Surface And Deep Action

When I'm writing a screenplay (or a novel or a play or a memoir, for that matter), I find it useful to break the story I'm telling into the external and internal patterns of change. I call these the story's surface action and deep action. Just as the best screenplays interweave striving and connecting, they interweave the surface and the deep action. The best drama, in fact, is a dance between the external and the internal: Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet's father (external), struggles to decide the best action to take (internal), and tells Hamlet (external). And so it goes until death do him depart.

So it's enormously helpful, when you're preparing to write a screenplay, to clarify what these dual actions are. Do so in terms of the main character and an -ing verb. This reminds you that both actions are dynamic. And it reminds you that both, though interrelated, are, in fact, different. The surface action is the external pattern of change, the events we see happen up on the screen. Gaz is trying to retain joint custody of his son. To do this, he has to raise the money he owes his ex-wife. But he refused to work at her factory. So he tries to put together an all-male striptease act.

The deep action—also known as the character arc—is the internal pattern of change that is occurring in the character in response to external events. Gaz is regaining his self-respect.

Boiling your surface and your deep action down to one sentence is harder than it looks—my students are always amazed how tricky this is—so it may take a good deal of thinking and noodling to nail them. Once you do, write them down. You may find that they change as you write (material often has a mind of its own). Fine. Rewrite them. But keep them in plain sight because they're your compass, pointing you in the right direction as you write your screenplay.

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