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When writing stories, I tend to get really caught up in the small interactions and lives of my characters. I explore their state of mind, their relationships, their habits. However, because of this; a story that by genre convention should be dense with action (read 20+ encounters over a novel) is struggling to get to its first after 10k words or more. Diving into the action sooner or more frequently often feels forced or at least unnatural. But, at the same time I accept that the action is likely the main draw of the genre. Basically, how do I get over myself and write the parts of the story people want to read?

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    I agree with Amadeus's answer that you might be focusing on pure world-building instead of telling a story. But it might also be the case that you're trying to fit into a genre you don't like writing, or appeal to some specific audience, instead of writing what you enjoy. There are audiences for different ways of story-telling. Some people want action-packed stories, others don't. "small interactions and lives of my characters ... their state of mind, their relationships, their habits" sounds fine to focus on, assuming you tell a story.
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 24, 2023 at 16:49
  • First acknowledge 'action and life' are neither opposite nor contradictory? Aren't the small interactions and lives of your characters; their states of mind, relationships and habits the point of creative writing? What convention says any genre should be 'dense with action'? Can you Post 400 words that you've written? Until then, you get over yourself and write the parts of the story people want to read simply by writing, instead of questioning. What you actually write, people might read, and want to read again. Who could read what you don't write? Feb 26, 2023 at 22:05

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It sounds to me like you are caught up in exposition about character building. It is a little like World Building Syndrome; some beginning authors will spend literally years drawing maps, figuring out weather patterns, justifying the geology and mines and forests and plant life of their imaginary world, the languages, the populations and town locations, the religions, the history ... And never write a story. World Building Syndrome becomes like a model train enthusiast building a whole little model town for their train to run through.

That's okay, World Building can be an entertaining hobby for some people, just like model train sets are an entertaining hobby for some people. I get it. But it isn't story writing.

You are doing a similar thing with characters. It may feel like writing, but you aren't writing a story, you are writing biographical sketches.

Now, on to how to fix it. You have surely watched some series or movie "making of..." documentaries, where they show scenes from a movie but "on set", where we see the director, the partially built aircraft open on the camera side, the boom mikes, the assistants, the script cards, the cameras. And then they show us the finished result, but all that extra stuff and people are out of frame and the frame looks realistic as hell. Even though you know that there is no ceiling on this aircraft and it is open on "our" side, with the sound effects and music it feels like we are in an aircraft flying.

Movies are on a budget, they build sets out exactly as much as they need and no more. If you only need one and a half walls, that's what you build. If the director decides we don't need to build the floor or ceiling, we don't. We build just enough to serve the story.

That is what you have to do. It can be hard to discard your biographical sketches, but you don't have to. Just move them to some other file, take most of the story elements out, and use them for what they are: Character biographies.

This file is Kira, and her quirks and habits and where she and they came from, the experiences that justify her personality.

This file is Firok, and his quirks and habits, and where he and they came from, the experiences he has had.

Start writing your story, without any character explanations. When we meet somebody in real life, like a coworker or store clerk, we don't get a thousand words on who they are, why they are the way they are. We meet them "cold" and figure it out for ourselves, based on their actions. Based on idle conversation, not interviews or probes or "tell me about your life". Based on their tone of voice, over time based on what they laugh at, based on what they disapprove of, based on what they enthused about, based on what they want to do and refuse to do.

As a writer, your job is to aid your reader's imagination, to have your audience see, hear, feel (like a movie) what you are imagining. You do that with sensory details, not exposition.

Hence the rule, "show don't tell." This comes from the stage play and movie industry too: Never tell the audience something that you can just show them on stage. If Jack is a chain smoker, just always show him with a lit cigarette in his mouth, or lighting one from another. If he is forced to go without one, show him irritable and suffering withdrawal symptoms, trying to sneak one where it is not allowed.

In writing, it means do not tell us something in exposition that we can see (in our imagination) for ourselves. The latter (an imagined scene) is about 100x more memorable to readers than exposition, and it isn't boring. Explanatory exposition is boring, it is just a lot of stuff for the audience to memorize, that they won't memorize.

