A week ago I took a look at my previous short story, Hunt of the Others, and I pointed out that I had struggled with the action sequences. I had made them overly complex and had them shifting from one perspective to another, so that they felt less like an exciting flow and more like a list of separate events.
And it turns out that there was another weakness in the story, and that it also came from putting too much activity into too small of a package. I wanted to take some time today to examine that other failing.
1917 is a film that keeps the action moving forward at a relentless pace. In fact, the whole thing is portrayed as one, continuous shot, with the camera running right along with the main characters as they receive orders, crawl across no-man’s-land, explore an abandoned camp, escape a collapsing tunnel, investigate a homestead, fight with a downed pilot, and more.
Each moment of tension and action moves seamlessly into the next. The relief of making it through no-man’s-land immediately gives way to the terror of finding oneself in the middle of enemy trenches, which leads directly into the collapsing-tunnel sequence. The action simply does not let it up.
Well…except that it sort of does.
The moments are small and brief, but even as the two characters are in constant motion, there are urgent conversations between them that provide crucial character development. Take, for example, the moment after the two soldiers receive orders to carry a message across enemy lines to another battalion about to march into a trap. Lance Corporal William Schofield is hesitant to follow through with the orders. They have been promised that there is safe passage through enemy territory, but that goes against all evidence he has seen thus far. He wants to stop and consider, not do anything too hasty.
Lance Corporal Tom Blake, on the other hand, can’t wait another moment. His own brother is part of the endangered battalion, so he shoves the orders into his pocket and immediately sets off for the front. Tom Blake’s steady march forward keeps the physical action churning, but as he and Schofield duck through the trenches they are having a rapid exchange back and forth, arguing about what to do. Thus, even in the midst of the action there is character development.
A little bit later, the two drop into the enemy trenches and find the place abandoned. They need to keep pushing onward, but Schofield takes a moment to bandage his hand which was gouged by some barbed wire. He does it quickly and they move on, but during that brief pause there is more conversation, joking, and character development.
As a third example, the two men cross a field to an abandoned house, and as they do so they come upon a grove of cherry trees that have been chopped down. This reminds Tom Blake of his orchard at home, and he briefly discusses it, all while the camera continues with them up a hill and to the next major scene.
Thus, even in a film that is constantly moving, which seamlessly transitions from one moment of action and tension to the next, there are still moments of character development and introspection. 1917 doesn’t even have to stop the forward momentum to deliver these insights on its characters, they are able to happen along the way.
All Play and No Work)
There is a natural desire to maximize the moments of action in a story. They are the highest energy moments of a story and give the audience the most cathartic pleasure.
In fact, I remember when I was a boy I would want just the moments of action. I would put our movies into the VCR and fast-forward to the action scenes and watch them over-and-over. I was like the kid in The Princess Bride who wanted to skip the kissing scenes and just “get to the good stuff.” And, incidentally, fast-forwarding The Princess Bride to get to the fencing match between Wesley and Inigo Montoya was something I did many times over!
The thing was, after watching the same action scene repeatedly without context, it started to feel weightless. A firework show with no pause between bursts starts losing its ability to impress. There was once a time where I had seen Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker’s duel at the end of The Empire Strikes Back so many times that I could relate it to you shot-by-shot, but it wasn’t until I watched the film in its entirety again that I was able to appreciate the depth of emotion that this scene was meant to evoke.
You see, earlier in the film Darth Vader is speaking with the Emperor and the Emperor is nervous about Luke Skywalker and wants him to be destroyed. Darth Vader responds that “he is only a boy,” and suggests that Luke could be turned to the Dark Side. Of course, Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and this scene shows him as a parent who, though deeply corrupted, is scared to lose his son. This bit of development in Darth Vader puts the concluding fight with Luke Skywalker in an entirely new context. In a twisted way, Darth Vader is breaking his son down to try and save his life. He is afraid of what the Emperor might do to Luke, and he is asking Luke to join the Dark Side to save him.
Not only that, Darth Vader even asks Luke to help him overthrow the Emperor, and because of the prior conversation we know that this is so he won’t have to worry about the Emperor coming after his son ever again. But you just don’t get these insights when you skip the “boring” conference between Darth Vader and the Emperor every time through.
Moments of character development are necessary so that the action can have any weight. As illustrated by 1917, sometimes that character development can happen literally on the way to and from the action, but happen it must.
Unfortunately, in my last short story I never really took the time to develop the characters, I only focused on one exciting event after another. I did give my characters a little bit of personality, but that was it. If these were throwaway characters in the prologue scene of a larger story it might not matter, but this was the entire piece of work, and as such its endless barrage of action stopped feeling like it mattered anymore. At the end of the story all of the hunters die, and I think it was difficult to know whether you should even care about that or not.
In fact, if a short piece is going to have just a single focus, I would say it is far better to have it be a situation that develops two characters rather than a scene of action. Fortunately, I’m able to take the lessons from my previous work and apply them to my next. And so my new story, The Late Letter, gets right off the bat by establishing character. In fact, having the opening be an argument allowed me to both write a charged scene and also establish strong personality traits. After all, the best thing of all is when a story is able to both provide catharsis and character development all at the same time.