to prime the pump.
Still stuck? Then write a few words about why you feel stuck and what could be the cause. The idea is to prime the imagination pump. That is how our muse talks to us.
It is not enough to say: I’m blocked; I don’t know where my story is going.
Don’t write your story, write your protagonist’s story. Or, maybe write the villain’s story. Or, maybe write the end of a story.
The important thing is: don’t stop writing.
Even if it’s just a paragraph, write every day, and you’ll discover that the muse you’re desperately seeking has been seeking you. One of my favorite quotes is from legendary western author Louis L’Amour: Start writing, no matter what. The water can’t flow until the faucet is turned on.
While writers such as Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler churned out hard-boiled mysteries, and Agatha Christie became the queen of cozies, a slew of women were giving birth to a new and hard to define mystery sub-genre. Today, we'd call it the psychological crime novel. So popular was this genre in the 40s and 50s, many of their novels were adapted to film or television. Laura by Vera Caspary is now a classic starring Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb. Humphery Bogart and Gloria Grahame starred in the adaptation of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel In a Lonely Place. These forgotten, but highly successful, women mystery and crime fiction writers are seeing a resurgence in popularity with the publication of an anthology collection assembled by the Library of America. Feeling nostalgic? Check out these underrepresented writers for a dose of mystery, suspense, thrills and fear.
Whether an author is published independently or traditionally, she is always looking for the best way to get her books into the hands of interested readers. Good thing for us The Hot Sheet, a publishing industry email newsletter for authors, has published its report on Digital Book World 2017, held January 17th -19th in New York City.
Inside the report are marketing tools and tips they gathered from authors and publishers alike. Click here to read what The Hot Sheet learned about:
We are the Sacramento, California chapter of Sisters in Crime. We promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers.