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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:

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:

  1. Abby, a young single lady, moves into a new apartment.
  2. 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.
  3. Abby asks her co-worker, Betty, about them. Betty: What screams? Abby: What to do? Betty: Ask the neighbors? Abby: Okay.
  4. 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:

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:

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.


Is that all there is to it? Sure... till next time!

Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb

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