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A Balance of Action and Information

This is something that I’ve started saying at each conference I attend. For those of you who’ve heard it in person or during a critique, I apologize for being redundant. But listen to it anyway because it’s important:

I believe that all writing is a balance of action and information.

Imagine scales in your head. On one end is action: what keeps plot driving forward and teaches us about character as our fictional people advance through the present moments of the story. On the other end is information: what gives us context about the fictional world and also fleshes out the characters we’ve created with need-to-know tidbits that exist outside the present moment.

Both are necessary. Both need to be in balance so that a story can continue. The biggest place where this matters is in a novel’s beginning. Imagine you are trying to read a dystopian that’s in a completely other world–you open the book and it’s strange, you don’t know much about it. Worse, your main character has been whacked in the head before the start of the story and is just groggily waking up. She doesn’t remember who she is or where she is. When she does come to, she realizes she’s in an underground maze, being chased by…something. Whatever it is, it has sharp teeth, it reeks of death, and it’s after her. She doesn’t have anything to defend herself with, so she must start running.

We open immediately to action. It’s great. There’s danger, the stakes are high, her life hangs in the balance. But is this a compelling beginning for fiction? I’d argue that it isn’t, really. Because we have action, but that’s all we have. We don’t know anything about this world in which people get clubbed on the head and maze monsters seem to be just a regular part of life. We don’t know anything about this character because she’s recently suffered a head injury and doesn’t know enough to tell us herself. The stakes here are high, yes, but generic “life and death” versus specific. Since we don’t know the world or the character, we don’t know exactly what’s at risk (other than some random broad’s life) or why we should care. This beginning has too much action and not enough information so it fails to ground the reader and provide a foothold for us to access the story.

On the other end of the scale is information. It’s great to have because, once we know stuff (and, ideally, we pick it up through showing, not telling), we care. It’s not enough to know that there are millions of children starving in the world. Those charity commercials tug at our heartstrings because they show us one child, tell us one story, and they make the problem concrete enough and specific enough that we start to care. But you can go overboard on information, too. Let’s say I open another book. It’s a character who is sitting in their room the night before the first day of school, thinking about his crappy life. He has no friends, his parents are too strict (and definitely uncool) and his sister is a brat. He looks over at his closet, where he’s hidden his skateboard — it causes him even more pain that he hurt his knee over the summer and hasn’t been able to get to the skate park, further alienating himself. He looks around at his clothes, hoping they’re cool enough, and at the rock posters on the walls, grumbling that his favorite bands never come through to tour in his small, miserable town. He thinks for a while about how much he loves his dog, and maybe about the girl that he has a crush on that he’s never spoken to.

What’s wrong with this picture? Let me ask you, instead: What has happened so far? Nothing. A kid is sitting and thinking. It’s a completely static beginning with no action. Sure, we learn a lot about his life, but it is all telling, no showing. We care less about the girl he loves because we’ve never seen her reject him in scene. We know he is upset about skateboarding but we are not emotionally invested until we see him limp out of the half-pipe after a failed trick. And do we really need to know about the family pet or the sister right now? I’m guessing not.

You have all this great information in your head about your character or your world, but you can never dump it all on your reader (an “info-dump”) at once, especially at the beginning. Information must emerge organically, usually in the context of action. When we meet the dream girl, it’s okay to have him think about how long he’s been in love with her. That’s information. But then, Home Skillet must march on over there and get his heart crushed. That’s action. Like this, the two work very well together. Too much of either one, and your pacing gets all off, characterization starts to feel flat, and your reader’s emotional investment in the story starts to drag.

This doesn’t just happen in the beginning of your work, either. The balance of action and information is something you must always be vigilant about. I love this additional way of thinking about the fiction craft and I hope you do, too.

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  1. Andrea’s avatar

    Thanks for this. Reading your posts always helps me to see my writing in a different way.

  2. Toni Rhodes’s avatar

    Thanks for your post. I’m going to be a regular reader of your blog! I enjoyed your WD webinar, too, however, the quality of the audio is so bad that it’s almost painful to listen to it. That’s something the WD staff can fix, probably.

