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Faking Shapely Fiction



Michael Byers


The Five-Dimensional Character 5
The Static/Active Spectrum 10

Ways of Knowing
Complex Nonverbal Interactions 13
The Metaphysical Description 17
The P/V Ratio and the Rate of Return 20
The Qualified Truth 26
The Copernican Author 30

The Useful Object 43
The Padded Hinge 50
The Sure-ButAnd-So 55
The Propelled Sentence 59
The Pachinko Effect 62

The Meaningful Horizon 68

Associative Bundling 72
The Proximate Effect 77

or, Don't Read This Yet

If we are writers of a taxonomical turn of mind, we might classify our three areas of
concern as follows:

our subject matter, being the overarching subject that principally concerns us as
writers our family, our home town, our marriage, our country of origin, etc.;
our style, being the manifestation of the subject in paragraphs, sentences, and
words, as well as a certain unique posture toward the subject;
our inspiration, being the mysterious thing that initiates our matter and
animates our style, and that drives us to this difficult business in the first place.

The thoughts collected here are only directed toward the second person of this trinity, the
way things are said. What makes good dialog? What makes lifelike character? How to
convey the mysterious "current" in a room? What makes a convincing transition, a useful
minor player, a plausible supernatural occurrence?

So these are a few preliminary notes on craft, on the conscious making of things and
leave aside any discussion of the radiant, supernal, uncanny feeling that arrives when the
writing is going well. The high fever of active invention does not lend itself to much
useful analysis. Unplanned, arriving like a fever dream, full of the superbly surprising,
good writing possesses a furious unthought logic whose origins often cannot be traced,
and should not be. You can't fake that stuff.

Therefore, a word of caution. Do not use these thoughts as a handbook for the first or
second draft. Considered too seriously, too soon, the ideas here will interfere with your
natural habits of composition. Rather, I offer these thoughts as means to address and
reconsider stories you've already written and revisited. They are thoughts for the third
draft or so, meant to be referred to only during the hard cool hours of revision and re-
engagement, when you're desperate to make something work a little better, and no
longer feel brilliant.


Length, Breadth, Height, Persistence, and Relation

Okay, you're complicated. You manage simultaneously to pity and envy your sister,
whose successful marriage is a disturbing combination of greed and untroubled
superficiality. You prefer white bread to brown but feel guilty about it. You like
watching people play racquetball. You are short, but well-made. Your voice is quiet, but
you often hear, in your own raucous laugh, the eerie echo of your creepy Republican
father-in-law. You are not exactly a mass of contradictions (although you are also that,
sort of); it is more that you are a jumble of unmatching, sometimes irreconcilable parts.
Oh, and you're a writer, faced with the task of creating real people.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume that you want your characters to be
read as real, that you wish to infuse them with as much convincing life as possible. Of
course some stories and some modes of storytelling call for unlifelike characters, but we
will not address those matters directly here . Instead, I will assume you intend to create
characters that appear to possess a lifelike complexity.

Length, Breadth, and Height

In the discussion of what makes such a character, it will be useful to think in geometrical
terms. Simply put, a character can be considered convincing in equal measure to his or
her volume. Volume is achieved through the accumulation of unaligned attributes
those attributes which do not reinforce one another.

For example, a geometrical rendering of the idea Robert was tall might look like this:


Tall is a single attribute, and naturally our picture of Robert is somewhat one-
dimensional at this point. Note that it is not an uncomplicated picture; like mourners at a
funeral, we come crowding to the scene with our own contributions: the hotdish of lean,
the three-bean salad of lanky, the cheese-plate of awkward. We are ready to extend our
picture of Robert roughly in the dimension he is already traveling:

tall lean lanky awkward

such that Robert gets stretched, like Augustus Gloop, all beyond recognition, with his
size 22 shoes and loping gait and hopeless giant's gentleness. If we are alert as writers
we are aware of these crowding helpers, and rather than let Robert stretch to infinite
length, as astronauts are said to do as they cross the event horizon of a black hole, we are
wise to give him a surprising, unaligned second attribute, for example:


which, while not contradicting Robert's established height, develops him in a way the
reader has perhaps not expected. Now, suddenly, he has an additional dimension. He is
not only long, but wide.



And if we are especially alert, we will contrive a third attribute which does not align with
the first two, possibly:


whereupon we have a character whose attributes, being mutually unaligned, contribute

to his volume:



The conceptual hinges that hold these notions together include such words as and, but,
yet, while, also, still, and though, as in:

While tall, Robert was also graceful; but sadly he was quite stupid

Of course these attributes need not (possibly should not) be introduced serially, or even
in immediate proximity to one another, and the conceptual hinges of while and but may
be more usefully implicit than explicit. Character, of course, is most convincingly
portrayed through action or demonstration, rather than plain exposition 1 . That is, rather
than some version of:

Robert was tall, stupid, and graceful

you may instead say:

He ducked through the doorway, his oblong head tipped at an easy angle, then
straightened with an animal fluidity, flattened his hair, and said, "God, I hate answering
all that spam."

See The Static/Active Spectrum.

Note further that attributes may be purely physical ruddy, screeching, onion-smelling,
limber or not secretive, joyous, spiteful and that indeed an accumulation of physical
attributes may often in fact give rise to a metaphysical sense of the character 2 , such that:

His red face and limber, oiled movements lent him a sinister, uncontainable aspect.


