Plot

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Stalling Out

This post discusses a “technique” that I often catch in manuscripts. Here I’ll attempt to describe it and guess at what’s behind this phenomenon. Simply put, it’s stalling.

As savvy writers, you already know that you need to give your character an objective (something to shoot for over the course of the story) and a motivation (a personal and relatable reason for doing so). If you’ve done this, you are well on your way to having the two main tools of character and plot installed in your story already. Bravo!

But sometimes a strange thing happens. You have the proverbial “To Do” list, but all sorts of smaller errands end up worming their way in place of the main action, which should be pursuing that objective. First, they can’t get the Key until they go talk to Person X, and Person X isn’t home, so they have to rough up Person Y for details on Person X’s whereabouts, and when they finally get to Person X, they’re not talking…all for the Key, which turns out to be a very small part of the overall objective.

By giving your character objective and motivation in the first place, whether you know it or not, you’re promising to the reader, “Hey, you get to watch this protagonist do this stuff in the interest of pursuing his ultimate goal.” Every time we deviate from that, it better be for a good reason. In the above example about Keys and Person Xs, you should be able to see how a deviation can spin out of control into its own mini plotline. But if we zoom back out and look at the grand scheme of things, the Key ends up useless and we never see Person X again.

So is this a valuable component of your plot or is it stalling where you really should be working toward the main objective? The more tedious the digression, the more the reader feels further from the “To Do” list, and the more they may feel jerked around. In an, “I thought this was going to be a story about dragons but now I feel like I’m picking up the protagonist’s dry cleaning for 50 pages” sort of way.

Why does this happen? Writers sometimes have a hard time seeing the big picture of their story. Or they just love a scene or character (maybe even Person X) so much that they don’t want to do the cutting that honestly could be done.

Or the writer is terrified of the Muddy Middle phenomenon where the midsection of the story seems like it’s unraveling or rambling without direction. So they insert a lot of “stuff” into the middle in the hopes that this satisfies the reader. “What do you mean, I have a Muddy Middle?” they ask. “Look at all this STUFF that’s happening!”

But stuff isn’t the same as action which furthers the plot. That’s another way of saying action that brings the character either closer or further away from their objective, while impacting that “To Do” list along the way. This is the bull’s eye. And when we don’t see the bull’s eye any more, because we’ve taken a detour somewhere to pick up some dry cleaning, your stakes will likely dip and your pacing is going to be affected.

If you’re struggling with a plot that stalls out, set your protagonist out in the pursuit of the objective and don’t waver from this path for too long with things that don’t DIRECTLY impact the outcome.

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I Hate Nice

I know what you’re probably thinking, “But, Mary, I’m nice and you’re nice and nice is so…nice! Why do you hate it, especially now that you live in the state of ‘Minnesota nice’?” Don’t worry, I think you’re perfectly nice, and this isn’t a veiled complaint about moving to Minnesota. As for me being nice, sure, I have my moments. Thanks for falling for my Internet persona. :)

What I really hate, though, is when a manuscript has a lot of nice in it. The character is succeeding. Things are going their way. We end a chapter on a cozy moment when they curl into their reading nook and all is right with the world.

How nice. How abysmally nice for them.

The problem with “nice,” though, is that it doesn’t keep our attention. You know how people sometimes say, when they’re being dismissive of something, “Oh, that’s nice, dear”? Nice doesn’t really force us to sit up and take notice, and nice certainly doesn’t create tension within us, pulling us to the edge of our seats.

Sure, we don’t want a character to be dragged through the wringer. Nice things do have to happen on occasion. But last week I was preparing for a workshop that I gave on Saturday at the Loft, and I was going over a story theory that I cover extensively in my book, which I call the Emotional Plot.

emotional plot

The gist is a little hard to explain in one blog post (thought I try to do it here, in a 2009 blog post that contains the seeds of what I would extrapolate on in the 2012 book). Basically, what we’re looking at above is the standard three-act structure but instead of tracking how the plot rises and then falls, we are tracking how the character feels during each step of the process.

