I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I often forget this tip when I’m writing. All of my action beats center around the distance between my character’s chin and eyebrows. Their whole body could be flailing around and none of my readers would know it.
It wasn’t until Susan May Warren gave me a tip during a critique, that I learned to fix this mistake. I still have to double check it in my editing, but I’m getting better at involving more of the setting and full body actions.
Fixing The Floating Head Syndrome In Three Easy Steps:
1. Identify the facial action beats you have in your story. An action beat is simply the actions your characters do that surrounds the dialogue.
For example: “She died her hair purple?” Darren’s eyebrows reached his hairline.
The action beat is the part about Darren’s eyebrows. There can be some of these types of action beats, but you really need to have some that anchor the character in their setting or show emotion through full body actions.
2. Change the facial action to a full body action that shows emotion. In this example, we can see that Darren is surprised. So let’s pick another action beat.
Change: “She died her hair purple?” Darren dropped his plate. His eyebrows reached his hairline.
3. Anchor the action beat in the setting. We didn’t need to keep the second action beat above, but I chose to for now. You can take Darren’s body action beat and have it interact with the setting, so we can see it happening.
Change: “She died her hair purple?” Darren dropped his tray on the lunch table, the clatter echoing through the high school cafeteria.
Through this we have learned something about the setting for our scene, given larger actions as well as adding the sense of sound to the environment. It is much fuller in view than the first one.
There are other things you can do to show more with an action beat, especially when it comes to characters. You could mention the food splattering all over Darren’s letter jacket or his bifocals.
Building your action beats into beats that interact the character’s full body with setting, while adding personality appearance will have the same impact as a rich cast in a play with a fabulous set.
What boring action beats annoy you as a reader? Or what boring action beats do you catch yourself repeating?