MORE THAN DRAMATIC ACTION
Stress. Conflict. Contest. Challenge. Exertion. Objection. Obstacle. Inability. Limitation. Without adversity, there is no story. How characters deal with adversity creates comedy, drama, romance, action, mystery, and a world of other emotions and themes. Stories are about what ails us.
But shooting for a bestseller, some writers fill their pages with non-stop action, skimping on the protagonist’s personal make-up. They gain speed from the gate, but at a cost. Stories run aground when key elements have been ignored. By opting for action at the expense of character, they neglect to provide a vehicle for an audience to travel within the story and experience the character’s ride. The personal line is what makes action matter. If you strip the guts from your story, the world’s most nail-biting action scenes will flop.
“This second film [Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest] is pretty much all thrills, special effects and nonstop action—but with virtually no cohesive or compelling story line.” Bill Zwecker, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
According to E.M. Forster, a story can have only one fault—that of making the reader not want to know what happens next. And it’s difficult for readers to care whether or not adversity is overcome by a character they haven’t been made to care about. Paradoxically, it’s difficult to care about a character who isn’t dealing with adversity.
Consider the movie Pleasantville. Two characters are transported from their modern life into a fifties-era family sitcom where everything is, well, pleasant. At first, the characters inside the television show experience a dearth of conflict. As black and white figments, their only interest to the audience is derived from the comic perspective of two jaded teenagers who observe their blithe existence. The presence of the outsiders, though, throws their sitcom world into chaos. The characters become plagued by injuries, miscommunication, deception, and unfulfilled desires that grow with each discovery. Adversity develops them into multi-dimensional people who gradually take on an array of colors. As the mother, the father, and the soda-shop owner become fully realized, what happens to them matters to the audience.
Overlooking dramatic action fails to deliver the excitement a story and character need to captivate your readers. Similarly, failing to develop thematic significance obscures the impact of dramatic action on the characters presented to an audience.
Building with Momentum
When characters share emotions with the audience, it deepens the experience of the story. A smart plot is intellectually satisfying, but an audience expects more. A clever plot satisfies by delivering both action and emotion. And one that fools and surprises an audience as much as it does its characters wins wide readership, as the writer successfully played off a paradox of human nature. In fiction, we enjoy being manipulated, angered, and stunned.
With wide margin, the writer must strike a balance between the dry plot of a docudrama and the melodrama of soap opera. Those who get carried away with emotion tend to sacrifice the plot’s momentum. The goal is to craft a sound plot with rising action that builds through obstacles and complications, to crisis, climax, and resolution.
Cause-and-effect plotting, where scenes link actions and emotional reactions, keep a plot on track, but a plot must do more than add story beats. The momentum of these beats must increase as the story unfolds.
We can intensify a story’s momentum and heightening the audience’s emotional involvement with sequences of preparation and consequences. We construct a sequence that sets up an important event in a character’s future, then follow the character through the event to its end.
Preparations and consequences offer the writer an opportunity to include emotional content without diminishing momentum through plotting a sequence of scenes that directs action with a focus on a specific result. This type of forethought keeps the story moving while the audience connects with the characters. A concentration on the lead into scenes of conflict adds dramatic weight to the inevitable events, compelling the audience to worry about the future of the characters and to vicariously tap into their emotions.
A scene of preparation consists of a character(s) getting ready for an approaching event. In Rocky, his training sequences pay off before the actual fight, when we see him loping up the stairs of the Pennsylvania State Capital. Tensions build in war stories depicting soldiers preparing for battle, serious and nervous, anticipating the pressure of the impending conflict. These preliminary scenes transfer the characters’ anxiety and worry to the audience.
Most stories make use of preparation scenes. In 3:10 To Yuma, almost the whole last act consists of Dan and Wade waiting in the hotel room for the train to arrive. Part of Dan’s preparation is to send his son out of harm’s way with Mr. Butterfield. In this scene we see his courage and fears. Twice the director has started these scenes as we near the fateful hour by zooming in on Dan’s watch as it ticks down. Just before the climax starts, the director opens on Dan, head in hands, the watch held tightly. Wade sits across from him, sketching in the Bible. He makes a remark about the watch and Dan hurls it across the room. We know what Dan is up against and we know how he feels. We feel the tension with him as he heads off with Wade to meet his fate.
Several times, Se7en readies the audience along with the characters for upcoming events. Once the detectives have the lead to what turns out to be the “Sloth” crime scene, a buildup illustrates the SWAT Team getting ready to move on the location. We participate as policemen are briefed and readied.
In Act Three, we see Somerset and Mills preparing to go with John Doe to the final crime scene. It starts with the men in the washroom shaving their chests for the wires they’ll be wearing. Somerset does his best to prepare Mills, wanting him to be ready for anything. If the man on the moon should pop out of his head, “I want you to expect it,” he says. Then Mills makes a small joke and the two men laugh, the audience with them. But as they return to their work, the seriousness of the situation overtakes them, and words fall silent. They’re worried, and the audience can see it in their faces and reactions.
The next shot shows the men buttoning their shirts over their wires, putting on bulletproof vests and their holsters. They check their guns. All of this communicates to the audience the life-or-death nature of the situation. We then cut to John Doe in orange jumpsuit, head shaved, hands cuffed as he’s escorted down the stairs. The sequence builds until all three are in the car, helicopters flying overhead, vehicles monitoring their every move. And all the while, a foreboding of catastrophe hangs in the air.