In this section, you’ll discover the importance of actions, how to engage readers and why a character’s reaction to an event is essential to creating great novels.

As we have seen, the Show, Don’t Tell methodology means that you are unable to rely on narrative summary to tell your story. Instead, you must look for other, more engaging, ways to connect with the reader. In many ways, this is the key role of the self-editor. It is their job to ensure that stories are told by words and actions, not the narrator. In the last section, we saw that dialogue was one piece of this jigsaw puzzle; in this section, we turn our attention to how you can use actions to help build engagement.

The granular structure of any novel is simple:

Events occur; characters react to the events.

However, how a character reacts to any given event can be as much a clue to their backstory as any dialogue.

The way in which a character acts is based on three things:

  1. Common sense.
  2. The plot.
  3. The character’s internal voice (which will reflect backstory).

This is a same pattern as the approach we took with dialogue. Some events will demand a common sense response. For example, the phone rings; your character answers the phone. Other events will be part of the plot. For example, the killer starts to run away; your main character chases him. However, sometimes, the reaction will be based on the internal voice. For example, a dog barks; the character jumps.

Let me give you a more detailed example …

If we cycle back to John, we are now starting to build a profile for the character. We know he is afraid of dogs and why. We also know he was brought up to mistrust Chinese people, and this is showing in the way he speaks and acts. We saw this in a past example when John’s internal voice influenced the way he reacted to the taxi driver. In this upcoming example, we will mess with John a bit more by introducing a dog.

Here’s the basic scene, with no internal influence:

John walked along the street. It was late afternoon, and, with most people at work and kids at school, the suburban landscape was deserted. John shivered in the cold, biting wind, pulling up the zipper of his coat all the way to his chin. Ahead of John, about twenty paces, a mangy-looking large black dog stepped from between two parked cars. John walked on, looking left and right for its possible owner. As the dog passed, they exchanged a brief look. John walked in one direction, the dog in the other.

So the event is a dog appearing between two parked cars. John’s reaction is, well, minimal.

Now … let’s rewrite the scene but with John’s internal voice in play. When self-editing, this type of exercise is something that you will need to repeat on multiple occasions. You must always be looking for sections that can be slightly rewritten to help build the characterization of the main characters.

We know John is scared of dogs, and, therefore, his reaction will be different:

John walked along the street. It was late afternoon, and, with most people at work and kids at school, the suburban landscape was deserted. John shivered in the cold, biting wind, pulling up the zipper of his coat all the way to his chin. Ahead of John, about twenty paces, a mangy-looking large black dog stepped from between two parked cars. John stopped. He took a small step backward, before looking up and down the street. There was no traffic. The dog seemed to ignore John, padding in his direction. John strode across the road, leaving the dog to pace its own way in the opposite direction, on the other side of the street.

In this example, we are SHOWING the reader that John is scared of dogs. There’s no narrative mention (or explanation) of this fear; instead, it is reflected in John’s reaction.

John is acting like someone who is scared of dogs may react. The reader’s brain, which is programmed to see meaning in actions, will try to work out why John has acted in this way. The reader’s brain will give John’s actions a meaning. However, at this point, the reader doesn’t have enough information to complete the picture. The reader will, however, become engaged as he leans into John’s character.

The important aspect of this approach is that John’s reaction leaves the reader with a small clue about John’s past. The reader now knows that John has reacted to the presence of a dog. This may be part of a bigger jigsaw puzzle that is left for the reader to piece together; it may be a critical plot point or may simply be the author adding texture to the story. It doesn’t matter. John is now a more realistic character.

Once again, by not explaining via the narrator, we are creating a distance between the reader and the characters. The reader can see how John is reacting and is forced to lean into the story. The reader must engage with John and start to build his or her own explanations. This is engagement and, if done consistently, will stop your reader from becoming bored.

So must every splash of action contain influence from the internal voice?

The answer is well, … yes, well, … kind of.

Most actions within a scene will be pretty straightforward. When deciding on how a character reacts to an event, the first thing to do is decide what the common sense reaction would be. Having decided that, you need to work out if the reaction needs to differ, in order to fulfill the plot. Finally, having decided what your character should do, you now need to decide if the action is influenced, in any way, by the character’s internal voice.

Therefore, the question to ask yourself, when writing any scene, is: how would the character react?

The answer to this question will often take your character on a wonderful journey. You will find your characters doing things that are unexpected and exciting. They will surprise you … and the reader. What is even more wonderful is that this creativity remains within the confines of the structure. Having already plotted out the scene and acts, these new actions have natural boundaries that mean they will not disrupt the narrative arc. Yet, most important, when writing with honesty, your characters will come alive, not just on the pages of your book but in the minds of your readers.