Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A to Z Challenge: I is for Incidental Action

Welcome to the 2013 A to Z Challenge!

This year, I’m focusing on two themes:  Emotions and grammar,
depending on which letter we’re on each day.

I’ll be sharing mostly what I’ve learned about writing emotion into a novel, but I’ll also be throwing in a few key grammar lessons, pet peeves I’ve picked up while working as an editor.

Today’s a grammar day...well, sorta.


I is for incidental action:  in fiction, an action happening in connection with or resulting from something more important;

While every novel should be filled with action, what often makes the story come alive and feel real—like we’re watching a movie in our heads—is the incidental action.  If there is no incidental action, the story feels flat and jerky as the narration moves from one big sequence to another.

Incidental action is the small movements typically shown between lines of dialogue.  Take this short clip from a scene in my novel, The Mistaken, for example:

Tyler stared at him for a moment before raising his chin in understanding.  He was instantly in Nick’s face, pointing his finger in warning.
“You stay of it, Nick.  I mean it. This is none of your business or your concern,”
Nick pushed his brother’s hand away.  “I’d be careful if I were you, brother.  I’m no longer that weak boy who followed you around like a lost puppy.”
Tyler reacted swiftly, surging forward and pushing Nick back against the wall.  His lips were pressed together in an angry line and he spoke through clenched teeth.
“You stay the hell out of my affairs, you hear me?  And stay away from my wife!  She doesn’t need your kind of help.”
They stood facing each other, nose-to-nose.  Ty’s face twisted in anger, but Nick looked unfazed, even amused, a smirk pulling up along one side of his mouth.

The staring, the pointing, the pushing, along with all the facial expressions, bring the scene to life.  If all you had was the dialogue, it would feel rather bland and passive. The reader needs all the small movements to see the story progress physically in their mind.  

If there were no incidental action, the progression within and between each scene would feel abrupt and jarring without any way to visualize what the characters are doing as they speak or how they move from place to place.   

Incidental action also helps the reader keep track of who’s speaking without a boat load of dialogue tags to slow it all down.  BUT—and this is big but—do NOT use incidental action as a dialogue tag.  That is, each action must be a complete sentence with the first word capped and punctuation at the end—a period, exclamation point, or question mark.  No exceptions.  Dialogue tags are he said, she replied, they screamed, we moaned, etc., and are also meant to help the reader keep track of who’s speaking, but they are not incidental action.


T. Drecker said...

Great post and terrific point. And reminding that these actions are not dialogue tags made me smile.

Natalie Aguirre said...

This is a great tip, Nancy. Thanks for sharing it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

People don't just stand there when talking. They move, even if it's just fidgeting.

Misha Gericke said...

Incidental action is also a great way to show what characters are like. Really, it serves multiple functions within a story.


JeffO said...

Annnnnd incidental action is also great for keeping the rhythm of the piece.

Matthew MacNish said...

You illustrate it very well!

Nick Wilford said...

I appreciate the tip that incidental action should be in separate sentences. I've tended to mix it with dialogue tags before - so you shouldn't say: "...he said, slamming the door"?

L.G. Smith said...

LIke Nick said, I just had a critique partner get after me about attaching too much action to my dialogue tags. It does get tedious after awhile. :)

LD Masterson said...

Good post. Especially the reminder about not using action as a dialogue tag. I have the urge to check my WIP.

S.P. Bowers said...

Thanks for sharing these reminders.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

So much better than dialogue tags!

Nancy Thompson said...

No that's fine, as long as you don't use that structure too often. You just shouldn't say:
"Go ahead and leave," he slammed the door.
The action should not be used as a tag.

Donna K. Weaver said...

lol I don't think my editor like incidental action.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

Incidental action is really important and you've pointed that out so well. Giving small beats between dialog or action always heightens interest. Great job, Nancy.

Susan Roebuck said...

I'm always at a loss when I need to write what the characters are doing when they're talking. Thanks for the tips, Nancy.

joylene said...

Excellent example, Nancy. There's a response and a reaction. And the result makes for a well rounded character.

Carrie Butler said...

I'm not going to lie. I giggled at the "we moaned" example. ;) Great post, Nancy!

Julie Luek said...

Echoing all others here-- appreciate the mini lesson and your great book as an example. Thanks.

Heather M. Gardner said...

So many rules.

Makes me want to break them.



Chuck said...

Right you are Nancy, Your whole book was a movie in my head. You have mastered this ability.

I gave you props on my post today :)

Chuck at Apocalypse Now