If a character's three dimensions exist in the physical world, and are readily observable to
the senses (or are at least deducible from physical evidence), the fourth dimension of a
character may be said to exist in time. Specifically it may be said to be related to aspects
of persistence. A spectrum of persistence may be imagined to look something like this:

never rarely seldom intermittently sometimes often usually always

wherein a character may be rarely sarcastic, sometimes disheveled, usually quiet. A wise
writer will approach either end of this spectrum with caution, as the environment there is
harsh, giving rise to such outlandish extremophiles as inhabit satire, allegory, and bad
genre fiction. Alice Munro's characters (and situations) are often described in terms of
their persistence, and it is useful to note that any writer whose characters (or situations)
remain largely within the safer confines of this spectrum will enjoy a double benefit,
because a character who is

often joking is by definition seldom (but not never!) serious

usually somber is rarely (but now and then!) silly

and so on. Thus a character is seen to acquire the equivalent of a 'ground situation' (how
he or she usually is) while containing simultaneously his or her own alternative, opposite
state. 3 This lends a dynamic, counterpointed aspect to a character, setting up a useful
contrast similar to that which arises between two mismatched characters (the Laurel and
Hardy Effect). In this way a character may be conceived as his or her own (occasional)


More important in this discussion of dimensional characterization is the notion of

relation, by which I mean, principally, the reflective consideration of the character of him
or herself, and, in an addition, his or her consideration of the world in which he or she
lives. 4 An unreflective character may be fully three-dimensional, possessing a wealth of
unaligned attributes, and may be seen to be subject to the laws of persistence, and may be

See The Metaphysical Description for more discussion of this.
Additional complexity may be gained from such extra-spectral notions as used to be and now. See The
Qualified Truth for a further discussion of Munro's techniques in this area.
See The Meaningful Horizon for discussion of a related phenomenon in terms of physical description.

mostly convincing as a character. But to be most fully alive a character must be able to
consider him or herself from the outside from the fifth dimension, as it were and to
come to an understanding (which may well be faulty) about him or herself. A fully
human character takes him- or herself as a suitable subject for contemplation and study,
such that Robert considers his own height, stupidity and grace. This is not to suggest
that Robert's consideration will lead to his becoming less stupid, or that Julie will grow
less impulsive, or that Olson's self-awareness will allow him to stop committing adultery.
The point is not that self-awareness simplifies a character but that it allows a character to
become aware of his or her own true nature, and yet to be somewhat, or entirely, at the
mercy of it: because people are like that.

Chekhov serves up a good example in the story of a shy soldier, Ryabovich, who watches
the other soldiers in his brigade dancing at the von Rebbeck house:

There were times when he envied the boldness and swagger of his companions
and was inwardly wretched; the knowledge that he was timid, round-
shouldered, and uninteresting, that he had a long waist and lynx-like whiskers
deeply mortified him, but with years he had grown used to this feeling, and now,
looking at his comrades dancing or loudly talking, he no longer envied them, but
only felt touched and mournful.
-- The Kiss

We can note here the use of some aligned attributes (timid, round-shouldered,
uninteresting) and some that seem to be unaligned but related (long-waisted, lynx-
bearded), and some business concerning the fading persistence of Ryabovich's envy and
wretchedness. But most of all we believe in, and are attracted to, poor Ryabovich
because he is a conscious, living creature. He used to envy his companions, and he
admits it. He knows he is timid and round-shouldered and so forth, but he has grown
accustomed to this. He can look at his fellow soldiers at play and, at least to his own
mind, feel now only sorrow of which he is also aware, but about which he can do
nothing. 5 For those of us who never left the walls at the Washington Middle School
Mixer, we not only feel sympathy for him, we feel a flash of something more vital:

Pushkin does this too, as here, when the well-married Tatyana, in a symphonic burst of
emotion, is presented with Eugene Onegin, the rake who, though attracted to her in her
youth, did not consent to become her lover. Onegin's pompous reasoning to her at the
time was that he would only use her up and set her aside, and that his affections for her
were so strong that he hated to do such a thing a bitter disappointment for the young
Tatyana. Years later, changing his mind, he pursues her, until she calmly dresses him

"Onegin, I was then much younger,

I daresay better-looking too,
And loved you with a girlish hunger;

5 See The Metaphysical Description for discussion of the various rates at which the facts of the physical world

are distilled into spiritual understanding.

But what did I then find in you?
What answer came? Just stern rejection.
A little maiden's meek affection
To you, I'm sure, was trite and old.
Oh God! my blood can still turn cold
When I recall how you reacted:
Your frigid glancethat sermonette!...
But I can't blame you or forget
How nobly in a sense you acted,
How right toward me that awful day:
I'm grateful now in every way. . . ."
-- Eugene Onegin, chapter 8, verse 43

Tatyana is vividly complicated here: in succession she 1) mourns past time and her lost
youth; 2) admits her previous devotion; 3) recounts Onegin's treatment of her; 4)
accurately views herself as he must have seen her, from without; 5) admits that she is still
affected by his treatment of her; 6) recounts some more of this treatment; 7) refrains from
blaming him; 8) acknowledges that he acted "nobly in a sense" and 9) proclaims herself as
grateful to him for what he did for her: she ended up rich, married to a general. The
crucial line is "How right toward me that awful day", in which Tatyana holds at least two
versions of herself in mind simultaneously: the one that sees Onegin as "right" and the
one that experienced his rejection as "awful". Aware of herself and of her own emotional
life, deeply affected by what has happened to her, but also in another sense outside of it,
Tatyana is alive. 6

Contrast this active complexity to the purposefully reductive approach of the Melville of "Bartleby the
Scrivener". Bartleby, vividly remembered as the scribe who, preferring not to, slowly recedes from all life and
activity, is dreamily one-dimensional. What is a man? seems to be the question Melville wishes to raise, and in
the service of this essential question he reduces Bartleby to the essentials: uneating, undrinking, unmoving,
unwilled. And predictable. But it is easy to overlook that he is hardly less predictable than his three fellow
scribes: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, not their real names but nicknames "deemed expressive of their
respective persons or characters". Turkey is a good worker in the mornings until, his face growing florid
(apparently with drink) and his manner taking on an "inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity", he
becomes increasingly useless. Nippers, in exact contrast, is useless in the morning and improves in the
afternoon, so that "their fits relieved each other, like guards." And Ginger Nut, at the age of twelve, retrieves
cakes and apples and naturally ginger nut cakes. They are not quite living people, these sidekicks; but the
narrator's desperate, and, we gather, uncharacteristic jaunt through Manhattanville goes a long distance toward
making him one.

