Posts Tagged ‘action’

I’m going to make a movie. Lights! Camera! Action!

Notice that last word ‘Action!’ Hollywood is the epicentre of world story telling. If they place that much emphasis on ‘Action!’ then maybe we should follow that example.

A speech story, however, doesn’t need to be all action all the time.  Endless dashing around doing stuff loses impact very quickly.

Subtle action can work well but it needs to be tightly focused, otherwise anyone whose attention has wandered will lose the point. A little foreshadowing will build anticipation and give subtle action the impact it needs.

Once you have your story, or series of anecdotes, roughed out identify the high points of action. Note the quiet moments, the times of building tension, the reaction  after the action.  Fit these together smoothly to create a flow of ups and downs, action and quiet, that will maintain interest and keep your audience emotionally involved with the story and the speech.

You might not want to keep your audience in a state of sustained suspense for the whole 5 – 7 minutes. Give them an emotional break now and then to relax and prepare for the next tension and action coming up. Insert a moment of humor, to create an emotional contrast.

Often in stories you will find three action points, building from smaller action to the big bang of the climax. This is the classic format and it works well but it doesn’t absolutely have to be this way. The major action could happen early or in the middle of the story, with character-building follow-up. The danger here is that once the big bang has spent itself you spend the rest of the story mopping up details.

Details are usually the enemy of action. Think of the action movies – a gunfight in a city street. Do you notice (or care about) the architectural detail of the buildings? Or the fact that the tree on the corner is a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)? No. You notice that the villain has a machine gun and the hero just got hit. Surely he can’t be dead?!

My own movie is more of a family video – grandchildren, dogs, back lawn. Hollywood has nothing to worry about from me.

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A Bedtime Story

I was watching this ad on TV where the mom curled up in bed with her adorable little daughter and read about two lines of a story. Her ‘daughter’, on cue, yawned and fell asleep with her adorable lashes curled adorably on her adorable cheeks.

This is not the way I remember it happening. In my reality my kids stayed awake until the end of the story and then asked for another one, and another. They were more insatiable than adorable. Maybe the problem was that the stories were too interesting, too action-filled. They needed to stay awake to find out what happened next.

I’m guessing that you have never deliberately written a story designed to put someone to sleep. It would need to be a story so pointless, with characters so boring and with so little action that eyelids would droop and snores would fill the room. Usually this is not the goal of the storyteller.

So let’s look at those three aspects of your story or anecdote.

1. Does it have a point?

Does it inspire, motivate, teach? Yes, the point can just be entertainment. But then it must entertain – it must be exciting or funny or heart-rending. You can’t just call it entertaining because you can’t think of any other point to it.

2. Are the characters interesting?

Do they seem alive and real. Can the audience or reader get involved emotionally with them? Having your main character be a dragon or an extra-terrestrial doesn’t, by itself,  make him interesting. It’s how you build him, the detail and imagination that goes into making him three-dimensional and alive. That’s what makes him interesting.

3. Is there action?

There is a triggering incident, right at the start. People do things, say things, make mistakes. Consequences follow, often quickly and dramatically. People are driven to take action because of inner turmoil or because of goals and ideals that others around them never imagined. They don’t just sit and wallow in their goals and ideals, they get up and act – maybe not wisely, but in a way that triggers a reaction.

Do your stories and anecdotes have these qualities, or are the adorable eyelashes going to droop as your reader or listener falls asleep?

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You start it at the beginning. Okay, where is the beginning.

The beginning is close to the start of the action. So let’s quickly de-construct a simple anecdote.

My grandson was asked by an elderly relative to programme a ring tone into her cell phone. For a joke he programmed in Tarzan’s jungle call. She tested the ring tone and thanked him. He smiled and asked “What ring tone do you really want?” She replied “I like this one.” He offered to change it but she insisted on keeping it. So wherever she goes with her grandma handbag, if her phone rings Tarzan’s jungle call fills the room.

That’s the bare bones. I might add that this took place at a Hallowe’en party, that the relative lives in a houseboat, that she was cooking dinner at the time, that she has a sick husband, that my grandson is a really tall 20-year old. There’s a lot of background information that I might choose to use, or not. It would depend on time available. Yes, you can use an anecdote to use up time, or compress it to take up less time.

It would also depend on my reason for using the anecdote. If it was Hallowe’en when I was telling the story I’d add that in. If not, not. I’ve never found the houseboat or the sick husband relevant here, but her busy-ness is relevant when I use the story to illustrate different ages/different talents.

Yes, but where does the story begin? It doesn’t start with getting dressed to go out, nor driving to the boat, nor the welcome, the pouring of drinks etc. It starts with the first action of the story. She asked him to programme a ring tone. It is important to this story to note that she is elderly and he is younger. I could mention her white hair, glasses, holding a wooden cooking spoon. I could mention that he is tall, wears a hoodie and earrings. The contrast in style and abilities might need to be accented. But the accent embroidery, the setting, characterization and any backstory fits into the body of the anecdote. None of it comes before the beginning. We don’t need to know all about these people before the story starts.

