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My heart started to race.

Did the heart actually race or not yet?

Later that night, I realized I couldn't sleep.

Did the person try to sleep? Or knew that before even trying?

We decided to go to the balcony.

Did they only decide? Or actually do the action?

Well, I'm not sure. Maybe they are necessary at times? If so, when?

(The reason I add those words is to make the action sound less "abrupt." But again, I'm not sure whether I'm making things worse.)

  • I just happened upon this blog article today, and thought it was quite a coincidence! You might find it interesting. – Kit Z. Fox Apr 16 '15 at 0:07
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I think you're trying to hard to find a formula.

I think "my heart started to race" is pretty clear. It wasn't racing before; it is racing now.

The other two, yes, as isolated sentences, they are ambiguous. But you could say that about a lot of perfectly good sentences. To take a silly example, suppose I told you that a story includes the sentence, "She wasn't there." By itself, that's horribly ambiguous. Who wasn't there? Where are we talking about? Wasn't there when? Should the reader have expected her to be there so this is a surprise, or is this what we would expect? Etc. But that could be a perfectly clear statement in the right context.

So, for example. "I knew I needed to get some rest before the contest tomorrow, but I was too nervous and jumpy. I realized I couldn't sleep. Rather than go to bed when I knew I would just lie awake worrying, I decided to ..." In that context, clearly I mean that I came to this realization before going to bed. But, "I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. I realized I couldn't sleep." Clearly I'm in bed trying to sleep but can't.

The problem isn't that words like "decided" and "realized" are evil words that lead to ambiguous sentences. There can be a problem if the sentence is poorly worded in context. You certainly should be careful that, taken in full context, it is clear what is happening. (Or that any ambiguity is deliberate.)

I am suddenly reminded of some writing advice I came across years ago: A good story should keep the reader wondering what happens next. This is not the same as having the reader wondering what's happening now.

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Using these kinds of phrases makes me feel like you are telling more than showing. For instance, I don't care that your heart started to race, I care about why that's happening. I think it's because using start/realize/decide makes the action intentional instead of simply describing the action. It gives too much focus to something that should be peripheral.

Of course, in context, it might be fine. Here's an example of when it's probably suitable:

"Is this your cat?" the man asked me. My heart started to race. "Uh, no," I stuttered, backing slowly away. "I think it's ... " I pointed to the house down the street. "Jenkins." Then I turned and fled, not looking back.

In this context, the sentence helps illustrate that I am suddenly nervous or frightened. Here it is less appropriate (in my opinion):

I stretched for a few minutes then I decided to start running. My heart started to race. I realized that I had not brought my water bottle, so I decided to stop at a fountain that I knew was down the path a little farther.

In this context, this whole paragraph is giving me a step-by-step thought process. It is exceptionally boring and tedious to listen to someone's internal monologue like this. This is the essence of telling-not-showing.

You are concerned about the abruptness of the action (sometimes abrupt may be what you want though), so there are two suggestions that I would make. One is to use gerund phrases to smooth the action out:

I tossed and turned for several hours, thinking of her face. Realizing I couldn't sleep, I got up and put the kettle on.

Here, you are smoothly connecting the consequence of the realization with the action that the character took, which is what moves the plot forward. The other suggestion is to take more time to describe the important bits of the setting and movements of your characters:

We had been talking for hours. The sunlight turned golden, then narrowed through the windows on the mezzanine. She smiled at me in the dim light and took my hand. I followed her out on to the balcony as the first stars began to shine in the darkening sky.

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Couple of useful answers here but here's my take which is another way of looking Kit J Fox's answer.

It's about energy.

"My heart raced" has immediacy and energy. "My heart started to race" is as limp as a biscuit dipped in tea (or coffee, your choice).

"I couldn't sleep" vs "that really long-winded thing you wrote", the same.

Ditto "We went out onto the balcony" as opposed to the other thing.

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