Or: Who Goes There?

The directive "show-don't-tell" can be the source of considerable anxiety: can I tell at all?
How much showing is enough? How much is too much? 7 But contained within this old
chestnut is some good advice.

Notice where your attention tends to catch and where it tends to slide in this description
of Gabriel, from James Joyce's "The Dead":

He was a stout tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed
upwards even to his forehead where it scattered itself in a few formless patches
of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished
lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and
restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a
long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by
his hat.
When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his
waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly
from his pocket.

The mind's eye is most engaged when Gabriel is doing something "he pulled his
waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body". It is least engaged where he is simply
being something "He was a stout tallish young man."

We see what is done more easily than we see what simply is.

If we propose a simple static/active spectrum for characterization, it might look

something like this,

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
static active

with "stout tallish young man" rating something around a 1 and "pulled his waistcoat
down more tightly" rating more like a 7. In most cases, the more active a description is,
the more it tends to stick with us. Our primary judgments about people are visual,
nonverbal, impressionistic, and instantaneous 8 , and, like frogs, we tend to observe
movement more readily than we do stillness.

Now consider Hemingway's "Night Before Battle", a story of the Spanish Civil War,
Edwin Henry meets Al, an old friend and tank commander. Where might we put this on
our spectrum?

See The Metaphysical Description for a continued dicussion of the relationship between showing and telling.
See Complex Nonverbal Interactions.

His leather coat was dirty and greasy, his eyes were hollow and he needed a
shave. He had the big Colt automatic that had belonged to three other men that
I had known of, and that we were always trying to get shells for, strapped to his
leg. He was very tall and his face was smoke-darkened and grease-smudged.
He had a leather helmet with a heavy leather padded ridge longitudinally over
the top and a heavily padded leather rim.

While this is in many ways a static description Al is mostly seen as being rather than
doing it also contains implied past action. How did he get those grease stains? Where
did the smoke come from? 9 We can call this a "static-active" description and put this
somewhere in the middle say around a 4.5 and feel pretty good about it.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
static static-active active

The groove left in Gabriel's hair by his hat is a gesture in this direction.


Or: I Know What You Mean

So you're talking to Jack and you get the impression that he's bored, but that he's a nice
guy, so he'll keep talking to you. And then Kelly comes over and she's sort of flirting
with you, but not seriously; and meanwhile Jack is interested in Kelly, but feels uneasy
about it, because he's sort of got commitments elsewhere and while Kelly thinks Jack is
funny, she isn't attracted to him in that way. And you know all this immediately, or
almost immediately. But how?

A great deal of what we communicate to one another is transmitted through gesture,

posture, and facial expression rather than through conversation. 10 You know how
people are feeling, often, just by looking at them, and you can judge the effect of things
you say or do almost instantly by assessing the thousands of tiny adjustments your
conversation partner makes in front of you. We've evolved as animals to be
exceptionally sensitive to social cues of great subtlety, and when someone violates the
accepted rules of social interaction by standing too close to you, or by missing your
nonverbal cues the effect is freaky, and you're eager to get the hell out of there.

But how can you describe this crucial part of life without awkward, overlong
descriptions of eyebrows, shoulders, eyes rolling, sighing, and so on?

As it turns out, it's usually fine just to skip the physical description of this behavior almost
entirely and move directly to the meaning conveyed by the behavior, a meaning that's often
expressed via metaphor. The reader will mentally fill in the appropriate visual cues and
the effect can be richly sensual while containing, in fact, very little actual detail.

It's a neat trick.

Take, for example, this passage from John Updike's "Pigeon Feathers" (1962). David
Kern, a recurring Updike character, here appears as a young man he is 14 who, by
accident, reads a passage from H. G. Wells' The Outline of History. Wells is an atheist and
a convincing one. For the thoughtlessly religious David, the discovery of Wells'
confident blasphemy is shattering, and he begins to question his faith. Wanting
reassurance, he asks his Sunday school teacher, Dobson: what happens to his soul
between the time of his death and the Day of Judgment? And then this happens:

from "Six Ways to Improve Your Nonverbal Communications", by Vicki Ritts and James R. Stein:

"Posture and body orientation: You communicate numerous messages by the way you walk, talk,
stand and sit. Standing erect, but not rigid, and leaning slightly forward communicates to students
that you are approachable, receptive and friendly. Furthermore, interpersonal closeness results when
you and your students face each other. Speaking with your back turned or looking at the floor or ceiling
should be avoided; it communicates disinterest to your class." (emphasis mine)

The sense grew, in the class, of a naughtiness occurring. Dobson's shy eyes
watered, as if he were straining to keep up the formality of attention, and one of
the girls, the fattest, simpered toward her twin, who was a little less fat. Their
chairs were arranged in a rough circle. The current running around the circle
panicked David. Did everybody know something he didn't know?....Anita Haier
giggled. Dobson gazed at David intently, but with an awkward, puzzled flicker
of forgiveness, as if there existed a secret between them that David was violating.

