Thursday, May 18, 2006

Exploding the Moving Action

I read two short stories today that, by pure coincidence, are based upon nearly identical events. These stories could have been the product of a class exercise; yet, the finished products are almost completely different. With any luck, a comparison of the two, and an examination of how one story succeeds and the other fails (or doesn't succeed as well) should be instructive.

Before I get into the stories, I want to talk about a straightforward technique for analyzing, or building, any traditional story. I'm going to call this technique Exploding the Moving Action.

The first step is to isolate the story's most important "moving action" (aka dynamic action). What's a moving action? There are three kinds of action in a short story (this is not my idea; I learned it from Justin Cronin): received action, which is anything that happens to a character; fixed action, which is anything a character does more or less automatically or habitually, from eating when hungry to performing his job to getting drunk (if the character is an alcoholic); and moving action, significant action taken by a character as the result of a choice. The choice may be a moral choice or a choice between two things a character wants, but it should have a cost. Choosing between a hot dog and a hamburger is not, ordinarily, a moving action. Choosing to commit murder, unless one is a hit man, is a moving action. Choosing to pat a murderer on the cheek because you suddenly recognize that he is like your own child (see "A Good Man is Hard to Find") might be a moving action.

Choosing not to stop and render aid after striking a child or dog with an automobile would be a moving action (even though the action consists, arguably, of inaction).

Once you have identified a story's most important moving action (and in many stories there will be only one), begin asking questions. Who is the character who acted? Who were the characters acted upon? Where and when did the action occur? And most importantly, why did the action occur? Any or all of the answers to these questions might lead to more questions. Pursue them all until you hit the point of diminishing returns, write up the answers, present them in a pleasing order and written in an interesting prose style, and voila, you have A Story.

By sheer coincidence, the two stories I read today both involve drivers who strike another living being with their automobiles (in one case a child, in another case a dog) and fail to stop and render aid. The first story, by William Trevor, and included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006, is "The Dressmaker's Child." This is a successful story. The second story, "One Last Good Time," by Michael P. Kardos, and appearing in the Summer/Fall 2006 issue of Gulf Coast, is less successful. This shouldn't be seen as a putdown of Kardos's story; not many writers can keep pace with William Trevor, after all. Also, it's good to keep in mind that these are not the only hit-and-run stories ever written, and they won't be the last.

So, having identified the moving action, what questions naturally arise in these two stories (ignoring the when and where, which add interest and texture, but aren't crucial to the structure of the stories)?

  • Who is the driver? (i.e., what is his character, and what are the circumstances that makes this action especially meaningful to him?)

  • Who is the victim?

  • What caused the accident?

  • Why didn't the driver stop and render aid or take responsibility for the accident, if appropriate?

  • What are the ramifications of the accident and/or the failure to stop? (This might include the question, Did the victim die?)

  • There may be other questions, and the answers to these questions might obviate or raise other questions. But this is a good starting list.

    The Trevor story proceeds in a linear fashion, and devotes a little more than half the story to the ramifications: the aftermath. The driver is a young Irish mechanic, a Catholic, named Cahal. The victim is the eponymous (love that word) Dressmaker's Child (a girl). The cause of the accident is complex, the blame shared between the girl (who seems to be disturbed, and has a habit of running at moving cars) and Cahal, who is distracted by his passengers (newlyweds who are necking in the backseat) and a soccer match on television that he is currently missing. Cahal doesn't stop because, he tells himself at the time, he isn't sure if he hit anyone, and, obviously, if he did, he will be in huge trouble, and also lose his fifty Euro fare (although to his credit he doesn't think about the fare overtly). The girl has rushed cars before and hit them with stones; perhaps the thud he heard was only a rock, and not the child's body. Yet, he doesn't stop to find out, and he is haunted by this decision for the rest of the story. Later, the girl's mother lets him know that she knows he hit the girl, but didn't turn him in. His guilt, and his multi-leveled obligation to the mother, constitute the aftermath. The story is logical, complete, and there are no extraneous pieces.

    The Kardos story is written in a non-linear mode, and the focus is on explaining why the character failed to stop, although we don't know that this is the focus until the story is nearly over. Confusing? It should be. There is little aftermath, although the primary ramification, the death of the driver, is revealed in the first line.

    Gradually we learn that the driver was a school bus driver, and that he hijacked a busload of children before he died. The hit-and-run isn't revealed until much later, after a prolonged section in which we learn that the bus driver was having an affair with his pregnant wife's sister. The sister had threatened to reveal their relationship to the wife; the husband, stressed and sleepless because of this threat, hits a dog while driving the kids home from school.

    So here's the big question: why doesn't he stop? It's just a dog, and the dog ran in front of the bus. All he faces is embarrassment and inconvenience. This is not the same as striking a child, after all. Yet, he bolts. Okay, he's tired. He isn't thinking clearly. But then he compounds this stupidity by driving off with the kids instead of just dropping them at their regular stops. This makes no sense whatsoever! Kardos tries to cover this up by saying "Maybe Vinnie had gone a little crazy today," but that just doesn't cut it. There's also an intimation that he wanted to get in major trouble, even get thrown in jail, so that he could escape the untenable situation with his wife and mistress. But again, I'm not buying it. It takes a damn big rubber band to stretch that far.

    So there you have it. Two stories answering the same questions about nearly identical events, with dramatically different results. I won't get into the thematic differences, and how Trevor takes his story to a spiritual and cultural level that Kardos's story never sniffs (or aspires to).