A couple days ago I wrote about a story I'm working on called "You Can Have That" in an entry about how using an ostensibly simple word like "the," or not using it, can make a big difference. All the difference. I'll probably finish the story today--ideally this morning. What I thought I'd do is use a couple other passages from it in two more entries--this being one of them--to illustrate some points about how writing works. This is the beginning of the story:
A woman who was footsore finally arrived at the front door of the house that it’d taken her so long to get to. Her calves were cramped. They felt dense, as if they were made of wood, and her fingers had become swollen.
She took a moment to stand where she was in the early morning silence of the spot. It could all be over so fast like it didn’t happen. Then she’d have to think about whether she really got to the house and said what she’d come to say or if she’d made it up in her mind.
There was a man inside moving around his kitchen. He had put bread in the toaster and sipped from a glass of orange juice. Usually he waited until the toast was done before he drank, but he was trying something different.
The woman on his porch remained as still as reasonably possible for a solid minute, taking it all in. The off-white of the door like the wood of a northern steeple. The wreath made of vines that hung from a nail that was just the right amount of weathered, as if it had exercised authority in how it’d present itself and this was the result. An all-seasonal wreath meant maximum wreath-based value, she tried to enthuse. Woody vines were equally involved in summer and winter. They always went with the place. There was something touching about their vegetative consistency and insistence to encircle, almost like they were devotional.
But these thoughts were carrying her away from the task at hand. The front lawn extended along the side of the house. She could see that it had recently been cut. There probably wouldn’t be that many cuttings left in the year. Five, six. A strange way to measure the passage of time, she thought, but so it went.
The man in the kitchen put jam on his toast. He’d sworn off butter. Doesn’t do you any favors, that butter. It was easy to fall for its color when it melted—nothing in the world melts like butter—at least nothing one can see—but you were better off with jam.
The heart could have told you the same. After all, one isn’t seven-years-old forever, the man concluded, though when you are seven you don’t expect you’ll change that much. But maybe, he allowed, adults think they’ll change even less, and he bit into his second piece of toast and reached for his glass of orange juice, when he heard the knock at the door.
Writers make a couple big mistakes. They think that drama has to involve what I look at as outward explosions, or drama comes from how miserable something is. Like that makes it deep. Outward explosions are what we might view as the stuff of thrillers--guns, bombs, car chases, runaway buses. Because most writers have no perspective nor imagination, when they try to do the weighty stuff, you end up with narcissistic moping over things that aren't that big of a deal at all. Someone got a criticism in their writing seminar, for instance. The horror.
This is an extension of the lives of these same people. The true writer writes with imagination. They go outward to move inward. The fraud writer takes autobiography and fictionalizes it. That means they change a name, a city, but it's them and their life. And their life is boring. They have no real life experiences. So you end up with a privileged person with no clue, no imagination, no perspective, moping and whining like a spoiled child about things that no one cares about and no one could care about. That is most modern "literary" fiction, written in the same style from author--I'm using the term loosely--to author.
Action comes from people. You can't beat person-based action. Internal explosions. You can have the external ones, too, but if we don't care about the people, we won't care about the story. We need to know their feelings, desires, what they're about, what they're missing, what they need, want, their hopes, what they're up against, what they've come through, what they haven't, what they're trying to.
We also want to know what's going on. What are the stakes? We must be made to desire more information. The information comes to us in the unfolding of the story. It's our need to know that drives us on as readers. What you are really doing, then, is blending clarity--or at least intentional design--with mystery.
In the start of this story, a woman has seemingly gone through a lot and perhaps traveled many miles to get to this place. She's been here before, and we determine that it hasn't worked out the way she's wanted it to. Who is this man to her? Who is she to him? Were they together? Is it his child? Is he hers? Were they married? Are they married?
We move through and experience her thoughts. We see the door the way she sees the door. But she doesn't just see the door. She experiences it. We know this character, or at least real things about her, right from the start. How she processes the world--this part of it, anyway. We're experiencing her depth, which is a human depth that every human has, but here we get the words behind the perceptions. She "tries" to enthuse. Ever felt like that? Of course you have. You try to boost your enthusiasm, get in a frame of mind, be positive. You want something, and you think that being that way will help. She has this fanciful notion of the nail and how the latter has exercised say-so, self-determinism; then we see how this rubs off into her own thoughts, her would-be approach. Nothing feels busy, but there's so much happening in every sentence, clause, phrase, word. But all of that happens, passes over and through us like a current. We don't have to buckle and strain. Happening--the reality of what is--does the work. We are there. We don't have to push our way in. Readerly stress and anxiety isn't present. All we have to do in a story like this, as readers, is be. The experience doesn't feel like reading, but simply being, only somewhere else. But also within ourselves.
The description of the door tells. That's how she's seeing it, experiencing it. Those terms are important. The steeple. What's more, a northern steeple. There is meaning and association with the image. It's a symbol without any forced announcement as such. It's simply part of the perception. When you write this way, you're not browbeating anyone. All is natural. When all is natural, a reader doesn't feel like they're reading, but rather having a life experience. That is one of the keys to writing: It can't feel like the reader is reading. If the reader is conscious that they're reading, the work isn't working as it should. Every single other thing I read right now from other people makes me aware in every last clause that I'm reading. That someone is saying, "Do you see me writing? This is how I was taught to write. It's the proper way. I paid a lot of money for a degree to do this--or rather my parents did."
If you write like that, you're bad at writing. You're no more a writer than someone who has never written in their life. We know about this man that his idea of a change in life--mixing it up, as it were--is drinking his orange juice before he starts eating his breakfast. This could be a rut. It could be a crisis of the soul. This may be about all he can do, handle, or how he adapts--which isn't adapting at all--in a life that has stalled out. Is all but over. Never really started as a life that's lived.
