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Misconceptions About Action

Writers know about the concept of “rising action”. At least, they better. It’s one of the fundimental building blocks of stroy telling. You build from your opening scene to a climax and then wind down with a resolution in the end. The problem is that too many people seem to not understand what action actually is. If you don’t, you can get into a lot of trouble.

A while back, I wrote an ariticle titled X + Y *C Does Not Equal A Good Story. I talked about a very unsuccessful author friend of mine who claimed to have the secret formula to writing hit novels. The fact that his two published novels have sold a grand total of just over 200 copies should tell you how surefire this formula is.

“The opening chapter must have action,” he insists. What he meant by that was swashbuckling, dragon riding, gun firing type of action. His philosophy is that if the story if it doesn’t start with a BIG BANG, it sucks. As J. Cameron McClain points out in the comments section of my previous post, “… look at something as archetypal as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. First chapter? The only action you get there is Bilbo getting ready for a birthday party. What an action-packed hook!”

The problem is that my friend’s definition of action is only a partial definition. So let’s pull out the dictionary and get everyone on the same page.

noun \ˈak-shən\

1: the initiating of a proceeding in a court of justice by which one demands or enforces one’s right; also: the proceeding itself

2: the bringing about of an alteration by force or through a natural agency

3: the manner or method of performing:

a: an actor’s or speaker’s deportment or expression by means of attitude, voice, and gesture

b: the style of movement of the feet and legs (as of a horse)

c: a function of the body or one of its parts

4: an act of will

5 a: a thing done : deed

b: the accomplishment of a thing usually over a period of time, in stages, or with the possibility of repetition

cplural: behavior, conduct

d: initiative, enterprise

6 a (1): an engagement between troops or ships (2): combat in war

b (1): an event or series of events forming a literary composition (2): the unfolding of the events of a drama or work of fiction : plot (3): the movement of incidents in a plot

c: the combination of circumstances that constitute the subject matter of a painting or sculpture

7 a: an operating mechanism

b: the manner in which a mechanism or instrument operates

8 a: the price movement and trading volume of a commodity, security, or market

b: the process of betting including the offering and acceptance of a bet and determination of a winner

c: financial gain or an opportunity for financial gain

9: sexual activity

10: the most vigorous, productive, or exciting activity in a particular field, area, or group

That’s a pretty long list. Some of the definition are very specific. But the most general definition is #5 a “a thing done”.

If something is happening, you have action. You have action even if that thing being done is the main character sitting in a chair. Whether the action is compelling or not is a different story. But you still have action.

Too often though, authors assume that action must be what is often called “high action”: a car chase, a narrow escape from a building being blown up, the assassin striking her unsuspecting target. While these things are action, they are not the only types of action. If you think that they are then you are going to be in trouble when you go to “raise” the action in the next scene, then the scene after that, then the scene after that and so on until the conclusion. You will wind up putting your character(s) in too many harrowing situations with too many narrow escapes to become believable after a time. When this happens, and the author is no longer able to suspend disbelief, the story collapses.

When we talk about the concept of “rising action” we need to remember first what action means. It means that each scene builds upon the last and works towards the story’s climax with things being done. Just because the first scene is a car chase, that doesn’t mean the next scene must be a bigger car chase. So don’t limit your understanding of what action is. After the initial car chase, and our hero narrowly escaping his pursuers, the next scene could very well be his girl friend stiching up his arm from where a bullet grazed him. Sounds dull, at least compared to the car chase, but it is still action and it is moving the story along.

So, when building your action, remember to keep an open mind as to what action is.

One of the best opeing scenes to a novel I have read in a long time is the start of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations trilogy. The first scene has Royce and Hadrian (our heroes) basically schooling a band of hapless highwaymen about what they are doing wrong when they walk into their ambush. There’s tons of tension. But there isn’t a fight as the two talk their way out of the situation. It’s all action without the need for high action and is beautifully done. The best part

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