Structuring a Narrative: Layers and Texture

Over twenty-five years ago, I was working on a story that ended up being called “The Least You Need to Know.” I’d reached a point in the composition of the story where I didn’t know what would come next. This happened to me often in those days and still does to a certain extent. I’ve reached a place where I’m comfortable with this uncertainty. If we can get comfortable with not knowing, and with not settling for the simple moves, some wonderful things can occur.

I’m thinking about this because I’ve been teaching a seminar in forms of narratives this semester. My wonderful MFA students and I have been taking apart novels and memoirs to see the various structures a story can take. I’ve been thinking particularly about how to give a story what I like to call texture. I’m interested in how to give the narrative layers so it will more closely resemble the simultaneity of a life truly and fully lived, which will then allow it to resonate with a reader.

A story starts in the midst of something in motion, some sort of instability that seeks to come back to level, but never quite does. My story, “The Least You Need to Know,” began with this premise: a fifteen year-old boy and his father, a man who makes his living cleaning up crime scenes. The father believes that sloppy living leads to cruel living, and he and his son break into houses and then wash the dishes, etc. “There’s no telling what we’ve kept from happening here,” the father tells the son. Obviously, the son finds his father’s behavior unsettling.

So that’s set in motion, the fact that the father seems close to losing his grip on reality. I decided to layer in another narrative thread. The boy’s mother writes travel guides to lands she’s never visited, and she spends her days in the public library gathering information about these places from research materials. One day, the son comes home from school and finds his mother sitting next to a strange man on the couch. The man is a research librarian, and in the conversation that follows, it becomes clear to the boy that there’s at least some degree of flirtation going on between the man and his mother.

I have, then, two threads running along and about to get entangled when the father comes home from work early with the story of a job he was doing, a young girl’s suicide. The father doesn’t like the fact that the research librarian is in his home with his wife. The two of them have a confrontation when the father starts talking about the job he does, and the research librarian says it’s not decent for him to talk about such things in front of his wife and son. With a series of questions, the father makes the librarian admit how pathetic and lonely his life is. “I don’t know how my wife hooked up with you,” the father says.

It’s at this point that the surface of the story resolves. Our narrator, the son, says, “I knew a decision was about to be made, but no one had the courage to make it.” The son goes to the librarian and tells him he should go. The librarian gathers up his coat and hat and leaves. The tension has been resolved. This could have very well been the end of the story. But it seemed to simple to me to leave it there. It also seemed as if there might be something yet to be resolved within our narrator, this fifteen year-old boy who has been an observer throughout the story. What was his story, I wondered. Why was the story of his father, his mother, and the librarian one that would linger with him long past that afternoon from his teenage years?

I remember taking a breath. I remember closing my eyes. I remember trying not to think about anything, trying instead to enter a state similar to the one we occupy when we’re about to drift off to sleep, or when we’re easing ourselves awake, that state of being between the conscious and the unconscious. And that’s when I heard my narrator say, “But that’s not the story I need to tell.”

Hello! I had another layer to the story. What was the story that the narrator had been withholding, the one he couldn’t bring himself to tell until the events inside his home that afternoon placed so much pressure on him that he had no choice? To answer that question, I only had to look for something already in the story. The father’s story of cleaning up a home after a young girl had killed herself. Of course, the young girl would have had to had known the narrator, and, of course, he would have had to have done or said something that in his mind, after the fact, must have had a causal relationship with the suicide. He had to believe himself to be complicit.

So that became the final layer of the story. Two threads crossing, and a third thread rising up, one that had been there all along, but one that required the conflict between the first two threads to finally make room for the third. All of them wrapped together in the end of the story. We should keep in mind that stories, if they’re to be memorable, must be, like life, multi-dimensional. What I’ve described is merely one way of creating this effect. This withholding, this additional layer rising.

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