How to Balance Character and Action!

How to Balance Character and Action  by Julie Hyzy

Characters, whether sympathetic or despicable, are the fuel that keep a plot moving. I’m sure you’ve heard many writers—whether plotters or pantsers—compare writing a novel to taking a trip.

Characters are fuel

Whether they start with a detailed road map or simply with an idea and a general direction, writing is likened to driving from one place to another with stops at interesting sites along the way. While that’s a fine analogy, allow me to offer an addendum: Drivers/authors aren’t going to get far without fuel. Compelling characters are what provide the power to keep a story moving. Without them, readers won’t feel an urge to join the journey. In that unfortunate case, even the most exquisitely devised route—with all its fascinating must-see attractions—may never be fully explored. Put another way: Until a reader is emotionally invested in a character, any actions in support of or against that character’s well-being fall flat.

A guy and a truck

Allow me to offer a very basic example: In an opening scene a guy gets run over by a truck.Let’s say the author manages to incorporate a measure of suspense into the story. Our unlucky guy—staring at his cell phone—steps onto the street as a truck barrels around the corner.

A talented author may do a phenomenal job of drawing out the seconds before impact with descriptions of the man, the truck, weather conditions, and time of day. This same author, knowing that details are key to believability, may work hard to depict an accurate accident scene, using, say, three pages of exposition to illustrate the horrific destruction.

After the collision occurs and the guy has been smashed to bits, readers may keep turning pages if they wonder why this guy’s death was important or why the truck didn’t stop. But unless this story comes from a trusted author, readers will only keep turning pages if they care.

In the example above: Do you feel any sadness at the street-crosser’s demise? Do you feel anything at all?

Probably not. It’s hard to truly care about the dead pedestrian yet because we readers know nothing about him yet.

But what if there’s more?  Let’s back up a little.

What if, moments before the poor fellow steps onto the street, he’s on the phone with his pregnant wife who called to tell him she’s gone into labor, that there’s blood everywhere, that she’s called an ambulance? Worried for her and their child, he steps up his pace and swears he’ll meet her at the hospital soon. His car is on the next block. He looks up from his phone to face the oncoming truck.

Now, how do we feel about this character?

While the example above is no one’s idea of a brilliant opener, I’d suggest that the second approach—the one where we learn a little about our soon-to-be-deceased’s family life—provides enough characterization, both for him and for her, to provoke an emotional reaction from the reader. And it does so without slowing the action. I’d argue the characterization adds to it.

In this imaginary tale, if the next scene shifts to the wife at the hospital, we’re immediately invested in her welfare and that of the baby. She’s unaware of her husband’s death but we readers know that the news will be hitting her soon.

That kind of tension—knowing that at any moment her world will come crashing down—is what keeps us turning pages.

Along the way, while the wife shifts from angry to worried, we also learn more about her character. And again, the action hasn’t slowed down one bit.

Conversely, if this same story started with the guy waking up in the morning, taking a shower, going to work, thinking about the baby and having that trigger a memory of his own childhood and playing on the swings and running with his dog, and, and, and… (see also: no action), only the most determined of readers will make it past chapter one.

How can writers effectively balance characterization and action, then, in a way that captivates readers and keeps them engrossed into the wee hours of the night?

Action is the accelerator, but characters provide the power!

According to the title of Christopher Booker’s oft-quoted tome, there exist only seven basic plots. Even if Booker’s estimate is off by several dozen, that still leaves millions of books per story line out there. Whether the story is tragic, comic, follows a protagonist on a quest, or one of the other plots Booker describes, what sets a tale apart is its cast of characters.

Because I believe this so firmly, I subscribe to this notion: While action moves a story forward, it’s the characters that truly drive the plot.

Action is key, and not only in crime fiction. To extend our take-a-trip analogy, action as the accelerator—we step on the gas if we want to get anywhere. When we exert pressure on the gas, our speed increases, just as action pumps a reader’s adrenaline to get those pages turning even faster. As our speed increases, however, we use more fuel. And that’s when we must rely on character power.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, taking time for character internalization during an exciting action scene can serve to intensify your reader’s experience. I’m not talking about slowing the action with a detailed flashback. Slowing the action is not our goal. But taking the time to include a sentence or two—perhaps a mere phrase—not only keeps your reader grounded, it has the potential to deliver buckets of delight.

In a key scene near the end of my new book, Virtual Sabotage, protagonist Kenna Ward doesn’t know if certain individuals in a virtual reality scenario are real or simulations. As she fights for her life, she takes precious seconds to evaluate and then re-evaluate whether to fight for their lives as well. These quick moments bringing the scene’s characters into sharper focus also serve to intensify the action.

