Moving the story along
Somewhere along the line you were probably told that “literary fiction” is more character-driven than plot-driven. Does this mean that fine short stories are plot-less? No. A good story has movement. A series of precipitating events. Not necessarily car crashes and earthquakes. Maybe these precipitating events are barely discernible. But they should be there. Something happens that causes something else to happen that causes something else to happen. There is movement.
We’re told over and over how important it is to create compelling and complex characters and how we should reveal them to readers through their thoughts and dialogue. Here’s another “c” word: complication. Don’t let your scene spin its wheels. Introduce a complication, and introduce it early in your story. Even if your images are incredible, you still need to keep us curious about what’s about to happen next. Add a complication. A hurdle. A difficulty. Trouble. Serious trouble. A rock in the road (this is a good rock). Then let your characters take steps to move that real or metaphorical rock off the road.
That rock on your right? Think of it as a complication rock. A good kind of rock.
But fiction movement is more than a series of incidents. We know an anecdote when we read one—right? The incidents—even if they can be added up—are no greater than their sum. Fiction magic, synergy, happens when the sum of precipitating events is greater than its parts.
Another response to your story you don’t want to hear: “Nothing happens in this story.” Nudge or shove, but move your characters along. Even if, physically, they get no farther than inside the trunk of their car, like the characters in one of this week’s assigned stories.
And the end should feel like the natural result of all that has come before—not necessarily a complete resolution—but it shouldn’t come out of the blue. (No deus ex machina, please. What worked for Euripedes probably won’t work for the contemporary writer.)
A good story end will often rise above that sum to provide a gift the reader didn’t expect. Perhaps some insight or image that will draw the reader back to the story again and again.
Use Your Senses
Bodies stroke, sniff, sip, glimpse, and hear creaking floorboards. They’re aware of their environments. They use their senses. And you want your readers to be right there with them. How do you do this? Through imagery. Paint a world they can touch, smell, taste, see, and hear (maybe not all senses in one story, but we particularly want to see your world). Sensory detail does more than color your story; it animates your story. Find the perfect sensory details to make your reader forget that she’s slouched in her armchair with an iPad on her knee.
What do you color with? Nouns and verbs. Those should be the predominant colors on your word palette. Strong, not muddy, colors. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. But do remember these adjectives: accurate (look your words up, check usage, if you have to), precise (so there’s no mistaking what you want to convey and the right image is conjured up in the reader’s mind), and telling (sometimes the word goes beyond the call of duty and reveals something). Use similes sparingly, too. Everything doesn’t have to be like something else. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Read Like a Writer
Again, I encourage you to read once for pleasure and a second time as a writer. Print stories and read them with a pen in hand. Get physical with the stories. Draw brackets, circles, arrows, lines. Write notes. This week, pay special attention to the characters’ physicality: how readers sense their bodies, how those bodies move, and how objects are used. How much action is there, and how does the writer craft the writing of action scenes? Also pay special attention to the writers’ use of nouns and verbs, and how the writers involve readers’ senses. Notice rising and falling tension in the story scenes, and in any story you read. Remember: Once for pleasure. The second time, analyze.
Readings for Week 3:
Steven Heighton, “Shared Room on Union”
Marc Labriola, “Cutman”
Randolyn Zinn, “New Girl”
Best of the Net Fiction Winners and Finalists
Visit when you have time. If the first few paragraphs of a story grab you, relax and read. (Something to keep in mind: In revising your work, make sure that you don’t waste any time giving your readers, including editors, a reason to keep reading.)
Take a cue from one of the assigned readings for your scene exercise this week—but if you’d prefer to write a scene that further develops the narrative you began with your previous exercise, feel free. (The new scene could be anywhere on the timeline of your story—but do write a new scene.) And focus on writing action scenes, or body-focused scenes, that both reveal character and move the story along.
By the way, I do encourage you to generate plenty of new material during this workshop experience. You can always go back and polish later. At least save the exercises for a time when you need a nudge or shove to get writing. We all need that sometimes.
1. In “Shared Room on Union,” a criminal act is the complication that gets this story moving. Try adding a criminal element to a routine situation, and see what happens.
2. There may not be much physical movement in “Cutman,” but this story is intensely focused on the body. Try writing a scene in which a character works at a job that involves working with the human body: cutman, nurse, masseuse, medical examiner, mortician, beautician, personal trainer, nanny, athlete, sex worker—any job that’s focused on the physical.
3. Stories written from a child’s POV can be tricky, but “New Girl” is exceptional, and Regina is a delight. And this is a story that moves. Pay attention to the use of physical detail, including the clothing and objects such as the arrowhead in this one, and find a way to incorporate such detail into your own scene—while still making it move.
Or write a scene with some physical activity to give it a backbone. Housework, taking care of a young child, waiting tables at a restaurant, playing tennis—give your characters something to do with their bodies while they deal with their complications.
A Few Tips:
Yes, we’re focusing on physicality this time—the body, the senses, and physical action of all sorts—but don’t forget that we still need to care about, or at least be keenly interested in, your characters. So they can still talk and think. They can chew gum and walk—and think—at the same time.
Speaking of chewing gum and walking at the same time, try to avoid clichés as much as you can, unless your character uses them. Even then, be careful not to overdo it. Keep your language lively. Clichés are dead language.
Keep craft in mind, but try not to get too hung up on the nuts and bolts while you’re creating. First, tell a story you care deeply about. Assume that the birth of your story will be messy. Plan on cleaning it up and making it presentable later. Making it presentable may take several revisions. You’re not in a hurry, right?
Consider exercises a door into finding out what you really want to write about. If the resulting scene or story doesn’t seem the least bit connected to the exercise that sparked it, that’s all right. As long as you’re happy with it. If you’re not happy with it, find some scrap of it to save in a writer’s notebook, or throw it out. I don’t think any time spent writing is a futile effort. The regular practice of writing will keep you limber.