“I just want to understand what the character is feeling.” If you’re playing writing workshop bingo, this statement should be the center square, guaranteed to come up in every class when discussing a work’s emotional apex. Sometimes off-base, yes, but nine times out of ten, heads will bob around the table. After class, we writers return to our garrets and write passionate play-by-plays of what the character is thinking. And it will be bloated, purple and downright terrible.
Writing big moments is painful. Developing those scenes that are critical to the book are fraught. Beyond the logistics, beyond the language lies that ever-daunting question: how do we make it original? In the age of endless scenes from television and movies and all the books that have come before, how do we prevent melodrama without selling short the character’s emotional tenor?
A tempting strategy is to do a cut. Hint that the Big Thing happened and then, boom, jump ahead to, maybe, the night after the funeral. It saves us the overly-familiar scenes of black dresses at a cemetery and all that ugly sobbing. Nobody has to say, How will I ever live without him?
In some cases, this strategy works. For example, in Dawn Tripp’s Georgia, we suspect that Alfred is going to have an affair with Beck, his new photographic model, but before we can watch their flirtation blossom, Tripp moves us and Georgia to Maine. This works because it’s consistent with Georgia’s character. Rather than stay and fight with and for Alfred, she bolts. We don’t feel cheated that we aren’t there, watching the whole thing unfold. Had Tripp left Georgia at the lake with Alfred but given the details short shrift, it wouldn’t have felt as momentous and I imagine we’d be asking questions about how Georgia feels.
Georgia is an exception. Not all of us have characters who can avoid the Big Thing and if we try to make them dodge it, the work ends up obtuse and emotionally deceiving. We are consequently left to write it blow by blow. This makes us nervous so we hurry. Perhaps we are careful in the build-up, describing the way the light glinted off the stainless steel blade as Sally selects the knife she would use to stab her cheating husband. The carpet clings to the bottom of her feet as she creeps into the bedroom where he has passed out drunk. But then finally we have to get her to stab him. We want it to be over, so we shove the knife in and end the scene. There, we wrote it, move along.
But there are those pesky readers, wanting to know what she’s feeling. And that brings us back to writing interior monologue:
The knife drips. How could Sally have done such a thing? A heat rises in her chest, panic washes over her. What is she going to do? What will she tell the police?
Don’t worry, Sally. With this kind of writing nobody’s going to stick around to read anything you say to the cops.
Once we realize the paragraph of internal monologue doesn’t work, we use gestures. A smile plays on her lips. A grimace sneaks across her face. Her hands shake. Her eye twitches. She stops herself from gagging.
There has to be a better way.
Making the character’s actions in the aftermath echo the character’s previous actions can provide a Rosetta Stone to her emotions. If we see the character doing something early in the piece, then we have a shortcut to understanding what the character is feeling if later, after the Big Thing, the character takes up that same activity. In a recent lecture, Charles Baxter noted that in Sherwood Anderson’s story, The Corn Planting, early on we learn that the old couple often go back out to the fields to work after supper. That’s poignant. Later, when the old man is told his beloved only son has been killed, we don’t need the old man to rage about how he’s overcome with grief, no, he and his wife simply go into the field and plant corn in their nightclothes, pausing to pray at the end of each row. Anderson tells us everything we need to know about both the characters and the depth of their despair in that repetitive action. Readers aren’t asking themselves wait, what is he thinking to go back into the fields? Someone who goes and plants corn after dinner by the light of the moon is the kind of character who would still plant when his son is dead.
There lies a question within this solution: is it the redundancy of the action or the reflection of the character’s true nature that gives the Big Thing its emotional force? After all, a simple, repeated action reveals a lot in a quiet story about corn farmers. What about with characters on whom we have a closer perspective?
Throughout Josh Ferris’s To Rise Again At A Decent Hour we are right there with the dentist/protagonist so much so that we’ve even shared his nose-hair grooming. Were he, then, to go out and plant some corn (or pull some teeth) silently and without telling us what he’s thinking, we’d be asking that damnable question about feelings. Instead, Ferris ends with his character putting on a baseball cap, something he’s done throughout the book. This time it’s for a different team and with that choice we know everything about the character’s feelings and what he’s going to do in the future. To be sure, Ferris keeps us close and the protagonist accompanies his action with a running commentary. But it still isn’t the commentary that carries the weight; it’s the action and with it, the story, like that of the corn planters, is complete.
So perhaps it is both: a redundant activity and one buried so deeply within a character’s fundamental nature that we, as readers, can’t help but sit back and marvel at the revelation. Sounds simple, that is, until we go back to Sally. Let’s say Sally is a banker whom we’ve already observed getting up at four a.m. to get a head start on her email. Could she kill her husband and then finish up some quick emails? Probably not. What if she liked to cook? Maybe she could whip up a quick marinara? That sounds just about as trite as it comes. And yet, so does a middle-aged dentist putting on a baseball cap.
Of course there are as many ways to construct an emotionally satisfactory story as there are fantastic stories in the world. Entire books are dedicated to the topic. But as far as any one strategy goes, finding the redundant, revelatory action is a damn good alternative. Seeking it can provide a means to face down that Big Thing and give us confidence we can pull it off. After all, cuts and cliffhangers don’t work. Except, when they do. Elena Ferrante sets up a scene with a wedding on the verge of breaking into violence, a betrayal and an irate bride. Do we stick around for the inevitable overflow of all this emotion or get to watch the bride perform a revelatory action of say, stitching some shoes? Nope. Cut. The End.