The Central Action of a story

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I haven’t written a craft post in a long time, it feels like.   Actually, I wonder if craft posts annoy a lot of the Murderati readers.   Sometimes you all seem much more interested in the angst posts.  I like that about this place; it’s better than therapy.   Notheless, I’m all out of angst for the moment and am reverting to craft.

As I’ve posted here before, I’m not one of those readers who feels any obligation to finish a book I’ve started.   In fact, I very often sit down to read with ten or twelve books in front of me, and read the first few chapters of each before I settle on the one to read.    Much like an agent or editor, I’m sure.    If I like the opening, or the plot description, I’ll give it a few chapters.   If not – discard.   On to the next.  

This is a great way to get through that pesky TBR pile, as you can imagine.

Now, this is a useful exercise for authors and aspiring authors, on a whole lot of levels.

First, it really does put you in the shoes, or chair, and mindset, of an editor or agent.  Do you really think an editor or agent, with their hundreds of TBRs a week, is giving anything their full attention (unless it’s an auction, and their job depends on making the right decision about a particular book)?  

Of course they’re not.   They’ll start giving a book their full attention for the very same reasons YOU would – because it’s their genre, it’s a subject or arena that they’re interested in personally, and it’s well-written enough to suck them into the story.   The first two reasons are completely subjective, nothing you can do about that.   The third is completely within your control.

But – it’s important for aspiring authors who are in the midst of the submission process to remember that a lot of book choice is purely, completely subjective.   And if you keep in mind that a lot, in fact most, editors and agents will discard your book simply because it doesn’t appeal to them personally, you can both detach yourself from the trauma of being rejected (which you will be, repeatedly) and understand why you almost always have to make SO many submissions to score an agent and a publishing deal.

This read-and-discard exercise is also good for published authors.   It reminds me that all over the world people are doing the same thing with MY books – I get a few seconds to win them, minutes if I’m lucky, and am just as likely to be discarded as not.   More likely, actually.   For me, it’s a big reminder that my most likely readers are going to be my REPEAT readers – the ones who will give me more than a few cursory seconds, who are actually looking for my books because they already know they like the genre I write in, the characters and story worlds I create, and the themes I explore.   That’s a good thing to remember in a marketing sense, too, I think: Serve your core audience first.

And of course a main reason to do this is to remind yourself what hooks you about a book.   Which is going to be different for different people.   But what hooks YOU is likely to be what hooks the agent and editor you end up with, and subsequently your readers. 

It can be style, it can be suspense, it can be sex, it can be action, it can be narrative voice, it can be a character’s voice… for some people it’s a first line (that would not be me, I couldn’t care less about the first line of a book, and in fact have been known to discard books on the basis of a too-cute or trying-too-hard first line.    I do care about the opening IMAGE.).

But if I’m liking the way a book goes enough to keep going through a chapter or two, I’ll tell you the next thing that is absolutely crucial to keep me reading.

I need to know pretty quickly where the plot is going.  I want to know the author knows, and I want the author one way or another to tell me, so that I know there’s a direction to all this, and I can relax and let the author take me there.    If I don’t get that within the first few chapters, I get uneasy that the author has no idea where the story is going, and I toss the book.   It makes me crazy.

When I teach writing workshops, I find this is one of the hardest things for new writer to grasp.   In fact it is very, very often nearly impossible to get a new writer to describe the overall action of their story in a sentence or two.  Sometimes this is because there IS no driving action, which – in genre fiction, anyway –  is a huge problem.   But sometimes there’s a perfectly clear action of the storyline, the writer just hasn’t realized what it is.   Once they are able to identify it, a whole lot of extraneous scenes often can get cut, or brought into line with the action of the story, creating much more tension and suspense.

So this is why I use movies so much to teach these concepts – first because they’re a more common frame of reference; there are almost always so many more movies that everyone in a room has seen than books that they have read in common.   But also because movies are a stripped-down form of storytelling and it’s easier to remember and identify the main plot actions.

Last week I ended up watching 2012 (okay, so I’m a little behind).

Now, I’m sure in a theater this movie delivered on its primary objective, which was a rollercoaster ride as only Hollywood special effects can provide.   I was watching it primarly because I love apocalypse settings and John Cusack, not necessarily in that order.   But this is a movie I most likely would have walked out on in a theater, I’m definitely not recommending it, just found it a good illustration of some concepts I am always talking about.

