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The Anatomy of an Action · 9:23pm May 2nd, 2014

Part of my Writing from an Actor's Perspective series. First part here.

Actors don't 'feel.' They act. It's right in the name: actor, 'one who acts.' An audience can't see you feel. Human beings are physically incapable of automatically walking onstage and begin feeling however their character is supposed to feel. In fact, there's an entire chapter of my actor's handbook explaining that if an actor forces themself to feel something they do not, then their performance is fraudulent. They do not believe what they are doing, so the audience will not believe it either. In the actor's mind, there are no feelings onstage, nor characters, even. There are only humans performing actions that are true in the imaginary circumstances of the moment. If you can do this, then you can trust that the audience will be able to put two and two together. You get the tingling in your spine because you just realized what was going on, not because an actor cast a magic spell to make you tingle.

Likewise, as authors how many times have we heard 'show, don't tell'? When we tell, we are a third party saying something is true of a certain collection of events we then relate. To say 'Rainbow dash is sad' is meaningless. Readers are here to see the implications of Dash being sad: crying, snapping at her friends, kicking down Celestia's door in a fervor born of drunken despair, and so on and so forth. And if we see the side effects of the idea 'Rainbow Dash is sad' then do we really need to be told? Strong stories are built of the same stuff as riveting plays: smart, solid, action.

An actor must consider at least four levels of action when preparing for a scene. The through action is what the character is doing in the larger narrative: it is the thread that connects this scene to all the other scenes and drives the plot. A character's essential action is the overarching thing the character is trying to accomplish in this particular scene: make my mentor proud, get my sister's attention, unwind after a hard day's work. These essential actions play out in beats: how the character pursues their actions in the moment given the circumstances of the scene. And finally there is the literal action happening in the scene: Twilight picks up a quill, Luna eats Celestia's cake, Rainbow Dash naps, and so on.

Through Actions:

Through actions are fairly easy to keep track of. They can be thought of as a character's high-level goals throughout the narrative. This is not motivation. Motivation is why you're doing things, while through action is what you're trying to do. It is not necessary to have a fleshed out through action for everyone. For instance, readers expect and will accept mooks and other extras to be handled as generic red-shirts.

However, if you want to add more life to your scene, you might try to come up with at least generic through actions for everyone. The average mook, for instance, might just be trying to do his job without dying. Notice that we've now expanded our view of our mooks beyond just one scene. Now we have some canvas to fill if we want to dig deeper: when do these mooks decide enough is enough? Why do they want to do their job? This could lay the groundwork for throwaway conversations our heroes overhear while sneaking through the barracks or other fun little discoveries. In conclusion: consider through action, add character depth, ???, profit.

Essential Actions:

Where through action is more the domain of the scriptwriter, the essential action falls to the actor. It is the driving force behind everything a character does during a scene. The tactics to accomplish this goal may change, but the meat of every scene is each actor trying to accomplish their essential action with respect to everyone else present. Actors are not driven by emotion, nor do they rely on rote memorization of stage directions. A good actor goes into every scene with a goal in mind to actively work towards and will know by the end of the scene whether they were successful. The script may not allow them to win, but that's ok. The goal is to make whoever is supposed to win work for their victory.

Everyone needs an essential action from the mooks to the star characters: if you are in the scene, you need to be doing something. Otherwise, why write you there? Furthermore, everyone needs to be actively pursuing their action to the extent of their circumstances and ability. The evil overlord who stands by passively while the heroes escape is failing his acting classes forever. If you find yourself in a situation where a character must forget about his essential action for the plot to advance, then it's time to go back and revise the scene.

Essential actions are a fun tool to mess around with because when we can know what everyone is trying to do, we can spice things up. Imagine your heroes are discussing their plans in a tavern. The average author will say they're in a tavern and leave it at that. But wouldn't a tavern have a barkeep? What could their essential action be? How about "Move forty Irish Car Bombs."

Our little exposition and planning scene is now interrupted every so often by the barkeeper peddling his wares, the exact details depending on what the author is trying to do. Maybe the cream is going bad, so he starts them off with a round on the house and serves them the bad stuff when they're proper drunk. Perhaps he just badgers them constantly and now the heroes need to get him to buzz off so they can complete their essential action of planning their daring raid. You shouldn't use scene-stealing extras all over the place for the sake of focus, but taking the time to at least consider skeleton essential actions for all helps you be aware of your options.


