This answer to the question Averting Real Women Don’t Wear Dresses introduces a distinction between acts of patience and acts of daring.

[...] when it comes to telling a story [...] acts of daring are easy to show, and acts of patience are not [...]

[...] acts of daring [...] make a better story than acts of patience [...]

It is a common technique [...] to represent qualities and emotions through physical actions. [...]

But it is hard to translate patience into action. [...]

So, I now want to ask:

Even though it is difficult to make "acts of patience" the basis of a story, what if that's what we want to do? Indeed, how might we make "acts of patience" exciting?

I want to stress some limits to the scope of the current question:

  • The previous question I'm referring to discussed differences between women and men. These are out of scope here. I don't care (here) whether we think daring/patience are correlated to masculinity/femininity or not; I'm only asking about how to deal with "acts of patience".

  • This question focuses on "mainstream, commercial" fiction. In this context, I doubt Dostoevsky will offer the most useful examples (rather, I'm thinking of characters such as Malcolm Polstead and Sansa Stark as apt examples). That's also why I've included "exciting" in "how to make acts of patience exciting": I'm interested in e.g. fantasy adventures centred on "acts of patience", not in action-free philosophical allegories about the meaning of life (to which "acts of patience" may, admittedly, come much more naturally), although of course we might learn from the latter so as to achieve the former.

  • The "basic" or, perhaps, even "cheating" answer seems to be: just show "acts of daring" instead, and use them to represent, symbolise or otherwise stand in for the "acts of patience". Very well, point taken. But this question is about what else we can do.

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    Great question. Is exciting the right word? Might "interesting" be more apropos? Patience seems to consiste in the absence of excitement, but it might still be possible to make it interesting.
    – user16226
    Sep 30, 2019 at 19:53
  • @MarkBaker Thanks; "interesting" would definitely have been the more practical question : D ... But I'm really... interested : )... to see how far the concept can be pushed. I think a philosophical, introspective work can make acts of patience interesting, for example. Sure, how exactly to do this is worth thinking about in detail. But it's the inherent contradiction between excitement and patience that beguiles me. If you can make acts of patience exciting, you've done something special. Perhaps making them interesting is a good first step? Sep 30, 2019 at 21:45
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    I might suggest to dig around TV Tropes' "Nerves of Steel" and "The Spock" for the answer.
    – Alexander
    Sep 30, 2019 at 22:23
  • 4
    Tbh, if you want to push the concept, have a read at "Waiting for Godot". Oct 1, 2019 at 9:21
  • 1
    I happened to watch this scifi short film last night which is mostly one exciting act of patience: youtube.com/watch?v=ry_y9SXBxmc Oct 1, 2019 at 18:17

7 Answers 7


I had to think about this one for quite a while, but finally I realized that there are two distinct kinds of patience, which I will call anticipatory patience and enduring patience.

Anticipatory patience is what gets you through the period of waiting for some exciting event. It is kids waiting for Christmas day. It is the nervous father pacing the hospital waiting room waiting for his child to be born. It is the soldier in a trench waiting for battle to begin. Anticipatory patience can be agonizing to live through, but it has an end and its tension comes from the anticipation of that end.

And, really, making anticipatory patience exciting should not be a big problem, because stories are built on the tension that comes from the anticipation of the climactic event. Stories keep the reader hooked on anticipation. Stories are an exercise in anticipatory patience.

Enduring patience is very different. Enduring patience deals with a fact of life that is not going to change, or is not going to change in any reasonable time frame that would place you into a state of anticipation. A prisoner serving a life sentence must exercise enduring patience. A parent with a severely disabled child must exercise enduring patience. Enduring patience is the denial of the very anticipation that is mainspring driving classical story structure. By its very nature, enduring patience is not exciting.

Does this mean that you can't build a novel around an act of enduring patience? No. For one thing, some literary novels don't have a classic story structure to begin with. They are more like extended vignettes. A skillful literary novelist could conceivably create an interesting novel around an act of enduring patience and have us all weeping by the end. But I don't think it would exactly be exciting.

