Friday, August 22, 2014

Importance of Action: Do You Have Enough Happening?

All week, struggling to revise an early chapter in my novel-in-progress, I realized what was wrong:  nothing happens.  It's what I call a "traveling chapter."  After a plane crash, the character tries to get to a main road.  She walks through a forest at night.  She discovers she's lost an important item from her pack.  She can't go back, she panics, she keeps on. 

No matter how I massage the words, the result is the same.  Not enough is going on.  It's way too early in the book for a pause.  I decided to ditch the chapter--and everything worked so much better!


Of course I miss those stellar sentences I worked over for weeks.  But writers have to be ruthless, right?  Kill their darlings?

As I moved the blah chapter to my "extras" file (a holding tank for writing that hasn't found its home and may never), I remembered one of my early fiction teachers.  Her critique was far from easy!  She often X'ed out huge sections of purple prose and rambling pages.  Mostly she gave me critical feedback on action.  

I recall one lesson:  She took me through three of my rougher chapters.  Broke them apart by scene.  
Then wrote in the margin two excellent questions: 

1.  Purpose?
2.  What's actually happening? 
When taken apart this way, nonevent scenes and chapters reveal their lack.  
The lesson was truly embarrassing.  As a new fiction writer, I believed readers loved characters who sat around with great thoughts, great coffee, and pithy dialogue.  Scene after scene of this--caffeinated and verbose, they never did a thing.

Not one bit of action in ten pages!  (Well, the character moved to the refrigerator and back, but that didn't count, my teacher told me.)

Not long after, I read an interview with writer Dennis Lehane, most famous for his novel Mystic River.  In the interview, he spoke of a key lesson he learned from one of his writing teachers:  If characters are in the same room for more than a page, get them out.

Although my plane-crash survivor was moving--walking for pages in the dark forest--to a reader it was just time passing in the same room.  Not enough action.  
Readers learn the most about characters (real or imagined--so memoir writers, this is for you too!) from what they do, rather than what they think or even say.  Isn't that true about people you know?  Your friends may talk a fine story, but the real deal is when they try to live it.  
Same with people on the page. 

This Week's Writing Exercise
If you want to try the exercise that changed my writing life, here are the steps:

1.  Pick a chapter, series of scenes, or another section of your writing that just isn't getting off the ground.

2.  In the margin of each section, write the answers to the two questions:  What the purpose of this section? and What's actually happening here?

3.  See what can be trimmed, enlivened, or moved.

Bonus:  A cool link from a writer in my advanced (part 3) online book class is this blog post from The Algonquin Redux on writing action.  (Thanks, Anne!)  If you are at all confused about how to add action to your scenes, you'll enjoy it!