Posts Tagged action

What Writers Can Learn From “Jingle Bells”

I suspect most people in the United States are familiar with the Christmas Carol “Jingle Bells.”  In fact, it, no doubt, is one of the most familiar carols ever in the US.  One particular verse, actually the second, caught my ear many years ago, but just recently I realized how well and how intricately that verse had been put together.  There are a few lessons we writers can learn from that verse.  First a little background on the carol.

“Jingle Bells” was written in 1857 by James S. Pierpont for a school choir to sing on Thanksgiving, not Christmas.  (As far as I’m aware, he wrote both words and music.)  He originally entitled it “One Horse Open Sleigh,” words we’re familiar with from the first verse, though nowadays we call it by the first words of the refrain, “Jingle Bells.”  Mr. Pierpont actually penned several verses, most of which are not sung anymore.  The modern tendency is to sing only the first verse and refrain, though sometimes the second verse is added.  It’s that second verse I want to concentrate on.  Here it is:

“A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated at my side.

The horse was lean and lank,
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And then we got upsot.”

This verse is interesting because it tells a very short story which is (almost) complete within itself.  No words are wasted.  An interesting historical context—and I’m speaking entirely within the verse, having nothing to do with any of the details of “Jingle Bells,” or the other verses—is presented in the first line, “A day or two ago.”  It sets the time factor—relatively, if not absolutely—right up at the front.  It, and the second line about taking a ride, get us directly into the action without unnecessary words.  At this point, we are aware from the first verse “Dashing through the snow,” that we are in winter, and riding in a “one-horse open sleigh.”  That’s not given in the second verse, one point of critique.

The narrator is not named in this little story, but one other character is named, so we do have a character we can relate to.  I suspect that most people assume the narrator is male, and the name “Fanny” certainly suggests the rider is female.  At this point, we can visualize the two of them riding in a one-horse sleigh down a snowy road with bells attached to the bobbed tail of the horse.  All seems well.  A nice outing on a cold winter’s day.  Can’t you just feel the wind on your face?

But the plot thickens, and the author introduces the required tension that holds the story together.  Got to have conflict or at least tension in a story.  The characters have to be in danger.  Something has to happen.  Otherwise, the story line falls apart, and all we have is a simple account of the incident.  We’re given a good description of the horse, that it is “lean and lank,” enough to allow us to visualize the animal in our mind’s eye, but no more than necessary.  It wouldn’t add any thing to the story to know what color the horse was, or its age, or gender, or whatnot.

Then we learn “Misfortune was his lot.”  Now, like in any well-constructed story, we’re given a hint at the eventual climax, but just a hint: “Misfortune seemed his lot.”  So tantalizing.  A horse with a tendency to having bad luck.  Something’s going to happen.  But what?  Like any well-constructed story, every word, every line, every sentence, is necessary to the plot.  If it’s there, it must be essential.  We dread to know.  What will it be?

Finally the climax, “We got into a drifted bank” and “got upsot.”  (An old term for “upset.”  Fell over.)  That’s the end of it.  That’s all we need to know.  The story is done, the end is clear.  Whether the characters (including the horse) were injured is not known, and really, that information isn’t necessary.  The story ends at the end of the action, and no further words are necessary.  The author left it alone.  Do the same with your stories.

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Keep The Action Going – Part II

A few days ago I was exercising in the fitness facility at the apartment complex where I live, and turned on one of the TVs installed there.  I scanned the channels and came across a movie channel showing “Titanic.”  Now, those of you who read this blog and know me personally may also know I’ve railed against this movie since it came out.  My objection to the movie is that it places a silly fictitious love story in what was one of the greatest disasters of the 20th Century.  Why, I cannot fathom.  The love story interrupts the flow of the main story, the sinking of the ship, like commercials interrupt a TV movie.  I have never been interested in the love story; I want to see what happens to the ship.  I want to see how they handle the disaster itself; how the passengers and crew react; how they show the newest information of how the ship sank, and I dislike cutting into the main story to watch two people have sex in an old car.  I really couldn’t care less.  If the producers of the movie wanted to write a love story on a ship, then they should have done so, and not insert it within an unrelated highly dramatic situation.  The two don’t go together at all.  Get on with it, I say.  Keep the action moving.

I’ve talked about this subject before; you may remember reading about it after it was posted on 2019/6/23.  In writing, or making a movie or TV show, or whatever, keep the action going.  Don’t interrupt.  Allow the action to flow of its own accord.  Action will ebb and flow naturally, and may even come to a stop all by itself.  If so, go with it.  The teller of the story should stay aloof.

