Friday, September 10, 2010


What we say ain’t always what we mean…

I read a lot of blogs from other writers, agents, editors and other professionals in the writing game, and I read a lot of letters from writers responding to those posts. Alas, again and again, I see some general misconceptions about writing techniques and story structure that I’d like to address.

I see the same misconceptions from my students in my online classes and from clients I work with.

The misconceptions seem to arrive from misunderstanding the definitions of the terms we employ in describing fiction writing and fiction techniques.

I’ve come to believe that much of the misunderstandings writers have stem from the fact that many of our terms are lay terms, and while the definitions assigned certain terms have their root in “lay” or “dictionary” definitions, there are significant differences when applied to writing, and it is these differences that cause a certain amount of confusion.

That sounds like a lot of goobly-gook, doesn’t it? Sorry! I’ll try to explain better.

A good example of what I’m talking about that I’ve seen a lot written about lately refers to the term “action” in fiction. A non-writer usually thinks of action in reference to drama—books, movies, plays, and television—as some kind of physical activity. Many times, the word evokes images of melodrama—bombings, kidnappings, shootings, stabbings, beatings, rapes… violent physical action, in other words. Lots of noise, screams, smoke, and fury. Writers need to think differently and understand that action in fiction means something much more than in real life.

I just read a letter on another blog from a beginning writer who complained that she began her novel with “action”—in her case, an armed robbery involving her protagonist—and then couldn’t figure out why this didn’t “hook” the reader, i.e., the agent, she’d sent it to. She said he turned her mss down because while the robbery hooked him in the very beginning, it turned out to be mostly unrelated to the story that followed. This poor writer had done what a lot of writers seem to do. She thought that when teachers, agents and editors said they wanted to be “hooked” immediately on the first page, they were looking for something along the lines of that lay definition of action. A gun going off or whatever.


The term “action” when applied to fiction means something vastly broader and more encompassing of other activities than the stuff listed above. While it can include those kinds of activities, literary action also encompasses many other things. Dialog is action, for instance. A character driving down the road and seeing a dead plover is also action. A character reading a newspaper on the subway is action. Anything a character is doing is… action.

This one misunderstood term is to blame for many of the mistakes made in creating a manuscript, especially when trying to follow the advice of the pros.

I regularly get very nice letters from folks who’ve read my book on story beginnings (Hooked) who reveal, by their questions that they’ve fallen prey to that misconception of the word “action.” Statements like this are not atypical: “I know I’m supposed to start with action, but the story I want to write isn’t high-concept and is more of a character study. I can’t have my protagonist, Irma, getting raped. Nothing like that would ever happen to her. I know in your book you say the story has to open with action, but I don’t see how I can do that here. Should I write another story?”

That’s a made-up statement, but it’s accurate inasfar as the gist of some of the letters I receive. And, it’s reflective of a couple of things. One, a misunderstanding of the term action, and, two; a sure sign of selective reading. That’s fairly common, I’ve found. I’m probably guilty of the same myself.

To address the first, I’ve tried to make it clear in Hooked, the writer’s definition of action. I’ve given a number of examples of openings that illustrated forms of action that didn’t involve any guns, sexual attacks, bombs or any of that. For instance, one of the examples I used was of James Baldwin’s story, Sonny’s Blues, which begins with the “action” of the protagonist sitting on the subway reading a newspaper where he sees an account of his brother’s arrest. That’s “action” according to the literary definition. Another, where I described the opening of Tim Sandlin’s novel, Sorrow Floats, which begins:

            My behavior slipped after Daddy died and went to San Francisco. I danced in bars. I flipped the bird in churches. Early one morning in April I drove Dothan’s new pickup truck off the Snake River dike, and when the tow truck showed up they found me squatting in a snow patch in my nightgown crying over the body of a dead plover.

That’s beginning with action. The action is her crying over the dead bird. It’s not even her driving the truck off the dike. The action is simply her seeing this bird and weeping. (The other part of that is just backstory and setup). Seeing the dead bird is her inciting incident and it satisfies all the requirements of a good inciting incident and begins with action. Seeing a dead bird makes her realize what she’s been running away from and it’s from that point that the story begins.

And… it’s action.

I won’t go through the dozens of openings I used for illustration in Hooked, but nary a one begins with a gun going off or someone being raped or a President poised with finger on the red button. But, without exception, they all began with action. Action, according to the literary usage of the term, not the lay definition.

It is so crucial to understanding how stories are written successfully to fully grasp the definition of the term “action,” yet time after time, it’s obvious by the conversation that the student is thinking of the lay definition in his or her application and thought process.

To address the second point, many readers read selectively; that is, some of what they read becomes invisible to them and they "read" only the parts that appeal to them. I know I've defined action over and over in my books on writing, and still, I communicate with writers who say they've read the books, but still don't remember reading the parts where I showed other kinds of action. At least that's what it appears is happening. I think what happens is that sometimes some folks just don't read carefully. Wish I could say I'm not guilty of doing that, but I surely am and often. If anyone has a cure, please pass it on!