Soul-searching

Another concern when balancing characterization and action is keeping your character’s soul in mind. Would he or she take the steps you need them to? Would he or she react the way the plot requires them to? If not, the story won’t work. Characters must follow the rules of their own souls. Plots can change on a whim.

Remember that your characters are always right—about themselves, that is. Try to figure out why they refuse to behave the way you need them to. Is it because you haven’t laid the proper groundwork for this behavior? You haven’t explored a dimension of their personality that a certain action depends on? Maybe that means rewriting a prior scene.

While there are few absolutes in writing, I will defend this as one of them:

Do not ever force your characters to do something against their will.

To clarify: I’m not suggesting that characters can never be encouraged to act against their wills. Putting a gun to your protagonist’s head often serves as ample encouragement. What I’m advocating against is forcing behaviors that don’t make sense and that your characters balk at performing. When an author forces such action from his or her characters, it shows. That author loses credibility. And readers.

Action vs. activity

Don’t confuse action with activity. Action propels the story forward. Activity describes what’s going on. And while well-placed activity can set the groundwork for action (think of the phobias and OCD tendencies of detective Adrian Monk, brought to life by the actor Tony Shalhoub on the TV series, Monk), activity for activity’s sake (filler) risks putting your reader to sleep.

Some of the best examples I’ve found that balance characterization and action come from the late, great Sue Grafton. In her excellent alphabet series, scenes are presented to the reader through Kinsey Millhone’s personal filter. Every one of Kinsey’s wry observations not only delivers sharp detail, it allows us to peer into her soul as well. Pick up a Grafton book to see what I’m talking about. The stories move at such a quick clip you almost don’t realize how well you’ve gotten to know Kinsey along the way.

There are so many complexities about balancing character and action that I’d love to have an afternoon of conversation to dig even deeper into what works, what doesn’t, and why. Next conference, let’s chat! Or let’s talk now on the Career Authors Facebook Page!

Julie Hyzy is the New York Times bestselling and Anthony Award-winning author of the standalone thriller, VIRTUAL SABOTAGE (October 23, 2018, Calexia Press), the White House Chef mystery series, the Manor of Murder mystery series and the Alex St. James mystery series

A Halloween Poem: The Witch of His Dreams!

THE WITCH OF HIS DREAMS

She comes to him at Midnight,

The Witch of his Dreams,

Her eyes a forest green,

Her hair, dark and long,

Her voice, a sweet magic,

Calling out his name,

He could not help but watch her,

Dance among the flowers,

Beneath a waxing moon,

She whirls and cast her spells,

Upon him,

A haunting chant she sings,

And soars into his soul,

On gossamer wings,

She whispers things he longs to hear,

Of secret longings in his ear,

She enchants him with delights,

Though she must fly into the night,

She tells him of her love,

And casts her spells upon him,

To love him evermore,

Though never shall she return,

For she was only ever,

The Witch of His Dreams.

Composed by K. D. Dowdall October 2017

An Interview With Judy Rumsey Bullard, Book Cover Designer, This Saturday, October 20th!

 

 

 

 

 

As writers and authors, we know or should know, the importance of creating a book cover that shines. The cover should also represent as much as possible what the novel is all about. On October 20th, 2018, I will be interviewing Judy Rumsey Bullard, a very talented Book Cover Designer, who will talk to us about Book Cover Designing. She will be displaying 6 more of her great designs, and will talk to us about what it takes to be a successful Book Cover Designer! Here are three Book Cover designs that she designed for three of my novels and I love each one!

 

The Soulful Arc of the Universe

 “….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand dark midnights. Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

MLK

SEVENTH SON by Author A. M. Offenwanger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A. M. Offenwanger has written a magical fantasy that is a delight to read. I know when a book is really good and that is when I can remember with clarity the characters and the story weeks later. This tells me that the characters were memorable, likable, and the story interesting. Offenwanger’s writing is memorable, delightful and magical. The story involves a former Librarian, Cat, who is not happy with her life and decides to do some traveling with the money she has saved. She has been “dumped” by her boyfriend and life seems to be going nowhere for her. A lover of museums, Cat visits a museum of antiquities and admires several beautiful and strange appearing turquoise bowls, that apparently have a magical quality about them. Little did Cat know that these bowls would change her life beyond anything she could imagine.The world building is simple, but effective. I highly recommend Seventh Son, as a delightful summer read. It is uplifting, with a love story that will make your heart melt.

 

The Boy With The Indigo Eyes – A Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jenna Sweet was taking a walk back in time. It was now mid-afternoon, sunny and warm. A slight breeze rustled through the trees. A dog barked in the distance. She walked along the side walk, not really aware of where she was headed. Jenna guessed it was by instinct alone, a path she could not forgot. A narrow bridge was ahead of her and Jenna knew it was the bridge that crossed over Stoney Brook.

