One way to describe mime is that it is a means of telling stories without using words. However, that's not an accurate description at all. Like the spoken word, mime too is a language that follows a set of linguistic rules in order to communicate its message.
Breath and energy:
In the spoken word, before we speak, we fill our lungs with air. Speech is created by regulating the release of the air in our lungs. How many words we can speak from a single breath determines the bandwidth of information transfer. Our volume, inflexions, nuances and emotions are dependent on our degree of control over this release of air from our lungs. The better the control, the more meaning can be encoded in our speech, thus maximizing the bandwidth determined by our lung capacity.
Mime shares the exact same starting point as speech. The inhale stores energy released through movement at the moment of exhale. The speed of the exhale determines the rate of energy released, which conveys the intention of the actor (the person who is acting on this release of energy). The expression of different nuances, moods and textures all stem from the breath. A sudden, explosive release of energy has a very different connotation from a slow, controlled release.
The mime has total control over the breath. Every movement is begun and completed in the same breath, just as is a spoken sentence. There is no call to complete a movement mid-breath, or to continue after the lungs are exhausted without some cause that runs counter to the actor's intention -- an interruption from another actor, perhaps; or a sudden change in the dynamic of the narration.
Joint articulation and isolations:
Individual words are discrete units of information carried through vibrations we perceive as sound. They make little sense on their own beyond their particular definitions. It is in the combination of words within a particular syntax and context that words are able to communicate meaning.
The mime's vocabulary is located in the joints between his bones. The more joints he can move in isolation of the other joints, the wider the vocabulary with which he can express himself. Like any spoken vocabulary, it takes discipline and practice to amass enough words to be able to communicate, except that the mime trains muscle memory. Instead of discovering and verbally repeating words to remember them, the mime discovers new muscles to move in new ways and repeats those movements until he is fluent in them.
Words are strung together in a sequence to form sentences that convey meaning. Likewise, the mime strings together different isolations in a sequence that conveys his intention. Unlike a spoken vocabulary, however, isolated movements do not represent meaning according to a predetermined definition. The meaning of movement is more context specific, and so through deft manipulation the mime creates the space around him.
Illusory boxes; invisible walls; immovable objects; the ability to take on the material characteristics of water and air... how are these manipulations carried out in such a way that can be seen and interpreted as 'real' to a audience? The main guiding principle is Newton's Third Law of Motion which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The mime creates 'reality' by balancing his intention against the resistance of the object he is acting upon. An intractable object is moved along the mime's plane of intent when he can summon enough energy to overcome its resistance to the movement.
A classic example is the 'walking against the wind' routine in which every step forward is countered by the wind resistance acting in the opposite direction. Forward motion is only possible when the mime proves stronger than the wind blowing against him. If the wind proves too strong, the mime's every forward step results in backward movement, which is the basis of the 'Moonwalk' popularized by Michael Jackson.
As with the spoken sentence, the mime's movement sentences need clarity of execution in order to communicate his intention effectively to the audience. The mime observes behaviour and deconstructs it into separate discreet movements, each a breath long. Depending on the focus, the mime may reconstruct the same behaviour using the minimum number of discrete movements (in order to get on with the main story); or using as many discrete movements as possible to complete the portrayal of the behaviour. It's the difference between looking at a specific movement frame-by-frame through a low frame-rate set of animation cels and through a high frame-rate HD movie. The former is efficient in carrying a narrative while the latter is more interested in the minute details involved in a single action sequence.
Once the mime is at this level of fluency in the Language of Mime -- it could take years of practice to get this far -- he might be ready to start telling some stories. Don't worry, it's a learn-on-the-job process.
Note: Sirius prompted this post because she suggested I teach the Drama kids some mime skills which could prove useful for stage awareness and presence at this year's Drama Night production. Poor kids didn't know what hit them when they showed up for the workshop this afternoon.