I am one of those people who occasionally likes to watch movies where stuff blows up. I am also a person who cares deeply about storytelling. After 20+ years of watching these sorts of action movies, it seems that the more action there is in a movie, the less the writers or directors seem to care about the plot. But in some cases, I am pleasantly surprised when it is clear that the screenwriter and the director not only tell an excellent story, but they also understand the difference between a story’s activities (e.g. explosions and fight scenes) and a story’s actions (the events that keep the story moving ahead).
In The Playwright’s Guidebook, Stuart Spencer defines action in a play as “what a character wants; it is itself invisible and inaudible; we learn the nature of the action through the consequent speech and behavior of the characters” (361). A true action in a play–when a character wants something–is followed by some sort of conflict, where someone or something prevents the character from getting what he needs or wants. Action and conflict, also referred to as a dramatic situation, resolves in an “event,” where the character either gets what he wants or doesn’t. And then, the cycle starts over again and repeats itself until the main event (climax) of the play.
In contrast, an activity (in the sense that we’re describing here) is closer to what Aristotle might classify as spectacle. Big activities will certainly attract your attention and often attempt to fool you into thinking that they are actions. Think of sword fights, screaming matches, a character falling off a building, or something of that nature. On their own, these are more accurately described as . They are neat to look at, but they don’t necessarily prompt a character to do something. A sword fight and a man peeling potatoes are both just activities if they don’t impact the plot in a meaningful way that propels it forward.
Jeffery Hatcher, author of The Art & Craft of Playwriting, helpfully clarifies the difference:
It’s easy to confuse effective dramatic action with activities. Activities are the dramatic equivalent of busy-work. They may look like actions (a fistfight) and they may sound like actions (a shouting match), but if they don’t cause a reaction, then they’re not actions. A dramatic action is an act performed by a character which in turn causes another character to perform yet another action. Good drama builds a chain of such actions from the beginning of a play right up to the end. If the fistfight doesn’t lead to anything, , it’s not an action. But if the fistfight prompts one of the characters to plot his revenge, or if the shouting match causes one of the characters to leav her home, they’re vital dramatic actions. (35)