We start today with a passage from Richard Bausch’s story, “The Fireman’s Wife.” I’ve written about this story before on this blog, so I’ll only say that the story is about Jane who is close to leaving her marriage to Martin. At the end of the story, Martin has been injured while fighting a fire and has come home to find Jane’s bag packed. Because of his injury, she doesn’t leave that night. She gets him settled in bed, and the next morning, she listens to his attempts to talk about why she shouldn’t leave him. Then she walks outside. At this point, Bausch does some interesting things with landscape and the past:
Later, while he sleeps on the sofa, she wanders outside and walks down to the end of the driveway. The day is sunny and cool, with little cottony clouds—the kind of clear day that comes after a storm. She looks up and down the street. Nothing is moving. A few houses away someone has put up a flag, and it flutters in a stray breeze. This is the way it was, she remembers, when she first lived here—when she first stood on this sidewalk and marveled at how flat the land was, how far it stretched in all directions. Now she turns and makes her way back to the house, and then she finds herself in the garage. It’s almost as if she’s saying goodbye to everything, and, as this thought occurs to her, she feels a little stir of sadness. Here, on the work table, side by side under the light from the one window, are Martin’s model airplanes. He won’t be able to work on them again for weeks. The light reveals the miniature details, the crevices and curves on which he lavished such care, gluing and sanding and painting. The little engines are lying on a paper towel at one end of the table. They smell just like real engines, and they’re shining with lubrication. She picks one of them up and turns it in the light, trying to understand what he might see in it that could require such time and attention. She wants to understand him. She remembers that when they dated, he liked to tell her about flying those planes, and his eyes would widen with excitement. She remembers that she liked him best when he was glad that way. She puts the little engine down, thinking how people change. She knows she’s going to leave him, but just for this moment, standing among these things, she feels almost at peace about it. She has, after all, no need to hurry. And as she steps out on the lawn, she realizes she can take the time to think clearly about when and where; she can even change her mind. But she doesn’t think she will.
“The Fireman’s Wife” is a story that exhibits an extraordinary measure of restraint at the moment of climax. Rather than rushing ahead toward resolution, Bausch slows down and delivers a more nuanced portrait of a marriage in trouble. The drama happens at the level of character more so than the completion of action, and that’s because of Bausch’s sensitive and extraordinary management of Jane’s point of view.
So with a similar objective in mind, I offer the following exercise. This might work best with a story that you’ve already drafted or are in the process of drafting, but it could also be useful for a story that you’re thinking about writing.
1. Imagine a climactic moment for two of your characters, one that will bring them to a tipping point, or, in other words, a place where your point of view character might take an action that will change everything forever.
2. Have your point of view character walk away from the conflict.
3. Use the landscape and a detail that’s specific to the other character to activate the point of view character’s memory and to spark a divide within him or her as he or she straddles the past life and the one that lies ahead.
The objective of the exercise is to see what you can find within your point of view character before he or she enters the final scene of the story. By creating a moment of pause, the final resolution makes a louder noise; even if it’s fairly quiet in terms of action, it’s very resonant in terms of what rises up in the main character. In the case of “The Fireman’s Wife,” Jane experiences a surprise that she never could have predicted. She returns to the house and checks on Martin, who is sleeping. Bausch then give us this powerful last paragraph:
At last he’s asleep. When she’s certain of this, she lifts herself from the bed and carefully, quietly withdraws. As she closes the door, something in the flow of her own mind appalls her, and she stops, stands in the dim hallway, frozen in a kind of wonder; she had been thinking in an abstract way, almost idly, as though it had nothing to do with her, about how people will go to such lengths leaving a room—wishing not to disturb, not to awaken, a loved one.
A simple action can lead to a resonant end if your point of view character is alert enough to the world around him or her—if the action draws out a crucial response, one the reader won’t be able to forget.