Action and Reaction

Action drives so many of our stories these days. Films that leave us breathless, but also strangely unaffected. Dialogue reduced to pithy quips. Even novels, like a kind of sugar high, can kick up our adrenaline with action, but still fail to move us inside. Readers need to understand the main character’s feelings for there to be real stakes in the action. At the same time, if we get feelings without enough action, readers can start to detach. Compassion fatigue can set in. Characters have a tendency to get stuck if they’re not destabilized with outside events. Stories need both: external action and internal reaction. An ideal place to accomplish this is in scene.

1. Discovery

Scene is where things happen, not just for readers, but for us as we’re writing. Scene gives writers the opportunity to discover both action and reaction – to convert character issues into plot, and the reverse. For example, try confronting your main characters with things they’ve avoided. You may not know for sure how they’ll react until you write the scene. When you discover something in the moment of writing, the freshness of that discovery – its power to surprise and enliven – will be captured in the writing for the eventual reader as well. Even if you outline the overall plot of your novel, try to write scenes with openness toward what could happen, to encourage these discoveries.

2. Drama

Scene carries the immediacy that heightens drama and generates tension. The stakes are higher in scenes than in summary, because we have the sense of not knowing what could happen next. In summary, the writer cushions the blow. Scene gives us the most potential for rawness and risk.

3. Propulsive Power

A scene has natural propulsion – its very nature is to move forward in time. The clock ticks. We know where and when we are. Internal reactions can be interwoven in scene without losing pace. In contrast, extended interiors and summaries can shift us into a kind of timelessness. That’s part of the magic of writing, and something at which literary novels can shine, but scene helps to keep our stories on the move, while including both action and reaction.

4. Staging and Showing

Scene allows us to show reactions through staging: how close the characters stand, where and when they move, how they gesture, whether they touch. We can choreograph our scenes with a view to exposing interiors in an external way. Scenic elements can be used to augment a character’s internal thoughts, or even to reveal feelings of which a character is not yet aware. Telling details also come into this – how the point-of-view character sees and otherwise senses things in scene will be colored by his or her feelings.

5. Vivid Voicing

When characters do simply think their reactions, try to bracket phrases such as “I feel” and “she felt” in early drafts to see if you can convey those sentiments in a more vivid and original way. The rendering of thoughts can be a place for voice to shine. Don’t just tell us the character is happy – have the voice itself be happy. Use fragments, silly metaphors, goofy words, whatever seems authentic. And remember that moods can change. Be your own emotional continuity expert by keeping track of your characters’ preoccupations and the evolving feelings they bring to each scene.

6. Question of Grounding

A useful and revealing question to ask yourself is whether you see your novel as grounded in scene, with internal reactions and summaries interspersed, or whether you see your novel as grounded in the protagonist’s head, with scenes interspersed. I’m going to say to do one or the other. But I’d like to suggest that if you see it as grounded in scene, then what might need more attention are your internal reactions; and if you see it as grounded in the main character’s head, then what might need more attention are your scenes.

In the end, hard work on action-reactions will bring you closer to the truth of your characters. And keeping a strong connection between actions and reactions will act to intensify them both. The actions will carry more import and the reactions more potential for exposure. The stakes will continue to mount.



Creative Courage

I love to ski, but seem to come to it with more injuries every year. Right knee, upper back, right wrist, left foot. I got a cortisone shot in my heel this time, determined not to miss out. My sister puts it somewhere between crazy and brave. Poised above an icy run at the top of Jackson Hole, for the first time I hesitated, thinking of how disastrous a fall would be, wondering whether I’d lost my courage. If writing were a sport, I’d be even more covered with bruises. Does the rough and tumble of experience wear you out, or does it somehow set you free?

In writing, rejection is a constant. Think about what endless criticism does to a person. Does it build you up or drag you down? Of course, it drags you down. You have to look elsewhere to find reasons to believe. Experience can be a burden – you begin to know all too well what could go wrong. I’ve read countless writing blogs and taken classes premised on what NOT to do, an approach which I find paralyzing. Creativity thrives on courage, the kind of boldness that propels you down the hill.

When I ski, there’s a moment when every turn feels out of control. When I have to embrace the sensation of falling. But then I feel my weight in my feet and the edge of my blades in the snow, and my trust in myself rushes back. Again, and again, all the way down. An embrace of risk for a fleeting sense of triumph.

What writers need is a trick to learning life’s lessons without giving up. Experience is important, but I also think you need to mix a little ornery in your attitude. To keep your ears open but still stay a bit deaf. A touch of writerly defiance – to blend some crazy in your brave. To believe in your own artistic vision even if the world tells you not to.

Unlike writing, skiing is a physical sport. There will be things we can’t do as we get older, but that’s all the more reason to cultivate courage inside.

The skill you’re building isn’t just writing, it’s resilience.



Looking Forward

I never realized how important short-term memory was to happiness until my father began to lose his. If I tell him I’m going to visit, he forgets the moment we hang up. He’s happy when I get there, but he misses out on the anticipation. Last summer, he kept forgetting to be excited about the Indians games. We all need things to look forward to, in life and in fiction. Many of us turn to fiction for exactly that: the sense of expectation that our real lives at times may lack.

I’ve written a lot about the importance of tension in fiction. Tension involves a possible threat to or question about a positive outcome. That counterpoint is essential. We need hope. We want to see mysteries resolved, a couple united, a soul redeemed. We read on because we want to believe. Not every story has a happy ending, but we crave something to look forward to, even if instead it’s justice served or the satisfaction of insight.

The past year was a difficult one for many, and the future is uncertain. We worry about our families, our friends, our country, our planet. The future of humankind. Hope may be something we have to work at consciously. In your writing, and in your life, I’d like to encourage you to look forward. To forge a new path for your readers and yourself.