In looking for some resources to help thrash out my own ideas of the dynamics of scene structure, I came across this post on "Writing the Perfect Scene"
, based off Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer. What it says about scene structure on the higher level I'll likely tackle at a later date, but it actually sent me off on a tangent with what it says about scene structure on a low level, Swain's idea of the Motivation-Reaction Unit -- which got me thinking instead about action.
It's interesting stuff, worth reading, for all that I'm going to take a different angle on it here, argue with it a little. Cause it might seem a little formulaic at first glance -- which is one part of why I'd argue with it -- but when you dig down into it I reckon it's less formula for structure than description of dynamics -- which is the other part of why I'd argue with it, try and push it a little further. Specifically I'm going to argue that this is really about character
dynamics, that this is where Rule #6 of my Ten Rules for a New Writer
is coming from: character makes action
Actuality, Activity, Action
As I say in that summary post, "action is only action if it matters to a character; otherwise it’s just stuff happening. It’s the character’s attitude to peril that makes it peril. And the conflict of a narrative — the agon
— depends on your characters having agency; without that you just have tin soldiers being smashed against each other." Where I add a caveat to Rule #5 -- that "voice makes character" is not the same as "character requires
voice" -- I'm not so sure a comparable caveat applies here. I don't like to be absolutist, cause my own contrarian nature automatically kicks in, insisting that there must be exceptions, but you could look at it as simply a narrowed definition of action versus activity. That's to say, you can recount actualities in a narrative -- stuff happening -- but that is and only is
activity until/unless it has significance to an agent within that activity.
It's really a definition of terms then. There are actualities
, the stuff happening, but such stuff can be material or immaterial. Activity
is stuff happening that is immaterial. Only when stuff is happening to or because of an agent, only then does it become material, only then does it become action
, which is always already action upon
an agent or action by
an agent. Hell, even the involvement of an agent isn't enough in and of itself; if what's happening to your character or what they're doing isn't a step ahead in plot terms, it isn't action.
It should be noted, a step ahead can be as minute
as, say, a buzzing fly elevating a character's irk as they wait in some tense scenario, but the point is that, inversely, a whole scene -- a journey to the shops and back to get a packet of teabags, to make a cup of tea, to sit down with it and watch some TV -- could be simply activity, not action. Rule #8 is essentially about the mistake writers make in filling pages and pages with activity in place of action.
It should also be noted, however, that in certain modes of fiction, if one reader sees complete irrelevance in such a tea-making scene this may just be their obliviousness to a significant step in a slow and subtle internal conflict. And in my experience, the more the fiction is driven by the spectacular and sensationalist, the more likely it is to suffer from that obliviousness extended to a complete disregard of materiality, of relevance. I loathe the limp banality of much quotidian realism (I'm looking at you, James Kelman's A Disaffection,) but by far the worst perpetrators I've seen have been novels aimed at the commercial strange fiction genres which mistake combat for conflict, the sensational for the significant, in which whole Hollywood set pieces of SFX spectacle have been meaningless activity. There is no such thing as a novel in which "nothing happens." But there are plenty where a whole lot happens and only a fucking fraction of it is really action.
So how, practically speaking, in the writing of it, do you make sure it is
Action as Experience
If action is always already upon and/or by an agent, that means that consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, it's part of their experience. Experience
is a gnarly term here though. The character who the stuff happening matters to, the agent perpetrating stuff because it matters to them, is automatically the focus character
of that action as it's happening and therefore the focus character of the narrative at that point. But that doesn't automatically mean they're a/the third person limited (3PL) PoV character
, such that the narrative here is wholly their direct experience. Even to say they're the viewpoint character
could be wrong. With an omniscient narrator, the PoV is distinct, and the narrative can therefore go well beyond the stuff happening that registers on a focus character consciously (or, at very least, quasi-consciously.)
But I think it's worthwhile allowing for indirect
experience here, to accommodate actualities that impact on the focus character even though they're not aware of them. Maybe hidden
experience is a better label. Either way, the idea is just to cast experience as something potentially richer, with hidden depths, the A that causes B that causes C, with C being the directly experienced surface of the stuff happening to the focus character, but A and B being just as relevant, just as important (which is to say, having just as much import
, only indirectly, via C.) So, the entire chain of actualities, A-B-C, is action-as-experience. A and B don't cease to be proper action just because they happen during an omniscient narrator's scene-setting, before the focus character enters to be confronted with C.
This takes us beyond a limitation of Swain's model, I'd say, which assumes that the focus character is also the viewpoint character. Arguably indeed -- albeit I'm going by the second-hand accounts -- Swain's model looks to be assuming that they're the current 3PL PoV character. Given that he's talking of techniques of the selling
writer, that narrowing of focus is not surprising. In most cases, the immersed immediacy of a 3PL PoV is too powerful not be the obvious choice for a writer with what's commercial in mind. And the limitation is fair enough; with that title it's not like he's touting the model as all-encompassing. Still, it is a limitation, so I'm interested in opening up his approach, using it as a springboard to something more flexible.
