When the Action Fades: What We Write About When “Nothing” is Happening

Once again, it’s Courtney from Syncopated Synonyms. Before you throw your rotten tomatoes in disappointment at hearing from me yet again due to this hundred-years’-word-war, I’d just like to note that I have been writing upwards of 10,000 words a week, just on a Master’s Thesis rather than a novel.

Once the semester ends your Master erm, benevolent host, will have to watch out. Because it really will be war. Again.

Anyhow, my task this week is to talk to all of you about writing the non-action bits of your novel, something otherwise known as “sequel” (where “action” bits are known as scenes). If this is a bit confusing to you, refer to Jack Bickam’s Scene & Structure, which is part of Writer’s Digest’s Elements of Fiction Writing Series.

Now, before I get into great detail about the purpose of these “sequel,” or non-action parts, I’d like to share a few quotes with you:

“Writing is both mask and unveiling.” E.B. White

“I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in the subway, where you can’t do anything anyway.” Toni Morrison

Writing is sort of a push and pull act of creation, it’s ambiguous, and it’s often not as simple as it seems it should be. Famous authors, such as the two (some of my favorite Literary authors) I quote above struggle with many of the same things as us not-so-famous authors. One thing in particular is finding balance between “action” and “calm” in writing.

There’s something about writing–especially the writing of fiction–that really needs non-action moments, even though, for writers and readers, the excitement, glamour, or shock and awe value–whatever you want to call it–may seem to lie in the action scenes.

I get it, action is so much more fun to write.

But just like people, stories need moments of calm, of apparent solitude, so that they can make connections and plan out future action and let the reality of things really, truly set in. Now, this “calm” can take many forms. For example:

In Renaissance Drama, the “sequel” bits often took the forms of soliloquies )the monologue that happen when only one character is on stage [or at least appears to be the only person on stage]). In these moments, characters process information and regroup or proceed with their plans.

In Urban Fantasy, these are usually the rare moments when the protagonist gets to enjoy a “normal” and “everyday” occasion, like a family party, a date, a night at home away from all of the monsters and mayhem. These are also the moments when the characters either grapple with their identities or experience satisfaction in who they are and how they live. As readers, we get to see who and what these character love, not just what they hate/fight against. We also get to see the “real” character rather than the “action-hero” he or she becomes during action scenes.

As these two highly divergent examples illustrate, however, these moments are important for far more than plot purposes. They allow readers to glimpse the “essence” of the characters, they allow the writer to solidify characterization or to point to some driving motivation beneath the surface of the action-packed scenes.

These moments are somewhat uncanny in action-genres such as Urban Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller, etc., because the conventions of the genre ultimately predetermine reader expectations. We expect danger and explosions, adrenaline-filled moments of awesome. We don’t expect to see a the protagonist slip on some reading glasses and open up a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice, or talk to a supposed enemy over a civil gourmet dinner, or geek out over Monty Python after a long day battling evil. But these moments often tell us much more about the character than the action scenes do, just because they allow both the readers and the characters to figuratively step-back from the pressing immediacy of the plot and just be themselves.

At least, that’s my take. Please chime in with your ideas, as well.

It’s been fun,

Courtney

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