Here’s another example.

I left “Titanic” after only a few minutes and scanned a few more channels and came to a women’s singles tennis match.  I like tennis; I played it a lot in my younger days.  At one point, the coach of one of the players talked to his charge during one of the changeovers.  No problem there because the match had entered one of its normal rest points.  But after the action resumed, the director of the show found it necessary to cut down the size of the image of the match, and put beside it a rerun of the coach talking to the player.  Why?  I never did find out.  This forced the viewer to watch the action on what was essentially a screen about one-quarter the normal size.  My God!  I couldn’t believe it.  The coach talking to his player is unimportant.  The important thing is the tennis match.  It’s the action.  Always the action.  Never interrupt the action.

Tennis is an example of a sport with built-in pauses that TV coverage can use for commercials without causing serious interruptions.  That’s okay, it’s part of the game, though it does make it hard to watch sometimes.  All those breaks can become wearisome . . .  Perhaps that’s why soccer is such a popular sport around the world.  Forty-five minutes of non-stop action each half.  The clock keeps running.  No interruptions.  Writers and TV producers take note.

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Keep The Action Going

Lately I’ve been watching reruns of the TV crime drama “Major Crimes.”  I like the action as the detectives of the Major Crimes unit solve the case.  The show is well written and the cases deliciously complicated, which keeps me guessing as to the identity of the perpetrator.  But the one major drawback of the show is the subplot involving the character of Rusty, a teenage boy who spent several years alone on the streets of Los Angeles, and his attempts to find his mother.  He’s been adopted by the Captain of the Major Crimes unit, though I still keep wondering why a teen-age boy is allowed to wander around the Major Crimes area while the team is trying to solve the case.  But more to the point, the subplot interrupts the flow of the main story, which is to solve the damn crime.  The subplot annoying and disruptive.  We’re taken out of the main story and forced to watch something that has little to do, in most cases, with solving the crime.  I, as a viewer of the show, have gotten absorbed in the main story line of each episode, and I don’t want to watch something that has little or nothing to do with the story.  I want to see whodunit.  The complicated plots make me want to know.  Yet, repeatedly, we have to put up with a rather vague, nebulous subplot for several minutes, several times during each one-hour show.  Yesterday evening I grew so frustrated that I turned the show off rather than sit through this unnecessary diversion.

Moral of the story, don’t interrupt the action.  Keep it going to the end.

A good example of a TV series which kept the action going throughout each hour-long drama is the “Law and Order” series.  Most of the episodes I’ve seen didn’t waste time on subplots.  Sure, the characters have private lives, and occasionally these were brought into the main story, but the individual episodes invariably stuck to the main story, i.e., solve the damn crime.

Another example of a show that kept the action going and didn’t waste time on personal problems was the old “Mission Impossible” series.  Here, the characters (the “good guys”) simply carried out their orders (usually having to do with espionage or some related process) and got the job done.  No unnecessary subplots involving human interest that took away from the main story.

I find myself wondering if this isn’t one of the reasons we find commercials so annoying: they take us away from the story while someone yells at us to buy a certain product or service we usually don’t want and don’t need.  Sort of a plottus interruptus.  This may also be why Alfred Hitchcock always denigrated commercials on his TV series.  He knew they interrupted the flow of the story.  Not good if you have a detective looking for a murderer.

Now, subplots can work, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against subplots, but they have to be handled well.  The important thing to remember is that a subplot must be integral to the story.  It must come at a reasonable time in the narrative, and must advance the plot.  Not simply interrupt and throw in a different story.  A possible good example of this is the movie, “Rocky.”  (The first of the series.)  The main story line revolves around Rocky Balboa as he trains for his big boxing match with the world champion, having been plucked out of obscurity by the champ and given a chance to become a big-time fighter.  Okay.  The subplot involves his relationship with his girl friend.  The reason this subplot works is that it appears at logical times in the story.  Rocky trains during the day, and sees his girl in the evening.  Sure, the action slows, but it still involves Rocky.  It comes at a reasonable point in the plot, and it doesn’t occur as a sudden interruption in the story line.  It’s a smooth transition, not abrupt.

If you are writing a novel or screenplay or short story or even a memoir, keep in mind that whenever you abruptly stop the action and go to something else, especially something quieter in the story, you run the risk of losing your viewer or reader.  Keep the action going, even if it slows somewhat.  As Aesop said once, “He who hesitates is lost.”

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