7 Actions

As we have seen, The Show, Don’t Tell Methodology means that you are unable to rely on narrative summary to tell their story. Instead, you must look for other, more engaging, ways to connect with the reader. In the last chapter we saw that dialogue was one piece of this jigsaw, in this chapter we turn our attention to how you can use actions to help build engagement.

The granular structure of any novel is simple:

Events occur, characters react to the events.

However, how a character reacts to any given event can be as much a clue to their back-story as any dialogue.

The way in which a character acts is based on three things:

  1. Common sense.
  2. The plot.
  3. The characters internal voice (which will reflect back-story).

This is a same pattern as the approach we took with the dialogue. Some events will demand a common sense response. For example – the phone rings, your character answers the phone. Other events will be part of the plot. For example – the killer starts to run away; your main character chases him. However, sometimes, the reaction will be based on the internal voice. Foe examples – a dog barks, the character jumps.

Let me give you a more detailed example…

If we cycle back to John, we are now starting to build a profile for the character. We know he is afraid of dogs, and why. We also know he was brought up to mistrust Chinese people and this is showing in the way he speaks. We saw this in a past example when John’s internal voice influenced the way he reacted to the taxi driver. In this example, we will mess with John a bit more by introducing a dog.

Here’s the basic scene, with no internal influence:

John walked along the street. It was late afternoon and with most people at work, and kids at school, the suburban landscape was deserted. John shivered in the cold, biting wind, pulling the zip of his coat all the way up to his chin. Ahead of John, perhaps 20 paces, a large black, mangy looking dog stepped from between two parked cars. John walked on, looking left and right for a possible owner. As the dog passed they exchanged a brief look. John walked on in one direction, the dog in the other.

So, the event is a dog appearing from between two parked cars. John’s reaction is, well, minimal.

Now… let’s rewrite the scene but with John’s internal voice in play. We know John is scared of dogs and therefore his reaction will be different:

John walked along the street. It was late afternoon and with most people at work, and kids at school, the suburban landscape was deserted. John shivered in the cold, biting wind, pulling the zip of his coat all the way up to his chin. Ahead of John, perhaps about 20 paces, a large black, mangy looking dog stepped from between two parked cars. John stopped. He took a small step backwards before looking up and down the street. There was no traffic. The dog seemed to ignore John, padding slowly in his direction. John strode across the road, leaving the dog to pace its own way in the opposite direction, on the opposite side of the street.

In this example we are SHOWING the reader that John is scared of dogs. There’s no narrative mention (or explanation) of this fear, instead it is reflected in John’s reaction.

John is acting in the way that someone who is scared of dogs will react. The reader’s brain, which is programed to see meaning in actions, will try to work out why John has acted the way that he has. The reader’s brain will give John’s actions a meaning. However, at this point the reader doesn’t have enough information to complete the picture. They will however, become engaged as they ‘lean into’ John’s character.

The important aspect of this approach is that John’s reaction leaves the reader with a small clue about John’s past. The reader now knows that John has reacted to the presence of a dog. This may be part of a bigger jigsaw that is left for the reader to piece together; it may be a critical plot point or may simply be the writer adding texture to the story. It doesn’t matter John is now a more realistic character.

Once again, by not explaining, via the narrator, we are creating a distance between the reader and the characters. They can see how John is reacting and are forced to ‘lean into’ the story. They must engage with John and start to build their own explanations. This is engagement and if done consistently will stop your reader becoming bored.

So must every splash of action contain influence from the internal voice?

The answer is well… yes, well… kind of.

Most action within a scene will be pretty straightforward. When deciding on how a character reacts to an event the first thing to do is decide what the common sense reaction would be. Having decided that, you need to work out if the reaction needs to differ, in order to fulfill the plot. Finally, having decided what he character should do, you now need to decide it the action is influenced, in any way, by their internal voice.

Therefore, question to ask yourself, when writing any scene, is ‘how would the character react?’

The answer to this question will often take your character on a wonderful journey. You will find them doing things that are unexpected and exciting. They will surprise you… and the reader. Yet, most importantly, when writing with honesty your characters will come alive, not on the pages of your book, but in the mind of your readers.

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