The Definition of Action

I’ve had some pushback from writers in critique when I say that something their character is doing doesn’t count as action. “Of course it is!” they say. “My protagonist is DOING STUFF. Look, they are chopping vegetables for a stew!”

It finally struck me that I should probably define action (as I use it) to keep this misunderstanding from happening. Action is NOT busywork (chopping veg, shopping, driving, hanging out). In the world of theatre, this stuff is called “business,” or things that actors do in a scene so that they’re not just sitting around and talking. It’s stuff. But it has no larger meaning, or it might probably happen again in yet another scene where the character needs something to do. If that character didn’t chop those vegetables, the plot wouldn’t fall apart. So, therefore, while the thing is active, it’s not action.

Action means something that has story consequences. Action means that the protagonist either comes into contact with another character or encounters an obstacle or makes an effort to reach a goal or does something in the world of the story that is significant and moves the story forward. Unless they are cutting vegetables for the stew that they will use to poison the king–and this action is the result of a big decision to finally commit treason–then it’s business, not action.

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  1. Kathleen’s avatar

    Thanks for defining action. I think when we get stuck in the plot, it’s easier to fill it up with busywork rather than figure out why we are having trouble moving the character or story forward.

  2. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    A good distinction that would be valuable when critiquing for sure. And when revising (with or without crit input).

  3. Dionna’s avatar

    Great advice! Thanks for defining.

  4. Meagan’s avatar

    So are you saying that “business” has no place at all in a story, or just that it shouldn’t be mistaken for action? I’ve never thought of what you describe as “business” before, but now I realize I do use business occasionally. I might use it during dialogue (much as you describe actors using it I imagine) and I sometimes use it for characterization. I think it’s worked nicely for me, but I can understand why you don’t call it action.

  5. lu’s avatar

    Do you think it is legitimate that actions of a character, build as part of the character for a 3 book series that the character so that their action are cumulative? In other words the actions of the character pay off later in book one but have repercussions in book 2 & 3 of a series? (The assumption here is that the writer is creating the book series and writing all 3 books together at the same time.)

    thanks

  6. L’s avatar

    I think what she’s saying is, whenever possible, see if you can link your existing “business” into “action” to make a scene more necessary, more meaningful.

  7. Kevin A. Lewis’s avatar

    I know this is basically a writer’s technique blog, but do you have any thoughts on current YA and Intermediate marketing trends? There seems to be some interesting groundswells in play at the moment, (for instance, the Grimms fairytale spike seems to have been largely a flash in the pan) and nobody over at Publishers Weekly seems to pay much attention to this field, and one doesn’t want to find oneself in a cornfield in 1959 waiting for Woodstock to start…

  8. rach’s avatar

    Hi mary,

    do you think you can list somewhere on your blog your entire list of clients? (books you’ve sold, clients you represent, etc). would love to see who you represent, give me a better idea of your interests or targets. Thanks.

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