Character. Action. Setting.

Lucky you! By chance, I pulled two blog spots this week!


Photo credit: PeteJackson

Yesterday I talked about paring down your words to the bone – which is a message, when boiled down, is simply put as- “get to the point.”

Sometimes it’s tough to do that. It can be difficult to know what’s important to you and what’s important to your story.

Like many other writers, I received a boatload of writing books this holiday season (what do you get a writer? A book on writing of course!) I’m in the midst of reading Structuring Your Novel – Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by K.M. Weiland and I came across this bit of brilliance:

“A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not “World War II began”! It’s “Hitler. Invaded. Poland.””

Character. Action. Setting. That’s what’s important to a story and that’s what you need to work on. Forget about background story (unless you can make it full of Character. Action. and Setting. *WHILE* advancing the plot.) Forget about moral conundrums or even introducing absolutely everyone at the party. Sometimes Doorman #2 is simply Doorman #2. Move on to what’s important.

As a technical writer, I was taught to avoid action unless it was a command – “Hit DELETE and exit the program.” As a memoir writer, I often struggle with action. I can clearly see what is going on in my scene – shouldn’t it be obvious to the reader? I tend to be more of a cerebral thinker, focusing on my thoughts as opposed to what is going on and where.

In short, my actions and settings sometimes suck.

But pick up any (good) book and just read for a few minutes, you’ll start to see how important all of these ingredients are as they work together to form the story. Consider this example from The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout:

“Come daylight Vester got up and dressed and went to the stable to feed the stock and saddle his horse. Line got u pad dressed and started a fire in the stove and went to the outhouse. On return she emptied the buckets and waked the girls and standing in mud made corn dodgers. All she has left was fornmean. Which she mixed with water until it was too thick to run, then fried. She made extra, enough for herself and the girls later. Vester came in and she used the last of her sorghum molasses on his dodgers and the last of her coffee, which was rye parched brown, for two cups for him. He guaranteed again he’d be home by dark. Loup was sixteen miles north and east of their claim. He tried to kiss her on the cheek, but she turned her face away from him.”

This passage has it all, Character. Action. Setting. But, and here’s what makes excellent writing stand out, the author has presented each aspect in a way that moves the plot forward.

The character in scene is a frontier woman who is going mad. By using so many “ands” in the description we are forced to endure this woman’s never ending monotony. We see how she sacrifices herself for her children and husband, my God, she even gives this man the last of her coffee. She must really love him, but yet she turns her face from him. Clearly something is not right.

In that short passage by fully exposing and emphasizing the character, action, and setting (can’t you just see that pathetic coffee) we get a real feel for what’s going on. The descriptions all add to the continuation of the story line.

So here’s what you (and I) need to do.

Get an index card and on it write “Character. Action. Setting” and then put it on your desk where you can see it.

Next take a passage you’ve already written and see where it might be lacking in these 3 areas. Either revise it or write a new one and then take a step back and compare it to the first.

I’m willing to bet that you’ll see an improvement.

Looking forward to hearing about your experiences.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). ( She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

29 thoughts on “Character. Action. Setting.

  1. “Character. Action. Setting.” I think I should tattoo this to my forehead (lol), but I’ll do as you suggested and put it on a notecard or maybe I’ll invest in some sticky notes and put them everywhere!! Thanks for this advice!

    • A better place to tattoo it is on your wrist, then you’d be able to see it (and this is exactly why I got a tattoo of Kokopelli – the storyteller on my wrist.)

  2. I’m leaving for a writing retreat on Friday. I’ll be taking my notecard with me and will start off the week with this exercise. Hopefully, you’ll hear back from me on how beneficial it was. 🙂

    • There is a time and a place for cerebral (news reporting, scientific writing) but, as a memorist, we need to get “out of our brains.” Let us know how you are progressing.

  3. Great advice. Books need constant action. I take my cue from TV. There’s a rule in TV shows that something has to move every 2 seconds, even if it’s just the camera panning in or out on somebody’s face. Or somebody talks, smirks or winks. Something has to move. Like you, I come from the non-fiction side of the book biz and this is a lesson I’ve had to learn.

    • Larry,

      I’ve actually looked to screenwriting books when structuring my memoir. Even though it’s “real live” the story can still be told in a way that includes movement. I hadn’t read about that 2 second rule, but I’ll be on the lookout for it the next time I watch a TV show. Thanks for adding this tidbit.


  4. Excellent advice!!! I love this nugget of important information you have shared!! I can’t wait to look at what I have written and apply it. In writing a memoir, or any story including personal growth, sometimes there is not real “action”, and I feel that the story, although much is happening, takes place in the same setting. Is that okay? Does this become boring? I am not sure. Thank you for posting! Love this!!

    • Unless you are writing about a rock, there will always be action. People have dialog, people think, people breathe and most importantly people have flashbacks which move the setting even though it doesn’t really move the setting. See what I’m getting at? If the memoir takes place in one setting (and I can think of a few, like the hiker who was trapped by his arm, or a hostage or kidnapping situation where a person is kept in one place) then it will be up to you, as the writer, to find enough action to keep your reader *constantly* interested.


      • Yes, which is exactly what I have been writing. Flashbacks, action within the main setting along with a few other places. I am going to look up some of those books you mentioned for a reference. Thank you for bringing my attention to this, I hope, as always, that I can improve my writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s