Essential Action: The Key to Compelling Characterization

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When we say that in order for your scene to work, you must have a Story Event, you probably wouldn’t be surprised, and it doesn’t sound too difficult. So long as something is happening, you have a Story Event, right? Not necessarily.

A Story Event is specific, not just something that happens. It’s “an active change in life value for one or more of the characters as a result of conflict.” What’s more, the life value change and conflict within the scene must be specific too.

Even if you nail your Global Genre and have included all the appropriate Obligatory Scenes and Conventions, your story could still flounder if you don’t pay attention to these scene elements. One of our fellow Story Grid editors will tackle life value changes in a Fundamental Fridays post coming soon (in the meantime, check out this post on Tracking the Scene).

Leslie and Anne’s Story Grid Investigation Team has been on the case, and today we’ll show you what you need to know to evaluate the conflict in your scenes and ensure they support a Story Event that works within the scene and the Global Story.

It all starts with knowing what the point of view character wants, also known as the Essential Action.

After each scene in Pride and Prejudice: The Story Grid Edition, Shawn Coyne poses four specific questions to help writers determine whether a Story Event occurs within the scene.

The first two are “What is literally happening in the scene?” and “What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene?”

Literal action is pretty straightforward. You simply say what you observe. The characters might be having a conversation over lunch, practicing Wudan sword stances, or hiding from velociraptors.

But what is the Essential Action? (The term doesn’t even appear in the Story Grid book.) It is the point of view character’s goal in the scene, or what they want. The Inciting Incident within a scene upsets the status quo, causing a desire to arise within one or more characters. From that desire comes a goal, and that goal is the character’s Essential Action, which should be connected to the character’s goal for the entire story.

So, if the Literal Action is what’s happening on the surface, then the Essential Action is what’s happening below the surface, or the subtext within the scene. The Essential Action in the scene should be condensed down to a short, wide-open phrase, or a highly specific single verb that also relates to the Global Objects of Desire. Let’s look at an example.

A Masterwork: The Fugitive

Watch this forty-second clip from the 1993 film The Fugitive. Harrison Ford plays Richard Kimble, the fugitive. Tommy Lee Jones is Sam Gerard, the federal marshall pursuing him.

Video Thumbnail

Analyzing the Scene

  1. What is Richard Kimble literally doing? He’s holding a gun on a federal marshall.
  2. What is Gerard literally doing? He has lost his gun to the fugitive.
  3. What is Kimble’s Essential Action? He is imploring the marshall, begging him for the chance to prove his innocence.
  4. What is Gerard’s Essential Action? He is disregarding what the fugitive says to him. He might even be mocking him.


Gerard’s Essential Action

If you watch the whole movie (which we enthusiastically recommend), you’ll see Gerard expressing the same type of Essential Action tactics towards Richard Kimble in scene after scene: Outwit. Capture. Stop.

Throughout the Middle Build, Gerard’s Object of Desire, his Want, is to bring the fugitive in. He tries several different tactics, and every time Kimble thwarts him, he is forced to question his Want a little more, until—snap!—at his All Is Lost Moment, he understands that Kimble really is innocent. Then his Object of Desire shifts from his Want to his Need.

His Need—which has always been operating, is to see justice done. But his definition of justice for three-quarters of the movie has been to bring the escaped murderer in.

His definition has changed to saving an innocent man, at a pivotal turning point in his story, and the scene by scene Essential Action will change with it. Because he still needs his position as the guy who brings in fugitives, and he can’t afford to lose his job or his reputation, he doesn’t suddenly switch. He finesses it.

Gerard’s Essential Action becomes something like cover, conceal, play both sides of the street until real justice—Kimble’s exoneration—is apparent to everyone, and Gerard’s role as a righteous man of justice is safe.

 

The nature of the Essential Actions in your scenes

should not shift at a random time or in a haphazard way.

 

Kimble’s Essential Action

Kimble’s arc is a bit more complex than Gerard’s, but up until the confrontation in the tunnel from the clip, he’s simply hoping that the truth will prevail and justice will be done.

His understanding shifts when he tells Gerard of his innocence, and the federal marshall says, “I don’t care!” Kimble realizes that the only way to save himself and obtain justice is to evade this relentless hunter long enough to uncover the truth using his best skills. This is where he accepts the Hero’s Call to Action.

His Essential Action after that is to get someone to see a bigger picture, to outrun, outwit and investigate, until his true Need—to help, to heal, to throw someone a lifeline—comes to the fore at the hospital, and he jeopardizes his escape by saving a child’s life.

The casual reader or moviegoer probably can’t say what the character’s Essential Action is in a particular scene. But when you feel like you’re witnessing great acting on the screen or great characterization on the page, look closer and you’ll be able to detect it: the actor, or the author, knows why the character is doing what they’re doing.

