Smooth the Action
by James Thayer
We have a terrific scene figured out. Lots of action and suspense.
We sit at our desks, our hands on the keyboards, and picture the
action in our minds—each movement, step by step--and we write it
just as we see it. And we end up with:
He drew his legs in and rose from the chair, then took several steps
to the desk, and then reached out and opened his hand, then put his
right hand around the pistol’s grip and closed his fingers. He
lifted his arm and brought up the pistol.
We have written it frame by frame. Yet it’s smoother and just as
complete this way: He crossed the room
to get the pistol.
Action shouldn’t take longer to read about than the action would
take in real time. When it does, the writer may have broken down
the action into too many constituent parts. There’s too much
detail, such as: She put her hand on the
door handle, twisted it, and opened the door. Segments of
the action have been described, rather than the action as a whole:
She opened the door.
Readers want to move forward with the action, not be slowed by the
description. Written in tiny increments, the action may slow to the
point where the worst happens: the reader looks up from the book at
the new HDTV.
is a legal term explaining why a
person convicted of first-degree murder usually can’t also be
convicted of manslaughter for the same death. We avoid the
lesser-included in writing, too. We don’t write
She ate the fruit and the apples
because apples are a lesser-included of fruit. Same thing when
writing about action. Smaller actions should be bunched together
and described as a single larger action.
Several verbs are often giveaways for action that has been
as in She turned to walk to the window.
Here, turning is a lesser
included of walking to the window. She
walked to the window is enough. Other examples of unneeded
turning: Smith turned and leaped across
the stream. Stacy turned and cocked an ear at the sound.
stood from her chair and crossed the deck.
The reader knows
she must have stood when the reader sees her crossing the deck.
There’s no need to tell the reader she stood. A couple others:
The boxer stood and began jumping
rope. The ballerina stood and joined the other dancers at the
He reached out and lifted the timer.
Readers know that a
person usually cannot lift anything without first reaching for it.
There’s no need to document the reaching. Here are other examples
of too much reaching: Reaching up,
Sally cupped her chin with her hand. Teresa reached out and put her
arm around Andy’s neck. He reached down and picked up the letter
from the floor. She reached out and shook Jeremy’s hand. He
reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. The burglar reached
out and grabbed the windowsill.
as in, Ron looked at his wristwatch to
check the time. It’s smoother this way:
Ron checked the time on his watch.
She looked out the window and saw a deer
running across the pasture is smoother and just as complete
as She saw through the window a deer
running across the pasture.
and picked up:
Sam lifted the phone and dialed a number is smoother as
Sam dialed the telephone.
Another example: He picked up the
magazine and thumbed through it should be
He thumbed through the magazine.
Johnny bent down and brought up the wheelbarrow handles
should be Johnny brought up the
wheelbarrow handles. Others: She
bent at the waist and touched her toes. Ronnie bent the piece of
paper and folded it into a square.
How can we spot action that has been over-described? Ask: can it be
described using one verb, not two? Two verbs for the same movement
often indicate too much detail: stood
and walked; reached and
grabbed; bent and
lifted. One strong verb is
often best to describe an action. Two verbs dilutes the action by
taking too much time to read.
An exception exists to this “Watch out for Lesser-Included” rule.
Often the writer wants to slow the pace of the story to highlight an
intense moment. The writer wants time to slow so that suspense
builds or to let the reader enjoy the moment. Movie directors
commonly slow time at critical junctures in their stories: “The Wild
Bunch,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The
Untouchables” (won’t that baby
carriage ever get to the bottom of the steps?). A writer can do the
same thing by describing action in fine detail. Instead of
The baby carriage bounced down the
steps, we can write:
The baby carriage scraped against the wall, and teetered on the
edge of a riser, then dropped a step, the springs shaking. The
baby’s hand appeared above the carriage’s rim. Tassels on the
carriage hood swayed in unison as the carriage bounced down another
step, and began tilting onto its side. The mother reached for the
handle, and missed. She cried out, and lunged for the carriage.
Her foot missed a step, and she fell to her knees, her hands still
out. The carriage rattled down another step, sliding against the
wall, the rear wheels lifting off the step, as if the carriage were
rearing up to make the plunge to the bottom.
All the details—both the nouns (baby’s hand, tassels, handle, foot,
and others) and verbs (teetered, dropped, disappeared, swayed, and
on and on) have almost stopped time. And it’s a perfect moment to
do so: Elliot Ness must decide whether to save the baby or to aim at
the gangster coming after him. The anguish of making this decision
deserves the slowing the story provided by all the detail. Slowing
time here—by describing the action in a lot of detail—allows tension
Most of the time, though, watch out for extra verbs, the
lesser-included that unintentionally slow the story.
Reached, turned, and
stood are the main culprits.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet;
Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in
March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of
Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service