There Is More To Writing Action Than Meets The Fist: Part 2

by Tiffany Lawson Inman

I picked up Harlan Coben’s CAUGHT with the express knowledge that I would find a high intensity/high emotion scene to showcase for another Dramatic Dissection.

Why did I think that?  Because of his prologue.  The beginning of this book is darn delicious.  Most of his passages have more power than I’ve seen in entire manuscripts. Wonderful to use for learning purposes!

I used Robert Crais HOSTAGE for my last Dramatic Dissection and I instinctively knew Coben could deliver a scene just as good for this next one.

I found my scene. It has emotion and action and snippets of back story and great use of voice and wonderful pacing.  I found a great scene that shows a man wanting something and a woman not giving it up.  It’s interesting to see how he needles her, using different tactics the whole way through. Thank you Harlan Coben!

OH, but before we get to reading, in my last Dramatic Dissection I mentioned what the catalyst was in every scene. And here I will say it again.

Need.

There are three basic character needs.  And one of them is usually coupled with another.

1. Need to break the hold of someone/something in order to move forward.
2. Need to stop someone/something in order to move forward. 
3. Need to win someone/something in order to move forward.

In this scene: Wendy, a recently fired Tabloid TV show journalist that “caught” a supposed pedophile.

Grayson, the father of a boy that was victimized by this supposed pedophile.

These two are in Wendy’s kitchen after he paid her a surprise visit.  The last time they saw each other was in court and Mr. Grayson was being a BIG jerk. They have never been alone in the same room before.

Now, let’s see how many needs are being pushed and pulled between these two characters.

Partial scene in CAUGHT, by Harlan Coben:

**********************

Wendy sat at her kitchen table and waited. Grayson paced a few more moments, then suddenly pulled the kitchen chair right up to her, so that he was sitting less than a yard away.

     “First,” he said, “I want to apologize again.”

     “No need. I get how you feel.”

     “Do you?”

     She said nothing.

     “My son’s name is E.J. Ed Junior, of course. He was a happy kid. Loved sports. His favorite was hockey. Me, I don’t know the first thing about the game. I was a basketball guy growing up. But my wife, Maggie, was born in Quebec. Her whole family plays. It’s in their blood. So I learned to love it too. For my boy. But now—Well, now E.J. has no interest in the sport.  If I bring him near a hockey rink, he freaks out.  He just wants to stay home.” He stopped, looked off.

     Wendy said, “I’m sorry.”

     Silence.

     Wendy tried to shift gears. “What were you talking to Flair Hickory about?”

     “His client hasn’t been seen in over two weeks,” he said.

     “So?”

     “So I was trying to find out where he might be. But Mr. Hickory wouldn’t tell me.”

     “That surprise you?”

     “Not really, no.”

**********************

I’m going to pause here because I know you have a question for me.

What?  You call this an action scene, Tiffany? 

Yes I do. And please forgive the repetition if you got the chance to read my previous Dramatic Dissection, but it has to be said again:

Why do you say action is more than meets the fist? Because I am talking about ANY scene with movement: two characters or more, moving through a setting, showing relationship, and moving the reader through your story.

What is movement?

The cause-effect relationship between EVERYTHING in a scene. Line to line. This enables the reader to feel connected from the beginning to the end of your scene.  Remember how it is in real life. The world moves between dialogue and action.

It can’t just be a fight to be a fight. Or a conversation between characters. It isn’t a series of blah blah blahs to get to the next bit of real information. Unmotivated, void of emotion. Where is the intrigue in that?  Your readers will be bored.

Getting back to CAUGHT, as you are reading the next part of the scene, think about what is happening between the lines.  Harlan does a great job of showing us a lot of white space. White space is very important to use in your novel, no matter what the genre.

***************

     More silence.

     “So what can I do for you, Mr. Grayson?”

     Grayson started playing with his watch, a Timex with one of those Twist-O-Flex bands.  Wendy’s father had one way back when.  It always left a red mark when he took it off.  Funny, all these years after his death, what you remembered.

