For Writers: Make Your Scene’s Action Come to Life

Verbs are for action. That may sound obvious. But so many writers seem to forget that when writing the action in their scenes (myself included). If your verbs are strong, your action will be too. I’m going to show you an example of what a difference strong verbs can make from my current Work in Progress (WiP).

I’m editing my manuscript called Through Fear of Death. It’s historical fiction based in ancient Rome in 96 AD. Valentinius is the senior guard at the Carcer, Rome’s main prison. In this scene, Silas has just been brought to the Carcer, along with other prisoners. Silas is a big man, so Valentinius takes it upon himself to escort him, leaving the other nonthreatening prisoners to his partner. Valentinius pushed him in the back, but only once. Here is how I wrote it originally.

He gave a little push in the prisoner’s back. The man did not put up any resistance or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble.

Draft for Through Fear of Death

In the editing phase, I noticed the first two sentences could be tightened up. So I changed it to this.

He pushed the prisoner from behind. The man did not resist or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble.

Draft for Through Fear of Death

Now the action is more vivid, because pushed is more direct than gave a little push. Did not resist is tighter than did not put up any resistance. Normally, you would not tell what the character did not do, but in this case it says something about Valentinius’s motive for pushing him. He’s gauging how the prisoner will react. No reaction, in his mind, is good.

Use Strong Verbs for Action

To keep the reader’s attention, you have to make the action in the scene vivid. This is why every fiction class says, Show don’t tell. In the first example, I followed that rule, but the action still wasn’t as vivid as it could be, which brings me to the next rule. The most important word for any action in a scene is the verb. Use strong verbs for action.

Get your story in action.

In the first version, I used push and resistance as nouns. That required me to use weak verbs, gave and put (up). Push and resist are stronger as verbs than nouns. If your verbs are weak, chances are you can replace them with stronger verbs. Your reader will notice and enjoy it more. They won’t necessarily say, “Great use of strong verbs.” But they will notice the action in your scenes leaps off the page, and that will keep them reading.

But I’ve read lots of books with weak verbs, and I liked them.

This is a common problem for beginning writers. They have read other authors breaking the rules. Classic authors, especially those who wrote before movies, TV, the Internet, video games, etc., could take their time unfolding action slowly, going into long descriptions of settings that may or may not have anything to do with the plot, showing off their fancy ways of putting words together, painstakingly describing every subtlety and nuance of a character’s expression or action, and telling, not showing. Authors today do not have that luxury.

I once read Dickens take an entire paragraph to describe how a woman raised her eyebrows. You might have read that and liked it, especially if you read a lot of classics. People accept that from Dickens, because he is required reading in just about every English literature curriculum. But today’s readers will lose patience if you take too long and too many words to get to the action or the point of a scene.

Knowing When to Show and When to Tell

Following the rules show don’t tell, and use strong verbs, I have shown the action rather than told it. He pushed the prisoner from behind. What was his motive for doing that? I have shown that. The man did not resist or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble. He is not just being a bully. He wants to see how the prisoner reacts to it, so he can see how closely he needs to watch this big prisoner. This is a tactic he uses, not on every prisoner, but the ones who could challenge him. I’ve hinted at that, but I wanted to make the strategic aspect of this clearer, so I added a little exposition.

He pushed the prisoner from behind. It was a test he gave prisoners who might want to challenge him. The man did not resist or even look back at him. A good sign. He was not looking to make trouble.

Draft for Through Fear of Death

That’s a bit of telling, not showing. You hear show don’t tell all the time when you are learning how to write. But the truth is at some point, every story requires some telling. So it’s more like know when to show and when to tell. The main action in a scene should always be shown not told. But other aspects might be better told than shown. In general, I try to show as much through action and dialog as I can. Then, if I feel there is something the reader needs to know that I can’t quite show, I will do a little telling.

It was a test he often gave prisoners who might want to challenge him. I can’t show you every time he ever did this or the details of how he chooses which prisoners to push. But this tells you something about how he does his job. Initiating physical contact might be a problem for prison guards today. For ancient Rome, however, one push on a big man, for whom it could not do any real damage, to see how he reacts, would have been considered reasonable.

Breaking the Rules I Just Told You

It was a test he gave prisoners who might want to challenge him.

You might also think that sentence is not as tight as it could be. I tried tightening it a few times, but it did not quite work. Writing tight is not as important there, because it is not action (This point is arguable). It is technically called exposition. I’ll explain more about that in a future post.

If I can sum up, for the action in a scene:

  1. Show, don’t tell as much as you can.
  2. Use strong verbs.
  3. Write tight.
  4. Convey as much to the reader as you can through action and dialog without resorting to exposition.
  5. When you must use exposition, make sure there is a purpose for it, keep it brief, and make it relevant to the character’s action and reaction.

