On Action Hunks and Narrative Leaps
By Christine Carron
Sometimes I order books and they sit unread for years. Others I inhale immediately. How to Become an Extreme Action Hero by Elizabeth Streb was an inhaler.
Before proceeding, let’s be clear. I am not an extreme action hero. I once took a boot camp style exercise class, where the trainer threw a rope around my waist and screamed at me to run, Run, RUN, while she pulled back on the rope. I ran, Ran, RAN right away from that class.
Despite my lack of action hero tendencies, I ordered Streb’s book because I would soon be making my way to Brooklyn for a tightrope walking workshop, which would be held at SLAM, the Streb Lab of Action Mechanics. I was curious to find out more about Streb and the rehearsal space, and to figure out exactly what I was getting myself into.
After reading the book, I was captivated. I had only been writing a couple years at that point, and it was informative and humbling how Streb (as a master of her form) still grappled with understanding aspects of body, action, truth, and space. It felt so similar, so applicable, to how I (as a novice of my form) was wrestling with different aspects of writing, including crafting scenes.
Consider what she writes here:
Unpredictable action is movement’s equivalent to a page-turner in literature. On stage, we have certain options to make our moves appear surprising or even shocking. One choice is to remove transitions. We tried to construct motion hunks, hunks of action that could be missed if an audience member blinks. A plié is a transition, a preparation, for a jump. Why bother jumping when the viewer knows in advance what a dancer is about to do? In STREB work, we don't plié—we fly, explode, gush into the air. (p. 42)
My brain immediately connected action hunks to scenes—that they are one and the same. Even a quiet scene is still a hunk of action. A chunk of forward momentum. Else why would it be in your story?
I was equally intrigued by her thoughts on transitions, which she spells out further:
One of the rubrics of STREB technique is to remove all transitions so that only the move is happening; nothing is volitional or artificial. This means you need to eliminate all preparations and all recoveries, designating them unnecessary. (p. 129)
I wrote a comment in the margins: What would my novel look like if I removed all transitions? I’m focused on continuity of time; dwelling on temporal continuity. Is that required?
Sometimes temporal markers (e.g., the next day. . ., a few days later. . ., only a heartbeat had passed when. . . , etc.) are needed, but not as often as I was using them back then for sure. The alternative is pretty exciting. Take away the transition and you free the explosion of action. The gush into the scene’s emotional truth.
Streb’s work is avant-garde. I may never be brave enough to write a story with no transitions whatsoever. And I am not even sure if that would make sense. Yet, once again, I find myself inspired and intrigued by Streb’s thinking.
I do want my stories to fly, explode, and gush. So maybe more narrative leaping from action hunk to action hunk is in order. Which would mean (gasp), perhaps I am more of an action hero than I thought. How about you?
The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week
- Take a couple of your favorite stories and look at the chapter/scene beginnings. Does the author narratively leap, provide clear transitions, or use both techniques? What is the narrative effect of a more formal transition? Of a narrative leap?
- Journal about Streb’s ideas of action hunks and ditching transitions. How do those ideas land with you as a writer?
- Watch Streb’s Slice. Pick one of the moves and describe the action. Work to show the action, not tell it. Play with creating a narrative that allows the reader to feel what you are feeling when watching the dancers execute your movement of choice.