If a story is to keep its readers from walking away, it must do something unexpected, something that makes the reader say, “I didn’t see that coming.” These moments of surprise are what almost all stories are about—if we know how it will play out, why keep reading? The writer Richard Ford once put it this way: The job of fiction is to make the impossible possible. That’s fine to say, of course, but how do we do that?
Sarah Frisch offers a kind of textbook model for how to put Ford’s maxim into practice in her story, “Housebreaking.” It was published in The Paris Review, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
The story is about two strangers who move in together after a chance encounter. It’s the sort of story that would cause a listener in real life to say, “Wait—you did what?” Most people don’t move in with perfect strangers for a lot of good reasons. As a result, any story in which this happens must overcome a great deal of skepticism on the reader’s part. Frisch begins to do this in the first paragraph:
Seamus lived in Wheaton, Maryland, in the last house on a quiet street that dead-ended at a county park. He’d bought the entire property, including a rental unit out back, at a decent price. This was after the housing market crashed but before people knew how bad it would get—back when he was still a practicing Christian Scientist, still had a job and a girlfriend he’d assumed he would marry. Now, two years later, he was single, faithless, and unemployed. The money his mother had loaned him for a down payment was starting to look more like a gift, as were the checks she’d been sending for the last year to help him cover the mortgage. His life was in disrepair, but for the first time in months he wasn’t thinking about any of that: he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman. Her name was Charity, and she was a stranger.
Notice how Frisch skips over their initial encounter. By the time we meet the woman, Charity, the story has already begun. The next paragraph fills in some of the details about the encounter but also continues to skip over a great deal:
Earlier that afternoon Seamus had been weeding by the driveway, and she’d stopped to ask him if the cottage in the backyard was available to rent. It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack Charity had been carrying and that she confessed she’d planned on drinking alone.
Both paragraphs use a similar technique, one that’s not unlike the famous yada-yada from Seinfeld: “His life was in disrepair” yada-yada “he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman.” “It was already rented” yada-yada “they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” In both cases, if the story had shown that first encounter in great detail, those details would have needed to explain the thought processes behind both characters’ decisions to continue the encounter. Imagine trying to write dialogue for such a scene. Even in real life, we tend to skip over such details; we sometimes don’t even know exactly how we get into situations. The being-there is more important than the how. Yet in fiction, in early drafts, we tend to write those scenes out, and then we get lost.
Even when Frisch uses dialogue, she works fast, making the scene happen quickly so that we don’t have time to object:
“My ex’s house has the gravitational pull of a black hole,” Charity said. “I can’t believe I’m still here.”
“Congratulations,” Seamus said. Then he asked her to stay for dinner.
Something big happens in that moment, internally for Seamus, but we don’t get any details about it. The story doesn’t show us his thoughts, though the next passage does explain how he was unprepared for this moment: his kitchen is a mess, and he has no food ready except “package of ground beef rotting in the crisper.”
A few lines later, the story gives Charity a similar moment:
“I don’t want to go back to that hellhole,” she said.
“Stay here till you find a place,” Seamus heard himself say.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” She looked embarrassed, as if he had accused her of something.
“Everybody needs help.”
“It seems like a bad idea,” she said, quietly.
Seamus said he was trying to be more open to bad ideas.
When she accepted, it was with such obvious relief that he wished he’d offered the instant they’d met.
Notice how matter-of-factly the story skips over the internal struggle: “Then he asked her to stay” and “When she accepted.” If the story had shown that struggle, it likely could have gotten bogged down, taking longer to get to the real story, which is what happens when these two people move in together.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s overcome unlikely plot scenarios using “Housebreaking” by Sarah Frisch as a model:
Before you can use this exercise, you need to Identify the problematic plot point. It could be the scenario itself (two strangers move in together). It could also be a decision that a character makes deeper into the story. The point is to know which points you’re having trouble defending or explaining. Where is the explanation of a character’s thoughts or psychology bogging down the narrative? Once you’ve identified the sticking point, you can figure out how to yada-yada over the parts that don’t matter—in other words, you can skip to the good stuff.
- Skip over an unlikely initial encounter. Frisch begins the story by explaining Seamus’ situation and then saying, essentially, “but all that went out the window because now he was doing something totally unlike what was just described.” This can serve as a good model for any opening: Here’s a description of a character that suggests he/she is a particular way, but one day he/she found him/herself doing something totally out of character. This opening not only skips over difficult details but also creates tension: how did this unlikely thing happen?
- Use a transition to glide across time. Sometimes the right word or phrase can help the story leap over a few minutes to a more interesting moment in a scene. Look at the word soon in this sentence: ” It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” That word skips over the conversation about the rental unit, which is not only less interesting but also tricky to write since it involves a conversation about doing things the characters wouldn’t normally do. So, try introducing something that would normally end a scene (“It was already rented”) and then use the word soon to keep the scene going (“but soon they were on his deck.”
- State a character’s action or decision outright, with no explanation. There are statements that we consider making or actions that we consider doing for days (or for a few tortured seconds) before we actually make or do them. That mental state is hard to describe and often not particularly interesting. But if you’ve set up a character and the way he/she tends to act, it can be jarring (in a good say) to state that he/she did something totally out of character (“Then he asked her to stay for dinner”). So, if you’ve tried to describe that mental state and crisis, cut it completely and just state the result as quickly as possible. Once you’ve surprised the reader, you can give details (as Frisch does) for how the character is totally unprepared for this decision.
- Use a dependent clause to make a decision seem inevitable. Another mental state that we often try to describe is a moment of waiting: I just said this, and now I’m waiting to see how she’ll respond. It’s a really hard thing to describe, and often it’s better to just skip the response entirely and get to the result. You can do this with two basic pieces of grammar: a subjective conjunction (when, after, although) and a dependent clause (the string of words that usually accompanies these words). Like the word soon, these words skip over time (“When she accepted”). You can do something almost identical with many scenes. Skip over the conversation or waiting period and use when or after to get to the thing being discussed or waited for.
Good luck and have fun!