Through the first eight sections of his book Rust Hills illuminates ways in which character and action are interconnected. He doesn’t say, “Here’s how you nail them together.” Instead, he says, “Here’s how these things relate to each other.”
How you connect character and action in any story is up to you. Hills doesn’t care what words you use for the two concepts, or how you go about integrating them through the specific details of the stories you have to tell. What he does want you to do is create a kind of seamless integration that goes well past the put-tab-A-in-slot-B construction that so many storytelling gurus and how-to-write authors champion.
Here Hills explains the effect of this kind of seamless integration on the reader:
The action of a story, then, takes a character past a decisive point down into one or another of the forks in the road. As a result of “what happens” there is one chance less that he can become anything other than what it is inevitable he will become.
The simple graphic in this section does a great job of explaining how this feeling of inevitability comes about in a story. Apart from specific choices and motivations, how a character responds to each crossroad or fork says something definitive about that character, and that’s what you want to dramatize for the reader.
For the person constructing a narrative, however, providing a compelling experience for the reader often gets replaced with an authorial checklist. Did you provide a clear motivation for your character’s choice? Did you show, not tell? Do the characters act logically? Do they reflect their own internal emotional truths? Do you alternate between action sequences and dialogue scenes?
All of these questions might be useful in some way, but they’re not the goal. The goal is not a quiz in which the reader successfully answers questions like, “Why did Suzy hate dogs?” The goal is a full, rounded, convincing and compelling experience in which your characters seem to have choices before them in the first pages, and in the final pages to have inevitably arrived at their narrative destinies.
Retrospect is a function of the passage of time in your story. A short story usually offers a smaller slice of a character’s life than a novel, but in all stories the opportunity exists to create a sense of inevitability for the reader. If you don’t fully satisfy this potential your readers may feel as if they understand the plot, or as if the have experienced your authorial checklist, but when they wander away they will retain little or no sense of conviction about the experience you shared with them.
Next up: Enhancing the Interaction of Character and Plot.
— Mark Barrett