Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Action is the highest form of thought"

In terms of interactive narrative, that statement from Mark Stephen Meadows' "Pause & Effect" emphasizes to me the importance of plot development. If a story isn't moving, isn't revealing new pearls to follow, new doors to open, or isn't compelling the user to do anything, it's dead in the water. Plot development and character development are two essential features of story. More on character in a moment, but plot, or action, first, because of the two, I'd say action is more critical than even character.
By the way, stories typically need at least some exposition as well, but exposition is like listening to the voice from the loudspeaker. Just a little bit, just a few words or lines of it, goes a long way. Ideally, all orientation material and plot and character for that matter comes from within the action of the story, which leads back to the initial point.
I'm not sure, though, if action can function completely independent of character. I feel confident in saying that whatever character, however exquisite the rendering, will not hold an observer's interest if that character doesn't do something ... anything. Yet, I also think action without character can be just as pointless. For example, if I turn on a football game, and the blue team is playing the red, and I don't know any of the players on the field, or anything about the teams, why would I care what happens? Even if I watch closely, and one player seems to be doing extraordinary things, why would I care? Maybe that's what he is supposed to be doing. His story is obscured to me, without the context of a name, some details about him, about the team, expectations, etc. I think of the talking heads at sporting events as context creators. They tell me who the teams are, who the players are who typically do well, what the archetypal situation is (a la David vs. Goliath), etc. Only then do I begin to care that one of the players is exceeding expectations and having a great game to lead to an "upset." Or one of the players isn't having the effect on the game he should have. Or that the team is missing its star quarterback, which is why it can't pass the ball very well. Without that context, the action is meaningless. And any meaning I might make is meaningless to anyone else.
In terms of any other story, will I really care about anyone doing anything if I don't know who they are and what they are supposed to be doing and how that is turning out? That seems to be the essence of the magnetism of a narrative. We want to know what happens but also to whom. That little bit of mystery keeps us engaged. And if the mystery isn't there, we create the mystery. It's like when you see a car drive by and begin wondering: who is that person, why is that person here, where is that person going, why is it so important for that person to get there? And then, maybe, you begin to wonder: How does that person spend the rest of the day? That investment in character attaches a person to the action. If the same car zips by, and I don't look up or wonder, the action is happening, but I'm not engaged at all by the story.
Yet I can know as much as possible about a character, and be really interested in that person, but if the person isn't doing anything at that moment, isn't engaged in some activity, including thinking about doing something, then why would I want to experience that part of the story? A compelling narrative edits out the boring parts of life. The routine -- eating, chores, driving, sleeping, etc. -- as well as the mundane -- staff meetings, dinner party small talk, exercising -- takes up most of our lives. But it's the action in between that you want to tell your friends about. That's the exciting content people who encounter your stories want to experience as well.
Yet when creating a digital narrative, technical considerations also come into play. Meadows defines some of those choices as: Responsiveness versus resolution, or how well does something look on screen versus how well does it move; optimization versus ubiquity, again, how well does something look on screen but this time versus how many people have the technological tools to access it at that high of a level; and third, customization versus design, or how much the user controls the story versus the designer. Budget and intended audience also come into play on that, but tough decisions like those join the plot-versus-character debate for digital narratives. So while action might be the highest form of thought, and the engine of all stories, I don't think it can work entirely alone when creating a narrative.
My question, then, is about the base power of action. Why does it move us so? Why are we captivated by the slightest amount of movement? Think of a movie in which the actor is doing not much more than putting on a coat, or taking a bite to eat, that little bit of action makes a scene much more watchable than if the person was just staring into the camera and reciting the same exact line.


Carie said...

Brett, Your focus on the character of the narrative was a twist I'd not considered. In Meadow's terms, knowing the character would be the investment, and your involvement would be the interest. You have to have that investment--that emotional tie that creates interest--to care about the storyline and those pearls that keep coming.

I think we are captivated by that slight movement because we relate to the action. A character who stares into the camera does not reflect the reality of our own lives--how many of us stand in front of a mirror all day and recite?

On the other hand, the character who is acting, even if the action is a trivial as taking a bite of foot, creates a link, an action with which we can relate.

I'm not going to relate to a Michigan-Nebraska football game because I don't know the teams and I don't care, even when they play well. Your metaphor is well taken!

The Digital Narrative said...

Interesting post Brett,

"Yet, I also think action without character can be just as pointless."

I think the quote of yours above sums it up for me. Action, even the smallest amount, reveals character, and in turn drives a narrative and as a consequence, our engagement.