Sunday, March 6, 2011

Action Scenes

It's Spring Break! Yay! Time to do things like clean house or just watch a movie...
By chance, I happened to re-watch the movie "The Firm" (yes, an early 90's flashback). Besides falling in love with Tom Cruise again, I thought a lot about how the action seemed tailor-made for the characters to be either reactive or proactive to their circumstances and, interestingly, how one form followed the other. First, the character has something happen to him/her. It isn't planned by the character, but rather the character is either being manipulated by others or falls into some sort of "being in the wrong place at the wrong time" experience. Then, in a relatively short span of time that cuts across all the ordinary, the tide changes. Most characters who seemed to merely come along for the ride will grapple for control of the circumstances forced upon them to become proactive characters.
In many ways, as I watched "The Firm," I thought, these characters who change are exactly the sort I want to write. Sure, it's not a perfect movie -- is anything perfect outside of the writer's imagination? -- but it's a great example of how an action movie compacts time and is very selective with "screen time" for the characters to get the action to play out with the most effect. So, looking for what works, let's dissect it a bit...
I love it when a plan comes together! - Hannibal from "The A Team

In "The Firm," Tom Cruise's character Mitch puts an incredible plan together to outsmart both the corrupt law firm and the government agents that are pulling his strings like a puppet. In doing so, the character becomes larger than life, transforming from a flawed, ordinary man with only two option written in stone -- to be a pawn to the corrupt Firm or a pawn to the government -- to being the hero who regains his personal honor with decisions of his own making.

This journey for the hero is very appealing. Like Cruise's character, Mitch, I tend to write heroes who don't really believe in accidents. Sure, things happen outside of their control, but eventually they turn the tables. It's just in his DNA or something. The heroine is like this to a lesser degree, but takes a bit longer. However, when a character grows, he or she can and likely should experience both types of action; the reactive and proactive types.

This kind of build-up to action takes planning. The back story of a character makes it understandable why a character would remain, for a while, in a reactive stage. Mitch had believable (to me anyway) motivations with a past of poverty and a brother in prison that, in turn, made the good life of the Firm his dream come true. He logically put the blinders on to the signs of the Firm's corruption and, for a time, gave in to the temptation to ignore his conscience. His mentor, Avery (Gene Hackman), the slick partner who recruited him, is also not a two-dimensional villain, but an older version of what Mitch could become. With this back story, we see Mitch's internal struggle to decide what's morally important to him and believe why it's not an easy decision. And, wondering when Mitch will take control and what will push him too far is part of the suspense.

It seems each character has a certain amount of time where they can only react. How long? For each character it can be different and requires different amounts of set-up for the scene to work.
For instance, shortly after we are introduced to Holly Hunter's character, the quirky secretary, she witnesses her boss getting gunned down by the bad guys as she hides under the desk. This is a frightening, but reactive scene for the character and might have been the last we'd seen of her. But she becomes very important and takes future proactive risks. Later, when one of the things she does is take undercover pictures of the very same bad guy she'd witnessed kill her boss, I immediately thought, wow, that took guts.
This reactive type of action scene as the first introduction to a character, including secondary characters, comes with certain the advantages. Judgments can be minimized in a fast pace and the believability in this type of action's circumstance is perhaps not as strong a requirement. There is a possibility, or a window of opportunity, here for less back story necessary to understand the action scene unfolding. These characters momentarily have a clean slate and they didn't go looking for the trouble the writer threw at them. Hopefully, the reader will feel they deserve our sympathy, and later, the reactive information imparted can be important back story for when the character becomes proactive.
Likewise, in the role of Mitch's wife, Abby, we see her reacting but not being proactive in scenes early on, such as when Mitch tells her their home is bugged. Truthfully, there isn't much of a connection with her character until she becomes proactive, at the risk of her personal safety, by being a crucial diversion in Mitch's plan. However, and this seemed a big point for me, the wife's earlier reactive character allowed me to give enough distance their marriage to, if not forgive, than at least accept Mitch's act of infidelity.
Eventually, both the hero and heroine both become the initiators of the action. How they get to that point, is what makes the action in the resolution unfold like a roller coaster. It's that moment when success or failure isn't guaranteed, but their decisions have been made, mistakes atoned for, and we believe the characters deserve to be rewarded.

When it comes to the action, I love the pace both types, whether circumstances seem to drop the character in a situation outside their control or where the characters knowingly risk their personal safety with a well thought out goal. And while there are differences between writing action for a novel or writing a screen play, action movies remind me visually about how much reality is exchanged for pace. Action is the fun part of movies --fast paced, spontaneous, unpredictable. Characters doing larger-than-life heroics. Hopefully, with just the right choices of screen time worthy scenes, writing the action can be just as fun.

Do you enjoy writing action scenes? Do your characters have a mix of reacting and being proactive to the action?

4 comments:

  1. Wow, what an awesome post! I don't think I'd really thought in terms of reactive and proactive before, but it makes so much sense. And I love characters making the choice to be proactive, after having things forced upon them that they hadn't planned or anticipated.

    You've given me a lot to think about now. You've inspired me to tackle some action scenes too!

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  2. Thanks, Donna. :) These days I've been neglecting the blog, but maybe I shoud just stick with one post a month or so that just comes at me when I'm not paying attention. LOL

    You know, I was tempted to use "passive" instead of "reactive" a couple of times, but it occurred to me that there is a difference. Even if the character doesn't do anything but hide or run, they aren't being passive. It's still an action scene. I love how those choices can build and the character doesn't have to be larger than life while they react -- only human. :)

    I'm thrilled you're inspired to write some action!

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  3. Donna said it already, but I'll say it again. Awesome blog! What a great analysis of reactive and proactive, something I've never considered either. I don't really write action type stories, but there should be "action" in every kind of story.

    I'm now applying this to my MS and realize in the beginning, stuff just sort of happens TO my heroine. But at a certain turning point, she's determined to make things happen instead. Whew! LOL!

    Since that happened by accident, I'm glad I read this blog and I can make sure it happens on purpose in future stories.

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  4. Thanks, Terri! You know, you didn't make your characters go from reactive to proactive by accident. You instinctively knew what to do. It wasn't a fluke, but still, I think it's helpful to see what works. And of course you're writing "action," just the more memorable kind than a lot of car explosions. :)

    For me, I think this analysis helps with my backstory challenges and my beginnings. If I'm keeping in mind that reactive, at times, is "okay" then I seem to have a clearer idea of what I can leave out. It's all "in theory" of course. LOL!

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