My wife Cathy has a sore throat. She’s tested negative for COVID, so more than likely she’s just got a little bug that will run its course. Of course, I’m worried that little bug will hop on over to me. The possibility of this happening has me thinking about my own history of maladies.
When I was in the eighth grade, I came down with scarlatina, a more poetic name for scarlet fever. I remember the fevered dreams, the sore throat, the red rash on my body. I must have missed a week or two of school, and, of course, I couldn’t go to basketball practice or play in games. I remember watching one game from the bleachers when I was finally well enough to come back to school but not well enough to play. This all happened toward the end of the season, and, when I was finally allowed to dress for the conference tournament, I was so weak I only got to play a few minutes. My team went on to win that tournament, but I felt like I wasn’t a part of it.
Timing in narrative is everything. Someone arrives at the wrong time. Someone says something at the wrong time. Someone takes a chance at the wrong time. Nothing works out the way we thought it would. The world has other plans.
Illness or injury often creates a good plot premise. The body can create narrative if the writer knows what to ask of a character. The eighth-grade basketball player falls ill just before the big tournament. What happens if he insists on playing before he’s at full strength and ends up costing his team the title? What happens if Cathy’s sore throat comes just as she’s about to make an important speech, or perform in a play, or have the most important conversation of her life? What if laryngitis sets in, rendering her mute and reliant on writing messages? What happens to that important conversation? In her haste to write messages, does she “say” something she never meant to say? Or does she make an error in the writing that leads to a complication?
You get the idea. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you can use the body to move a narrative along. The timing is the key. Poor luck, yes, but how your character responds—what action they take—can complicate the narrative while also intensifying the stakes of the story. What will that character’s action cost them? What might it gain? How does a life change because someone either insisted on forging ahead despite illness or injury? Or maybe someone decides to use a malady for insidious purposes or to gain an advantage. The key is to let what’s happening with the body require a choice. That choice creates the plot and sweeps us along the narrative.