Characterization and setting can enrich your anecdote or story, but never forget that it’s the action that counts. Start with the action.

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The conversation went something like this:

“Tell me about your story.”

“Well, there’s this guy, see, and he’s hit by a car….”

“So the action in your story is the car accident?”

“Oh, no. That was just the start of it.”

Exciting as a car accident sounds, it isn’t a story. It’s just an incident.

A story has a character or characters in it that lift it way beyond being just an incident. Let’s look at a few examples:

– the at-fault driver is consumed with guilt and tries to find ways to compensate. He might become a missionary, donate huge sums to charity, campaign for seat belt use. Or he runs away and spends the rest of his life running.

– a person is hit and killed. Their spouse has to build a new life. Their kids grow up without a dad. The spouse is penniless without the family breadwinner. The spouse gets a huge settlement and lives a more luxurious life. The son vows vengeance and this colours his life.

– the person is badly injured and has to persevere through months of painful physio to get back to normal. Or he never gets back to normal but has to live a very restricted life. This leads to a deeper relationship with his wife. Or it leads to his wife leaving him. It might lead to his developing a new and successful career – or living a life of poverty.

The action is important, it can lead anywhere. The car crash is dramatic. But it’s what the characters make of it that creates the story. What does it tell us about the characters? How does it the fit the message of your speech? If it doesn’t fit either ditch it and find another story or change details here or there so it fits your message exactly.

It isn’t what happens that is important, it’s what it leads to, how it makes characters behave. Your understanding of human nature and your empathy will show you where your story will go.

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Story Kindergarten

My friend told me that I should include some articles for beginner story tellers.

“Make it like a story kindegarten,” he said. So here are the A B C’s of story telling.

A is for Action.

You need lots of it in a story – all you can get into it. Not only does it give you a wonderful vehicle for gestures within your speech (and that’s a plus in itself) but it helps to keep your listeners involved. They have no time for boredom if one interesting thing has just happened and it looks as if another interesting thing is just coming up.

The best kind of story action is people doing things. In a story they often do mistaken things, unwise things and sometimes downright dangerous things. A perfect person making one wise decision after another is a dull story.

Another kind of action is when something happens to the main character – and often it is a bad happening. It might be an accident or someone else’s ill will or temper. It is quite likely undeserved, but it impels the action to move forward and gets your story going.

B is for Belief

Many speeches come from your beliefs. We each have a whole range of beliefs – anything from a belief in a Supreme Being to a belief in the healing power of chocolate. We often base our speeches on one of our beliefs. Maybe the people in our audience share this belief, or maybe they need to be persuaded. Maybe it is an important belief for you or maybe it is just light-hearted and humorous.

The nature of that belief is going to affect and colour your story. It will determine your choice of story and the way you tell it. Your need to persuade or entertain will affect the way you tell your story too.

C is for Character

Okay, I admit it. I’ve already written more than one article on character for The Story Solver and I will probably write more. It’s just that important. Together with action, your vivid main character is what carries the story and makes it interesting. Or not. Take the time to mull over your main character and come up with two sentences describing him/her. The first sentence is a physical description – one that sets them apart from the crowd and makes them unique. The next sentence is an emotional or mental description that lets us know the part of them that we cannot see. That sentence might be action: “He braked hard and ran to pick up the injured kitten.” Yes, you can see the action but you are also seeing the inner man.

And while we are talking about ABC’s – Have you read to your kids today?

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Sometimes when writers find their stories (or even novels) have been rejected, or damned with faint praise they’ll ask “What’s wrong with my story?”

I have had the privilege of critiquing stories quite often and it seems to me that the basic problems fall into one (or more) of three categories. These are just my own thoughts – feel free to disagree.

1. I’m just not interested in the main character, or protagonist. So he’s eaten by lions or skis off a glacier – boring! The lions or the glacier are part of an interesting setting but setting isn’t the problem here, character is. You have to make me feel involved with this character, get excited about what happens to him, worry about his relationships or his choices.

Sure, a selective physical description helps – the timbre of his (or her) voice, for example. More interesting is the pride he takes in … what? The way his strengths and weaknesses play off each other.  His little vanities. Ask yourself  “How will his actions appeal to the reader’s feelings?”

2. The story starts somewhere else (probably about halfway down page two).  So often we wander into a story rather than starting with a bang. Jump in to the story. Grab attention. Make your readers think rather than spoon-feeding background to them.

3. There’s too much description and descriptive action. If he jumps off the top of the building, that’s action. If he toils up the stairs, struggles with the door and soliloquizes for a while – that’s not really action. Two choices here – either pump it up into action or cut it.

Just my thoughts. What do you think?

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