Friday, February 24, 2017

Action vs Description: No Contest

You nourish the hope of bringing rounded, dimensional characters to your pages, men, women, and youngsters whose personality radiates from their actions, having the effect of plausible individuals. 

Throughout these long years of your learning process, you've grown into a deeper awareness: Your goals for your characters are best expressed by their actions--their inner and outer behavior--rather then your descriptions.

For the longest time, you noted the way writers you admired brought their people on stage, sometimes with a brief description of them, other times with a quite long description, sometimes taking the better part of a page. How could you fail to recognize these characters, once they were set in place with such vivid, often judgmental apercu? Yet, fail you did. By degree, you realized you were becoming aware of the author, stepping in to stop the story in order to make sure you knew.

Right around the time you were growing tired of shoving Mr. Jones onto your pages as "a skinny, rooster-like man with uncontrollable tufts of cowlick gray hair," and Mrs. Goldfarb, "whose wraith-like presence seemed to enter the room a moment or two before she did," you began to notice how some of your favored writers managed to convey a vivid sense of characters through their dialogue.

This awareness may have been enough to move your up a plateau or two, to the point where you then understood a dramatic essential: Action defines character better than writers describe them.

Then you began to notice how actors you admired were able to bring exquisite nuances of relevant behavior to their portrayal of well-known characters such as Lady Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth I, Bill Sykes, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Livingston. You were particularly interested to see one actor, Dustin Hoffman, take on the part of Willy Loman in a role virtually trademarked by another actor, Lee J. Cobb. 

Hoffman also aroused your interest with his portrayal of the character of Raymond in The Rainman, a true challenge because Raymond is a  front-rank character but, unlike most front-rank characters, Raymond remains the same throughout the drama,is behavior is always the same, will probably always be the same. Most other front-rank characters grow in some way or another. Blanche Dubois, when we first see her in Streetcar, is fragile and vulnerable. When we last see her, she has almost completely retreated into her vulnerability.

At this stage, you've come to understand how superior the interpretive action taken by an actor compares to the description written by even such stylistic giants as Philip Roth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or, indeed, Saul Bellow.  Description is set in stone. Actions and responses cause interpretation and--dare you bring forth the forgotten element?--ambiguity.

Two individuals watching--or reading--the same action will bring their own responses into the dramatic equation. The dramatic moment is no longer passive, with the reader being told John was hungry, Mary recoiled in terror. The moment at hand is physical and articulated. John, the actor and the character, must demonstrate his hunger to the reader/audience; in so doing, he may reveal yet other details even the most impressive descriptive stylist overlooks.

Mark Twain warns us of the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Relevant action underscores and dramatizes the combination of dialogue and action; description can only approximate it.

Many will agree about the intensity and perhaps even the poignant nature of the action, but few will bring the same interpretation or motivation to the intensity and poignance. Ambiguity has its advantages, not the least of which is forcing us to make decisions which, when you come to think of it, characters are being forced to do throughout the story.


"I'll think about it," John said, drumming his fingertips on the table top.  John paused, reflectively, considering his options. 

No contest.


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