I come from a family of worriers. Consequently, I’m often turning one thing or another over and over in my head. I feel something inside me speed up. For instance, I think about all the work I have to get done, and suddenly I’m so anxious, I feel like I’m racing, eager as I am to get to the other side of all that awaits me. I tell myself to slow down, to steady myself, to unwind the internal clock that, if unchecked, can leave me frazzled. As my wife Cathy always says, when you have to eat an elephant, you can only do it one bite at a time.
I mention this slowing down because often we writers can be in too much of a hurry. We’re overeager to get to the end of whatever it is we’re writing, so we push on. Before we know it, our characters have picked up on our anxiety, and suddenly they’re in too much of a hurry as well. Sometimes the writing has to slow down. Sometimes it has to move more vertically than horizontally.
In fiction, this often means that a writer has to know which moments of a narrative require more consideration of the main character’s consciousness. It means being aware of the major moments of the piece that require a deeper level of thought than narrative progression can provide.
We should think about the major moments of any narrative we’re constructing. What are the high points? They usually require some space around them to really make them stand out.
In Jumpa Lahiri’s story, “A Temporary Matter,” for instance, a husband and wife’s sharing of secrets leads eventually to the most hurtful thing the husband can confess. He held their stillborn son at the hospital and never told his wife. When he finally confesses at the end of the story, he says, “Our baby was a boy. His skin was more red than brown. He had black hair on his head. He weighed almost five pounds. His fingers were curled shut, just like yours in the night.”
After the gut-punch of this confession, the story has to give that moment some space in which it can resonate. Lahiri does this by slowing down the narrative and writing down into the husband’s consciousness:
Shoba looked at him now, her face contorted with sorrow. He had cheated on a college exam, ripped a picture of a woman out of a magazine. He had returned a sweater and got drunk in the middle of the day instead. These were the things he had told her. He had held his son, who had known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened room in an unknown wing of the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise.
The impact of the husband’s confession is fully felt by the readers because he has the space in which to feel the impact himself. This vertical pause in the horizontal narrative is a place where the characters and the readers can attend to the significance of what’s just happened. Lahiri gives us a breath in which to contemplate what the husband has done to his wife by telling her about holding their son. Then the narrative resumes with a final paragraph of action that dramatizes the sadness they both feel.
Yes, it’s permissible, and even preferable, to slow the action and to linger in your character’s consciousness. I know we’re often told to show and not to tell but entering the character’s consciousness at pivotal moments in a narrative is an effective way to give weight to something that’s happened.