Action in Writing Is Essential
In writing a life story, it is important to pay attention to three aspects: action, character, and setting. These will enhance your story every time. To neglect these elements is to risk having your story fall flat. In this article, we will concentrate on action.
When you use action in writing your story, it is called plot. Something must happen in your story to retain the interest of your reader.
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Listen to how a child tells a story. It is all action. Nuances of character and setting are immaterial to the child. It’s what happens that counts. Our reliance on action, on plot, doesn’t wane as we grow older, but our ways of using action in writing grow more sophisticated.
The amount of action in writing necessary to retain your reader’s interest varies enormously according to the sensibility and the education of different readers. Someone who prefers reading about ghosts and unpredictable supernatural occurrences will not find the English psychological novelist Virginia Woolf very interesting. But it remains true that readers—both of pulp fiction and of serious writing—need for you to place some sort of action in writing to move the story along. Although much of Virginia Woolf’s action is to be found as internalized (i.e., in the character’s mind), it counts as plot nonetheless.
When creating action in writing, start in the middle.
One writer’s trick is to start in the middle of things. If you are writing about the time you got fired from a job, don’t start with the first vocational aptitude test you took in high school. Instead, start when you are first detecting a problem with a supervisor and then proceed from there to the unhappy conclusion. This sort of quick pacing will keep the interest of the reader.
Keep explanations and background material brief. Avoid the lengthy, informational flashback. Providing too much context can overwhelm your story and dissipate the energy of the action in writing a memoir. Compare the next two paragraphs:
Groveton, an industrial city founded in 1809 and having a large population of Slovaks who started coming in 1892, Hungarians who first migrated in 1896, Byelorussians who arrived in 1899, the Greeks whose numbers swelled after 1901, Armenians who arrived around 1909, was the birthplace of my father.
My father was born in Groveton, an industrial city awash with waves of immigrants: Slovaks, Hungarians, Byelorussians, Greeks, and Armenians.
The second paragraph gives the information the reader needs to picture this bustling city but without the unneeded dates. The list of nationalities becomes central to our understanding of Groveton, and seems to wash over us like the immigrants themselves. In the first paragraph, the reader has no guidance to know if the dates are significant, and so labors through them. If it is indeed significant that Armenians arrived around 1909, that bit of information can be slipped in when it becomes important. Notice, too, that the second paragraph gets the most important information up front: My father was born in Groveton.
In the first paragraph, the writer tried hard to keep the action going by choosing different verbs to describe the arrival of each group. But the essential fact is that they all arrived and contributed to the life of the city. State that, and keep going.
Perhaps all of those immigrants arrived during your father’s childhood, and so the dates become more significant. You can still handle them in a less onerous way, read the example below:
My father was born in 1891, just before the first wave of immigrants from Slovakia arrived. He watched Groveton change almost yearly as waves of immigrants from Hungary, Byelorussia, Greece, and Armenia arrived over the next 18 years.
Your choice of words and sentence structure can contribute to the action in writing your memoir, even in a paragraph that is conveying information to the reader.