The other possibility that occurs to me is that the act of enduring patience provides the background of the novel on which another kind of arc plays out. For instance, the person exercising enduring patience may follow an arc that leads them from bitterness and despair to love and acceptance, without changing the circumstances that demand their enduring patience. Could one consider such a story exciting? Perhaps you could. Once again it would seem to come down to building a sufficient level of anticipation for the climactic moment that leads to love and acceptance.

And, really, that would seem to apply to any story, regardless of subject matter. If you can build anticipation to a fever pitch, you will have an exciting climax, no matter how grim or how trivial the arc may be.

(It is perhaps worth noting in this regard that the excitement that comes from anticipation is different from the excitement that comes from sensory overload. Hollywood seems to have almost given up on the more difficult business of building anticipation in favor of simple sensory overload in every movie. But for the life of me I can't see how you could induce sensory overload in a tale of enduring patience.)

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    Have you ever read The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene? I'm tempted to say that the protagonist mainly exhibits what you call enduring patience while he's being pushed about towards his final destination.
    – sgf
    Oct 1, 2019 at 9:52
  • @sgf Probably my third favorite book after Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honor trilogy. And you make a great point. One might also classify it as anticipatory patience, in that the whisky priest anticipates his martyrdom. But we were to classify it as enduring patience, it would be as a background to his struggle to fulfil his priestly duties, particularly to get the materials he needs to say mass. In that sense, his persecution is what drives him on a classic heroic quest.
    – user16226
    Oct 1, 2019 at 11:51

@Amadeus describes an "act of patience" as "not doing". I would argue that an "act of patience" can also be about keeping on doing, day after day, something that is very hard to do - it is about perseverance.

As an example, take The Wild Swans, or any work derived from that fairy tale. The main character must knit shirts of stinging nettle for her bewitched brothers to save them from a spell, and she must maintain silence the whole time. Tension is derived both from the pain she experiences working the stinging nettle, and from it becoming increasingly harder for her to keep her silence - much that is dear to her is threatened, even unto her life itself, and she must balance that against the success of her quest. There's a strong possibility of failure - the necessary element @Amadeus speaks about.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam is characterised by following and supporting, not by "daring". He observes while Frodo acts. Yet as the story progresses, more and more we're in his head rather than in Frodo's, raising arguments regarding which one of them is the main character. The role of the loyal friend is an "act of patience" - the failure we care about is not his own, but the failure of the character he supports. This is similar not to the fan at home supporting his team, but rather to the coach.
(Note that Frodo too is characterised more by perseverance than by daring. Day after day he makes the same choice - to go on. But for him accepting the quest at least was an act of daring. He is similar to the Wild Swans example. For Sam there isn't even that. Contrast them with Merry and Pippin who leap into battle.)

The Pianist is a film in which the main character "acts" very little - instead he endures - an "act of patience". Here tension is derived from what he must endure, and the question of whether he will survive. I would also put All Quiet on the Western Front in the same category. Such tales aren't really about the individual, but about the group this individual represents - it is acting rather than being acted upon that makes an individual stand out. But the story doesn't become less interesting for that. There is sufficient action and tension forced by the environment.

In all those varied cases, the character will continue doing as they were doing. Hence "patience". Tension, hardship, possibility of failure, must therefore be derived from the resistance increasing. If the character started out walking on solid ground, he'll find himself plodding through mud, snow, quicksand, a brick wall.

