The writer Ron Carlson says that every story has two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Another way of saying this is that the characters involved have concerns and obsessions that existed before the story came into their lives.
Alex Perez has created this fictional world beautifully in his story “Eggs.” It was published in Subtropics, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
It’s not actually enough to create a world for the story to enter. That world must lean on the story, shaping it so that the story isn’t generic but specific to that place. Perez does this by giving his narrator an attitude about certain aspects of his world: poverty and ethnicity.
Notice how the narrator immediately compares his mom to the woman his father is sleeping with:
“My mother, always working in the kitchen, never wore anything that called attention to her. This woman, this white lady, must have dipped her entire wardrobe in glaze or something.”
This class difference gets picked up in every section of the story. Even when the the narrator’s father moves out and the narrator and his brother drive to his new house to egg it, they’re thinking not just about their plan but the class distinctions that inform it:
It’s a testament to the craziness of a city like Miami, how all the hoods, rich and poor, are connected by the highway, but people only get off where they’re supposed to. But here we were, on the side of town all the immigrants wanted to get to. Ten minutes from our place, and this was the first time Ricky had seen driveways littered with the finest in German engineering.
“All the backboards are made of glass. Like the NBA,” he said.
“You haven’t played basketball until you bounce it off the glass,” I said.
One problem that many beginning writers have is a tendency to write only about plot. In their stories, once the plot gets rolling, nothing else appears on the page. But good stories move in and out of plot. They advance it for a while and then step out for a few moments to talk about something else. Such moments allow readers to catch their breath, to absorb what is happening. Giving the characters in a story something to talk about besides the immediate plot also allows the story to gain meaning. It allows the story to have a paragraph like this one in which the narrator peers through the windows of his father’s mistress’ house and sees him rubbing her feet:
He was in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen, and he’d become a certifiable bitch. I didn’t know why, but as I looked around the house, at the massive staircase and the leather couches, for one second, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Right then, I knew that I’d never make it to such a house. I wasn’t good enough for Harvard, and I certainly wasn’t about to massage feet for women who weren’t my wife. Maybe all those other women had been preparation for this moment, for the day that he’d finally make it to a house that justified his exodus all those years ago. I didn’t know, probably would never know, but I had to tell myself a story.
That passage that isn’t possible if the story doesn’t create its world and its characters’ attitude toward that world.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create a world and a character’s attitude toward that world, using “Eggs” as a model:
- Describe two characters from the viewpoint of a third character. When Perez compares his mother to his father’s mistress, he notices the difference in their clothes, and it bothers him. You’re looking for those kind of distinctions that bother the third character. So, you may want to describe characters who are not equally close to the third character: a family member and a stranger, a close friend and an acquaintance, a spouse and a co-worker. We tend to associate ourselves with people from “our world” and who have similar attitudes toward that world—and we often judge harshly the people from other worlds. Here are some ideas for distinctions you can make: class, ethnicity, geography, education, intelligence, athletic ability, attractiveness, sexuality, or even just likability.
- Put your third character into the world that isn’t his/her own. When Perez’s characters egg their father’s mistress’s house, they leave one neighborhood and enter another. Because class distinctions weigh so heavily on them, everything they see is seen through that prism: the basketball backboards, the bases on the baseball fields. What details does your third character notice as he/she enters the world that isn’t his own? The key is to find a plot mechanism that will force your character into a world to which he/she doesn’t belong.
- Filter everything through the difference between the worlds. We judge others most harshly—or become most conscious of distinctions between us and others—when we’re upset. So, as you write the story and approach the dramatic high points, find ways to return to the distinctions you’ve created. In Perez’s story, the narrator looks into his father’s new house, aware of how much bigger and fancier it is than his own. But his feelings toward those differences have changed. Very often, the reversal in plot or the epiphany will be accompanied by a similar reversal or change in the way a character views the world you’ve created.
Good luck and have fun.