Wednesday, June 22, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 20: Action

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Welcome to week twenty of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I posted Chapter 17 of THIRST yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read it.



Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

Week three was Storyworld.
Week four: maps and floorplans.
Week five: protagonists and main characters.
Week six: side characters.
Week seven: prewriting.
Week eight: plot structures. 
Week nine: Theme.
Week ten: creating a plot outline or list of key scenes.
Week eleven: point of view.
Week twelve: narrative modes.

Week thirteen: how to write a scene.

Week fourteen: Where to start.

Week fifteen: Prologues.
Week sixteen: Dividing Your Book Into Chapters and Scenes Week seventeen: Write Fast and Free
Week eighteen: Dialogue and Thought
Week nineteen: Character and Author Voice

Today's Topic: Writing Action

Action is the third narrative tool of fiction that helps you communicate your story to the reader. Action is description in motion: the play-by-play of events shown as they happen and that ultimately shows the passing of time. This is the action that the character lives thorough moment by moment that helps readers feel as if they are there, participating in the story. Action can vary from a simple hand gesture or a leisurely procession across the country to an intense fight scene or car chase.

Is Your Action Logical?
Fiction should happen in order: action first, then reaction. If you want the reader to connect with your story, the reader needs to experience the action in a logical way. When important actions are left out of a scene or when action seem to happen backwards, you risk confusing the reader.

1. Get the order right
Look for sentences that have the actions happening out of order and rearrange them.

Poor example: The room was dark when I opened my eyes.
Better example: I opened my eyes to a dark room.

Poor example: The squire jumped aside to let the prince's sword go over his head.
Better example: The prince swung his sword, and the squire ducked. The sword slashed over his head.

2. Avoid Continuous Action Words
Watch out for times that you're written simultaneous actions or used words like: as, when, while, after, and continued to. Most of the time these words can and should be omitted. If you do use them, use them rarely and make sure to arrange the sentence so that events happen in a logical order: action first, then reaction.

Poor example: The car skidded to a stop as Luke rode his bike into the street.
Better example: Luke rode his bike into the street, and the car skidded to a stop.

Poor example: Beth cried when she dropped her ice cream cone.
Better example: Beth dropped her ice cream cone and cried.

3. Avoid Infinite Verb Phrases (Starting sentences with —ing words)
Starting a sentence with a word that ends in “ing” implies that everything in the sentence happens simultaneously, and this can often create physical impossibilities.

Poor example: Grabbing a soda, she put on her shoes, and drove to school.
Better example: She put on her shoes, grabbed a soda, and drove to school.

4. Avoid Teleporting
Make sure that you include all necessary actions in a scene that involves movement. If you skip over something important, the reader might lose track of where your character is.

Poor example: Mike was sitting on the front porch eating jelly beans when his favorite TV show came on. He sat on the couch to watch it.
Better example: Mike was sitting on the front porch eating jelly beans when it came time for his favorite TV. He went inside and sat on the couch to watch it.

When you're editing, close your eyes and let the action play out in your mind. Ask yourself: Are things happening in order in this sentence or paragraph? Am I missing any vital steps? Have sought out all the places I have simultaneous action?

Scene Structure Keeps Action Moving

In Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, he teaches about the structure of scenes, which he divides into two parts: scene and sequel. According to Mr. Swain, a scene is made up of three things that should happen in this, logical order:

1. Goal- This is what your character wants at the start of the scene.
2. Conflict- But something starts to thwart that goal.
3. Disaster- Until something kills the goal altogether.

And a sequel encompasses the:
1. Reaction- Your character responds (shock, fear, tears, disbelief) then realizes he can’t stay like that forever.
2. Dilemma- So your character looks at the options before him.
3. Decision- And makes a choice about what to do next.

And then you’re ready to go back to the top with another Goal and move through the process again and again. What’s great about this is that it keeps the action moving along. If every scene has a goal, conflict, and disaster, and every sequel has a reaction, dilemma, and decision, the action in your story will be moving along.
Let’s see how this might play out in a popular book most everyone is familiar with, The Hunger Games.

