The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
The full title of this section is Fixed Action, as against Moving Action. The premise of the section is that human behavior patterns are revealing, and I think everyone would agree with that. In fact, whenever I read this section I find my head bobbing happily along in agreement for the first two pages, even as I feel a bit of discomfort that Hills seems to know me too well. Then, suddenly, I’m brought up short by the following sentence:
But just the opposite is true in fiction.
As many times as I’ve read Hills’ book you would think I wouldn’t have the same ‘Wait…what?’ moment, but I do. The reason for the disconnect is that after Hills spends two pages talking about reality he suddenly switches point of view to talk about the contrivance we call fiction. In order to make the same point-of-view switch I remind myself that looking at life and drawing lessons from life requires observation, while creating fiction requires construction. As a fiction writer it’s not enough to notice that something exists or that it’s true, you have to know how to evoke and shape that aspect of reality through craft and technique.
It’s a point Hills gets to himself a moment later, when he says:
Patterned behavior is useful in establishing characterization because it is illustrative action that shows what a character is like.
The critical word in that sentence is “establishing.” When you set out to tell a story you’ve got to establish a reality before you can alter that reality. My own craft word for this is preparation, and I think it’s the true engine of storytelling force. When Hills talks about fixed action he’s talking about the behavior patterns that exist as your story begins, the narrative reality those patterns establish, and how all of that prepares for the moving action of the plot.
Now, we’ve all read books or seen movies where what’s established is threadbare or cliche. Hills isn’t advocating obviousness, he’s simply pointing out that there’s a relationship between the fixed action as a story begins and the moving action that defines that particular story. It’s a small point, and one I caution you to reign in rather than run with. Storytelling gurus love to talk about motivation and how plots can be motivated by character actions (including behavior patterns), but that’s not where Hills is going. Establishing fixed action is not the equivalent of a backstory in which your protagonist’s mother/brother/partner was killed.
Having said that, I’m convinced that a great deal of what’s wrong with many stories — both literary and mass-market — is a lack of adequate preparation. Fixed action is not a punishment that you must protect the reader from, nor is it an obligation you should meet as quickly as possible. If you are a good writer you should be able to entertain and interest the reader without resorting to stupendous plot events or cheap motivations in the first five (or even fifty) pages. Yes, the reader should have some idea where you’re going. Yes, if you’re writing genre fiction you should meet genre expectations. But none of that dictates that you do so poorly or in a boring way.
Authorial skill is measured as much or more by the moments between key plot turns as by those events. Likewise, the emotive power of your story will be felt as much or more by your ability to breathe life into the fixed actions of your characters as it will be driven by the moving action of your plot. If that wasn’t true you could always make your story better or more exciting by blowing up more buildings or adding more sex.
Fixed action — the reality that exists in your characters and their world when your story begins — is the foundation of everything that follows. If that foundation is shaky, nonsensical or cliche the downstream effect of that faulty preparation will be hard to overcome. The damage will also be hard to detect because it won’t necessarily show up in ways that can be directly observed, even as your climax falters or a character falls flat. Very few readers (including professional editors) will be able to trace this kind of weakness back to its source, which means it’s all the more important to take responsibility for establishing a solid foundation yourself. You may be the only person who ever knows how your story works, but every reader will benefit from your efforts.
Next up: As the Story Begins and Ends.
— Mark Barrett
Comment Policy: Ditchwalk is a wild place, but not without tending. On-topic comments are welcomed, appreciated and preserved. Off-topic or noxious comments are, like invasive species, weeded out.