Writing Action and Plot
by Don Webb
Carmen’s article “Short Fiction vs. Novel,” in this issue, gives us invaluable advice about writing. We will all do well to heed it.
Carmen and I have come to the same view of fiction by different routes. Carmen, through experience on the stage; I, by sitting in the audience. We view stories as drama. Does flash fiction have one act while longer fiction has three to five acts? Quite possibly, but the real importance is elsewhere: in the dialogue and narration.
Once writers look at prose fiction as a script for a radio play, a stage play or a film, a lot of problems vanish. Is narration extended stage directions? Not always, but it often is. As for dialogue, Carmen says it must be believable when spoken aloud. And Carmen tells us how to check: don’t write by rote; go somewhere isolated and speak the lines aloud, yourself!
While writing Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert recited every sentence aloud in his gueuloir, or “shouting room”. And he did it over and over again till he got it right. Do the same and you may not write another towering classic, but you will stand a very good chance of “getting it right.”
Now, writing prose fiction is very similar to writing a play; but it would be simplistic to say that it’s the same thing. Carmen says elsewhere that if she’s playing a character who has to walk across the stage and take a murder weapon out of a desk drawer, there is a wrong way and a right way to play that scene:
The wrong way: Just follow the stage directions. Saunter across the stage, slide open the drawer and take out the weapon. Why is it wrong? You may as well take out a piece of bubble gum. The audience will have no idea what your walking across the stage means. It’s empty action.
The right way: Be that character. As Carmen says, know in advance what you’re doing: you have to go get that murder weapon and, probably, use it. Ham that I am, I would slink fearfully across the stage and hesitate tremblingly at the drawer while looking furtively about. Then I’d yank open the drawer, snatch the gun, if that’s what it is, look at it wide-eyed, gasp, and hastily stuff it into my pocket. And hope it was loaded with blanks in case I shot myself in something.
An actor must show the audience how her character feels about what she’s doing, even when she isn’t speaking. Likewise, the writer must show the reader how the characters feel about what they’re doing, even though the writer is speaking.
We recently received a submission that we had to return for a rewrite. Why did we do that? The author has generously allowed us to summarize the plot and discuss it here:
- Abby, a young single lady, moves into a new apartment.
- Abby is awakened regularly in the middle of the night by a woman’s screams that last for about fifteen minutes. No one else seems to hear them.
- Abby asks her co-worker, Betty, about them. Betty: What screams? Abby: What to do? Betty: Ask the neighbors? Abby: Okay.
- Betty invites a neighbor couple, Chuck and Dagmar, in for drinks. She introduces herself, tells them she’s recently split from her boyfriend and asks them if they’ve heard screams. C. & D.: No, but a girl was murdered by a foul brute nearby many years ago in the middle of the night. Abby: Oh, is that it? Who’d have thought. Have another drink.
I think you can see the trouble with that scenario:
Betty is superfluous. The reader has the distinct impression that Abby is a few sandwiches short of a picnic: she should have thought to ask the neighbors, herself.
Scene 3 also has a logic problem: scene 2 implies that Abby has already asked the neighbors, but we can’t be sure.
Scene 4 tells a story within the story. But all it does is explain that the screams are due to your everyday, garden-variety time warp.
The story stops rather than concludes. It’s quite pointless: Abby does not have a conflict, she has a rather strange noise-abatement problem.
Now, how do we fix that story? We have to give it a plot, one that has a point: the screams have to mean something to Abby.
How about this: Abby hears the screams because her apartment is right over the place where the girl was killed.
No, that doesn't work. Physical location is accidental; it's a condition external to Abby. Being external, it's merely a problem, and problems are solved by external means: Abby need only move to another apartment building to find peace and quiet again.
Test it out. Which story is more interesting:
- one in which the screams disappear when Abby goes away for a weekend and the voices cease,
- or one in which the screams wake her in the middle of the night no matter where she goes?
Obviously the latter is more interesting, because there is no obvious solution. Abby’s problem is no longer external but internal; it’s a form of conflict, because Abby seems to be caught alone between a sign of danger and a normal state of affairs. The middle of the story will tell us what the conflict is, namely what the matter is with Abby.
Now, is Betty a superfluous character? Try turning the question upside down. How might she play a key role?
Abby is looking haggard at work these days because her sleep is interrupted wherever she goes. Betty is looking haggard, too: her family has lived for generations in the same neighborhood as Abby, and lately Betty has been having these awful nightmares...
Next, Betty and Abby must have something in common in real life that justifies their supernatural connection. And that provides a middle for the story: Betty is dating Abby's ex-boyfriend, Bozo, who, they discover, is a direct descendant and, in fact, practically a reincarnation of the brute of long ago.
The ending: Abby and Betty realize that the nightmares and screams are warnings from the past. They conspire to set a trap for Bozo the Ex, and sure enough, he tries the old brute routine on them. But they’ve alerted Chuck and Dagmar, who catch Bozo red-handed, hold him at kitchen-knife point and call the cops.
Now, that’s a pretty routine story; you could see the ending coming a mile away. But it is a story, because it does have a plot.
Are there other possibilities? So many that I’ve lost count. Any of the other characters could be the villain. Bozo could be a hero out of Julian Lawler’s epics; Chuck and Dagmar belong to one of Clyde Andrews’ “dark covens”; Abby has wandered in from S. Michael Leier’s Skull Hunter series; and Betty is a vampire from Bob Sellers’ weird wild west stories.
Or again, turn the strategy upside down: does the story need a villain at all? The possibilities are endless.
Action: It has to mean something. Both writers and actors have to show what it is, although they do not use the same medium.
Plot: Start with the ending. Once you decide what the villain is up to, you can have fun figuring out how the characters need each other in conspiring — plotting, if you will — to thwart him.
Is that all there is to it? Sure... till next time!
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb