Some famous writer or another once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. This is all well and good until you try it. You find yourself wondering, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life?
This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the Johns. It will be published on November 3, which means you can take off work to buy it and tell your boss that you were voting.
How the Novel Works
Early in the novel, there is a scene with two couples meeting for dinner. Their sons are long-time friends and have just left home together to attend the University of Texas and play together on the baseball team:
He held out a glass of bourbon to Andres while Angie poured a couple of margaritas in stemware waiting on the table. They raised their glasses, the four of them, and looked at each other as though they’d all just rolled out of bed after an afternoon of intimacy.
“To our boys,” Angie said.
The novel uses this moment as an opportunity to give a brief history of the relationship between the Mejias and Robisons, a history that begins this way: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” We learn that the Robisons are older. They’re white and the Mejias are Hispanic. They’re upper class, and the Mejias are working class. The history of the relationship, then, is, to some extent, the history of how the couples dealt with these differences.
The passage tells that history from the Mejias’ point of view and begins with a description with the meals that the Mejias prepare for guests:
The Mejias rarely strayed from their standard foods—fideo and meat, tacos and chalupas, easy ricotta-free lasagna, beef and, more rarely, chicken enchiladas.
Then, the novel sets up the difference between the Mejias’ food and the Robisons’ food:
The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.
And what is that difference?
That first meal together, the Robisons served blackened catfish, which Julie thought was too fancy for her taste.
But what makes the passage interesting is the next line:
Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.
This is how a novel or story uses a snapshot to suggest a life. Seeing Off the Johns starts with a dinner and uses it as touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between the two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s reveal a life with a scene, using Seeing Off the Johns by Rene Perez II as a model:
- Choose a scene that contains a recurring moment. Perez builds his scene around a dinner, something that occurs every day and is shared by these couples on a regular basis. There are many potential, daily moments like this, and there are also other less mundane ones: recurring arguments, recurring obstacles, recurring bad habits or giving-in to vices. Even first-time moments (sex, drugs, murder) are often part of longer arcs: “the character walked this street every day until…” or “she’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” So, first, figure out which scene you’ll use as the jumping-off point for the backstory.
- Jump from scene to backstory. You can make the jump by reversing the order of the lines used to introduce the scene. “She’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” becomes “On every other night at the bar…” This is essentially what Perez does: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” The line could have read, “Every other time they’d met for dinner, they’d gotten on this well.” What he adds is the word despite, which is a great way to add tension. It adds a charge to the mundane: “She’d been coming to the same bar for years and never been hit on despite…” Give the line a try by combining the usual with the word despite.
- Build a narrative upon that despite. The word inherently suggests story. Why didn’t guys hit on the woman? Why did the Mejias and Robisons get along? The answer almost certainty involves a revealing detail about human nature (She was six-foot-five and intimidating to the sort of men that drank at the bar) or a character’s decision (Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.) Note that word accepted. They could have refused to accepted the difference in wealth, but they didn’t. They decided to get along. What you get, then, is a narrative that goes something like this: ___ has been happening for a long time despite ___, and the only reason this scene is happening now is because _____.
The goal is to craft piece of backstory that jumps out of a scene and illuminates the lives behind the scene.