Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, Olive, Again, begins like this:
In the early afternoon on a Saturday in June, Jack Kennison put on his sunglasses, got into his sports car with the top down, strapped the seatbelt over his shoulder and across his large stomach, and drove to Portland—almost an hour away—to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than bump into Olive Kitteridge at the grocery store here in Crosby, Maine. Or even that other woman he had seen twice in the store as he stood holding his whiskey while she talked about the weather. The weather. That woman—he could not remember her name—was a widow as well.
And so a narrative begins in a most unspectacular way—a man getting into his car, buckling his seatbelt, and preparing to make an hour’s drive in order to buy a gallon of whiskey. The questions of who, what, where, and when are answered easily—not much fanfare, and nothing much to remark upon at all: Jack Kennison, a drive, Maine, an early afternoon on a Saturday in June. The question of why, though, gets interesting. Jack can’t buy his whiskey in his hometown because he fears he’ll run into Olive Kitteridge or “that other woman,” the one whose name he can’t recall. So he has to drive to Portland where he can be anonymous. This wrinkle is what makes the story worth telling. It makes us curious about what history Jack shares with Olive and this other woman, and why he would drive an hour just to avoid them. This little spark of tension is enough to keep us reading, sensing, as we do, something simmering just beneath the surface of what’s otherwise a very quiet opening.
It takes so little to begin a narrative: a specific person, in a specific place at a specific time, engaged in a specific action, from a certain motivation. The motivation is where the real story lies. The rest merely gives the motivation a context within which to dramatize itself. A character in a particular world acts out of desire or fear, and just like that we have the makings of a story. If writers can’t make something out of the small and ordinary, they’ll never be able to make anything out of the large and sensational. The ability to observe closely in the real world makes for a resonant story. In order to do so, one first has to catalog the important details.
Notice in the opening of Olive, Again how Strout includes the detail of Jack’s large stomach. Look at what she does with that detail in the second paragraph which describes Jack walking near the water in Portland while all the people passing by take no notice of him:
No one seemed to even glance at him, and he realized what he had known before, only now it came to him differently: He was just an old man with a sloppy belly and not anyone worth noticing.
Because Jack s closely at those around him, we do, too. Because he’s able to make something of what he sees, we are, too. Because Elizabeth Strout uses the detail of the large stomach to lead Jack to the observation that he’s “not anyone worth noticing,” we start to live inside his skin, to understand what it is for him to move through the world. We also start to care about him because he’s taken the time to care about himself.
The lesson in all of this? It’s easy to get a story into motion. Someone does something. Maybe like Jack they get into a car to drive somewhere. Maybe they have a specific reason for doing so. Maybe they’re going to see someone, or maybe they want to avoid someone. The object of their desire need not be grand (a bottle of whiskey), nor does their action have to be sensational (a drive in a car). Their motivation, however, needs to be urgently felt even if does reside barely beneath the surface of the narrative. That motivation announces to the readers that here is a story and a character worth following. The detail—the big stomach—becomes the entryway into the character’s consideration of his own life. Now we have a man who’s painfully aware of his insignificance in the world, and we have the character of Olive, whom he wants to avoid, and we wait to see how his drive to Portland will create events that will put pressure on him and lead to a final action of some consequence.
A character’s motivation need not be sensational. It only needs to be urgent.