I’ve told this story before, so please excuse me for telling it again. It has so much to do with everything I want to say about pressure points in narrative.
On the last night that my mother lived independently, a package addressed to her neighbor was accidentally delivered to her. My mother was a kind woman who believed in being a good neighbor, so she put on her coat and a rain hat—the kind women of a certain generation kept folded in their pocketbooks—and prepared to take the package to its rightful owner. This was in early March in southeastern Illinois, a rainy night, the drops slanting down through the streetlights.
“Beulah, we can take care of that tomorrow,” my uncle said.
But my mother was determined. She picked up the package and started toward the door.
“Mom,” I said, “it’s raining.” I seem to remember gently taking the package from her hands. “One night won’t make any difference.”
But, of course, in the grander scheme of things—which is to say in the span of her life—one night made all the difference in the world. My mother’s encroaching dementia had made it impossible for her to live alone, but she was still lucid enough to know exactly what the morning would bring, a move to a nursing home. I’m sure she knew this was the last night she’d spend in a home of her own and that time was running out for her.
“Well, all right,” she said in an angry voice. She sat down in her chair. My mother who rarely showed any temper at all, was mad. “If they don’t get this package, I’m not the one to blame.”
The pressures of her life had finally caused the temper in her to rise. By this time, she was probably tired of all I’d done to try to make it possible for her to have her independence, efforts that had failed and were culminating in the decision to move her to the nursing home. She was carrying all of the frustrations and fears connected to her diminishing mental capacities, and, when we forbade her to take the package to her neighbor, she snapped.
Which brings me to the narratives you may be writing, or thinking about writing, and a few questions I’d like you to ask yourselves:
- What sort of external pressure is being applied to my main character? Maybe it’s an imminent foreclosure, maybe it’s a lost valuable, maybe it’s an anticipated reunion. Our lives are made up of such anxieties. Find the central one for your plot.
- Who’s the other character or characters in the narrative who apply pressure to the main character in this plot you’re devising. They don’t have to be villains. In fact, they can be well-intentioned. The important thing is their actions increase the external pressure.
- What actions does your main character take that also increase the pressure on him or her? Irony may come into play here. Maybe your main character does or says something that he or she thinks will ease the tension only to find out that it increases it.
- What sort of internal pressure begins to rise? In other words, how is the external pressure a threat to the main character’s sense of identity? What is he or she carrying that interacts with the tensions from the outside? My mother had always thought herself a good, Christian woman. Our refusing her the privilege of taking that package to her neighbor challenged that sense of herself. External and internal pressure, then, intersected and cause her anger to emerge.
- What is the climactic plot point that causes something suppressed in your main character to rise to the surface?
- How does what rises to the surface have a lasting effect on everyone involved? My mother’s anger was a complicated moment for me. It was a moment of simultaneous love and shame. Love for her fierceness in the face of all that she knew waited for her and love for myself and all I was doing to assure her safety, but shame as well for not allowing her to have this last expression of the kind woman she was.
When the external pressure and the internal pressure unite, something has to give. That’s the crisis point beyond which nothing will ever be the same. That’s the heart of narrative.