     “Your TV show,” Grayson said. “You spent a year hunting down pedophiles. Why?”

     “Why what?”

     “Why pedophiles?”

     “What’s the difference?”

     He tried to smile, but it didn’t quite hold. “Humor me,” he said.

     “Good ratings, I guess.”    

     “Sure, I can see that. But there’s more, isn’t there?”

     “Mr. Grayson–“

     “Ed,” he said.

     “Let’s stay with ‘Mr. Grayson.’ I would like you to get to the point.”

     “I know what happened to your husband.”

     Just like that. Wendy felt the slow burn, said nothing.

     “She’s out, you know. Arina Nasbro.”

     Hearing the name said out loud made her wince. “I know.”

     “Think she’s all cured now?”

     Wendy thought about the letters, about how they turned her stomach.

     “She could be,” Grayson said. “I’ve known people who’ve kicked it at this stage.  But that doesn’t really matter much to you, does it, Wendy?”

     “This is none of your business.”

     “That’s true. But Dan Mercer is. You have a son, don’t you?”

     “Also none of your business.”

******************

We see a lot of movement here, yes?  Can you see it?  Now for a Naked Editor Dramatic Dissection.

From the very beginning of the scene he is trying to manipulate her. He needs something.  He wouldn’t be sitting in a stranger’s kitchen otherwise.

Wendy sat at her kitchen table and waited. Grayson paced a few more moments, then suddenly pulled the kitchen chair right up to her, so that he was sitting less than a yard away.

Breaking her personal line, on her turf, in her kitchen.

  “First,” he said, “I want to apologize again.”

A second apology.  Usually second apologies are given when the first one doesn’t take, or when the person giving the apology is trying too hard.

     “No need. I get how you feel.”

She is hoping he doesn’t push the apology further.  Acknowledging his feelings, acknowledging that he is human.

     “Do you?”

     She said nothing.

Wendy accidentally tripped into her own false statement. And he sees an opening.  Get ready for it; he’s going to play a BIG sympathy card here, trying to remind her that he is not the big jerk she saw in the courtroom, that he is a victim too.

     “My son’s name is E.J. Ed Junior, of course. He was a happy kid. Loved sports. His favorite was hockey. Me, I don’t know the first thing about the game. I was a basketball guy growing up. But my wife, Maggie, was born in Quebec. Her whole family plays. It’s in their blood. So I learned to love it too. For my boy. But now—Well, now E.J. has no interest in the sport.  If I bring him near a hockey rink, he freaks out.  He just wants to stay home.” He stopped, looked off.

Is he really feeling something here?  Hard to tell with the direction the scene takes next.  He is forcing her to sympathize with him again.  She complies, but not by much.

     Wendy said, “I’m sorry.”

     Silence.

Wendy tried to shift gears. “What were you talking to Flair Hickory about?”

Here, Coben tells us she is shifting gears. In case we missed it.  Not my favorite tool to use.  He is telling and showing in one line.  I think it would have held more power if he stuck to showing with his great use of dialogue. Just my opinion, of course.

The fact that Grayson jumps right back at Wendy after she shifts gears makes me think that he might not be as genuine as his rant about his son would make him seem.

     “His client hasn’t been seen in over two weeks,” he said.

     “So?”

     “So I was trying to find out where he might be. But Mr. Hickory wouldn’t tell me.”

     “That surprise you?”

     “Not really, no.”

More silence. 

We don’t need to see them sitting in her kitchen to know that this is an awkward silence.

     “So what can I do for you, Mr. Grayson?”

This is Wendy’s way of showing Mr. Grayson that she is on a short fuse with him. But she’s still willing to go on with the charade a little longer.

     Grayson started playing with his watch, a Timex with one of those Twist-O-Flex bands. 

He is trying to figure out a new approach.

     Wendy’s father had one way back when.  It always left a red mark when he took it off.  Funny, all these years after his death, what you remembered.

Snippet of back story!  And he is showing the reader that she has felt death before.  She has felt that sadness.

     “Your TV show,” Grayson said. “You spent a year hunting down pedophiles. Why?”

