What Are The Three Types Of Writing?

Three types of writing? What on earth are you on about, Keith. Surely there are more than that. Hell, I can think of half a dozen genres off the top of my head. How can there be just three? Have you gone you crazy or something!

Okay, this is going to get a little fuzzy, because what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have any defined terms. This is just something I’ve come up with to help me understand what I’m doing with my writing as I’m doing it. It’s not a steadfast rule, and like all rules sometimes it has to be broken, but it goes a long way to help make my writing easier to read and hence more enjoyable.

Let me explain…

1. What is that? (Non-Action)

I have noticed, whilst reading some of my favourite authors, that the ones whose work is easiest to read have a trick they do whereby they are very specific about what they are trying to achieve. If they are describing something – a building, a person, a piece of history – they will often stop telling their story to describe that one thing, before then carrying on with their story again.

Now you can intermingle your descriptions in with your story, and often will have to for clarity, but if you have something big that you want to set solidly in the reader’s mind, just describing that one thing is the way to go.

Here’s an example from Dexter & Sinister:


John had always liked Chard Manor, even if it did creep him out a little. He liked the higgledy-piggledy nature of the place. Years of revamps and renovations had turned a once average country house into a haphazardly stacked pile of architecture, held together by a ridiculous amount of pipework. A convoluted web of copper crawled all over the house, like out of control metal ivy, delivering the glory of steam to every room in the place. It was this that John didn’t like. Not the piping as such, but the way it would vent unexpectedly, hissing water vapour from every orifice in one big disgruntled sigh. It gave the impression not only that the building was alive, but that it was rather annoyed about the fact, too.

The local kids used to climb the walls of the estate to get a look at ‘Mr Chard’s Steam Castle’. Convinced it was haunted, they would dare each other to go and tap three times on the brickwork to see if they could wake the demons within. Few would, of course. Why risk being dragged to hell when you had your whole life ahead of you? But for those with guts enough to go for it, a lifetime of bragging rights awaited, and many an argument had been settled with the words, ‘Yeah? Well I tapped the castle when I were a kid. Has you?’ before now.


See how nothing changes in the story, but you now have a clear idea of what the manor looks like and what is feels like to be there. By doing this I never had to describe the manor again. I gave the reader a simple, solid description for them to hang their hat on, and then moved on to other, more exciting things.

NB: This is where most of your world building will happen.

2. What’s going on? (Passive Action)

Yes, I know “passive action” is a bit of a contradiction, but hear me out. It’s not the action that is passive but rather the main character.

When something is happening that maybe isn’t all that interesting, but which has to happen for the story to work, or if something is happening out of view from my main character, and hence it’s not something they have any control over, that to me is passive action. It’s not something you want to use a lot of, because passive story telling is not the most satisfying, but it has its uses.

NB: It’s also useful if you need to say a lot in a short space of time, giving an overview of what’s happening without doing too much of a deep dive.

Again, here’s an example:


Outside, John checked his watch. He had time to swing by Gravesend Bridge on the way to the airship factory. He wanted another look at the scene of the crime, to see if there was anything he’d missed. He wasn’t expecting to discover a hidden suicide note or anything like that, but he hadn’t been all that thorough the first time he was there so who could say what he might find. He would go by the bridge, go pick up Dexter, drop him off at home, then go have a word with Spencer Shelby the Third. He lived not far from Chard Manor. It was about time he answered a few questions. Arrogance and ignorance only bought you so much leeway. It was time to turn the screws a bit.

With his collar turned up and his coat pulled tight around him, John headed through the fog towards Gravesend Bridge.

Over the road from the Scion Club, two men stepped from the shadows of a shop doorway. After a brief yet animated discussion – involving lots of agitated hand gestures and some obvious protestations – one of the men was dispatched at a jog down a side street, whilst the other sauntered off up the road after John.


You know John is being followed, but you don’t yet know by whom or why. In this instance, passive action is being used as foreshadowing for what’s about to come next.

3. What are they up to? (Active Action)

This is likely going to make up the bulk of your story. This is where your main character is doing whatever it is they do to make the story happen. It is action, but it is also dialogue. It is any time your main character is doing something to change the world around them, rather than the world around them changing of its own accord.

This is the most satisfying for people to read, which is why it’s where you want to spend most of your time as a writer. It’s where things are ‘happening’, not where they ‘happened’. It’s exciting, and fun, and interesting, and if done well it’s the reason your readers will describe your book as unputdownable.

For the sake of clarity I’m going to give you two examples of this. They may seem different, but they affect the reader experience in the same way.


