Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Bob and Weave: How to Mix Character Actions and Internal Thoughts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The smoother the flow between action and thought, the stronger the scene will be.

Although some scenes (and some writers) find the perfect balance between action and internal thought with ease, other scenes take work to get that balance right. Tip the balance too far in either direction, and the writing can come across as too slow (too much in a character's head) or too flat (all description, no character).

There's no rule or ratio for this, and a writer's voice grows from how they string words together. A combination that works is where what the character does flows smoothly with what the character thinks, and thoughts and actions work in tandem to tell the story. 

The genre will affect that balance, and a more thoughtful novel will likely tip to the internal thought side, while a thriller might lean toward the action.

Action really can get boring
For example, if someone is fleeing an embarrassing situation, it's helpful to consider the state of mind of the character and how she'd interact with the world around her based on that embarrassment. What might she be doing as she thinks about her situation? Looking for places to hide? Heaping more embarrassment on herself by tripping or missing the door when she reaches for it? Fighting physical symptoms? Reacting physically as well as emotionally? What might she notice?

Different characters will also react differently to embarrassment, as well. A shy type might slink away with her mind going a mile a minute, while a fighter type might stand her ground and try to laugh it off or make a joke.

Let's look at an example from The Shifter. Actually, let's have some fun and look at a re-worked-to-make-it-bad example. First, the opening with all action:
I sang a soft good morning to the little hen. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head. She didn’t squawk, just flapped her wings as I lifted her off the nest. I tucked her under my arm and she settled down.
Hear that flatness? There's no soul in this, it's just bland description of what a character is doing. There's no judgment or opinion from the narrator, just statements of fact. This is what I did. This is what I did next. Here's what happened after that. -yawn-

One reason this reads so poorly is that there's no variety in the sentences. The rhythm is all the same and that kills the prose and makes it feel stagnant. There's nothing for a reader to care about here, because it's impersonal.

(Here's more on 4 Ways to Keep Your Sentences From All Sounding the Same)

Get out of your head sometimes
Now, let's shove it over to too much internal thought:
Good morning little hen. Chickens are so cute when they wake up. Sleepy little eyes, cocked heads. They ruffle a little and make cute little bwack chirps, unless they get nervous. I could live without the squawking, but as long as this didn't do more than flap her wings as I lifted her off the nest I'd be okay. I'd done this dozens of times, so she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week.
Makes you want to yell at her to get to the point, doesn't it? All she's doing is thinking, not acting. She's explaining the situation before she does it, which feels a little self-indulgent. It'll also sound repetitious if the next paragraph actually goes into her lifting the chicken and sticking it under her arm. It's a form of telling, and bloats the manuscript since it says the same things twice.

(Here's more on Internal Medicine: How Much Internalization is Too Much?)

Finally, let's look at the original paragraph:
“Good morning, little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week.
This has a nice mix of all the narrative pieces. Dialogue, action, internal thought. The narrator is acting, but since she's describing it in her voice it doesn't feel like bland description of her actions. You can see her picking up the chicken and putting it under her arm, and understand why she's doing this. Even better, some of those thoughts hint at what could go wrong, which adds stakes and tension.

Let's break it down further:

“Good morning, little hen,” I sang softly. (Dialogue, which is active, giving the paragraph a sense of movement. The protagonist is doing something, even if it's just singing to a chicken)

The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. (Action--the chicken blinks and cocks her head. But there's a little voice in her that keeps it from being straight description of action. The "blinked awake" and "at me" makes it personal to the narrator)

She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. (A mix of internal thought (narrative) and action. "She didn't get the squawking" is a thought, but it refers to the action at hand so it feels like it's moving the action. This is what the narrator expected, and I bet a lot of readers imagine that squawking chicken, and how this might be a problem to her. "just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest" is action, but again, with a little voice to connect it to the narrator. "she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm" is internal thought, yet the thought is about the action and moves the story. You don't see her tuck the chicken under her arm, but you feel that she does it because she's already acted in this paragraph. It doesn't feel static here like it did in the no-action example)

I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week. (Internal thought (narrative), but it relates directly to what's going on in a way that doesn't duplicate what was done)

So what can you take away from all this?

