Join Jessica Brody for an in-depth discussion in this video Action (foundation), part of The Foundations of Fiction.
(gentle music) - So Jess, I know one of your favorite books of all time is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. - Oh, I love that book. - What is one of your favorite moments in the book? - It's definitely at the end when Aibileen finally stands up to that horrible woman Ms. Hilly Holbrook. - Oh, that's such a well earned moment, because Aibileen's been sat on the sidelines all the way, and letting Hilly say these awful things about her and finally she stands up to her.
- Finally. And so what about you, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, one of your favorites? - Yeah, definitely one of my favorites. - So what's the most memorable moment for you? - I would say it's when the poor street girl, Eponine threatens to scream when her father and his gang of rogues try to break into Cosette and Jean Valjean's house. - Oh, that's such a great scene. And it's a really great part in the musical too. I feel like everyone just wants to stand up and go, go Eponine! - Go Eponine! (laughs) Definitely. Do you notice that with both the books we were talking about and those moments are the moments when the characters stand up and do something really memorable.
- Yeah, they act in a certain way, like they're either silly, or brave, or gutsy, or just plain awesome. - Right, and that is another key to writing compelling characters, make your characters act. Have them do stuff, exciting or brave, or funny, or generous, or even mean stuff. - Compelling characters can't be boring. They have to do unexpected things. They have to act in certain ways that are interesting, and inspiring and surprising. - And nothing reveals more about a character than how they act in certain situations.
Take Elizabeth Bennet the main character in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. - [Jess] Another one of your favorite books, right? - [Blonde woman] Yup, so do you remember the scene where Lizzy stands up to the snobbish and condescending Lady Catherine de Bourgh? - [Jess] Yes, I love that scene. - [Blonde woman] Here's Lizzy in that scene telling Lady Catherine basically to get out of her business and to stop telling her who she can and can't marry. "'I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, "in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, "without reference to you, or to any person "so wholly unconnected with me.'" - Go Lizzy! You immediately know from this scene that she's brave and forthright.
She doesn't just say, "Okay you're older "and of a higher social class than me, "So I will just listen to what you say." This is what most girls her age would have said in her situation. But she doesn't do this. - Right, she basically tells the lady it's not her business and she will make no such promise. - A character's personality comes through in the way they respond to certain situations. Like the way a character might react to, let's say, someone stealing their towel at the pool. Or how they cope when a stranger suddenly starts yelling at them in the middle of a crowded coffee shop.
- Different characters will react differently to these situations which tells the reader a lot about that character. - Another important thing to remember when you're writing characters who are acting in interesting and awesome ways is to show don't tell. - Show don't tell. You might have heard of this expression before, show don't tell. Lots of writing teachers use it. We are going to talk about it more in a later lecture. But it basically means what it says. In your writing make sure not to tell too much.
But instead really show the action. - Right, telling is basically summarizing. Like saying, "She fell in love the minute she saw him." Whereas showing would be something like, "As soon as Jane laid eyes on Thomas, "her heart started to thud in her chest. "There was something about him, his intense golden eyes, "his half crooked smile. "It made it difficult for her to form coherent thoughts." [Blonde Woman] - Right, or in the case of an action scene, showing would be writing something like, "She then took down ten storm fighters." Whereas showing would illustrating exactly how the space warrior accomplished this.
What her weapon looked like, how she felt, whether she was sweating and getting beaten and bloodied in the process. - Like, imagine if in Les Miserables Victor Hugo had just written, "And then Eponine screamed to stop the robbery." He doesn't do that. Instead Victor Hugo writes this, "'So you're determined to break in?' "'That's right,' said Montparnasse and chuckled. "'Well, I won't let you,' said Eponine. "She stood with her back to the gate, "facing the six men, all armed to the teeth "and looking like demons in the dark.
"She went on in a low, resolute voice: "'Listen to me, I mean this. "If you try and get into the garden, "if you so much as touch this gate, "I'll scream the place down. "I'll rouse the whole neighborhood "and have the lot of you pinched.' "'She will too,' muttered Thenardier." Eponine is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. And this is such a good snippet for showing her in action. We're shown her defiant words. And the narrator really shows us the whole scene. The men crowding around her like demons. - [Blonde Woman] The back against the gate, showing how they really could hurt her.
- [Jess] But she sticks to her guns and manages to ward them off. And this small part of the scene is so much more evocative than the narrator saying, "And then Eponine screamed to stop the robbery." - One more great example of this kind of showing is Raymond Carver's short story Neighbors. In this scene the protagonist Bill Miller is not doing anything super dramatic. He's not standing up to anyone like Lizzy. Or saving people like Eponine. In fact he's a thief intruding on a neighbor's house. Notice how the author really shows the action.
"When he returned to the kitchen "the cat was scratching in her box. "She looked at him steadily for a minute "before she turned back to the litter. "He opened all the cupboards and examined the canned goods, "the cereals, the packaged foods, the cocktail "and wine glasses, the china, the pots and pans. "He opened the refrigerator. "He sniffed some celery, took two bites of cheddar cheese, "and chewed on an apple as he walked into the bedroom. "The bed seemed enormous, with a fluffy "white bedspread draped to the floor.
"He pulled out a nightstand drawer, found a half-empty "package of cigarettes and stuffed them into his pocket. "Then he stepped to the closet and was opening it "when the knock sounded at the front door." - [Jess] Wow, what a great passage. I love how the tension builds with Bill starting off in the kitchen and then getting more and more intrusive. Going into the bedroom, opening drawers and stealing the cigarettes. - [Blonde Woman] Right, and the author really shows him in action, biting the cheddar, sniffing the celery, examining the canned goods. - As we read we can really see the scene in our heads.
It's so much better than if Raymond Carver had just said, "Bill intruded on his neighbor's house." - It's not a big dramatic robbery. But the scene does a great job of showing a guy snooping and stealing. We're really in the scene with the character. Watching his actions, feeling how stealth he is. (upbeat music) - Okay so enough about all this talk about characters doing something, let's do something ourself. Let's get busy writing.
- The writing prompt for this lecture is called the screaming stranger and your first task is to choose a character from the list on this screen. - [Jess] Now imagine the character you picked is in a busy coffee shop or on a busy crowded bus. All of a sudden a stranger starts screaming in their face. The stranger is really unhappy and angry. You can decide about what, and your character has to react. - [Blonde Woman] Do they shout back, do they scuttle away? Do they try to reason with the person? Do they put the person in a head lock? It's up to you.
- [Jess] Set your timer for 10 minutes and write the scene. - Don't worry about it being the best piece of writing you've ever done, just get something on the page. - Have fun writing about your character responding to the screaming stranger. - And we will see you in the next lecture.
- Creating memorable characters
- Writing dialogue
- Selecting a point of view
- Using an unreliable narrator
- Narrative style
- Building a setting
- Mood, atmosphere, and emotion
- Crafting a plot, from the setup to the resolution