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.
Lesser-included 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 over-described:
Turned, 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: She 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 rail.
Reached: 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.
Looked, as in, Ron looked at his wristwatch to check the time. It’s smoother this way: Ron checked the time on his watch.
Another: 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.
Lifted 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.
Bent: 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: stoodand 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 to mount.
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 (www.thayerediting.com).