When I walked into my office this morning, I found Stella the Cat lying in a patch of sunlight. She loves the sun, and she likes to roll over on her back to invite a tummy rub. Each time I pet her warm fur, a great feeling of calm comes over me. Everything in my heart and mind slows down, and when I get to my work, I’m able to think more clearly. She reminds me to live in the moment, both in my life and in the lives of my characters.
Autumn is a season of pause. After a summer of activities, it’s time for us to slow down before we make the turn toward the cold and gray of winter. It should be the same for the people who populate our narratives. We should take a cue from Stella the Cat. We should learn not to be in hurry.
I’m thinking about this because sometimes I see writers rushing to get to the end. I see them skimming along the surface the way speed boats do the water. Sometimes we forget our characters have inner lives. Sometimes we forsake them for the purpose of pushing our plots ahead.
I don’t mean to dismiss the rapid pace a plot nearing its end often requires, but I do want us to consider that sometimes major plot moves in a narrative beg for moments of pause. Paul, the titular character of Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” having stolen from his employer, leaves his native Pittsburgh and travels to New York City, escaping the restrictions of his father’s home on Cordelia Street for the life he’s convinced he’s meant to have. He checks into the Waldorf, and for a time, he feels he’s put his father’s house behind him. Then he reads in the newspaper that his father has repaid the money he stole, and his employer has no intention of prosecuting. He also reads that his father has left Pittsburgh for New York where he intends to find his son and bring him home. Paul has one last night to imagine he might stay in the city forever. He drinks to excess and wakes the next morning hungover. There is one final dramatic action to come at the end of the story, but before we get there Cather slows the narrative and uses Paul’s interior thoughts to provide the bridge to the end:
He rose and moved about with a painful effort, succumbing now and again to attacks of nausea. It was the old depression exaggerated; all the world had become Cordelia Street. Yet somehow he was not afraid of anything, was absolutely calm; perhaps because he had looked into the dark corner at last and knew. It was bad enough, what he saw there, but somehow not so bad as his long fear of it had been. He saw everything clearly now. He had a feeling that he had made the best of it, that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live, and for half an hour he sat staring at the revolver. But he told himself that was not the way, so he went downstairs and took a cab to the ferry.
I won’t spoil the story by revealing its final move. Trust me when I say the passage I quote above is essential to that end. If we don’t pause to take stock of Paul’s inner life, we run the risk of making the ending seem unbelievable.
As an exercise, you might want to think of a surprising action on the part of one of your main characters. Then ask yourself what that character might be thinking about just prior to that action that will make it convincing. Our characters sometimes pause just before their final choice, and as we pause along with them, we get a better sense of their inner lives that make their ends both possible and believable.