So, OK, action-as-experience is our start point. Or a better way to put it is that it's our goal. How do we make it so?
Experience as Engagement
Let's start by focusing in, with Swain, on the simpler set-up where focus character and viewpoint character are one and the same, where viewpoint is wholly embedded in the focus character indeed, in a 3PL PoV. What Swain posits here is a simple structure he dubs the Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU.) An MRU has an external and objective Motivation followed by a character's internal and subjective Reaction. So there's a stuff-happening in the environment, an action upon the agent, and there's a stuff-happening in the character, an action by the agent. The latter he breaks down into three potential stages, at least one of which must be present -- Feeling, Reflex and Rational Action/Speech.
The example given in the article linked is of a tiger jumping out of bushes (Motivation,) the character experiencing the adrenalin rush (Feeling,) instinctively pulling his rifle up (Reflex,) then taking aim and firing (Rational Action/Speech.) The Motivation, it's noted, can be complex; in the subsequent MRU, you could have the bullet wounding the tiger, blood spraying from the wound, the tiger roaring, recoiling, then springing into an attack in response, all of which would be the Motivation for the next Reaction. The point is that, in this structural formula, action is a series of MRUs; we should be alternating between Motivations and Reactions, not getting two or more in a row of one or the other. Motivations should always be external and objective. And the stages of Reactions should always be in that sequence, Feeling before Reflex before Rational Action/Speech.
I don't think it's hard to see how this is setting action as experience -- the Motivation as an external, objective experience and Reaction as an internal, subjective experience. Crucially though, in the detail, it's also casting that experience as engagement. Where Swain calls that external, objective stuff-happening a Motivation, he's highlighting the fact that it's the import that matters in stuff-happening. And the reason I use the word import
here is the same -- because its Latin roots of "im-" and "port", i.e. "in" and "carry," cast meaning as impact
, as the internal, subjective knock-on effect. Where Swain details the structure of the Reaction, he's abstracting the process of agency whereby that import slingshots through the agent's nous and comes flying back out, transformed into a deed, a stuff-happening, with its own knock-on effect on the agent's environment.
At heart, this structural formula is simply a statement of how environment and agent engage: [environment impacts agent impacts]... [environment impacts agent impacts]... [environment impacts agent impacts]... and so on.
The Process of Engagement
But some revision is in order here, I reckon.
Feeling is an ambiguous term, could be read as referring specifically to affect -- the feeling of horror at some dreadful sight -- or as referring generally to any sort of sensory experience -- the feeling of sunlight warm on the back of your neck. The latter is a more useful, more flexible way of looking at the impact of external activity on an agent, so here I want to recast feeling as sensation
A reflex can be internal, an automatic impetus to respond by screaming, puking, lashing out, but internal location means the external expression can be restrained. That character whipping his gun up on sight of the tiger is not undergoing a reflex in the biological sense. When we're talking about a figurative knee-jerk response, actually this is distinct from a literal
knee-jerk response in that we can
suppress it. So in place of reflex, I'm going to suggest impulse
To cast the action/speech as rational is to say that it's reasoned. To say that it's deliberate is to say that deliberation is taking place in the process of taking action -- strictly speaking as the lead-up to taking action. Actually, I'd argue that there's every possibility it hasn't. For one character, the aiming and firing might involve a whole lot more deliberation than it would for another character to whom it's nigh automatic, a skill integrated to the point where the evaluation entailed is liminal at best. So I want to separate out that stage of the process between impulse and execution, that stage of evaluation
Since a speech act is by definition an act, there's also no need to complicate the subsequent stage with a distinction equivalent to that between mammal and dog. And a physical gesture can be as much an act of communication as a verbal expression, so I'm not convinced there's even much utility in the dichotomy. What follows evaluation can simply be considered action then. Or it could be if it wasn't rather more sensible to avoid applying the term action
to an element of the action we're trying to describe. So, I'm going to take a similar approach to Swain's use of motivation
to cast stuff-happening in the world as inherently meaningful, reflect the import
there with purpose
here. That meaning-loaded deed I'm going to suggest we consider a gambit
Since sensation, impulse, evaluation and gambit are saturated with the implication of import and purpose indeed, I'm going to let the agent's part of this model carry the notion of meaning entirely. I like that Swain's naming of the Motivation highlights the importance of import, but this is a horrendous overload of a word in common use for any character's general
objectives within a narrative, including the most vague pre-defined characteristics of attitude. In locating the driving impetus of meaning here, we're also casting engagement as reactive, and I want to turn that on its head. Agency is pro-active, not reactive. If we're alternating between Motivation and Reaction, we can just as easily parse the flow into Reaction-Motivation units, focus on the external, objective stuff-happening that results from
the internal, subjective stuff-happening rather than that which instigates it, recasting motivation as effect
In place of Swain's MRUs then, we end up with a SIEGE Unit: sensation; impulse; evaluation; gambit; effect. You see what I did there, right? The label is not just a neat acronym for a nice mnemonic effect that makes me feel all clever and shit; it's making a point that action is composed of sieges on an abstract level, that the nature of the engagement is between agent and environment, between that which is surrounded on all sides and that which surrounds it, between the besieged and the besieging forces.
