I’m reading Russell Banks’s new story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, and a few of the stories have reminded me of a good lesson for the writer of short fiction.
One of our challenges is to make our stories fresh. To do that, we need to consider how we handle our material. How do we spin the premise of a story to make it seem unlike any other story that a reader might have read?
Let’s take the premises of three of Banks’s stories. In “Former Marine,” an aging father who’s lost his job at an auction house, decides to start robbing banks. In “Christmas Party,” a man attends a holiday tree-decorating party at the home of his ex-wife and her new husband. Finally, in “Transplant,” a man receives a new heart. Frankly, if these were elevator pitches, I doubt there’d be much to excite us. In fact, the stories would promise to be tired and worn, clichéd plots full of sentimentality and melodrama. As Banks proves, it’s not the premise that makes a story; it’s what the writer does with that premise that counts.
The aging father in “Former Marine” has three sons. One of them is a prison guard, one is a city policeman, and the other is a state trooper. When they find out that their father is robbing banks, the moral complexity of the premise deepens as Banks brings the tale to a dramatic end. The ex-husband in “Christmas Party” happens into the room where a young woman is trying to get the newly adopted baby of the ex-wife and her new husband to sleep. When Harold, the ex-husband, picks up the baby and starts moving toward the door as if to spirit the child away, a strange and interesting darkness rises up in the story. In “Transplant,” the recipient of the new heart receives a request from the donor’s wife, via the surgeon, to meet with him. The recipient agrees. It’s not an unusual request, but no one can predict what the donor’s wife will ask when the meeting finally occurs. She wants to listen to her dead husband’s heart beating in the recipient’s chest. She has a stethoscope with her for that purpose. The story ends with the slightly strange but very human moment of the donor’s wife and the recipient atop a hill. She has the bell of the stethoscope pressed to his chest, and after a while, she lets it drop away. Then she rests her ear against his chest and the two of them hold each other as she goes on listening to the heart that once beat inside her husband’s chest. The end of this story is handled with just the right balance of emotion and restraint, and it becomes unforgettable.
The lesson in all this? When conceiving a story, we’re wise to turn a premise toward the thing that would be least expected, but also believable. That little tweak will help us create memorable plots. An aging man robs banks? Give him sons who work in law enforcement. A man attends his ex-wife’s holiday party? Let him almost steal her child. A heart transplant recipient gets a request to meet from the donor’s wife? Give her a stethoscope and a desire to listen to that heart beating. The least expected turn freshens the premise by making it just a little strange while also making it extremely familiar and human. When we have a premise in mind for a story, we should ask ourselves what we’d least expect to happen and then see if we can make that unexpected turn convincing.