Goal: All are gathered in the town square for the reaping. Katniss just wants the reaping to be done for this year with her family and friends safe.
Conflict: Prim is now old enough to be included in the reaping, but surely Prim’s name won’t be drawn. Her name is only included once.

Disaster: But Prims name is drawn!
Reaction: Katniss is stunned
Dilemma: Until she sees Prim going forward!
Decision: Then Katniss runs up to the stage and volunteers to take Prim’s place.

Shall we do another one?
How about Anne of Green Gables?

Goal: Anne is trying to listen to the teacher.
Conflict: But Gilbert is whispering to Anne, trying to get her attention despite her ignoring him.
Disaster: And then Gilbert calls her carrots.
Reaction: Anne jumps up, screams at Gilbert, and breaks her slate over his head.
Dilemma: Now Anne is in trouble for her outburst.
Decision: She will never speak to Gilbert Blithe again!

Now, I know this looks fun, but try not to get carried away and let this keep you from writing. When I first read Mr. Swain’s book, I tried to go through my entire manuscript and make sure I had perfect scenes and sequels one after another. It didn’t work, but I did manage to make sure that every scene had a goal, every disaster had a reaction, and every dilemma had a decision, which helped my book a great deal.

This structure works for a reason. It follows the logic of human nature. So make sure to have a purpose for each scene in your book so that they all do something to move the story forward.

How Does Your Character Process Information?

On Tuesday I talked about making sure that your fiction happens in order. But there's more to it than simply having the actions and reactions in the right order. The human brain has a method of processing information. It’s important to get this order right so that your narrative feels logical to the reader. So when you write, make sure that your actions and reactions follow the same logical progression that the human brain uses.

1. First comes the senses: what you see, feel, hear, smell, taste. What your character notices or observes. So, when you're describing something, things like pain, temperature of the room or outdoors, a siren, a bright light. These things should come first.

2. This is followed by reflexes of action or emotion. What the human body does without thinking in reaction to those first observations in number 1. These are reactions that are out of the character's control. So, shutting eyes against a bright light, flinching or wincing at a loud noise, being afraid. Things like that.

3. Thought comes next. Inner thoughts based on the observations in number 1 that will lead to a decision in number 4.

4. Finally, action or speech in reaction to what's happened.

Keep in mind, you don't always have to include all four of these elements in every sequence of action. People don't always think: I'm going to speak out loud now. But the elements you do include should always happen in order.

Here's a scene from my book Captives that's written in a logical sequence of events, for the most part.

       Shaylinn opened her eyes to a bright white ceiling. She must be in heaven, because in Old movies, heaven was always white and glowing like this. But Papa Eli had said there would be no mourning or pain in heaven, and the ache in Shaylinn’s chest hinted at recent pain.
       “Hello?” she called, her voice barely a croak.
       She lay on a stiff and narrow bed. When she tried to sit, she found her arms were bound to the bed. Her heart tumbled within her. “Help! Someone help me!” The words resulted in nothing but a break in the silence around her.
       She lifted her head in hopes of getting some sort of bearings. A tall cupboard hung on the wall on her right. Down past her feet, a door stood without a handle or knob. To her left, a glowing blue sheet of glass covered the wall. The surface seemed to ripple with low light.
       Her cheek itched, and she turned her head to scratch it with her shoulder. That was when she realized she was wearing a thin white dress. Who would take her clothes? What was going on? “Hello? Is someone there? Please, help me!”

The above scene includes seven full sequences of logical action. I highlighted them so you could see how they are broken down. First, Shaylinn opens her eyes to the white ceiling (1), thinks (3), then speaks (4). The ache in her chest comes out of order, which is a mistake. It should have come in number 1. She notices where she is (1) and tries to sit (4). Then she notices that she's tied down (1), she feels fear (2), and she calls out (4). When no one answers (1), she lifts her head (4). Here I made another out-of-order mistake with her inner thoughts "in hopes of getting some sort of bearings (3)." This really should have come before she sat up. If I could still edit this book, I would have changed that to: "In hopes of getting some sort of bearings (3), she lifted her head (4)."

