E. L. Doctorow has likened the process of writing a novel to driving at night on a winding road. Your headlights only illuminate the small stretch of the road ahead; that’s as far ahead as you can see. You cannot view all the way to your destination. But if you just keep on going, you eventually get to the end.
Unlike Doctorow, some novelists, like John Irving, like to know the ending from the start. What Irving doesn’t know is how his characters reach the ending.
Despite these differences, both Doctorow and Irving point to the exploratory nature of narrative writing and our limited knowledge as we proceed through that process. Certainly, when writers begin a narrative, whether a short story or a novel, they generally don’t know a great deal about how the story is going to be structured. They’re writing to discover what the story is about. That process can involve any number of misdirections and wrong turnings, driving into cul-de-sacs and backing up and reversing.
At certain points, it is useful and necessary for writers to step away from the process and look at what they’ve written. In working with students, who are most often writing short stories, I’ve found that they generally don’t know what questions to ask about their material. They don’t know the principles of story, so they can’t apply those principles to their work.
Sometimes a simple basic question can help the student discover what the story is about: “What does the protagonist want?” or “What is the goal of the protagonist?” If the student doesn’t have an answer to this question, trying to answer it can help her revise and refocus the story.
At other times, it helps to look at the story’s ending and see what it reveals: Does it involve a desire or goal of the protagonist? Does the protagonist fulfill that desire or goal or does she fail? Are the actions which led to that end result revealed in the story?
Sometimes the rest of the story is not connected to the ending, and thus either the ending or the rest of the story needs to be rewritten. Sometimes rather than the designated or nominal protagonist, another character may have a greater hand in determining the final event; perhaps then the story may be more about that character, who must then be regarded as the true protagonist.
In other cases, the goal itself may need to be evaluated: Does it connect with the themes of the story? Does it reflect tensions within the protagonist, or does reaching it signify an important shift or change within the protagonist? Is it concrete enough, rather than some vague abstraction—that is, is it potentially achievable through concrete actions? If not, then perhaps a new goal needs to be created.
When I confer with a beginning student over a story with structural problems, I start by asking the student what the story is about. Very often the student will provide an answer that centers on the subject or themes of the story—a failed relationship or the struggles between a parent and a child; jealousy, identity, the struggles of immigrant life; a trip to Jamaica or the death of a grandmother. Beginning writers think that their attentions should be focused here, especially if the theme involves an issue or a psychological area they are drawn to or passionate about.
But to look at the subject or theme of the story is to take too general a viewpoint. The telling of the story requires a closer, more specific focus. The storyteller needs to find a goal for the protagonist, something the protagonist desires to obtain or accomplish.
Especially with short stories, almost invariably the more concrete and tangible that goal is the better. Sometimes that concrete and tangible goal can even be surprisingly small, modest, even trivial.
If writers focus on something large and abstract, like love or reconciling with the past, that larger element may be in the material or in the experiences they’re basing the story on, but these are merely themes; as such, they are much too vague. If the protagonist is after love, what is that character to do? When the character confronts this question at this level of abstraction, there’s no clear action he can take. And if there’s no clear action for the protagonist to take, there’s no story. If the character is trying to woo a specific person, that’s a little more concrete, but the question remains, how is the protagonist going to win the heart of this person? But if the protagonist is trying to become an expert at salsa to win the heart of Felicia, the Cuban woman he’s met at the local salsa club, that’s concrete. That is something I can write a story about.
Beginning short-story writers often fail to see that even the smallest of goals may be quite revealing. Indeed, choosing a goal that is quite simple or small and yet concrete may be far more useful than some seemingly grander—and sometimes melodramatic or abstract—goal. By concrete here, I mean something that the protagonist can take definite actions toward trying to achieve.
It’s difficult to describe the protagonist fighting against time or mortality, but a writer can describe the character trying to cook a soufflé or putting up siding in an effort to remodel her house or taking her new girlfriend’s five-year-old to Chucky Cheese or trying to get a creditor to give her more time to pay her debts. In this way, the protagonist’s goal can involve something that seems at first quite mundane. Yet trying to fix up a house or an old car or traveling to some destination may easily carry great psychological or thematic significance.
Journeys, by their very nature, possess a very definite beginning, middle, and end and thus can readily be structured as stories. One should note though that the beginning is not so much the actual physical beginning as it is the process immediately leading up to the decision to take the journey. At the same time, any journey carries within it possibilities for metaphoric resonance and the ability to signify something larger.
In James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” the young narrator develops a crush on a friend’s older sister. After talking with her about a bazaar that is coming to town, he promises to bring her a gift from the bazaar. This becomes, in a way, his knightly quest, one for which he must journey, both in time and distance, toward his goal. In his imagination, the older girl, the bazaar, and his quest all take on a romantic sheen: “Her image accompanied me in places the most hostile to romance.”
Eventually the boy’s waiting and his difficulties in getting to the bazaar start to take a toll on him (his uncle, from whom he must get permission, comes home late and drunk). When the boy finally reaches the bazaar, his failure to find a suitable gift there reveals to him something disturbing and critical about his own limitations and desires as well as the limitations of the world around him. The story’s ending possesses a striking depth, yet its beginnings are quite mundane and rooted in the ordinary activities of childhood.
Taking in the gaudiness and cheapness of the bazaar and the behavior of the young man and woman flirting, the boy suddenly apprehends the falseness of his gauzy romantic picture of the world and thus himself. Even at such a young age, he comprehends the nature of his own vanity, the false pride on which he has based his ego. And all this comes from a story with a simple goal, to go to the bazaar to find a gift for his “love”:
I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girded at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Café Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.
Remembering with difficulty why I had come, I went over to one of the stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.
“O, I never said such a thing!”
“O, but you did!”
“O, but I didn’t!”
“Didn’t she say that?”
“Yes. I heard her.”
“O, there’s a . . . fib!”
Observing me, the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:
“No, thank you.”
The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.
I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
What do I mean when I say that story is a metaphor? A metaphor has a subject, the tenor, and something the subject is compared to, the vehicle. In a way, we can consider the goal and the actions the protagonist takes as the vehicle of a metaphor. The theme or character of the protagonist is the tenor.
In our art, we construct or create a vehicle because that vehicle will allow a more complex rendering or expression of the tenor than any direct discussion or description of the tenor. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that as the conscious mind tries to confront the problem of creating a vehicle—that is, as the conscious mind pays attention to the technical problem of constructing a story—it is the unconscious mind that finally comes up with the solution. As I repeat often to my students, the unconscious mind is always more creative and complex than the conscious mind. Beginning students tend to privilege their conscious intentions rather than what their writing has unconsciously revealed.
Stories where there is no concrete and tangible goal often read like a series of random events that have no clear relationship to one another and lack a sense of progression. Moreover, little is revealed about the protagonist because the protagonist has not had to take actions and struggle toward a goal.
How do the protagonist’s actions in the story reveal character?
The Manicheans believed that if the world were not evil, each choice would not constitute a loss. With each action the protagonist takes, he or she also makes a choice not to take other actions. Through these choices, the protagonist creates his or her own fate.
In order for the protagonist to struggle to achieve a goal—and there should always be a struggle—the protagonist must encounter obstacles toward that goal.
These obstacles can be seen in two ways, externally and internally.
In pursuit of his goal, the protagonist can encounter outsider forces or persons who block or thwart his pursuit of the goal. The protagonist then takes actions to overcome these obstacles.
Often, though, the prime block between the protagonist and her goal is internal. That is, the protagonist is presented with two mutually irreconcilable desires: If she acts one way, she will achieve desire A; if she acts in another way, she will achieve desire B. Though she desires both A and B, it appears that she cannot take an action that will allow her to obtain both A and B.
