Not so fast
Add depth to your stories by simplifying action and complicating motive
Published: July 6, 2011
Got a chase scene, a car crash, and two breakups in your first 10 pages? Action is fun to watch, but if you don’t give your characters some pause to reflect on what they’re doing, they’ll start to resemble that old game called Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. People don’t just move through their days without thought; furthermore, their lives are thick with patterns that may not be so easy to see on the surface. Your job as a writer is to reveal these designs, but without being too heavy-handed about it. Good advice, especially for a story of any psychological depth: Simplify the action; complicate the motive.
Let’s say you’ve got Amy and Jerry in a tennis match, the scene poised at deuce in the final game of the set. Do you really need each volley, all the exertion and panting, two demonstrations of Amy’s slam, and the banter between each point? If you’re writing a short story about Amy’s compulsion to lose, particularly to men she likes, show her usual killer serve and then, at the right moment, a clumsy double fault. If Jerry’s too dumb or conceited to question the obvious error, that’s his problem—maybe Amy’s, too—and that can be the theme of the story.
Amy dates guys with frail egos that need constant shoring up. So she serves as an emotional booster, even though she doesn’t quite see it that way. She pretends her French is inferior to the guy’s when ordering at Lucien, though she took six years of the language in school. She keeps her killer overhead smash off the court to keep the game going. Eventually the guy realizes he’s being overprotected, resents it, and ends the relationship. And Amy feels like a failure again. In fact, that’s the way it was with Amy’s mom and dad, long since divorced.
As you can see, you’ve got a real dynamic here, enough to account for years of defeat. And it can all be represented by a botched tennis serve. If you’re afraid of being too subtle, add a spot where Jerry outruns her or thinks he does. But that’s enough.
The intrigue at this juncture isn’t so much “How will she do it again?” but rather “What’s she up to?” Amy’s no fool: She knows what she’s doing, but knowledge isn’t the same as the power to stop oneself. Actually, she sort of hates herself for doing this, but it didn’t matter so much with the losers she dated before. Jerry’s a guy she really cares for, and he could leave either way. She knows that, too, which makes her really nervous, almost unable to grip her racket properly. Besides, it was on just such a day, hot and overcast in July, that her father told her he was leaving her mother, and that half-conscious memory nudges her not to repeat her mother’s mistake but also not to court her father.
The point is that few of us lead action-packed lives, but we make up for it with crisscrossing motives and behavior that at times goes against our own values. The simple actions that betray these patterns are a wonder to behold. A writer with sensitivity knows that people are a mass (or mess) of contradictions, and that these conflicts are really what life (and much good fiction) is all about.
Amy throws the ball up for her final serve. What’ll it be? That’s up to you to figure out, but you’ve got enough motion and emotion in that one overhead arc.
David Galef, the director of the creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books this fall.||