Interaction is Action

And days later… I finally show up again. Bad blogger, bad, bad, bad.

But I emailed my editor last weekend with a list of things that I intended to fix in my manuscript so that he wouldn’t waste time telling me to fix them and he told me he hadn’t started yet and gave the manuscript back to me to make the changes. Yay, yay, YAY! I made those changes and many, many more. Read the whole thing out loud to myself Monday through Wednesday—getting totally hoarse in the process—and finally sent it back him Thursday morning. I’m hoping he’ll still be able to get it back to me by June 1, but I’m definitely more satisfied with it, so that’s good.

So getting back to Criteria-Based Content Analysis– interaction, criteria #5, seems so obvious that I sort of skimmed over it in my original presentation about CBCA, But when I was thinking about writing this post, I decided maybe it deserved a closer look.

Two sample stories:

I came home and watched my favorite television show, Grimm, before going to bed.

I came home and chatted on the phone with my brother before going to bed.

Same number of details, same contextual embedding, so two equivalently true stories, right? Not if you’ve added criteria #5, interaction, to your toolkit. The second story should sound more truthful. For law enforcement, the subliminal reasoning might be that the second story contains a witness and witnesses make lies much easier to disprove. If you’re being deceitful, including other people in your story increases the risk that you’ll get caught.

But as writers, we don’t need to care about the subliminal reasons why interaction sells stories—the fact is, CBCA tells us that it does. A story where two people (or more) are interacting is more believable than one where a single person is on their own.

Doesn’t that seem weird, though? If I tell you, “I was home alone and I ate pizza for dinner,” why would that be less believable than saying, “my awesome kid was home for the weekend and we ate pizza for dinner”?

And yet—those two stories aren’t equivalent. One of them is a boring story, a “so what?” story. And the other is a Story. Okay, sure, part of that is the adjective, but even without the adjective, one of those stories makes you wish I’d stop talking (writing) and the other one makes you want to ask questions. (Well, maybe they don’t—I shouldn’t be speaking for you! But that’s how I’d react to those two stories!)

The difference between them is interaction.

Google defines interaction as “reciprocal action or influence.” I’m thinking of it as back-and-forth, cause-and-effect. Interaction is dynamic—movement by one causes movement by another. That movement can be concrete—“I pushed him so he punched me”—or it can be… well, less concrete. If your character says something and another character’s feelings get hurt, it might seem as if no action has happened. But it has. Action doesn’t have to mean explosions and drama–as long as you’ve got interaction, and reactions with weight, you’ve got action.

One of the books that I started this weekend was published by a small press. It was… well, some editor somewhere thought it was good enough to publish. And a list of people on the first page claimed to have edited, copy-edited, and proofread it. But it was unbearable reading. My stepmother gave it to me with, I think, a subliminal “you should try to find a publisher, look at what’s getting published!” message. The reason that it was unbearable, though, was because it lacked interaction, except in the most superficial way. For the entire first chapter, the heroine was alone. She had a brief conversation with a butler—which might perhaps have been her story editor saying, “you need a conversation here, something needs to actually HAPPEN in this chapter”—but the conversation didn’t work as interaction because it was irrelevant to the story. It wasn’t a reciprocal back-and-forth, cause-and-effect: he was just a stage prop, there to open the door.

And, OMG, it was tedious.

I sort of figured out the importance of interaction when writing A Gift of Thought. Dillon’s scenes were such a challenge. As a ghost who couldn’t really communicate, he spent all his time watching and thinking, and his scenes kept feeling flat and dull. I didn’t have an explanation for it at the time—I just concluded, “Don’t write ghosts who are alone all the time!” but now I know that what was missing was interaction.

One piece of advice given to beginning writers is to start as close to the action as you can. Newbie writers, including me, start in the car on the way to the important meeting. (A Gift of Ghosts, anyone?) Or waking up in the morning. Or at home making coffee the morning before the plane crash that changes the character’s life forever. We start before the action begins, when instead we should be dumping our reader into the action immediately. But finding out where your story begins can be far more difficult than it sounds to people who aren’t writers. We need to realize that what makes action is interaction: your stories are active when you focus on your point-of-view character’s interactions with other people.

But wait, you protest! (Or at least I did, when I was thinking about this.) Lots of great stories have characters who are alone. What about The Hunger Games? Katniss is off in the woods by herself. Except that she’s really not. The moments when she’s alone are brief: she’s fighting the others, meeting up with Rue, searching for Peeta, finding Peeta, getting caught by Thrash—she’s hardly ever alone. All right, what about Castaway? An entire movie about a guy alone on a desert island. Nope. He interacted with Wilson, the ball. That was almost the point of the movie. What kept him sane was interacting, even when it was just interacting with his imagination. My Side of the Mountain? Again, no. He’s interacting with the hawk, with the kid from town, with his visitors. The Old Man and the Sea! Honestly, I’d almost give this one to my imaginary opponent in this discussion, except a) he’s interacting with the fish and b) what an insanely boring book. It proves the point: interaction makes stories interesting. Lack of interaction makes readers enjoy pleasant snoozes.

Takeaway: if you want your writing to feel real and to interest readers, you will focus on interaction, avoiding ever leaving your characters alone and making sure that the interactions you write create cause-and-effect movement.

I’m not quite done with interaction yet. My next post (which will not be tomorrow, because R is graduating from high school tomorrow and might not be Sunday, because it’s his last day home before he goes back to Seattle, but will, I hope, be soon-ish) will take a look at how we express interaction and how filler words (so, then, etc) might not be as bad as conventional writer wisdom says they are.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Interaction is Action

  1. Once you start looking for it, you’ll definitely start to notice how often authors leave their characters alone and how much it slows the story down when we do. Solitary characters are boring characters!

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