Building a sensory scene (visual, auditory, olfactory, other senses) is not explanatory exposition; it aids the reader's imagination. They don't have to remember the ground is barren and littered with rocks and rotting fallen trees; that the moment our hero steps into it, all the birds in the forest fall silent. Because the audience sees it and hears it. We build the sensory scene; and they remember that. They don't have to memorize the words that built it.

Exposition is for you to work out your consistent characters, offline and offstage.

The story is about their adventure as who they are, and avoid explanatory exposition like the plague. If it truly is important to the story, invent a scene to show it -- It is better to spend 500 words building a sensory scene than to spend 50 words in explanatory exposition. Seriously.

But only include what is needed to justify the actions of characters in the story, and always do it in scenes, even if they are short scenes. What you tell readers is quickly forgotten; what you show readers is far more likely to be remembered.

Avoid explaining and focus on assisting scenic imagination. Follow the 3-act structure, four roughly equal parts of Act-1, Act 2-a, Act 2-b, Act 3. You can divide each of those in half as well. The inciting incident should occur at the midpoint of Act-1; an issue or problem that grows until the hero is forced to leave their "normal world" to solve it (leave literally or metaphorically, like approaching life and work with a changed focus and driving factor). That happens at the end of Act-1.

Pick the standard word budget for your work, and you have 1/8th of that to introduce your hero(es) and their "normal world" and the new thing that is going to disrupt that normal world. That's it!

It's a tough assignment, but do it in scenes. Take a hint from movies introducing a new hero; they tend to do the same thing: Carefully pick a few incidents that define your hero, and build scenes around those incidents.

Throughout, you need to do the same: select the scenes that will advance the story, and skip all the backstory that is not absolutely necessary to the hero's journey.

And avoid explanatory exposition like the plague.

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    Thank you for being so thorough. I think more than anything you've given me the insight that I don't want to write a 'story' but stick to a more slice of life type of writing that does not fit in my predetermined genre.
    – Weckar E.
    Feb 23, 2023 at 14:09
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Conflict

Every scene needs conflict. It's what pulls the reader through the story.

Conflict could be a small interpersonal drama, or it could be a world shaking fight between the gods. What matters is that some character wants something, and some force prevents them from obtaining it without some kind of risk.

No Room for Life

OP describes "life" as their state of mind, their relationships, their habits and contrasts this with "action." I suspect this means that there is no conflict in the "life" scenes. No stakes, and no tension.

If that's true, then the balance is simple: there should be no "life scenes." They are weak scenes that the reader will not enjoy.

Fear Not!

But that doesn't mean there's no place for those little details at all. They simply can't be the center of the scene.

Create a scene with actual stakes, and then see how many little details you can slip in without interrupting the flow. You might be surprised at how many you can manage.

I generally allow myself one or two sentences at a time to bring in those details; any more and the pacing feels off.

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  • Hm. No. Thanks though. This question is teaching me a lot. Mostly that I don't care as much about readers as I care about writing these 'small scenes'.
    – Weckar E.
    Feb 24, 2023 at 8:54
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    @WeckarE. - and that's fine! very few people actually make a living off writing; you should write what makes you happy.
    – codeMonkey
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:51
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    Probably out of scope for this question/answer, but character growth is generally the point of a story. The classic rom-com character growth is moving from external validation to internal validation. Action stories might focus on the gruff POV character admitting they care about other people. Whatever arc is present, you can't have growth without conflict. So a "well written" story focuses on the conflict, and gives the readers "slice of life" information to track the character's growth. So the "small scene" stuff is important - but the conflict is what gives it meaning.
    – codeMonkey
    Feb 24, 2023 at 14:04
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Why would a reader bother to turn the page?

  • Not to be swamped by more trivia
  • Not to be deluged with facts which might be important later
  • Not to be told this that and the next thing But to find out what happens next because 'now' is tottering.

Any story must get going from the very start. Once the reader is intrigued about the characters, they have to care if Fred is having a bad day or be late for work, then you can tickle with anger/frustration/confusion while stuck in traffic.

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