Writing Plot and Action in Writing

Writing plot and action in writing go hand-in-hand, but not all writers are clear about what constitutes action. Basically action in writing should have consequences in order for it to benefit plot. Let’s take a deeper look.

writing plot, action in writing
Sure, your character is doing something. But are you writing plot? Does this action matter?

Action in Writing

I’ve had some pushback from writers in creative writing 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 in writing (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.

Writing Plot

Instead, if you’re interesting in writing plot that counts, keep this new definition in mind. Action in writing 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 (more ideas for conflict in a story).

For everything your character does in scene, ask yourself whether you’re writing plot, or writing busywork. Removing unnecessary action in writing will help to speed up your pacing, too.

Is your plot dragging? Have you been accused of low stakes writing? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we can dig into your plot together.

11 Replies to “Writing Plot and Action in Writing”

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

  3. Great advice! Thanks for defining.

  4. 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. 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.)


  6. 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 says:

    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. 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.

  9. Thanks for reposting! Useful distinction; should help get rid of “busy-ness” in my mss (still works in progress . . .).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com