Then she notices her surroundings (1). She feels an itch (1), and scratches it (4). Then finally, she notices her clothing (1), wonders how that happened (3), then speaks again (4).

All this to say, write your stories this way. Try to give the reader information in this order. It feels right and natural. A little mistake here and there won't be the end of the world, but if you can train yourself to do this, it will start to come naturally and you'll be making it easy for readers to follow your narrative. And that's a very good thing.

Tips For Pacing Your Action

Whether you want to write a fast-paced scene or linger in a moment, many things can affect the pacing of your action. The following tools can be used to convey different types of pacing.

Sentence structure- Short sentences tend to convey an intense, fast-paced scene, while long, flowing sentences give the sense of a leisurely moment in a story. If you’re writing a fight or a scary scene, take a look at your sentence lengths. It might help to shorten some and use more sentence fragments.

Word choice- The words you choose, especially the verbs, can greatly affect the pacing of a scene. In a first draft, don’t worry about word choice, but as you rewrite, take care to look at the words in a specific scene that you’re working on. Like with sentence structure, certain words can evoke emotion that gives momentum to your pacing or slows it down. Fast-paced action words like: slam, banged, sprint, struck, knock, break, etc. create a different type of action than words like: press, flick, jog, touch, whisper, cradle, etc.   

Dialogue- People don’t tend to do much talking in a high-paced action scene. Think of those long fight scenes in one of the Avengers movies. Characters are fighting. Stuff is exploding. Cars are speeding along. Not much is being said. Any dialogue that comes is short, snappy, and packs a punch. So if you do use dialogue in a high action scene, make sure it’s short and conveys the emotion you’re going for in that moment, whether that be urgency, fear, or something else.

Action that Characterizes- Don’t forget the point of view you’re writing in. If your character is funny, bring that humor into the scene. If your character is logical, you might add more tactical details compared to a scene from the point of view of a child, who is mostly focusing on his own safety. Action can also reveal information about your POV character in the way he moves, choices he makes in a scene, and the things he says.

How to Show Time Passing

How do you show transitions of time in your novel? Months might have passed, or years. Or maybe it's only been a few minutes.

Leigh Bardugo does a great job with this in Shadow and Bone. Here are some examples from that book:

“I lost track of time. Night and day passed through the windows of the coach. I spent most my time staring out at the landscape, searching for landmarks to give me some sense of the familiar.”


“The next few days passed in a blur of discomfort and exhaustion.”


“Fall turned to winter, and cold winds stripped the branches in the palace gardens bare.”

And here are some examples from my novella Ambushed.

When we got to Tucson, I texted Coach Pasternack, and he told me to join him the next morning at 8:00 a.m. for a short meeting with Coach Miller. I didn’t like having to meet the head coach before I even got a tour, but it was a game day, so I had to make the best of it.

Grandma and I stayed the night in a Super 8 Motel and got up bright and early for my meeting. Though I’d done this before, it was my first time visiting one of the schools that had shown interest in me, and I was really nervous.

We met Coach Pasternack outside the McHale Center. He was with Arizona guard Jordin Mayes, who had a chin beard that reminded me of C-Rok’s buddy Ant Trane.


Grace didn’t show at church on Sunday either, and Arianna said she was supposed to have been back by now.

She didn’t answer any of my texts or Facebook messages.

It was kind of freaking me out.

So I walked over to Ghetoside—a Pilot Point nickname for the Meadowside Apartments where Grace lived. Her place was on the ground floor and faced the street. The driveway in front was empty. The lights were off. I even knocked on the door, but no one was home.

I let it go for a few days, but when school started and Jaz said Grace hadn’t been in class, I started going by her place more often.

And one night, the lights were on, and an old Honda Civic was parked in the driveway.


