Techniques for Avoiding Melodrama and Sentimentality
One of my favorite stories is Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” This is the story of a couple, Ann and Howard Weiss, whose son, Scotty, on the morning of his eighth birthday, steps off a curb and gets hit by a car. He falls, striking his head, but he gets up and seems to be fine. Later at home, though, while he’s telling his mother about the accident, he loses consciousness. The ensuing story is full of sadness, and Carver provides plenty of space for its expression. How does he do that without the story slipping into melodrama or sentimentality? How in the world, at the end of the story, does a moment of grace rise from the darkness?
First, there’s the understated style of the narration. Many of the sentences merely state the facts without commenting upon them as is the case in the opening scene where Mrs. Weiss goes to a baker to arrange for a cake for Scotty’s birthday. Here, for example, is the description of the baker:
The baker wore a white apron that looked like a smock. Straps cut under his arms, went around in back and then to the front again, where they were secured under his heavy waist. He wiped his hands on his apron as he listened to her. He kept his eyes down on the photographs and let her talk. He let her take her time. He’d just come to work and he’d be there all night, baking, and he was in no real hurry.
As Marianne Moore once said, “Poetry is all nouns and verbs.” The act of close observation in this passage and throughout the story establishes an appropriate degree of distance between the narration and the events it presents. As a result of that distance, the emotional intensity of the events themselves is more powerfully felt.
Carver also makes room for moments of stillness in the midst of an extremely fast-paced plot. At the hospital, where Scotty is still unconscious, Mrs. Weiss demands to know why he won’t wake up. “Howard?” she says. “I want some answers from these people.” At this point, the story finds a place of quiet. Howard doesn’t say anything. He sits in his chair and rubs his face. Then the camera shifts to Mrs. Weiss:
Ann walked to the window and looked out at the parking lot. It was night, and cars were driving into and out of the parking lot with their lights on. She stood at the window with her hands gripping the sill, and knew in her heart that they were into something now, something hard. She was afraid, and her teeth began to chatter until she tightened her jaws. She saw a big car stop in front of the hospital and someone, a woman in a long coat, get into the car. She wished she were that woman and somebody, anybody, was driving her away from here to somewhere else where she would find Scotty waiting for her when she stepped out of the car, ready to say, Mom and let her gather him into her arms.
The pausing of the narrative allows this moment of silence where the emotions get expressed through the image of the woman in the long coat getting into a car and driving away. Carver allows Mrs. Weiss to be alone with her thoughts, to be envious of the woman in the long coat, before the plot resumes.
Finally, Carver beats back melodrama and sentimentality by letting the unexpected into the story. The seemingly menacing calls Mr. and Mrs. Weiss receive at their home—a man they eventually realize is the baker, calling to ask if they’ve forgotten Scotty—and the final scene with this baker when they go to his bakery to confront him. Mrs. Weiss is particularly full of rage only to find herself on the receiving end of the baker’s apology and sympathy, presented in direct terms:
“Let me say how sorry I am,” the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. “God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. But I’m not any longer, if I ever was. Now I’m just a baker.”
He goes on to tell them what it’s been like for him to be childless for so many years. “To repeat the days with the ovens full and endlessly empty.” He offers them what he can, a hot loaf of bread:
They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Here at the end, we see each of the three techniques I’ve discussed: the understated narration and the aesthetic distance, a moment of stillness, and the unexpected. Carver uses these techniques to create a measure of restraint that’s appropriate for finding within the tragic a single moment of grace.
Another wonderful post.
I’ve asked about this for years and never understood. Thanks for the clear explanation and examples.
You’re very welcome, Angela!
Thanks, Lee. ❤️
Thanks for reading my blog, Hilda, and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Fantastic insights and examples here. Thanks for this.
This is remarkable on so many levels. Thanks for the analysis. Looks like I need to reread his stories. Off to the library!
Happy Reading, Nita!
You’ve explained something that seems so simple on the surface, yet so hard in practice. Thank you for such a clear example.
I hope it proves useful to you, Julie!
This is good advice even for writing about recent events (coronavirus, economy, wildfires, the division in this country, etc.). It’s important to not be sensationalistic and these techniques are equally applicable to nonfiction, I think. Thanks!
They most absolutely are, Ellen!