Keep Characters’ Actions Linear & Put Readers in Their Shoes

by | Writing | 2 comments

image by FirminoGennarino

If your character acts in real time, the reader will move along with and feel closer to, the character. This means the author never tells actions before they happen.

In the paragraph below look for five instances in which the author tells an action before it happens. Try rewriting the paragraph so all actions are linear. (Speaking dialogue is an action.)


Passage With Non-Linear Actions

As she buttoned her coat, Melissa spoke in earnest. “Listen to me, Alex. Jeanne is cheating on you.”

Alex couldn’t listen to Melissa for another second. Before he opened the apartment door for her, he leveled his gaze on hers. “You’re wrong.”

Later, he’d find out he was wrong, but for now, he based his opinion on what he knew about Jeanne. How was he to know Jeanne had cheated not only on him but on her first husband?

Melissa took off the coat he’d helped into minutes ago. “I’m staying until you hear evidence to the truth about Jeanne.”

Sentences That Aren’t Linear

  1. How could the point-of-view character, Alex, know Melissa spoke in earnest until she’d said the words? If the dialogue sounds like she spoke in earnest, this sentence could be left out.
  1. In real time, Alex levels his gaze on Melissa and then opens the door.
  1. The author intrudes and tells the reader Alex would later find out he was wrong. 
  1. Yes. How would Alex know in the current conversation that Jeanne had cheated on her husband?
  1. Sometimes, to keep the plot moving, an author will summarize in a current scene what has happened between scenes. The summarized event wasn’t important enough to have its own scene. But Alex helping her into her coat is easy to put in the right place in this passage. Taking the reader back is an unnecessary interruption.

 A Linear Passage

Alex helped Melissa into her coat.

She fastened buttons. “Listen to me, Alex. I don’t want to hurt you, but you need to know the truth. Jeanne is cheating on you.”

Alex couldn’t listen to Melissa for another second. He leveled his gaze on hers. “You’re wrong.” He opened the apartment door.

Melissa stood and studied him. She couldn’t be right, could she? He’d never seen or heard anything that pointed to Jeanne’s unfaithfulness.

Until now.

Melissa unbuttoned and removed her coat. “I’m staying until you hear evidence to the truth about Jeanne.”

Don’t you feel more intimate with what’s going on with and inside Alex in the rewrite?

Linear writing keeps readers inside the character’s body and mind as he acts and reacts. Click to tweet.

What other principles help you identify with a character?



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Amanda Larrowe’s lack of trust sabotages her relationships. The English teacher and award-winning author of middle-grade adventure books for boys has shut off communication with friends and family to meet her January 2 book deadline. Now, in the deepest snow accumulation Richmond, Virginia has experienced in years, Camden Lancaster moves in across the street. After ten years, her heart still smarts from the humiliating aftermath of their perfect high school Valentine’s Day date. He may have transformed into a handsome, amiable man, but his likeability doesn’t instill trust in Amanda’s heart. When Cam doesn’t recognize her on their first two encounters, she thinks it’s safe to be his fair-weather neighbor. Boy is she wrong.

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  1. H L Wegley

    Also, telling things in advance removes the surprise and much of the impact of important actions.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Hi Harry. Yes, we want to draw out the suspense as long as we can, then give a good payoff for the reader.

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