This one is hard core about writing structure.
When I was taking playwriting, my professor wrote that nursery rhyme on the board and asked us who was the agent of action. By agent of action he meant who was driving the action of the scene forward. In other words, which character’s actions were pushing the plot of the story to its conclusion. We over thought the question or didn’t have that much coffee that morning or maybe we just weren’t that smart that day because we said Humpty Dumpty. Nope. It’s the horses and men. The action in the nursery is putting Humpty back together; the first two lines simply are back story or, more accurately, the inciting incident (that which starts the events of the plot).
I taught this as an illustration of plot to a Theater Appreciation class. They picked the horses and men right away. I took it a step further and asked, “So how do we make Humpty the agent of action? How do we rewrite the plot of the nursery rhyme so that this becomes Humpty’s story?”There is nothing wrong with the nursery rhyme being about Humpty but not owned by Humpty. Hamlet is about Hamlet, but he isn’t always the agent of action; it switches throughout the play between him, Claudius, Polonius, and Fortinbras. What’s important is that we are aware of who is doing what. And, most importantly, that we know that something is actually happening: that an action is taking place and the result of the action will be movement of the story forward.
So back to Humpty. Let’s begin with the obvious question: why was Humpty sitting on the wall? My class, naughty undergrads that they were, came up with the scenario that he was watching a woman undress in the house next door. His goal was to have an orgasm, and when he achieved his pleasurable goal he fell and broke. Humpty is the agent of action and the story is about Humpty as well.
But let’s take this further: the king’s horses and men discover, when they are attempting to put Humpty together again, that he didn’t die by the fall but had been shot with an arrow. The story can continue on as a murder mystery, and the agent of action would be about the Knight who was on the scene and wanted to discover who killed Humpty.
Now let’s take a step back. Who shot Humpty? The woman he was spying on? Someone he knew would be there? It couldn’t be the woman he was spying on because he would’ve seen her get ready to shoot him. Who would’ve known he would be there? Did he go there only to jerk off? Maybe he was spying on the woman and, being a dirty egg, got caught up in the situation.
What if the King had sent him to spy? What if the King had an assassin shoot Humpty with an arrow? In this instance then, the new version of the story would be that there would be two agents of action: Humpty masturbating and the assassin shooting Humpty. But it’s still all about Humpty.
What about the woman? Let’s say that while this is going on, she’s taking a bath. The action of taking a bath should be active: it’s more interesting to watch her doing things than rather than to watch her soak in a tub for a half hour. So let’s say she’s shaving her legs (and it looks really sexy to Humpty) and when she is done she will get out of the tub and put on her robe. That means her bath is done and the show is over: nothing more for Humpty to see. While this is going on, the woman becomes the agent of action.
In this instance, then, we have three agents of actions, three plot lines. So who is this really about? It’s still about Humpty because all the actions revolve around him and, presumably, the rest of the story is focused upon him as well.
The rest of these little plots act as miniplays, as my professor used to call them. These miniplays help the story stay active and increase the attention of an audience. If there are two characters at a table having coffee it is static and boring, despite their conversation. If these characters are knitting, it’s a little more interesting, but not really. If the characters are playing chess and what they say distracts the moves they are trying to make, it’s really interesting. What’s super interesting is when the conversation they have involves trying to manipulate the other, and chess both symbolizes and is influenced by this struggle.
But miniplays are another blog post entirely.