January breezed by. The same schools were still talking to coach about me, except Berkley had offered early, which made no sense to me until Coach said he’d told them I wanted to study computers and work for the CIA.


I woke up in a hospital bed wearing a blue paper gown, feeling groggy.

Another way to show the passage of time is to note it at the start of a new chapter. For example:

Chapter 2
Three years later

And sometimes time can pass as the character thinks about other things. Take this scene from Shannon’s Angel Eyes.

The cold air stings my face, but today I ignore it. I get lost in the quest for a great shot, and each time I think I've snapped one, I remember Jake's earlier compliment and press on looking for another.
I have so many great shots to make up for. Rolls and rolls of them actually. Silly pictures of our adventures in the city. Of the life I sabotaged with negligence. I don’t let my mind wander too far down that path. When I do, my hands shake and photography becomes impossible. I allow tears only once, and quickly regret it. It takes forty-five minutes to regain my composure.
By midmorning I reach the creek. The shick-shick of my camera's shutter sends a sparrow flying through the branches of a great red oak. Shouldn't he have flown south by now?


Unnecessary Action

One thing to watch for with action is over-describing the play by play. I do this. Too often. My character hears a knock at the door. And since I’ve trained myself to “show” and not “tell,” I picture the action that my character does. He gets up. He walks to the door. He opens the door. He sees who is there. The problem is, unless he is terrified to see who is behind that door, the play-by-play of all this action is boring and uselessly taking up space. All I really need to say is: Someone knocked on the door. It was Courtney, bringing me the paper.

So watch out for describing the mundane and over-sharing details about the character’s actions because it slows the pace, lessens tension, and interrupts the flow of the scene. Let your readers infer that your character answered the door. This is different from the “not teleporting” I talked about above. Readers are smart, and they will not get lost if you say that your character went outside rather than giving us the full journey through the house, including the putting on of shoes.

Act it out

If you’re uncertain about how something might happen, do your best to act it out. Even if you don’t have swords or horses, you can pretend. And walking yourself through the motions can often help you see things your brain hadn’t imagined in the comfort of your own chair by the computer. Sometimes it helps to gather a volunteer or two. I did this with a scene in Project Gemini. I had Spencer rappelling down a cliff with two people on his back and was struggling with where the ropes were and whose arm might be choking him. So I got my husband and kids to act it out and it really helped.

Here are some more posts to help you:
Writing an Action/Fight SceneEditing the Action Scene
Writing an Epic Battle
Writing the Wizards' Duel
Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats
Do You Use Too Many Generic Action Tags?
Moving From One Moment to Another

Assignment time

Are things happening in order in your scene, paragraph, or sentence? Are you missing any vital steps? Look for places where you have simultaneous action and rewrite them. Also, go through one of your actions scenes and edit for pacing, word choice, sentence length, and characterization. Share your discoveries in the comments.


  1. This explains so much! I've been having tons of trouble with the pacing and action of my WIP, and I can't wait to implement what I've learned here. Thanks Jill!

  2. I tend to use words like as and when a lot, so this is so helpful! I think some of my simultaneous action is ok because its with two people like this: he did this while she did that. I'll still have to look over it in rewrites, though. Other than that I think the order and reactions are pretty good.

  3. WHY have I never heard that about the logical sequence of events? It's brilliant! *goes back to rewrite those parts that just didn't feel right because of this*.

  4. Yay this is super helpful - I think I have WAY too many fight scenes and battles in my WIP... But they're so fun to write!! I'd like to think I'm pretty good at writing them now, but this post is still extremely helpful! XD thank you!

  5. This was extremely helpful for me. I am nearly positive I have about about a thousand sentences of action that are placed in the wrong order, my character is teleporting, or it's way too descriptive.Thanks so much for the post!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Pretty soon in my book there will be more intense action, and this will be especially helpful then.

  6. Wow! I never realized there there was a specific order people notice things and act. Thanks for another cool post Jill!!!

  7. Thank you so much for your post, Jill! This was EXACTLY (please don't get me wrong) what I needed to see. Thank you again!