Quotes to Write By: Rust Hills

by tjbeitelman

“What happens in a short story can happen only once.”

This, from Hills’s Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook. Hills was the longtime fiction editor at Esquire. He died a few years ago at 83. He wrote this book in his seventies. Normally I bristle when it comes to flat-out grumpy-old-man edicts, especially when it comes to stuff I (A) do and/or think about a lot and (B) have no idea what I’m doing/thinking when I do/think about them. [Weird, right? Whenever I don’t know what I’m doing (which is, like, almost always), my knee-jerk reaction is always to say, “Do not tell me what to do!” Hmm.]

But, anyway: this grumpy-old-man edict hit the spot. [PS: And Hills doesn’t seem like he was all that grumpy. FYI/FWIW.] It came in his chapter (short chapters!) on Fixed Action and Moving Action.

Which is to say:

  • Fixed Action = Stuff We Do a Lot, Day After Day

Fixed Action is not the stuff of plot; it’s the stuff of characterization.

  • Moving Action = The Stuff of Plot, Change

Moving Action alters Fixed Action. It’s everything that happens after “Then one day…”

Aha! I get it. (I think.)

PS: Telling people (almost) every day that things change in a story, characters change, I find it’s hard not to make the leap. Life changes. People change. Or maybe another way to say it is, life and people don’t change — until they do. And they always do. Eventually. OR: they resist change — until they don’t/can’t anymore.  Anyway: I know those are all simple truisms, as is Rust Hills’s quote above. But they’re easy to forget for us storytellers and us people alike.