I read a lot of YA manuscripts that are super interesting. Great premise, smart, insightful writing, nicely developed character arcs, marvelous dialogue. But they just aren’t working.
It’s true. More than once I’ve read a manuscript I really like but for one fatal flaw: nothing happens. I’d say, when I was an editor, this was the number one reason a manuscript got the gong at acquisitions.
In picture books, it’s generally pretty easy to spot. Texts in which nothing happens usually come in the form of a list. It might be a list of things a kid does in a day. It might be a list of something that kid loves. Maybe it’s a list of traits they enjoy in their menagerie of monster friends. But a list isn’t a plot.
It takes a bit longer to identify in middle grade and young adult novels. I’m usually reading along for a while, enjoying some great banter, the dialogue carrying me away like the best late-night conversation with a friend. But then I realize, the scene is a late night conversation between friends. And so was the last one. And the one before that was at lunch. And the one before that was in the car on the way to lunch.
It’s a trap some of the best writers fall into. Scenes of people discussing things that have happened off-page are stories in which nothing actually happens. I want to see the character actually run their grocery cart into the ankles of their crush, setting off a chain of events they have to react to, instead of telling their sister about it the next day over mochaccinos at the mall. A next-day dialogue (or whenever it happens) removes the reader from the scene, creating an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the action.
Here’s a little test to tell if your manuscript has enough action: act it out, or at least imagine it as a play. If your scene is of your protag whispering deep thoughts at the library, it’s not so fun to watch. The conversation might reveal a lot, but it’s a bit of a snooze for the reader. If your protag is at the library whispering, and then decides to throw a paper airplane at the jerk librarian (just kidding, all librarians are the coolest), that’s action. If that happened on stage, it would be fun to watch, and it likely makes something else happen.
It’s not the most exciting example, but I think you understand that your character needs to do things. Do things that lead to other things, I mean. Because sure, stirring mochaccino foam and sighing and thinking are technically action, but a whole play of that would be pretty tedious. We’d be in a pretty weird place if Nike had told us to Just Talk About Doing It.