Our ten weeks together in the MFA fiction workshop have come to an end, and the time has seemed to pass so quickly. When I was a kid, I thought time sometimes crept by so slowly. Now, of course, not so much. As a kid, I was good at making my inner thoughts known to anyone nearby, especially my parents when we were doing something grownup like visiting their friends, or shopping, or an endless number of grownup activities for which I had little patience. I was very verbal about how bored I was, how eager to go home, how thirsty, how hungry, how miserable, etc. I had no filter between what I thought and what I said. I was a kid. I hadn’t learned to keep things to myself.
I’m thinking about this today because yesterday’s workshop conversation focused, in part, on how our main characters register the way the world shifts around them. A large part of that world, of course, is the relationship that the character has with someone else and/or with a situation central to the narrative. The evolution of the character relationship is connected to the shifts in the central dramatic situation. As Henry James said, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” So the character, through his or her actions, creates incident, and that incident reveals more of the character.
It seems to me that a good story gives us something to hold onto in its opening, something that the story will hold onto as well, this focal point to which everything in the story will connect. Consider this opening to Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” as translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky:
A new person, it was said, had appeared on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog. Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, who had spent a fortnight at Yalta and had got used to the place, had also begun to take an interest in new arrivals. As he sat in Vernet’s confectionery shop, he saw, walking on the esplanade, a fair-haired young woman of medium height, wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian was trotting behind her.
And afterwards he met her in the public garden and in the square several times a day. She walked alone, always wearing the same beret and always with the whit dog; no one knew who she was and everyone called her simply “the lady with the pet dog.”
“If she is here alone without husband or friends,” Gurov reflected, “it wouldn’t be a bad thing to make her acquaintance.”
And so the heart of the story announces itself, Gurov’s attraction to the lady with the pet dog. As the story unfolds and their relationship deepens and becomes complicated, Gurov registers each shift and turn, and because he does, we do, too. We know exactly where to place our attention because Gurov knows where to place his.
Notice how this also works in a first-person narrative like Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water”:
My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear, blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see La Traviata, when she was fourteen and I was twelve, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out.” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright, that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished and then they cheered like hell.
That’s what I like to remember and that’s the story I told to all of her therapists. I wanted them to know her, to know that who they saw was not all there was to see. That before the constant tinkling of commercials and fast-food jingles, there had been Pucina and Mozart and hymns so sweet and mighty, you expected Jesus to come down off his cross and clap. That before there was a mountain of Thorazined fat, swaying down the halls in nylon maternity tops and sweatpants, there had been the prettiest girl in Arrandale Elementary School, the belle of Landmark Junior High. Maybe there were other pretty girls, but I didn’t see them. To me, Rose, my beautiful blond defender, my guide to Tampax and my mother’s moods, was perfect.
We know from this opening that we’re to hold onto the relationship between the narrator and her sister, Rose, and the way that relationship shifts through a series of complications because of Rose’s delicate mental health. Because the narrator knows what’s important in the story we do, too.
It may seem like such a small thing, this focusing, something barely worth mentioning, but I think it’s wise to consider how to connect your readers with your characters and their situations through the opening of a piece of fiction. While putting your main character into action, don’t forget to show your readers how he or she processes the world around him or her and how he or she registers the shifts in the dramatic situation and the character relationships. Even while “showing,” don’t be fearful of a little “telling,” or a lot of telling, depending on what the story requires.
So here we are at the end of our time together. I know it’s been useful for me to think further about the various craft issues that came up in our MFA workshop. I hope that what I’ve had to say has been useful for you as well.
Next quarter, I’ll be teaching the MFA workshop in creative nonfiction. Maybe I’ll do another round of posts from that workshop. But for now, let me close the way I do at the end of any workshop, by passing on this writing advice from Isak Dinesen who said she wrote a little each day without too much hope and without too much despair. The journey will take us where we’re meant to go. It’s been a privilege to be a small part of your writing life these past ten weeks.