I’m not going to be critical (except to say I was shocked and disturbed at some of the overt cruelty that went on in what was supposedly a family movie), because whether we like it or not, there is obviously a MASSIVE worldwide audience for movies that are primarily about delivering pure sensation. Story isn’t important, nor, apparently, is basic logic. As long as people keep buying enough tickets to these movies to make them profitable, it’s the business of Hollywood to keep churning them out.

But even in this rollercoaster ride of special effects and sensations, there was a clear central PLAN for an audience to hook into, a CENTRAL ACTION that drove the story. Without that plan, 2012 really would have been nothing but a chaos of special effects – as a lot of movies these days are.

PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION (which I’ve talked about before, here and here) are integrally related, and I keep looking for ways to talk about it because this is such an important concept to get.

If you’ve seen this movie (and I know some of you have…), there is a point in the first act where a truly over-the-top Woody Harrelson as an Art Bell-like conspiracy pirate radio commentator rants to protagonist John Cusack about having a map that shows the location of “spaceships” that the government is stocking to abandon planet when the prophesied end of the world commences.

Although Cusack doesn’t believe it at the time, this is the PLANT (sort of camouflaged by the fact that Woody is a nutjob), that gives the audience the idea of what the PLAN OF ACTION will be: Cusack will have to go back for the map in the midst of all the cataclysm, then somehow get his family to these “spaceships” in order for all of them to survive the end of the world.

The PLAN is reiterated, in dialogue, when Cusack gets back to his family and tells his wife basically exactly what I just said above.

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens – it’s not only Cusack’s PLAN, but the central action of the story, that can be summed up as a CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Cusack be able to get his family to the spaceships before the world ends? Or put another way, the CENTRAL STORY ACTION: John Cusack must get his family to the spaceships before the world ends.

Note the ticking clock, there, as well. As if the end of the world weren’t enough, the movie also starts a literal “Twenty-nine minutes to the end of the world!” ticking computer clock at, yes, 29 minutes before the end of the movie.

(Remember, I’ve said ticking clocks are dangerous because of the huge cliché factor. We all need to study structure to know what NOT to do, as well. Did I talk about the clock in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, yet? Great example of how to turn a cliche into a legitimate urgency.)

A reader/audience really needs to know what the overall PLAN is, even if they only get in a subconscious way. Otherwise they are left floundering, wondering where the hell all of this is going.

In 2012, even in the midst of all the buildings crumbling and crevasses opening and fires booming and planes crashing, we understand on some level what is going on:

– What does the protagonist want? (OUTER DESIRE) To save his family.

– How is he going to do it? (PLAN) By getting the map from the nutjob and getting his family to the secret spaceships (that aren’t really spaceships).

– What’s standing in his way? (FORCES OF OPPOSITION) About a billion natural disasters as the planet caves in, an evil politician who has put a billion dollar pricetag on tickets for the spaceship, a Russian Mafioso who keeps being in the same place at the same time as Cusack, and sometimes ends up helping, and sometimes ends up hurting. (Was I the only one queased out by the way all the Russian characters were killed off, leaving only the most obnoxious kids on the planet?)

Here’s another example, from a classic movie:

At the end of the first sequence of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (which is arguably two sequences in itself, first the action sequence in the cave in South America, then the university sequence back in the US), Indy has just taught his archeology class when his mentor, Marcus, comes to meet him with a couple of government agents who have a job for him (CALL TO ADVENTURE). The agents explain that Hitler has become obsessed with collecting occult artifacts from all over the world, and is currently trying to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to make any army in possession of it invincible in battle.

So there’s the MACGUFFIN – the object that everyone wants, and the STAKES – if Hitler’s minions (THE ANTAGONISTS) get this Ark before Indy does, the Nazi army will be invincible.

And then Indy explains his PLAN to find the Ark – his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was an expert on the Ark and had an ancient Egyptian medallion on which was inscribed the instructions for using the medallion to find the hidden location of the Ark.

So when Indy packs his bags for Nepal, we understand the entire OVERALL ACTION of the story: Indy is going to find Abner (his mentor) to get the medallion, then use the medallion to find the Ark before Hitler’s minions can get it.

And even though there are lots of twists along the way, that’s really it: the basic action of the story.

The PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION – or CENTRAL ACTION, if it helps to call it that instead, is almost always set up – and spelled out – by the end of the first act. Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can relax and let you drive.

So here’s a craft exercise, if you want to play along.   For practice take a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identify the CENTRAL ACTION – describe it in a few sentences.   Then try it with your own story.  