Taking this as a model of how action works, how it's made by character, rather than a formulaic structure to write within, we should be able to apply it to an example that isn't, like the tiger attack, written to order. So let's take the product of the last Writing 101 entry and see how it fits.
Tal took a casual gander through his spyglass at the scene below. Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the day-to-day shenanigans of his dismal life. The little critter scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub -- through the sort of barren wastes all too bloody common in the Norgolian Empire. The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... quick-as-a-flash scarpered for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing. And on those horses... three riders engaged in a good old two-against-one.
Well now, thought Tal. High on his rocky ledge of cliff, he lowered the spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow only to feel a hand grip his wrist. Black Raq Skarrion -- the king of thieves himself, notorious in all Norgolia -- rose up from a crouch behind him, arched an eyebrow at Tal's... well, call it impetuosity. Tal gave him his best mock-innocent shrug. What? He was a rogue, wasn't he?
What we see here is something a whole lot less formulaic than a pat series of MRUs. That the opening line is a gambit -- "Tal took a casual gander through his spyglass at the scene below" -- that it seems quite natural for it to be a gambit, rather makes the case for setting the agent first in the chain, I'd say. But how does what follows constitute an effect? "Over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the day-to-day shenanigans of his dismal life." That's not a product of Tal's gander. There are however two events going on here, the scampering of the desert rat and the observation of that scampering. The immediate effect of that gambit is
sensation. One could simply add an "He watched as" and punctuate the whole sequence a little differently to make it explicitly so:
He watched as: over hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time, a desert rat scampered, busy with the day-to-day shenanigans of his dismal life; the little critter scurried across a crust of earth parched and cracked by a pitiless noon sun, on the edge of a weather-beaten trail that wound through arid scrub -- through the sort of barren wastes all too bloody common in the Norgolian Empire; the rat stopped, sniffed the air and... quick-as-a-flash scarpered for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing; and on those horses... three riders engaged in a good old two-against-one.
It's going a bit poncy, and weirdly so given the idiom, to itemise the observations like that, but it's not changing the narrative in any way other than to make the frame obvious, make it blatant that the external, objective stuff-happening is actually not just the actuality bounded by the physical horizon of the setting, but the actuality bounded by the rim of the spyglass -- the actuality bounded by the edge of Tal's nous indeed. What Swain would class as external, objective Motivation is here, I'd argue, in this 3PL PoV, always already experience, internalised, subjectivised. The stuff-happening is sensation.
We should note the interjected evaluation, the free indirect thought in "through the sort of barren wastes all too bloody common in the Norgolian Empire." If the effect that follows the gambit is sensation, again contrary to Swain, it seems perfectly legitimate, I'd say, for evaluation to be kicking off as that sensation carries on, for the sensation to be coloured with evaluation as it takes place. There's no impulse leading into it, no gambit produced by it, but the evaluation there isn't collapsing our action by breaching a rigid structural model of the process. What it's doing is establishing exactly why the scampering of a rat, as inconsequential as such an action might be, is nonetheless action rather than mere activity.
That evaluative "all too bloody common" is explicating an implicit judgement woven through everything that precedes it, in the words themselves: wastes; barren; arid; pitiless; cracked; parched; crust; scurried; little; dismal; shenanigans; scampered; time; sands; shifting; scoured. The scampering of the rat is action, it's saying, because it has import to Tal: it signifies the relationship of this type of agent to this environment; it's figurative of his own condition, the human condition. This little thing's hurried, daily, nonsensical scrabble to survive in a hostile world that will erase even the marks of its passing... that's Tal's existential struggle too. We might glean that from the narrative without the evaluation, but that import might be too liminal, so the evaluation is there just to make the point clear, properly articulated.
And with that done, without breaking its stride, the narrative continues with the sensation that will be the equivalent of the tiger jumping out of the bushes: "The rat stopped, sniffed the air and... quick-as-a-flash scarpered for safety as dust swirled up in blinding clouds at the hooves of three mounts galloping, whirling, rearing. And on those horses... three riders engaged in a good old two-against-one." No impulse -- not explicitly, at least -- but again there's an evaluation, in the "good old" attached to "two-against-one" -- a cynically, ironically, wryly appreciative
evaluation. It's made explicit -- sort of -- in the direct thought that follows: "Well now, thought Tal." But the exact import, the affective sensation, is as absent as the impulse.
