The Case of the Missing Shirt: Some Tips for Writing Narratives

“You put it in the suitcase, didn’t you?” my wife Cathy says.

“Oh, no. Don’t tell me,” I say. “You have got to be kidding.”

(I rarely begin a narrative with dialogue, but in this case it seems called for, given the urgency of the situation).

The “it” in question is my favorite shirt. It’s the shirt I wear whenever I want to feel confident. It’s the sort of shirt that’s so beautiful it would have made Daisy Buchannan break down in tears as she does in the notable scene from The Great Gatsby when Jay is showing off the shirts his man in England sends over at the beginning of each season. “They’re such beautiful shirts. . .It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.” Daisy would feel similarly about my shirt. It’s that kind of shirt. In fact, it’s the shirt, and now I’m getting ready to attend my 50th high school class reunion, and due to some oversight on my part, it’s hanging in my closet in my home, over three hundred miles from where the reunion is being held.

My own action has led to the panic I feel when I realize that I’ll have to settle for another, lesser shirt, one that won’t measure up to the one I’ve been planning to wear. Suddenly, I find myself in a teenage-like crisis. I’m nearly 68 years old, and I’m feeling like I did in high school when I feared my jeans weren’t tight enough, my shoes not fashionable enough, my shirts not cool enough.

(Note that my own decision not to check that I packed my favorite shirt created the pressure I feel pressing down on me).

Do we ever really escape the children we were? Do we carry some glimmer of the old insecurities and fears with us always?

(A character in motion always carries something from the past with them, and that something affects their interaction with others as well as the subsequent choices they make).

So, here in my real adult life, I know there’s nothing to be done but to carry on. I put on my lesser shirt, and I go to the reunion. I’m not happy about it, but what else can I do?

(A character’s choices narrow as the narrative unfolds; the closer we get to the end, the fewer choices there are to make).

I’m anxious as I walk into the reunion, but little by little I talk to people, some of whom I’ve not seen since graduation, and I end up having a wonderful time. At the end of the evening, Cathy says, “Well, no one got drunk, no one got angry, and no one got arrested.” She’s right. Whatever slights or resentments we suffered in our high school days seemed to have been forgotten. We were just a group of adults engaging in conversation and laughter and a tear or two for those classmates no longer with us.

(Narratives lead readers to expect certain outcomes; the good writer lets a character’s actions reverse those expectations, and we end up with more truth than we thought we had a right to receive).

The truth is it ended up being a wonderful evening, and it didn’t matter that no one ever knew how grand I would have looked had I only remembered to pack my favorite shirt.


  1. Carole Bumpus on July 17, 2023 at 9:50 am

    Oh, and haven’t we all been there! In my case, it was also my 50th class reunion but the first time my husband would be attending with me. It was his paranoia about “looking good” for my old classmates that he chose to wear a suit . . at a casual, in the old school gym on a hot night in July! Looking good forces us to do crazy things, and even though the invitation said to wear shorts as it will be hot, he was sure there was a mistake! It only took two steps inside the gym door before he pivoted out again and returned without his suit coat and his long sleeves rolled up! Narrative? I guess so!

    • Lee Martin on July 19, 2023 at 10:54 am

      Thanks for sharing this story, Carole.Fashion is always a touch choice at these events.

  2. Rhonda on July 17, 2023 at 2:52 pm

    I love Kathy. She thinks like a West Virginia Gal. Great blog 🎉

    • Lee Martin on July 19, 2023 at 10:53 am

      Thanks, Rhonda. I love Cathy, too!

  3. Glenda Beall on July 22, 2023 at 1:41 am

    The right clothes make such a difference in confidence. I have a story about wearing the wrong kind of dress to a junior high dance. I cringe even now when I remember how I felt that night.
    Good post.

    • Lee Martin on July 22, 2023 at 1:41 pm

      I hear ya! Clothes are so important at that age.

  4. Joanne on July 22, 2023 at 5:34 am

    Love how you integrated a writing lesson through sharing your story. Great example!

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