For example, in my new book, BOOK OF SHADOWS, here’s the set up: the protagonist, Homicide detective Adam Garrett, is called on to investigate a murder of a college girl which looks like a Satanic killing.   Garrett and his partner make a quick arrest of a classmate of the girl’s, a troubled Goth musician.   But Garrett is not convinced of the boy’s guilt, and when a practicing witch from nearby Salem insists the boy is innocent and there have been other murders, he is compelled to investigate further.

So the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is Garrett using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing.

If you’re working on a story now, at what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of where the story is going?   If you can’t identify that, is it maybe a good idea to layer that in so the reader will have an idea where the story is going?

And for extra credit – give us some examples of movies or books that didn’t seem to have any central action or plan at all. Those negative examples are sometimes the best way to learn!

Or just tell us today – What hooks YOU about a book?   What will make you toss it across the room and go on to the next?

(And Happy Solstice on Monday, everyone… use the Force.)


40 thoughts on “The Central Action of a story

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    "I wonder if craft posts annoy a lot of the Murderati readers. "

    Not this one. I study them. I make story templates out of them. I re-read them frequently.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    "I need to know pretty quickly where the plot is going. I want to know the author knows, and I want the author one way or another to tell me, so that I know there’s a direction to all this, and I can relax and let the author take me there. If I don’t get that within the first few chapters, I get uneasy that the author has no idea where the story is going, and I toss the book. It makes me crazy."

    This is just such excellent advice. I frequently point people towards your posts on craft, because nobody goes into it in quite the detail that you do.

    Thanks again!

  3. TerriMolina

    I love your craft posts, Alex. Don’t stop posting them!! =)
    You know, just last night my daughter Becca (16 yrs old) was complaining about how movies are all about special effects now–she’d gone to see Prince of Persia and while she was perfectly content to drool over Jake Gyllenhaal…she really wished there was more story. She said she misses the story in a movie. I can’t argue with her there which is why I prefer books over movies…it’s the whole story that grabs me.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    One gets a feel for the "magic" in a book and when it is not there. Magic: Steig Larsson’s books . Yes, they could have used some editing but the complexity of the storylines hooked me. There are personal mini-hooks that will draw me in to books in general: cold cases, historical settings, political intrigues. But there are a lot of books out there that have these things yet not hit that magical transformation into really good storytelling. I’m having a difficult time expressing my thoughts on this but there is a real obvious difference in reading an author’s work of stringing together scenes and characters and interactions and the world building transformation into something intelligently "real" even though there could be purely fictional/fantastical elements involved.

  5. Alafair Burke

    I don’t mind not knowing where the story is heading as long as there are little hooks along the way to keep me interested and as long as I care about the characters. If those ingredients are there, I have faith the writer is going to tie together all the pieces with a few good "oh wow" moments. See, e.g., Harlan Coben.

  6. Patti Abbott

    What hooks me first is voice. I will go anywhere with a voice that rings true and interesting. For a while at least. Then character and some amount of plot has to kick in.
    Thanks for the generous post. I am in the process of trying to pitch a book and this was a huge help in how to frame it.

  7. Paula R.

    Hi Alex, I love craft blogs. Thank you so much for the lesson today. Generally, I get hooked on a book, first by the title. If the title grabs me, it means that I will more than likely love the book I am reading. Once the title gets in my head, my mind start to spit out possible questions that could come up and when I start reading, it is to see if those questions get answered and if more questions arise. I have been choosing books that way for a long time, and it works for me. There have been maybe 3 or 4 books that had a great title that didn’t grab me. Those that didn’t were lacking in enough depth in the plot, and the characters just did not live up to my expectations nor did they grab on an emotional level. I am a rare breed of reader who doesn’t read excerpts, reviews or back covers to see what is going on. I like to the story to unfold for me as the characters discover things. I want to experience the story with them, and if I can’t do that, it loses something for me. Stories that allow me to immerse myself in them, and be a character as well, have been the ones I love the most. Once I have that feeling and experience, the author becomes an autobuy for me, no matter what genre they write in.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Rev. That’s such a compliment, coming from you. And from Z!

    I first noticed that about a reader or audience relaxing into the hands of the storyteller when I was working in theater. It’s true for any individual performer, too. An audience of a show (oh, God, especially on the school or community theater level!) is always a little nervous at first, hoping the play is going to "work". You can literally see and feel an audience relax into a performer’s hands.

