Ramping Up The Action In Literary Fiction

7 minute read
Author: Jo

AKA adventure time for lit fic
AKA how conflict doesn’t have to be all FIGHTING AND EXPLOSIONS!

Here’s a question we get a lot: “I’m writing literary fiction and nothing really happens – my characters are mostly just standing around talking to each other and thinking about the past – how do I inject a bit of action?”

The tl;dr answer is: You probably already have everything you need – you just need to think about ‘action’ in a different way….

Jumping from one exciting plot point to another is arguably more straightforward in, say, an action film, where the plot involves lots of running, jumping, fighting and blowing shit up. But when it comes to novel writing – particularly literary fiction – things usually aren’t quite so simple. We have to deal with a whole load of feelings and backstory and themes that a Michael Bay movie just doesn’t really need to bother with. So when you’re writing a story that’s a little more focused on character development rather than helicopters and giant robots, defining the ‘action’ can be tricky, and sometimes it can seem as if there’s just not enough going on.

Gif of Danny DeVito in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia dropping a match into a concrete pipe which promptly catches on fire.

Fear not, brave lit fic writer! ‘Action’ doesn’t have to mean actual literal action. It simply means conflict. And as we all know, conflict comes in a gazillion different forms, from passive-aggressively ‘forgetting’ to put sugar in your sister-in-law’s tea, to finding a photograph of the person you thought was your sister sitting in a hospital bed holding you as a newborn, to deleting your a voicemail message on your partner’s phone to stop them from making a decision you disagree with, to engaging in a war of attrition over who’s going to finally clean the bathroom.

And, to be honest, those little, intimate, personal conflicts are often far more important in terms of developing character than the big, loud events that we usually associate with ‘action’. Those internal battles are what gives your protagonist nuance and depth, and we can learn much more about a character by their inward reactions than their outward behaviours.

Conflict can be many things – and when you’re considering your novel from the classic three-act structure point of view, with plot points and inciting incidents and high dramatic peaks, you may miss some of the subtler nuances. But if you look at your story in close up, you’ll probably find more layers of conflict than you realised were there. For example:

  • Conflict can be internal, external, psychological, physical, spiritual, and probably some other things ending in ‘-al’ that we can’t think of right now.
  • Conflict can be made up of a hundred tiny micro-aggressions that build up throughout the book, or it might be composed of a single line of angry dialogue – the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
  • Conflict can be a simple case of changing the dynamic of a relationship – suddenly someone else is in control and status has shifted.
  • Conflict can be a switch in location, or time frame, or perspective, as we see things from a different view and new details are revealed.
  • Conflict can be created via delayed gratification… That big showdown you had planned? See if you can stretch out the tension just… a little… bit… further…
  • Conflict can be an unexpected twist. Throw a new spanner in the works and make things worserer and worserer for your characters.
  • Conflict can even be found in your word choices, or the way you dramatically structure a scene, or how you allude to the action instead of telling us about it.
Gif of a chimp slamming its hands down onto a piano with caption: dramatic music

Let’s take some examples from a bunch of stories that sit within the literary fiction ‘genre’ (however that may be defined) – not much may happen in terms of ‘action’, but they all still have plenty of conflict going on:

In Room by Emma Donoghue, half the story takes place in a single room, but there’s masses of conflict to be found in the relationship between Jack and Ma, minor disruptive changes to his beloved routine, the mysterious appearances of Uncle Nick (shudder), and his mother’s increasing anxiety over her escape plan. There’s physical action, too, but if you were to plot out the dramatic arcs of the story you’d likely focus on the internal conflicts far more closely.

In Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, our protagonist Kathy is constantly observing the behaviour of her teachers, peers, and later, the people she looks after as a ‘carer’. She’s kind of passive as a main character, really, but her frustration at her situation and acceptance of her fate are constantly at odds with the hopes and dreams of her peers, who are so desperately in denial. Once again, physical action occurs, and the story spans a fairly decent timeframe, but the real crux of the drama is centred within the protagonist’s own head.

We don’t need bar fights and ticking time bombs and rolling boulders to keep things exciting. All we need is humans. Doing human things. Being human-y. And bringing along all the natural conflict that entails.

Interestingly enough, even in stories that have A LOT of physical action, it’s still usually the character development that really matters. Look at Back to the Future – a running, jumping, fighting, explosion-y kind of movie, right? – but the real story is in the way Marty interacts with other people, and how the characters change and develop and learn and trust each other. In going back in time, he gets to see why his parents behave they way they do, and almost sacrifices himself to give them a chance at a better life. He has to re-examine his own opinions and assumptions, and deal with his own faults and flaws in order to grow as a person (and also safely re-write history). Yes, yes, there’s slapstick and flying cars lightning strikes, but the human element is what makes us care.

Gif of George McFly from Back to the Future saying "I'm your density" and Lorraine looking up at him with confusion.


Delve into your story and pick out at least three non-action examples of story-driving conflict. It could be a major theme or a tiny moment within a single paragraph. It could be a subtle moment of change for your character or a secret-revealing flashback. There are no right or wrong answers here. But if you’re struggling to find sources of conflict, ask yourself:

  • Where are the turning points in your character’s development? Where are they challenged, forced to look at things from a new perspective, or made to face up to their mistakes?
  • How are you building up a sense of tension and conflict throughout the story? Atmosphere, pacing, narrative voice, structure all play a part in creating movement and momentum, and will help to keep your plot from feeling slow.
  • What’s stopping your protagonist from getting what they want? This is the source of ALL story conflict but can be made up of a handful of different individual problems.

You may well find that you’re lacking conflict in certain areas, but that’s okay – it just takes a bit of brainstorming to see how you can introduce one of the techniques above to amp up the ‘action’ a little. It’s likely that the seeds of an idea are already there, waiting to flourish…

Share this article:
Bookmark (0)

No account yet? Register


Join our amazing writing community!

  • It’s FREE!
  • Hang out with thousands of like-minded writers on our community forum
  • Join the online writing retreats
  • Try out THREE free writing courses
  • Get support, resources and pep and vim to keep you writing
  • Did we mention it’s free?

Want to be a better writer?

Or just to laugh at bum jokes? Either way, you need the famous Writers’ HQ newsletter. You know what to do – put your thing in the thing.