Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
As readers, we know that either plot or characters can be the driving force behind great stories.
As writers, we sometimes forget that we need either plot or characters to be the driving force behind our stories.
I’ve read a handful of manuscripts over the last months where either plot or character have been seemingly forgotten. The stories are well-crafted in terms of the mechanics, so it seems the writers were so involved in the technical issues that they forgot the elements that interest readers.
We’ll look at character at another time; for this article, let’s examine the importance of plot, specifically action in our plots.
Action is anything that happens in a story. It can be an event, it can be dialogue, it can be reaction to an event or dialogue or even to another character’s reaction.
One weakness of many new writers is that they shirk away from strong events or actions to open their stories.
They want to build up to something exciting rather than open with dialogue or action that will immediately capture the reader’s attention.
While buildup is necessary in other parts of the story, and is a potent tool for ratcheting up tension and creating conflict, capturing readers from page one is almost a necessity in our day.
Books are in competition with many other forms of entertainment, entertainment that starts big and bold and moves up from there. To ensure you’ve got the reader’s attention, you have to give him something attention-worthy. And you don’t get more than the first page or two to prove your story is worth reading.
Yes, some stories can begin slower than others. No, you don’t need to kill someone or blow up a city to capture the reader. But you do need a compelling opening.
And you achieve a compelling story opening by introducing an unusual character or an eye-catching setting or by presenting a shocking action or dialogue rife with conflict.
Remember, readers come to fiction to find something they can’t get in their daily lives. Show them you’ve got a world for them to explore, characters to root for, plot that will entice them.
And do that at the top of your story.
But don’t stop there.
Something has to happen in your stories. Something that makes the reader think or feel. Something that can hold the reader’s attention when other—real-world—events are pulling and pushing and prodding at him. Your story events and problems have to be more compelling, at least for a few hours, than job and family and hobbies. You have to create events and characters so entrancing and real, so engrossing, that a reader will give up other pursuits to play in your fictional world.
One method to engage readers is to entice them with action.
For this article, I’d like to divide action into two types.
There are major events, plot twists and turns that direct the story into new paths and deeper developments.
And there are common actions, gestures and physical movements and everyday actions that carry characters from one scene to the next.
You need both kinds of actions to make your stories read as if they’re possible. And not only possible, but true.
Readers know that novel events aren’t real, but when they feel real, the reader is satisfied. Events and stories that are implausible don’t create the same satisfaction in a reader. In fact, readers may quite likely toss aside books where the actions are implausible and the characters unbelievable.
Major events are those that push the story forward or into new directions. They’re often the result of conflict—a character is faced with one or more untenable options, is forced to make a choice, and then makes that choice, often with much angst. The character is changed because of his choice, and the story moves into a new, inevitable, path.
Actions at story opening
Major action events are found at the beginning of the story—when a character is faced with something unusual in his day. That action—death of a friend, conversation with an estranged brother, the discovery of a secret—interrupts the daily tenor of the character’s life. That first action, called by some the inciting incident, in turn leads to the character doing something.
This something is another action. This one takes the character to a place he’d not intended to go that morning when he awoke. A character forced to do other than what he’d intended to do is a character out of balance, off-kilter. And his story is off to a strong start.
Once these first two action events have been established, the character and his story can progress in a calmer mode, with the character trying to regain his equilibrium and trying to fix the problem that’s been introduced. No other major event has to happen right away. Instead, conflict and tension can be increased through minor actions and dialogue. This is a good place to introduce other characters and allow them to react to the opening events.
Yet, you could follow a major action with several others. There’s no law against piling on problems right from the start. A character, especially one who can handle a lot, could be hit again and again until he responds in a way that surprises everyone but himself. He may know he’d break at a certain point, thus the reason for the protected lifestyle he’s pursued for years. A letter from his brother plus a visit from his ex-wife plus the news that his father had another family might be the triggers that it takes to stir this man to action.
Of course, there is such a thing as too much. Don’t overburden your main character in an unbelievable way. Don’t do it at the top of the story and don’t do it mid-story.
Let the character’s problems be believable and inevitable, not melodramatic. Unless you’re writing The New Perils of Pauline, you don’t want readers thinking about impossibilities and feeling incredulity. You do want readers thinking that the events you’ve written are not only possible but that they actually happened. You want to make the reader both think that something happened and have an emotional and/or physical response, one that tells them that the story events actually did occur.
Other major events must occur throughout the story. Such events pull characters deeper into their problems even as they search for a way out. Such events also pull the reader deeper. And this is a key for successful stories.
Readers must be engaged. And they’re engaged when something happens to characters they have an interest in. (Thus the need for creating both enticing plots and intriguing characters.)
There are no set times for adding major actions and story events, though there are recommendations from those who’ve studied successful story structure. Yet even those who make suggestions based on the long history of plays and storytelling don’t agree. Some recommend the three-act story, others a four-act setup, with their suggestions for major plot events coming at different places in the story.
All agree, however, that story needs events. And events of sufficient impact to challenge characters and keep readers interested.
And all remind the writer that a major event must happen somewhere near the top of the story, whether that means page 12 or a quarter of the way into the story or at the end of the first third of the story.
This major event has been named the call to action or the inciting incident or simply the call. (The inciting incident can refer to one of two events, depending on who’s doing the referring. Wherever it is found, it’s a key event in a story.)
This event is what sets a character on his trek. Whatever happens in this incident, it’s sufficient to make the character turn his back on what he had been doing and seek a new path, a new goal, a new answer.
The event is an action of some kind and the character’s response is another action. The two are separate acts, independent and dependent at the same time. These two intertwined events are often the most memorable events in fiction.
