Wednesday, January 25

Is a Lack of Action Really the Problem?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series


Q: This may sound too general to address with concrete examples, but I'll post it anyway with the hope that others struggle with it too: when passages are mainly dialogue, how can you add in little touches of (modest) action?

For example, I'm writing a sci-fi novel. In certain passages where the crew is trying to devise a weapon to defeat the enemy, I have not found a way to insert much action. The story's protagonist is the ship's captain, and she cannot be personally involved in things like weapons building. So I'm reduced to having her call meetings to discuss strategy, which can only maintain our interest for a page, at most.

Is there any trick, mental or otherwise, that one can use to break out of the trap of no-action scenes? When this happens, I find myself going perhaps too deeply inside her head to reveal her fears and discontentment since blocks of nothing but straight dialogue would be boring.


A: Yes, a very easy trick. It’s not about the action, but the conflict.

Conflict and the need to know what happens is what keeps readers reading. I suspect the reason you’re having trouble here is that your instincts are telling you there’s a problem (good instincts), but they’re looking in the wrong place for the answer.

The best-written action scene in the world won’t hold a reader’s interest if it’s just a description of stuff going on. Two people sitting on a bench having a conversation can be the most riveting scene in the world if the scene is packed full of conflict.

(Here's more on keeping informative scenes tense)

There’s a series (The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell) that has a ton of “fleet officers having a meeting” scenes. They’re discussing upcoming battles, speculating over enemies, talking about weapons—probably not dissimilar to what you have in your novel. None of them are boring, because every meeting is about more than the logistics of the meeting itself. There’s conflict between the protagonist, and pretty much everyone else. Doing something similar will likely fix your issue as well (and anyone else having this same problem).

Take a closer look at what the conflict is in these meeting scenes. I’d bet there isn’t any, or it’s so general (such as, “we need this weapon to beat the bad guy”) that it’s not affecting the outcome of the scene, and that’s why they feel boring to you.

(Here's more on easy ways to add conflict to a scene)

Think about how you can bring conflict into those meetings. Make the scene not about the meeting, but about something else that happens to occur during these meetings. You might have to get creative and shift some events around, but I’d guess you have plenty of conflicts (both the main plot and subplots) that can butt heads at these times.

(Here's more on why "start with the action" messes up so many writers)

You can also create conflict in the meeting itself by having opposing opinions. Make siding with different people have consequences, so choosing the right course of action isn’t so cut and dry. Force the characters to make impossible choices that will have lasting ramifications. Let other characters air dirty laundry at the meetings, suggesting potential problems between the crew down the road. Use whatever works for the story and fits the plot.

Another way is to slip some discussions into scenes that already have interesting things going on. Maybe a crew member has an idea and wants to run it by the captain when he runs into her in the halls. Or the XO mentions something he overheard the engineers speculating on. It might even be conveyed with the captain reading a quick report that briefly mentions the pertinent information.

When our instincts are telling us something is off, we’re usually right, even if we’re not right about the underlying cause. Most boring scenes are boring because of the lack of conflict, and we feel we need to “make stuff happen” to get it interesting again. But all we really need to do, is make the scene do more than dump information on the reader. Find a way to add conflict and make readers anticipate something in the scene, and they won’t care if all your characters do is sit there and talk.

Do you have any scenes that could benefit from more conflict?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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4 comments:

  1. So true.

    I'd add one point to this, what I call the "speed bump/ speed on by" rule: if you can only find a few bits of conflict in a scene, that might be enough to carry it. Because then what your characters would do (we all do this) is talk quickly about the things they agree about-- and then slowing down when they hit the one point that's still controversial. That's the good stuff, and the characters themselves can shift the scene's pace to focus on it. And of course, you can start the scene in mid-meeting when some of the routine is already over, and end it as soon as it's calmed down again.

    This is only one tool, and often it's not as good as shuffling more conflict into a scene, and cutting the scenes that don't have enough. But combined with everything else, it adds a lot of flexibility to scenes.

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  2. Wonderful post, Janice! I had a LONG block of dialogue in my last manuscript, and I was so enamored with wanting "action" instead of conflict. When I started focusing on the tension, the costly consequences, and other high stakes which the characters were discussing (or which my MC was internally debating), it helped move the scene along and eliminate some of the drag.

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  3. Dialog can often be conflict. Just because it's a meeting, doesn't mean everyone agrees with everything or is on the same page. People bring their personalities, their attitudes and their own ideas to the table. I always play off of that. I actually enjoy writing group conversation scenes and it's funny that this came up because I've just been working on one that involves six different characters.

    One suggestion, if you're not seeing enough action/conflict with the characters that are already involved, bring someone else in. There could be any number of reasons why someone might step into the meeting room and cause dissension or throw a wrench into the whole monkey works.

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  4. Great reminders about conflict.

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