Avoiding “Practical Action” Sentences
One way you can up your writing game is to challenge yourself to look for and eliminate the vast majority of “practical action” sentences in your prose. I’m referring to those functional movements your characters make to accomplish basic tasks. Things like coming downstairs in the morning or walking across the kitchen.
The underlined sentence below is an example:
Ethan left the party at straight up ten o’clock and bolted to his truck. He opened the door and got in. The front window had iced and his defrost button was broke, so he sprayed the windshield with wiper fluid until he figured he’d have to get out and scrape.
If I’d left that sentence out, you’d have no doubt that Ethan got in his truck. Sometimes we have the impulse to narrate every single transition in a scene. We think that if a character picks something up we have to show them putting it down. If the telephone rings we better write a sentence having our character lift the receiver. If the doorbell rings, our character should walk across the room before opening it. But no.
A place where practical action sentences often creep in is at the beginning of scenes. Rather than having your characters enter whatever space they’re in, consider having your people in place before the scene starts. In this example from A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, a young man has just gotten home from a weekend away with some acquaintances. He speaks with his mother:
Mrs. Beaver was eating her yoghurt when Beaver reached home. “Who was there?”
“No one? My poor boy.”
“They weren’t expecting me. It was awful at first but got better. They were just as you said. She’s very charming. He scarcely spoke.”
No need to show Beaver pulling up to the house or going in the front door. Waugh drops us right down into the scene with no set arranging or moving people into position. They’re in place, we get it, smooth as Chobani.
The same principle applies to scene endings. Why visibly usher our characters off-stage when the action is already implied? Look at this scene ending from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun:
Just then the Mother called and started to move towards us, but there were tourists in her way, and Josie had time to say quickly: “I’ll be back really soon. Promise. Tomorrow if I can. Bye just for now.”
The scene doesn’t need to end with “And then Josie turned and walked away.” The reader already assumes that’s what happened next.
Here’s an example that looks like it might contain several practical action sentences, yet doesn’t. In this scene from Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, our main character is distraught and trying to keep calm:
He replaces the receiver; goes upstairs for his wallet and his keys. He scribbles a note to his grandparents, leaving it on the telephone stand. ‘Had to leave early. See you tonight after school.’ The writing looks stiff and jerky to him
Nearly light as he get into the car. He wipes his eyes, wipes his hand on his pants again.
The replacing of the receiver, going upstairs, etc. aren’t merely practical actions, rather they’re a series of deliberate behaviors that dramatize the methodical actions he’s taking while he’s trying to hold himself together.
Actions that dramatize and characterize are important. If the manner in which someone enters or exits the scene matters, then you’ve got reason to write that sentence. And if a sentence is fulfilling a practical, logistical need, use the opportunity to characterize whoever is doing the acting or the observing.
But if your sentence is inferred or simply relates benign movement, it will create drag on your prose. It’s the stuff of drafts, not polished stories. Practical action sentences usually serve to convey pragmatic behaviors. In most situations, they’re begging to be cut.
Originally published at Scribbler. Reposted with permission.
Good point, Kim
We shouldn’t say more than is needed to continue the narrative when something is implied. I remember writing in an essay, “I watched my nursing supervisor come down the hall towards me.” You commented that all I needed was, “The nursing supervisor came down the hall.” No need for “I watched” or “towards me.”
Another time I wrote, “I turned around and walked back home.” You commented, “You can do better than that.” Yep.
That’s the type of criticism I prefer, something that can help my writing move.
Hi, Greg! Thank you for the kind words. That last comment I made to you sounds a little bit snarky, haha. Well, you know I meant it with all respect. I always love reading your stories.