And if you’re seeing this graph, you’ll notice that the “Fall” is a HUGE part of it. And it ends in something called the “Rock Bottom.” That doesn’t exactly sound too nice, now does it. Basically, for the majority of your story, your job is to put your character through internally or externally uncomfortable or dangerous situations to get the most possible tension out of your work.

The “Fall” shouldn’t be a complete slide into misery. Like a good snow tubing hill (Am I from Minnesota now or what?!), it should have a few bumps to keep things exciting before plunging again. Allow your character small victories and moments of contentment, then yank the rug out from under them again.

If your plot seems thick, or your story is lacking momentum, or you feel like wandering away for a nap when reading your revision for the Xth time, think, “Am I being too nice? Are too many nice things happening to this character?” Take an especially close look at your chapter endings. Do they mostly end at the resolution of a scene or problem? If so, there’s too much “nice” and not enough tension to carry the reader across the vast expanse of the white at the end of the page and past the mountain of your next chapter heading.

Not everything can be life-or-death in your story, that’s not sustainable, and your reader will learn to ignore that level of tension like the body ignores a dull pain. But if you find that you’re running into a lot of “more tension, please!” comments, think of the nicest, coziest moments in your story, and really focus on a way to either cut them down or insert an especially shocking twist after then that turns “nice” on its ear.

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There’s a book that I recommend over and over called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. One of the central ideas is that you can never start building character sympathy too early. And you can’t do it by telling, either, or sharing what the character thinks about himself, or even what other characters think about him. Two of the biggest vehicles for showing (read my perennial post on “Show, don’t tell” here) are choices and actions.

To create a character who the reader will relate to, even if it’s an unreliable narrator, unlikeable protagonist, secondary character or villain, put them in the situation to choose or act as early and as often as possible. This opens up a whole world of potential for you. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they want one thing but choose a path away from getting it? Are they always consistent with thought, speech, and action? All of these things teach the reader about your characters.

Choice and action are very powerful because they show about character, but they also move the plot forward. While it’s possible to take a choice or action back, most will have ramifications. The best choices and actions will be clear dividing lines between a “before” and “after” in your story, whether it’s with a plot, a relationship, a feeling, your character’s self-knowledge, etc. The bigger the choice or action, the more significant it will seem to the reader.

For example, your character is a princess who threatens to run away all the time to escape her responsibilities. Rather than talking about it, or holding it over the heads of those around her (the more often a threat is made without follow-through, the less effect it has over time, per the Law of Diminishing Returns), get her to a place where she has to choose/act. What does it tell us about her if she runs away? What does it tell us about her if she stays?

A type of plot I’ve run into a lot recently has been the “hands tied” or “crash test dummy.” These are passive plots in which the character either can’t do anything because of their circumstances, or gets dragged through the plot by fellow characters or circumstances without contributing much. If your character is in jail, they obviously can’t really choose or act much. That’s a very difficult situation to render in an effective way. Their choices and actions will most likely deal with their inner life (choices reflecting who they are) and relationships (if there are any to be had in the dungeon). At a certain point, though, if your character can’t make any choices or take any action, you need to look at your premise as a whole and decide, honestly, if maybe it’s too limiting to create the sort of dynamic fiction today’s market demands. Sometimes writers back themselves into a corner with a story that’s self-limiting. A “crash test dummy” plot has the opportunity for choice, but the character doesn’t take a stand or act with agency, for whatever reason. It may run into some of the same problems as the “hands tied” type of story unless the character can begin to take the wheel.

Think about whether your character can be described as active or passive. How much do they move the story forward through their will and actions? What plot points has your character spearheaded? Can you call much of what they do or say binding or consequential? If not, you may be underestimating these very powerful tools in crafting character and plot.

