Friday, August 15, 2008

Lazy, Frustrated Action


Working on the new effort (BURIED), I notice one of the problems I had in the first draft of the last effort. As always, it got me thinking...

1st Principle of Action:
Humans are lazy creatures. We don't want to work harder than we have to, even in pursuit of our heart's desires.

Or, in the words of the Red Dragon from BONE, "Never play an Ace when a two will do."

Every single character in your story, no matter their goal, will start by doing the least action to get the job done, as perceived by that character. To pump a guy for information, a barmaid might flirt. An affable detective might tell a disarming story about his wife's cooking while a hard-ass cop might start with 'you want to go to jail'. Marv from SIN CITY starts interrogating a hitman with a stab wound in the gut and the promise that death will be swift. For each of these, this is the quickest, simplest way to get the information they want. (In Marv's case, what's the point slapping a tough guy around for hours and making promises you both know aren't true?)

2nd Principle of Action: These actions will be frustrated. At least, they will unless you want the shortest, boringest (yes, boringest-- it's cromulent) story ever told. 'I tried something aand it worked' simply isn't a story.

Girl likes Boy. Girl casts shy glance at Boy in halls at school. Boy stops, asks Girl out. They date. The END.

Even The Little Engine That Could had more conflict and interest than that. Those first actions cannot succeed. If Boy walks past like Girl doesn't exist, she's going to have to do something else. You've got something started.

3rd Principle of Action: Action escalates. Both 12-steppers and business-seminar types agree, repeating unsuccessful actions is the very definition of insanity. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but it sure will kill your story dead.

Your characters want their goals, and they want them badly. Badly enough to do whatever it takes to reach them. In real life, we may take a few hesitant passes at shallow goals and quit. Those aren't the days you tell the grandkids about. 'Let me tell you about the time I joined a gym and went for three weeks' doesn't pack nearly the punch of 'Let me tell you about the time I avenged the death of the only person who was ever kind to me,' or even 'I remember when I was your age, I was crazy about this boy...'

As each action is frustrated, your character will make a harder, more difficult effort (as perceived by that character) to reach that goal. In comedy, those actions lead to farce. In action, to bigger and rougher fights. In drama, to difficult choices. And, of course, there's no reason a story can't be any combination of these, even all three.

But I digress. The point is, your character (heroes as well as villains) will keep plugging.

Boy ignores Girl's shy glances. She tells a friend, hoping to do that my-friend-likes-you thing. The friend likes him too and lies about Boy's rejection. Girl follows Boy, trying to figure out how to MAKE Boy like her. This creeps Boy out.

Will Girl get a makeover? Dive deep into Boy's favorite hobby so they have a common interest? Drink too much and make an ass of herself at a party? I don't know, not my story. But you can bet whatever she does, it'll top the last thing.

4th Principle of Action: In the immortal words of Less Than Jake, It Gets Worse Before It's All Over.

Your poor bastards are going to be stumped, stymied, blocked at every turn. Their best efforts sweep them farther and farther from their heartfelt desires. The poor, shy Girl gets teased for being creepy. Her lying-ass friend spreads cruel rumors. Boy thinks she's a stalker. Faced with rumors of stalking and possible Columbine-behavior, (how big of a bitch IS that friend, anyway?) school counselors get involved, and Girl is suspended.

How is she going to get Boy? I don't know, but you can bet she's going to have to dig deep, and do something she never would have though possible at the story's start.

It's going to be a time to tell the grandkids about...

Day 9: The Full-Throttle Daily Wordcount-O-Meter stands at 10,500 words.

On track and, actually, not working too hard. We'll see how I feel in Act II...

24 comments:

cs harris said...

10,000 words already! Yikes. Good post.

Charles Gramlich said...

Great point to always keep in mind. Nothing ever goes easy in a work of fiction. Murphy must have been a writer.

Lana Gramlich said...