The man spotted John staring. He looked around, trying to work out what he was staring at, until he realised it was him. Crushing out his cigarette the man made a show of standing and stretching, giving John one last look before wandering off down the road, his hands in his pockets, his pace leisurely. He whistled to himself as he walked, kicking at the pavement as he tried to appear as nonchalant as possible.

John crossed the road. Passing the omnibus stop he followed the man, taking his time so as not to spook him, but still walking fast enough to start gaining ground. The man looked over his shoulder. He saw John and sped up. John sped up, the man sped up – both still walking, but only just. They looked like two men trying to maintain their dignity as they rushed to catch the last train home.

The road ran alongside a six-foot high brick wall that belonged to the house opposite Chard Manor. It ended at a corner a hundred yards up the road. Reaching the corner the man cut right, disappearing from view. John jogged to catch up, but when he turned the corner the man was already well away, hurtling full pelt down the road, arms and legs pumping hard.

John gave chase.


Notice how that one needed a little bit of description at the start of the third paragraph to give it some extra clarity. The scene occurs within an area that is already established in the reader’s mind, but as it moves elsewhere I had to throw in extra description to keep it going, with some actual Non Action in the ensuing paragraphs when it moves somewhere completely new.

This second one may be a lot of standing around talking, but I class it as Action because it changes the story, advancing the plot (whilst also giving is a greater sense of who these two characters are).


“You see! I told you that man wasn’t to be trusted. And now we have proof. So, when do we get him? When do we go to the police?”

“Whoa. Hold your horses. We haven’t got anything yet. We’re going to need a lot more evidence before we can go to the police.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake! So what now then? What do you want to do?”

“I want to go talk to Peter Chard, tell him what we know. Y’know, shake the tree a little, see what falls out.”

Dexter looked at him funny. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, you’re not the biggest guy in the world. I’m not sure you could take him.”

“What do you mean? I… I’m not going to strong-arm him or anything. I’m going to talk to the man, to rattle his cage, see if he lets something slip. Shake the tree is just an expression.”

“Oh. I see,” said Dexter. If mechanical cats could blush Dexter would have been a beetroot. “Well… as long as we get him I don’t care how we do it. I just hope you’re up to the job is all.”


But why have these definitions in the first place?

Simple. When it comes to writing, or at least when it comes to my writing, clarity is key. The easier a story is to read the better. Note that I’m not saying the subject matter needs to be easy, you can have as in depth or as complex a storyline as you like, but the act of getting that story across should be as simple as a meerkat.

When I’m writing anything I try to know what each paragraph/section is doing, and then I only do that thing. If I need a lot of description I just describe. If I need to get some information across I just do that. If I’m telling the story, which is most of the time, I try to only do that (although there are, as always, exceptions to the rule).

To give you an idea of why this kind of separation is important, here’s a deliberately mixed up piece of writing, along with how it should read.


Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.

The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean.

If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain.

Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”

Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.

John tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there. “I’ll say.”

“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”

John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.


Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.

If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain. He tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there.

Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say.”

“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”

John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.

The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean. Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.


See how much less satisfying the first one is compared to the second. I mean it’s fine, it has all the same information presented in roughly the same order, but the flow is all wrong. It feels clunky and unfocused. The description doesn’t give a solid, single image for the reader to enjoy, and the character interaction has lost some of its charm. It leaps around too much, with a clumsy transition from corridor to morgue. In short, it lacks clarity.

So what does this all mean?

For me, understanding what each paragraph is doing makes my life a whole lot simpler. Not only does it make my story easier to read, but when it comes time to edit my story I can move paragraphs around without fear, knowing full well that moving a piece of description, or some Passive Action, to somewhere else in the book won’t affect the story. Or I can rewrite parts entirely, coming at it from a different angle (as I did with the Chard Manor description), again knowing that my main storyline will remain intact.

And, as I’ve said many times already, if you are clear in your mind about what you are doing, your reader will be clear in their mind about what is going on, which can only lead to a more pleasurable reading experience all round.

It also allows you to mess with their expectations, slipping in important information without them realising, but that is a topic for another post altogether.

Addendum

I’ve been trying to think of percentages, of how much I do each of these things. Now, I’m not about to go through an entire novel to check, but for the most part I reckon you’re looking at roughly 5, 10, 85. That’s 5% just description, 10% passive storytelling (side action & world building), and 85% actual story.

These are not hard and fast amounts, and much of the active storytelling will contain elements of the other two, but as a general rule that’s the mix of styles I go for.

Hope that helps.

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