What’s Happening?

At the recent Warren Wilson MFA residency in July, there was considerable talk about the pesky question of making something happen in fiction. And indeed this is much of the problem with early drafts of stories: the elements are all set up and then . . . the story comes to a slow halt like a tired old dog, panting away its promise and its premise.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is, and why, in many ways, it’s a natural part of the draft process and unavoidable. Part of the reason is that any story needs time for gestation. The writer’s impatience for the story to work is usually greater than the time it takes to make the various elements braid together into a strong narrative cable. For instance, one character’s trajectory might occur easily on a first draft, while another character might confound your best efforts to make her significant. This is more apparent in a novel than a short story, when there is more of everything, of course, and you may completely know one character’s purpose in the book–and her path–but can’t seem to incorporate the laggards who appear to be standing still and without a destiny.

Only time takes care of this, trying first to see if a particular character does in fact have a role (or can be made a composite with other characters) or somehow has just not lived up to his potential.

Which can lead to the problem of finding out “what happens” in a story. The secondary characters, often overlooked in favor of the main or viewpoint character, have not been properly developed so that the (forgive me for this dirty word) plot may proceed. The author has made great efforts to move along the story, find that “defining” or “transformative” moment when things will never be the same and then, zzzzzz, it’s a dud. The whole feels less than its parts; the narrative cable that you were counting on to become a tight steel braid suddenly unwinds.

At this stalled moment, I often look at who is missing in the story. Who has gone AWOL. That is who can make a difference and needs to step up (or return from AWOL), which character can come in to “reset” the story and create the necessary dynamic that will put the events in motion again. Yes, the story may be stalled in terms of not enough action but the key to which action that should be can become clearer by investigating the thinner parts of interaction among the characters. Rather than trying to impose a contrived event on the story, the solution often lies in reexamining what you already have going on in the fiction, frequently in terms of your secondary characters, and how you’ve kept them on too short a leash to be effective. And frequently too the author has laid down some “clues,” almost unconsciously, that indicate where these thin places exist that need to be strengthened to prepare for the “something happens.”

Recently I was working on a piece that had lost its way. I imposed an event on the story, an occurrence that had a certain degree of wackiness, ghostly implications, and head-scratching meaning. Once I started along this line, I felt it necessary to keep going, wedded to the direction, and the next thing I knew my main character had died–or had he? Never mind. The point is my understanding of “something has to happen” was in terms of forcing the story to take a turn for the sake of surprise. And surprise is not enough, or not by itself. The narrative needs something else.

Surprise alone can produce breadth without depth, intrigue without insight. Oh! but no Aha. What’s missing is revelation. If you think of “something happening” as a continuum, with one end being surprise (the O. Henry twist), and the the other end revelation (e.g. Joycean epiphany, consider “The Dead”) then it’s easier to envision which way your narrative will lean.

But the ideal, of course, is in combining the two, surprise and revelation. “The Dead,” after all, takes us by surprise, Gretta’s confession of having loved another, but also offers astonishing revelation in Gabriel’s penetrating sorrow and contemplation of mortality.

There are a great many stories where surprise is predominant: think of Tobias Wolf’s much anthologized and very brief story “Bullet in the Brain.” It takes us by complete surprise, but the revelation comes in what actually happens inside Anders’, the main character’s, head once the bullet enters his brain: wild technical effects of language mixed with an ending of great pathos. In Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” the something happening is that it keeps happening–to the point that we can’t tell what is real and what isn’t. Each time the reader believes he’s discovered the actual version of events, Coover thwarts our expectations. The surprise is that you’ll never know what really happened–“the truth.” The revelation is that your expectations about fiction and reality are undermined to the point of frustration and embarrassment at one’s fierce desire for and dependency on objectivity, despite ample evidence to the contrary. In Susan Minot’s “Lust,” a story made of short vignettes that eschew chronological order and that defy us to chart neatly any so-called narrative arc, the surprise is that there is no surprise–the vignettes are glimpses or angles on the same problem–but the revelation is how deeply and emotionally the narrator’s voice alone compels her story to be told and heard. In all these stories, whether realistic or experimental, linear or associative, narrative or lyrical, surprise and revelation forge a simultaneous alliance: your attention is gotten at the very moment that you realize something you didn’t before. In fact you not only know it, you feel it, the two in tandem being the verifying evidence of having made “something happen.”

How to accomplish this? As I said in a previous post, I don’t see any way around trial and error. My elaborate and bizarre choice of action for my character spun out for eight pages before, while walking our beagle, I thought, of course, it’s so simple—just consider what the character really needs to happen, not what you want to happen to him. Easier said than done of course. In the meantime, one creates placeholders to make bridges to the next draft.