It was a place where she swam and frolicked as a kid. It was where her mother and her aunt would bring lunch for Jenna and her cousins. Her mom and Aunt would sit around the picnic table talking, laughing, and smoking cigarettes. Both of them have been gone for a very long time now. It was a terrible accident. It changed all of their lives forever.

Jenna stood looking over the bridge, looking down into the rippling water feeling pensive and sad. She listened to the flow of the brook over the rocks and stones as the afternoon sunlight glittered on the water like sparklers on the fourth of July.  She breathed in the sweet smell of the glacier-fed brook and the musky scent of wet moss along its banks. A long kept memory of a young stranger came flooding back into her consciousness from the past.

Jenna was once again walking through the forest and it was cool and shadowy. She remembered how the sunlight coming through the tree tops dappled the forest floor with shades of sun-kissed yellow.  The forest, thought Jenna, was a masterpiece of infinite color, with shimmering emerald leaves, azure sky above, and chestnut brown earth below.  The pungent memory scent of evergreens enveloped Jenna’s senses. She remembered the feel of the waxy substance of the fallen leaves beneath her bare feet as she padded through the dense forest and listened for the sound of water against rock. She would follow the sound to discover the hidden part of the Brook that few had ever ventured to see.

Beneath the forest canopy she heard a slight rustle and then she saw the boy. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace like a white-tailed deer through the brambles and bushes. He leaped dancer-like over decaying logs and skipped stone by stone over mossy growths, wet with dew.

The tall, dark-haired boy stopped now and again to smell the air as he made his way through the forest. Jenna, Indian-like, followed the boy through the brambles and bushes. She was almost close enough now to see his nostrils flare. In the distance, Jenna heard the flow of water over pebbles and stones as she followed the stranger who followed the sound of the brook.

Ahead of them were large granite boulders and the sound of rippling waters. She watched the boy as he skillfully scampered over the huge glacier boulders and disappeared from view. Jenna followed suit and climbed over the boulders to reach the rocky banks of the brook, but when she looked around, the boy was nowhere to be seen. She sat down for a moment and sighed as she wondered who he was and why she had never seen him before. After all, reasoned Jenna, this was a small farming community with only one middle school.

Jenna dangled her feet above the crystal clear water as she looked at her reflection that was gazing back at her. Her long golden brown braids framed a face that was tanned from the summer sun, hazel eyes now as deeply green as the moss beneath her feet.

She then slipped her slender pubescent body into the cool waters of the brook and was suddenly struck by an incredible sense of freedom within her being that was exhilarating and daunting at the same time. She was growing up and her life and all of life was before her.

Jenna looked down and saw that the wet cloth of her blouse had fallen away, revealing how her body was changing. Suddenly, she was aware of someone looking at her from above. It was the tall dark-haired boy. He was looking down at her. She was sure he had been watching her and then he smiled. Jenna blushed crimson. The boy’s broad shoulders and long muscular legs glistened in the warm sunlight as he stood high on the rocky over-hang above her.

Without acknowledging it, both Jenna and the boy were awakening to their bodies as they grew and changed. Soon, thought Jenna, they would no longer be the carefree children who swam with abandon and ran like deer through the ancient forest. Jenna turned away from the boy, but secretly smiled at this sweet flirtation as the sunlight sparkled like diamonds on the rocks, the trees, and the water’s surface.

The boy, not unlike an Indian brave stalking his prey, suddenly appeared near Jenna, having silently slipped into the water. It was his indigo blue eyes that startled her. The depth of emotion that emanated from his eyes, she didn’t understand. The boy smiled knowingly at Jenna. He could read her thoughts, she knew.

“Listen, he whispered to Jenna as he placed his hand near to his ear. “The water is whispering – do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna leaned into the water to hear the voice of the brook. The brook murmured as it gently flowed over the rocks.  Puzzled, Jenna could only shrug her shoulders.

The boy leaned closer to Jenna—his face just inches from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now glittering in the sunlight, looked into Jenna’s eyes, willing her to somehow absorb the mystical knowledge of the brook that he so easily understood.

“You must hear it for yourself” he replied gently, in a voice that was softly mesmerizing. Jenna felt spellbound by his presence and she opened her mouth to speak, but she could only shake her head.

Suddenly, a flock of Canadian Geese flew over their heads and broke the spell. Both of them she remembered, had looked up together to see the geese majestically crossing the azure blue of the endless sky. So close to them, she thought, that she could feel the air move around them. A single feather swirled downward to the water’s edge and the boy gently cupped it in his hands. He then placed the feather in her hand. She brought it to her lips to touch and smell the still warm and fragrant odor of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow. The white quill was downy soft and still warm. She would always keep it.

