• Rachel Paige

Implied Actions

It can feel like readers need to know every detail of a story. But they often don't. Let's look specifically at actions that can be cut.


Especially in a fast-paced scene with lots of characters, it's easy to go overboard with action. The scene ends up feeling more like a checklist than a flowing image.


Here's an example:

"Joe picked up the newspaper, brought it to the coffee table, and set it down."


It might seem like all those are necessary, but let's try taking one out.


"Joe picked up the newspaper and set it on the coffee table."


It gets the same point across, right? The reader knows he brought it to the table because he set it on the table. Let's try to make it even smaller.


"Joe set the newspaper on the coffee table."


To do this action, Joe would need to pick up the paper and bring it to the table. There's no need to tell the readers those things. Because, unless he summoned the paper magically, they'll assume he picked it up.


Let's try another one.


"I stood, crossed the room, and put my dishes in the sink."

Say it's already been established that this character is sitting at the kitchen table. Unless they're throwing their dishes across the room, the reader will assume they stood and walked there. If they are throwing them, you should say that because the reader will not guess it on their own. Bizarre or unusual behavior are actions that can stay.


I get skeptical when the number of actions in a sentence is three or more. Usually, they can be combined or taken out. Try to strip the action to its bones and see if it's still clear. What actions are necessary for others to take place? Take those out. They already exist in the reader's mind.



Exercise 1:

Shorten the following sentences.


1. "I opened the door and went downstairs."

2. "Margaret stood up, picked up her phone, and answered it."

3. "The dog climbed onto the couch, turned a few times, and settled down."

4. "She saw me and waved back."


Potential answers:

There's not one right answer to these, but here's what I would do:

1. "I went downstairs."

Unless you're teleporting, you have to open the door to do this.

2. "Margaret answered her phone."

Depending on what's been said, you could say she stood. But it's probably not necessary.

3. "The dog turned a few times on the couch and settled down."

To turn on the couch, the dog has to get on the couch.

4. "She waved back."

If she waved back, she obviously saw the other character.


Exercise 2:

Go through your own writing and see if you have times you overuse action. Which ones can be implied?

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