On Writing: Taking Back the Action




Attention, writers of the world:


Please, for the love of all that is both holy and unholy. STOP. OUTSOURCING. YOUR ACTION. When you use supporting characters (or worse, extras) to advance too much of your plot, you water down the motives and dampen the effect. Like hiring a random customer service rep from New Delhi to negotiate your business relationships, or getting your cousin to take you to the prom, you’re removing the most important element of good fiction: HUMAN CONNECTION. 

We don’t read about teenage wizards because we’re obsessed with learning Latin incantations and dreaming about attending school in a giant, haunted castle. (Okay, well, maybe a little.) We read Harry Potter obsessively for the same reason we read other YA adventure books: because we want to relive (or commiserate with) the feeling of being young and having the entire world on our shoulders. We want to experience epic challenges (magical, dystopian or otherwise) through the eyes of a relatable, unforgettable character. We want to watch that character try to achieve a goal, while reacting to all of the crazy obstacles that life (or really, the author) puts in their path. We want to root for them, feel for them, even “fall” for them, the way we would if they were real.


Without being “dialed in” to our favorite character when this important stuff happens, we’re basically hearing about these adventures secondhand, instead of experiencing them as they happen. Which, let’s face it, is basically about as exciting as listening to Helen from payroll recount her cruise vacation to Skagway, Alaska. SERIOUSLY, guys. COME ON.


You’re better than this. And so is Helen. She should be cruising to Bermuda, at the very least, for God’s sake!


Are YOU guilty of this in your writing? Here’s how you can tell if you’ve made this mistake.


Common Symptoms of Secondhand Action in fiction:


  • The heroine’s BFF calls on the phone to tell her that her boyfriend is cheating on her
  • A doctor comes out of a patient’s room and tells the family that the patient passed on
  • A character discusses a recent fight she had with her boyfriend, with her therapist
  • Any and all forms of Deus Ex Machina (when the hero/heroine of a story is “saved” at the last minute by a force they themselves did not directly set in motion)
  • A guy sitting around and thinking to himself, in unnatural detail, what happened to him last week at the post office
  • Brother and sister are talking about something that happened in their life years ago, explaining it to each other as though to some invisible audience
  • Any device used to impart information on The Truman Show (i.e. “Why are you talking about that cheese grater? Who are you talking to?”)



That’s it for today’s rant…I mean, PSA, children.


Now go forth, and write awesome stuff.