When Jenna turned to thank the boy, he had already climbed back up to the rocky ledge and was staring at her.

“Wait”, she cried out. “Who are you?”

“Someday you will know, Jenna.” And then he was gone.

Jenna stood on the bridge over-looking the brook remembering those moments long ago. She was now twenty-four years old and her life had taken many twists and turns since the day that seemed a lifetime ago. It surprised her how constant the memory of the boy stayed with her. How many years, she thought, have I returned to this town, to stand on this bridge, wondering whatever happened to the boy.  Jenna took the single white quill feather from her pocket and brought it to her lips. It still held the scent of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow.

Jenna suddenly became aware that someone was watching her. She then turned to see a tall, dark-haired young man. He was staring at her. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace as he walked toward her. She was stunned. There was something about him, she thought. Her mind raced with speculation.

The young man came to stand in front of her. He leaned in, closer to Jenna—his face just inches away from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now resplendent in the afternoon sunlight, looked into Jenna’s, willing her to remember. “The water is whispering,” he said with a grin. “Do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna’s eyes opened wide. She nodded to the tall, dark-haired young man with the indigo blue eyes and smiled. “We are like the brook–a constant thing, she told him. “Nothing is ever truly lost, if one seeks to remember.

“Yes,” he said, “that is the secret of the brook.” The young man took her hand in his and together they walked down memories road, into the future.

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DANGER WALKS HERE!

It happened in a small farming community in the northwestern part of Connecticut that also included a large forest preserve, a once glacial river, now a bubbling brook, a lake, and a spring-fed pond. The community’s roots began in 1680, as The Salmon Brook Settlement that was also home to Native Americans like the Tunix, the Massaco, and the Mohegan.

It was a perfect summer day. The morning was cool and the sky was a brilliant Periwinkle blue. The deep, dense forest was a monolith of wonder for elementary school age kids.  The ancient woods that the Salmon Brook flowed through provided the Native Americans with all kinds of fish, fowl, and river animals, like beavers.

Evidence of their inhabitation lingers still in the form of arrowheads, pathways, in meadows that were once crop producing fields, where they once grew tobacco, beans, squash, and corn, as well as middens of shells like clams, mussels and turtles were eagerly searched for in the forest.  There were plenty of bones to find too, mostly animal, but sometimes, human bones that would be exposed as they washed up on the rocky river banks.

On this beautiful summer morning, a small band of kids, having traversed deeply into the forest, smelled smoke and considered it to be a fisherman on the river or the nearby lake.  At first, nothing much was thought about it. The smoke seemed to be coming from some distance away.

Taken aback by what she was seeing, one of the older members of the group of five children, yelled out, “FIRE!”  All heads turned to the leader of the group, who stood mesmerized by the yellow-orange fingers of flame surrounding a giant oak tree, that appeared to touch the sky it was so tall. The forest fire was closing in around them, silently sneaking up on them, until it roared like a lion.  The fire then leapt among the tree tops, high into the sky, turning the blue sky into a purple twilight, billowing with fire.

Like deer, caught in the headlights of an on-coming car, they froze in fear.  Suddenly, they ran, following their leader to an old wagon wheel road where giant, thick oaks lined the road, that was little more, now, than a pathway.  They ran and out of the corner of their eyes the watched the fire explode into the giant oaks behind them. As they ran, animals of all kinds joined in their fierce desire to escape the flames that were now, 40, 50, 60, 100 feet high in the air, and animals ran alongside the five children. The leader was shocked to find a black bear keeping pace at her side and deer leaping everywhere. Wild Turkeys, Foxes, Porcupines, Skunks, Woodchucks, all, ran with the humans, side by side on the narrow path, until the path widened as they reached an open field. Ahead of them was Canton road and fire trucks with long hoses and a helicopter overhead. The parents of the children were kept back by officers and firemen.

The children emerged, blackened with smoke, wild-eyed with fear, and the animals took off in different directions, some crossing the road to the other side where safety could be found, unmindful of the crowd gathered on Canton Road. The children, now at the point of exhaustion, collapsed into their parent’s arms as the firefighters dosed them with cool, clear water.

This was a day the five children would never forget. I will always remember the black bear running by my side. I remember how we looked at each other, the black bear and I—with a look that was “will we get out of this alive?”  It was as if we saved each other and we were a team. It was amazing. I will always remember the look he gave me as he turned to run into the safety of the tall bushes and another part of the forest, he turned and stopped for a moment, like he was saying, thank you and nodded his head.

By K. D. Dowdall

***I wrote this sometime ago and I had not proofread it before publishing. I have now made grammatical changes. A mistake, hopefully, I will not make again.