Yes, it's everyone's favorite moment the one that comes right after you say something
so appallingly inappropriate that the reaction is palpable. The passage is remarkable for
its wince-inducing vividness but also, on a second glance, for the surprising dearth of any
real activity. Dobson's eyes water. One of the twins simpers toward her twin. Anita
Haier, the most active person here, giggles. And then Dobson returns, to gaze intently.

In other words, nothing's happening.

But in fact what's rendered here is an extraordinarily complex series of nonverbal

interactions, all occurring in a moment's time. This rendering consists of two distinct

1) a few tiny movements and gestures which serve to stand in for an

uncountable number of further, also tiny, but undescribed movements and
gestures including sudden glances, shifts of posture and expression, significant
inhalations and exhalations, undecipherable mutterings, nonverbal exclamations,
et cetera, and;

2) explicit, sometimes metaphorical renderings of the meanings contained in

these movements and gestures, including both those that are explicitly
mentioned and those that are not.

We know just what Updike wants us to see when he says, metaphorically, "The sense
grew, in the class, of a naughtiness occurring." We know what he means us to imagine
when he tells us there was a "current running around the circle" of chairs. We know
what a "puzzled flicker of forgiveness" looks like we could even possibly act it out, if we
had to but to describe it any more literally than Updike does would be to burden the
passage with a no doubt grotesque description of eyebrows, eyelids, cheek muscles,
mouth muscles, et cetera. But no need. We know what he means. And, later, when the
class finally ends, we know what Updike means when we learn that:

on the way out [David] was unable to face Dobson's stirred gaze, though he
felt it probing the side of his head.

Of course, you can't really "feel" a "stirred gaze" "probing" the side of your head. It's yet
another metaphor. But is it, really? Weirdly it feels like something more than a metaphor
it has the tactile immediacy of a physical description.

Another example. In "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" (1964), James Baldwin's
narrator describes an ocean voyage back to the United States from Paris. Upon entering

American waters, the other passengers feel an almost universal excitement, but the
narrator is leery of what awaits him in racist 1950s America. He eats alone in the dining

I walked to my table and sat down. I munched toast as dry as paper and drank a
pot of coffee. Then I tipped my waiter, who bowed and smiled and called me
"sir" and said that he hoped to see me on the boat again. "I hope so too," I said.
And was it true, or was it my imagination, that a flash of wondering
comprehension, a flicker of wry sympathy, then appeared in the waiter's eyes?

There's that "flicker" again, and with it a metaphorical "flash" but is it a metaphor,
exactly? Technically, yes. But it wants to be read something like literally as though
there really is some kind of flash, some kind of flicker. 11

We'll see the same pattern occurring in other writers as well. Not everyone will share
this fondness for quasi-metaphor, but notice, in the following examples from Alice
Adams, the ways in which subtle person-to-person interactions are interpreted rather than
fully rendered:

Once, I told Emily what I had been wanted to say since my first sight of her.
I said, "Your hair is so beautiful. Why don't you let it grow?"
She laughed, because she usually laughed at what I said, but at the same
time she looked surprised, almost startled. I understood that what I had said
was not improper but that she was totally unused to attentions of that sort
from anyone, including herself. She didn't think about her hair. In a puzzled
way, she said, "Perhaps I will."
"Roses, Rhododendron"

Emily's face reddens dangerously, the corners of her mouth twitch downward
and Lawrence, in an exquisitely icy voice, begins to lecture me on the virtues of
Trollope. I am supposed to help him pretend that nothing has happened, but I
can hardly hear what he is saying. I am in shock.
"Roses, Rhododendron"

Perry almost broke his back, "but just a fractured coccyx, as things turned out,"
falling off a horse, in New Mexico (this story does not go over very well,
somehow; a lack of response can be felt around the room). Phyllis broke her
arm skiing in Idaho.

It's worth mentioning that for the narrator of this brilliant story a social hyper-acuity is nothing less than a
survival technique; a great deal of vital information is passed back and forth in this clandestine way, between
friends and enemies alike.

"And I was really broke at the time broke, I was poor as hell, being a typist to
support my poetry habit. You remember. But I absolutely insisted on bringing
all the food for that stolen, illicit weekend, can you imagine? What on earth was
I trying to prove? Casseroles of crabmeat, endive for salads. Honestly, how
crazy I was!"
Sandy laughed agreeably, and remarked a little plaintively that for him she
had only brought breakfast food. But he was not especially interested in that
old, nutty view of her, Molly saw and resolved that that would be her last
"past" story.
"Molly's Dog"

These examples suggest that this topic touches, at least tangentially, on questions of
point-of-view, as there are times when this received "knowledge" seems to arrive from
somewhere outside the brain of the point-of-view character. In fact what's happening is
more subtle. The p-o-v character is actually deriving, from subtle, mostly unmentioned
clues, information that otherwise he or she would have no way of accessing. One more
example, from Indecision (2005), by Benjamin Kunkel, in which the affable, loping Dwight
inhabits the minds of a roomful of people:

This was the headquarters of an enormous multinational media empire. Yet it

more closely resembled some ideal and futuristic all-girls high-school cafeteria. I
was wearing my trademark cords and frayed Brooks Bros. shirt as I sauntered
out of the food course with my loaded tray, and already sensing that to dress
not so well might seem in these environs like the trait of an authentic-ish
heterosexual man..I felt pleasantly like the object of some romantico-sexual
attention as I sat down and Alex introduced me to someone and somebody, and
somebody else, and then Vaneetha.

And what does this technique produce? A character who is vividly aware of him- or
herself, and of the surrounding world in other words, an active, living figure.

Or, The Frankenstein Effect, and, How Many Potatoes Make How Much Vodka?