She’s now abrasive and evades the question.

     “Why what?”

Grayson is willing to put up with it and tosses his dice again.

     “Why pedophiles?”

And again she shows her snarky side.

     “What’s the difference?”

Harlan’s way of saying – Grayson is NOT smiling. This is not a game and he has an agenda.

     He tried to smile, but it didn’t quite hold. “Humor me,” he said.

     “Good ratings, I guess.”    

     “Sure, I can see that. But there’s more, isn’t there?”

She doesn’t want to play anymore.

     “Mr. Grayson–“

He thinks this next move is going to bring them closer together. Sharing his first name.

     “Ed,” he said.

Wendy counters with:

     “Let’s stay with ‘Mr. Grayson.’ I would like you to get to the point.”

Grayson gives up on getting closer and shows her he knows how to use information as well as a body slam.

     “I know what happened to your husband.”

Wendy isn’t talking back now. Considering she has had something to say after every line until now – this is big. And it is now totally obvious that this man has a serious agenda and he isn’t willing to play nice.

     Just like that. Wendy felt the slow burn, said nothing.

     “She’s out, you know. Arina Nasbro.”

     Hearing the name said out loud made her wince. “I know.”

First time in the scene – Harlan shows us a physical reaction from Wendy.

     “Think she’s all cured now?”

She is still churning. Not able to fight back. I’m picturing the referee in the ring raising his hand to start counting down a partial knock-out.

     Wendy thought about the letters, about how they turned her stomach.

He doesn’t want her to check out and give up here.  If he did, he would turn and leave her house.  Leaving her helpless and weak was not his goal.  He still needs her to participate in this game and so he needles just a little bit more.

And then to really wake her up, he uses her first name.

     “She could be,” Grayson said. “I’ve known people who’ve kicked it at this stage.  But that doesn’t really matter much to you, does it, Wendy?”

Wendy is still with us, and now in total defense mode.

     “This is none of your business.”

He is reaching here, trying to compare situations with the supposed pedophile, but he still lands a personal attack when he mentions her son.

     “That’s true. But Dan Mercer is. You have a son, don’t you?”

I see this next line and I think she is not wasting her energy swinging any punches of her own, but she is still holding her hands up to deflect any of his.

     “Also none of your business.”

I’ll let you read the last part of the scene without any interruptions from me. I’m hoping you are starting to think like me by now, yes?

Watch how Harlan uses the dialogue to show their dance. Imagine this is a scene in a movie.  Is there tension? Is it at the highest level now?  Has their relationship changed from the beginning to the end of the scene?  Look at the small amount of body language he uses here.  Is it effective? Has Grayson made any headway, or did he ruin his chances of ever bringing her over into his way of thinking?

**********************

     “Guys like Dan—“ he went on. “One thing we know for certain: They don’t get cured.” He moved a little closer, tilted his head. “Isn’t that part of it, Wendy?”

     “Part of what?”

     “Why you liked going after pedophiles. Alcoholics—Well, they can quit. Pedophiles are simpler—there really is no chance for redemption and thus forgiveness.”

     “Do me a favor, Mr. Grayson. Don’t psychoanalyze me. You don’t know a damn thing about me.”

     He nodded. “Fair point.”

     “So get to yours.”

     “It’s pretty simple. If Dan Mercer isn’t stopped, he will hurt another child. That’s a fact. We both know it.”

     “You should probably be telling this to the judge.”

     “She can’t do me any good now.”

     “And I can?” 

     “You’re a reporter. A good one.”

     “A fired one.”

     “More reason to do this.”

     “Do what?

     Ed Grayson leaned forward. “Help me find him, Wendy.”

     “So you can kill him?”

     “He won’t stop.”

     “So you said.”

     “But?”

     “But I don’t want to be part of your plans for revenge.”

     “You think that’s what it’s about?”

     Wendy shrugged.

     “It’ not a question of vengeance,” Grayson said, his voice low. “Just the opposite, in fact.”

     “I’m not following.”