What happens is that the teacher and the writing student are trying to have a dialog that’s doomed to failure simply because they’re not on the same page as far as the definitions of the terms we employ. We’re close… but close doesn’t count in writing. Our chief tools as writers are words and they need to be precise. Clear and understandable. Unfortunately, our craft terms are perhaps the worst of any craft in existence and the opposite should be true. Instead of clearly defined, they are often murky and vague.

For another common example of a misconception in writing terms, let’s look at the term “problem.” A problem in lay terms can mean something like the person is being divorced. Is that a problem in “real life?” Well, usually. But, in terms of describing a protagonist’s problem for story, by itself, it doesn’t rise to the level of a story problem. It’s merely a bad situation. And, bad situations do not literature make. They can—but there has to be more to it than simply a bad situation. Any one of these things for example—a rape, a murder, a kidnapping, a divorce, a partner’s cheating, a person declaring bankruptcy, a bully giving wedgies to a skinny kid—any of those instances are great examples of “problems” in real life, but without more they aren’t in literature. They’re simply… bad situations. Good for anecdotes, but not yet for stories.

For something to be a problem in literary terms it has to represent a profound change in the protagonist’s life—signaling a change in the person’s life before the problem to what it is after the problem makes its appearance. It has to rise to the level that nothing can interfere with his or her struggle to resolve the problem until it’s finally resolved. If, for instance, the character can take time off for other things even briefly—then it hasn’t yet achieved the status of story problem. This is what happens often when writers believe their character’s inciting incident began in childhood (the inciting incident being the event that created and/or revealed the problem) and then they have the kid “take off” the next seven years so they can get old enough to tackle the problem. Might work in real life, but it’s just not a problem yet in story terms. It’s a… bad situation. If anything can get in the way of, distract, or cause it to be put on the shelf for any period of time whatsoever… it’s just not a problem in literary terms.

Also, the story problem has to have two levels. The initial problem is what I’ve created the term “surface problem” for. That’s what seems to be the problem at the onset of the story. Surface problems can be anything. But, they all have to be symptomatic of a deeper, more personal, psychological problem, to which I’ve created the term “story-worthy problem.” The surface problem is simply kind of the “material” manifestation of the story-worthy problem.

For example, in the movie Indiana Jones, Indiana’s surface problem is to win his father’s respect. To do this, he feels he has to find the Holy Grail. His surface goal which he feels will resolve his surface problem. But, his story-worthy problem is his lack of self-respect. In a story, the protagonist has to go through the struggle to resolve the surface problem to finally realize (as a result of the struggle) what his true (story-worthy) problem is.

In the movie, Thelma & Louise, protagonist Thelma’s surface problem is to escape her overbearing husband briefly. Her story-worthy problem—which she can only discover after going through her struggle—is to escape a male-dominated world in which she has little voice.

In David Madden’s novel, The Suicide’s Wife, the protagonist’s problem is that her husband has (supposedly) committed suicide and left her unprepared to face life’s everyday demands. Her surface goal to resolve this is to obtain her driver’s license. Her real story-worthy problem is to find out if she has the internal wherewithal to exist independently. The struggle she undergoes to resolve her story problem leads her to understand what that problem is symptomatic of and therefore gives her the capability to resolve the deeper problem.

In almost all instances, both the surface problem and the story-worthy problem are resolved in the last and final scene. When s(he) resolves the other one, at that point s(he) understands the underlying problem at the same time and by his or her choice in that final scene also resolves that problem as well.

The point I’m trying to make here is that when we use the term “problem” in writing and story terms, we’re not talking about real-life problems. There has to be more involved to make it rise to the level of a good story problem than just a bad situation. Problem as applied to story is something far more than a problem in real life.

There are many such terms we use as writing teachers that we’ve borrowed from the lay language, and because students and beginning writers very often ascribe those lay definitions to the terms, we have a problem communicating with each other and fully understanding and grasping the advice given We’re close… but close just ain’t good enough.

I’ve often thought that there is a great need for a text on this. It’s presumptuous, I suppose, for one person to think he or she can create a lexicon that all writers should follow, but somebody needs to do this. Right? Okay. I’m on it…

Anyway, I hope this helps a bit to “unmuddy” the waters…

Blue skies,


Margaret Duarte said...

Thanks Les. Good information as usual. Talk about not being on the same page, I can read the same craft book a second and third time and learn something different with each read. It all depends on where I am as a writer. It seems I can only understand and absorb what I'm ready for, depending upon my stage as a writer.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Margaret. I'm as guilty as anyone of "selective reading." As well as "selective listening."

I've been thinking about this and think I know at least a contributing cause. Being older than yellow snow, I've seen a sea change in society's life style, and when I was a kid, people read much more leisurely and carefully. Today, we perceive the world to be moving at the speed of light, so we do everything to keep up, including speed-reading. Our lives are spent "skimming" everything and therefore we tend to miss a lot.

Just an observation...

Unknown said...

Thank you for clearing up that bit of confusion about "action" Les - it's bugged me like an out-of-place detail for ages now. But, I'm still trying to wrap my head around your explanation of a story-worthy "problem". Any other examples you'd be willing to share or resources you can offer for further reading?