While it is is hard enough to describe something effectively in fiction 12 -- how a

thing smells, moves, looks sometimes it is useful to further describe how exactly a thing
seems or appears to be, above and beyond any discernible physical characteristics. The
ineffable sense of how things are often makes up the best and most memorable aspect of a
piece of writing, but it can be among the hardest things to get right. It is useful for
writers to remember that often this aspect of seeming and appearing will be conveyed
through metaphor; and often the seeming and appearing will touch in some way on the
meaning of what is being observed or will include a mention of a character's feelings
about, or engagement with, the thing observed.
Note that the description of the ineffable sense of a thing will almost always be
preceded by a more basic, sometimes quite extended, physical description. The writer in
this case takes on the role of Dr. Frankenstein. With Igor's help, the writer assembles
legs, arms, torso, neck, head, and brain. The writer arranges all this stuff on the table,
sews it together. But it is still dead (if vivid) matter. Then the writer applies the
electricity describes the mysterious, often quasi-metaphorical sense of a thing and the
thing opens its eyes and comes to life.
For example, in Alice Munro's 1979 story "The Beggar Maid", we find Rose, a
scholarship student, just entering college. She is compelled to attend a meeting with
other scholarship students, and, arriving with an unprepossessing companion at the
room where the meeting is held, Rose hesitates outside the door.

There was a little window in the door. They could look through at the other
scholarship winners already assembled and waiting. It seemed to Rose that she
saw four or five girls of the same stooped and matronly type as the girl who was
beside her, and several bright-eyed, self-satisfied babyish-looking boys. It
seemed to be the rule that girl scholarship winners looked about forty and boys
about twelve. It was not possible, of course, that they all looked like this. It was
not possible that in one glance through the windows of the door Rose could
detect traces of eczema, stained underarms, dandruff, moldy deposits on the
teeth and crusty flakes in the corners of the eyes. That was only what she
thought. But there was a pall over them, she was not mistaken, there was a
true terrible pall of eagerness and docility.

Notice how Rose's observation of this long exact list of gross-out sufferings "eczema,
stained underarms, dandruff, moldy deposits on the teeth and crusty flakes in the
corners of the eyes" is implicitly diwowned twice (we are told that this is only how "it
seemed") and very explicitly disowned three times: "It was not possible, of course.It
was not possible.That was only what she thought." (And notice further that Rose's
disowning of the list in no way erases the impression the list has made on us.)
But no, Munro is onto something with these disavowals because it's true, these
physical complaints are not what Rose has seen, not exactly. What she has seen is
something else, something further, an impression of something, that she cannot really

Person, place, object, situation, idea they're all hard.

point to. She has seen "a pall" literally, "something that covers, shrouds, or
overspreads, esp. with darkness or gloom". But where is the pall? Where is it in the
room? Is it hovering "over them", up near the light fixtures? 13 We understand from
Munro's unusual insistence that we are not meant to take this as just a metaphor "But
there was a pall over them, she was not mistaken, there was a true terrible pall of
eagerness and docility". But what is this, really? What is being described here? Nothing
less than the sense of how things are, a sudden, almost mystical understanding of the truth
about these people. And with this description, zap, the world of the room takes on
meaning, and life. The Frankenstein Effect, at its finest.
Munro is a past master at this (and a million other things). In her story "Dance of
the Happy Shades" (1961), a group of retarded children arrive at a much anticipated
piano recital. The narrator senses something going on:

It is while I am at the piano, playing the minuet from Berenice, that the
final arrival, unlooked-for by anybody but Miss Marsalles, takes place. It must
seem at first that there has been some mistake. Out of the corner of my eye I see
a whole procession of children, eight or ten in all, with a red-haired woman in
something like a uniform, mounting the front step. They look like a group of
children from a private school on an excursion of some kind (there is that
drabness and sameness about their clothes) but their progress is too scrambling
and disorderly for that. Or this is the impression I have; I cannot really look.
Is it the wrong house, are they really on their way to the doctor for shots, or to
Vacation Bible Classes? No, Miss Marsalles has got up with a happy whisper of
apology; she has gone to meet them. Behind my back there is a sound of people
squeezing together, of folding chairs being opened, there is an inappropriate,
curiously unplaceable giggle.
And above or behind all this cautious flurry of arrival there is a
peculiarly concentrated silence. Something has happened, something
unforeseen, perhaps something disastrous; you can feel such things behind
your back.

You can't, of course not really but then again, yes you can. The many tiny details have
added up to something impalpable and profound, something that goes beyond
description something that has, almost literally, entered the air of the room.
Almost literally is the point here. On the verge of literalness.
Note that not every description calls for a metaphysical component. Usually this
sort of technique is most useful when a character is observing a complicated scenario --
an airport concourse, a crammed bookshelf, a busy restaurant where a number of
objects or people are involved, and where it is useful to convey both a sense of
particularity and an overall impression of things. But always when you see a writer
deploying the terms:

an air of
an atmosphere of
a sense of
an impression of

I see pall people.

and other similar shortcuts, you ought to feel the hair rising on the back of your neck,
because Dr. Frankenstein is warming up his generator. And things are about to get