It All Started with Actors

If you Google “essential action,” you’ll notice that the results come from places like acting schools, theatre courses, and blogs about the actor’s craft. The concept comes from a method of acting training called Practical Aesthetics, developed by David Mamet and William H. Macy. Practical Aesthetics teaches actors to break a scene down in steps that include the Literal Action and the Essential Action, much like you will do to find the Story Event in your scenes. But you don’t have to invent them. The actors have already done that.

Essential Action Phrases

Followers of the Practical Aesthetics acting method have come up with lists of Essential Actions, and Leslie has compiled them in one handy Essential Action Cheat Sheet. Here are eleven of them that we use a lot. (They’re also embedded in Anne’s Giant Novel Spreadsheet Template.)

  1. to get someone on my team
  2. to lay down the law
  3. to draw the dividing line
  4. to get someone to take a big risk
  5. to get my due or retrieve what is rightfully mine
  6. to get someone to see the big picture
  7. to enlighten someone to a higher understanding
  8. to tell a simple story
  9. to get to the bottom of something
  10. to close the deal
  11. to get someone to throw me a lifeline

Essential Action Verbs

In a book called Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus by Maria Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams, you’ll find 150 pages of one-word Essential Actions, which an actor might use in deciding how to play a line of dialogue. They’re all  transitive verbs, that is, verbs that make sense when placed between “I” and “you” to form a complete sentence: I charm you, I defeat you, I encourage you, I stun you. Any writer should consider getting hold of a copy. It’s a treasure.

It will be subtextual, not stated, but if you leaf through Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus or pore over our list of Essential Actions, you’ll probably find the right words to describe it. It’s a great way to begin really making this valuable tool your own. (Essential action verbs and phrases are in bold italics throughout the text.)

You may be thinking, “But I’m not an actor! I’m a writer.”

These phrases and verbs that are so useful to actors are equally valuable for writers trying to strengthen character action and tell a better story. So though you may not be an actor,  thinking of your characters as actors and yourself as their writer-director-creator-god can make your scenes, and therefore your story, stronger. When you make deliberate choices consistent with the Global Objects of Desire and tell your characters precisely what to say and do their behavior will make artistic sense.

If you’re the kind of writer who ordinarily lets your characters tell you who they are and how they want to behave, this might sound like blasphemy. But stick with us. We have more to show you.

Cognitive Dissonance

Let’s say you’ve worked through your scenes, and they all abide by the Five Commandments of Storytelling, but some of them still fall flat. Maybe your characters aren’t convincing or readers don’t connect with them. You might receive feedback like, “I don’t believe she’d do that here,” or “Why did he make that choice?” or “This character feels two-dimensional.”

Your reader is sensing that you’ve failed to make consistent, conscious choices about your characters’ actions. When what character does, doesn’t jibe with what they seem to want and need, the reader goes, “Huh? Wait. That doesn’t make sense.”

The reader is experiencing cognitive dissonance. Leslie is going to show you what this is like.

Several years ago, I went to the Flagstaff Nature Center in Boulder, where taxidermic examples of local wildlife were on display. One was a mountain lion, and I noticed right away that it was a little off. Its head, its fur, and its markings all appeared to be normal, but something wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it bothered me. It created cognitive dissonance.

In trying to get to the bottom of it, I mentioned my confusion to a staff member, who explained that the underlying armature for the specimen was meant for an African lion rather than a mountain lion. It turned out that while the external features (the Literal Action, if you will) were right, the underlying structure (the Essential Action or subtext) was all wrong, and I sensed it.

 

Readers Sense Cognitive Dissonance Too

You want readers to experience some cognitive dissonance. In reading your story, they’re on their own Worldview Revelation journey, and feeling a little bit confused will motivate them to keep reading and find out the answer. (This is the form of narrative drive called Mystery.)  

The cognitive dissonance you need to worry about is when a character’s Literal Action isn’t backed by a clear Essential Action arising from their Object of Desire. This is the kind of cognitive dissonance that makes your reader feel that something is fundamentally and pervasively not right—like the mountain lion skin on the ocelot armature. It pulls the reader out of the experience of the story. If they can’t explain the problem away, or if they don’t believe a solution is forthcoming, they become bored or discouraged. They put the book down. If they do finish it, they leave a negative review and tell their friends not to read it.

Cognitive Dissonance arises when we mistake real life for stories and people for characters. Unlike real humans, who are chaotic, who undermine their own goals and act randomly, characters in a story must behave consistently. Stories extract meaning from the randomness, and Story events can appear lifelike on the surface, but underneath, an engine of Essential Action must propel both protagonist and antagonist through conflict toward their Objects of Desire.

