This week I'm joined by my friend and Story Grid editor Anne Hawley to discuss literal and essential action in the context of “Madeline,” a short horror story by Nathaniel Patterson.
We'll show you how to identify the essential action (the character’s scene goal) and literal action (what the character does to achieve it) within your scenes and explain why the essential action should be consistent and aligned with the character’s story goal (or conscious object of desire).
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Editorial Mission—Identify Literal and Essential Action
Identify the literal and essential action in the scenes of a favorite story (book or movie). If you do nothing else, go and watch the scene in our post from The Fugitiveand read the accompanying analysis. This will help you understand the action on the surface and what’s happening beneath the surface.
Then perform the same exercise on a scene from your work in progress and ask yourself, how is the Essential Action of the scene connected to the character’s story goal. If they aren’t related, revise accordingly.
Consider using essential action as a minimalist outlining method. For each scene, identify the POV character’s goal.
Wise Words on Characters (and People)
Advice for our author
Thank you for sharing your story! There are so many great elements of the story that are working, with a unique setting and premise. Anne summed it up perfectly when she said it is “wonderfully creepy.”
Most of our suggestions come from the need to make a clear point of view character choice and establish the inciting incident so we know what the character wants. Both decisions affected what we call the essential action (character's scene goal). There is great subtext within the story, but we need to clarify a few elements before the reader can feel its full effect.
When we talk about essential action, what we mean is your character’s scene goal, that is, what they want in a scene. It’s the subtext of the scene or what’s happening beneath the surface. We describe the goal with an action word (transitive verb) because we can immediately imagine actions the character might do to achieve their goal. (This is why we like the Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus so much. It’s full of action words we can choose from.)
When we talk about literal action, we mean what the character literally does to try to get it. This is what’s happening on the surface or what the characters are literally doing.
Where does the goal come from? After a scene begins, an event occurs that upsets the status quo. This is what we call the inciting incident. The inciting incident causes a desire to arise within the character, and that desire becomes a goal they act on. The goal is the character’s essential action.
Each character should act consistently with their scene goal, and this should be related to the character’s story goal, though they might adopt different tactics for trying to accomplish it.
Each character wants something and pursues it within the scene. They face obstacles and may have to change tactics (literal action), but their everything they do should make sense given what they want, and their goal shouldn’t change except for a very specific reason.
When you draft or review your scenes, knowing the essential action will help you choose literal actions that make sense in light of what the character wants and essential actions that are consistent with the character’s story goals.
Here's an excerpt from the post Anne and I wrote about essential action. Click here to read the entire post.
Literal action is pretty straightforward. You simply say what you observe. The characters might be having a conversation over lunch, practicing Wudan sword stances, or hiding from velociraptors.
But what is the Essential Action? (The term doesn’t even appear in the Story Grid book.) It is the point of view character’s goal in the scene, or what they want. The Inciting Incident within a scene upsets the status quo, causing a desire to arise within one or more characters. From that desire comes a goal, and that goal is the character’s Essential Action, which should be connected to the character’s goal for the entire story.
So, if the Literal Action is what’s happening on the surface, then the Essential Action is what’s happening below the surface, or the subtext within the scene. The Essential Action in the scene should be condensed down to a short, wide-open phrase, or a highly specific single verb that also relates to the Global Objects of Desire.
Analyzing the Scene
Our first port of call when we analyze a scene is to identify the literal and essential action, as well as the life value shift.
1. What are the characters literally doing in the scene?
Jane, Esther, and Dr. Prescott are debating what to do about Madeline (Jane’s daughter).
2. What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene?
It’s hard to be specific because it’s not clear to who the POV character is and who is trying to convince whom.
All three characters seem to want to be in charge of the situation. They want their choice for Madeline to be carried out. What’s less clear is why. I sense that Esther, the grandmother’s, motivation is more about validating her belief in curses. Jane seems to have called the doctor, though how she’s done that we don’t know, and is pretty clearly motivated by a desire to get help for her daughter. Dr Prescott’s words and actions seem to arise from a desire to represent science and medicine and deny old fashioned superstitions, which he seems to view on a par with the infection itself, something to be quarantined.
3. What life value has changed for one or more of the characters? In other words, what status or condition changes from the beginning to the end of the scene?
When the story begins, Dr. Prescott and Esther are alive, and by the end, they are dead.
Prior to that fairly absolute shift, I agree that the doctor doesn’t definitively shift so much as go back and forth, apparently talking himself into and out of various diagnoses and courses of action. He starts out apparently sure that the girl has a disease, and seems to move from believing she’s a danger only to herself, to believing that she’s a threat to the community.
Madeline is imprisoned at the beginning, and by the end she’s free.
Jane appears to go from hoping for a rational, medical cure for Madeline, and then appears to accept that her daughter faces a fate worse than death.
4. Which life value shift should I put in the Spreadsheet? In other words, which life value shift relates to the primary story?
The author tells us this is a Horror story, so the typical life value continuum goes from life all the way to a fate worse than death, but it’s not clear who the protagonist or POV character is.
Dr. Prescott seems to shift from trying to save Madeline to apparently agreeing that death would be a mercy. He argues that there’s a faster way than the slow poison of bluebells to kill her. That’s damnation for a doctor, the fate worse than death.