The P:V Ratio

If a metaphysical understanding is to be in some fashion arrived at through the medium

of the world, then we may note that different authors derive this metaphysical
understanding differently. Some writers prefer to assemble more world on the table
before applying the electricity that represents a greater understanding.
We may therefore find it suitable to change our underlying metaphor, leaving
behind all these dripping body parts our assistant has so obligingly harvested, and
propose instead a more congenial potatoes-to-vodka ratio, where some writers prefer to
assemble more potatoes (or "world") and others fewer, to arrive at a given amount of
distilled spirit (or "understanding").
In this new potatoes-to-vodka model, the potatoes, of course, are the physical
matter of a story shoes, ceilings, arguments, sentences, eyebrows, wind, cat hair, Coca-
Cola, and jumpropes 14 , while vodka is the metaphysical understanding derived from
these physical things. We may call this a writer's p:v ratio, representing the efficiency
with which a writer typically makes use of the world.
In the following selections, potatoes are in bold and spirit is in italics.
Alice Munro will as always provide a useful, and in this case usefully typical,
example. In "Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage", a middle-aged,
unattractive woman shops for a fancy dress, thinking (at this point falsely) that she is
going to be married in it. She enters the shop:

Along one wall was a rack of evening dresses, all fit for belles of the ball with
their net and taffeta, their dreamy colors. And beyond them, in a glass case so

14 Nouns are especially weighty. Descriptions are usually made of nouns and adjectives. But actions and lines

of dialog mus also be recognized as potato-esque in their effects, too, and a very good description will usually
contain some element of action. Notice where your attention tends to catch and where it tends to slide in this
description of Gabriel, from "The Dead":

He was a stout tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his
forehead where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face
there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened
his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long
curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat.
When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his waistcoat down more
tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket.

Observe Joyce's well-intentioned attempts to 'actionize' the description: "pushed upwards", "scattered itself",
"scintillated restlessly", "screened". But these are tricks, and not very successful. The mind's eye is most
engaged when Gabriel is actually doing something "he pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump
body". And it is least engaged where he is simply being something "He was a stout tallish young man." We
see what is done more easily than we see what simply is. In this our eye is amphibian, registering change,
becoming blind to stasis.

no profane fingers could get at them, half a dozen wedding gowns, pure white
froth or vanilla satin or ivory lace, embroidered in silver beads or seed pearls.
Tiny bodies, scalloped necklines, lavish skirts. Even when she was younger she
could never have contemplated such extravagance, not just in the matter of money but in
expectations, in the preposterous hope of transformation, and bliss.

Here the metaphysical understanding has plainly been reached by means of the physical
observation. The potatoes of the shop provide a sort of ballast to the abstracted thought,
but also provide the means by which to arrive at it. A reasonable amount of world (the
rack, the net and taffeta, et cetera) produces in a character a reasonable amount of mind-
Munro is unique in her ability but not in her technique; most writers' habits in
this regard at least superficially resemble Munro's, deploying a moderate amount of stuff
to arrive at a moderate amount of spirit. And perhaps it is this moderation that allows us
to qualify a writer as "realistic" most of us seem to experience the world at something
like this measured pace, after all, as we move through our days both beset by sensory
input and at the same time subject to the addled and improvisatory workings of our own
brains. 15 In a similar vein, John Updike observes before he transcends, in "The Afterlife":

A broad-faced strawberry blonde, she had always worn sweaters and plaid
pleated skirts and low-heeled shoes for her birding walks, and here this same
outfit seemed a shade more chic and less aggressively "sensible" than it had at home.
Her pleasant plain looks, rather lost in the old crowd of heavily groomed
suburban wives, had bloomed in this climate; her manner, as she showed them
the house and their room upstairs, seemed to Carter somehow blushing, bridal. 16

If this balance between world and mind allows us to locate Munro and Updike in
the solid realistic mainstream of contemporary fiction, what of some others? What
happens if you prefer fewer potatoes? What if you prefer more? What if you're not
interested in describing spirit at all? Or what if you're more interested in meaning than
in matter, like some spats-wearing evangelist, waving your hands in the air in hopes of
producing something from nothing? Clearly this requires an inadequate, seat-of-the-
pants survey.

This is, it may be argued, the fundamental work of narrative art: the description of the metronomic
interaction between the private mind and the constantly impinging world.
Updike's reliance on seemed here and throughout his mighty oeuvre suggests his general preoccupation with
the truth that lurks behind appearances, with making sure that everything be understood; and if it is this
impulse that gives rise to his occasional overweening anxiety that we get the point of something, it strikes me as
a fitting impulse. Very tall, he was terribly gawky as a child, with a gigantic nose, debilitating eczema, a
comical stutter, and to top it all off a world-class mind. No one looking at him could have guessed what he
really was. No wonder that the Rabbit books feature a man who, on the surface, is mostly unremarkable a
former high school basketball star, a printing press operator, a car salesman, a middling husband and father --
and yet who has perhaps the most florid, nuanced internal life of any character ever composed. Related to this,
surely, is Updike's chronic affection for adverbs those gravitational devices that control the flight of a verb
even after it has been set loose. What other author would give us a character who "steered sullenly"? A life that
is "magestically rooted"? Why else would he describe a hoard of treasure as "surreptitiously hidden"? Because
of a mostly generous desire to make sure we get what he's saying. That we get him, really, the kid with the big
nose and the hideous skin, who also happens to be, as he might say, transcendently alight.

