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.
In the previous section Hills established the relationship between fixed action and moving action. Here Hills elaborates with examples and notes a basic difference between short fiction and longer forms of storytelling:
There may, of course, be several moved characters in a novel, but in the short story there is usually just one character on whom matters focus.
Again the practical benefit of knowing how to write a short story should be obvious. If you can tell a story that focuses all of its effects through one character, all of that skill is directly portable to the orchestral nature of the novel — no matter what kind of novels you write. If you don’t know how to hone your storytelling skills to their sharpest point you may get away with clever plotting or lots of shrieking drama, but you will fail to achieve the emotional potential of your work.
The narrative tension an author can create with only one character moving from fixed action to some new reality can be amazing. Translate this portable power to a longer work stocked with multiple characters and you can see not only the potential for harvesting the same benefit over the duration of a work (perhaps at different critical points), but also the potential for adding layers of tension when characters interact.
Hills also makes the point that just as fixed action translates to moving action in a story’s beginning, the reverse is true as a story ends:
At the end there is another split instant of pause when we see what has happened to him as a result of the action of the story.
A story is defined by these moments of transformation from fixed to moving action. What comes before and after is assumed to be static, and the author will usually show a little of each in order to provide context and contrast for the events of the story. The new reality of the moved character is defined by a break from the old reality, and it is the break which is explored in the story.
Reinforcing the Character/Plot Connection
If you’ve been writing for a while, or talking with (or about) writers, you’ve probably noticed that most writers fall into one of two camps: those who think of plots first and those who think of characters first. (It’s not an absolute; I have done both, but plots tend to drop in more fully formed.) While we all tend to play to our strengths, the best storytelling comes from the integration of character and action (plot), so it makes sense to try to strengthen and explore that connection from the beginning.
If you’re a plot-first writer, thinking about fixed action, moving action and a character’s potential is a great way to get away from plot-fixation at the outline stage. Even if you write murder mysteries that lean heavily on logical twists and turns, the overall force of your work will be better for characters that have an organic potential to be moved, rather than simply being crowbarred into position.
If you’re a character-first writer who struggles with plotting you now have a way to exploit the early exploration of characters you’re interested in. Whoever a character is when the story begin, what action is it that they might be most resistant to? What would threaten their reality the most, or seduce them to alter their normal behavior patterns? (It’s often been said that character is plot, and it is.)
Fixed action defines a character’s potential. Stories describe a crossroad. As an author you control everything leading to and away from that crossroad, but it is your character(s) that must make a convincing transition. Understanding the relationship between fixed action, moving action, character, and the beginning and ending of your story only increases the likelihood that you will be able to successfully integrate all those aspects of your work.
Next up: Loss of the Last Chance to Change.
— Mark Barrett
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