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Story Action: Make Something Happen!

In writing, story action is crucial. Author Anaïs Nin wrote that the “role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” To that sound
advice, I will add: the role of a writer is not to write about ordinary life, but about the extraordinary in life. Ordinary characters are fine, but extraordinary events must happen to and around them.

A reader will only read through dinner or past bedtime if events on the page are too interesting to set aside. I often read long passages by beginning writers where a character has a heart to heart talk with a friend or where one character is attracted to another. “But where is the story-action?" I ask. "Something has to happen.”

This isn't always easy to understand at first. “But they’re talking to each other,” a student might say. “That’s what happens. Lovers talk to each other. That is the story action.” Well, yes they do talk, sometimes for hours on end, as if there were not enough time in the rest of their lives to come to the end of the words that fill them. That’s real life.

In fiction, however, talking is not enough. For an example of good story action, Sara Gruen provides a wonderful example in her novel Water for Elephants.* Chapter two begins with the male protagonist sitting beside female student in a lecture hall at the university where he studies to become a veterinarian.

A lesser writer might force the reader to sit through pages of internalizations as the young man longs for the attentions of Catherine Hale. Gruen writes a page of similar setup, just enough that the reader will understand what this girl represents to the protagonist, and then the door of the lecture hall squeaks open and the dean enters and interrupts. He’s looking for the protagonist. He calls him out for a “word.” Tension builds as the protagonist wonders what he has done. He must have done something, after all, as it is not every day the dean calls him out of class. They go into the hall. The professor follows. The dean and the professor stare at each other. The protagonist races through a mental list of rules he has broken. Then the dean takes him by the shoulder and tells him that his parents have been killed in an auto accident.

Is the reader going to put the book down now? I doubt it. She wants to know how the protagonist will respond. She wants to know what will happen next. Your story is propelled forward as one piece of story action (a cause), leads to effect, which leads to cause, which leads to effect, and on and on until the story ends.

So what happens next in Gruen’s story? (You want to know, right?) We watch the police superintendent greet the protagonist with a handshake, and then pull him into an awkward embrace. We travel with him down to the morgue. We see the battered bodies of his parents, the blood, the broken skull. We see the protagonist turn and spew vomit. We see him led away and a nurse attends him. We see all this; we are not told that he goes to the morgue and identifies his parents. We watch him every step of the way, until we feel we are with him. No we are Jacob Jankowsky, and we understand how a young veterinarian student feels identifying the remains of his parents.

*Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006.

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