1. Aim for balance between action and internal thought.

Weaving leads to many shapes of stories
Different scenes will require different ratios, but I like a modified rule of three: Don't use the same type of sentence three times in a row. If you have two action sentences, make the third an internal thought or line of dialogue. If you use two internal thought sentences, then break it up with a third action sentence. Combine them in one sentence to further mix it up. Variety keeps the pace moving and keeps the rhythm of the prose from being flat or list-like.

(Here's more on Move Along: Fixing Pacing Problems)

My example would break down to: Dialogue--action--internal thought/action mix--internal thought. For those curious about the next line in this scene--It's action, followed by dialogue.

This doesn't mean that if you happen to have three thoughts in a row that's bad, but if you think a passage feels heavy in one area, or off in general, look at how many sentences of one type you have in a row and see if varying the types fixes the problem.

2. Connect the action and the internal thoughts, but don't duplicate them.

Thinking and acting the same basic thing feels repetitious, and bogs down the passage with unnecessary words. Try to offer new information with each line. If your character thinks how much she wants to cry in one line, don't have her fighting back tears in the next line. Find another way to show that sadness or give a reason why she's crying.

3. Don't forget the power of dialogue and description.

Dialogue is action, and it's usually fast-paced action at that. A line or two of dialogue in a scene really adds a sense of things moving and gets the character out of her head. In my example, my protagonist is alone, yet she talks to the chicken, enabling me to use dialogue to keep the scene from feeling too internal.

Description allows you to bridge the gap between action and thought by giving the character something external to focus on. A strong point of view also brings a character's voice to it, so it can read like a mix of action and thought--seeing and describing what's seen.

(Here's more on Three Things to Consider When Writing Descriptions)

A smooth narrative mixes it up so the prose doesn't feel stale or repetitious. Finding the right balance for the scene is crucial, so if you feel there's too much action, toss in some dialogue. Too much internal thought, describe something. Keep tweaking until the flow feels right for the emotion and pacing you want for that scene, and don't forget to use all the narrative tools available to you--not only action and internal thought.

Do you have a preference when your write? Do you naturally balance or lean to one side or the other?

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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Writing exercise time! (Yes, they're back) CONTEST CLOSED

In 250 words or less, write a well-mixed scene using character action and internal thought.

The catch:
Let's help out the original question-asker with some specific examples, and write a scene where someone is running away from an embarrassing situation.

Post your entry in the comments section. Deadline for entries is next Monday, June 17, at noon, EST. I'll choose the winner and post the finalists on Tuesday, June 18th.

Winner gets a 1000-word critique. It's been a while, so previous winners are eligible to win this time.


  1. I think I'll try one of these writing exercises! Here's my try, 250 words exactly:

    The saddle tilted to the side. I should have known something like this would happen. Every time I ride a horse… it never fails. I pulled on the reins and the horse halted. It did nothing to stop the slide. I was going to fall. At least I was at the end of the line. Then again, if they kept riding along without me, I’d get lost.

    Let them see my fall or have them come back for me, calling out my name like I was a child lost? I didn’t know what would be more embarrassing.

    “Waaaait!” I cried out to the woman riding ahead of me. Granny-like and kind, she’d empathize with my plight, or so I hoped. She glanced at me. The heat rose to my cheeks. I careened to the side with the saddle. My feet tangled with the stirrups. If I couldn’t get loose, I’d flip!

    “She’s falling!”

    No, duh! The horse neighed. I reached for the pommel. Somehow, I freed my legs and landed upright. I didn’t know I had such acrobatics in me. Petting the horse’s neck with shaky hands and a pounding heart, I sighed.

    “Nice dismount,” the guide said. He settled the horse, gathering the reins so it wouldn’t run away. That would’ve been bad. “You’re lucky.”

    Lucky? I wanted to crawl into a hole and cry. All the riders stared at me, some hiding snickers behind their hands.

    “You could’ve been trampled.”

    Well, I guess it could have been worse.

