“Never confuse movement with action” – Ernest Hemingway
All of us have had someone look over the stuff we’ve written and say to us – not without a note of sympathy in their voice – that while the writing is good and the grammar is correct and the style is top notch, what we have is just ‘not a story’.
This someone is usually an editor whose name you’ve never heard of and whose face you’ve never seen, so of course you think he’s nuts. How dare he say ‘it’s not a story’ when everyone in your family (even that second cousin who otherwise thinks you’re a loser) thinks your work has shades of Dickens? You rightly rage against him and at the world that allows people of his kind to be in charge of magazines and publishing houses. What price art, you ask yourself, and what price an artist?
But then you can only rail for so long. Pragmatism sets in. You sit down to work at your non-story, to somehow will it to become a story. And then you ask yourself the question every writer of fiction at some point asks himself. What makes a story a story?
The immediate answer may be that it’s people, and you would be partly right, but would anything become a story as long as it’s about a person?
John was a fifty-year-old construction worker. He woke up at 7 A.M. He brushed his teeth. He had bread and toast for breakfast. He drove his Toyota Corolla to work. He stopped on the way at the petrol station to fill the tank. He had lunch at 1 P.M., a tea break at 3:00, and at five he packed up and drove back home. He went out for a walk, showered after he came home, fixed himself some sausages from the fridge, and went to bed.
If the above paragraph is a story, it’s a damned boring one. Why? Because of the same reason we spoke about last week – nothing happens! There is no movement. There is physical action, sure, because John’s going places and doing things, but emotionally, there is no place to which John desperately wants to move, and therefore he stays put. The events in his life seem to be free of desire and unfulfillment. He seems to be content, and while contentment is great in real life, avoid it like the plague in your fiction.
For all the attention and importance you give to plot and to structure (and linear and non-linear narratives), you will be well served, until you publish at least six stories and a novel, to focus primarily on these two things: conflict and movement. When an editor tells you that your story isn’t a story, this is what he means – that it lacks conflict and that it doesn’t move.
The concept is simple. Human beings want things. They don’t get them for various reasons. They have a choice: a) do something to get what they want or b) sit on their hands and let things slide. In fiction we write about people who pick the first option; people who act against the circumstances in which they find themselves; people who, as a result of their actions, either move towards their goal or away from it.
For every story you write, before you begin writing it, you will do well to write down the list of characters and make a map of the following questions for each character.
- What does A want?
- What are the things that are stopping A from getting what he wants right now?
- What is A going to do about it?
- Does it move him closer to the goal or away from it?
- At the end of the story, does A get his wants or not?
Bear in mind that conflict can come in layers. For instance, John may want a fresh pair of work boots but he doesn’t have the money for it. That is the central conflict of the story. His plan is to steal it from his manager (say Paul) who is also his car-pooling buddy. But the problem is that Paul is so finicky that he never lets his wallet out of his sight. So John has to somehow make Paul leave his wallet in the car and step away from it for long enough. There is also another problem that Paul has once caught John in the act of stealing a colleague’s lunch, so he will suspect John the minute he discovers his wallet has been picked. So John has to perhaps find an accomplice for the job, but the problem is that he has to share the loot with him.
Notice that while the central conflict (John wants a pair of new work-boots) has stayed intact, the secondary conflict has flared up and thrown open a mass of micro-conflicts that John must now grapple with in order to realize his want. Make sure this happens in your stories, too. Your characters, in every scene and in every line and in every word, must want something, and their actions must be geared towards overcoming the obstacles between them and their goal. It’s just as Kurt Vonnegut said. “Make your characters want something – even if it’s just a glass of water.”
The longer your story, and the more characters you have, the more complex your network of individual conflicts will become. This is one reason why novels are harder to write than short stories. Maintaining that conflict and that sense of movement is much harder to do over three hundred pages than it is over one or two.
Some people cite resolution as an important piece of the story, but I tend to disagree. Resolution is a fairly simple decision from the writer’s point of view – for each of your character’s wants, you either give it to her or you don’t. If you get proficient at conflict and movement, you will see that the resolution does not matter all that much. If I tell you John’s story with care and detail, if I show you the lengths to which he goes to steal his manager’s wallet and his attempts to get away with it unscathed, if you see his misadventures at choosing an accomplice and then trying to cheat him out of his share, will it really matter to you by the end of the story whether John gets his boots or not?
All said and done it’s quite simple. Strap weights to your character and make him run through sand. Set rat traps in his path and cover them with buses and roses. Throw balls of fire at him and watch him duck and weave out of the way. Make him run an extra lap around the circuit just when he thinks he’s home. Starve him of water and food. Keep him alive, but only just. If you feel bad for being a heartless torturer, get over it. He isn’t real. You just pretend that he is.
And when he finally makes it to the finish line dripping in sweat and coated in dust and crawling on all fours, you will have your story. And one that not just your family will like.