Thus the protagonist is forced to decide whether she should take an action which will lead her closer to one thing she wants, but which will take her farther away or even eliminate her chances of achieving something else she wants. Invariably, when the protagonist sets out in pursuit of A, she does not envision that in pursuing it, she will risk losing B.
Devising irreconcilable choices or desires in pursuit of a goal is integral to the process of creating a story. If the protagonist’s choices are not irreconcilable, the protagonist’s decisions to act one way instead of another will lack tension. Just as importantly, nothing will be revealed about the protagonist: how a protagonist reacts and chooses to act when presented with irreconcilable desires reveals who that protagonist is.
If in the story I have suggested above, my protagonist’s desire to learn salsa is accomplished easily and without conflict, there will be no story. If the instructor of the salsa class is insufferable; if the protagonist’s friends make fun of him for taking up salsa; if the class conflicts with a previous commitment or something else the protagonist wants to or must do; if the class is made up only of gay men and the protagonist is homophobic; if there is another woman there he is attracted to; if the class is far away and difficult to get to or otherwise too costly; if the protagonist’s mother wants to join the class too; if the protagonist must suddenly take care of his eight-year-old son—all of these bring up potential irreconcilable conflicts.
Part of the writer’s job then is like that of Poseidon in relationship to Odysseus: To think of any number of ways of foiling the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal. Part of the skill of the storyteller involves how inventive the writer can be in this foiling and how these blocks between the protagonist and the goal reveal the character of the protagonist.
One reason for this revelation of character involves the battle within the protagonist between delusion/illusion and reality, between a lie and the truth.
When people are presented with irreconcilable conflicts or desires, they will often lie to themselves as well as to others about the true nature of these conflicts. My job is important to me; my child is important to me. But when I am presented with an irreconcilable conflict between my job and my child, what will I choose? How will I rationalize a choice of one over the other? How will I interpret reality so as to diminish the irreconcilable aspects of my choice (“that meeting is not so important” or “the school play is not so important”)? How can I try to control or negate other people’s reactions to relieve my unease about my choice (“my boss won’t notice” or “my son won’t notice”; “I will make it up to my boss” or “I will make it up to my son”)? How will I present my motives to myself and others—for instance, “By choosing my job I’m really choosing my family since my job provides for my family”—and leave out other motives—“I like the prestige my job provides me and I like what the money allows me to buy”?
Invariably, when we are faced with irreconcilable choices, we human beings try to fudge: We lie to ourselves and declare that these choices are not irreconcilable. “I can choose A and I will not lose B.” In this way, we deny reality.
But if the story is constructed well, reality will inevitably confront and destroy or expose the protagonist’s lies to himself and to others. In this way, the story will reveal the truth both about the protagonist and the world.
Now there are times when a protagonist discovers an action which will reconcile a seemingly irreconcilable conflict. This often happens, as they say, in the movies. But in literature which examines with a cold eye the nature of our existence, which reveals the realities we would deny, which acknowledges how limited and frail our powers actually are, such reconciliations are few and far between.
We, as human beings, come to desire things of the world around us. We make plans and take actions so that we will obtain our desires. We expect and intend our actions to achieve our ends. We wish and often believe our powers and control over the world are godlike.
But alas, we are not gods, and there is always a gap between our expectations and the reality that ensues; there is always a gap between the intent of our actions and the results.
In several of the following essays, I will explore how the principles I’ve just outlined work with different authors and within specific pieces of fiction.
One final note: The narrative structures and techniques I introduce in this book are tools; to instruct readers on how to use these tools I focus on works where it’s easier to explore how they are being used. Once a writer grasps these techniques and structures, the writer can use them in more complicated ways or even forgo some of them. Certainly, as the writer gains in skill, the use of these tools will become more unconscious and simply part of the way that writer thinks and works. I am also aware that part of my explanation of these structures and techniques takes a more linear form than narratives from certain cultures; I use this more linear approach because it’s easier for pedagogical purposes and not because linear structures are necessarily preferable or superior to more nonlinear structures.