A scene is when you slow down, zoom in on a situation, and let it unfold, much like a scene in a play or movie. The reader sees and hears what’s happening in the moment. Plays and movies are composed of nothing but scenes. But the writer of prose chooses which moments to turn into scenes. Scenes are often reserved for hot spots in a story, moments that make a difference in the character’s journey.
Action refers to the activity occurring within a scene, which can be something dramatic, such as a character going to extreme measures to make a train or a shoot-out at a bank. Or it can be something much more subtle, such as a two people in the act of eating dinner.
Much of a scene’s success depends upon where the writer places emphasis and how he chooses to focus the reader’s attention. Too much action can be as much of a hindrance to a scene as too little.
A scene that focuses only on action—at the expense of the more nuanced elements of characterization and emotion—is bound to bore, no matter how grand or spectacular the events. Tom's explosive car crash, for example, won't have much impact if the reader doesn't care about what happens to Tom. Without a sense of the character’s individual experience or the reader’s heightening concern for the character, the action won’t have the emotional context that makes it evocative. To remedy this, you could pare down the action or you might find you simply need to bring in more of the character’s perspective. Showing how the character responds—inwardly and outwardly—may be enough to create the necessary balance.
Another way writers include too much action is by detailing every little movement a character makes. Tracking action with this kind of intensity can make for tedious reading:
Janice sat in the car for a few minutes before making her way up the drive. She put the key in the lock and turned. The door squeaked as it opened. She stepped in and closed it behind her, putting her purse on the foyer table. The house was dark and she turned on the light. She took off her coat and draped it on the couch, then sat down and clicked on the television. Harry would be home in an hour and she wanted to clear her mind before his arrival.
The action here is mostly empty, detailing Janice’s routine. There’s nothing important about the way she enters the house or what she finds there. However, readers have to slog through each little movement just to get to what is important about the scene—that she’s trying to clear her mind before Harry comes home.
Fiction writers do have to deal with the logistics of a character moving within her space, but much of this can be implied. A revision of the previous passage might whittle things down in this way:
Inside, Janice sat in front of the television, her coat draped over the arm of the couch. Harry would be home in an hour and she wanted to clear her mind before his arrival.
This passage gives the reader a sense of Janice’s fatigue; she didn’t even bother to hang up her coat. It also shows her mindlessly in front of the television as she waits for Harry. The moment-by-moment description of how she navigated her way into the house is missing, but no meaning is lost. One word—“inside”—implies that movement from car to house.
Tracking action too closely will certainly bore the reader, but it also has the potential to mislead. When a writer places so much emphasis on a moment, he sends a message that readers should pay attention. It seems like something significant is going to come from Janice entering the house because the writer has lingered on it for so long. When this doesn’t pan out, readers are left wondering what deserves their close attention and what doesn’t.