I'm currently rereading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the Expanse series (upon which my new favorite TV show is based). While there are differences between the novel and the adaptation, the translation is practically one-for-one. Sure, having an actual Belter language adds an incredible sense of depth to the show, and the dialogue crackles a little more with the talented cast throwing it out. But what strikes me, and what comes across as the most drastic difference between the show and story, is the concept of Action VS Reaction.
Now, I don't want to ruin a single moment of the book in either medium. James S.A. Corey (the sexy mash-up of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) concocted a story so damn tight and immersive that it should be a crime to release any spoilers. Instead, I want to focus on the concept as it pertains to my own work.
Let's talk about Brassworks.
When I first sat down and wrote the story of Brassworks, it ended up a hurried mess scattered across several hand-written pages. After a few passes, I'd managed to cobble together a decent opening to a graphic novel. When that failed (have you ever tried drawing? It's super hard!) I revisited the idea as a pilot for a TV series (and I still might go back to that). Finally, I decided to use the idea to chase down the illusive word count of NaNoWriMo.
A month later, I had a novel. Part one of what would become the Brassworks Trilogy. And it was TERRIBLE.
Okay, that's a mean overstatement. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't really a novel. It was a recounting of a novel by a third party. It was me sitting you down for 75,000 words to explain this great idea I'd had. Unfortunately, it was a lot of characters reacting to the world around them, rather than their actions dictating the pace of the story.
It's a common mistake for a first draft, and subsequent versions corrected the issue, but let's take a look at how we can avoid such pitfalls in the future.
First of all, what is the difference between action and reaction?
The most common lesson to learn is the elimination of "To Be" verbs. "He was going to..." "She could hear that..." "They were afraid of..." These phrases, and any variation thereof, are known as uses of "to be." In practice, it creates a degree of separation between the reader and the characters. It removes a sense of immediacy, a robs the story of any punch. Observe.
Jason was running to class, and he was running late. He had just glanced at his watch, and the hands were already past the 8 and 12. He was late again! His chest was heaving by the time he reached the steps of the school. When he made it into the class, the students were already pages into their exam. The teacher was wearing an expression of disapproval. Jason was mortified.
Do you see how that writing style fails? The story is old by the time you read it, passed along in fragments and scraps. It's hard to get engaged, to feel anything for the characters. It's the Suicide Squad of writing: Just bad, not matter how many popular songs you play in the background.
Now let's try it with some action:
Jason sprinted down the cracked sidewalk, his sneakers pounding the concrete. He stole a glance at his watch and panicked. The long arm crawled closer to the 12, and its shorter brother already sat on the 8. Late again! He skidded to a stop at the wide stairs in front of his school, his chest heaving in time with each ragged breath. He raced through the silent halls until he burst into his classroom. His friends barely looked up. Their heads remained buried in their textbooks, pencils scratching furiously at their exam papers. Jason's gaze drifted to Mr. Lawrence. The old teacher waggled his mustache and shook his head, disappointed.
Do you feel the difference? Could you sense the anxiety, taste the fear as Jason raced to class?
Writing in passive, reactive verbs steals any sense of immediacy from the story. It is a common trait of first drafts, and you must eliminate them before they poison your piece.
When you've completed your draft, go back and look for any instance of "to be" verbs. Cut every single one. If your characters "tried to" or "started to" or "began to" or "just as they were about to," you CTRL-Z that noise immediately. Your characters need to follow the advice of Master Yoda: Do or do not; there is no try.
Instead of starting to do something, have your character already be doing something, and then get interrupted. It creates a more jarring sense of action, which plays into the story's development. Make your cast act rather than react.
This Thursday, we are going to continue this conversation, but focus on the bigger picture. How do we ensure our characters drive the story and not the other way around? Tune in to find out.