Some other time, I'll talk about narration and dialogue. But what I really want to get at this moment, is beats.
beat: a sentence before, after, or breaking up dialogue that describes a character's response or action.
Often, action coincides with dialogue. For example, after saying something, or hearing something, a character will have a physical reaction. However, many writers will have their characters move just for the sake of moving. In order to tell a good story, we have to be intentional about everything.
So, as our characters move throughout each scene, we ought to be setting the goal of being believable and purposeful.
THREE RULES OF THUMB
1. do a mirror check
Have you just finished writing a scene? Great. Congratulations. Now, do me a favor and go into your bathroom, or even your bedroom (if you have a mirror there). Stand in front of your mirror and act out the scene you just wrote. Close the door if it makes you feel more comfortable.
I heard about this trick at a writers' conference a year or two ago. Sometimes, we write about our characters doing things like putting their hands to their cheeks and gasping when they're shocked. Or hugging their bellies when they laugh. But honestly, have you ever done either of those actions in your own life? Is is realistic or hyperbolic? Check your characters' actions by trying it out for yourself.
Perhaps, if your character is nervous, you might give them a twitch, like nail biting, scratching, or adjusting their clothes. What do you do when you're nervous?
2. law of follow-through
It goes without saying that if you pick up an object, you must put it down or use it at some point. Or if someone follows you somewhere, eventually, you will part ways (unless, perhaps, you have been hand-cuffed together, but even then, at some point the lock has to be broken or unlocked).
Every action must have a follow through.
I once read a scene where the MC was walked to class by her boyfriend, but then, as far as the text suggested, he never left. The author left him hanging.
Or, for another example, one author wrote about a character who picked up a cup of tea, but never set it down. Did the character take it with her when she left the room? Did she ever drink from it? I'm not sure.
Remember what was said before about being purposeful. If you are attempting to show an everyday, normal action, make sure your MC behaves accordingly and doesn't carry their toothbrush with them everywhere.
3. ask why
Back to that cup of tea. Here's something to think about: does your character even like tea? Maybe your MC is only a social tea-totaler. Or did they spend a summer in Europe where the coffee is terrible and fell in love with Earl Grey somewhere along the way? Is your MC even thirsty? Is he/she tired and needs caffeine? Or maybe you're working on a story set in Victorian England or the American colonies where it was the social custom to accept whatever the host/hostess put before you.
As writers, often we get a little confused when writing a scene. Sometimes, all we have to offer is dialogue. Two characters really need to talk about something, so one goes to the other's house and they talk in the kitchen. But what on earth is there for them to do besides shout a little bit and maybe kick a chair? Let's just face facts, we run out of ideas on occasion.
When we run out of ideas, there's a tendency to insert action just for the sake of action so the scene gets a little more interesting. And so, one character will proceed to wash the dishes and the other will eat an apple that is sitting on the countertop. Really? Those actions, in no way, in and of themselves will drive the scene, or the plot for that matter, forward.
what if a plate gets broken and interrupts their conversation, so they both bend over to pick up the broken pieces. Instead, they bump heads, or one cuts a hand on the glass and it forces them to work together, when they were previously upset about something.
See how that changes things?
Ask yourself WHY your character is doing something. If the action doesn't serve a purpose, change it. Make it purposeful.
SOME OTHER TIPS:
- Symbolism: does the action/movement have a bigger part in the story? Does it represent an inner conflict?
- Mystery/Clues: if the character fiddles with an object, does that object suggest anything? Will it come up again later?