A colorful geometric background, mostly red, with the words "Stories Aren't Real Life. Characters aren't real people.

This means that as writers we have to make choices. We have to use our imaginations. We can’t just regurgitate life. That’s not story. Writers must impose structure and create patterns. We build Story Events out of two or more characters in conflict moving towards their objects of desire scene by scene according to their Essential Actions, until they reach an ultimate showdown, where something must change.

Now that is story.

Author and writing instructor James Hynes explains that “the most important difference between fictional characters and real people is that the author can … let us know exactly what a fictional character is thinking or feeling. We can know fictional characters in the way we know ourselves. In fiction, we have direct access to the consciousness of other human beings in a way we cannot in real life.

“The intimacy we share with fictional characters is only the illusion of intimacy, but it’s such a powerful illusion that, at its best and most sublime, the book in our hands disappears, the world around us disappears, and we become fully engaged in the fictional world–at one with the character.”

How do we create this intimacy? Through Essential Action.

Essential Action in Action: Two Examples

Some real examples will help put this important tool right into your hand. We’ll look at two pieces of client work (with permission), to see how nailing the Essential Action can snap a scene or even a whole story into crystal-clear focus.

Anne’s Client

A screenplay became more deeply moving and satisfying when my client and I looked at the Essential Actions of a secondary character. Duane is an elderly man who plays the Mentor to the troubled teenage protagonist. He’s in his early eighties and, as we find out, has recently lost his wife of more than fifty years. He lives alone in a cabin by a lake. He has a boat and a workshop, and each time we meet him, he’s taking some Literal Action: buying nails at the hardware store, maintaining his fishing gear, repairing an old toaster, tinkering with a light fixture.

Because Duane’s role is to speak gruff wisdom to the protagonist, his specific activities didn’t seem to matter much. In the real world, this sort of person might well tinker with little repair jobs in his workshop. Still, he felt to me like just a cardboard-cutout old dude.

I questioned the Essential Action behind Duane’s Literal Actions. Why is he maintaining fishing gear? The author couldn’t say? Fishing doesn’t enter into the story in any way.

We discussed giving him something less stereotyped to do. Instead of various random “realistic” actions, how about a single project that we see him make progress on? Something connected with his late wife perhaps.

That felt right to both of us. In the new version, we see Duane performing the incremental tasks (Literal Actions) of landscape painting–buying turpentine, cleaning brushes, watching a Bob Ross video, stretching a canvas, starting to paint.

It’s all in devotion to his wife, who loved a particular view, saturated with a particular color that was already playing an important symbolic role in the story.

With this simple change, Duane’s Literal Actions have an Essential Action. It’s all directed towards his late wife. He venerates her, he honors her memory, perhaps he heals his own grief–right up until the big turning point when his Essential Action becomes to support and encourage the protagonist.  And because we know him through the specificity of his actions now, the ending payoff, formerly just touching, becomes deeply moving and richly satisfying.

Leslie’s Client

My client completely rewrote a scene after receiving Essential Action feedback. In the first version, we see that Ted, a special investigator has been ordered to appear before a board of review. As he makes his way to the room where the board meets, he muses about why they’ve summoned him because he wants to get to the bottom of something (his Essential Action).

Though he rules out a couple of possibilities, he arrives without reaching a conclusion. The author used the words from starting point to destination to reveal lots of cool details about the world and Ted. The scene contained an Inciting Incident and Progressive Complications, but they were unrelated to Ted’s scene goal.

I suggested that my client clarify the scene’s overall purpose and Ted’s real goal in the scene, and then make sure the Five Commandments were in line with Ted’s Essential Action of getting to the bottom of something.

The revised scene begins with Ted’s arrival at his destination, wanting to know why he’s been summoned. He tries several tactics to get to the bottom of it. He queries the board members. He entreats them. But of course these antagonist-board members have their own Essential Action, which is to get Ted to take a big risk.

The conflict between Ted’s Essential Action and that of the governing body leads to a page-turning crisis as they hustle, impel, and push Ted into a decision he doesn’t want to make.

Essential Writing Tools

Many writers believe that their story is what they recorded when they wrote the initial draft. It feels sacred, and messing with it too much will break the magic spell. The story has told them what it wants to be, and even if it doesn’t work for readers, they’re afraid or don’t know how to alter it in a significant way for the better.

You don’t have to be that writer. You can follow a simple process to identify what your character wants and make them act accordingly.  You can be the boss, the writer-director-creator-god, who avoids a series of events that meanders and feels “off” in a way that readers won’t be able to enjoy.

Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What is literally happening in the scene?
  2. What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene?