  3. Kate Lynch’s avatar

    Great post Mary. Thank you. Very poingant to where I am in revising.

  4. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Oh my gosh this is perfect. Can I tell you how many hopeful writer’s YA first pages open with an injured person just coming back into consciousness with their life hanging in the balance in some confusing world? Probably not as many as you. But it’s a lot!

    I need a reason to care.

    And in response to Toni, I didn’t have any problems with my webinar audio, so maybe it’s your computer or feed. ???

  5. Wendy Delfosse’s avatar

    Great post, Mary!

    A question though. You said, “(and, ideally, we pick it up through telling, not showing)” That wasn’t a typo was it? So much gets written about showing vs. telling, and I know some telling is good, I just thought I’d ask if this is really one of the spots you prefer to see things more “telly”.

    Thanks!

  6. Rebekah’s avatar

    Great post. Thank you!

  7. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    Great post, Mary. I cut my beginning in the old world with a bit of an intro before entering the new world after feedback from my CP saying the voice was different and to cut to the action, so I can’t wait to see if you agree or not. I could always put it back in.

  8. Mary’s avatar

    Wendy — Typo. Thanks.

  9. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Toni, I also attended the webinar but had great sound from my MacBook. I did use ear-buds.

    Very useful post. I’ve read a couple of MG books lately that seemed a bit too heavy on the action to me, and felt a bit exhausted by it all. But I wondered if today’s MG reader (ie not me) prefers it like that.

  10. Luvina’s avatar

    This is definitely one of those things that’s easier in theory than it is in practice. Takes time to get the balance right. I tend towards not enough information, I take off running haha

  11. Jade’s avatar

    Yes! THIS. The bane of my writing life. Awesome post!

  12. Melanie’s avatar

    That was timely. After reading this, I hit the delete button on my whole first scene. The amazing thing? My book didn’t even need that scene. All of the info in it can be implied in the rest of the chapter. Thanks!

  13. Diana’s avatar

    It’s posts like this that give fuel to the flames of revision. Thanks.

  14. Ilima’s avatar

    This helps me a ton. Thanks!

  15. Mindy’s avatar

    Great post, and very true. Another thing that bothers me about action is when we thrown into it immediately. If I don’t have an emotional connection with your character, then I don’t care if they are drowning / getting shot at.

    Action is good, craft is better. :)

  16. S. J. Posey’s avatar

    Love this. I second what Mindy said. I’d like to add that if the action has nothing to do with the rest of the book, the readers feel cheated. Also, too much “this is what really happened” dialogue from Sage Old Wise Character X makes me nauseous. Those are info dumps too. <– my opinion as a reader.

    Keep up the great work! This blog is invaluable!

  17. arun’s avatar

    big thanks for the post — I wish i read it a few years ago, before i started my first attempt at a manuscript which had a lot of action, but developed little sympathy for the characters (so a major ‘who cares’ factor).

    When i did learn this, my initial response was to try to balance action & information, by using a mix showing & telling. However what I really look for now are those wonderful writers who manage to provide information through the action.

    In this very visual age i really like syd field’s classic screenwriting advice, amongst which he said “character is action.” So rather than us being told the woman lost in a maze is a mother/ caring person/ suffered a hard life… how can that come through as she’s running through the maze?

    Hard to pull off i know, but im really appreciating it when i read such examples and find it impacts on me much more. Having said that, i think one of the most useful posts on your blog for me has been the things you’ve written about ‘good telling’… so big thanks again!

  18. Karen’s avatar

    Thanks for this useful information – now to put it into practice. Easier said than done. :) I wish there were a real scale we could use.

  19. Rachna Chhabria’s avatar

    Hi Mary, I learn lots from your blog posts. This post in particular is fabulous. I often find myself struggling to balance action and information. At times I end up giving too much information, literally dumping it on the reader. At other times its all action spiked with little info.

    Thanks for this post.

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