Monday, June 10

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dipping into the mailbag today with a great question about writing a smooth narrative:
Could you do a post on how to weave description of character actions with what's going on in their head? I'm stuck on a scene in my current WIP where the main character is fleeing an embarrassing situation, and I want to show both the actions involved in her leaving with what's going on in her head. Every time I write it, it reads like too much interior monologue without enough action.
Considering how much of a novel is action mixed with internal thought, this is a biggie. Tip the balance too far in either direction the writing can come across too slow (too much in a character's head) or too flat (all description, no character).

How writers mix these is part of their style, so there is no hard and fast rule. I like to aim for a balance between them, where what the character does flows smoothly with what she thinks. Her thoughts and actions work in tandem to tell the story.

If someone is fleeing an embarrassing situation, I'd think about the state of mind of the POV character and how she'd interact with the world around her because of that. 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?

Let's look at an example from The Shifter. Actually, let's have some fun and look as a re-worked-to-make-it-bad example. First, 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. Look at how 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. 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.

(More on rhythm of the prose here)

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. I could live without the squawking, but as long as she just flapped her wings as I lifted her off the nest I'd be okay. 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 here, she doesn't do anything. She's explaining the situation before she does it, which feels a little self-indulgent. It can also be bad if the next bit actually goes into her lifting the chicken and sticking it under her arm. It's a form of telling, and bloats the manuscript since you're saying things twice.

(More on too much internal thought here)

Finally, 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. Dialog, 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. (Dialog, 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)

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.

Different scenes will require different ratios, but I like a modified rule of three here: 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 dialog. 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.

(More on fixing pacing problems here)

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

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 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 cry 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 dialog and description.

A smooth narrative mixes it up so the prose doesn't feel stale. If you feel there's too much action, toss in some dialog. Too much internal thought, describe something. Use all the tools available to you. In my example, my protagonist is alone, yet she talks to the chicken, enabling me to use dialog to keep the scene from feeling too much in her head.

Writing exercise time! (Yes, they're back)

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.”