They don’t have to be big and splashy in visual terms; they do have to be compelling and potent. They do cost the character something—his time, his self-respect, his other plans. In the long run they could cost him his job, his family, his health, his sanity, or his life.
This call to action should also affect the reader, but without him consciously thinking about it. The reader should feel the inevitability of the moment but he should also feel the tension, feel that he is making the same choice the character made to pursue the goal set before him.
This is a great place to engage the reader, especially his emotions. If he is caught up in the tale, he’ll be pulled even deeper into the story, just as the character is.
Beyond these early moments of event and action, story events must enfold to keep both character and reader engaged.
Something has to happen.
The most elegant writing can’t hide a lack of plot or story events.
If you want the reader turning pages, you have to give him something to read. Entice him with anticipation and then satisfy him with action that embroils the lead in even more difficult problems.
Build on events that have come before and introduce new problems through events the character either didn’t anticipate or anticipated, but hoped wouldn’t come to pass.
Make use of physical action—fist fights and arguments and tiptoeing through dark cellars—and psychological action—phone calls and innuendo and common events that could have sinister meanings.
Use dialogue to hammer blows for a character who can’t use her fists.
Follow a series of physical events with dialogue that shocks or beats down.
Follow dialogue with an unexpected physical response or event.
Shock the character and reader with an event that no one saw coming, but that was, of course, inevitable.
Or, set up a shock with teases and anticipation and false incidents.
Vary the pattern of your major actions and events. That is, don’t always write two physical actions followed by a page of dialogue that explores those actions.
Keep the reader both guessing at and satisfied by the inevitability of story events.
Black Moment, Crisis, Climax
The second very important action moment will be the climax. You’ll have given the character and the reader other major actions and events to deal with, but everyone should recognize the story’s climax. This is when hell breaks loose and when the lead must prove himself.
Several actions and events may make up this moment, one leading to the next and to the next. But whatever those somethings are, they must add up to a major plot event.
This is what the story’s been building toward. This is the moment the reader has been anticipating. This is it, where all that has come before explodes into what the story has been leading to.
And your climax had better deliver.
It needs to be sufficient for the length of the story and for the type of story events that preceded it. It must satisfy the reader. It must address the major story issue, bring the protagonist face to face with his problem, and end his search or trek or quest.
The climax includes actions of both antagonist and protagonist. It may have both physical and psychological components. It will hit protagonist and reader on several levels.
It will make the previous 300 pages worth reading.
A few actions will follow the climax, and while they’re important, they won’t have the power of the climax. These events and actions have a different purpose—to tie up loose ends and explain what was unexplained and settle both reader and character to what has taken place. Actions in the resolution may lead to anticipation of another book.
Common actions are story events that occupy characters as they move through the story.
As with major action events, these actions can be physical or psychological or they may be sections of dialogue.
These actions give personality to characters and allow them to move through the story setting.
Think in terms of habits—biting nails, twirling hair, whistling, or chewing gum. Think of the way characters move—languidly or with purpose or always racing out the door.
Keep in mind that characters, like real people, do more than think and experience emotion. They move. They interact. They touch and play and sing and dance. They’re involved in sports, they work in the garden, they eat.
They pound dough for bread or edge cakes with icing. They make love, they weep, they dive from airplanes.
They visit banks and hairdressers and grocery stories and the dry cleaner. They yell orders into the drive-thru speaker and spill ketchup on white pants.
Characters act and react and act again.
Common actions ground the reader in the fiction, allow him to see what’s happening. Stories without these normal actions can seem empty or unreal; stories overburdened with such actions are tedious.
Adding and manipulating the common and everyday actions of their characters is a necessary task for writers. They must decide what to include, what to exclude. They must decide appropriate times and locations for the common. They must decide when these actions add value to the story and when they detract.
Most writers know that if they don’t include action beats in long passages of dialogue, the characters become talking heads, adrift somewhere with no ties to their setting. Yet writers may still forget to keep the character involved in his world. Or, they may give their characters actions that don’t fit the character or the moment or the other events taking place.
Characters shouldn’t rub a lucky penny when they should instead be slapping another character. They shouldn’t talk about the taste of their mahi-mahi when another character just dropped a bombshell at the dinner table.
They definitely should not be noticing the window displays as they chase a murder suspect down a crowded city street.
Action events, even the most common of them, should fit the story. That means a fit for genre, characters, tone, and the importance of the moment.
Knowing which actions to include and how to include them is a skill, one that writers can improve upon with each manuscript. It’s a skill that should be sought by writers.
The right actions in the right places can make a story. The wrong actions or the lack of action or action in the wrong place or to the wrong degree can stop a story, at least for readers. And it’s the readers who matter.
If action isn’t your strong point, write your first draft without much of it. When you rewrite, look for places where dialogue goes uninterrupted by physical movements or action events. Add action to increase conflict and to keep readers involved.
Take out action that adds nothing to the plot or that doesn’t reveal something new about a character or that doesn’t increase conflict.
Don’t overplay character habits, but make sure your characters act like people. Give them physical movements that reveal personality or that reveal their turmoil.
Include both major action and everyday actions. Include physical events as well as dialogue in your scenes.
Make something happen, whether that means a major event, an event that steers the plot, or an action that shows characters interacting with one another or their setting.
Don’t keep readers waiting forever for something to take place. Teasing and anticipation are great storytelling tools, but story must have action.
A story without action events is no story. It’s a character sketch or an essay. If you’re writing a novel, you need events to make a plot. You need action. And your readers need action too.