| Top Twenty Problem 16,
Scenes and Drama:
Movement: Making Action Move The Story
Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1997, 1999, Dorian Scott Cole
What makes a scene part of a story? How does dramatic action in a scene move the story forward?
Writers often write about something that is interesting to them (and us), but the scenes, and the story, is not the least interesting. The characters never do anything to resolve the problem. There should not be anything in the scene that doesn't move the story forward.
Action in a story is not an active word. It is a noun, a descriptive word. Dramatic action doesn't mean to start moving around on stage or to do something. Action is the continuing behavior of the characters that follows from the basic conflict. Technically action is the series of events that form the story. The action of one character gets a reaction from another. For example, Mary and Lark are talking long distance on the phone. They decide never to see each other again. There is very little physical movement that goes with these actions and reactions, but conflict forces decisions, and the story moves forward.
Consider an entire story that doesn't move forward. Petrov is a Russian immigrant to Brazil. His father is a farmer and relocates his family to a section of rain forest. Petrov is dissatisfied with his existence, but is isolated from others by geography and language, so he lives a mundane life and dies. Petrov has a need, to be satisfied with his existence, but has no way to ever express it. Nothing ever moves the story forward. Sometimes writers create poignant character studies about characters like Petrov, in which we feel his pain. But stories like these are character studies, not stories.
We can look at a scene from another story that does move forward, but first the story: Alphonso moves with his father to a farm in the rain forest, and is dissatisfied with his life there. His older brother has found a job working with a civil engineer. When his brother visits, Alphonso talks to him about engineering and some of the problems they are having with water drainage. Alphonso's dissatisfaction is frequently shown in heated arguments with his father. He finally leaves to live with his brother, causing his father much heartache, and leaving his father with only Alphonso's sister for help with the farm work.
Alphonso works with his brother and goes to college, but he returns later as an engineer for a large company and resolves the water drainage problem for his father and the other new farms in the area. In this story, Alphonso has a need: to be an engineer. His father has many needs: to farm, loneliness, help on the farm, water seepage. Their needs lead them into conflict and they separate. Finally their needs and problems draw them back together - are resolved - a long trail of action. Without needs, conflicts, opportunities, there would be no action and the story would never move forward.
What happens in a scene from this story? We know from previous scenes that Alphonso is dissatisfied and that his brother has arrived. In this scene his brother is talking about life in Rio and the opportunities there. As he talks, Alphonso is growing more angry, and his father is sensing his anger and trying to get his other son to be quiet about Rio and his life. But the more his father tries to silence his other son, the angrier Alphonso becomes. Finally Alphonso lashes out verbally at his father, calling him stupid for ever bringing them to this farm and that it is a horrible place where no one can live, and then announces he is leaving with his brother. The father is hurt and angered and strikes back, saying he has no need of such a thankless son anyway and that he should go.
So the scene is totally part of the story (a microcosm of it), and contains nothing that doesn't do something to move the story forward - it amplifies character (showed Alphonso's admiration of his brother's life), reveals the motivations of the character (Alphonso's desire to do something he feels is satisfying with his life), and shows the events that follow from their motivations (Alphonso gets angry and leaves; his father is hurt).
In the scene, make sure the character's needs are known and that the needs are what are causing him to behave the way he does. Make sure the conflicting needs of the other character are known and that the other character acts because of those needs.
Entering: Making an Entrance
I read some stories in which there is a lot of coming and going and talking and laughing, which apparently is supposed to be action. If these things don't follow from the plot and relate to some character need, they are not action that is relevant to the story, they are just so much moving the air with thrashing arms and legs and hot breath. The best place to start a scene is similar to the best place to start a story: enter the drama at the last possible moment. The longer you take to set it up, the more the scene is going to be sapped of energy and interest.
Avoid the coming and going syndrome. If a character is at his sister's house, we'll assume he had the good sense to take some rational means of transportation, stopped for gas if he needed it, rang the doorbell when he got there, and got through the customary greetings. These things don't move the story forward, so, unless it is necessary for her to react to his arrival, start the scene with them having a pleasant lunch together and her reminiscing about old times and saying she wishes they would get back together. Then he announces that he is leaving for Alaska to live on an offshore oil rig. Answering the doorbell would not have improved on that action.