Motion accomplished?


Silk’s Post #43 — One of the nuggets that came from our Whistler discussions was simply this: Put your characters in motion.

So obvious. So simple. Can you call something so self-evident an epiphany? Stories progress through action. So put your characters in motion, make them act, and the story will move forward. Right?

Well, yes. Absolutely.But I think there’s more to it than that.

The easiest way (easiest for the writer, that is) to convey your story to a reader is probably the one that should be used most sparingly: simply tell what a character is thinking. Let the character narrate the action taking place, adding his or her observations, judgements, feelings, worries, etc. So handy! And it works in first or third person. Woohoo!

Now … to put that character in motion (while we’re conveniently inside his head), all we need to do is send him for a walk, say, or put him behind the wheel of a car, or make him do something more exciting like run down a dark alley.

Voila! Motion accomplished. But wait … not so fast.

We all use this narrative style occasionally if not frequently. Often our character will be only minimally in motion, sitting drinking coffee, for instance. But does just adding velocity, or even a motivation for locomotion, guarantee the pace, the tension, the sense of a story in motion that keeps readers turning the pages?

Have you ever read a boring chase scene? Or a boring fight scene? One where you ended up skimming, or jumping ahead to learn the outcome, without having to suffer through the narrative details? I have.

So, I submit that physical motion, while an essential element in storytelling, isn’t a panacea. Those boring action scenes sometimes sound like plot outlines, where the writer is telling himself the story, using a character to narrate. But then the author never got around to actually writing the scene in an engaging, tense, suspenseful way that draws the reader into the story. Maybe the notion of motion has more dimensions to it.

One dimension of motion is undoubtedly action. There’s a good reason that “action” is the word a director yells when the camera starts rolling. Something is about to happen. Actors are about to act. And react. And interact. There’s physical motion, but there’s also emotion.

I’m going back through my scenes now to try to see the storytelling action through an imaginary camera lens. What would the scene be like if I eliminate as much as I can of what the camera can’t see and the microphone can’t hear? How would that change the way I write the story. Perhaps if the camera lens can see something, I can show it through the imagery of words, instead of telling the reader what’s happening through “in the character’s head” exposition.

Another dimension of motion, one that’s harder to convey, is change within the character. Change in the character’s knowledge, or viewpoint, or motivation, or feelings. Change in the character’s stakes, or jeopardy, or relationships, or his gained or lost opportunities. These are what make a story intimate, and help make readers care what’s going to happen next. It’s easy to convey these interior changes, once again, by going into the character’s head. But it’s not so easy to show them cinematically, through actions. Yet these are often the truly memorable moments of any story when an inner turning point is “put in motion” and acted out.

Remember Dorothy getting her first look at Oz? Rick walking into the Moroccan night with Captain Renault, away from the plane that would take his true love away from him? Frodo hesitating at the Crack of Doom, struggling with his inner demons to cast the ring into the pit? Colonel Kurtz lying in his dark, humid, jungle lair trying to convey “the horror, the horror” to Willard? Scarlett O’Hara shaking her fist the heavens, vowing never to be hungry again? None of these were “action scenes” as such. Yet they were powerful, emotional cinematic moments.

How do we use mere words to show these volcanic inner milestones – moments that are all about pivotal story movement and change, but not really about physical action? I’m going back and looking at places in my story where moments of inner change need to be animated, just as though they were physical actions.

Coming back to the “nugget” we mined at Whistler – Put your characters in motion – my take on it is that any old “motion” won’t do. Don’t just send your protagonist out for a walk while he’s telling the reader what he’s thinking or seeing or doing. Instead, have him act out what’s in his head, and his heart. That’s motion … and emotion.

Not so simple after all.

What’s your view?

3 thoughts on “Motion accomplished?

  1. Silk, acting out what the character feels and thinks makes great writing. And it’s quite challenging to do well, especially for new writers. This is where I seek guidance from literary authors like J.Le Carre, who have a deft hand showing what’s inside their characters’ head by their outward motions.

  2. I think mastering this skill is one of the factors that separates very good and great writers from the pack. Here’s to all of us learning how to do this well!

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