Oooh, oooh! I know! She can get boy with that lovely hammock!

Steve Malley said...

CS, thanks. I'm pretty pleased with the word count myself. If I can keep the momentum, you will have won a convert to the fine art of outlining beforehand!

Charles, I think one of fictoin's great appeals is that maybe, just maybe, we take the worst Murphy can throw at us and win...

Lana, it'd certainly be happy ending in that hammock, eh?!

Glamourpuss said...

'Explication, complication, climax, resolution' as I always taught my students - a narrative is nothing without complication.

Puss

Shauna Roberts said...

Another excellent post. I'm impressed and humbled by your 10K+ words already.

Angie said...

LOL! At that point, I'd be strongly tempted to throw in a curve ball and have the reader at least notice this other boy who's been interested all along, 'cause Boy Number One probably isn't going to be able to get past that whole Columbine/stalker thing. [grin]

But yeah, one of the more common problems is protagonists who don't protag. Main characters who just passively react and have other people around them to make the decisions and take the actions can kill a story, but I've read (and written [cough]) far too many of them.

Another approach, though, is to start out with a passive protag (with whatever motivation) and show them learning to take control and take action. Great character development.

Angie

PS -- congrats on the 10K!

Steve Malley said...

Glamourpuss, I wanted to get into the whole 'protagonist's action make problem worse' thing, but I felt like I'd run on long enough already.

Shauna, thank you. It's 11.5 toady, and at least 12.5 tomorrow. Act I climax is a-coming. Yikes!

Angie, I'm personally kind of hoping Girl gets Boy and decides she doesn't want some guy willing to believe all those rumors anyway.

And I like the passive-turns-active thing too, but it's difficult to pull off. You have to frame it so carefully at the beginning...

Angie said...

Steve -- my thought is that in the high school age range, the characters just won't be that deep, and peer pressure (including thoughts of what's cool or what sucks, etc.) are going to have a lot of influence. And heck, chances are our Girl will be sighing over some other guy next week or next month anyway, so.... [wry smile] If the characters were adults, I'd be more likely to stick with the original guy. In high school, though, it'd take a lot of work on the author's part, showing what sort of person the guy was, that he's strong and independent and thoughtful and nice and mature and cetera, to get me to buy that he'd actually fall for this girl after having a number of negative (and very probably embarassing) encounters with her.

And I agree that it takes some skill and care to pull off a significant character transformation, but if it does work, it's a kick-ass story. :)

Angie

liz fenwick said...

Great post and great comments which having me thinking about work just finished.....must remember I am not touching it or any writing for three weeks......

Steve Malley said...

Angie, I like your approach better, actually: sort of a Postmodern Pretty in Pink. Except of course, if it was me, it'd be a little more 'Pretty in Punk'!

Liz, the month I took off between books was soothing. Now that I'm writing again (and the shakes have subsided and I'm sleeping nights), I can almost say that with a straight face.

Almost.

Today's mark: 12,500 words...

Riss said...

haha. you quoted Less Than Jake. I knew I liked you. And-I grew up 20 minutes from Columbine for a random fact since you mentioned that too.

As far as the post-it's a good approach, one my friend uses liberally. The tortured hero, villain etc. There are quite a few good stories that have less tortured victims but I think the main thing you're getting down to is the basic idea of Conflict. We have it in our day to day lives and it's not always a bad thing. I think that's the cool thing about writing...you can prevent your character from getting what they want, or what they think they want, or what they've been told they want and it doesn't always have to be the end of the world stuff, or even all that negative stuff. Ok, so bad things make good writing too of course but what happens when good intentions, good deeds, etc. get in the way of what the character is after? I dunno..I've been up since 4am so I might just be babbling but it's fun. There's also, as Angie was pointing out, the passivity into action idea...where the tension builds for the reader as much as for the character because of their lack of doing *anything* productive. That might be more of that "dreaded" lit fic love I have coming in to play though. (c: Keep writing. I'm going to be working towards the end of Chapter 6...though I'm sort of at a loss. First order of business though is sleeping.