This about-to-happen encounter could also be something very splashy. Maybe they're the last two people left on earth. Maybe she's come from 800 miles away. Maybe she's been shot. Her fingers are swollen. Sounds kind of intense. What's that about? Then again, if it's warm or you've worked out a bit, it's perfectly normal for your fingers to swell. But a lot of people don't know that. A writer uses information, but they also use what people don't know, and what they can know and may end up knowing. That can be after the fact, too. It can be long after the fact. A story should always be adding to a person's life, no matter when a person read it, or when they last read it. You go around in your life and you see and learn other things, and those things can take you back to the story, or make you have an additional realization about it. Which is really to have a realization from it.
Or, maybe they're a couple who had a break-up. A fight. What's distance? Perhaps she stormed off and went on a long walk of a couple hours and now she's back. That's the mystery. We don't know yet. We want to know. We're thinking, "What happened here? Why is she back? What does she want?" There's weight.
You don't stand somewhere and take in where you're standing because you're scared that this important thing won't work out and will be over just like that, if it doesn't mean a lot to you. There's pain. Perhaps trauma.
She's on one side of the door, he's on the other. That's all, in a way, that separates them. A piece of wood, but we know that it's so much more. We get a real sense of him and a real sense of her. He doesn't know she's there, so she has more information in that regard. He doesn't know what's about to happen. We want to know what's about to happen. That's dramatic. But it's dramatic because of how we already know both of them, in real ways. Not cardboard cutout ways. Ways that tell. That's where the drama is coming from. And what has to be their history, and whatever it is that's about to follow. Because when she knocks, we know it won't be a small thing when he opens the doors and sees that it's her. Everything is clear, but we haven't been given everything. We haven't just been told. The drama, the story, is coming from the characters, the context, situation, progression.
We may even find ourselves anxious. On the edge of the proverbial seat. But what has happened? Someone whose feet hurt is on a porch and is going to knock on a door while a guy inside the house makes his breakfast. That's it. But there's no "that's it" about it, really. Where are the outside explosions? Where is the whining? There's none of that, because this is heightened and heightening drama. This is what we really care about.
Depth is abundant in this language language. The all-seasonal wreath. The claim about melted butter, and how nothing melts like it--at least not something we can see. A heart melts though, no? That might not be a shouty, directional implication, but it's where the reader's thoughts--their associative nature--will take them. We know we're talking in a romantic capacity. These people were something consequential to each other. Or one of them was to the other.
A certain spirituality exists in the language, too. We have a wreath, a nail, the term devotional. Wood the color of the white of a northern steeple. That's such a specific, indelible image. A description that makes a reader summon this kind of steeple to their thoughts, their mind's eye, such that they see it and go, "Oh yeah, I know that color." But it's not dogmatic. It's not doctrine. It's not about God or Christ but rather ties that bind. Matters that stir the soul. There's nothing disposable on the table, so to speak. There's also hope, and what sometimes is called hoping against hope; she's trying to hope things into being, and even trying to foster an attitude--even after this journey she's had, here at the last moment--that will help create a result.
When he hears that knock, it's a dramatic moment. And it's "just" someone knocking on the door. A knock on the door--when it's unexpected--always has a dramatic aspect to it. Your heart quickens. But we know who is there. We don't know exactly why, just that it's important. Or important to her anyway. This could be some apocalyptic scenario, or something ordinary that happens in life. Has happened, in some form or forms, in your life. But what's ordinary? If someone broke up with you and your heart was in pieces and it took you a long time to get over it, that's ordinary. That will happen many times today to people all over the world. Is happening. Continues. But was that really ordinary to you? It might be the defining thing of your life.
The opening has a magical quality. This could be the everyday, the quotidian, or it could be the supernatural, a time of war, end times. It could be what happens before violence ensues. Probably not--she doesn't seem that way. There's what I think of as an appropriate disconnect between what something is and how we experience that thing emotionally. The "ordinary" is only ordinary insofar as a thing--like the example of a break-up--has happened trillions of times or whatever the number is. Like a thunderstorm. But the person who lives with that experience never thinks of it as ordinary, and the terms in which they describe it don't posit it as ordinary either. She "finally" arrives at this door. You can use that word after you've been walking for twenty minutes, especially if you were late, or you were told it was only a five-minute walk.
If you were an ant, and you were going about your day, you might have dodged death four dozen times that afternoon. You almost got stepped on, you had to carry the body of one of your comrades at the bequest of the queen, you got bit by an ant of a different color, you lost a leg. But it's "just" an ant doing everyday ant stuff--but not to the ant. That matters a lot. Especially if other ants would empathize with that ant's story.
What matters is that a reader cares. A reader cares because a reader connects--with characters, with story. Characters are story. Plot is a part of story, but story is bigger. We talk about seeking a connection. The best writing provides connection. True connection. It's like when you meet that one person--and maybe it's just one person in your whole life--about whom you say, "We just had a connection." That's what story does. Story is everywhere and it's in everything. The key is in seeing it. A writer has to be someone who sees in story, because the world is story. It's a noble, integral, and almost impossibly rare ability.
A real story is always dramatic, gripping, connective. The presentation of that story becomes itself a part of the story, and the drama, the grip, the connection. The writer goes into something that is beyond themselves. And when they do that, and we see their work, the story, we go into something beyond ourselves as well, which ultimately takes us back to who we are, who we were, who we might be, who we're becoming in whatever part or to degree we're becoming it as a result of what we're experiencing, what has made a connection with us, and what we've connected with.
We enter into lives, we enter into story, and in the end, we find ourselves. And it doesn't get more dramatic than that.