Went to a lively theatrical event a few weeks ago. Zany characters, fun songs, lots of running around on stage by the crazy folk, provocative costumes, funny bits of business and snappy lines. A cavalcade of fun and hijinks.
And yet… after awhile… I was bored. I sat there thinking back to a lesson my playwriting teacher in grad school had taught us. Action is a character going after something, a goal. Activity is physical bits of business. Without the former, the latter gets tedious after awhile.
For better or worse, I think we’re hard-wired as a species to pay attention to goals. Maybe it comes from the days of having to find food on a daily basis. We want and need that meal and by golly, we’re on full alert to get that to happen. Extrapolating then, in a story where a character wants something, we empathize and get on board, wanting their goal right along with them.
Action movies can be particularly annoying when it comes to jamming loads of activity into the story (car chases, gunfights, martial arts flying kicks) and losing sight of that goal thing. Certainly the emotional connection the audience should have to that goal gets lost in the pyrotechnics. Our eyes and ears are dazzled by all of the activity (as were mine at that theatrical event), but our hearts and brains are left on the sidelines pleading, “Um, excuse me… why are we all here? What does the main character want? And why should I care?”