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Why You Should Spend More Time on Character Development Than Action

character developmentAuthors sometimes feel pressured to dive right into the action of their stories—at the expense of important character development. Because the last thing we want to do is write a boring story, we sometimes overreact by piling on explosions, fight sequences, and high-speed car chases to the point we’re unable to spend important time developing our characters.

Character development is especially important in the first half of the story, since readers need to understand and sympathize with the characters before they’re hit with the major plot revelations at the Midpoint and the Climax.

Summer blockbusters are often particularly guilty of neglecting character development, but in Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, we have an enduring exception.

>>Click here to read a structural breakdown of Jurassic Park in the Story Structure Database.

Can Your Characters Arc Be a Subplot

A viewing of this movie provides important insight into its success. No one would claim this film is a leisurely character study, but it rises far above the monster movie genre through an expert use of pacing and loving attention to character, principally in its first half. It may surprise some viewers to realize the action in this movie doesn’t heat up until almost precisely an hour into the film. Up to that point, we have no scream-worthy moments, no adrenaline, and no extended action scenes.

Jeff Goldblum Ian Malcolm Jurassic Park

Spielberg used the entire first half of the movie to build suspense and encourage viewer loyalty to the characters. By the time the storm hits and the dinosaurs attack, we sincerely care about the half dozen main characters and our nerves have been effectively strained to the breaking point through the magnificent use of foreshadowing.

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

Spielberg understood what all authors must—that if you can hook viewers through your characters, you can take your time building your story to an artful Climax.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you prefer stories to open with character development or action? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. @Roland: I don’t know that I’ve ever reread a book for it’s action scenes (and this from a woman who *loves* action scenes). But I’ve definitely reread favorites because I couldn’t get enough of the characters.

    @Frederick: It didn’t dawn on me either until I watched it again a few weeks ago. Crazy what you miss sometimes!

  2. I think it’s always that much stronger of a piece when the story opens with defining the characters and their place in the world. The story is just a segment of time in the characters’ lives, starting with a bang may be possible but it’s not as convincing in my opinion.

  3. Good way to put it. Opening with a bang is great, but if it doesn’t accomplish the all-important task of hooking readers with character, it becomes too much of a gimmick.

  4. This is always such a tricky thing. It’s been drilled into our heads that we need an inciting incident within the first ten pages at least, and pacing is such an important balance to strike. But looking back at all the books I’ve loved, character is KEY. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s the most important to me.

  5. We need a *hook* within the first ten pages, but the true inciting event shouldn’t happen until 20-25% into the book.

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  7. My pleasure! Looking forward to tweeting with you. I’ll check out the link right away.

  8. The first half of jurrasic is so boring no one can remember anything heard,seen,or explained. I feel the the only thing that keeps you watching is that it’s Steven Spielberg. He may have edited it to set up the “The Chase”,but I feel the only reason anyone stayed for the second half of the movie was thier familiarity with Spielberg, not some great plotting.

  9. Obviously, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. 🙂 Jurassic Park is one of my favorite Spielberg movies. It’s a masterpiece of plotting.

  10. I think Michael Crichton deserves some credit for the pacing of the movie, since it’s very much based on his novel. And “Time” is a rather ambiguous term. Action scenes take more time to write per word than any other parts, usually because they get rewritten dozens of times. But they’re read in a flash and usually are over in a page, maybe two.

    It depends on the story, but I still like to open in action, or at least in tension, something in process (or likely to happen or hinted at) related to the main story thread and the theme. If it reveals character, that’s also good. Readers may accept a leisurely opening (especially if they know you), but agents? Never.

    In a pinch, flashing forward to an action sequence may work. But that’s a topic all on its own.

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