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    I'm not sure I would count Frodo or Sam as cases of patience. They must endure, certainly, but every hero must endure suffering on their quest. They are striving, throughout, they have a goal that they pursue. Then again, maybe one could describe a quest as long stretches of patience interspersed with moments of daring. But then, most quest stories elide the hours of patience almost entirely and focus on the moments of daring.
    – user16226
    Oct 1, 2019 at 11:58
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    @MarkBaker yeh, I guess a quest is long stretches of patience interspersed with moments of daring. But for Sam, in particular, the long stretches of patience aren't really elided. He's strongest in the conversations he hold with Frodo (e.g. "Don’t the great tales never end?") and in his internal monologue, his observation of Frodo's quest. He's the one doing the worrying, the supporting, the calculating how much food they still have. His one great moment of daring is when Frodo is Shelob-ed. Oct 1, 2019 at 14:19
  • Fair point. One could certainly make an argument that the patience of the hero's servant is of a particularly active kind. Unlike other forms of patience, it is not repetitive, since the hero is on a quest, encountering new trials. But it remains patience, in the sense that the servant is not pursuing their own ends and won't (necessarily) cease to be a servant when the quest is complete. @icanfathom's point speaks to this as well: the enduring patience of a soldier's wife (a fact of everyday life across the world) is a more active kind of patience as well, though not quite so active as Sam's.
    – user16226
    Oct 1, 2019 at 18:36

The problem with an act of patience is that it is just waiting for something else to happen.

One way I can think of to make that "exciting" is by making the wait a progression, so incrementally it is happening and the patient character is seeing things happen, and hoping they mean what she thinks they mean, and her imagination is fired up by these incremental advances.

An example would be, say, watching the playoffs and hoping your team wins the championship; every game gets analyzed to death before it happens, as it happens, and after it happens. What does it mean? To the next game? To the championship? Did we take an injury? Was there a killer play? Who on the team is the hero, who's in the dog house seeking redemption? But the fan is never doing more than waiting, they are not contributing to the success or failure of the team. They are sitting on the couch and watching what happens.

Another example is watching a compelling TV series; same thing. It can be exciting by firing up the imagination, with each episode, of what might happen next. There can be unexpected twists and turns, but the excited person is not doing anything to influence the outcome.

I believe in a story the reader stays engaged for a simple reason: They keep turning pages to find out what happens next.

You should strive to create about five overlapping tensions in your story:

  • What happens in the next few pages.
  • How does this scene end?
  • How does this chapter end?
  • How does this Act end? (An Act is about 25% of the story).
  • How does the book end?

The first two can go missing once in a while if the others are in place, but you need tension to carry the reader through the story. Now the easiest tension is indeed acts of daring. Why? Because they might not succeed.

Why does the TV series or sports match championship have tension? Because the outcome you are rooting for might not happen.

How do you give a story about an act of patience tension? Figure out how it might fail, or not work out. Don't make it a sure thing. It has twists and turns, things that look like failure but aren't. Unexpected consequences or occurrences that test her patience. Despair, and urges to give up. As well as positive signs and victories, so there are exciting moments when something wonderful comes to pass, that make our goal seem closer. They don't achieve the final goal but bring us hope that what we are waiting for will come to pass. So the reader is wonder, will she make it? That is the tension in the story.

If you can weave together these overlapping threads of tension, so the reader is always looking forward to see what happens, how she conquers the next challenge, then you have a story. It may not be a traditional plot, but it will be a story.

  • 2
    +1 great answer and touches on parts I missed.
    – J Crosby
    Sep 30, 2019 at 21:13
  • Would you say, then, that we are sacrificing proactivity on the MC's part? There is external action, and internal drama; but the MC is not influencing the external action, therefore not proactive. Sep 30, 2019 at 21:52
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    @sesquipedalias Yes, unless you can think of something the MC can do. However, the proactivity may have come before the wait. If I plant a crop, I was proactive, but I must wait for it to grow before I harvest it. If I invest in a company I believe in, that may be my only proactive act. Then I wait for it to grow and thrive like I hoped it would. Also, growing something like a crop can be both waiting and proactive, taking care of it every day, that could involve some drama and setbacks, but the story is about the great things we wait for at harvest time.
    – Amadeus
    Sep 30, 2019 at 22:20
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    Also, speaking of things the MC can do, @Galastel has a great answer that can make the MC proactive; perseverance and dedication while being patient waiting for something to happen. So using Galastel's view, your "act of patience" may be an MC that would save the world, not in minutes or with a single flash of inspiration but by dogged work for fifty years, brick by brick. Besides the work this would still demand superhuman patience, and would still have the possibility of failure, and wasting her life.
    – Amadeus
    Sep 30, 2019 at 22:34

I like Mark Baker's concept of enduring patience, however, patience doesn't necessarily imply inaction as Amadeus asserts.

