I like experiencing things more than I like hearing about them, with the exception of earthquakes and family dinners. I imagine you do too. Most people prefer to smell and taste a homemade brownie or two rather than hear someone read the list of ingredients on a package of brownie mix. I learned this rule by violating it hundreds of times over years of acting and performing improv. As my audience’s eyes rolled back and they began to strangle on their own spit, I would ask myself, “Don’t they like hearing about the gag gifts at Cousin Skeeter’s birthday party?”
Mark Twain finally convinced me that my audiences hated the birthday party, hated Cousin Skeeter, and hated me. Mr. Twain wrote, “Don’t talk about the old lady screaming. Bring her on and let her scream.” Upon reading that, I decided to do stuff onstage, rather than just talk about stuff. I resolved to take action. This began a period in which I flailed around the stage like a beached halibut as I tried to find things to do. I swept floors, I carried boxes around the stage, and I waved my arms a lot. My audiences found this as fascinating as the re-oxygenation of my blood. They hated my action.
A subsequent thousand years of humiliating failures showed me why my action sucked. My action needed a clear target and a reason to go after it. Action is doing something, true. But it’s also doing something to someone or something for a reason. For example, when the old lady screams, that’s doing something. And when she screams into her sister’s face from a distance of one inch, that’s doing something to someone. But when she’s screaming to communicate outrage because her sister just snatched away her hash pipe, that’s when action is born.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of good dialogue. The words and how they’re said are critical. But come on—old ladies screaming and grabbing drug paraphernalia is entertainment we can all appreciate.
These days I’m working to apply this principle to my writing. I’m astounded by the scope of action I can include in a story. I can incorporate literally cataclysmic events. The closest I ever came to that onstage was me dancing in Oklahoma! But I try to remind myself that the rules of action apply when I’m writing: do something to someone or something for a reason. So when my characters just walk somewhere, that’s not action. Even if they have a reason to walk, the walking itself isn’t being done to someone. If my terrorist releases a plague, but I never show what it does to anyone, that’s not action. Sure, I can say that the plague got released, but my readers don’t get the payoff of “seeing” what was done to the victims. If my hero sharpens his sword just because it’s sword-sharpening time, that’s not action. Any of these things may be fine additions to my story, but I shouldn’t fool myself into thinking that action has just happened. I’m better off fooling myself into thinking that a third brownie is no big deal.
I find action challenging to write, just like I find action challenging to perform onstage. I could say that I struggle with action out of laziness—and that would be true. But I also struggle with it out of fear. Onstage if I talk about someone being a bastard, I can take it back later. I can distance myself. If I slap him because he’s a bastard, that’s harder to take back. I’ve got to commit and be willing to back it up in the rest of the scene.
Trying to write action hits me the same way. When my villain burns down an orphanage, I feel a little more comfortable just describing how my characters heard about the tragedy, and then letting them get on with walking someplace. Then I don’t have to commit to the reality of the action. I don’t have to write about teddy bears on fire, or the villain kicking the escaping orphans back through the flaming doorway into the conflagration.
So, those are my struggles with action, and it kicks my butt pretty often. One would think I’m the dramatic and literary equivalent of a Galapagos Tortoise. But I’ll keep working at it. It should help that I’m building up good artistic karma by never dancing in Oklahoma! again.