Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Action sentencing

There's a lot of action that isn't really exciting. So I don't mean explosions or running from the aliens or carefully digging a hole for the rose bush. I mean the getting from one place to another type of action, the necessary and maybe even significant action of the character through the scene.

I'd just suggest not to treat this like "something to rush through." Instead, think of how even this can be made meaningful, adding to the reader's experience of the scene. Couple suggestions, both having to do with the action within time-- how long it takes.

1) If it's an activity that takes awhile, like paying the bills, think of interspersing the discrete actions with introspection. That is, this is a good opportunity to put in some of that introspection you've been holding back on. Break the activity down into five or so distinct actions:

  • She gathers all the supplies-- bills, checkbook, envelopes, stamps. (This will take at least a minute, remember. and now I'm trying to think of the last time I wrote a check... okay. She turns on the computer and waits for it to boot up.)
  • She goes to her bank website and to the "Pay Bills" tab.
  • She checks the first bill-- $1000 for the credit card.
  • She goes back to the account page to check her balance.
  • She pays that bill.
  • She pays another bill.
  • She pays a third bill.
  • She goes back and sees if she has any money left.
  • She closes the computer.

Plenty of time for her to be thinking about how much she hates her job (connection to bill-paying? Slide in early that she notices her paycheck has been deposited). By the end of the billpaying, what's changed? Does she decide to quit the job?
That is-- see if you can make the activity somehow reflective of whatever conundrum she's considering. And if you can, have the combined activity and introspection end in a decision.

2.  If you're having to describe a sequence of actions that don't all add up, still think about how long they combined will take. Let's say that he is leaving his office after work. So he's going to what? Altogether, how much time? If it's just a couple minutes, think about having it be a transition between two scenes (one in office, one wherever he's going), and put it in one paragraph at the start of a new scene. But remember, if nothing significant happens, or he doesn't think something fun, it's probably not worth spending a paragraph on... so put in something significant. He walks out of the office building, and what does he see? What happens? He gets splashed by a cab going by? He sees his boss going into a bar across the street?
Just to keep this coherent, group sequential actions together. Don't mix them in a sentence unless you have reason to mix them.
For example, in sentence one, start:
The clock struck five, and Rory looked up from his work. Quittin' time.
Then move to the action, pack up his briefcase--
He rose, and grabbed his briefcase and jammed in his laptop and the Olsen file.
Then move to the next bit of action.
In the elevator, he closed his eyes and tried to remember what he had planned for the evening. 
Finish the paragraph and the action sequence, but remember your purpose isn't just to get him out of the office building, but....?
The crowd on the ground floor bore him out into the dark street. There, across the street, under a streetlamp, was Meredith. Waiting for him.

So don't settle for pedestrian, and while you're at it, make it understandable for the reader. Watch your sentencing and paragraphing. Those are how you tell the reader what actions and/or thought/realizations/perceptions go together.

Most important, though, don't waste the space. If it's not important, don't narrate it. Just bridge the time:
New scene (Later in his apartment)
If it is important, if something meaningful occurs, show it.

Also, group steps in the same order they occur in life. For example, if he's leaving the office, and he takes his coffee mug to the sink and rinses it, fine to put all that in one sentence:
He took his mug to the sink and rinsed it.
But don't put that discrete "coffee mug" step into the same sentence as packing his briefcase: NOT
He took his coffee mug to the sink. He rinsed it and packed his briefcase.
See the problem there? There must be some pause (like a PERIOD and SPACE) between the sink and his briefcase, because they are two separate actions, not steps within an action. They're separate, involving different movements (washing/packing), different objects (mug/briefcase), and different places (sink, desk). Two sentences.
Always keep that in mind-- the sentencing should replicate in its imperfect way the way the action takes place. What goes together in a sentence should belong together.



Ian said...

"I just read this amazingly gripping bill-paying scene!" said nobody ever. :P

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I love being able to turn a small transitional action scene into a reflection of the larger plot. It doesn't always work out, but when it does, the reader gets a little clue as to the main plot, or a hint into the character's mindset or personality.

The reader might not remember the inconsequential background action, but hopefully the more important elements (the decisions, the observations, etc.)will carry through to the larger plot. It's a meta-moment! :)

green_knight said...

This is excellent advice, and exceedingly useful.

sentencing should replicate in its imperfect way the way the action takes place

This sounds like something that would niggle at a reader without ever jumping out to most of them - and I can see this being a good guideline for when a passage isn't working. (And by extention: spending a lot of time on very brief & unimportant actions, and not spending time on important ones.)

I also love the layering nature of things here - using action to provide a framework for some internalisatoin (because characters standing there and thinking are dull, however earthmoving their decisions) and I particularly like the second example where you use the dull everyday actions of washing mugs and packing briefcases to lead into the turning point. _Meredith is there? Oh, shit._
'When he stepped outside the building, Meredith was waiting for him' could work as well, but I feel that the contrast heightens the impact.

Alicia said...

Ian, okay. We could end with, "She'd just finished paying the electric bill when the aliens landed!"

Laura, yes-- purpose... it's not really to narrate this action but to hint at a clue, or to bury a clue, or to show something about the character.

GK, yeah-- the "punchline" (Meredith) should be the punchiest thing in the passage, and a contrast to the mundane. Hmm.