Turning a Premise: Using Opposites to Make Our Fiction Memorable

Today, my wife Cathy and I drove out to our favorite produce stand to see what we might find for our traditional Sunday evening country supper. New potatoes, locally grown green beans, sweet corn, and an orange tomato. The first time we found Bambi’s Produce Market, we did so by happy accident. We’d been driving in the country that day with no destination in mind, when we found exactly where we’d been going—Bambi’s. We found Bambi herself sitting behind the counter. She was an older lady who was hobbled by bad knees. Her voice was full of gravel, and I could tell right away she had grit. She wasn’t the sort to suffer fools. She brooked no nonsense. A sign behind the counter read, “Children left unattended will be sold to the circus.” Say no more. Bambi was the complete opposite of what her first name might suggest. She wasn’t innocent, she wasn’t meek, she wasn’t frivolous.

Some years ago, Cathy and I were listening to jazz on the patio of the Grand Hotel in Nacogdoches, Texas. We’d been enjoying some brandy and Benedictine. Cathy was wearing a pair of high heels, and, when we got up from our seats, she teetered just a tad on those heels. “I guess I’m just a drunk girl in stilettos,” she said. “Hey, that’s a good title.” I ended up writing a short story called “Drunk Girl in Stilettos,” and The Georgia Review was kind enough to publish it. The editor told me, “That story was nothing like what the title suggested.” I’d put a girl in stilettos along a blacktop road, and I’d let two misfit men pull over to give her a ride. A recipe for disaster. Then I asked myself how the story could be quite the opposite of what the premise led readers to expect. Instead of a promiscuous girl doing a walk of shame, I had the girl trying to get to her daddy’s wake even though her mother had told her not to come. Instead of violent men, I made the men in the car people whose own mistakes had given them great empathy for the down and out. When we find opposing traits in our characters—when we refuse to settle for stereotypes—their stories get interesting.

Sunday mornings always make me think of the Kris Kristofferson song, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” which became a big hit for Johnny Cash. When I hear the pain of the speaker, a man roaming the streets after a night of drinking, I recall a time when I was fifteen and coming nearer and nearer each day to being lost for good. I was walking the streets early on a Sunday morning when I heard something stir in the bed of a pickup truck. I saw a man stretched out on his stomach, one cowboy boot on and one off, flannel shirt untucked from his faded jeans, and empty beer cans all around him. Each time I recall this memory, I connect it to the part of the Kristofferson song where the speaker catches “the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken”: “And it took me back to somethin’/That I’d lost somehow, somewhere along the way.” That awareness of a previous, better way of living being just out of reach touches me and makes me wonder about the man in the truck bed and how he ended up there. The first place I’d look would be the place most people passing by wouldn’t even consider. I’d look at the time when this man’s life was beautiful. I’d imagine his vulnerable times when he wishes he could have that beautiful life back. I’d look in the opposite direction from where most people—people who’d already made up their minds about the man—would look. Henry James said, “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” Stories are all around us. All we have to do is pay attention. Let your imagination take you places the general population wouldn’t go. Find the opposites in your characters and their situations. There’s a tough woman named Bambi, and a drunk girl in stilettos, and a man asleep in a truck bed. What can you make of that?





  1. Ellen Birkett Morris on July 5, 2023 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks for this, Lee. I believe this approach and your empathy for the human condition are what make your stories so original and moving.

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