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I’m working on a lot of freelance editing client manuscripts these days and loving it. (Maybe working a little too hard, hence the blog neglect!) Every time I make a note that I think will be a good post, or that can apply to more than just the moment in question, I flag it for potential follow-up on the blog. I’ve now stockpiled so many that I have material for weeks. All I need to do is figure out the most engaging way to illuminate all of these craft issues that I’m feeling so passionate about for a wider audience. (Easier said than done, ha!)

Today, I want to talk about “blah” words as they pertain to your objectives and motivations. This is a topic I’m super intense about. I’m writing my annual article for the Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Market about it, in fact. (Which reminds me, I should really get on that…) My theory is that it’s more difficult to engage with character if we, as readers, don’t know what they’re doing (in the small and large sense over the course of your story), or, very importantly, why. And if you’ve followed me for a while, you probably know what I mean by “blah” words. If you have no idea, check out this post. To summarize, they’re generic words that have shallow emotions attached to them because they can mean many different things to many different people.

I encountered a character recently who made plenty of statements about motivation. This is great. I was excited. Hearts popped out of my eyeballs, anime-style. But something was wrong. Instead of being specific about motivation/objective, the character resorted to “blah” words. What does this look like? Example time:

I’m seeking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He won’t stop until justice is served.
Her highest goal is peace.
If I could only get proof.

These are not from client work, or any work. They’re merely samples. Do you see a connecting thread, though? They all rely on “blah” words (truth, justice, peace, proof) that are connected with positive, wholesome emotions, but don’t really tell me much of anything about the character or the plot at hand.

A character will ideally have many small pieces of objective (what they want) and motivation (why) throughout a story. These elements exist from scene to scene and overall, for the entire arc. These “blah” words tend to work themselves into the larger objective/motivation that drives the character throughout the story.

You’ve long heard me say that generalization or the generic are the enemies in fiction. Specificity is where it’s at. Instead of having a character walk around talking about achieving justice or getting proof, break it down further so that it applies to the character where they are in the story and the plot as it’s progressing. For example:

If I could only get proof that Sadie stole the parade float, I’d feel so much more at peace. The Girl Scouts have been framed, I just know it. Nobody will listen to them, and that’s an injustice. And, worse, nobody seems to want to know the truth. Hmm, I wonder if the gas station across from the high school has any video footage from last night…

Here, we have tons of “blah” words (proof, peace, justice, truth), but they have taken on a concrete meaning in context. Not only do we get a sense that morality and “the right thing” are important to the character (this is likely applicable story-wide), but we get a sense of what’s going on now, what’s driving the character now, and what they plan to do in order to achieve their specific objective in this section of the story. The vague has become the specific, and now it applies directly to the events at hand. Establish and reinforce objectives/motivations through, on a scene-by-scene level, and for the larger arc of your manuscript. Don’t rely on some “blah” words and principles to stand in for specificity.

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This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

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This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

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Situation Queries

One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.) This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.” In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

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As a plot moves forward, your characters will gather events, relationships, and memories that will transition from the novel’s present to the novel’s past. Make them matter by making them dynamic. If an event or relationship doesn’t progress from what has already been established, you are not using it to its full potential. For example, you present your reader with a contentious relationship between your protagonist and her main competitor on the track team. They make snappy remarks at one another and always vent their aggression on the track. But if their relationship doesn’t progress from this dynamic (by either getting better or worse), this story element will plateau. It becomes something in your character’s past that drags them down.

By having events and relationships change and evolve and grow in importance over the course of the story, you give each story element a trajectory in the plot. Give things a sense of future direction so that they don’t stagnate. In the track rival example, above, I’d find a way to work this relationship into the plot so we know that this dynamic is going to matter in the future of the story. To use a cliché example, maybe I’d work in an upcoming competition to really put the pressure on their bond. This way, the girls aren’t just snarking at one another in limbo, the relationship is also in forward motion toward something more climactic than we’re seeing in the novel’s present.

