Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.
This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. A review in The Washington Post said, “You won’t put this story down… Pittard is operating at a level few writers attain.” You can read an excerpt here.
How the Novel Works
The novel is about a married couple, Mark and Maggie, who take a trip to visit his parents in the midst of some marital strife. It begins as they get ready to leave and focuses on the small things that must be done: taking out the trash, walking the dog, packing the car. The chores, of course, are also the sort of things unhappy couples argue about, and so each one provides an opportunity for either Mark or Maggie to think about their partner’s failings. One of those internal monologues goes like this:
Maggie had an excuse for her behavior, but it was getting old. It was getting old in part because she’d been getting better. The symptoms now felt disproportionate to the cause. Like, for instance, Patricia Hatchett, who was also in the History Department, had lost a baby last year, and Mark wasn’t the only one to notice that she looked better these days than ever. He’d heard she was considering a run for chair, for Christ’s sake. It embarrassed Mark that his wife had become a completely different person just because she’d been mugged. Strike that—because someone they didn’t even know had been murdered. But what was becoming more and more apparent—and this wasn’t a happy or an easy realization—was that Mark was spending his life with one of the world’s weaklings: the type of person who gets diagnosed with cancer and, instead of going outside and taking on life, gets in bed and waits for the inevitable. He’d expected more from Maggie. My god, he’d expected so much more.
This is some pretty ugly stuff: “one of the world’s weaklings” and using someone else’s tragedy (lost a baby) to justify his own self-righteousness. It might be tempting to write something like this as dialogue, to just come out with it and turn the ugly thoughts into a full-on fight. The problem with doing that, though, is that it doesn’t leave many options for going forward. Once you call your spouse a weakling and compare them unfavorably to cancer patients, the dice have been thrown, so to speak. By making these thoughts simply that—thoughts—Pittard has created an emotional backdrop to everything that Mark says or does, which is almost certainly less awful than the backdrop. This creates tension: we know those ugly thoughts are lurking, waiting to get out, and so as the novel’s plot escalates, we worry about what Mark will do when pushed or stressed too far.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create an emotional backdrop for a character, using Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to ME, as a model:
- Give your character something to mentally grouse about. Mark is upset with his wife’s behavior after getting mugged. Forget, for a moment, how unfair his reaction might be. The truth in life is that people are often selfish and we manage to maintain relationships and find happiness because we minimize and make amends for our selfish acts. But that doesn’t mean anyone is perfect. So, let your character lash out selfishly—in the privacy of his or her head. The character can be upset with something out in the world (the cable company, a professional sports team, immigrants) or with something that he or she actually encounters: a spouse, family member, coworker, or neighbor. What irritates your character?
- Establish why this person/thing irritates your character. This is probably the selfish part. Mark is irritated with Maggie because she’s become less enjoyable to be around. Her reaction to being mugged has interrupted their lives together. But, again, forget whether your character is being fair or not. By letting your character think selfishly, you are, in part, creating an aspect of that character’s self, something the character wants badly to protect.
- Let your character compare the irritant to something better. Mark believes that his coworker, Patricia Hatchett, has responded to difficulty in a better way. He’s thinking, in different words, “Look at So-and-So. Is she (acting like you)? No, she’s (what’s she’s doing instead).” This is something that people tend to do when they’re unhappy—they go in search, mentally or physically, of something to justify their unhappiness. What comparison would your character make? Who is the So-and-So in your character’s version of “Look at So-and-So?”
- Let your character compare the irritant to something bad (in your character’s view). Mark compares Maggie to a cancer patient who sits at home, waiting to die. Clearly, he thinks this is a bad thing. It’s really just a straw man that Mark has created, a manifestation of his own ideas. That’s why he doesn’t give a name to the cancer patient—as anyone who’s seen cancer knows, the details can get in the way of how we believe a person ought to react. He’s basically saying a version of “You’re like someone who (does something theoretically awful like stealing candy from a baby or eating the last slice of pie without sharing).” Obviously, I’m a fan of pie and so that’s something that I might say. What would your character say? How would you character fill in the blank of his or version of “You’re like someone who ____”?
The goal is to create the emotional backdrop for a character, the worst-case version of his or her feelings on a subject. This backdrop gives readers a sense for how far a character might go in a dramatic moment.