Five Commandments of Storytelling
1. Inciting Incident (an event that upsets the status quo and throws the character out of balance).
It’s not clear to me because it feels as if we’re starting in the middle of a reaction to something that’s already happened (For example, “How can this be? Two days ago she was just fine.”) That makes me wonder if the Inciting Incident for this scene is an event that’s not included in the story.
Inciting Incident throws the SQ out of balance, a desire arises within the character, desire becomes a goal. If you’re going to leave it off the page, you still need to make these clear/know what it is.
The central conflict seems to be between modern medicine and Esther’s approach, so either the decision to call or the arrival of the doctor and what to do about Madeline could be the inciting incident.
2. Progressive Complications and Turning Point: These are the obstacles the character faces in pursuit of the goal. The turning point is an unexpected event that forces the character into a dilemma.
Without a clear Inciting Incident, we don’t know what a character’s goal is, and therefore which specific actions/objects represent obstacles.
Anne’s gut said the turning point feels like when the doctor shifts from advocating for palliative care to agreeing that the girl should die. He says, “I will not allow you to poison that girl,” and his hand drops to the revolver at his hip. But it’s not clear that this is the central conflict.
3. Crisis Question: This is the dilemma the character faces (best bad choice or irreconcilable goods).
I don’t see a clear best bad choice or irreconcilable goods choice Jane has a dilemma, but because we’re not sure about the Inciting Incident or progressive complications, we can’t say whether this is in alignment with the intention for the scene/story.
This brings us to the Point of View issue with this scene/story. There is no clear POV—it shifts among all three characters, so it’s hard for the reader to know whose thoughts and actions are central to the purpose of the story. If Dr. Prescott is the POV character, he appears to face a best bad choice—kill one patient and damn himself, or risk letting what he believes is a contagious disease escape into the community and kill more people.
The fact we can read both a want and a need is what makes us feel like he’s the protagonist--he’s more complex. So NOT giving him the definitive choice and action at the climax feels disappointing or unsatisfying.
But since it’s Jane who takes the definitive action in the end, maybe the POV should be with her. In that case, for reasons that aren’t perfectly clear, her choice is to let her daughter live free, but as a monster, and at the expense of two other lives, or else kill her daughter.
4. Climax: The decision and action.
Doctor and Jane make decisions, but there isn’t a logical thread to follow because of the II and POV--and we don’t know what they want. For secondary characters, we don’t need to know exactly what they want initially, but by the end of the story, it should be apparent. The writer should have a clear idea because the essential and literal action should flow from this. Decision & motive are not clearly on the page.
Anne explained that if the scene were more clearly set up in Jane’s point of view—with Jane as the clear protagonist—then the climactic action of Jane shooting her own mother and the doctor in order to free her daughter would make more sense. All we know is that Jane has lost other children and naturally wants to save her only remaining daughter. Her only actions in the story up to that point are to side with the doctor against her mother. It’s not clear to me what changes her mind.
5. Resolution:The consequences that flow from the decision and action.
Jane kills the doctor and her mother, and releases Madeline. This is a surprising, but not quite inevitable because I think it could be set up in a stronger way (for example, if we were clearly in Jane’s point of view).
Anne explained that the daughter escaping into the woods is a resolution—but what conflict does this resolve? Did Esther want her granddaughter to join the ranks of cursed mountain folk? Did Jane? Does Jane want her daughter to kill or infect their neighbors? Why did she feel she needed to kill both the doctor and her mother? It’s not clear what drives that final action, or why it’s Jane who takes the action when she’s been inactive in the scene.
Here are some additional thoughts on the Essential Action of the characters:
In a story, every word and action of each main character should arise from they WANT, right up until the crisis, at which point they shift, and begin to act and speak from their NEED. Essential actions are generally directed at another character.
The doctor wants to help his patient, but he needs to maintain the integrity of his modern, scientific profession. Here are some Essential Action words: he wants to help Madeline, to heal her, to diagnose her. He wants to relieve, comfort, or console Jane. As to Esther, his actions say he wants to defeat, oroverpower, orpersuade her. But when he apparently shifts and puts his hand to his gun, he abandons both his wants and his needs, and changes completely.
Jane wants to save her last remaining child—perfectly natural and right, but until she kills the doctor and Esther, we don’t know what she’s weighing against the life of her child. Without an internal need, she too lacks depth. Is it to get free of her domineering mother? Or is it to give in to the old superstitious ways?
Esther wants to preserve the old ways at any cost. I don’t get the sense of any underlying or internal need. She wants and needs to be right.
You have a great foundation on which to make your story even stronger, Nathaniel. Thank you for trusting us with your story!
All the best,
About My Guest Editor
Anne Hawley is a third-generation native Oregonian, a graduate of Portland State University, and a big fan of Regency England. When she’s not editing stories, she’s writing them, reading them, researching them, or podcasting about them. She specializes in helping writers discover the heart of the story they’re trying to tell so that they can tell it more beautifully. She can often be seen riding her Dutch bike Eleanor around Portland. She’s the author of Restraint, a love story set in 19th Century London. To find out more about Anne, visit www.AnneHawley.net.
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