     “This decision is calculated. It’s practical. It’s about taking no chances. I want to make sure that Dan Mercer never hurts anyone ever again.”

     “By killing him?”

     “Do you know another way? This isn’t about blood lust or violence either. We are all human beings, but if you do something like this—if your own genetics or pathetic life are so messed up that you need to harm a child—well the most humane thing you can do is put a man down.”

     “Must be nice to be judge and jury.”

********************

Did you think for a second in the beginning of this scene that Grayson wanted her to help him kill someone?  It goes pretty far for the first conversation these two have ever had one on one.  AND you get to see what each of these characters morals are.  Kudos to Mr. Coben!

Notice I didn’t pick the scene with all of the fists pumping and bullets flying and cars swerving off of the road.  Sure, those scenes are exciting.  But these are the action scenes that show us CHARACTER.

Are you going to use minimal body language, minimal internalizations, minimal physical action in every scene?  Gosh I hope not. But as you see here – it is a tool you can use – and it allows for some serious dialogue runs. Dialogue runs that show Character and Stakes and Relationship.

Remember every line in your novel counts.  Don’t waist precious white space telling the reader how your character is feeling after every line.  That means your dialogue probably isn’t strong enough.

If that isn’t motivation for you to use dialogue as action in your scenes, I don’t know what is!

Remember your characters needs. And remember your needs as a writer. We need our readers to be instinctively turning pages. If you make an effort to connect your reader, moment to moment, they won’t be able to let go of your book until the last page.

What did you think of the scene above? Did you see where the tide turned in the scene? Is there anything you’d change to up the stakes? Do you have questions you like to ask?

Go forth, and write!

With love,
NakedEditor

www.nakededitor.net is officially open for business!  In celebration of this fantastic day, Tiffany is hosting an Easter Egg Hunt! And the prizes are better than chocolate!

Really.  Better than chocolate. Promise.  Head on over there and follow the clues!  You might be the winner in a book giveaway!

Want to take a class from Naked Editor? Tiffany is teaching an online class for all genres this October over at Lawson Writers Academy. It’s just 30 bucks for a whole month of one-on-one learning time with an Tiffany Lawson Inman!

And to one lucky person who leaves a comment – you get to take it for free! Looks tasty, here it is:

The Triple Threat Behind Staging A SceneAn Actor’s Take On Writing Physicality, Choreography, and Action. Action creates a rhythm allowing the reader to breathe in sync with your characters. Physicality has the ability to highlight personality, relationship, and motivation. Choreography, in a fight or love scene, can expose the intricacies of your ever-moving story.

Tiffany is none other than Margie Lawson’s daughter! She’s got just as much energy revving her jets as our beloved Margie. Maybe even a tiny bit more. For the naked truth about our esteemed contest judge, go to her new website or click here.

Remember, Naked Editor is the final judge in Jenny Hansen’s Dirty Fighting Contest — winners will be announced next Tuesday over at Jenny’s site, More Cowbell! Tiffany will take the winning three entries and do an on-screen edit of how to give them even more punch.

Or check out Naked Editor’s blog. What writer doesn’t want to “get naked??”

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32 Responses to There Is More To Writing Action Than Meets The Fist: Part 2

  1. SummerMahan says:

    Great post Tiffany!
    Your talent to pick and explain the use of action in dialogue is Brilliant! Perhaps after a pot of coffee I’ll attempt to use some pointers in my own work. Thank you!

  2. Laura Drake says:

    This is just what I’ve needed, Tiffany.
    I can plot a novel, learned enough craft to get by, spent the past year and my last novel working on getting the emotion on the page. This is the next step – nuances like this take you from good to NYT!

    Thanks so much – Deceptively simple. Should only take me another year, and another novel to master it.

  3. P.s. I am hosting an EASTER EGG HUNT over at http://www.nakededitor.net if you all are interested in a BOOK GIVEAWAY!

  4. Hello actor/editor/daughter!

    A stellar dramatic dissection of stellar passages. 🙂

    Loved his pacing with the dialogue runs, lots of white space, and compelling cadence.