Exercise: Look at a scene in your work-in-progress (WiP). Did you use strong or weak verbs for the action? Change any weak verbs to stronger ones and see if you like it better.

Announcements

Audiobook:

In the next couple of months, I will be working on an audiobook version of Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

Novel:

I am preparing my novel Through Fear of Death: A Novel of Ancient Rome to self-publish as an ebook. Afterwards, I will have print and audio versions available, but the ebook will come first. I’m looking for publication at the end of August, so I can enter it into this year’s Self-Published Ebook contest with Writer’s Digest. Hopefully, lightning can strike twice.

You will have the ability to sign up for exclusive updates leading up to these two publications. Details to follow.

I'm underwater with my right hand above

Baptism with my right hand above the water

My parents live in Honolulu, so if I want to visit them, I have to fly there. I know. Life is hard. Anyway, I went with my wife and stepson recently. My sister and brother-in-law came as well. Of course, in addition to seeing everyone, I was looking forward to getting in the water.

The day before we were to fly out, I got a flat tire. While I was trying to get to the spare in the trunk, my hand slipped and banged against something. My thumb started bleeding. That’s what I get for trying to fix it myself. I called roadside assistance while trying to stop the bleeding, got the car towed to a place where I could get a new tire, and then went to the emergency room to get my thumb stitched.

We stayed at a hotel near the airport, so we could get there on time. While washing my hands, I broke open a stitch or two. I managed to get the bleeding stopped, but how would affect my beach time? The doctor and nurse who stitched me said after about twenty-four hours, I would be okay to put it in water. However, that was with the wound closed. Now that it was re-opened, I couldn’t be sure anymore. It was Friday night, we had to make the flight Saturday morning, so it would probably wouldn’t be until Monday that I could see a doctor again.

Well, the doctor said I should keep the hand out of the water, just as I feared. Even thought it’s salty, the marine life has to take care of their business in the ocean (not to mention some people, but we won’t go there). That was not a problem without broken skin, but… It was still a good trip but a huge disappointment that I couldn’t really get into the water the way I wanted.

On my last day, I went all the way into the water with my right hand sticking out. I got my wife and stepson to take pictures.

I'm underwater with my right hand above
Does Baptism like this count?

This wasn’t just about obeying doctor’s orders. I was re-enacting a bit of Roman history. One story I heard about the Roman army is that when the emperor Constantine wanted his soldiers to be baptized, they asked if they could keep their right hands above the water. Why would they do that? Because the right hand was their sword/spear hand. It was the hand they used to kill in battle. This is one reason I believe early Christianity was a pacifist religion. I mean, when your founder says, “Love your enemies,” doesn’t that pretty much preclude killing them?

However, soldiers after Constantine were not prohibited from killing. Constantine’s rule marked a sea change where Christianity went from being distrusted and sometimes persecuted by the empire to being the religion of the empire. Unfortunately, it adopted the violent ways of the empire, among other things that we are still living with today.

When people say the church needs to get back to the first century, I wonder if they understand what that really means. Persecution could spring up anywhere without warning, and you could not kill to defend yourself. Their belief was that life was a gift from God. Only God could decide when a person’s life would end. That meant you could not kill for any reason: abortion, euthanasia, war (even if it’s just), the death penalty, or self-defense. Not even to defend your loved ones. When their lives were threatened they did not return evil for evil. They trusted God enough to believe in overcoming evil with good. They did not expect non-Christians to live the same way, but these acts were forbidden in the church nonetheless.

What would it look like if the church really did that? I explore this in a novel I am getting ready to publish with the title (subject to change) Through Fear of Death. A gladiator named Silas converts to Christianity. This means he cannot kill. His defiance will incur the wrath of his lanista and the Procurator of the Games. He finds an unlikely ally in his prison guard, a retired soldier named Marcus Valentinius. Will their friendship and loyalty be strong enough to bring down a ruthless emperor, or will Rome’s system of violence and treachery destroy them?

Through Fear of Death cover choice1, gladiator helmet
One possible cover for my upcoming novel
Through Fear of Death possible cover image, gladiator in arena
Another possible cover for my upcoming novel

If you have an opinion about these covers, let me know in the comments below.

J. C. and the 12 O.G.’s (Mk 3:13-19a; Mat 10:1-4; Lk 6:12-16)

In the 1980’s, I loved Carman. He had a sense of humor, and early in his career, he said he wrote some songs that weren’t accepted by mainline Christianity because they were, in his own words, “a little off the wall.” This post is going to be a little off the wall. I hope you can handle it.

