action (poetics) Action is the representation of story events as part of a narrative. The description of a person as a cheat doesn’t tell a story because a description contains no action. A story will depict a cheat by showing the action of cheating. Unity of action indicates that there is a coherence and completeness to the action across the story. A story that has challenges, complications, expectations and crises, has rising action. Climatic action completes a story because it results in a change or stasis that was put into crisis by an action at the start of the story. The action that creates a dramatic story is the inciting incident: this is an initial event, an action that prompts a progression of connected events.
Action is articulated as primary to drama in Aristotle’s statement that, ‘tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude’ The idea of a complete action relating to unity of action, a whole story, not random unconnected events, and serious, because the action of the drama is important in terms of representing life and our understanding of lived experience.
Possibly because the action movie is understood to be a particular type of film narrative, or because in everyday speech the use of the term action is unrelated to the concept of action as it understood in relation to drama, this term can cause a confusion in understanding because action seems to imply only external physical events, but dramatic action is both external and internal: a parent deciding to kill their child is action, a parent killing their child is action. These are both action because they progress a story.
The form of drama that Aristotle described is Attic drama, which has speech in poetic measure, sung chorus and dance. It is a formalized form of oral storytelling, more recognizable as a religious ceremony and unlike a contemporary realist, naturalistic drama; a stage play or a film narrative. In the Attic drama internal action is expressed in speech and song, and this tradition continues with stage drama, where there is the soliloquy or the aside when a stage character speaks their internal thoughts to the audience. The prose novel depicts the internal action through a narrator who has access to the internal life of some or all of the characters, so internal action in written prose is represented through commentary: stating what is thought and felt. Contemporary film narrative will make use of the monologue by having a character narrate in voice over, by having a character speak to the audience and break the fourth wall as in stage drama. However, the majority of filmed drama is naturalistic with the convention being that characters speak as if in real life, they do not speak their private internal thoughts and this creates a number of issues in relation to depicting internal action in contemporary film drama and in terms of writing and directing a film.
An inexperienced screenwriter will often write dialogue that is naturalistic, it’s casual, conversational, but then this naturalism does not convey the action of a story through the dialogue because it does not relate to significant action. The challenge for dialogue writing within naturalism is to make speech appear realistic while it is actually concentrated in terms of conveying action: film dialogue needs to move the plot forward. Film dialogue states directly or by inference what the characters want to do, what they have done, what the plan is, what they will do next. Film dialogue also places characters in conflict with each other and this is in relation to action: what will they do next, who will act and who will refuse to act.
The film script is a very deceptive format. It’s perfectly possible to fill up the pages of screenplay with dialogue and actually have no substantial story. What needs to be understood by the screenwriter is when there is story action in the dialogue. There is the concept of incidental action, action that is not central to the plot, but which adds elements that support the sense of setting, the lives of the characters: there is incidental action which supports the realism of the story, but dialogue writing should not be dominated by incidental action: trivial conversation, chat. The tone and style of film dialogue may well appear to be casual conversation or chatting but in its construction it is not.
It’s often the case that the first draft of a screenplay runs long and it is then cut down in terms of the length of scenes and the number scenes. In this case what the editing is doing is identifying what is essential to the story, the action; a three page scene might reduce to half a page and convey the same story: the long first draft having a three page discussion about what to do next, leave or stay, with the discussion going back forth before a final decision is made, and then in the editing of the scene, to create a second draft, the dialogue makes clear that one character wants to stay, one character wants to go, and then they go: three lines of dialogue to tell the story rather than three pages. In a novel a conversation, a meeting between two characters might take up a short chapter, of two or three thousand words. This will take ten to fifteen minutes to read. As a screenplay, as an adaption of the book the screenplay will be two or three pages at most, and so run two or three minutes in terms of screen time.Both methods of narration contain the same story action.
The concision and precision of dialogue in the contemporary film script can appear similar to the dialogue in stage drama, but though they are both accepted as naturalistic they follow different conventions. Dramas, stage plays constructs their plots through long scenes, bringing the story into a small number of settings. This form creates narrative clarity: the audience know where a story is happening and when, and then to be sure that place and time is clear the characters in the story will often state where they are and when. In a film narrative the locations, time and setting, and who is where and when can be shown visually, and there is no need for dialogue to do this: the majority of film narratives will have multiple scenes and locations and each can be shown on screen and understood by the audience. In a stage drama the characters will often recount events that have happened in another setting, so that the audience for the play will be aware of these story events: in a film these actions can be shown. The adage for storytelling in film is, ‘show not tell’, because many narrative elements can be shown in film rather than explained through dialogue as in drama. Dialogue in film can centre on motivations, and reactions so that the internal life of the character is narrated.