Actually, both are being withheld, hinted at but left opaque, so as to be resolved (or almost resolved?) in the gambit: "High on his rocky ledge of cliff, he lowered the spyglass, unslung the longbow from his shoulder, reached for an arrow..." so that it's here we realise (or reckon we do?) that what's good about those unfair odds is the opportunity and advantage they represent. The unspoken affective sensation is pleasure, anticipation. The unspoken impulse is to exploit, to take advantage.
So the evaluation leads to a gambit -- or the beginning of one, a gambit interrupted, begun, "only to feel a hand grip his wrist." Again we get effect framed within sensation. Again it's coloured with evaluation: "Black Raq Skarrion -- the king of thieves himself, notorious in all Norgolia -- rose up from a crouch behind him, arched an eyebrow at Tal's... well, call it impetuosity." The interjection on Black Raq's status is so passingly evaluative, it's really just an annotation, but the "call it impetuosity" is evaluation deliberately obscuring sensation, euphemising the object of Black Raq's eyebrow-arching -- which is, of course, the exact same thing opaqued earlier: Tal's keenness to seize the opportunity. There's another impulse being rendered here then, between the lines, an impulse to deny that very opportunism.
But Black Raq's gesture isn't just an effect-framed-in-sensation which has import the way the scampering rat does, the way the unfair odds do. It's an expression with deliberate import, a silent but clear message specifically addressing what this narrative in Tal's 3PL PoV is eliding, evading. The impulse can kick in even as that message is being received so as to obfuscate the sensation of it, but it requires a response, a gambit: "Tal gave him his best mock-innocent shrug. What? He was a rogue, wasn't he?"
Activity as Dressing
So, as nice as it would be if effective action could be boiled down to the repetition of a simple formulaic structure, Swain's MRU seems a somewhat crude reductionist take on the reality. Even recasting it to the SIEGE unit is inadequate, I think, if we're still imagining the process as a repeating pattern of discrete pieces. But if the point is to ask what makes action work, I do think that structural approach can be unpacked to a subtler dynamics. What I'm seeking to draw out of that example is a more complex interplay of sensation, impulse, evaluation, gambit and effect, but it can still be parsed in those terms. Effect may be framed within sensation where action is rigidly
cast as experience by a 3PL PoV approach. Evaluation may be woven through that sensation. Impulse may be implicit. But this is only to say that a mechanistic model of building blocks is a bit crude when it comes to describing how we really conjure the engagement of agent and environment.
Thing is the key aim here isn't to provide a painting-by-numbers technique for creating basic functional action. It's to explicate the nitty gritty, as I see it, of how action is only going to be action in your narrative if it is approached as engagement, of how it is made
action by the import that is only there if an agent is, if there's a focus character being impacted by their environment or having an impact upon it. Strip out that character, and you have activity and/or description and/or exposition. You have water-treading, tea-making scene-setting like this, which is essentially static even where there's stuff happening:
The weather-beaten trail wound ahead through the arid wastes. This was a barren land which dominated large portions of the Norgolian Empire. The tireless noon sun cast its parching rays upon the cracked crust of earth. Desert rats scampered among hoof prints scoured by the shifting sands of time. They were occupying themselves in the daily accomplishments of their dismal lives. Dust swirled in blinding clouds around three mounts. They reared under the burdens of their battling riders.
None of this is action. By sentence, in order, it's: description; exposition; description; activity; exposition; activity; activity. It has no import because there's no focus character in it, no agent for it to be imbued with import to. Activity is just part of the description of the setting. What we have here in place of action is activity as dressing. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself. If you're Mervyn Peake, of course, you can make a purely descriptive passage a pleasure in and of itself, and one of the most effective uses of activity to that end is, as I recall, the use of a spider's activity to conjure scale by contrast as focus then moves to a long corridor down which Titus is riding into the scene. Just because something isn't action doesn't mean it has no place in your narrative. But this isn't Mervyn Peake, and this post isn't about descriptive passages.
What it's about is, I think, a fairly simple principle -- that action is dependent on character. It's a principle that is, of course, taking a rather narrow view of action, setting up a distinction some might consider contentious. But it's a useful distinction, I think. As much as I hate the sort of prescriptivism that sets up pseudo-objective standards for what constitutes the "proper" execution of this or that aspect of narrative, I do tend to a view that narrative is a natural process with its own dynamics, that it's worthwhile using action
in a slightly harder-edged sense to refer specifically to the low-level substantiation of that dynamics, to say that without that dynamics you just don't have action at all.