Tweaking the P:V Ratio

Some writers, of course, prefer to avoid the explicit statement of spirit entirely.
Hemingway and his ilk have a very high ratio of potatoes-to-vodka, with Hemingway's
followers arranged around him in a haphazard spatter array. To take a familiar example,
Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance" lives almost entirely in the present, physical
moment; a man, now without his wife (we gather she has left because of his drinking,
among other reasons), puts his household belongings out in his yard and driveway,
arranging them for sale just as they have been arranged in the house. A young couple
comes along; the girl dances with the man, and is evidently affected by his plight. The
story is told in simple, factual terms, with little or not reference to thoughts, feelings, or
epiphanic realizations. The story's final section, in its entirety, goes:

Weeks later, she said: "The guy was about middle-aged. All his things
right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the
driveway. Oh, my God. Don't laugh. He played us these records. Look at this
record-player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will
you look at this shit?"
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was
trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

Potatoes? Vodka? It is debatable. The girl is feeling something, of course, as the story
suggests, but she can't express it, possibly because she hasn't got the equipment to do so.
And because she can't express it, we don't get an explicit statement of it either. It's
possible to read the whole story as a pile of potatoes, with that last 26-word paragraph
serving as the equivalent of the story's spirit. The story's last paragraph is in fact the
mental result, finally, of a worldly encounter. At any rate, the ratio of potatoes to vodka
here is very high, if indeed there is any vodka to divide by.
By contrast, a writer may be particularly interested in spirit literally so in the
case of, for example, James Baldwin, whose stories and novels tend to avoid physical
description while dwelling more on abstract concerns. In his story "The Outing", three
boys are on the make in various ways during a church retreat. Then they enter the
meeting room:
During his testimony Johnny and Roy and David had stood quietly beside the
door, not daring to enter while he spoke. The moment he sat down they moved
quickly, together, to the front of the high hall and knelt down beside their
seats to pray. The aspect of each of them underwent always, in this company, a
striking, even an exciting change; as though their youth, barely begun, were already put
away; and the animal, so vividly restless and undiscovered, so tense with power, ready to
spring had already stalked and trapped and offered, a perpetual blood-sacrifice, on the
alter of the Lord.

We sense here that, as is often the case for Baldwin, conflict is played out in an almost
literal sense on the field of the personality, where such matters as identity and the fate of

one's soul are best and most frankly considered. The rendering of the Baldwin's physical
world is often minimal, as though such surface concerns are too trivial to consider. 17
With these opposing practices in mind, we must now consider a minor and
possibly self-evident corollary aspect of this idea, that of scale.


The scale under consideration here is the differing P:V ratio we find in stories versus
novels. We know that novels tend to be richer in their effects than stories; specifically,
we find that novelists tend to describe much more matter than a story writer will, but will
derive from this matter roughly the same amount of spirit (or sometimes slightly more). 18
In other words, novelists pile up more potatoes as a matter of course, but don't derive
giant gushing fountains of vodka. Longer descriptions leading to bigger heaps of stuff,
but not a concomitant increase in the amount of understanding derived. You can only
understand so much at once, after all.
In Couples, John Updike describes Harold little-Smith's house; Harold has just
learned that his wife may be having an affair. This has the effect of rendering his house
"more transparent", and the description that follows is limpid to the extreme, if
sometimes verging on the purple. The house is:

a flat-roofed redwood modern oriented along a little sheltered ridge

overlooking the marsh to the south. The foyer was floored in flagstones; on
the right an open stairway went down to a basement level where the three
children (Jonathan, Julia, Henrietta) slept and the laundry was done and the
cars were parked. Above this, on the main level, were the kitchen, the dining
room, the master bedroom, a polished hall where hung reproductions of
etchings by Rembrandt, Durer, Piranesi, and Picasso. To the left of the foyer a
dramatically long living room opened up, with a shaggy cerulean rug and two
facing white sofas and symmetrical hi-fi speakers and a Baldwin grand and at
the far end an elevated fireplace with a great copper hood. The house bespoke
money in the service of taste. In the summer evenings he would drive back
from the station through the livelong light hovering above the tawny marshes,
flooded or dry according to the tides, and find his little wife, her black hair
freshly combed and parted, waiting on the longer of the sofas, which was not
precisely white but rather a rough Iranian wool bleached to the pallor of sand
mixed with ash. A record, Glenn Gould or Dinu Lupatti playing Bach or
Schumann, would be sending forth clear vines of sound from the invisible
root within the hi-fi closet. A pitcher of martinis would have been mixed and
held chilled within the refrigerator toward this precious moment of his daily

17 This is complicated by the fact that Baldwin's characters also often struggle against their own bodies in

various ways.
This is true even when the novelist and the short story writer are one and the same person; Doctorow the
novelist has a much higher P:V ratio than Doctorow the short-story writer.

The description in the original goes on at about this length again, and includes such
additional stuff as a chewed sponge ball, Jonathan in bathing trunks, the liquid
branches of the lawn sprinkler, and so on. The overwhelming feeling is of an
assembling stillness and a slant-lit suburban glamour a hushed, beautiful hesitation
until at last:
Marcia would pour two verdant martinis into glasses that would suddenly
sweatand his entire household, even the stray milk butterfly perched on the
copper fireplace hood, felt about to spring into bliss, like a tightly wound music

Here possibly we may see that a writer's natural habits align better with one form than
with another; in his best work Updike the novelist seems to be much more confident that
his gist will come across than does Updike the short-story writer. There is far less
relatively speaking summarizing and explaining, as though Updike feels confident that
surely, given all the matter he has presented to us, we will be able to see what he means.
Turn the ratio down somewhat to discover Ian MacEwan at work in Atonement,
gathering his many finely described potatoes in order to derive, on behalf of Briony, a
rather considerable draft of spirit:
in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by pushing
against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail joint, and here she kept a diary
locked by a clasp, and a notebook written in a code of her own invention. In a
toy safe opened by six secret numbers she stored letters and postcards. An old
tin petty cash box was hidden under a removable floorboard beneath her bed.
In the box were treasures that dated back four years, to her ninth birthday when
she began collecting: a mutant double acorn, fool's gold, a rainmaking spell
bought at a funfair, a squirrel's skull as light as a leaf.
But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could
not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. Her wish for a
harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing.
Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to
be cruel. Her effective status as an only child, as well as the relative isolation of the Tallis
house, kept her, at least during the long summer holidays, from girlish intrigues with
friends. Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no
one knew about the squirrel's skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know.
None of this was particularly an affliction; or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect,
once a solution had been found.

