All Action is Local
By Evan Braun
At a recent writing convention I attended, a panelist stood up and gave the audience a critical piece of writing advice. “All action is local,” he said.
Indeed, I have heard this said in other places, in other contexts. What does it mean, though? Well, it doesn’t just apply to writing. This expression is often used in reference to global initiatives. War is a great example. So might be the international effort to address climate change.
Basically, when someone says “All action is local,” what they’re saying is that decisions might be made at a high level very far away, but everything important that results from those decisions happens on a local level. The President of the United States declares war on Iraq (high level), and thus a bomb explodes on a street in Baghdad (local level). Canada signs on to a new international agreement on climate change at a summit in Paris (high level), and thus a factory in northern Ontario reduces its output or upgrades its systems and equipment (local level).
So what on earth does this have to do with writing?
Scenes in which characters talk about subjects at a high level of abstraction are not as inherently interesting as scenes that get close to the ground, scenes where the volatile action takes place. In writing, it’s wise to feature the points of view of characters who are most immediately and personally affected by the plot of the story.
The “all action is local” principle applies in yet another way, for those writers who create elaborate fictional worlds in which their stories take place. This includes medieval fantasy worlds infused with swords and magic, as well as science fiction locales somewhere far across the stars.
But fictional worlds don’t necessarily fall into fantasy and science fiction categories. Have you invented a fictional city or town? A fictional workplace or corporation? A fictional island or body of water? Most writers have to invent some locales to tell their story; it’s just a matter of degree.
In fictional worlds of all sizes and stripes, authors need to remember not to rely too heavily on abstractions and broad concepts. For example, a fantasy author can get so invested in exploring their detailed map or complicated magic system that they don’t pay enough attention to the characters. A science fiction can become so absorbed in the science that they forget about the story.
In other words, authors mustn’t spend so much time describing the entire chess board that they neglect each individual chess piece. Because it’s the chess pieces that make the game—not the board. The plot should only move because the characters make it move.
In other words, all action is local.
And if this is starting to sound a bit familiar, chances are you’re remembering that this exact same advice has been passed down to us for generations via one of the most common clichés of them all—a warning to those who can’t see the forest for the trees.
The trees, the characters, the local action—that’s where the story lives and breathes.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.