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Satoribomb (cool name!).

At the risk of being immodest, I cover surface problems and story-worthy problems in my book, Hooked. It's probably the only place you can get that info... since I invented the terms...

I think you'd get some good info out of it.

The shorthand definition is that it's the deeper problem at the core of the story. The surface problem/goal (win the girl, the prize, the job, whatever) is only a superficial symbol of what's really at stake--a deeply personal, psychological problem.

It's explained and developed much more in my book. I promise you!


hello there - i've just come across your blog and could not resist following along with you - would love to have you drop by one of my campfires and just browse around should you be so inclined - i have several, so there is a lot to browse! ;) in any event, am really looking forward to more of your "observations" - have a fabulous day!

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Gypsywoman and welcome! I just browsed your blogs--very sensual! You are a dead ringer for a writer friend of mine--Jane Bradley. When I saw your photo, I was taken aback. They say everybody has a twin and she's yours.

It's funny sometimes, when you encounter your twin. I remember my such experience vividly. Years ago, I picked up this magazine called (I think) People Magazine and saw the cover and man! It was like looking into a mirror. Some guy named Richard Gere was the photo.

You just never know...

Anyway, hope you enjoy our blog and I'll be visiting yours. I have a brand-new appreciation for ballet now...

Glynis Peters said...

I am with Margaret. I have 'lightbulb moments' when all becomes clear. Only when my brain is ready to absorb the information though.

Interesting post, thanks.

ssas said...

This took me a long time to get. I've worked a lot on my first line for SCAR and finally came up with one that reflects the theme of the book. Trinidad is essentially walking across a churchyard. Not a lot of action. But he's also anticipating something (bad, of course) and the first line represents the conflict between his past, present, and future, a major theme.

We'll see if it works...

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Two misnomers, nicely explained. I'd thought of this before in terms of the 'action' definition - basically I explain it as the difference between a character doing something that we vicariously join in with, and doing nothing but thinking or being described.

The problem with 'problem' is interesting. I've come across that too, but explained it to writers as 'give the characters problems and make them very important'. But redefining the terms is perhaps an easier way to go!

Thanks, Les - good post.

Juliette Wade said...

Very insightful post. This is the kind of thing that gets me volunteering to teach writing in the schools - so people don't have to wait until college to start having a sane orientation to the structure of stories. As a linguist, I entirely agree that hidden differences in the definitions of terms can be a problem. Your concept of "selective reading" is definitely consistent with reading research inasmuch as a lot of what a reader "reads" comes from inside him/herself rather than from the text. I try to bring my linguist/anthropologist's perspective to discussing writing at my blog, and would love it if you could take a look. It focuses primarily on science fiction and fantasy, but I actually think non-genre writers could benefit sometimes from an extensive and explicit sense of how to build worlds. Anyway, thanks for the great post!

Les Edgerton said...

This post was commented on in J. Nelson Leith's blog at:

Thanks, Glynis.

Sex Scenes - Looks like you "get it."

Dirty White Candy - God, I love you guys' names! - appreciate your comments.

Juliette - I looked at your blog and it's really, really good. I'm listing it on my blogsites and plan to visit it regularly. Thank you.

J. Nelson Leith said...

Thanks for the trackback, Les!

And, I'm with you on Juliette's blog. I've been going there for a while now ... lots of good stuff.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, J.! I'm honored you not only visited here but very honored that you talked about the post on your site. For the folks that don't know J. Nelson Leith, he's one of the most respected writer-bloggers out there. Do yourself a favor and visit his site--he'll always engage our gray matter!

Thanks again, John!

jennifer.harrell.scott said...

My 6th grade Algebra teacher had been teaching the subject for over 30 years, so whenever one of my classmates would struggle with a new concept (never ME, bec I alllways got it ;)) my teacher would freak out. The students weren't stupid; my teacher just forgot what it was like to be on the other side...
It's nice when someone well-educated in a subject takes the time to break it down for the newbies. So thnx =)

Perri said...

Thanks, Les. I've just discovered your blog and it is really informative.

It's easy for writers to get hooked by certain phrases, "Start with action" for example without understanding them fully.

I'll be back!

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Jennifer--glad you liked the post. I see we're both Acquarians--I'm Feb. 13.

I'm adding your blog to my list here.

Best of luck with your own writing!

Blue skies,

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Perri--thanks for the comments. I've visited your own blog and am adding it here.

And, you're a shepherd! That's something I've always wanted to be! That's the trut'! Actually, I've always wanted to raise chickens--broilers--but not in a big, factory way but smaller. Organically-raised. I did that when I was a kid and it was the coolest experience of my life.

Blue skies,

Juliette Wade said...

Les, thanks for going to visit, and I'm so glad you liked it. Thanks to J. Nelson also! I'm going to link to this blog, because they'd be interested in the subtleties you explore (particularly in this post). And I'll be back around regularly, I expect!

Crystal Wilkinson said...

Fabulous post. Me and my students talk about this all the time and I love HOOKED. I carried it around like the Bible for some time and suggested my students do the same.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks Juliette and Crystal. You guys are so nice! Writers are just about the best folks in the world.