Making the Small into Something Large

One of my favorite short stories is “Killings” by Andre Dubus. The major event of the story, the revenge killing of a man who has murdered the main character’s son, is large, but within the narrative that moves to this climax, there are smaller, quieter moments that are equally significant.

One such moment occurs in Richard Strout’s apartment on the night the father, Matt Fowler, has come to exact revenge for his son’s death. Inside Strout’s apartment, Matt Fowler notices how tidy it is—“no dishes in the sink or even the dish rack beside it, no grease splashings on the stove, the refrigerator door clean and white.” Matt Fowler continues to catalog “the magazines and newspapers in a wicker basket, clean ashtrays, a record player, the records shelved next to it.” He then notices a photograph of Strout’s estranged wife, Mary Ann, the woman Matt Fowler’s son, Frank, had been involved with at the time of his murder. In the photograph, Mary Ann is sitting on the grass with her two boys, and she’s smiling at the camera. This is the place where the small moment becomes large. The photograph reminds Matt Fowler of an earlier time when he’d noticed Mary Ann’s smile when she was with Frank: “He recalled her eyes, the pain in them, and he was conscious of the circles of love he was touching with the hand that held the revolver so tightly now as Strout stopped at the door at the end of the hall.”

“The circles of love he was touching”—this is what Richard Strout’s tidy apartment and the photograph of Mary Ann smiling during a happier time brings to Matt Fowler’s awareness. Indeed his revenge will ripple out through many circles of love, even his own with his wife, Ruth, who at the end of the story conspires with him to keep his killing of Strout a secret, who holds him in bed, not knowing “the sob he kept silent in his heart.” So many lives touched by the action Matt Fowler chose, the one that at the end of the story drives him into a deep and complicated emotional response that he can’t share.

It takes courage to stay in the small moments until they swell with significance. Sometimes writers avoid them or else string them together, praying for a plot to arise, to the point that everything becomes banal. Dubus, in “Killings,” illustrates how a writer can have a big plot while still paying attention to the small details of clean apartments, and family photographs, and smiling eyes filled with pain. Without the former, not much happens. Without the latter what happens doesn’t mean much.

Here’s the point I hope I’m making: a writer who can’t make something of significance from the small things will never be able to make the large things matter. The success of a good piece of fiction depends on a narrative to make readers wonder what will happen next as well as the close observation of details that takes us deeper into the main character’s heart, that place of complication and contradiction, that place that can’t quite be fully explained. We never get it exactly right. That’s why we keep telling stories.


  1. Lynda Beth Unkeless on August 8, 2021 at 12:16 pm

    This brilliant post explains in a very few words why writing the small is worthy in its own right.

    Thank you!

    • Lee Martin on August 9, 2021 at 11:28 am

      Thanks so much for reading my blog, Lynda, and for taking the time to leave this post.

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