Here’s some fiction-writing advice that’s been useful to me lately. Plot has always been the most difficult part of writing for me. I’m afraid of action! Stories I write have a tendency toward passive observation and inertia, which is why simplistic metaphors about meteors destroying the earth can be so helpful—by getting me out of fanciness and subtlety and into the action that needs to move things along.
When you tell a story, you’re creating two things:
- A subject: the main character, the believable and absorbing world in which that character lives, the “who”
- A predicate, the thing that happens, the action, the crisis, the “what”
These two may be closely related, or spring out of one another, or even be the same thing, as in tragedies, where some flaw in the main character is why everything goes bad. But for practical purposes, it’s useful to separate them—and useful to make sure that the subject and predicate fit one another. Do them both, and do them both right.
This is key. In the analogy of the world being struck by meteors, you have to build the world, yes, and then you have to create the meteors, hurl them toward the earth. And you have to make them the right size or the story’s not going to work. I for example have a tendency to create tiny, unnoticeable meteors if I can even muster them at all before giving up on “a story”—that’s the second of the two problems pictured below.
It looks cartoon-ish, right? So does the fiction whose plot this represents. A crisis that’s too sudden, too large, way out of proportion with the pace, the mood, the movement or the ambitions of the world itself. This is melodrama.
This plot? Who cares? Don’t millions of mote-sized meteors hit the earth every day or something? And nobody notices? This is micro-drama. The artsy stuff. Readers confront this plot with, What’s actually happening here? What am I supposed to care about? Where’s the story?
When you get the balance right between your subject and its plot, between the world and the meteors that threaten to destroy it, you create a world that someone can care about, and then you create a world they then do care about: action that fits, that is neither too dramatic or imminent nor too subtle and inert.