Articles / On Writing

Indirect and Direct Action in Your Writing


Something I’ve noticed more and more as I read—and edit—is the use of what I’ll call indirect action, for lack of a formal title. What I mean is the kind of writing where the sentence is formatted so that the action lies at the feet of the observer instead of the actor. A few examples of what I mean are:

  • I saw her walk across the street.
  • I heard him cry from his room.
  • I felt him touch my arm.

So why shouldn’t you format your sentences this way? I think, as with many writing habits, it becomes a crutch since it:

  • Shifts the focus from the action to the observation in a similar way that passive voice shifts the action from the actor to the object.
  • Is an example of telling versus showing, where the character observing or reacting to the direct action is simply telling the reader instead of letting the action speak for itself with descriptive narrative.
  • It can add hundreds of extraneous words to your manuscript—words that are better saved for showing the action as it happens as opposed to expressing a character’s reaction or awareness of said action.

And while I’m pretty strict about grammar, punctuation and spelling, I’m a firm believer in the lack of absolutes when it comes to creative writing rules. So there are obviously reasons to use this kind of writing, as well. A couple could be:

  • If the reaction or the observation is indeed the focus, as opposed to the action.
  • If you’re attempting to pull the reader back from the action and create distance or to see what’s happening from a skewed or varying viewpoint.

But if you’re trying to banish this kind of sentence structure from your writing, how do you go about it? It can take a lot of patience and time to look at each sentence, but it’s not a difficult thing to correct if you focus on the action.

If we expand on the examples above, you simply shift the focus from the observer to the actor:

I saw her walk across the street.

can become

She walked across the street.


I heard him cry from his room.

can become

From his room, he cried.


I felt him touch my arm.

can become

He touched my arm.

While these are super simple examples that don’t really expand upon the showing, they illustrate how to fix the focus. Using this format as a foundation, you can now build your descriptive narrative around the action instead of the observation or reaction of that action.

Happy writing!


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