Action is what a character wants.
Let’s say that we have a character named Joe. Joe wants a glass of water. Wanting that glass of water is his action. Different people will use other words. They may say it’s his objective, or his goal, or his need. I use action, but what matters is the concept not the word. (I once had a student who for some reason absolutely hated using the word “action.” It just really bugged him, made him freeze up and feel uncreative. So he and I only talked about his characters’ “goals” and that was fine with both of us.)
Joe may do something about the want – the desire – that he is experiencing, or he may not. He may ask for a glass of water, he may demand it, he may beg for it. He may stick out his tongue and pant, and hope that someone gets the message. He may simply stand up, walk to the sink, and pour himself a glass. He may do a lot of things that indicate he wants a glass of water.
Or he may do nothing. He may just sit there.
In terms of whether he possesses an action, it doesn’t matter whether he acts on it. In either case, he still has an action. He has an action because he wants something: the glass of water.
Action is what the character wants.
Whether a character chooses to do something about attaining his action is a second, distinguishable step. A crucial step in the development of a drama, to be sure. Without it, there’s no play — but it’s the second step, not the first.
A man who buys a lottery ticket, and then goes home wanting to win, is not pursuing a dramatic action. The character must want something that we can watch him pursue.
When Joe speaks up and says “I want a glass of water,” his action becomes clear. It also becomes clear if someone passes by him with a tray of drinks and he desperately grabs one of the glasses, drinking it down in a gulp. We learn that a character has an action by his behavior — either through what he says or what he does.
What does it mean to have something “at stake”? Why are “high stakes” good and “low stakes” bad?
What are “stakes”?
First, let’s dispel the mystery and the obfuscation. High stakes are not high emotions. High stakes are not created by injecting false “drama” into a situation by, for example, making the character’s life more miserable than Job. Conversely, stakes are not low merely because the character speaks quietly and sits still.
Instead, let’s be precise. Stakes are what the character has to gain or to lose.
Thinking about stakes is a way of thinking about conflict. In a high stakes situation, the character thinks, “If I don’t overcome this obstacle, I’ll die. If I do overcome it, I live, and I marry the woman I love, and I’ll have pots of money besides.”
In low stakes, he thinks, “If I don’t overcome this obstacle, life goes on and I’m only out fifty cents. If by chance I do overcome it, what I get is a peck on the cheek from a woman I never liked much in the first place.”
You could also think of stakes as a function of action. “If I don’t pursue this action, I’ll die…etc.” If that works better for you, fine. Putting it in terms of conflict works best for me.
In either case, remember this: High stakes – much to gain or lose, low stakes – little to gain or lose.
In my college course recently a student, Kate, was trying to finish a one-act play based on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The play was a fictionalized account of an encounter between the two men in the early 1960s, when Ginsberg’s star was continuing to rise but Kerouac’s had fallen sharply. At this moment, Allen has come to visit Jack in the Long Island home of Jack’s mother, where Jack has been living and drinking himself into oblivion.
So far, it was a very affecting piece, with Allen playing a very strong action to get Jack out of this house, away from his mother, and back to some semblance of the life they once led. Jack was in the reactive role, resisting Allen at every turn.
Kate was ready to bring the play to a conclusion and expressed concern over just how she was going to do that.
“I don’t really know what happens at the end,” she said. “I haven’t figured that out yet.”
What happens at the end. It’s a colloquial way of saying it, but it’s as good a way as any to describe what we mean by the event of a play.
The final basic tool at your disposal, after action and conflict, is the event. It is related to action and conflict in the sense that it provides their culmination or “climax” — the moment to which the action and conflict have been leading.