Action and meaning

Last weekend Mrs K and I accidentally stumbled upon the Mintfest street arts festival. This made for a wonderful weekend, wandering around Kendal, seeing strange little acts of dancing, juggling, machine building and all sorts of other madness. But while none of this was writing related, my writing brain was still ticking away. Lets face it, if you can’t find inspiration in a mad puppet circus then you can’t find it anywhere.

The best example of this was a trampoline performance by the remarkable Cirque Inextremiste. How does trampolining get to be remarkable? That’s a little hard to explain, but to give you an idea, it involved a comedy terrorist, a five foot red rubber ball, and a stack of calor gas cannisters, all of which spent time bouncing on the trampoline. Off the trampoline there was a spud gun, a blowtorch and some alarmed audience participation. To cap it all off there were some haunting clarinet solos. It was exciting, funny, and at times almost sad.

So what did my writing brain make of this? A story of martyrdom and bouncing explosives, with a musical ending? Well, maybe. But my main take aways were about structuring story.

Firstly, Inextremiste did a great job of setting up plot elements, and using them efficiently. Throw away gags used to warm up the crowd were also set-up for later moves. Objects played multiple roles in the story. The finale was a great pay-off for the hectic action that had come before, and finished with a calmer moment to let it sink in.

The other thing it made me think about was the use of action. The whole performance was visual, with no spoken words. The story was clearly designed as a vehicle for a series of increasingly impressive trampolining stunts. Yet every one of those stunts progressed the story. Unlike the action in poorly plotted thrillers, every act, however spectacular, moved the plot along, adding complications to the central character’s quest for martyrdom.

Looking back over some of my stories, I can see places where a set-piece is there because I like the action, but it changes nothing. And what I was reminded of by Cirque Inextremiste is just how lazy that is. If they, without words, could show how every ridiculous bounce on a trampoline contributed to a story, then I, with the whole English language at my disposal, have no excuse not to do the same.