Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Building Blocks of Writing Part 1: Action

Ah, DNA, the building blocks of life. Hey, you want to know something cool? This insanely complex thing is made up of only four molecules. And you know what else? Everything you're seeing on this screen is all 1's and 0's. And atoms? The building blocks of everything? Nothing but protons, neutrons, and electrons. The universe is both complicated and simple, and so is writing. Story's made of only three things: action, dialogue, and description. Doesn't make it any less excruciating, but when I came to this realization, my writing became a lot less daunting. Like DNA, binary, and the atom, all it takes is a combination of these three things to build a story.

Let's kick-a-pow it off with action! Why? Because action's bad ass! Who doesn't love seeing John McClane kicking German terrorist butt? Or the terminator speeding off while a truck explodes in the background? Wait. That's not the kind of action we're talking here. Action goes beyond "Character A punches Character B in the face!" Action is momentum. Action is the emotion that jerks tears or makes you gasp and shout, "Hoe, don't do it!" And, yeah, sometimes it's punching someone in the face.

Going back to the example from last time—I was talking about the boy's discovery of the cave before he goes off naming every detail while walking through it. Even though, at the time of his discovery, he wasn't physically doing anything, that suspenseful Eureka! moment was just as much action as his epic game against...okay, getting pretty close to spoiler zone here. The key word is suspense, and the gambit of suspense is all in the power of suggestion. We're filling the readers' heads with their own conclusions based on the context clues we sprinkle through our pages. As this speculation races closer to the apex of understanding, the reader's train of thinking has to sync with the character's until the two jump and shout, "Eureka!" How is this done? Momentum. We're not only syncing the reader's train of thoughts with the character's, we're syncing that sense of urgency and excitement. We are, in fact, speeding up the writing. Our sentences get shorter. Less syllables are used. Words snap, hot and fast.

And we end on impact.

There's no reason why that last line should've cut away from the previous paragraph, except to drop the beat. It's that, "Yes. Yes. YES! I KNEW IT!" feeling in both the reader and the character at once. This is done by adjusting the velocity of our words. The paragraph break thing isn't necessary, it's just cool (caution: use rarely) The point is to consider what we're doing with our words, and how we place them strategically to sync up the emotions of our characters and readers, and to move the story along.

But all of this suspense talk is leaning towards the explosion end of the action spectrum. Action is just as slow as it is fast, and in these slower parts, we need to cool our jets on the momentum and focus less on physical actions (he walked to, she looked at, they punched each other in the face) We're turning more introspective here—stopping to smell the flowers and the like. It seems counter-intuitive, because during these slower parts, it'd make sense to have more happening to keep the reader engaged. Truth is, every story needs its slow parts, or we exhaust our readers. 

There's a series I loved when it started, but instead of keeping a wave-like property in each book, the author tried to treat the entire trilogy as one huge plot triangle. The last book is nothing but the intense moments right before the climax, and, honestly, I got bored. It's true that the reader and character sync when the action is sped up, but that can only be done if the reader sympathizes with the character and understands what's going on in the world. Ever hear grandpa say "slow it down or life will pass you by"? Same thing's going on here. We've got to stop and put together the clues before we find the cave.

On the other side, when the story is speeding up towards the climax, that's when I want the most action. I want that momentum picking up pace, but I also want my characters doing things. I want them running, jumping, punching each other in the face. I want the reader to experience that same thundering heartbeat that's pounding in my character's chest. I want to feel their urgency. I want the climax to be the biggest punch in the face of my life (the crack of the bastard's jaw that shakes from my knuckles to my heart...unless it's that kind of story...then ouch) But to do this, I've got to consider what action is: momentum, physical movement, and the emotion we incite in our readers. I have to take these three aspects of action and combine them into a whole. Sound familiar? It's just like the atom, just like DNA and binary. It's just like what I'll have to do with dialogue and description.

Current Stats
Watching: Gravity Falls
Listening: Cake - Fashion Nugget
Reading: Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking Book 3 by Patrick Ness
Playing: Metal Gear Solid 5
^^^What are ya'll up to? Comment below!^^^

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