A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.
The Ink-Stained Wretch
Connecting With Your Reader
Part III: Action
What is action?
Having discussed point of view and characterization we come to the final leg of this tripod that holds our story up: action.
What is action? You discover action any time you tell a story to a pal. "This guy shot a guy in a bar." Is that action? No, that's random activity. Your listener may wonder why you brought it up, but he is not likely to be compelled to listen further. But if you say,"I stopped off at the bar for a beer and some guy shot a guy right in front of me!" Suddenly your friend is interested. Why? Because he knows you. This is no longer a random event. It happened to someone he knows.
To someone he knows.
It makes all the difference, and it's the reason action comes last in this discussion. Point of view and characterization help our reader come to know our characters. And action makes them interesting.
But how do we impart action to the reader? We structure it in scenes.
Critics think in terms of story and style. Writers think of scenes. When most people think of scenes, they think of them in the"cinematic" sense. That's okay, because the cinematic technique borrows its sense of scenes from written fiction.
Scenes can be long or short, crammed with activity or contemplative. But all of them fill some fundamental role in putting the story forward.
A writer thinks to himself: "In the opening scene my hero discovers the body."
Now bodies can be discovered in thousands of ways:
A mystery—the corpse has signs of violence. Someone's been murdered!
A coming of age story—young Pip finds his dear old Pa, dead in the bed. His heart just give out. And now poor Pip's an orphan!
A romance—Nurse Duckett feels a lump in her throat as she raises the sheet to cover the old woman. But she isn't thinking about the dear old woman who has died, but rather the grim task of breaking the news to young Doctor Turk, who had never lost a patient before.
A historical—Seamus stopped at the tree from which the English soldier hung. He grimaced at the sight of the bloated face and noted sadly that someone had hacked away the soldier's hands, had slit his belly to let his guts heap on the ground. So the rumors were true: the clans were on the march again!
And on and on and on.
Now in each case the scene has told us something important about the story we are about to follow. A simplistic way to regard it is to say "the scene tells us this happened!"
(By the way, you'll notice that none of the examples above give us a fight scene, or a dance, or a party, or a car chase. Action is more than physical activity. Action is emotion, passion, intensity.)
Obviously, scenes are integral to the telling of a story.
A long series of connected scenes would be boring indeed. A newspaper article tells us what happened, but it is hardly dramatic.
We also need sequel.
So we need more than scenes—we also need sequels.
This is no more than common sense. In school we all learned about Isaac Newton and how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton does not translate exactly to fiction, but he comes very close. And we can say, for nearly every scene there is a corresponding sequel. Note: not "every" scene. Just most of them.
So what is our sequel to the earlier examples?
The writer thinks,"Having discovered the body, my hero thinks…"
Mystery—Who is this joker? Why is he here? Who killed him? What does it have to do with me? How do I feel about it?
A coming of age story—What will I do now? Where will I go? What does this mean to me? How do I feel about it?
A romance—How can I ever tell him? What if it crushes him? How would I feel about it? What will this mean to our (hoped for) relationship?
A historical—What will happen to my people? My clan? Will I have to go to war? How do I feel about that? What does it mean to me?
Obviously, all these are grossly simplified, but I think you can follow where I'm going. If the scene tells us "this happened" then the sequel tells us "and this is how we feel about it" "We" in this case being the reader or the protagonist or some ancillary character.
In any story or novel scenes show us the actions by which the plot is carried out and sequels show us the reactions of the central characters, telling us what these developments mean and leading us invariably into the next scene.
Sequels often evolve into scenes themselves. This happens when, as a character deals with his emotions, he is spurred to decision:"Pa's dead in the bed and I'm all tore up about it but I can't see throwing myself on the mercy of my community. I'm striking out on my own."
See how, having reached his decision, the hero is compelled forward. The action in a story is dictated by such decisions. More often than not, heroes make bad choices, and it is this which drives the story forward as now the hero must work to extricate himself not only from the vagaries of chance, but from the burden his own poor decisions have placed upon him.
Watch the Disney film Pinocchio sometime and count the numbers of bad choices this character makes. Consider our own cliches about life: Does the beautiful girl end up with the right man? Maybe eventually, but first she falls for the brute who doesnít deserve love. Does young Doctor Turk ask Nurse Duckett to the dance? No, he invites the vamp with the nice rack instead. Later, when the vamp crushes him he learns to appreciate Nurse Duckett.
Scenes have goals.
Scenes always have goals. They must advance the plot, or shed light on a character, or give important background information, or set a mood, or spur a decision. Scenes which do none of these donít belong in your story. Here's the kind of thing writers expect of scenes:
This scene establishes that:
the protagonist is an orphan (and must learn to make his own way: decision)
the antagonist has a dual life (the discovery of which must be protected: decision) the protagonist has a fear of spiders
that mom has never stayed up past midnight
that my protagonist and antagonist once had an affair
that no one's ever successfully ridden that horse
that the sacred tiger is a man-eater
that the antagonist is ruthless
And so on. Note that not all scenes have to lead to decisions, either. Sometimes you're just establishing stuff the reader should know. Make sure you have a real goal for every scene, and then put it across.
I first learned about "Scene and Sequel" from Dwight Swainís excellent book Techniques of the Selling Writer, and I would encourage others to pick up a copy and see what he has to say on the subject.
That's the end of our little three-parter. If I can leave you with a final thought, I want to stress the need for you to impart your character's emotional reactions to the reader. This is our greatest advantage over other narrative forms. We can get right into the gut of a character and show how circumstances are tearing him to pieces. Emotion is more than introspection; it is urgency and need, immediate and powerful.
As much as we like to think ourselves logical and thoughtful, we are emotional creatures. And from these emotions, we make life.