    This smile made me smile:

    He tried to smile, but it didn’t quite hold.

    I’m still smiling!

  5. Hi Tiffany🙂

    I read your dissection of HOSTAGE, too, and learned so much. This one reminds me of Robert McKee’s advice in STORY….make sure the characters end up in a different place at the end of the scene from the beginning of the scene. On a scene-level, both of your examples have accomplished just that.

    I’ve had a discussion lately with my IMC-ers and wanted your take since you mentioned “white space.” Is there such a thing as too much white space? We have all been “dinged” at one time or another for that very thing. Are those “dingers” just out of touch with current commercial fiction or is there something to their advice?

    Loved the post…thanks!
    Laura

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Laura, this is a fantastic question! I’d love to know that very thing.

    • Yes! I need to read that again. STORY is a good one. I am a bigger fan of Dwight Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer. I might need a second copy – mine is highlighted and dog-eared to DEATH!

      It think Harlan put in just about as much whitespace as needed. Any more and I would question setting and need a little more physical movement from them. But youhave to earn that white space with QUALITY dialogue. If you don’t have motivated cause and effect dialogue, then it doesn’t count towards your story. The dinger for too much whitespace happens when we become lost in the words, confused. The writing isn’t setting a clear enough path. ding ding ding 🙂

      Again – thank you for reading! It’s been a slow day😦

      • Laura — Excellent question on white space!

        Tiffany — Excellent response. You’re so right. It’s critical to keep those stimulus-response patterns zip, zip, zipping. Yay Harlan!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Patience, grasshopper, patience! The comment giveaway is going through the weekend…there WILL be comments. People are just reveling in the autumnal equinox. (Killing myself!)

  6. GREAT excerpt to choose for analysis, Tiffany. We don’t all HAVE knock-em, sock-em scenes in our mss, but every book has interaction. PERFECT! Love the mind game, his persistence, her resistance. And, no. I couldn’t foresee the outcome. I don’t want a reader in one of my scenes thinking, “Yeah, yeah, we know what’s gonna happen. Get on with it.”

    Hopping over to your Easter Egg Hunt!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I feel the same way, Gloria. This is really changing the way the way I’m going to go back and visit my fiction. I’m going to have to figure out how to incorporate these things into the memoir because right now it’s hard to see the forest for the trees there. It’s all so personal.

    • I usually put the book down if I have guessed a few steps ahead of their game.

      BORING.

      We need everyone to write with suspence on the brain, no matter if they are action, romance, or historical! Bring it on.

  7. THANK YOU, Tiffany, for breaking this down so simply! I can’t wait to implement this…I’ve already re-worked my wip from your last post =)

    • Ooooh I love having this kind of power! *giggle*
      I am glad you have a wip to rework and tweak. And kudos to you for having the right
      mindset to divorse yourself from some of those beloved words you probably worked so hard on.

  8. K.B. Owen says:

    Great analysis, Tiffany! I’m always grappling with how much description to put in my one-on-ones. Not sure I’m always making the right choices. As far as this scene, I would have liked to have seen the reporter coming back at him a little more strongly, and shake him up a bit. But that’s just me.🙂 Thanks for sharing your time and expertise!

    • Thanks for stopping by🙂

      Remember this is a high-tension one-on-one, other scenes NEED the more expansive description. I’ll do a Dramatic Dissection of one of those next. Just so folks can see the difference – and so they can see how to add in fluid disscription.

      Hmmmm I’m already running my brain through good scenes now!

      I’ll try for a shorter one next time…

  9. Laura Drake says:

    I just went back and read a pivotal scene I wrote before reading this. Oh man, it was a subtle as a slaughterhouse hammer. I edited out the obvious, added back and forth dialog ‘showing’ the tension – SO much better!

    I feel like such a grown-up! Thanks again, Tiffany.

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  11. Mary Roya says:

    I liked what I read, I could feel the tension. I appreciate this and I believe this will help me with my writing.

  12. Hi Tiffany, I’m late to the party, as usual. Thanks for this, and I can’t wait for your Triple Threat class starting next week! Kimberle

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