Take a look at these two scenes from Beverly Donofrio’s Riding in Cars with Boys:
It was a Thursday night. I was doing the dishes, my father was sitting at the table doing a paint-by-numbers, and we were humming “Theme from Exodus” together. My mother was wiping the stove before she left for work at Bradlees, and for some reason she was stinked — maybe she had her period, or maybe it was because my father and I always hummed while I did the dishes and she was jealous. Neither of us acknowledged that we were basically harmonizing. It was more like it was just an accident that we were humming the same song. Our favorites were “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Sentimental Journey,” “‘Tonight,”‘ and “Exodus.” After Exodus, I said, “Hey, Ma. I was thinking I want to go to U Conn instead of Southern or Central. It’s harder to get into, but it’s a better school.”
“And who’s going to pay for it?”
It’s odd I never thought about the money, especially since my parents were borderline paupers and being poor was my mother’s favorite topic. I just figured, naively, that anybody who was smart enough could go to college.
“I don’t know: Aren’t there loans or something?”
“Your father and I have enough bills. You better stop dreaming.
Take typing. Get a good job when you graduate.”
“I’m not going to be a secretary.”
She lifted a burner and swiped under it. “We’ll see,” she said.
“I’m moving to New York.”
“Keep dreaming.” She dropped the burner back down.
So I gritted my teeth and figured I’d have to skip college and go straight to Broadway, but it pissed me off.
That weekend my friends and I went around throwing eggs at passing cars. We drove through Choate, the ritzy prep school in the middle of town, and I had an inspiration…
“Stop the car,” I said. “Excuse me,” I called to a little sports-jacketed Choatie crossing Christian Street. “Do you know where Christian Street is?”‘
“I’m not sure,” he said, “but I think it’s that street over there,” He pointed to the next road over,
“You’re standing on it, asshole!” I yelled, flinging an egg at the nametag on his jacket. I got a glimpse of his face as he watched the yolk drool down his chest; and I’ll remember the look of disbelief as it changed to sadness until the day I die. We peeled out, my friends hooting and hollering and slapping me on the back.
It’s your turn: think of moments when you or a character you are writing about introduced a want or need to parents, children, a boss, other authority figure, a relative or a friend and the response received was surprising — negatively or positively. Where were you or the character when the idea came up? What were you or the character and others there doing, wearing, playing? Was everyone indoors or outdoors? What was the light like? The ambient sounds? What objects or pets or others were there, too? What actions and perceptions can you include that show the way you or the character’s mood has suddenly changed because of the surprise reaction (Beverly Donofrio’s speaker goes from humming in harmony to gritting her teeth)?
Now write a scene that includes conversation, physical gestures and actions, someone changing the subject perhaps. After you have fully evoked the moment when the idea came up along with the surprising response, skip to another scene at a later time that shows how you or your character reacted, i.e. by tearing something up, hiding something, making a phone call, going out, getting drunk, running away.
Describe the behavior and the setting and then find something haunting or long remembered about it that is very telling about yearning.
by Sheila Bender