If you commit to making conscious choices about your characters’ Essential Action in every scene, you’ll write the story that is truly in your mind and heart to tell.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (22)
Author Leslie Watts

22 Comments

Rachelle Ramirez says:

This is a great new exploration in the Story Grid world. Shawn has been talking about this in bits and pieces for awhile and I’m glad you two took the clay and created the form. This will be very helpful to writers everywhere. It’s an important tool to employ when someone in your critique group says, like in Leslie’s taxidermy example, “Something’s not quite write with your story here.” I’ve been using this idea, since Anne introduced it to me, in every scene I review. Great stuff. Thanks to both of you for sharing, for doing the work.

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Peter Adamson says:

I found this a very interesting and excellent post. Is it possible to get a copy of Annie’s Giant Novel Spreadsheet Template?

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Peter Adamson says:

Many thanks, Anne. I want to utilise it by adding a few things that I believe would work really well with the format you have designed. Like you, I like to capture as much detail as I can before I start writing. I get irritated if I have to go searching for something I know I should have took more time to better organise.

ATVB.

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Mark McGinn says:

I feel like you guys have created new material and agree with Rachelle’s comment. There are elements of the Story Grid I can repeat backwards, but having an article like this, that complements the SG so well, is exceptionally good. It’s given me quite a lot to think about (as if I didn’t already have enough!!!) Thank you.

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Anne Hawley says:

Thanks, Mark. I’m glad it’s providing food for (more!) thought. We wrestled with the concept for a long time, and it’s emerging as a bit of a new entry-point into story structure. I hope that if one portal doesn’t open easily for someone, they can try another one.

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Peter Adamson says:

Yes, Anne, I have to agree: it does appear to have emerged as a new entry point into story structure. I have tens of ‘How-To’ books, but I have never come across this concept before. It both complements story structure and Story Grid as a whole and my compliments to you and Leslie for sharing this with us. Truly valuable.

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Leslie Watts says:

I’m so glad this has struck a chord with you, Peter. Essential Action is a powerful tool, and I think we’ll find more treasures as we continue to experiment with it.

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Leslie Watts says:

Thanks, Mark! It’s so fun to follow threads from within the Story Grid Universe and see where they take us. Essential Action in particular has been a major revelatory turning point for me. I’m glad this is useful for you too!

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Alexandra Amor says:

Thank you so much for this, Anne and Leslie! Such a meaty article. Another invaluable resource from the Story Grid team. 🙂

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Georgina Green says:

This was a great expansion and illustration of Mamet, Mckee and Shawn’s discussions of essential action, nice one!

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Maya Rushing Walker says:

This is fantastic! I am taking notes–what a great addition to all of the Story Grid material!

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Susan Mowers says:

Well – I am one of those that does let my characters tell me what they want to do much of the time, but now I see that it’s because I understand their Essential Action that I can let them do that! The more I write about them the more I really get “why” they are doing things, so for me, Essential Action is quite natural – I just didn’t realize it! It definitely helps me to not be so run over by my muse.

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Leslie Watts says:

Thanks for mentioning this, Susan. There are so many different skills involved in writing a story that works, and some will come more naturally to us than others. What I love about the Story Grid (and the collection of tools that come with it) is that we can develop the skills that don’t come naturally to us and augment the skills that do—with awareness and intention. It’s so empowering.

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Anne Hawley says:

I know just what you mean, Susan. When Leslie and I began digging into Essential Action I had a moment of panic thinking I’d better pull my about-to-be-published novel and check every scene. Then I realized that yep, all my main and secondary characters’ EAs were pretty solid–that I’d done that mostly intuitively because I knew what they all wanted.

As a tool for revising and sharpening, though, it’s proving invaluable as I tackle my new novel.

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Curtis says:

Leslie. Anne,

“Leslie and Anne’s Story Grid Investigation Team has been on the case…” I do believe you have. Your “Discover Your Story’s Core post was excellent. This one is exceptional. I believe Robert McKee would applaud what your readers have been given access to here.

Your team has an economy of style, a capacity for clarity and a grasp of supported subject matter that would make any PhD envious. ( Forgive me. But, I would really like to hear what the “Team” has to say about the “life value change.”)

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Anne Hawley says:

Thank you, Curtis. High praise indeed!

What would you like to know about Life Value change? Glancing through our internal blog post scheduling calendar, I see that Valerie Francis has a post coming in June on value shift and POV.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot on this site about it. You could start here: http://www.storygrid.com/the-scene/

But here’s a great trick our fellow Story Grid Editor Shelley Sperry taught us. It was a revelation to most of us. Put this into Google:

Site:.storygrid.com

then enter search terms (like “value shift” or “life value” or “story value”) and see what you find. The first page of results will be exclusively from this site, and it’s a goldmine.

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Curtis says:

Anne. Thank you! I will do my “homework” by way of the material you so graciously took your time to provide here. Have a great weekend.

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