We work hard to get to know our characters.
Creating bios, interviewing them, giving them personality tests. One discovery tool often overlooked in this great pursuit are the small actions tucked into the narrative beats.
Narrative beats are those little breathers in dialogue, sometimes filled simply with speaking tags like he said, she said. They’re rhythmic beats in conversations.
The actions that fill those beats can be priceless character revelations anytime, but especially in our first chapters, during our first drafting.
Alas, often writers fill those breaths with generic filler action. I see this at play when full manuscripts land on my editing desk.
Perhaps we writers drop in those generic actions because we’re so focused on getting the first scenes in place; perhaps we’re just not seeing those beats for the opportunities they are.
Oh, what treasure troves those little actions can be!
Regardless of why we do it, when we plug in filler action, we miss out on revelatory moments—“revelatory beats,” I call them—that can help us get to know our characters sooner and with delicious richness.
Our first step in mining these moments is spotting the filler. The filler in this example is looked:
Beth looked at him. “No. I want to go, too.”
“Looked” doesn’t reveal anything about Beth. First pages full of similarly bland actions won’t help us get to know who she is. Other fillers include stare, glance, gaze, turn (to), smile, frown, and laugh. Synonyms for these actions creep in, too, like grin, snicker, giggle. The word eyes also appears in a lot of narrative beats, and those eyes are usually staring, looking, glancing….
We can turn these precious moments into opportunities to learn about our characters in our early drafting by pledging not to fill the breathers with generic actions, even when we’re speed-drafting to get the story tacked into place.
When we hold ourselves back like that, when we leave a beat demanding to be filled, our characters will step in to fill it.
Our characters will step up; they will do something that reflects who they are and how they’re feeling at that moment. What they decide to do is our revelatory gem.
What might they do? Click-click-click their pens, perhaps, to reveal they’re jumpy. Maybe they’ll pace, revealing they are particularly physical. Maybe they’ll rewash the same mug over and over and over, showing fastidiousness or revealing a tendency to avoid big things that demand their attention. Maybe they’ll pull out a tissue so they can open a doorknob without touching their flesh to the germy knob.
My pal Beth in the above example might do something to indicate how capable or strongly she feels about going, which in turn might prompt me to rework what I thought she’d say after the beat:
“No.” Beth darted ahead of him and blocked the doorway. “You’re not leaving without me.”
Little actions, happening in the middle of an exchange with another character, reveal things about characters’ personalities, comfort zones, relationships, mood, and more.
Filling your first draftings with this kind of content instead of looking, or glancing, or brushing the hair out of his eye, helps you get to know your character early.
Are you wondering if you’re denying yourself those early revelations? Check. In your work-in-progress, do a find-and-replace search for each of the words above, no matter how much you’ve written. Tally up all their synonyms, too, to see how many times you choose the same general filler action. How does that number compare to your page count?
Then add all the filler uses together. How does that number compare to your page count? A manuscript I worked on recently used eye 150 times, look 301 times, and glance 16 times. 467 uses of the same general action, although some surely weren’t in the narrative beats. This wasn’t an unusual discovery, and the manuscript was a good one.
As an editor, I perform this search and tally often. I even have a name for it: The Stop Looking Test.
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For me, the test is an assessment tool to be applied to a finished manuscript. For you, it’s a tool to help you identify if you should make the first-drafting pledge.
Eventually, revelatory beats will become a subconscious part of your drafting style, so you won’t worry about bogging down your quick-drafting.
Not every narrative beat contains an action, of course. Sometimes that breather contains setting details or exposition. But when it’s time for action, we can make the action something revealing about our character so that we—and readers—will get a feel for the characters’ personalities from the very first pages in the book.
They are small moments, but they can add up to a big overall impression. And we all know how important first impressions can be.
Deborah Halverson is the founder of the popular writers’ advice site DearEditor.com and the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2011) and Writing New Adult Fiction (Writer’s Digest, 2014), the teen novels Big Mouth (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2008) and Honk If You Hate Me (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2009), the picture book Letters to Santa (illustrated by Pauline Siewert, Becker & Mayer, 2012), and three books in the Remix series for struggling readers (Pearson Canada).
She was an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books and is now a freelance editor specializing in young adult/middle grade fiction, new adult fiction, and picture books.
Deborah has worked with authors—bestsellers, veterans, debut, and aspiring—for twenty years. She also serves on the advisory board for the U.C. San Diego Extension “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program.