Two Characters, a Premise: Proceed with Confidence and Caution
My elderly aunt has a neighbor who doesn’t like the way “the college kids” speed by his house with their cd players blasting and thumping. He’s ready to take action. One day, my aunt and her friend saw this man sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway. As usual, he was grousing about those “college kids.” He had a pistol. He pointed it toward the street. “I’m going to shoot someone’s tires out,” he said.
“You don’t want to do that,” my aunt said.
Her friend added, “You might miss and hit someone, or you might cause an accident. You don’t know what might happen.
“I won’t miss,” the neighbor said, and with that he moved his hand from beneath his leg and showed them that pistol
Such confidence can move a man forward; it can also lead to a heap of trouble, make him feel like he’s eight-feet tall and made of steel, make him oblivious to the dangers that possibly lie in wait.
Of course, if nothing happens with the neighbor’s pistol, we really don’t have a story. Action makes a narrative—significant action, I should say, as in action that matters, that means something, that shows us what it is to be that man at that time. If the neighbor never fires that pistol, we have, instead, an anecdote, a brief story about the cranky neighbor who keeps threatening to shoot the tires on the fast and noisy cars driven by those “college kids.”
An anecdote is much safer than a story that matters. We can listen to it, be amused by it, or troubled by it, perhaps, but we’re also distanced from it because the lack of significant action absolves us from identifying with the characters and keeps us from wondering what we’d do if we were in their place.
I hope that my aunt’s neighbor is just talking big. But there’s that pistol, and as Chekhov wrote in a letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, dated 1 November 1889, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” A lesson in making sure that everything is relevant to the action of the narrative.
So here’s a little test for all of us. Given the facts of the premise—my widowed aunt who lives next door to a man who has a pistol and threatens to use it on those kids—who do you choose as your point of view character? Whose interior life do you choose to imagine? My aunt’s, or her neighbor’s? And what do you do with the pistol in the narrative that you’re now free to construct?
You can probably guess my choice when I say that a more eccentric character sometimes needs to be seen through the lens provided by a more rational character. And that pistol? It can “go off” in an unexpected way without even being fired. This isn’t to say that a story couldn’t be made from the neighbor’s point of view with a pistol firing by the end of the story. I’m inviting all of us to walk around our first ideas in an attempt to see them from a different perspective other than the predictable one.
It seems to me that things get written because writers proceed with confidence and caution, with just enough belief in their talents to start off on a sure path, and just enough uncertainty to leave them open to whatever might diverge from that path. Our first ideas aren’t always our best ones. Here’s hoping that my aunt’s neighbor finally realizes that.
Another interesting and edifying post, Lee. These little pieces of yours both tease those of us who don’t have the good fortune of sitting in your classes and give us some of the good stuff your students chow down on.
Breaking the anecdote only habit is proving difficult for me as an aspiring memoir essayist. At least when I’m looking at a wide swath of time and a big emotional theme, I tend to paint the past in vignettes and portraiture. If the actual past under the lens doesn’t contain a gripping scene, do I piece one together out of my anecdotal material? Do I lie for a greater cause?
Hi, Stuart. Thank so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. When I write pieces of memoir, I try to recall what the writer, Eve Shelnutt, calls “radical events.” In other words, those moments from our pasts that were changing us in some way. Moments of emotional complexity, moments of choice and consequence. This isn’t to say that everything in a memoir will fit into that category–we have to have the background of the commonplace against which the extraordinary rises–but I often structure the turn of a chapter or an essay around one of my radical events. It might be the scene I’m writing toward, the one that will form the ending of the piece. When I wrote my first book-length memoir, “From Our House,” I structured each chapter around a single radical event. I hope this helps, Stuart.