Small Action, Big Drama

DoLs and tape measure

A Matter of Scale:

In my younger and more chauvinistic years, I used to think that “Drama” referred to the slow and laborious true-to-life stories that the women folk in my life loved to watch on TV while knitting jerseys. This is a particularly embarrassing admission for a Greek man to make, since the word derives from the Greek, meaning “to do” or “to act”. Luckily I have moved on since these days, though I still have the jerseys, and yes, they still fit.

As a writer of screenplays and novels, I have to focus constantly on the meaning of this word. In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA, writes: “(1) any action is better than no action, and (2) appropriate imaginative, integrated action, action complementing a scene’s other elements and overall purpose, is best of all.”

Action need not only be of the sort that involves Godzilla leveling cities, or King Kong swatting planes and helicopters from the top of a tall building. Action can arise in even the most ordinary or non-threatening of scenes. Richard Walter talks about one specific example, both funny and painful, that clearly illustrates this point.

In the Czechoslovakian film, Loves of a Blonde, two groups of labourers, one male and the other female, working on a project in a remote area of the Carpathian foothills end up dining in a dinning hall. Both the men and women are equally nervous about meeting each other. The scene isolates one man in particular who fidgets absentmindedly with his wedding ring. Suddenly, the ring slips from his finger and clutters loudly to the floor and begins rolling away.

Is the fidgeting subconsciously intended to conceal his marital status from the women? We suspect so. The man drops to his hands and knees and scrambles after the ring, past row after row of knees. So engrossed is he in his pursuit of the tale-tale object that he fails to notice that the knees he is shuffling past are no longer those of men but those of women! By the time he finally captures the elusive object and pops up from under the table like a jack-in-a-box, triumphantly holding the ring up in his hand, he finds himself amongst the very group of women he was he was trying to avoid seeing the ring!

The action itself is small in scale, but its emotional impact is huge, making for a scene that is fresh and inventive. It satisfies Professor Walter’s second observation of integrated action, quoted above, and exploits that age old maxim of “show don’t tell”. This is writing at its simplest and best.

Summary

Drama is action. Static scenes make for boring stories. While there is nothing wrong with largeness of scale, it should not be at the expense of smaller, well-observed actions.

Invitation

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