Show the Narrator’s Evolution

12 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

If someone asks, “What happens in the story?” the answer can tell you a lot. Maybe it’s a series of actions: guy gets killed in the Louvre, and so another guy interviews people, solves puzzles, meets Jesus’ great-great-etc granddaughter, and together they catch the killer. The main character probably doesn’t have much of an interior life. All changes are plot changes.

But what if the answer is “It’s about this guy, and at first he felt this way, but then he realized he felt this way?” The story is in his head. A story like this can present a problem: if the character’s interior life is the story, how do you show any of it? Most of us want to avoid writing this sentence: “Now he felt different.” But how?

Nina McConigley solves this problem masterfully in “White Wedding.” The story is included in her debut collection from Five Chapter Books, but you can read it here at Memorious.

How the Story Works

The narrator, Lakshmi, lives (and has chosen to live) in Casper, Wyoming, a city and state with an almost-entirely white population. She claims to be comfortable with standing out, but by the story’s end, she has perhaps decided to leave, in part because of her feelings about identity and place. As a result, the reader can gauge Lakshmi’s movement toward “the speed of [her] own escape” by how she feels about Casper.

Here are a few examples of her evolution:

  • The first paragraph ends with this statement: “We were used to white people.”
  • Halfway through the story, the narrator remembers her dying mother’s wish not to be “buried in Western clothes.” Instead, her mother asks to be buried in a sari. The problem is that the “people in the funeral home won’t know how.” But neither does the narrator. As she practices putting on the sari, her mother tells her Lakshmi that she should wear one more often. The narrator remembers thinking, “I would like to wear them more often. But where? To the Wonder Bar? To work?” Suddenly, the narrator isn’t so certain about her relationship to the place’s whiteness.
  • By the day of the wedding, the narrator has learned to dress someone in a sari. But that ability does not give her a connection to her Indian identity. When asked how she feels about being bi-racial, the narrator has usually answered, “It’s the best of two worlds! I get to be American, and Indian. I have two cultures to choose from!” But she’s learned that “the halves did not make a whole.” She is satisfied with neither white Casper nor her Indian heritage. As a result, she perhaps decides to strike out and find her own place and identity.

Notice how McConigley invests the narrator’s feelings about ethnicity in a specific object: a sari. The writing is never vague. The first paragraph even gives a statistic about the whiteness of Casper. The lesson, then, is to give the narrator an existential concern—Who am I? What am I doing?—and embody that concern in a particular place, object, or person.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a character. You can invent one from scratch or choose an existing character from a story draft. 
  2. Find an existential problem. Answer this question: When the character can’t sleep at night, what does he/she think or obsess about? Write the answer as a general statement (Carl wonders if he’ll ever find love.)
  3. Locate that problem in something concrete. Embody your answer in a place, object, or person. For example, my character Carl might be really ugly, and so he obsesses about a particular feature of his face or body. Or perhaps he lives in a place where no one shares his interests (canning, video games, musicals).
  4. Change the character’s attitude toward the problem. Brainstorm how the character’s feelings toward that place, object, or person change over the course of time. So, Carl might become less self-conscious about his looks. Or he might decide to move somewhere that has people like him. Or he might change his views on the requirements of love—maybe people don’t need to share interests. Maybe there’s something else that can attract lovers. Once you find the change that will occur, you can create a story (obstacles for the character to encounter) that will allow them to take place.

It’s possible that this exercise will feel too didactic, as though you’re telling the reader too much. Keep in mind that these notes are for you. If you know how your character feels (and evolves), it will be easier to keep the story moving in the right direction.

Good luck!

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  1. An Interview with Nina McConigley | Read to Write - March 14, 2013

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