Most stories are about change. A character goes about her business, and then an asteroid, dead body, love interest, child, or zombie shows up and everything changes. As a basic narrative structure, the change story is hard to escape. Politics revolves around game changers. At the coffee shop where I write this, KT Tunstall is singing “Suddenly I See,” which suggests that she didn’t see it before, meaning something has changed.
But what about those people who never really change? The wonderful poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.” If this is true, and if we want to write stories about people trapped in that one damn thing over and over, then we need a new structure.
A story that demonstrates how that structure might look is Christine Grimes’ “The Window.” It was published at 2 Bridges Review, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
The story begins in a bar, where the narrator is at a bar, celebrating a birthday:
I flirted with this beer drinking, pool playing, divorced guy, Eddie, who made eyes at me while I played darts. His shaggy brown hair hung in his eyes and when he laughed, his shoulders shook. I maneuvered over to the bar, where he asked my name, then said Gloria sounded pretty. By the end of my darts game, his buddies showed up. I went over to his table to buy him a beer and one of his friends snickered and elbowed him. Couldn’t appreciate the lovin’ a big woman can offer. Eddie just shook his head and said no thanks. I left the beer there anyway. I took a couple shots with Judy, slept on her scratchy old couch, and overslept. So this morning, I borrowed her largest pair of sweat pants and threw on my dirt shirt before driving like an idiot to get to work.
If this was a story about change, then something would happen at work to push the narrator onto a different storyline than she was previously on. And, in fact, this is what happens. Gloria works at a chip factory as a taste tester, assessing chip quality, and on this day her supervisor announces that the factory will begin hosting public tours and Gloria will be featured. In a story about change, this would be an opportunity for something new to happen. Instead, though, the story essentially repeats the structure of the opening scene over and over, with the same result: Gloria gets her hopes up or tries to make the best of a bad situation but eventually gets humiliated. This is how the story ends. So, why isn’t this boring? After all, it’s the same thing over and over. Why does it work?
The answer in how the story makes us buy into the narrator’s point of view. She keeps believing things will be different, and so do we, even at the story’s end. Three boys take the tour and watch Gloria eat chips. Two of the boys make fun of her weight and then walk away. The third boy, one with a crooked nose, doesn’t make fun of her, and we suspect that perhaps he’s different:
His face has a little smile. We make eye contact. He gets me. Maybe he’s interested, maybe impressed, maybe he likes Gornitos. I showboat a little and chew slowly, rubbing the grains against my palate and swallow. The chip’s a little stale, too oily. When I open my mouth for another taste, Crooked Nose unzips his pants and pulls out his limp dick, waving it at me. He sticks out his tongue and licks the glass before he walks out.
The story isn’t about change but, instead, about believing change can happen when it almost certainly will not. This is a key concept to remember. Plot is about confounding a reader’s expectations, not about change.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s structure a story around lack of change, using “The Window” by Christine Grimes as a model:
- Write a scene that sums up a character. You’re looking for a moment that makes a character (either the person involved or someone who knows him or her) say “That’s me/him/her in a nutshell.” To write the scene, try thinking about the character in terms of winner or loser. Does the character always succeed? Or not? What is a small moment when the character either gets what she wants or does not get it?
- Find new ways to repeat the scene. The key is to think about your character’s motivations. What does he or she want? Don’t worry about what they want most. Instead, just list all of the things they want. Either item on your list offers an opportunity for a scene in which the character will or will not get that desired thing.
- Create the expectation that this time is different. The character needs to believe this, of course, but so do the readers. We need to see evidence that something is about to change. Someone is going to give the character the benefit of the doubt or, conversely, not give him what he wants. If you make us believe this time is different, then we’ll be surprised when the scene goes exactly as every other scene has gone.
Good luck and have fun.