Connecting the dots: writing between the action

Working out the issues in novel writing.

What do you think is the hardest thing for a writer to write? For many, it’s finding a way to connect the dots, or points of action in the plot. After all, your writing cannot be non-stop action. (That’s a very clumsy sentence and I apologize.)  When you start writing, maybe you begin with a short story or a piece of flash fiction. Both are excellent ways to dip your toes into the pool of storytelling. However, with pieces of short fiction, you have only a small space to present your plot from inception to conclusion and that leaves no room for “downtime.” The action of the story will take place all at once. Maybe you excel at, and enjoy short story writing and you want to continue. If so, you can stop reading now!

If, however, you want to move into the world of long-form fiction, or novel writing, then you need to find a way to add and fill spaces between the action bits. You can imagine your storyline as a radio wave, with peaks and valleys rising and falling as each conflict presents itself and is resolved. Or as a set of stairs where the action climbs then levels off, then builds again and finally reaches the top floor or conclusion.

A story has two basic engines that drive it along: the characters and the plot. A character-driven story is one in which something about the character’s essential self, leads to a particular action or event in the story. For example, your female lead may be fiercely independent which causes her to reject help from friends or family to overcome the obstacle she is facing. Her individuality is going to greatly effect the way the action proceeds.

A plot-driven story is one in which the actions taken by the characters in a story result in a particular plot point. But in this case, the action is driving the plot, not the qualities of the character’s personality.

Independent from that, external circumstances outside the characters’ control will influence both plot and character driven stories. For example, imagine that a super storm is about to hit the East Coast of the USA, your characters are trapped in harm’s way, how will they survive? The actions they take as well as the motivations that impel them are the two aspects of spinning a tale. Tension builds as the storm approaches, but for a time, at least, there is not much going on. If you excel at writing action scenes, these downtimes between crises might prove to be daunting. What to do?

The lulls between these sequences of action are the perfect times to explore your characters’ personalities. How are they managing in the situation in which they find themselves? Are their strengths or weaknesses being revealed? What are their motivations for acting/reacting the way they do?

Let’s take the super storm scenario and suppose our main character is a nurse in a hospital in Savannah, Georgia – a city directly in the path of the storm. Let’s call her Ellen. The patients of the hospital need to be evacuated and Nurse Ellen is selected to stay to the bitter end. The suspense in the story escalates as the weather rapidly deteriorates. Only a few of the patients are left in the hospital with just one doctor and Nurse Ellen. The water is rising and the winds are too high for the ambulances to get back for one last trip. The 6 people left behind will have to hunker down and try to ride it out. A character-driven story now asks the writer to show Nurse Ellen being a strong, capable leader or alternatively to show her falling apart as she realizes she may never see her husband and young child again. We may even see a little bit of both. Nevertheless, during this time of waiting, Nurse Ellen’s inner self is revealed.

Now is the time for meaningful dialogue among the characters. For our purposes, let’s suppose that Ellen is going to shine during the crisis and not fall apart. She will care for and comfort the few remaining patients. Perhaps the doctor is the one coming unglued and Ellen has to deal with him panicking and not pulling his weight! The way she speaks, the words she chooses, and her movements will show the reader what kind of person she is. The writer may include Ellen’s thoughts and internal conflict by describing her facial expressions and body language. She may frown, bite her fingernails, twirl a lock of hair, rub her face, wring her hands… things like that. And even though the action is at a low point, the story moves forward. We the reader, are engaged while we wait for the next disaster to hit!

With a look inside the mind of the characters, they become real, fully immersed in the story and the conflict. And without it, they remain generic and unrelatable. It’s hard to sympathize with them, to root for them to overcome their obstacles and triumph in the face of danger. By using the space between the dots, we fully develop the depth and breadth of an excellent story.

Now, I’m off to write a disaster story, starring Nurse Ellen! Happy writing!

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe…

Inspire:  breathe in

Inspire:  fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative

Writers look for inspiration everywhere.  In some of my previous posts I’ve mentioned finding inspiration in music, in art, and in my own personal life experiences.  Having your senses stimulated this way, often fires your creative process.  There’s another way, though…

Like the rest of you, my life is busy and my mind can be a very noisy and messy place.  It can get to the point where it feels like I can’t catch my breath.  Maybe even like I’m under water.  When that happens, it’s time to take a break and find some quiet time.  For me, that means getting outside, no matter the weather.  Walking the country roads past the crumbling old walls that line the pastures, I let my mind wander.  There’s a fallen down barn on the dirt road about a mile away.  The red-tailed hawks perch on the half-rotted beams and watch for field mice and rabbits in the tall grass.  The wind sighing, the birds singing, the chatter of the squirrels is the only music to my ears.  Cross the creek, rushing with last night’s rain.  The smell of damp leaves, the early spring mud, all loamy and decayed.

Breathe it in deeply.  Inspire…

Maybe you live in the city and can’t get out into nature that easily.   Go out and walk the sidewalks, enjoy the sunshine, the hum of traffic, the jostle of people hurrying to their destinations.  Spend an hour, if you have it, without your phone.  Ignore the texts, e-mails and alerts for a while.  They’ll be there when you get back.  Find a park, sprawl on a bench, listen to the buzz of conversations going on around you, the laughter of children playing.  Let it be like white noise, vague and mesmerizing.

Inspire…

Now go home and write something beautiful.

The Cafe

He waited at the window table so he could watch down the street. She was late, as usual. She would have the same excuse she always did. “It was the rain, darling.” Or “the train was behind schedule.” And he’d smile and accept it. Like he always did.

The red umbrella stood out against the grey sky. He knew without seeing the person beneath that it was her. She came inside on a gust of wind and brought enough water to create a puddle. Her laughter charmed the host and he waved off her apology as he ran to get the mop.

She turned, her eyes scanning the cafe until they settled on him. She smiled and his heart went to his throat. With purpose, she crossed the room and slid into the chair beside him. Not across from him, no. Beside him. So they could touch each other. Her knee rested against his leg as she leaned over to kiss him softly. She smelled like rain and lilies. He breathed in her scent as their lips touched.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “The rain has everything slowed down.”

He laughed out loud and kissed her again. “You’re wonderful.”

She touched his cheek. “You’re happy today.”

“Yes.” Happier than he’d been in the last five years. Maybe happier than he’d ever been in his life.

The waiter brought a basket of fresh bread and soft butter. He broke off a piece and buttered it, held it out to her. “Eat.”

As she took it from him, she asked, “Are you going to tell me why you’re so happy?”

Melting butter dripped onto her fingers from the bread. He watched it run in a tiny rivulet from one finger to the next. He wanted to lick each little drop. Instead, he waited as she chewed and swallowed before speaking. “It’s official,” he said and placed the documents on the table in front of her.