Death House: How to connect your action
[NOTE: No babies were injured in the writing of this blog.]
My son survives Death House every Sunday. (Death House is what my wife and I jokingly call my parents’ house where we have weekly dinners together.)
Hold on a second. Back up. Let me explain.
My wife and I are new parents. Our son Geno is 16 months old. Those of you who are parents know what this means. Those of you who are not parents, this is the time in the baby’s new life where they become fully mobile and recklessly independent. No more crawling. Only walking. And climbing. Completely unaware of consequence. And in Geno’s case, he skipped the walking and went right from crawling to running.
This new learned skill, therefore, means that all cabinets and drawers need to be secured. (He can open them.) All wall sockets plugged. (He can wedge his baby fingers inside them.) All furniture bolted to the wall. (He can climb them and pull them down.) All doors locked and latched. (Like the raptors in Jurassic Park, he can open them.)
You get the idea. He gets into everything. Always.
And so while our home is (mostly) baby-proofed and safe and guarded against death, my parents’ house is most definitely not. Nothing bolted. Nothing plugged. Nothing locked. Nothing latched. Nothing secured.
Hence, why my wife and I call it Death House.
Last night when we arrived at their house for our weekly dinner, I put Geno down on the floor. A wide smile appeared. Mouth open. Tongue out. He knew where he was. The most fun place on earth—Death House. All the forbidden things right at his fingertips.
As my wife took the first shift shadowing him, chasing him from the family room to the dining room to the kitchen and back, I sipped my drink and took note of how each dangerous action he took in Death House directly linked to and impacted the next dangerous action, which culminated in a new resulting dangerous circumstance for him. This then quickly and continuously elevated the threat of and tension in surviving Death House and increased my own anxiety in being an audience to it all. Audience? Or witness?
It dawned on me. This is what writers need to do in their work. Establish a through line of character action that connects every beat of action logically to the next action, building a manuscript-length sequence of action constituting “the plot” and escalating the threat to our hero’s journey with every stop on that sequential journey. This is what makes everything in our novels and short stories and screenplays feel like it’s telling the same unified story and not some chaotic, disjointed, disconnected series of vignettes, starring our hero.
Whether you like the TV show South Park or not, the creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker talk to NYU students in this very short clip and deliver the clearest and most direct way to negotiate connected action in narrative that I have ever seen.
This is what I preach to my students. This is what I preach to my clients. As a storyteller, you only need to remember those two words: therefore; however.
Like Stone & Parker say, if the beats of your story, if your character’s actions can be stitched together with these alternating words, then your story is working as a unified, cohesive narrative.
How do I mean? Allow me to explain. Enjoy the world premier of my new very short story:
Geno stands in the living room, stationary for the moment. Surveying the gauntlet of Death House. When he sees his treasure. On a low bookshelf. Two rooms away. In the kitchen. Fancy cookbooks.
Quickly, he forces himself into a wobble across the rug. Finding a drunk balance atop his chubby legs, he approaches a significant pile of architecture and culinary magazines. His baby stride is too short to side step the pile and his speed at the higher end of a baby sprint. His beefy foot stomps the stack of magazines as he tried to launch himself over the obstacle, using it as a springboard.
The stack shifts under the weight of his thrust and spreads out beneath him.
Sending him to the ground hard and fast. His knees land first. Then his body. Last his head.
Not the least bit dazed, Geno rolls through the fall and with a wide stance, stands with stubborn ease. He wants those cookbooks and has made it through the living room and past the magazines. Closer to his treasure.
Now in the dining room, he resumes a sprint for the kitchen.
A vacuum cleaner blocks his path.
He barrels through it. Crashing hard.
Unlike the pile of magazines, the vacuum cleaner doesn’t move. And instead ricochets Geno off, sending his tiny body toward a marble end table, his body a torpedo when his Mom catches him in her arms and sets him upright.
Geno misses the marble end table altogether and is untouched, unphased, unaware that he almost ate marble and propels himself into the kitchen.
As he rounds the chopping block island and heads for the cookbooks, the oven door suddenly opens as NanNan first pushes Geno away from the heated fixture and retrieves dinner from inside.
Geno turns around and navigates in the opposite direction around the chopping block, finally reaching the cookbooks. His tiny hands run along the shiny spines with gleeful anticipation.
His father descends upon him. Scooping Geno up in his arms and says, “Sorry son. Dinner is ready.”
My point? Every single ACTION is connected to the next ACTION and the story continues to complicate and build with tension at every turn. Bad things continue to happen to our hero. But they never relent. Even when the obstacles elevate and increase in difficulty. This is what you need to do with your novel.
There are many versions of this storytelling trick.
Some call it SCENE & SEQUEL.
Some call it BOO/YAY.
I call it DEATH HOUSE.