Outer story, the physical world, is also its own effect, its own reaction, its own comment. Outer story shows us things, and as the outer story grows and gathers, we can begin to see the constellations of our meanings. There is no need to comment on each facet of a scene. The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and Jonathan took a step back, stunned. (Cut stunned.)
— Ron Carlson, Ron Carlson Writes a Story
Ron Carlson advises:
The character should emerge through the constellation of her/his actions–his/her code. You will feel the pull of history/exposition: how/when those bugs got on the windshield; the empty beer cans in the backseat, the rip in the upholstery, the origin of the three gold coins, the rusty knife, etc.
We must “learn just how much a writer can leave out and how powerful what you include actually is,” he adds.
What we select moves us beyond whatever cerebral intention we may have had when we sat down to write and into the territory of discovery where “intentions lie just beyond our knowing.” (Carlson again)
I am familiar with sitting at a desk, so for practice I start with a woman at a desk. What can she perform there? Though Carlson suggests writing a 400-word scene, staying with only the physical and tangible that long intimidates me. I write in shorter spurts:
As Caroline pulled the plate with her tuna salad sandwich closer to her, she noticed a blob of tuna on one of the forms she had to turn in later, just over the company logo. She grabbed a napkin and quickly snatched the tuna away, but she saw it was too late — the oil from the tuna had already spread. She hoped the circle it left wouldn’t be obvious when she faxed the forms.
What would Ron Carlson edit out? She noticed and hoped!
As Caroline pulled the plate with her tuna salad sandwich closer to her, a blob of tuna fell on one of the forms she had just filled in. She grabbed a napkin and snatched the tuna away. A circle of oil darkened over the company logo.
Next, I add something that indicates a history for a physical object:
She loved tuna on rye, and she couldn’t stop making her sandwiches with so much mayonnaise that the insides squished over the bread’s boundaries, a glacier, a lava flow or white soap bubbles over the top of a pan.
And now the Carlson treatment:
She had slathered her tuna salad on the bread, having made it so mayonnaisey, it squished out between the slices, a glacier, a lava flow, white soap bubbles over the top of a pan.
I focus next on another action/object interaction:
Her cat jumped onto her desk, the wheels on her chair clattering as she rolled away from his long black tail. In their mutual surprise, they scattered the forms over the floor. The one with its circle of oil and nine others lay out of order, reminding her of the pats of butter she spilled onto to the table at her friend’s the night before when she and Rex where there for dinner. Ten pages to finish filling in and faxing before the end of the business day.
And the editing:
Her cat jumped onto her desk, the wheels on her chair clattering as she rolled away from his long black tail. In their mutual surprise, they scattered the forms. The one with its circle of oil and nine others lay out on the floor, like the pats of butter she had spilled off the serving plate at her friend’s house the night before when she and Rex where there for dinner. Ten pages to fill out before the end of the business day.
I find another action:
Rex’s ring tone chimed from the phone in her pocket. She didn’t answer. She skipped listening to Rex’s voice mail message; she didn’t read his text, either. She’d lost the baby. She wasn’t able to lose her pregnancy weight. All she could think about was fish and butter and mayonnaise, of eating her way to having the soft fetus back, swimming again in her womb. She thought about the calamari and Manhattan’s at Hell of a Good Time Tavern. First, she’d go to the insurance company in person instead of faxing. She’d apologize for the oil stain, say she was sorry to Rex, too, much later, of course, after the tavern when he was upset about not knowing where she was.
Rex’s ring tone chimed from the phone in her pocket. She didn’t answer. She didn’t listen to his voice mail message. She deleted his text. She’d lost their baby. Her cheeks and neck and stomach remained full enough for people to ask when her baby was due. All she could think about was fish and butter and mayonnaise, of eating her way to having the soft fetus back, swimming again in her womb. She’d bring those forms in person. The Hell of a Good Time Tavern was on the same street, its happy hour calamari and Manhattans good and very cheap. She’d apologize to the clerk for the oil stain, say she was sorry to Rex, too, whenever it was she got home.
The tuna salad sandwich I’d been craving, health forms I helped my mother complete, photos of lava on the Big Island of Hawaii where my friend lives. Each time I feel stuck, I return to the physical, to objects and actions available to put at Caroline’s desk or as images, not thoughts, in her mind–soap bubbles in the pans I’d washed, pats of butter that might make a meal fancy. To stay physical, I write about stains and dropped paper. Through the actions of my character with physical objects, I discover her particular turmoil.
Lesson: Notice lapses into inner thoughts. Rely on the physical world instead. Your scene enters new emotional territory.
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