Lights, Camera, Action!
We often see in movies two characters walk into a restaurant, sit down at a table, order food and eat it. Other than the famous scene in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally most times the eating scene doesn’t do anything to move the story forward. It’s usually a chance for the characters to recap what they, and the audience, already knows. That same technique doesn’t usually work in a novel. Check out the When Harry Met Sally scene here.
The action a writer includes in a novel must go to work for them. Action needs to move the story forward. Moving around in a scene isn’t action. Really think about what your characters are doing and how their actions show who they are. If your heroine hangs her little black bag on a hook in a restaurant make sure that action shows something about who she is. Did the bag cost her a month’s salary to buy because she doesn’t want the people at the event to know she’s struggling for money? Is the floor too dirty for her? Is she worried that someone will steal it because she’s been robbed before? Just putting the bag on the hook to give your heroine something to do is a waste of good words.
Take the glass of wine. Your heroine is at a party. The wine is flowing. Having her take constant sips while she trades dialogue with another character doesn’t do anything to move the story forward. Sorry. It’s just boring. Ask yourself, is your character uncomfortable? Have her tap the glass instead. Does she have a bad habit of clinking the glass against her teeth? Is she allergic to wine along with a long list of other things and doesn’t want to tell her date? Or maybe she grew up on the property of a winery and the smell reminds her of the bad things that happened to her behind the tank room. Now we know something about the character and suddenly we’re interested.
Take another look at that scene in When Harry Met Sally. While Sally is talking, she is removing the excess meat from her sandwich. At this point in the movie, we know she has a very unique way of ordering her food and she “wants things the way she wants them.” That gesture goes right to her character and it isn’t wasted time on the screen.
I often edit stories with stagnant action. And in a first draft, go ahead and put it down because no one is going to read your first draft. Right? But when you go back and you know your characters better make different and unique choices for them.