As someone who believes Christianity was originally nonviolent, and should still be, you might be surprised if I make a comparison between gangs and early Christians. I might not have the “street cred” for this. I was never in a gang. My only experience with them is through TV, movies, and news reports. However, like today’s street and motorcycle gangs, Christianity was sometimes an illegal organization in its early days.

In previous posts, I have talked about my novel manuscript that has not yet been published. (Maybe it’s a little off the wall). A major theme in the story has to do with persecution. How did the church continue to not only survive but grow when just being a Christian could get you tortured and killed? I think I got a few insights from watching Gangland and Sons of Anarchy. Gangs create a culture that encourages extreme loyalty that will stand up to prison, torture, and death.

Image of Sons of Anarchy cast members Kim Coates, Charlie Hunnam, and Tommy Flanagan
Not exactly nonviolent.

The main rules you must accept to be part of any gang:

  1. Respect the O.G.’s
  2. Gang before everything, even family.
  3. Brotherhood: Intense love for each other.
  4. No snitching.
  5. Make some friends outside the gang.
  6. Never let a rival gang disrespect you.
  7. Recruit new members, but be careful.

The early church used these same tactics. I’m not saying they were a gang literally, but I think in some ways they had to have a gangster mentality. Let’s compare how this looks in gangs versus first century Christianity.

1. Respect the O.G.’s

O.G. stands for Original Gangster. Every gang has its founders, i.e. O.G.’s, and you must respect them. The Twelve O.G.’s of Christianity were the twelve apostles in the scripture references above.

2. Gang before everything, even your life and family.

Gangs make it clear up front you must give them your ultimate loyalty. The gang comes before your wife, your kids, your job, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your life, everything and everyone. The church wouldn’t expect you to put them above your own life and family, would they? Well, how do you explain verses like this?

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Mat 10:37).

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).

Their loyalty to Christ had to be absolute. Their loyalty to each other had to be absolute. Your family might turn you in to authorities – whether the Sanhedrin or the Romans – but your brothers and sisters in Christ never will.

The authorities might threaten not only your life but your family’s lives as well. You had to remain strong. That was the only way to ensure the gang could continue after you were gone.

3. Brotherhood: Intense love for each other

In Sons of Anarchy, which is clearly modeled after the Hell’s Angels, they talk all the time about being a brotherhood. They will say to each other, “I love you, my brother.” There aren’t many places where men declare their love for each other without afterward saying, “But I’m not gay.” Being a part of a brotherhood like that is definitely part of the attraction of gangs for young men.

John’s Gospel and epistles give some of the most succinct expressions of brotherly love:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (John 13:34).

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1Jn 4:20).

Their loyalty to Christ was directly tied to loyalty to one another. He died for us, so we have to be willing to die for each other. That formed the basis of their brotherhood. And yes, sisterhood too.

4. No snitching

Have you heard snitches get stitches? Gangs punish betrayal severely. In gangs, if you rat, you die.

Remember how I said earlier your brothers and sisters in Christ will never rat you out? The flip side of that coin is you’d better not rat them out. The worst name you could be called was Judas, the mother of all rats. To most gangs, it would be unthinkable to let a rat live. To the church, killing was forbidden. However, the church had another punishment that was even worse: “Leave it to the wrath of God… ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ saith the LORD” (Rom 12:19).

How would God repay? Hell was certain, unless like Paul, you repented. Death comes to everyone, and after that, judgment. If you turn in your fellow Christians to the authorities, knowing they are going to be tortured and probably killed, do you want to face God on the judgment seat after that? I don’t think so.

Why such severe punishment? Think about the situation they’re in. The authorities can use severe punishment to coerce testimony against you and your gang. You hope your brotherly love will keep them loyal under any duress. But just in case, you need punishment even more severe to be sure they keep their mouths shut.

5. Make friends outside the gang

In Sons of Anarchy, they had people in their pocket who could help them in ways people inside the gang could not. If they were in a bind with the authorities, they had people they could call in favors from: A sheriff, a police chief, a few deputies, a few prison guards, a few businessmen, a city council member. Now think about that when you see a verse like this.

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward (Mat 10:42).

What does that mean? Are you a Christian? Ok, then, I’ll give you this water. Why would anyone do that?

Is he talking about Christians giving to Christians? That’s the only case where giving to someone because he’s a Christian makes sense. Why would a non-Christian give to a Christian because he’s a Christian?

This verse did not make any sense to me until I thought about how gangs have friends on the outside. Maybe this is referring to friendships cultivated with outsiders. Maybe there were some people who saw their persecution and were sympathetic to them. During the Holocaust, there were some Gentiles who helped Jews because they were Jews. They hid them and did what they could to help them survive. I think Christians had friends like these when they were persecuted as well.