    It’s so true for books, too – we’re looking to lose ourselves, and the author needs to take command – of everything.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Interesting, Alafair – I would have said that Harlen is one of the best structuralists out there. Lots of twists, but always very clear what the central drive is. Maybe I should break down one or two of his books here sometime.

    Books just TAKE so much longer!

  10. Shizuka

    I can’t get enough of your structure blogs, Alex!
    One writer whose structure isn’t always clear is Tana French.
    And I love her stuff anyway. Or maybe, like Harlan Coben, she’s got strong structure that’s not so obvious.

  11. Allison Brennan

    I love your craft posts! I’m a reader first 🙂

    I have a hard time boiling down my story to a couple intelligent sentences. I’m good with the overall plot concept (i.e. earthquake under San Quentin; prisoners escape.) But log lines and brief summaries are hard–the copy department at Ballantine is really good, and while I always edit the copy, they provide a great structure that I can work with.

    But I’m going to try with Toy Story 3 — which was a fabulous movie that EVERYONE should see (I’m a huge Pixar fan, but have been disappointed with a couple recent movies. TS3 is better than anything they’ve done and it’s because of the story.

    Okay . . . When their owner Andy is leaving for college, Woody and his toy friends accept that they’ll be regulated to the attic. But when they’re accidentally thrown away, they think Andy doesn’t like them anymore and put themselves in a donation box for a day care center.

    Hmm, that’s not good enough. But I don’t want to give away anything!

    Go see the movie. 🙂

  12. KDJames / BCB

    I love your craft posts, Alex. Their lure is what dragged me over here to this community in the first place. (Now you all know who to blame.) I’ve got more than a few of them bookmarked.

    It’s just kind of difficult to comment when your head is stuffed full of excellent new insight and knowledge. I guess I could go with the old standard, "OMG, you are fucking brilliant!" But I try not to be a "me too" commenter. 😉

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Patti, thanks, I’m glad to have said something to help you focus. You have no idea how long it can sometimes take to get a writer to tell me what’s actually the throughline of their story. And it’s always very clear that there IS a throughline, but being able to articulate it concisely seems to be an art in itself, and writers have to learn how to do it by practicing!

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Damn, girl! You are such a fantastic teacher! You possess such a clear thought-process. You always amaze me.
    What hooks me right away is a strong voice. I can tell if I’m going to like a book within the first few sentences. Even the first sentence. Style and voice. I hate cliche, so if I see cliche in the first few pages I go crazy. Unless, of course, it’s in dialogue or it’s the narrator, and the cliche is an intentional aspect of that person’s character. Original, poetic language also keeps me interested. I don’t need to have a "shocking" opening, something designed to get my attention and keep me turning pages. I’m more impressed with original thought and the movement of language, combined with a voice that controls the storytelling experience. I feel the same way about movies. I want a master storyteller, telling stories in images. I want to feel that I’m in the hands of a master, that I can turn off my critical thinking and experience the story as a fan.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wow, Paula, you don’t even read back covers? That’s faith!

    Sometimes I’ll read a not very well written book for story (skimming!) but I’m with you, it’s that immersion thing I’m looking for, and I want to be the character (s), too.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Katherine, thanks. It’s great to have you here, so any way we can suck you in…

    I’m glad to hear people aren’t totally sick of the craft thing. I feel like such a structure toolhead, sometimes.

    But RGB is right. There’s a LOT of angst in craft.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    SJS said: "I want to feel that I’m in the hands of a master, that I can turn off my critical thinking and experience the story as a fan."

    I’m noticing a lot of people articulating the same thing in different ways. We want to be swept up in a story.

    I really believe writers have to know how to take that control of a reader, however we manage it.

  18. Allison Brennan

    Alex, go for the story. Seriously. If you go before Thrillerfest I’ll buy you a drink. I saw Wall-e, and it was too dark for the kids–it’s the only Pixar movie they really didn’t like. UP was cute, but a little mature and the opening was sad. Finding Nemo had been my favorite until Toy Story 3. It’s all about the story, right?

  19. pari noskin taichert

    My husband bought me P.S. I Love You for Valentine’s Day this year and we finally got around to watching it the other night. Here was a movie that had no idea what it was about or where it was going. Even though Gerald Butler is a cutie — and I generally adore Hillary Swank (horribly miscast in this one) — it irritated the hell out of me for many of the reasons you’re describing.

    There was a whole lotta manipulation going on but NO plan.

