Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't Let a Character's Physical Movement Become Filler

Shuffling feet, hands jammed in pockets, chewing on lower lip, crossing arms over the chest…


A character’s physical movement is necessary during dialogue; however one problem I’ve been noticing in submissions is the lack of relevance and meaningfulness in the characters’ actions and gestures. Of course your characters are real to you and I know real people scratch their chins and scrunch their noses, but the difference with writing fiction is there’s very little time and space to take your characters from point A to point B. Why waist it on such inapt actions?

I know some of you are thinking: 60-90k words is a lot and I need to fill it someway!, but physical movements should not be filler. Your character shouldn’t be rubbing her arm just because you as the author thought there needed to be some break in the dialogue or didn’t want the conversation to fall into the “talking head” variety. If your character is going to rub her arm there needs to be a reason, whether it’s to show she’s cold or nervous or maybe it itches and later she discovers a transmitter under her skin…(Hmm, that was kinda lame and I’m blaming the early hour for it.) But the most important thing is those reasons need to relate to the scene (or future scenes as in the transmitter example).

 All right, example time—because sometimes it’s just easier to see it when someone else has done it. This is from THE FAULT IN OUT STARS (Green). As you’re reading it, pay close attention to the movement of both Augustus and Hazel:


We’d gone perhaps a mile in jagged silence before Augustus said, “I failed the driving test three times.”

“You don’t say.”

He laughed, nodding. “Well, I can’t feel pressure in old Prosty, and I can’t get the hang of driving left-footed. My doctors say most amputees can drive no problem, but…yeah. Not me. Anyway, I go in for my fourth driving test, and it goes about like this is going.” A half mile in front of us, a light turned red. Augustus slammed on the brakes, tossing me into the triangular embrace of the seat belt. “Sorry. I swear to God I’m trying to be gentle. Right, so anyway, at the end of the test, I totally thought I’d failed again, but the instructor was like, ‘Your driving is unpleasant, but it isn’t technically unsafe.’”

“I’m not sure I agree,” I said. “I suspect Cancer Perk.” Cancer Perks are the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses, etc.

“Yeah,” he said. The light turned green. I braced myself. Augustus slammed the gas.


Okay so there’s one head nod from Augustus, but it goes unnoticed because the other actions are there for the purpose of enhancing the scene: Augustus slamming on the brakes, Hazel’s body being tossed into the seat belt, Hazel bracing herself at the green light…

Sure Hazel could’ve scratched her head at what the driving instructor had said, or laughed, or darted her eyes nervously to and from—

BLAH! Right? Would those actions have moved the scene forward?

I love when I find scenes like this, created so masterfully. Not only do the movements exemplify perfectly how NOT to overdo it with mundane, everyday actions…Green shows us that those actions sometimes (personally, I think MOST of the time) can be used VERY sparingly.

So what do I want you to take away from this? Be choosy with your character’s movements. Don’t insert action merely to fill space between dialogue (those are flat actions; they mean nothing, do nothing). Make the actions EARN their way into your scene.

Take a few minutes and try it with one scene in your current WIP…then—if you’re feeling brave enough—email me ( the original and revised versions and I’ll tell you my thoughts. I might even post it here on the blog!

Have fun! And be choosy.

*Scenes no longer than 300 words, please.

*Critique opportunity ends Wednesday, January 30th 12:00 PST. Any emails received after then will be deleted unread.  

Related Posts:

Physical Telling: Actions Speak Louder Than Body Parts
Setting Dumps: Tips on How to Avoid Them
Physical Telling: Making it Disappear


  1. This is such a helpful post! I have a tendency to use physical actions as dialogue tags to avoid overusing "said". But it's so true that, like every other part of the story, they need a reason to be there that comes from the character. Thanks for the great examples!

  2. When I was doing edits, I noticed a lot of my characters nodded, all the time. I ended up doing a find and deleting most of them.

  3. Great advice! (I think I may be guilty of this, at least to some extent.) Thanks!

  4. Ah this is a great post, I am certainly guilty of some head nodding and arm folding! I will have a look at some scenes!