  2. Great question and answer. I like how you broke down the good example so we could really see it. You're right that it's hard to get the right balance and important to add something fresh to what you're saying as you go between dialogue, action, and internal thoughts. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Your article was so interesting I just had to dash off a quickie:

    She staggered clumsily as she rushed from the room. Her face glowed red with embarrassment and she felt as though her neck was shrinking into her collar. What did I just say? She tried to remember exactly what had happened. I wanted to let him down easily, but when his sister walked up behind me . . . .

    She swung violently at the rose bush as she walked by and uttered a foul curse as a thorn tore into her flesh.

    Why does this happen to me? Why do I always end up as the victim? She was sure that everybody in the street had overheard the one-sided conversation and were staring, waiting for an encore. She kicked at the rock on the sidewalk, misjudged, and fell onto her behind. “Dammit!”

    The object of her ire, only a few paces behind, reached down and lifted her to her feet. “I’m afraid I didn’t understand a word of what you said inside. You were in such a rush none if it made sense. Sis had her earbuds blaring and was of no help.”

    How stupid of me, she thought, embracing him. “I’m sorry. I was confused and rambled on. Can I try again?”

    His look of deep concern put her at ease. “Of course.”

    She realized that her actions had been hasty and senseless, “I was hurt and upset because you forgot to make reservations for the weekend. Are we still on?” and she breathed a sigh of relief.

  4. Natalie, the examples are always my favorite part of the posts. I have ideas I want to write, but I can't think up good examples for them, and I know they need them to really make it clear :)

  5. Well, I've still stuck in the boatyard, so I have another chance to participate. :)

    By the time I had crossed the field, stumbling past colleagues and dodging the sack race, I was hyperventilating. Denial kept me in motion – as long as I was walking, I could pretend it hadn’t happened. I landed at Karen’s elbow, hands clenched to keep from plucking at her sleeve like a three-year-old.

    Months later, she was still yakking. “Would you excuse us?” I hauled her away, throwing a painful smile at whomever she was talking to. It could have been a yeti for all I noticed.

    Karen yanked her arm away. “Frank,” she hissed, “what is the matter with you?”

    I’m dying, I thought. “We have to go.”

    “But... your company picnic? Why?”

    My breath huffed out in a whine. Why couldn’t Karen ever just go along? I leaned in. “IgrabbedMrSullivan’sbuttinthefoodline.” Panic gripped my chest as I remembered getting a handful of an unexpectedly large denim-covered posterior. And Sullivan’s face...


    I was almost crying by now. Any minute, the rumour was going to sweep through the group, and my life was going to end. “I thought it was you behind me!” Staying it aloud, I started to melt into a puddle of shame in the grass. How had I managed to feel up a fifty-year old man instead of my girlfriend?

    Before Karen could say anything, Steve Lang draped himself over our shoulders, grinning like an idiot. “You guys. Some doofus just goosed Bill Sullivan over at the meat table.”

    Karen hitched up her purse. “I’ll drive.”

  6. Such great advice! I notice that reading really helps me with this...watching how the pros do it :)

  7. Julie, I think reading helps us develop our writer's ear. We get a sense of what sounds right, which helps us spot things that are off (or working) in our own work :)

  8. fun one!

    Oh my God, I’ve got to get out of here.

    Eyes were on her from all directions. She could hear sporadic snickering and shushing as heat rose from her neck filling her face like somebody pouring coffee in a cup.

    Where the hell is the door in this place? She thought frantically as her eyes darted past people and tables, searching for an exit sign.

    “Towel?” Interrupted a waitress behind her, as her knee jerked, hitting the table and causing the plates to create a dissonant yet thankfully short symphony.

    More laughter from the other diners.

    Seriously, will this nightmare not end? “Thank you. I… I, uh have to go.” She trailed off, uncertain how to finish.

    “The party you were meeting?” The waitress asked, with a half smile half smirk, knowing very well she’d been stood up.

    “He’s been in an accident.” She lied before she could stop herself.

    Oh my God, why did I say that?

    The waitress’s shoulders dropped, along with the smirk from her face. “Oh my gosh hun, I hope he’s ok.” The waitress said as she took Mary by the hand escorting her out.

    Holy crap, she actually believes me.

    The remains of her third cucumber martini, which was now soaked into her dress, mixed with the air conditioning, completely dousing the heat of embarrassment.