In a film adaptation of a stage play the adaption frequently ‘opens up the story’, having the action take place in different locations, and often this is understood to be problematic in terms of producing an effectively realistic film narrative. This is because the conventions for stage dialogue means that they present much more verbal exposition than film dialogue, and simply having the play’s dialogue filmed in different locations is perceived as awkward and unconvincing because a lot of the speech appears unnecessary and contrived. A dramatist can write both plays and screenplays and both have a page format that foregrounds the dialogue, they look similar, but they are very different forms with different conventions of narration.
The direction, the visual action that is set out in a screenplay should set out the actions that progress the story, but often an inexperienced writer will describe something that is happening in the scene as they imagine it being performed, or else describe something related to dress or setting, a visual element that they imagine, something they can see in the scene, but this will not be significant story-action. This sort of detail is written because it makes the screenplay seem more realistic, but this is not the aim of the screenplay, which is functional document, the story written in a form that can support film making: turning a screenplay into prose writing is not the correct approach for screenwriting.
In prose writing the text needs to offer a complete and comprehensible story on the page, so detailed visual description is needed to set the scene: this is for clarifying the setting, where the action happens and also for how the characters speak and act. This form of description is not needed in a screenplay. So, as with dialogue writing, writing the directions for action in a screenplay needs to carry the story forward. In a screenplay describing a hand movement or where someone sits, where they look, like the description in a novel, gives minor actions the same weight as major story events, which is a confusion because in a poorly narrated screenplay it’s not possible to tell what is essential to the action of the story and what is incidental. Also, the inexperienced screenwriter is liable to fall into the trap of writing a screenplay where the directions cannot actually be filmed because they describe the internal life of the characters, internal action that cannot be shown on screen, when it’s based in the screenplay on metaphor or analogy to compare one action to another: the directions for action in the film screenplay does not use literary devices, figures of speech, it is written in plain language stating only what can be filmed. The form of the narration in the screenplay is more comparable to a written news report than a novel: a news report states clearly and succinctly what is essential to the events of a story: the car crashed, the driver and the passenger survived. This style of writing contains the main action of the story.
The format and form of the screenplay presents a challenge to the screenwriter: they need to use the format correctly to support the creation of a film narrative, and then after this directing the script presents another challenge which often goes unrecognised. On set or at a location, at the start of a shot being filmed, it is customary for the director to call ‘action’, the camera is already running to record the shot, the actors start speaking and/or moving and the camera may also move to find, follow or re-frame the action, but is this story action, is it dramatic action that is significant to the story? Is the scene being well directed? The answer is ‘yes’, if the direction shows the action of the story, and ‘no’ if the directing of the film fails to show the action of the story.
It may seem counterintuitive that if there is a well written script that the filming of the scenes could fail to convey the plot. However, this happens with inexperienced or poor direction because on set story action is not self-evident, and what is actually filmed can be irrelevant to the main action of the story. One can imagine a well written musical score, but then the score is badly played, musicians miss their cues, others add bits and pieces of music as they see fit, and as a consequence the musical construction of the score falls apart. In film directing poorly chosen camera angles, poor blocking, unclear acting, all undermine the storytelling, and in particular, an inexperienced director and crew will focus on the physicality of the scene, actors leaving and going, sitting and standing, moving and changing positions. This will be done in order to keep continuity so that shots can edit, but then the judgement on the storytelling, the filming of the story action is lost: on set the shot is successful, its framed well, its looks good, it will edit with continuity, but it doesn’t tell the story.
The director’s task is to understand the story that’s being told, the intentions of the screenplay, the scene, and make sure that their direction of blocking this action is successful to narrate the story: a character walks up the stairs, what is the story? Is it important for the shot to show that the characters knows where they are going, or alternatively, is the character is unclear where they are going, and it might be an upstairs or downstairs room that they want. An attractive or interesting shot of someone going up the stairs does not necessarily narrate the action of the story.
Action is significant and essential to drama. There is a challenge to this in the fact that some films have less external action, significant physical events. There are slow and fast paced stories. This difference is often understood as a significant cultural distinction, with slow paced stories being ranked as deeper, more complex and subtle than the superficiality of a physical fast-paced story action. What this cultural distinction clouds is the fact that drama is articulated in action. The slow paced story relies on action and this is often held in suspense with the audience being occupied with what might or might not happen and the consequences of this. The suspense film is a genre that holds events in tension and so is the horror film. In these types of stories less spectacular action has greater meaning, but these film narratives are still dependent on action as a foundation to the story: a suspense or a horror film is not simply a mood, or a tone, if it were then it would not tell a story.
When writing a script, preparing a screenplay for filming, when rehearsing actors, when blocking set ups, when framing shots, when assessing the success of a take, of an edit, the questions to ask are: what is the action here? How does this action progress or develop the story? If this action were removed from the script or the filming what would be lost? If it’s not essential to the story why is it here? The difference between a well made and a badly made film is the ability to narrate the story: the audience may or may not like or enjoy the story, but there is a difference between a story that is well told, and one that has no clear and coherent narration because the story cannot articulate action in a way that the audience can understand.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019