ANNA-LYS said...

He he :-)

Great subject!

Word counting???

Steve Malley said...

Riss, Less Than Jake had me from 'Hell Looks a Lot like L.A.'...

Anna-lys, my novel will run about 80,000 words. Counting lets me know I'm that little bit closer!

Steve Malley said...

Riss, Less Than Jake had me from 'Hell Looks a Lot like L.A.'...

Anna-lys, my novel will run about 80,000 words. Counting lets me know I'm that little bit closer!

Sphinx Ink said...

I don't fully agree with your first principle, "Every single character in your story, no matter their goal, will start by doing the least action to get the job done, as perceived by that character." In the real world I've known a number of people who in fact do more than necessary to get the job done, either because they are insecure and afraid of failing, or because they are perfectionist and OCD.

Of course, with overachieving characters one's story would end up illustrating another of your statements: "'I tried something and it worked' simply isn't a story."

So, rethinking my first impression of your post, what you're saying is that to have a compelling STORY one must have characters who start by doing the least action to get the job done. Okay, now I get it. Yes, good job.

Oh, and congrats on the word count.

Angie said...

Sphinx -- I think you could make an interesting story about a character who does way more than necessary to achieve their goal if you show the consequences of all the "extra" stuff they do. Maybe some of it turns around and actually works against their goal, maybe some of it helps or hurts other people and their goals, maybe some of it does completely wierd things in places the protag never imagined, and might or might not ever realize, depending on how you structure the story. The whole point of the story could be the side-effects, rather than the straightforward protag-chases-goal line. That could be pretty cool, actually....

Angie, pondering

Lisa said...

Great post, as always! I'm also floating along with the thread that Sphinx and Angie are following and it made me think of the old expression "do something, even if it's wrong". I wonder if the impulsive character who is too antsy to figure out the right thing to do and therefore has to do something (even if it's wrong) is the opposite, but just as valuable as the character who is too lazy/scared to act. Hmmm.

Sidney said...

Good points again!

SQT said...

Excellent post. I agree with you that most people will take the path of least resistance. I think the people who do too much, like Sphinx mentioned, are the work-harder-not-smarter type who would do less if they could figure out how. I see it at the DMV all the time. Oh wait, those are the do-nothing-and-make-you-wait-forever types. Probably not good for fiction except for very small bits of frustration thrown at the main character.

Steve Malley said...

Sphinx, I think if you talk to those folks who seem to be doing what, to us, seems to be too much right off the bat, you'd find that *they* believe they're doing the necessary minimum. I'm guessing it'd be something like, 'yeah, I could just do a sloppy quick job, but then I'd have to go along after and do it again', etc.

Or I could be wrong. It has been known to happen...

Steve Malley said...

Angie, I see John Cleese playing that protagonist!

Lisa, I'm thinking your average private eye is a good example of 'do something, even if it's wrong', as is Bridget Jones. Her search for love leads her to 'alcoholic, workoholic, sexoholic, Lost Boy fuckwit' Daniel Cleaver, after all.

The other side, that reminds me of The Accidental Tourist, The Color Purple and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

Me, my motto is "Ready. FIRE! Aim." :-)

Sidney, thanks!

SQT, you gotta remember, those lazy assholes who inhabit DMV's in the US (here in NZ, civil servants are much more active and helpful) are pursuing a (*for them*) effective strategy: they get good pay, health benefits and the near-impossiblity of being fired, ultimate security in exchange for a culture with ZERO tolerance of ambition.

Contrast with computer startups, where there's no security whatsoever (indeed, the odds are your company will go broke, and no one cares!) but plenty of scope for a go-getting maverick to do what they want!

Bernita said...

Good (and funny) stuff.

Barbara Martin said...

Not to detract from your great post, but the photo of the hammock is perfect.