Passive Action in Your Story Pacing and How to Avoid It

Don’t get me wrong, when my friends and I do it, I find sitting around and talking fascinating. But I don’t like too much of it in my story pacing. When characters chit-chat, that’s passive action. You may have heard several writing teachers saying that kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, airplanes, and cars are especially dangerous settings for story pacing. Why? Because they limit action to one of very few things. Mainly, people in these settings tend to … sit around and talk.

passive action, story pacing, writing a scene
Hanging out and talking is great for your social life. Not so much for your story pacing!

Why Sitting Around and Talking Is Passive Action

Talking in fiction SHOULD accomplish many things. Good dialogue reveals character objective and motivation, characterizes our fictional people and deepens our understanding of them. Often, it pits them against one another, creating conflict. In the hands of lesser scribes, though, lots of dialogue tends to be one giant info-dump (which leads to more passive action, per the balance of action and information). The writer has realized that their reader doesn’t have all the information necessary to continue the story, so they play catch-up and rationalize to themselves that, just because there are quotation marks around it, it’s not an info-dump or blatant backstory.

“Well, as you know, son, your mother was very ill last year and, at that time, she left you a box of belongings. I know you have been longing to get in there, but…”

Blah blah blah. And I’m putting the manuscript down.

Writing great dialogue is a whole other blog post (or ten). But for this brief reminder, take the following to heart: Dialogue is not a dumping ground for backstory. That’s the heigh of passive action. Scenes where people are sitting around and talking are a minefield for the story pacing and action stopping cold. If you have a lot of these scenes, break them up with action in between. If you have an entire plot that is based on an environment conducive to sitting around and talking (the course of the story takes place on an overnight flight to London), I don’t envy you. Find a way to break up the constant conversation with action (think Snakes on a Plane).

Consider this: there’s talk, and then there’s action. That’s an old and familiar adage. We tend to want to see action, not just hear talk about it or promises or apologies. Same for your fiction. Find a way to inject action and things actually happening in any plot, but especially one that might be set primarily in a static environment.

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11 Replies to “Passive Action in Your Story Pacing and How to Avoid It”

  1. Good Advice! Thanks! This is something I need to watch out for.

    I’ve got a guy my in critique group who loves to write witty dialogue. A lot of witty dialogue. Lots and lots of witty dialogue. It’s funny, but it really makes the story drag because it goes on for way too long. It seems like dialogue is one of those things where less is more.

  2. I don’t care what anyone says, Snakes on a Plane was a great movie. S.L Jackson does not disappoint.

    So if we do find ourselves needing to insert a lot of info, what’s the best way to do that?

  3. I sometimes imagine that my story is a play. The characters are standing on a sketchy set, doing their thing. And then I remember the old playwrite’s rule of thumb – give your characters something to do. Let the actors act, not just speak. Even Jane Austen’s characters are taking walks to places where sundered lovers can make up, or something.

  4. Great advice. I can’t stand it when there’s a bunch of info-dumping in dialogue, though I admit, I’m guilty of a lot of dialogue in early drafts but when I’m revising I try to bring in more action and reduce the dialogue, or at least break it up, so something is actually happening.

  5. Narrative dialogue format is a dangerous highwire that all depends on what the people in question are talking ABOUT… And of course, ancillery pace breaks are vitally important. You’ll see a small sample of this in the query packet headed your way………….

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