Essential actions cover the entirety of a scene and should not change: if you fail, then you're picking up the pieces of your attempt or trying again, not choosing a completely unrelated goal. Beats play out moment to moment and make the scene dynamic. For instance, I refer you to the open scene from my last blog:

A: Hi
B: Hello
A: How’s everything?
B: Fine, I guess
A: Do you know what time it is?
B: No, not exactly.
A: Well?
B: Well, what?
A: What did you do last night?
B: Nothing.
A: Nothing?
B: I said nothing
A: Sorry I asked
B: That’s alright

Notice how the conversation changes throughout. First, we just have some pleasantries: Hi! Hello! It could just be two people meeting each other on the street. However, then 'A' expands the conversation: 'Do you know what time it is?' As it is an open scene, we do not have the context to know very much, but it is clear just from the words that something has changed. We've started more than a passing conversation. The next lines change the tone again. 'Well?' could be a demand: something that wasn't present before. Beats are these shifts in tone and action: the give and take of the conversation as it develops.

Beats are per-character, not per-exchange. One character could have three or four beats, while the person they're talking to has only two. As a writer, looking carefully over your dialog for the beats can help you find pacing problems. If a lot of beat changes occur close to each other, you may find that your scene is too busy: the audience may feel whipped about. Likewise, if a long scene has only one or two beats, you may be dragging things out or not having enough happen: the audience might get bored. This is, of course, all subject to what you're trying to do with the scene. For instance, you could play this for laughs by having a stoic Applejack play one long steady beat while Pinkie goes off the wall with five or six.

Actors talk about beats in terms of single verbs. You choose one verb that unifies what you're trying to do and how you're going to do it, and then do that verb: to rebuff, to pep up, to disabuse, and so on. Strong, active, specific, verbs make good beats, whereas choosing verbs that only involve you are weaker because they don't interact with anyone. Generic verbs like 'to run' are also weaker because they don't bring in any flavor besides a physical action. 'To hurt' is playable, but how much more visceral is 'to destroy,' 'to ruin,' or 'to annihilate?' Notice the differing tones: if one is 'ruined' then they are still there, just in a bad place they can't recover from, while if one is 'annihilated' then there's absolutely nothing left. That's a big difference in terms of how the scene would play out.

Literal Action:

At last, we're back in familiar territory: the literal action of the scene. There probably isn't too much I can say that you wouldn't already know: characters do stuff and talk about stuff. Noun verbed. Easytimes.

However, what I can do is take a side-trip into a similar topic: activities. An activity is a mundane action that is occurring while our characters are saying their lines. A scene is very boring when it's just two characters standing around reciting lines, so giving them something, anything, to do while talking can and will liven up the scene. This could be washing the dishes, jogging, shopping in the market, or anything that is appropriate (though my acting prof got really mad whenever someone decided on 'read a newspaper' because it's overused, apparently).

Activities are important because they give characters an alternative to the current conversation and add another layer of interaction. For instance, if Rarity and Sweetie Belle are washing the dishes, Rarity might get huffy and engross herself in her washing to avoid SB's questioning. Alternatively, SB might get miffed at Rarity and chastise her with a splash of soap water. There could be a slipped plate caught by the other, or they both could choose to 'let the camera run' by washing quietly side by side while the implications of their conversation sink in.

From an author's perspective, activities can also help integrate the setting into the scene. It's easy to say "we're in a market" and then conversation ensues and the background fades to white while the heads talk. However, by mentioning the activity from time to time, you can keep the reader tangentially aware of the setting. This is best integrated whenever you find yourself saying "a moment passed." Why let a moment pass? That's your moment! Instead of wasting your moment, remember that words are time. Why not fill in a silent activity instead? Inspect an apple, push past a crowded stall, listen to the music pony with the monkey, or whatever else seems fitting. There's even room to pencil in some description around the edges!

Actions drive story. Understanding the many layers of actions will help you build engaging and powerful scenes. On Monday, I would like to delve a little deeper into: The Nine Parts of an Excellent Essential Action.

Thanks for reading this super long post! If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to leave a comment!

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Comments ( 8 )

This series is just... fabulous!





Also: glad to hear you're enjoying it! Thanks for reading and commenting :twilightsmile:

Good read! I'm not actually sure I have anything to add here. I do want to note that I tinkered with the Twixie mini-short on your previous one.

Oh, and I should be done tinkering with my next blog: Scene and Sequel hopefully by tomorrow night. I have another example to polish up and some explaining on why scene and sequel is such an important part of telling a cohesive, longer than one or two scenes, story.

And where some of the common missteps are.

I'll have to check that out then.

Stop telling me how much I am messing up with these! :rainbowlaugh:
Just like the last one, nice information. Unfortunately I highly suspect I am going to still keep screwing it up. :twilightsheepish:


Yeah, Gamecube was awesome:pinkiehappy:

There's no such thing as 'screwing up' :pinkiegasp: There is where you are and where you want to be. I'm just showing you the places you never knew you could go :raritywink:


Reminds me of a concept I created called "Sequence of action".
Essentially it all boils down to what comes first when describing an action, or the process thereof.

Unfortunately, I have little idea of how to go about writing it, short of sacrificing little goats to the Muse Gods above. No idea idea why it has to beg goats, just because.

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