A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.
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Action vs. Information:
The Oil & Water of Novel Writing
Years ago a prolific pal of mine, author Matthew Pallamary (who teaches a pirate’s workshop at Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference) uttered one of the most profound adages I’d ever heard. Matt apparently heard it from Barnaby Conrad, who may have heard it from playwright/director David Mamet…so I suspect this little gem may have been around for years. But it remains one of the best tidbits of fictional advice that I know. The simple truth is:
Information is the enemy of Action.
Action is the enemy of Information.
Meaning that, as a writer, it’s my obligation to choose one or the other concept (action-based or informational) to define each scene I develop. I can either depict spectacular action or provide revealing information to a reader. But I cannot simultaneously and equally provide both, as the two concepts are inherently incompatible. Action sequences typically rely on external cues; on visual, sensory-heightened but otherwise superficially detailed observations. Conversely, information dissemination tends to internalize, and either through omniscient narration or dialogue provides pertinent revelation, newfound knowledge and/or secrets unbeknownst to other characters or to the reader.
For example, let’s say I’m writing a fictional account of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Midway through my tale, I describe a gallant yet foolhardy British cavalry charge into Tennyson’s infamous Valley of Death.* Hidden amid the rocky hills surrounding the valley, dozens of fortified Russian cannon open fire and obliterate most of the advancing horsemen.
As the smoke clears, two survivors of the bombardment—brothers, by the way, Niles and Ian—stand bloodied and haunted among their dead comrades. The men talk in a hushed whisper, speaking through tears about the heroism of their fallen comrades, about the enemy they see gathering on the precipice ahead, about the unlikelihood of ever again seeing the lovely Lady Desiree, the woman back home they both love.
The cavalry charge? That’s action. I want my audience breathless—so it’s all thundering hooves and glistening sabers and a distant blare of bugles whipped away by the wind. Explosions and carnage. Glimpses of both unfettered bravery and agonizing death. Action.
But then—cut to a new scene—the big guns have fallen silent. The two brothers crawl toward each other, dazed and isolated on the body-strewn battlefield. Ian begins to bind Niles’ wounds. They speak intimately about life and death and love and—for the reader—that’s information. Character-building usually is. The brothers ponder the probability of their impending doom, not to mention Ian’s long-overdue revelation of his love for Desiree.
As a writer, I’ve intentionally separated the frenetic action sequence (a fictive inhalation) from the more serene informational (a fictive exhalation) sequence. (Refer again to Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. Push them toward drama—inhale—or pull them away again—exhale.)
So…can action and information co-exist in a scene? How separate is separate? Certainly, these two attributes can occasionally brush together…but brush lightly. Referring back to brothers Miles and Ian, consider, for instance:
Acrid smoke drifts across the now silent valley. As Ian reveals his love for the lovely Desiree, Niles suddenly draws his pistol and aims at his brother—but then shoots a Cossack who’s crept up behind Ian, ready to pounce with a gleaming scimitar. Ian turns, stares for a moment and returns to his comments, his thoughts once again focused on Desiree.
So, yes—a bit of cross-pollinating is perfectly legit; tidbits of action amidst an informative scene is fine. And, yes, one can intermingle snippets of information amid the action—but avoid attempting to force mass quantities of action and information into the same scene. Because the last thing a reader expects, midway through an exhilarating cavalry charge, is a flashback or a history lesson or a love sonnet. For instance, the following scenario would be considered taboo:
As their horses gallop toward the booming cannon, the two men rushing toward certain death, their sun-drenched sabers held high, Ian turns to Niles and admits that he’s in love with his brother’s fiancée, then demands a frank and earnest conversation about the matter.
…..“What, now?” Niles shouted incredulously over the roaring wind.
…..“Yes, this very instant, I’m afraid,” Ian replied. “It’s terribly important to me, Niles. And by the way, don’t forget that you owe me twenty quid…”
Um… no. Because whatever raw visual emotion I’ve thus far developed is now moot, the drama unnecessarily deflated. Sure, Ian may love Desiree, and she may be weighing heavily on his mind—but now isn’t the time or the place to bring that particular plot thread to the page.
