Making Things Happen


Friends, Romans, countrymen:

I just had a storytelling revelation. It may not mean much to you, but it’s big for me. If you all give me five bucks, I’ll share. By reading this far you have already agreed. Awesome. I’ll send my accountant around to collect. Isn’t it great how the Internet lets us make up our own rules?

Right now, I’m trying to write something long. Writing a 100+-page piece is so, so different than writing a short story. And it’s freaking hard, since I don’t exactly have my long-form muscles developed: over the course of my long and illustrious writing career I’ve written two novellas (both featuring nightmares and ghosts, obv) and a couple 30-page stories. Everything else has hovered around the 10-20 page range. I’m pretty sure all the non-writers in the audience just fell asleep. PAGE LENGTH IS REALLY INTERESTING TO WRITERS, OKAY? I could talk about the difference in tension between a 10-page story and a 15-page story all day, and maybe I will if you all don’t stop being so mean!

In short-form literary fiction, we’re encouraged to be so delicate. We have to handle huge issues with grace and extreme minimalism, with subtlety and poignant images that mean so much more than they say. So when I describe a grandfather clock that’s no longer ticking, you know immediately that I’m talking about MORTALITY. A salty little wave gently creeping up on the beach? EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY AFTER SOME BAD THINGS HAPPEN. &tc. &tc. &tc. (By the way, for people who get confused when I write “&tc.”, I’m 70% sure I once saw David Foster Wallace write “etc.” that way and I have appropriated it for my very own, like someone stealing a small kitten with one missing eye.)

But then it hit me like a ton of bad similes: in this longer piece, I simply have to make things happen. Real things! People can die, babies can be born, people can marry and divorce and fight viciously with both guns and something worse than guns (HURTFUL WORDS), people can change their mind not once not twice but THREE OR MORE times, dishes can fall crashing from the shelves because of dinosaurs walking by, bad weather can reverse the entire plot trajectory, and so on and so forth. In a 10-page story, there’s only so much that can actually occur if you’re trying to avoid a rompy melodrama. But in a longer piece, if not much happens, you’re left with a snoozefest like Melancholia (oh!).

So I need to abandon grace and delicacy for the moment (I’ll pick up those valuable tools during the revision stage) in favor of one thing and one thing only: ACTION. Plot action and character change and inexorable forward movement. There will be no new spring leaves softly scraping against the windowpane in this draft, baby. No nubile young girls singing nursery rhymes to contrast with the protagonist’s slow acceptance of death. No no no. There will be car chases and people exploding out of dark closets and terrible, terrible screaming matches. I need to let go of my crippling fear of melodrama. I don’t know if I can. It’s too ingrained in me. This is what happens when your parents give you a good education. (Thank you, Mommy and Papi! I love you!) But this is really important right now—it’s time to smash down whatever imaginary dam is keeping the movement out, and let the flood roar in.


Also, happy Saturday and much love to everyone reading this, even the bad ones! This post may come across as slightly aggressive, but it’s just the breve, I swear.


PS: I’m usually all, I don’t care what people think! But in this case I actually do. Thoughts on creating something lengthy? Am I missing some important mark?



  1. You should totes write about my FASCINATING life. I could fill 30 pages with the past 14 minutes ALONE: “She chipped a leopard print – manicured nail while attempting to solder two necklaces together into one period 1920’s headpiece with a lighter and a rusty pair of needle-nosed pliers. So focused was she in this dangerous endeavor that when the burning smell clocked in, she could not decipher whether it was metal, the flesh of her left thumb, or the tiny beet root cake in a porcelain ramekin she’d tried to bake for her pal Tori.”



  2. Long time reader, first time caller. Action (or extreme action) is only melodramtic in short fiction if it comes out of nowhere. Flannery O’Conner prepares the reader for the car accident and (spoiler alert) the eventual murders commited by the Misfit within the first two pages in a Good Man is Hard to FInd. Oates does the same in Where Are You Going,Where Have You Been. I think Oates is the best example because we witness things happening through the main character, so action is tied to emotional interiority, and avoids the problem of jumping conflict. I usually just stalk your blog post, but I was stuck a few weeks ago writing a short story where I wanted a fight to occur and just knowing that it felt forced. Took me a while to realize it was an action that wasn’t tied to a characters emotional state, so it kept the conflict static, which doesn’t move the character towards an emotional resolution. I think focusing through a character’s mind can make a car chase poignant if done right.

    Also: “grandfather clock that’s no longer ticking” mortality would have been my last guess in workshop


      1. welcome, welcome, welcome–dirty winky faces, impotent grandpa jokes and all. i totally agree with you that action has to be linked to interiority for it to work! i wasn’t trying to say that short fiction shouldn’t have action (nobody hates a well-polished fictional still life like me), but i think it’s very hard to pull off multiple big splashy actions in a short space without getting melodramatic. i.e., it would be hard to fit a car crash PLUS duel at dawn PLUS murder-suicide in 10 pages. however, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” completely undermines my argument. but, you know, that’s not your average short story.

  3. Oh man, I missed your brilliant writing. That’s what i get for not tending to my own blog! I am a former short story writer now working on long-form type of thing tentatively titled a “novel” (and also a “memoir”) and I have to say that ACTION is something I struggle with as I linger and malinger over all my beautiful details. So I am with you, sister. My last novel I just finished I took pains to keep the action flowing and you know what? It was fun! And it reads fast and breezy and it’s not much like anything I’ve done before.


You are truly great.

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