  20. Jeanne in MN

    I never read the back cover of a book. There are either too many spoilers or a totally misleading description of the plot. I usually read the first few paragraphs, which usually gives me an idea of whether I like the writing style or not. (I also love the Search Inside feature on

    Although I am not a writer, I enjoy the craft posts. They give me a lot to think about and help me determine why I do or do not like a book.

  21. Paula R.

    Nope, no back covers for me. I don’t like to know who will end up with who, until they find each other. I want to learn about it when others do as well. This is especially true with series. After you’ve been through a journey with certain characters you get and idea of who you want them to have an HEA with as well as the kinds of conflicts they face. Also, sometimes the back covers reveal too much. I like to speculate about things like that, and some back covers ruin it for me. I also get very distracted from the story because I keep wondering when certain things that are stated will happen.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  22. Cornelia Read

    I’m with Paula–I don’t like back copy or flap copy. Let me find out in the course of reading. I also don’t like to see "next week on blah-blah show" trailers at the end of a TV show episode. Teasers annoy me.

    I want voice and I want exactitude in the small things when I start a book. I want a clear sense of location. I want to be in the head of someone whose observations are worth sharing. Some precision, some humor, some wisdom. I hate "two criminial knuckleheads get themselves into deeper and deeper water" stories. I also can’t stand tension being built through idiocy and secrets and slapstick–one reason I Love Lucy always gives me the willies. Just TELL Rickie you bought the fucking expensive hat and get it over with, then do something that actually matters with the rest of the damn episode, okay Lucy and Ethel? Give me stakes that are intrinsic to the story, and if you kill someone, make the death matter. And no loving description of torture or other misogynistic bullshit, thank you very much.

    Thus saith the Cornelia.

    GREAT post, Alex, as always!

  23. Tom

    Craft posts are very important to me, and craft (in its absence) produces a whole lotta angst.

    I look for voice, I look for respect for readers’ intelligence, I look for good riddles and puzzles and mysteries, for stakes that may take a turn toward dire consequences.

    Ever come across The Nine Act Structure for screenwriters? Never got popular, but I liked a couple of the author’s ideas. First, every story exists because, before we ever meet our protagonist, Someone Works Late Into The Night. Second, that failure in the protagonist’s effort is absolutely essential to the later success. I look more for the first than the second in what I read, more for the second than the first in what I write.

    One of the things I hated about my brief stay on Hollywood’s periphery was how story analysis was used on outsiders as a club by the Cool Kids. You do it very differently, Alex. It makes sense as you practice the art.

  24. Barbara

    Thanks so much for the great post. I am sure I will refer to this often as I strive to complete my first novel. I consider myself three quarters reader, one quarter writer and I love craft posts. They’re inspiring in a different way than the "angst" ones. Murderati has that great mix.

    I too am not a fan of back covers. I like to let the tale unfold inside. What hooks me can be different in each book. Sometimes it’s the setting, something special about the characters or interesting use of language, but what keeps me is the plot. I know the book and I should part amicably if I can actually put it down or if I find myself rereading passages because I start daydreaming. A good book for me can play out like a movie in my head because I feel I’m there.

    As to your extra credit question, the only film I could think of that applies is "My Dinner with Andre."

  25. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, thanks, I’m actually going to check out PS to see if I can use it as a ‘what not to do" example. I never blame the screenwriter for those things, though – the sad thing is there probably was a perfectly understandable plan of action in the original script, it just got lost along the way in the "development" process.

  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wow, Paula and Jeanne AND Cornelia all complaining about back covers revealing too much. That’s sobering. I hate that about movie trailers, will have to do what I can to make sure my back covers don’t do the same.

  27. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hi Tom – I haven’t read NINE ACT STRUCTURE, will have to look for it. Sounds like another take on the eight-sequence structure (epilogue/resolution counted as the ninth sequence, I’m guessing). I don’t get what you’re saying about Someone Works Late Into The Night. You mean the antagonist, before the action actually begins?

  28. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rebbie, thanks for reading – so great to hear it’s working for you.

    Barbara, good luck with the novel. Just get through that first draft, everything’s fixable from there. (I will be trying to take my own advice on that today….)

  29. Tom

    "You mean the antagonist, before the action actually begins?"

    Yes. The idea was that a course of action is already under way, set into motion by opposition or tangent forces, before a protagonist encounters it. Indy’s mentor’s research and the Nazi hunt for arcana, are examples.

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