Monday, January 28, 2008

On Action

Theresa says:

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation, not of humans, but of action ... life consists of action, and its aim is a mode of action, not a quality. Character may determine men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.
~ The Poetics, Aristotle

Oh, yeah. I went there. Talkin bout our man Aristotle now. Today we're going to examine the conventional wisdom for openings and maybe come to understand why it became the convention.

There are six narrative elements, and the most important of these is action. Action is the foundation upon which the rest of the narrative builds. You might believe that character is the lynchpin of good storytelling -- and it is, undisputably; never doubt the importance of character -- but character is revealed best through action.

A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it.
~ Thornton Wilder, as interviewed in Writers at Work, First Series

Characters are not about their thoughts and feelings, but about the expression of their thoughts and feelings. A man alone in a room may think great thoughts, but what of it? Good or bad, thrilling or stultifying, inane or dangerous -- these ideas are made meaningful through action. The great thinker must rise from his chair and do something in furtherance of his ideas. Otherwise, the reader is looking at an essay rather than a story.

Our lives are made up of moments, one following another from cradle to coffin. And so are stories. What happens in these moments? Characters may ponder and think great thoughts, but this isn't what the reader of fiction will remember after they close the cover and set the book aside. What the reader will remember is the action.

A thought which does not result in an action is nothing much, and an action which does not proceed from a thought is nothing at all.
~ Georges Bernanos, France Before the World of Tomorrow

This is why we say to start with action, in the middle of a scene, with an event underway. A character thinking thoughts ("setting up" the story) is boring. Give us action which is based in the opinions and qualities and emotions of the main character, and you will be more likely to engage the reader from the outset. Avoid trivial action that isn't reflective of these characters and the problems they must encounter.

Action is character.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, Notes for The Last Tycoon

Think about who your characters are before the conflict erupts. What is important to them? What is problematic? Scarlett O'Hara is super-pissed that Mammy makes her eat pancakes before the barbeque at Twelve Oaks. It's a minor problem, especially compared to war and lost romance which will become big problems before those pancakes are fully digested. But the pancake issue is meaningful to Scarlett and it's made meaningful to the reader because it dramatizes Scarlett's character through action. She is stubborn, rebellious, superficial. And these are the very qualities which are tested and pummeled and reshaped over the course of the story.

Character is action, and starting with action -- bodies in meaningful motion -- will draw the reader into the lives of your characters more swiftly than any other form of opening.


Anonymous said...

I think a good action-packed character-driven opening scene (say that 10 times fast!) raises more questions than it answers.

The best example I've read recently is from Susan Mallery's book, The Marcelli Bride:

If Darcy Jensen had known she was going to be kidnapped, she would have worn better shoes. Or at least more sensible shoes. As it was, she'd dressed in black strappy sandals that weren't all that comfortable for walking, let alone being dragged across a parking lot and thrown into the back of a van.

I had to know! Why is she being kidnapped? Why is she so calm about it? Does it happen often? Why on earth is she thinking about shoes during the event? And what kept me reading once my interest was piqued--how will she get away?

Susan could have opened with a long narrative passage about how Darcy is the President's daughter, has been through the drill many times, knows Secret Service is probably on their tail, etc., but the Darcy's reaction to the kidnapping was more interesting and hooked me right away.

I think about that opening every time I try to write one of my own, but Susan makes it seem much, MUCH easier than it actually is!

Thanks for the great blog :)


PatriciaW said...

I love that these posts really make me think about writing.

I think I finally get the "start with action" vs. "set the scene" advice, advice that often seems conflicting. Take for example, the recent posts on establishing the Ordinary World. One might think that it contradicts what you've said here about starting with action.

But it doesn't. I think the idea is to show the character in action as the ordinary world is established. Still with me? I had to pause after what I just wrote myself. LOL! Character in action, establishing ordinary world.

Then, character in action, showing change to ordinary world.

Edittorrent said...

Exactly, Patricia! Exactly! Yay!

Bethany, that is a really powerful opening. That book has been on my TBR for far too long. Your excerpt makes me want to read it right away.