I sat in my chair, placed my hands on the keyboard, typed “I,” typed “space,” typed “s,” typed “a,” typed “t…”
Or to save time, I wrote the post below.
And you are very grateful I didn’t list out all the actions between sitting down and publishing this post, aren’t you?
Moving on. The same principle applies in fiction writing. We don’t always need to know everything that happens between one event and the next. The actions in the middle (let’s call them “middle actions”) can slow down or halt a story at both the line and overall levels. You would have stopped reading paragraphs ago if I detailed how I hit each individual key on my keyboard to make up this post. That would have bogged down the article and resulted in taking forever to get to the inevitable conclusion—a completed post.
So instead of detailing my literal play-by-play process, I cut to the chase. “I wrote the post below” gets the same point across without boring you to death. More importantly, it delivers the important information of “Hey, there’s a post further down. It’s useful. Go read it.” (Does that count as self-promotion?)
Like everything in writing, there’s no hard and fast “rule” of when to use or not use middle actions. Here, I outline when it’s beneficial to cut those middle actions, as well as when it’s appropriate (even important) to include them.
When to cut middle actions
She reached, grasped the car door handle, pulled, opened the door, and got out of the car.
Lots of very small details that don’t add to the meaning of the scene. Everything up to \”got out\” is middle\” action–things that are understood as needing to be done to achieve the final movement. If your writing for an audience that’s familiar with how cars work, they know the handle must be grasped and pulled to open the door so someone can get out of the vehicle. You don’t need to explain this process. Taking out the middle action results in this:
She got out of the car.
Simple. Informative. You’ve written the final result. Your readers can infer the middle actions that led to this result, and the story moves forward.
When to Use Middle Actions
Hint: It’s not to describe how I pressed each key to make this post.
Unless something Earth-shattering happens during the process.
I hit the ‘s’ key, and a portal to Narnia opened beside my desk.
Middle actions are important when the normal conclusion of an action isn’t achieved. If something interrupts the process, it’s crucial to describe where action was stopped so we can place our character and give the scene context. Here, I’m at my desk typing, when suddenly I have the opportunity to galivant off to a fictional world with magic. (Obviously, this didn’t actually happen since I’m still here.) The appearance of the, sadly, made-up portal interrupted my typing on the letter “s.” Maybe “s” has something to do with it, and maybe it doesn’t. Telling the reader what letter seemed to trigger the portal, though, adds yet another level of mystery.
For a less fantastical look at this in practice, let’s go back to our friend in the car.
She reached for the door handle but he stopped her with a hand on her elbow.
Way less exciting than Narnia, but you get the idea. The normal process of getting out of the car was interrupted. By describing the boy stopping the girl in the process of reaching for the door handle, we know our characters are still in the car, the car door is still closed, and something important is likely about to happen between these two characters.
Why is this important?
Pacing. Cutting out the middle actions keeps the story flowing at the sentence level, but it also allows for showing what’s important without telling every little thing that happens in-between. Think if I’d actually written how I typed every key to make this article a reality. That would have been the most boring and slow-moving post ever. And what would have been the point?
Which brings me to…
Purpose. There’s no reason to include the pressing of individual keys in this post (except for my opening example). But there is a lot of reason for the article on the whole. Cutting out the middle actions places a greater emphasis on moments where the expected flow of actions is interrupted. It clues your reader on a subconscious level that this moment is important. It triggers our desire to keep reading because something different has happened, and we want to know why.
Did pressing “s” open the portal?
What is the guy going to say to the girl in the car?Interrupted actions create tension in the moment, which leads to tension on a greater level.
If I go to Narnia, what will I find there?
How will the scene in the car change the relationship between these characters?And so on.
Bottom Line: Middle actions are a tool, like everything else in your writer’s toolkit. They have their moments, but those moments should offer something new and different that changes the direction of your scene. If no change from the expected is forthcoming, have your character get out of the car and go on her merry way.
In the meantime, I’ll be here pressing “s” and waiting for that portal.
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