For some reason—maybe because I feel us edging closer to autumn—I’m remembering how, when I was a small boy, I’d walk with my mother into the woods on our farm, and together we’d gather hickory nuts. For those of you who don’t know, a hickory nut is encased in a thick black husk. You can free the nut be prying the husk apart with your fingers. Then you have to crack the hard shell of the nut and pick out the meat. In other words, you have to go through more than one layer to get to the thing you prize.
Which brings me to the advantages of staying with a dramatic moment in a piece of writing, of stripping away the layers to see what there is to be found. I’m thinking about this because I see too many young writers who are interested only in the flash of the narrative event—the confrontation, the reveal, the thing that happens—and not so much interested in how that event reverberates through the characters involved. Sometimes, it’s prudent to present the scene and then move on, particularly in a fast-paced narrative, but once you’ve reached the climax, it’s often wise to slow down, to linger in that moment of intensity, to go beyond the event itself, and to let it journey into the emotional and intellectual makeup of a character, and by extension, to let it open out into the broader world.
Take, for example, Frank O’Connor’s story, “Guests of the Nation.” In this story, the Irish soldiers must execute two English prisoners they’ve been guarding. It’s a difficult task because the Irish soldiers have become fond of those two prisoners. But execute them they do. The first killing isn’t neat; it requires a second shot. One of the Irish soldiers, Donovan, says to the second prisoner, Belcher, “You understand we’re only doing our duty?” Belcher responds: “I never could make out what duty was myself,” he said. “I think you’re all good lads, if that’s what you mean. I’m not complaining.” Here, O’Connor goes directly to the climatic action. Another of the Irish soldiers, Noble, raises his fist at Donovan, “. . .and in a flash Donovan raised his gun and fired. The big man went over like a sack of meal, and this time there was no need for a second shot.”
The narrative action is complete, delivered with swiftness and an appropriate measure of restraint and understatement. The story, though, is far from over. The killings reverberate through our narrator, Bonaparte, another Irish soldier. He reports that he doesn’t remember much about the burying, but he does recall—can never forget—that when they went back to the house where they’d been keeping the Englishmen, the old woman who cooked for them, fell down in the doorway and began to pray:
Then, by God, in the very doorway, she fell on her knees and began praying, and after looking at her for a minute or two Noble did the same by the fireplace. I pushed my way out past her and left them at it. I stood at the door, watching the stars and listening to the shrieking of the birds dying out over the bogs. It is so strange what you feel at times like that that you can’t describe it. Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.
Just imagine if O’Connor had ended the story with the executions and not followed the Irish soldiers back to the house. Just imagine if the story never had the chance to settle inside Bonaparte. In that last paragraph of the story, O’Connor breaks apart the husk of those executions. Then he cracks the shell of our narrator, and we travel far down into his emotional state and outwards at the same time into the whole world.
So a quick writing activity: take the climactic moment of a narrative that you’ve written and go inside your main character. Find what’s inside him or her that the climactic moment brings to the surface.
O’Connor says in his study of the short story form, The Lonely Voice, “When the curtain falls, everything must be changed. An iron bar must have been bent and been seen to be bent.” Sometimes we short-circuit the process by leaving the premise of our stories too soon. That iron bar bending not only has to be seen, the reader also has to know how the bend goes down into the characters. Sometimes you have to make that journey down through the layers—down through the husk, down through the shell—until nothing can protect your characters. The story finds them at their most vulnerable, and in that moment, such as is the case of the last paragraph of “Guests of the Nation,” we find ourselves.