Here’s a little-known secret about stories: they’re about what your characters do.
Okay, so maybe it’s not so little known. I mean, duh, right? Your character does something and then he does something else—and, presto, you have a plot! And yet writers often end up spending a huge chunk of time describing what their characters aren’t doing.
by K.M. Weiland
Basically, this technique allows you to show, by way of contrast, what your character is doing. If he’s not smiling, he’s probably frowning. Readers aren’t likely to be confused. So what’s the big problem here?
The Problem With Non-Action in a Scene
Take a look at the following sentences:
Shannon didn’t think about Mark while dancing with Geraldo.
Geraldo was surprised chills didn’t run up his spine.
All we know here is what these characters aren’t doing. In essence, we’ve created a vacuum of action. They aren’t doing anything. Or rather, they are doing something, but readers have no idea what that something might be.
When we place the emphasis on non-actions, we’re failing to tell readers what they should be visualizing. If we fail to give them any further clues to help them see what the characters are doing, then readers are left with a great big blank.
They are doing something, but readers have no idea what that something might be.
The Power of Positive Action in a Scene
When we focus on what our characters are doing, rather than what they’re not, we’re able to paint specific pictures for our readers. Consider our rewritten examples:
Mark kept his gaze on the torn Valentine Shannon handed back to him, so he wouldn’t have to see Shannon dancing with Geraldo.
Shannon sighed ecstatically. What a divine dancer Geraldo was.
Geraldo was surprised how calm he felt.
The focus on what is happening gives readers something to grab onto with their imaginations. More than that, it fills in that non-action vacuum with further insights into the characters’ emotions, reactions, and purposes.
We’re able to paint specific pictures for our readers.
The Exception: When You Should Choose Non-Actions for a Scene
Although we’re generally going to want to focus on what our characters are doing, thinking, or feeling, this is far from being a hard and fast rule. Sometimes what our characters aren’t doing will end up being what is most important.
You may decide that saying “Mark didn’t look at Shannon” speaks volumes more to his state of mind than any positive action on his part. It’s not as visceral, since it doesn’t allow readers to see through Mark’s eyes and visualize whatever he’s looking at in Shannon’s stead. But it’s certainly pithier.
Pairing non-actions with positive actions can often be repetitive. If we say Mark is looking at the torn Valentine, then we know he can’t possibly be looking at Shannon. But sometimes we can get a little more mileage out of our descriptions with a clever pairing. If you want the emphasis to be on Mark’s efforts to avert his eyes—but you also want to give readers something positive to visualize—you can piece the two together:
Mark didn’t look at Shannon dancing with Geraldo. He fingered the ragged edge of the Valentine she had torn and shoved back in his face.
Bottom line: Keep readers focused on what’s happening—except when what’s not happening is legitimately more important to their understanding and experience of your story.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.
She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.