Think of every important story element as a line that’s climbing toward your climax. Any plot developments or relationships that plateau (especially in the middle of the novel) are shortchanging the future of your story by staying in lockstep with the past. Why is this such a bad thing? The reader is already familiar with what you’ve established. Without a sense that these elements have a future and are going somewhere, a reader’s investment wanes. Remember, a rising line trending toward the climax, with all elements growing, changing, and weaving together.

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Before a reader will believe your plot and story, they need a good reason to buy in. Plots that have a guess or a misconception at the heart of them are very difficult to pull off because there is not a lot for your reader to hook into and believe in. Let’s say that you’re writing a book where a girl goes after a boy because she thinks he is the serial killer terrorizing the town. Thrillers are more popular on shelves today and this is a premise that’s bound to have some romantic tension. Great.

But the author in this example must do a lot of work at the beginning to make sure that her guess seems reasonable and logical to the reader. “I just knew it in my bones that he was the Shady Pines Strangler” isn’t going to convince your reader to go along for the ride. Telling isn’t going to do it. Something needs to happen in the action of the plot that makes your character–and, by extension, your reader–sure. A tangible event or something seen with one’s own eyes is as close as you can get to concrete facts in fiction. So your audience will need nothing short of that to be convinced that your protagonist is on the right track…and to want to follow her on the plot.

The same goes for misunderstandings and misconceptions. It is very difficult to suspend disbelief and follow a plot that hangs on a misunderstanding (that’s why characters in denial don’t work well). Especially if the reader knows that the character has made a mistake. Let’s just give a quick example here. A girl is in the cafeteria and a boy yells out that she looks like a fat dude in a monkey suit. She spends the rest of the story building a complex revenge scheme to humiliate him…and it turns out that, the entire time, he had been hollering over her head at a fellow basketball player. They laugh about it and, surprise surprise, fall madly in love and wear gorilla suits to their wedding, etc. etc. etc.

Despite the sarcastic ending to this pretend tale, I hope you can see why it wouldn’t be satisfying. The misunderstanding bit is way too weak to pin an entire plot on. This is extremely prevalent in romantic comedy style novels, so if you’re writing one, make sure you’re not relying on this trick too heavily. Weak plot also comes from character guesses that aren’t backed up by concrete evidence via action or something that happens in the physical realm of the story. In a fantasy novel about faeries, you can’t just talk about faeries for the duration of the book, telling over and over again about the magical atmosphere in the woods. If there are faeries, we better see some faeries. If the hot new guy in school is a serial killer, we better see brown traces of dried blood under his fingernails and smell a suspicious odor coming from the trunk of his car.

Otherwise, in both cases, your readers might see your character as jumping to conclusions…and you don’t want to make them feel like they’re going on a wild goose chase. With everything you write, you should make their investment in the plot more, not less.

 

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I’ve had some pushback from writers in critique when I say that something their character is doing doesn’t count as action. “Of course it is!” they say. “My protagonist is DOING STUFF. Look, they are chopping vegetables for a stew!”

It finally struck me that I should probably define action (as I use it) to keep this misunderstanding from happening. Action is NOT busywork (chopping veg, shopping, driving, hanging out). In the world of theatre, this stuff is called “business,” or things that actors do in a scene so that they’re not just sitting around and talking. It’s stuff. But it has no larger meaning, or it might probably happen again in yet another scene where the character needs something to do. If that character didn’t chop those vegetables, the plot wouldn’t fall apart. So, therefore, while the thing is active, it’s not action.

Action means something that has story consequences. Action means that the protagonist either comes into contact with another character or encounters an obstacle or makes an effort to reach a goal or does something in the world of the story that is significant and moves the story forward. Unless they are cutting vegetables for the stew that they will use to poison the king–and this action is the result of a big decision to finally commit treason–then it’s business, not action.

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