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How to Make Your Action Sequences POP!

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If you’ve spent any time working on your writing with other authors, taking writing classes, or even reading books on writing, you’ve probably come across the concept of “show, don’t tell.” This directive sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s saying that you should use your words to paint pictures, pulling the audience of your work into it, making them emotionally connect. It says that you should avoid just grazing the surface of a scene, simply narrating events without getting into the meat.

Well, showing instead of telling is probably one of the most difficult things about writing. While it tells you what to do and what not to do, it doesn’t tell you how to do it. And we can’t definitively tell you how to do it either, but we can show you!

Action scenes are the moments in a manuscript where telling is used most often. Unfortunately, it’s also where it’s the easiest to notice it. When we say action, we don’t mean strictly hand-to-hand combat or dodging bullets (although it could be this). What we mean by action is much more general. It’s any sort of movement, mental or physical. It could be an internal argument. It could be someone walking to get their mail. Explaining a memory or past experience. Anything.

The easiest way in these situations to go from being a teller to a shower is to break up the action. To insert small details, facial expressions, thoughts, or feelings. Preferably a combination of them all!

Here’s an example of a paragraph that only tells:

After Jeff woke up, he swung his feet over the side of the bed to put on his slippers. He walked down the hall and down the stairs to get to the coffeemaker. The light blinked red as it started to brew. Letting out a sigh, Jeff sat down to wait.

And here’s one that shows:

Jeff woke up in a bleary haze. His mouth was full of cotton and his head was full of cobwebs. He didn’t want to crawl out of his warm bed, but there was nothing in the world he needed more than coffee. Well, maybe to curse Tim for keeping him out so late the night before, but that could wait until caffeine made him feel somewhat human again. He wasn’t a young man anymore. He swung his feet over the side of the bed to put on his slippers and vaulted himself off the bed with a audible creak and a louder groan. He walked down the hall and down the stairs slowly, gingerly, to get to the coffeemaker. His savior, he thought with a minute, wry smile. The light blinked red as it started to brew. Letting out a sigh of relief as the coffee-scented steam fogged up his glasses, Jeff sat down to wait.

Notice that the second paragraph is quite a bit longer than the first. This is because we fleshed out the details of the action. However, it doesn’t need to be this long. If you’re worried about adding too many words to your work by dong this, you can do a little bit more revision to pare it down but still make you scene interesting. If you’re fond of telling instead of showing, chances are that you have a lot of unnecessary action in your prose. The audience doesn’t need to know that Jeff put on his slippers, or that he walked down the hall and then the stairs. Little bits of narration like this seem necessary when you’re not adding any emotion or commentary to the action. But once that’s there, your audience isn’t going to care about not knowing how he got to the kitchen.

Remember that a good way to tell if you’re telling too much is to read each paragraph and then ask yourself what else it accomplished besides moving the action along. If it only gets your character from point A to point B, you’re telling too much!

Writers, how do you show in your action sequences? How do you tell when you’re telling?

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  1. I think the use of the terms “telling” and “showing” are part of the problem people have in understanding this concept. The fact is that writers are using a textual medium, and words are automatically ALL telling. Movies use a visual medium, and are automatically all showing. I think it’s more useful to present the goal as giving the reader a vicarious experience. That’s what all those details and thoughts do for a story that bare narration can’t do alone.

    • Fabulous point Ben. A book we’re reading now that does a stellar job of conveying your point is “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence” by Lisa Cron. We found this book at this year’s Writer’s Digest Conference. It is excellent for helping writers create that vicarious experience you mention. Thanks for the comment.

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