6. Never let a rival gang disrespect you.

The Sons of Anarchy were constantly in tension with, or outright war against, other gangs in the area. Someone in another gang disrespects them or kills one of their own, it’s war. Literally. At one point, I had to stop watching because there was too much blood and guts. I don’t mind realism, but it was getting excessive, and innocent people died too often just from doing their job or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What does that have to do with the first century church? Early Christianity was not monolithic, as we tend to think. The orthodox, or “correct,” version had not yet been established. There were rival factions, and I think some sects were not above using the authorities to remove some they thought of as heretical. Consider this.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God (1Jn 4:2-3a).

I don’t think we should take this literally, because I have seen and met some people who believe all the right doctrines and are not from God. You can talk to just about any KKK member and ask,

Do you believe in God almighty, maker of heaven and earth?

Yes.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and our Lord?

Yes.

Do you believe Jesus Christ came to earth in the flesh?

Yes.

Do you believe white people have to keep uppity [N-word] in their place?

Yes.

That spirit is definitely not of God. Why would this or any one specific doctrine be some absolute standard of trustworthiness? Like one of my professors said, “Right beliefs, right confessions, and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop in Sheol.”

Maybe there’s something else going on in John’s community that’s not immediately obvious almost 2000 years later. We know from the New Testament and other literature of the time there were some Christian sects who did not believe Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human being. They believed he was a pure divine spirit who appeared in human form, sort of like Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Image of Q (John De Lancie) in Inquisitor garb
Caption: It’s not like I’m an all-powerful space entity or anything, but — Oh, wait! I AM an all-powerful space entity!

To John, the community’s O.G., it was very important that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human being. I’d like to propose that John was talking about not just a theological dispute but also a way to identify a separate sect, i.e., a rival gang. Saying Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh would be like a red bandana to a Crip or a blue bandana to a Blood.

John’s message to his community is, “They may call themselves Christians and preach about Jesus, but if they don’t believe like we do, they don’t belong to us.” In an environment where Christians are part of something illegal, they need to know who they can trust. That gang over there, they may look and talk like us, but they are not us. You can’t trust them.

7. Recruit new members, but be careful

People die in gangs: From old age (if you’re lucky), but more likely from being killed by police or rival gangs. This outflow makes it necessary to recruit new members. But how do you recruit for something like that? You can’t run an ad saying, “Anyone want to join an outlaw motorcycle gang? Meet us on the corner of 5th and Oak Street.”

They can only take people they know will not betray them. They need people who will follow their rules. Most people only get in if a member recommends them, though occasionally someone might be able to approach them, especially if they have a useful skill.

But getting in doesn’t mean you are a member. First, you are granted “hangaround” status, which means what it implies. If a member is willing to sponsor you (absolutely necessary), you have the right to “hang around” the gang and show you know your place. After a while, you may be upgraded to Prospect. This is the time when you prove your loyalty by doing anything a gang member says, from guarding bikes while the gang members party and cleaning up afterwards to criminal activity, even murder. Only when the gang is satisfied you’ve proven your loyalty will they accept you as a full member, and the vote has to be unanimous.

The early church wouldn’t have people run drugs or murder anyone, but there were times they had to be careful about who they let in. They needed to know any new members would be loyal to them, no matter what. I don’t have texts to prove this, but I believe early Christian communities had an initiation period where people would have “hangaround” or “prospect” status before being accepted as members. They would be instructed in their most basic beliefs – as much as they could tell, and probably emphasizing that they accepted the authority of Rome in earthly matters, while Christ is Lord over spiritual matters (Just in case they were spies for the Roman government). They would be encouraged to “count the cost,” because Rome did not always accept their distinction between earthly and spiritual Lordship.

If they still wanted to join, and the members accepted them, then they would be baptized to recognize their full membership. Only those who were baptized could join in the Lord’s Supper. Only the those who partook of the Body and Blood of the Lord together would be trusted with their secrets.

Jesus himself modeled this. He would speak to the crowds in parables but only explain the meanings to the twelve disciples. This made it difficult for his enemies to pin any charges on him, while communicating his true message only to his inner circle of twelve friends. Those twelve went on to become the “Original Gangsters” of the first underground Christian communities.

Award Winning Author!

One of the items on my pre-publication bucket-list for my manuscript was to be able to call myself an award-winning author. I can now check that off. I entered the first twenty pages of my  book, Through Fear of Death: A Novel of Empire and the Kingdom, in a contest sponsored by the Foothills Writers Guild. Last month, it won the Juanita Garrison Prize for unpublished fiction.

image of pre-publication cover of Through Fear of Death
Possible cover for as yet unpublished novel

A few days ago, I actually got to meet Ms. Garrison herself! What an honor not only to win the award but to meet the person for whom it was named. She was a lovely lady and a gracious host.

I certainly hope there will be more awards to follow, not to mention publication. But for now I am pleased as punch.