    “Well, it doesn’t look good. I have to get to the hospital.” She said loud enough for her snickering audience to hear before trailing off again.

  9. “I’m so cool. I’m so cool,” rang the song ‘round my brain. “Looka me. Looka me. I’m so damn cool.” Mothers yanked their babes as I careened through. The pedestrian mall was a mouth agape. I’m a show and a half.

    Watch me do a wheelie, fools. Uh oh. My belt snagged the bicycle seat. Mom said I should pull them up. The pavement came rushing. With my fly to my knees, my shackled legs were useless saviors. It was either hands or face.

    With hands flailing and belt hooked, waistband and fly converged about knee high and pulled the bike, wheels to the sky, over my skidding body as pavement ripped my palms. Gapes turned to smiles. Kids were laughing. Nobody cared about me lying prone and bloody with my pants to my knees under a bicycle with its seat wedged between my thighs.

    I rolled over and thumbed the waistband down. The bike fell. Ouch, ouch. The escaping seat tore at my thighs, and the front wheel hub gashed my temple. Ouch again. I better use fists to push off. My denim manacles plopped me on my butt, and now the damn adults were laughing with the kids. What’s the matter with you? I could be your kid.

    Gotta get outta here. Gotta have a plan. Thumb pants above knees. Stand. Ouch. Damn it. Use your knuckles. Pants up (all the way). Raise the bike. Use your fingertips. Easy on. Don’t get the thighs to bleeding.

    Pedal like hell. “Mom!”

  10. Running with scissors is considered a bad idea, sure, but getting your toddler to collect them from the kitchen and carefully walk across the lawn is fine, right?


    “Please get down from the roof, sir,” the toilet-puck blue policeman rumbled sternly.

    “Just a sec, officer,” I gasped, wriggling. My belt had caught on the eaves troughing, or he never would have noticed me. It would have just been little Timmy strolling across the grass with those sharp and snappy blades in his pudgy hands--nothing to do with me at all. Blood hammered in my ears. My shirt had somehow tangled around my throat and started strangling me. “I’m—ack—fixing a shingle.”

    “Harry? Why are you on the roof? And I thought I told you not to wear those boxers anymore.”

    Admittedly, it probably wasn’t the best day to wear underwear with bright yellow happy face and the slight stain. Coffee I swear. But I really didn’t see this coming.

    A voice piped up. “Mommy, is Daddy going to the naughty chair?”

    I glanced down to see a steely sheen in Sally’s eye that suggested much worse than a naughty chair. The last time I saw that small vein in her temple tick like that, like a panther’s tail, a pimply faced cashier in Staples had gotten stapled in the nose.

    The officer growled. “Are you coming down, sir?”

    I smiled at him brightly. “Uh, I think I’ll go with no.”

  11. Great breakdown and analysis!
    My only question is, how does the revised paragraph (with the wonderful weaving) fit into the stimulus-response rhythm of writing? In the traditional MRU sequence, it is stimulus (birds squawking, I would imagine) and her response would then be (in order): visceral response, emotion, internal thought, deliberate action, dialogue. But here, the paragraph starts in dialogue (the tail end of response and then has the weaving which mixes things). At the very least, shouldn't the dialogue come in at the end?

    The weaving is very nicely done, just wondering about the order of the response. Love to hear your thoughts because it's something that's confused me in other writing too. Thanks!

    1. I was on hiatus when you asked this, but I'll answer anyway in case you still need it and are reading...

      This is actually a snippet from my opening scene, so there are events that happen before and after this. So the stimulus-response stuff comes before and after this moment. She has some internal thoughts about stealing chickens vs eggs before this, which sets up her speaking to the hen.

      Technically, nothing has happened yet for her to respond to. That happens in the next line (she gets caught stealing the eggs), and then she reacts and responds. So in this scene, it opens with her musing about stealing eggs vs chickens and how that fits into her goal of being hungry and needing to steal to eat, which leads to her lifting the hen, and then it ends with her getting caught. she reacts internally, then externally when she bolts and runs away (and gets chased, which leads to her revealing herself and her magical ability, and sets up a relationship that's central to the series and plot).

      This is just one small moment in a bigger scene, so it won't have the same level of S/R as a whole scene.