In the Sci-Fi classic, Stranger In A Strange Land, the concept of "waiting is" is introduced. It denotes a state of action and intention without any focus on the end or when it will be achieved. The focus on time is greatly reduced. This is non-attachment which is taught in Yoga and Buddhism. One can care very deeply and work very hard while still being in a state of acceptance of what is. This frees up tremendous energy and brings clarity of thought and action.

That's not boring, but it's a state that most westerners are unfamiliar with and would find paradoxical, so writing about it would be challenging.

Another approach relies on contrast. The protagonist does not exist in a vacuum. As he or she (or whatever) stands as a rock of strength in the situation, other characters can take action, get frustrated, etc. and this can highlight the main character's resolve and perhaps show that patience wins the day.

Being patient isn't a single dimension either. Someone who is outwardly patient and holding to their discipline may inwardly be having doubts, questioning their approach, or even burning through many ego-related issues which they are forced to confront precisely because they are exercising restraint and not going for easy or fast options because they see or sense that the solution they seek is far broader or more powerful than what can be achieved in the short term.

There's even an Austrian economics take on this. It's called time preference. When people have faith in the future, then they have a low time preference and are willing to save and build for the future (which is how societies grow). A high time preference leads to immediate spending because the future is uncertain or unimportant. People with low time preferences plant trees that take many years before they give shade or bear fruit. They don't just sit still and hope things get better.


I once asked how to make a bored viewpoint character interesting to read and was given a wealth of answers. That particular chapter is now one of my favorites.

I also recently read a sex scene in which sex was not mentioned much at all during the act.

The first sentence (quite graphic sex) had me squirming about reading what would come next. "I don't want to read this."

The author had my back. By the third sentence, he had launched into how much the protagonist was enjoying himself that a World War I general and his entire command could have broken down the front door, galloped through the bedroom, (more war details, no sex details) (more battle) (etc) (time is passing as I am reading about battle, paragraphs of it) and the protagonist would not have even noticed. That was how great the sex was. And now it's done.

I think you can use this device to take us elsewhere. Set up the act of patience, and then describe the amazing mind palace (ala Sherlock) that your protagonist visits. Then after a suitable period, return to the act of patience which is finishing up.

Use this along with other devices you learn. It can work.


There's an amazing setpiece scene in the game Uncharted 4 where Nathan Drake is running from an armored vehicle, dodging bullets, leaping from one truckbed to the next, picking off his pursuers, and finally escaping on a motorcycle. It's a masterpiece of movement and action, and had my heart pounding. But then he gets back to his hideout, cheering the fact that he survived, and comes face to face with his wife Elena who thought he was safe on a business trip. Her expression is hurt and fear and betrayal. And my heart stopped.

It was an unforgettable experience for me as a storyteller. Video games, even more than movies, can subsist on pure spectacle, and that chase scene was the best I've seen. But it couldn't compare to the tension of the quiet dialogue that followed.

It was not as simple as Elena being an iron shackle that ruined all his fun. Not even close. The difference here was that we cared about both of them, and we wanted Elena to be happy just as much as Drake. But we knew that they had competing desires: he couldn't let go of his daring life, while Elena knew it couldn't go on forever.

In a sense, Drake's acts of daring depended on Elena's act of endurance. In that moment, her decision - whether to abide his swashbuckling life - threatened not only the fun we'd been having playing as Drake, but also their relationship which might not survive an upheaval.

Her choice of endurance wasn't just as exciting as the previous acts of daring; it was more.

