Action vs. Character: What's Your Process?

In my very first playwriting class, our beloved professor Roger Hall gave us a sheet of paper that had two columns, one labeled "for character," the other "for action." Under each were quotes by famous writers about the necessity of starting with one or the other. What most struck me was how adamant these writers were, regardless which side of the fence. "Character creates plot, not vice versa," says Lajos Egri, whereas John Guare likes "characters that help the plot along and keep it moving and let us know where we are." For Bertolt Brecht "everything hangs on the story," but Jerome Lawrence says we must first "get to know our characters." John Galsworthy is the most forthright of the bunch, saying "the dramatist who hangs his characters to his plot, instead of his plot to his characters, ought himself to be hanged."

I remember feeling a little strange, because I start with neither. My plays, stories, and now this novel have all started from a line of dialogue or an image. Sometimes I hear a sentence of narration inside my head. Usually when this happens, I take note, because more likely than not, the lines that come without asking will be what stick. But inevitably, after a few lines or that first image, something else will come, and it's usually a blend of action and character. "Characters drive a story," my old mentor Dan Stern used to say, "but action reveals character. You can't really have one without the other."

I thought about this today when I was working on a new scene, one that I'm adding primarily for the purpose of tightening the narrative arc. I realized a few weeks ago that a good way to fuse the threads of my story together was to bring in my third major character sooner, in what is now chapter 4. This is doing wonders for the tension in that part of the novel, and because I know the characters now so well, it's very easy for me to feel when the scene gets "off" or when someone acts "out of character." But the challenge is to bring in this third character so that she feels utterly germane to the story, and it doesn't feel like it's me, the writer, just trying to move along the plot.

My first attempt at the scene did feel that way; it was serviceable and interesting, but I put it away yesterday frustrated because something felt off. Then when I reworked the scene today, I realized it was because I wasn't playing the nuances, or, in theatre terms, I wasn't playing the pauses. When I did that, everything became much more tense and readable. Suddenly, the characters were driving the scene I'd laid out for them, rather than the other way around. They were alive again, as they are in the already extant parts of the book.

In short, the scene clicked, and action and character fused together. For a classic moment of fusion between action and character, see the famous clip below. Granted, it's from a movie, and that effect might be harder to achieve in prose, but it's still a wonderful example of how absolutely transported the audience can be when character and action come together.


Most often I begin with a conflict scenario, following in short order by the "ideal" character for this crisis to challenge. But some of my most memorable books have begun with setting, and the types of people would would grow out of its hard and rocky soil.
Mylène said…
Character first, then the drill sergeant in my head screams, S/HE HAS TO DO SOMETHING, YOU IDIOT!
Jeanna Thornton said…
I love the way the clip combined action and setting...
LOL, Mylene. I've been having that problem this week.

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