First I Did This and Then I Did That: The Anatomy of a Story
In a recent post, I told the story of my aunt and uncle and the evening they went out for dinner, and in front of the restaurant, before they could go inside, a young woman got into their backseat and said she needed them to drive her somewhere because the police were after her. My aunt and uncle declined because. . .well, gosh-darn it, they had dinner to see to. . .so the young woman left. Aunt and Uncle went on into the restaurant, ate their dinner as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened., drove home, and went about their business. End of story.
But not for me. I knew material when I heard it. I began writing a story, “Anywhere, Please,” narrated by a woman who was sort of my aunt and sort of not, a woman I was creating out of a little of this and a little of that. Mostly I was just listening to her voice:
The woman’s in our backseat before I can say shoo. A skinny thing with too much eye makeup and a high forehead that shines in the glow from our Buick’s dome light. I’ve come around the front of the car and found the Mister talking to her, not flustered a bit. An old newspaper reporter, he’s concentrating on getting the facts.
So there I was recreating the story my aunt told me and with no idea of where the story might go. I just wanted to get that opening scene on the page and to see what would be in it that would merit further dramatization. To see what clues the opening scene might offer for where the story would need to go next. By the end of the scene, I’d learned that my narrator was a retired grade school teacher and that she knew the woman who was asking for a ride. When I first started writing stories, I’d come up with an opening scene and then spend countless hours trying to figure out what would happen next. Now, I understand that the opening always lays out the scenes that need to follow. I work more by intuition and by listening carefully to what the story is trying to tell me. In the case of this particular story, I made a choice right away to have my narrator and her husband know the woman in their car. In general, it’s a good idea for your characters to have a shared history because that creates all sorts of possibilities for tensions, actions, and consequences. It’s also a good idea to arrange things so it’s nigh on impossible for your characters to escape one another. In the story that my aunt told, it was possible to separate her and my uncle from the young woman. Not so in my version of the story. I had my narrator, after the young woman, Lucy, told her she was on the run because her mother called the police on her, insist that she join them for dinner. Seemed that my narrator carried some sort of old grudge against Lucy’s mother, something that would complicate the give and take between the characters. By the time I’d finished the opening scene, I had no idea what that grudge was all about or how it would come to play in the action that would ensue. But I was curious, and I’m finding more and more these days that curiosity for the writer is a valuable thing in the composition process.
By the end of the first scene, I was rich with questions. Each needed an answer, and that’s what I set out to do. I crafted two crucial scenes from the past that dramatized the difficulty between the narrator and Lucy’s mother, a difficulty that involved a daughter I didn’t know the narrator had, but whom she introduced to me with the line, “We had a little girl of our own, Pattianne.” Another aspect of starting a story successfully is to see how many balls you can get up into the air. That is to say, how many elements that will enrich the story without overwhelming it. At the point, I wrote the line about the narrator’s daughter, I had the texture of the life lived among the major characters of the story, and I knew that something had happened during the time when Lucy and her mother were borders in the narrator’s home years ago when Pattianne was thirteen and just starting to get a head of her own and to resist her mother. Something involving Lucy’s mother, Pattianne, and my narrator had resulted in long-lasting consequences between the narrator and Pattianne.
From that point, it was a matter of letting each narrative element have its fair space. The narrator and her husband and Lucy were in the restaurant, and the narrator was chewing over that story from the past and the current state of affairs between her and her daughter from whom she was essentially estranged while the police car was pulling into the parking lot. Of course, I had to have the police officer come into the restaurant. I had to have him approach the narrator, her husband, and Lucy. The police officer told them why he was there. He said he was looking for a woman named Lucy Keen. He told them why he was looking for her (see, how I’m answering the questions posed by the story’s opening; in this case, why did Lucy’s mother call the police?), and asked Lucy for identification. At this point, I knew I was close to the end of the story. I was at that moment of decision that provides the climax for so many stories. So I had Lucy say she’d left her purse back at the house. She put her hand on the narrator’s hand and said, “Isn’t that right, Mom?” The police officer said, “Is this your daughter?” And there I was knowing that the narrator’s next words, next actions, would change her forever.
At the end of a story, I’m always looking for the unexpected action and consequence. The irony of an action producing an result opposite from what the actor expects will always resonate if the surprise is inevitable and not imposed. That opposing action or piece of dialogue is always present in the opening. It’s just a matter of the writer paying close attention to answering the questions that those first moves present and answering them in a way that’s always alert for the opposites that characters and situations contain. The opening sets the trail, and the writer follows it to its end.
This is such excellent advice, Lee. Students tell me all the time that they quit on stories because they are bored with them. Perhaps they haven’t created sufficient tension. Or maybe they haven’t created questions that need to be answered. One thing that will keep us going back to the writing is curiosity about how it is all going to turn out. I frequently think about that line in WONDER BOYS, when the student tells Grady, “It’s like you didn’t make any choices.” You put that idea up front. Your choice created a situation that grows out of the history the characters share. Denis Johnson has a story in which his characters find a stranger in their car. It’s a very unsettling situation, especially since the stranger is (or pretends to be) deaf and dumb. The stranger keeps hanging on., although they try to ditch him. He’s the monkey on their backs, the burden they share, their addictions and their alienation made incarnate. It has a chilling effect. I guess my point is that if you make a conscious choice like that, you can really make that element work for you in a story.
Thanks, Lee. I turned this into an exercise for my students and brought them the post to discuss as well.
Nancy, thank you for doing that with your students and for bringing them to the post. I hope it was helpful.