But what if Desiree is important to the story? What if my entire novel is based on a decades-long love triangle. So where does Lady Desiree belong?
Some writers may believe that she belongs exactly when and where she pops into mind—but consider how her sudden appearance will effect the overall pacing and the reader’s emotional quotient. As previously stated, her character certainly doesn’t belong here, in the middle of a raging battle. Amid the carnage, poor Desiree’s attempt for a modicum of stage presence feels extraordinarily misplaced. The importance of her character, or her words, may easily become lost as readers gloss over this unexpected, lilac-scented intrusion, eager to learn how the attack concludes.
The simple solution? Alternate action and information scenes. (As in often, throughout the entire novel.) Because a more opportune moment for Desiree to blossom would be during a scene or chapter before the cavalry charge—for instance as she tearfully pens letters in her Wembly Park bedroom for both Ian and Niles. Her letters may dramatically change the lives of both men, and thus the scene deserves undivided attention. Or else place her in a scene after the charge; we see her swoon into the arms of dear Uncle Clive as she’s notified by courier of Ian and Niles’ status as MIA, both men presumed dead. So allow Lady D. and her thoughts sufficient ‘quiet time’ to fully engage the reader in her own right.
Be aware that the primary advantage of alternating action and information scenes is in potentially increased drama. How delightful, plot-wise, should Ian reveal his affection for his brother’s betrothed in the chapter preceding the cavalry charge! How might Niles’ thoughts be distracted or tormented as he lines up for the assault in the following scene? Now you’ve piqued the reader’s curiosity—and possibly created a perfect cliffhanger that you’ll tie together in an appropriate, upcoming chapter. Might Ian die (your readers will wonder), his love for Desiree forever unrequited? Might brother turn on brother? So, yes, separating action and information scenes has definitive advantages. Intuiting how and when to separate these two crucial elements can nicely turn up the heat in terms of tension and future plot-development.
A basic rule of thumb to follow would be (and not always, mind you, but more often than not):
Plot-building: Action or information (although tread carefully, as building a plot via information may feel like reader-feeder.**) It’s normally crucial to show the reader your plot as it unfolds, not tell the reader via conversation. In other words, Ian telling us about the cavalry charge is not nearly exciting—to a reader—as seeing the charge in all of its action-packed glory.
Forward Plot Momentum: Action
For those uninterested in the Crimean War, let’s say I’m writing a gently comedic romantic coming-of-age tale. Action can be all about the rampant teenage angst and confusion and turmoil leading up to a first kiss. That slow, undulating tension can be as terrifying as the whole British cavalry charging forward toward certain death. Because what’s action if not a sensationalized visualization of dramatic events?
Oh yes, so now it’s a rule. Rule #26: Don’t mix Action and Information. Keep these two incompatible concepts separate.
And—because every rule has its own damn exception—let’s consider dialogue. Dialogue can certainly be action-oriented. (“If I ever see your ugly face again,” Sheriff Bob shouted, “I’ll shoot you dead where you stand!”) But dialogue can also prove informational. (“I’m afraid I’ve never told you, Penelope, about the letter hidden inside father’s wall safe.” Bertram slowly swung open the heavy steel door. “I believe it’s time you finally know of our nefarious family secret.”)
So then, what is dialogue? And when is a writer best served to use it?
…ah, the perfect opportunity for a cliffhanger. (So see Dialogue.)
*The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s what people read before Twitter.
**Reader-feeder (a quick guide):
…..“Steve, I just got a phone call from the hospital. I’m sorry, but Mother passed away last night.” (is not reader-feeder)
…..“Steve, I just got that phone call from the hospital we were both dreading all week long. I’m sorry, but our mother, Mary Anderson, passed away last night.” (is reader-feeder)
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Yes, this is Bickham’s Scene and Sequel, or by another name narration vs dramatization. The basic building blocks of fiction!
P.S. Did anyone other than us read Tennyson before Twitter?
No, just us!