Construction Zone: “Cold” Action

As I go through my hard copy of Tempest, I have bits and pieces with all the necessary physical action included, but it’s robotic. For example (“it” refers to a whistle Charlie’s given everyone in the group to summon help and scare away wild animals):

“He nodded, placing it around his neck without comment. Charlie shrugged her pack onto her shoulders, securing the waist strap. She adjusted the baseball cap on her head, and put on her sunglasses.”

When I say I “write lean” – this is largely what I’m referring to. I have lots of stuff going on here…not necessary, perhaps, but in my opinion, it’s descriptive and helps to set the scene. They’re getting ready to hike on a sunny day with big packs (implying they’ll be out overnight at least). The problem is, as I have it above it’s all “cold” – it’s just a laundry list of actions. It needs “something” to warm it up, bring it to life and make it matter. Something like:

“He placed it around his neck, wondering if anyone really believed a whistle would stave off a bear attack. Scanning the group, he noted that aside from a couple of college girls, they all appeared to be out of their element, and he silently admitted the small tool was probably a good way to give them a boost of confidence. A twinge of guilt pricked his conscious, knowing that he was putting them all in far more danger than they’d bargained for, but it was unavoidable. This was the best way to get onto the mountain without arousing suspicion, as Winters’ men were accustomed to seeing Charlie leading hikes on the mountain.

Movement to his right pulled his attention back to Professor Reynolds, shrugging into her big pack and cinching the waist strap tight over her flat abdomen. She reached up to slide her sunglasses on and adjust the ball cap on her head, compact muscles rippling slightly under the short sleeve of her shirt. From her automatic fighting stance earlier and that glimpse of lean muscle he’d wager she studied some form of marshal arts. Definitely something that could come in handy later, though with any luck, it wouldn’t come to that.”

Better, I think. Now the action is cushioned by introspection, a little foreshadowing, a little misdirection, more detail about what Charlie looks like, and a detail that sets-up later scenes. As a bonus, it went from 33 words to 203 words…and since I’m constantly struggling to reach novel-length word count, that’s helpful for me.

Do you have much “cold” action in your drafts? Do you typically fix it, or just cut it (or both, depending)? Have you noticed “cold” actions in any books you’ve read recently?

7 comments on “Construction Zone: “Cold” Action

  1. Davin

    This is something I face often. I think when I write, I have a lot of “cold” actions, like you discuss here. Sometimes they are all right to me. For instance, in my opinion, the first sentence of your original passage carries emotion with it. I can read into that, so I’d probably be okay with keeping it. I also sometimes leave cold actions after reading someone like Hemingway, who does that sort of thing a lot. Like you say, it works as description and can be educational if the process you’re describing is something unusual like sewing a quilt or fly fishing. In both of those cases, I wouldn’t mind the step by step scene. I do tend to cut a lot of mine, though!

  2. Annarkie

    I totally have that problem! I think it’s because real action usually happens fast, and we writers sometimes write it too fast because we can see it clearly, but in our excitement we forget that the reader cannot.

  3. Erica

    Yes! I totally know what you’re talking about. I definitely have that problem… I love the 2nd paragraph! The books I’ve read recently have some good internal dialogue, something I need to add to the actions in my own writing ;o)

    Great post!

  4. Jamie D.

    I grinned at this Davin when on the other blog, you said you didn’t particularly want to write like Hemingway (or something to that effect). I’ve never read him, so haven’t had the pleasure (?).

    I do leave them occasionally…but not often. The thing that’s interesting about writing in public (as I do often with the serials), is that I get a wide variety of opinions on things like that, at random. Obviously my first list is “cold” by any standards, but I bet there are still some who, like you, might be just fine with the first sentence. Others wouldn’t like it…which brings up the question of style…

    I may have to go look up something of Hemingway’s to read now, I think.

  5. Jamie D.

    I think you’re exactly right – the movie’s just racing alone, and our fingers are racing along just to get it all down on paper.

    But man, do I wish I could avoid a lot of it in the first draft. I don’t mind this sort of revising (I kind of like it, actually), but it does take time. Hard for an impatient like myself.

  6. Jamie D.

    Thanks Er. I think you’re pretty darn good at the description thing, and the best way to learn the rest is by reading, IMO.

    I wonder if that’s because the line between internal dialogue and back story info dump is kind of thin? I’m always worried that too much internal dialogue will just get boring fast, so I keep it too lean instead. Yet another thing to contemplate as I’m writing tonight…

  7. Carol

    Yeah, I have to admit, I’m a big user of cold action in my drafts. I can’t say that I’ve noticed in books I’ve read recently, but you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for it in the future! 🙂