The writer Charles Baxter once wrote in an interview that he liked “to throw characters together into situations that create stress so that as the story goes forward, something in the situation or the characters is forced to reveal itself.” And yet Baxter has also written, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.”
This contradiction is faced by all writers. We must seek to understand the motives and meanings of our characters’ actions, but if we understand them too well, the story loses any sense of mystery. As a result, some of the greatest stories—such as “Bartleby the Scrivener”—are those about the search for understanding. In Melville’s story, the narrator nearly drives himself mad trying to figure out why his employee, and then former employee, Bartleby, responds to all requests with “I would prefer not to.” In the end, though, Bartleby resists explanation. He remains a cypher.
That same inscrutability can be found in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia.” The story won the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Short Story Contest, and you can read it here.
(Note: Registration is required–but it’s free and definitely worth the few seconds required to do so.)
How the Story Works
The story is about Nemecia, an unsettling character who has joined, under chilling circumstances, the narrator’s family. The narrator’s attempt to understand Nemecia’s odd behavior shapes the story. The first section acts as an introduction. Here are some select lines:
- Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated…At night she stole food from the pantry, handfuls of prunes, beef jerky, pieces of ham…The quick efficient bites, the movement of her jaw, the way the food slid down her throat—it made me sick to think of her body permitting such quantities.
- I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.
The next section operates in the same way as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The narrator’s new knowledge affects her view of the entire community. Here are some select lines:
- The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.
- I wondered if they were afraid of what she might do to them. Perhaps the whole town was terrified of my cousin.
- At night I stayed awake as long as I could, waiting for Nemecia to come after me in the dark.
A great story can put goosebumps on its readers’ arms, and following that last line, the story leaps into action. With each new awful attack by Nemecia, the narrator tries to understand her nemesis, to comprehend what has made her so cruel. But she repeatedly fails and, by the end, she can only watch as “Nemecia held a wineglass up to the window and turned it. “See how clear?” Shards of light moved across her face.”
Nemecia remains inscrutable.
The Writing Exercise
This story is a fresh version of the age-old tale “Stranger Comes to Town.” Let’s try our own version. As you brainstorm for each step, write quickly. Don’t think too hard. Let your subconscious spit out material. You can edit it later.
1. Pick a town/neighborhood. Describe the main street, the stores, the residential streets, a house. Who lives there? What objects are important in the street, the stores, etc. Be specific.
2. Pick a stranger. Keep in mind that the best strangers have poker faces; they do not give away their thoughts. Some people will consider them sweet, and others will find them menacing. Give the stranger behavior that suggests both views—but that also suggests something isn’t quite right.
3. Pick one of the objects described earlier in Step 1. Make it go missing. Or make it malfunction. Or make it suddenly turn up in the stranger’s possession. In other words, disrupt the world that you created. Regardless of what disruption you choose, the stranger should be implicated.
4. Provide the stranger with a logical excuse—or simply allow the stranger to remain quiet so that others will make the excuse for him/her.
Your goal is to slowly increase the pressure on the town to discover why the stranger has behaved in this way, to understand what is happening. Yet you must also allow the stranger to resist this understanding. When done well, this can produce an incredible tension in your story.