I realize that this was a singular moment, and thus hardly qualifies as long, patient endurance. But the rest of the story was overshadowed by it, bringing continual tension. From then on, every time Drake held himself back, we saw that it was for her, and every time she showed understanding for his thrill-seeking obsession, it communicated growth in their relationship. It worked beautifully as a contrast to the visible spectacle of daring.


In order to answer your question properly I feel we need to focus on the sheer base of it, which you so kindly placed in bold.

Even though it is difficult to make "acts of patience" the basis of a story, what if that's what we want to do? Indeed, how might we make "acts of patience" exciting?

Now, my answer comes in two parts. Defining the Act & Executing the Act

Defining the act

Acts of patience have a variety of implications for story telling and some are inherently easier to "spice up" than others. These can be defined by either an act that will be resolved in the immediate to near future, and acts that are "playing the long game".

Short-term acts could be things like a hunter mentally ramping up and talking through the act of pulling the trigger.

As he approached the top of the rise, John crouched and lowered himself slowly and began to crawl through the tall grass. His knees wet from the dampness of the morning dew, he pressed forward to the top and pointed his rifle down hill - where he knew there would be a small group of white-tail deer waiting for him. He checked his watch, there was still two minutes before legal light, two minutes to do all he must and wait before pulling the trigger. One hand still on his rifle he grabbed his binoculars from his chest pocket and looked through the herd, one buck stood out against the rest. It was magnificent, his antlers cropping up and out beautifully gracing his head like a crown. He sighed, checking his watch again, as the wind shifted now blowing his scent directly into the herd.

One more minute.

The kingly buck's ears perked up as he looked around, John's scent filling his nostrils. John knew it was only a moment before the buck would turn, lift tail and run.

Thirty seconds.

John shift his position and lifted his rifle into position and counted down, time seemed to stand still - each second longer than the last. He rested his sights on that little spot just between the ribs, where he knew his bullet wound puncture both lungs and the majestic animal's heart, a quick and humane kill. Five. The buck shifted, still smelling the air. Four. John nervously shifts his aim to match. Three. His finger curls around the trigger. Two. The buck looks straight at him. One. He holds his breath to stabilize his shot...Zero. Bang...he pulls the trigger.

As we read through this example, John displays enormous amounts of patience in the act to get his buck. However, as a reader (and being a hunter myself) I can place myself in his shoes. Patience, even in real life, can be exciting.

While longer-term acts need to have an end goal and aim in mind - even if it isn't immediately apparent to the reader. For instance, your example with Sansa Stark shows the exact opposite. Martin portrays her as a "little bird" initially, and that innocent trait is picked up by The Hound, who affectionately (off and on) calls her that throughout their interactions. She goes from being a timid, quiet and proper young woman to ,what some would call, a brilliant tactician who learned from her woefully miserable past. However what Martin did was build her up slowly - starting with the death/unjust execution of her father. She sought to free herself from the wills of others, seeking out partnerships or lessons from those she deemed smarter/worthy of her (Lady Martyl - spelling, Little Finger, her aunt in the Vale, etc.) Please forgive the spelling or lack thereof...Martin had a way with names.

All that said, her acts of patience while slow in development from the reader's view, were frequently exciting and clearly building to something (even if you didn't read the books, which I recommend, the show captured this as well). As a reader, I didn't feel forced or bored reading her timeline - even though for the most part it was less slashy/sexy/adventury than the others.

Executing the Act

Writing like anything that is creative or requires something to be built needs to have an excellent foundation in order to be effective. In this case, your foundation would be your plan - what gets accomplished by this portrayal of patience? What do we as readers take from it? What is gained by this for the character in this event?

There needs to be a reason. Human beings, most creatures for that matter, are relatively lazy and selfish we generally don't do anything unless we feel we need to and get something from it (even that "warm feeling" from helping someone is getting something for simplicity's sake).

So in order to execute this effectively you need to have a clear idea of what you want accomplished, a clearer goal for your character and solid story arc to balance this exercise out to give the reader the resolution they deserve.

Hope this helps!

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