Connecting the dots: writing between the action

Working out the issues in novel writing.

What do you think is the hardest thing for a writer to write? For many, it’s finding a way to connect the dots, or points of action in the plot. After all, your writing cannot be non-stop action. (That’s a very clumsy sentence and I apologize.)  When you start writing, maybe you begin with a short story or a piece of flash fiction. Both are excellent ways to dip your toes into the pool of storytelling. However, with pieces of short fiction, you have only a small space to present your plot from inception to conclusion and that leaves no room for “downtime.” The action of the story will take place all at once. Maybe you excel at, and enjoy short story writing and you want to continue. If so, you can stop reading now!

If, however, you want to move into the world of long-form fiction, or novel writing, then you need to find a way to add and fill spaces between the action bits. You can imagine your storyline as a radio wave, with peaks and valleys rising and falling as each conflict presents itself and is resolved. Or as a set of stairs where the action climbs then levels off, then builds again and finally reaches the top floor or conclusion.

A story has two basic engines that drive it along: the characters and the plot. A character-driven story is one in which something about the character’s essential self, leads to a particular action or event in the story. For example, your female lead may be fiercely independent which causes her to reject help from friends or family to overcome the obstacle she is facing. Her individuality is going to greatly effect the way the action proceeds.

A plot-driven story is one in which the actions taken by the characters in a story result in a particular plot point. But in this case, the action is driving the plot, not the qualities of the character’s personality.

Independent from that, external circumstances outside the characters’ control will influence both plot and character driven stories. For example, imagine that a super storm is about to hit the East Coast of the USA, your characters are trapped in harm’s way, how will they survive? The actions they take as well as the motivations that impel them are the two aspects of spinning a tale. Tension builds as the storm approaches, but for a time, at least, there is not much going on. If you excel at writing action scenes, these downtimes between crises might prove to be daunting. What to do?

The lulls between these sequences of action are the perfect times to explore your characters’ personalities. How are they managing in the situation in which they find themselves? Are their strengths or weaknesses being revealed? What are their motivations for acting/reacting the way they do?

Let’s take the super storm scenario and suppose our main character is a nurse in a hospital in Savannah, Georgia – a city directly in the path of the storm. Let’s call her Ellen. The patients of the hospital need to be evacuated and Nurse Ellen is selected to stay to the bitter end. The suspense in the story escalates as the weather rapidly deteriorates. Only a few of the patients are left in the hospital with just one doctor and Nurse Ellen. The water is rising and the winds are too high for the ambulances to get back for one last trip. The 6 people left behind will have to hunker down and try to ride it out. A character-driven story now asks the writer to show Nurse Ellen being a strong, capable leader or alternatively to show her falling apart as she realizes she may never see her husband and young child again. We may even see a little bit of both. Nevertheless, during this time of waiting, Nurse Ellen’s inner self is revealed.

Now is the time for meaningful dialogue among the characters. For our purposes, let’s suppose that Ellen is going to shine during the crisis and not fall apart. She will care for and comfort the few remaining patients. Perhaps the doctor is the one coming unglued and Ellen has to deal with him panicking and not pulling his weight! The way she speaks, the words she chooses, and her movements will show the reader what kind of person she is. The writer may include Ellen’s thoughts and internal conflict by describing her facial expressions and body language. She may frown, bite her fingernails, twirl a lock of hair, rub her face, wring her hands… things like that. And even though the action is at a low point, the story moves forward. We the reader, are engaged while we wait for the next disaster to hit!

With a look inside the mind of the characters, they become real, fully immersed in the story and the conflict. And without it, they remain generic and unrelatable. It’s hard to sympathize with them, to root for them to overcome their obstacles and triumph in the face of danger. By using the space between the dots, we fully develop the depth and breadth of an excellent story.

Now, I’m off to write a disaster story, starring Nurse Ellen! Happy writing!

38 thoughts on “Connecting the dots: writing between the action

  1. In a way short stories are incredibly easy plot wise, because there’s not many dots to connect, but when the story becomes a novel, that’s a lot trickier, much more balancing to do.
    I think keeping the momentum is the toughest thing for me, driving the story along, poking it with a stick with a deranged look on my face, urging it to move. And like you say, those bits between action/ plot are tough and possibly even more important than the overall story in a way, because you have to fill without filler.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes, exactly! And pacing can become an issue, too. Keeping the action and downtime spaced well enough that the action doesn’t exhaust the reader and the in between bits don’t drag on too long!

      Thanks for stopping by and following!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Great info because I recently heard a blogger complain about lack of traffic and how it was a waste of time. The only real waste of time is not writing at all. I recently lost a blog post file and had to rewrite it again, but this time it turned out better.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Now I didn’t get that at all from what I’ve read of your writing. In Vikingr, you break up the action by returning to the skald’s tales, and the excerpts from your new book have the characters waiting, preparing for battle the next day. You probably just enjoy the action more and you want to get to it faster! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Both are going through evolutions of sorts due to changes in their circumstances. One is learning to be more analytical while the other is learned to be more proactive in terms of action. That tends to stretch them in how they approach the situations they are finding themselves. Eventually, they will settle in to new ways of thinking and doing. Surprising others when they come back to The Ordinary World? Absolutely. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. some wonderful advice. I’ve taken it to heart in my own ideas for long form fiction. I really need to return to that at one point. I have a story just waiting to be written and this piece certainly connects a few dots of how to craft it.

    Thanks for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s been a while… I done a series of short stories back in 2016, my very first posts on here was the serialisation of a novelette I wrote. I also done a collaborative project with some friends. Fiction writing has been very neglected…. but in the past 12 months so has all my writing. Bad years will do that to you.

        I have a few short story projects planned but for now I’m just getting to the end of Jan with a post everyday as more of an announcement that im back

        …I wonder if anyone’s notice 🤔

        Liked by 1 person

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