How Do You Do?: A Story Exercise
Of course, you’ve probably heard the joke about the man who was so old he refused to buy green bananas because he wasn’t sure he’d be around to see them ripen. Indeed there comes a time when we learn to shorten our vision into the future. Long-term dreams that sustained us when we were younger, perhaps don’t have the same appeal as the years ahead get shorter. To put it plainly, I’m learning to keep my eyes on the things that give me more immediate pleasure.
Today, for instance, I’m helping Cathy clean house and we’re listening to classic 70s rock and a song called “How Do You Do?” by a Dutch duo, Mouth and MacNeal, comes on. My god, I haven’t thought of that song in years, but as soon as I hear it, I’m transported back to 1971, and Dave Kunkel, a dee-jay from Mt. Carmel, Illinois, is playing that tune at a post-basketball game high school dance, and I’m sixteen, wearing my CPO jacket and skinny-legged jeans and penny loafers, wishing I had the nerve to get out on the floor and dance, but my friends and I are the edgy sort—this is my troubled year—and we think we’re too cool for all that when really we’re just scared to death. So we sit high in the bleachers, and we fool around with my friend’s switchblade and make fun of the people we wish we could be.
I’m sixty-five years old and I’m cleaning my house, but because of that song, I’m remembering what it was like when I was sixteen, and music was everything to me, and it gives me great pleasure to greet the boy I was who listened to “How Do You Do?” while wishing he had the courage to dance. This small grace comes to me, and I know I’ll relish it the rest of the day and maybe even on into the evening when I’ll let it remind me of the long-ago joy of a high school basketball game on a cold night in a small southeastern Illinois town, and the smell of Hai Karate aftershave and Heaven Sent cologne, and the dim lights of the gym and the music (“Superstar” playing at the end of the night—“Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?”—and the way a glance or a smile could lead me to believe that maybe, just maybe, I’d found true love.
Our characters can exist within a shorter frame of desire. Particularly in the short story form, we might get mileage by letting a character’s mishandled desire drive the complications of the narrative. A story is always more interesting when the trouble comes from something the main character does or doesn’t do, or says or doesn’t say. Our main characters drive the story from the choices they make.
So here’s an exercise for you that should help you start a story:
- Give your main characters something that gives them immediate pleasure. Maybe it’s a hobby. Maybe it’s a talent. Maybe it’s another character. Open the story with a description of the main character enjoying something. Perhaps desire accompanies the enjoyment. Maybe the main character wants something connected to the pleasure.
- Foul up the pleasure, or better yet, let the main character foul it up. Something said, something done, a refusal, maybe even something that has an unintended effect. Something, in other words, that creates trouble and requires the main character to make other choices. Let each choice increase the pressure on the main character until a final choice in this causal chain causes something to rise in the story that was present from the beginning but submerged. Maybe it’s some truth about the main character that wasn’t apparent at first. Maybe it’s a shift in perspective, or a temporary insight, or something about a relationship that the people involved previously refused to acknowledge. You get the idea. A change comes.
Powerful changes can come from letting a character ruin a small pleasure. That ruination is a good place from where to launch a narrative. Choice and consequences. Characters who make mistakes, either intentionally or unintentionally, are interesting story makers. Put them into action and watch them go. One thing leads to another until we get to the most important thing in a story, the final move that seems both surprising and yet inevitable.
If I recall correctly, you mentioned somewhere that Richard Ford’s Rock Springs had been influential for you. Was there a particular story, or aspect of the collection that you favored?
Thanks for that good question, Andrew. I heard in those Ford stories, a voice similar to that of the working class folks I grew up with in southeastern Illinois. It was a voice that was plain and direct, and it gave the characters a dignity in spite of the poor choices they often made. As soon as it heard it, I knew I was being offered an approach to the world I knew best.
NW Ohio for me: I had the very same experience with Andre Dubus – The Times Are Never So Bad. I was blown away – I had no idea you could write about ordinary people and their ordinary amazingness.
Dubus is another excellent model. I love you you phrase it when you say his work pointed out the ordinary amazingness of ordinary people.