I have always been an admirer of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I may have just a small prejudice because he is a Minnesota boy, but beyond that, he was just a great writer. His descriptions were always genuine and precise. Nothing he wrote ever detracted from the story. And so I look to him when I need help with my own writing.
One problem we writers might have is showing what each character does during a scene. When characters speak, how should we show that? Or what happens when a character needs to react? What if they are suddenly surprised, or angry? A common error is what is called, 'head bobbing'.
To show what I mean, imagine two characters sitting across from each other. Call them Tony and Jeff. Tony needs to tell Jeff that he lost the contract for the job. Jeff will blame it on Tony and they'll end up in a fight. If we do head bobbing, it would go something like this:
Tony thought about what he should tell Jeff. He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair for a moment and ran his fingers through his hair while Jeff watched him. Finally he decided just to spit it out. "You lost the contract, Jeff."
Jeff stared at Tony. He was stunned. He finally stood up so quickly his chair clattered on the floor. "That's bullshit!" he said.
Tony squirmed in his chair. "I didn't have anything to do with it," he said.
Jeff glared down at Tony. He was filled with a rage. His mouth curled into a sneer. "You're a liar."
"It was Jake," Tony said as he looked around for a way to escape. "Jake wanted the job. He out bid you."
Jeff puffed up and clenched his fingers into a fist. Then he slammed his hands onto the table. It hit Tony in the legs and he fell forward. Jeff leaned over and grabbed Tony's hair and with a fit of anger, slammed him on the table.
The writer wants to show what Tony does when he thinks, so he shows him tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair. And Jeff needs to react, so the writer shows him curling his lip into a sneer when he talks back to Tony. Somehow this all comes out as contrived.
When I re-read Fitzgerald, I saw that he did what all great writers do. He didn't do anything. There wasn't a single bit of head bobbing. The characters did only what they were supposed to do. His writing was transparent.
But how do we change the example above to reflect this? We don't focus on the characters moment by moment. We focus instead on the scene. With Tony and Jeff, we need to first see what the scene is about. Tony has to tell Jeff that he lost the contract. So we only show the action that will get us to this end.
Tony slouched in his chair. Jeff watched him from across the table. Jeff wasn't going to like what he heard, that was for sure, but if he didn't hear it, he'd hate him just the same.
"What are you thinking about?" asked Jeff.
The comment pulled Tony out of his reverie. "Uh--"
"Just spit it out, Tony."
Jeff was right. Best just to tell him. "You lost the contract."
"Bullshit!" Jeff jumped up so quickly his chair clattered on the floor.
"Look, I didn't have anything to do with it."
Jeff glared down at Tony. His eyes filled with a rage that was going to explode in just a second.
Tony eased himself away from the table. "It was Jake. Jake wanted the job. He out bid you."
"You're a liar!" Jeff slammed his hands into the table. It slid across the floor and hit Tony in the legs and he fell forward. Jeff leaned over, grabbed Tony's hair and slammed his head onto the table.
I got rid of anything that wasn't necessary. Of course, we can add a little bit of information, such as Tony running his fingers through his hair. But we should use it sparingly. It seems to add to the scene when we write it, but it only detracts in the end.
In a nutshell, rather than focusing on dialog and actions for each character, focus more on how the scene will come out at the end. This will avoid the head bobbing.