And observe Henry James, masterfully interweaving matter with spirit through the mind
of the young and impressionable Isabel Archer, suggesting that to the greatest and most
knowing practitioners, mind and matter are really inseparable aspects of a fundamental
unity. Notice how difficult it sometimes is, in the following example, to decide which
side of things a sentence or a phrase is addressing, and how, for James, matters of custom
and perception can be seen to blend:

The foundation of her knowledge was really laid in the idleness of her
grandmother's house, where, as most of the other inmates were not reading
people, she had uncontrolled use of a library full of books with frontispieces,
which she used to climb upon a chair to take down. When she had found one

to her taste she was guided in the selection chiefly by the frontispiece she carried
it into a mysterious apartment which lay beyond the library and which was
called, traditionally, no one knew why, the office. Whose office it had been and at
what period it had flourished, she never learned; it was enough for her that it
contained an echo and a pleasant musty smell and that it was a chamber of disgrace
for old pieces of furniture whose infirmities were not always apparent (so that the
disgrace seemed unmerited and rendered them victims of injustice) and with which, in
the manner of children, she had established relations almost human, certainly dramatic.
There was an old haircloth sofa in especial, to which she had confided a
hundred childish sorrows. The place owed much of its mysterious melancholy to the
fact that it was properly entered from the second door of the house, the door that
had been condemned, and that it was secured by bolts which a particularly
slender girl found it impossible to slide. She knew that this silent, motionless
portal opened into the street; if the sidelights had not been filled with green
paper she might have looked out upon the little brown stoop and the well-
worn brick pavement. But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered
with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side a place
which became to the child's imagination, according to its different moods, a region of
delight or terror.

As a further and final aside, and related to the example of James, it is worth noting that
as the efficiency of narrative distillation increases, and as the ratio of world-to-mind
approaches the perfect balance of 1:1, peculiar things can begin to happen. John
Cheever's novels and stories live fruitfully at this stylistic event-horizon, the authorial
eye shuttling so swiftly between world and mind that the boundary between the two
begins to fade away. In "The Ocean", one of Cheever's prototypically imperiled
householders fears he is being poisoned by his wife:

I mixed a Martini and went into the living room. I was not in any danger from
which I could not readily escape. I could go to the country club for supper. Why I
hesitated to do this seems, in retrospect, to have been because of the blue walls of the
room in which I stood. It was a handsome room, its long windows looking out
onto a lawn, some trees, and the sky. The orderliness of the room seemed to impose
some orderliness on my own conduct as if by absenting myself from the table I would in
some way offend the order of things. If Iwent to the club for supper I would be
yielding ot my suspicions and damaging my hopefulness, and I was determined to remain

Cheever's rough 1:1 p:v ratio seems to go some way toward producing his trademark
sound a sort of tremulous, searching flight, as a claustrophobic eye shuttles ceaselessly
between world and mind in search of an elusive certainty. The feeling becomes one of
weird immersion and a kind of synesthesia; the character experiences the world, has an
immediate mental reaction, and is then at once experiencing the world again. Fitting
perhaps that we find the fraught and frenzied Cheever here, seeing and feeling, seeing
and feeling, helpless to prevent his marvelously fruitful mind from making something of
everything. 19

19 That Cheever was subject to the workings of his peculiar brain seems obvious; it has always struck me that

the hysterical, sensory-enhanced well-being expressed in so much of Cheever's work resembles the feeling that

The Visual Aid

Finally, with all these dubious propositions behind us, we can suggest that every writer
might be plotted on a p:v graph, giving rise to the highly dubious Figure 1:

5 |

1 2 5 10 100

Figure 1. A highly dubious chart.

Surely we have gone too far with this, and certainly it is entirely wrong to put novelists
and short-story writers together, rather as though we have tried somehow to pen up
tigers with barracuda, but it is interesting to note the opposing and intersecting
groupings, one of which we may very generally see is composed of Worriers --writers less
at home in the world, and who have taken the self, or some version of the self, as the
subject while the other is composed of Composed Describers, writers who have taken

accompanies an epileptic's 'aura', wherein the universe seems infused with mysterious meaning. Late in his
life, with his brain ruined by booze, Cheever in fact had two epileptic seizures; it is my unsupportable crackpot
belief that he had been experiencing mild seizures all his life, and that his habitual drinking may have been, in
some small part, a means by which he attempted to reproduce the lovely feelings that unpredictably descended
upon him, and which must have seemed, undiagnosed as they would have been, messages from a greater,
senselessly benign power. Poor, mean, helpless, brilliant Cheever.

the world as their subject and, generally speaking, written about society. That this is a
byproduct of the individual personalities in question seems plain. We should also note
that the very greatest tend to find themselves at rather the far points on the graph,
outliers here as elsewhere, and that certain stylistically versatile folks can be imagined to
be plotted in more than one place (Welty's various moods, Updike's, Faulker's come to
mind), rather as though they have both a city house and a country one.
But what are we to do with this, then, as writers of prose? Probably we ought to
note the relative scarcity of successful examples on the lefthand side of the chart, whose
few denizens have managed, like those extremophile bacteria who manage to flourish on
ocean-bottom vents or in sulfuric acid pools in the depths of limestone caves, to survive
in difficult environments, deriving great hogsheads of spirit from mere armfuls of
potatoes. We ought to observe the cluster of sturdy realists trading remarks around the
10:2 mark, with the anomalous Coetzee somehow standing there too, all cool and gray
and saying absolutely nothing whatsoever to anybody, and we may further admiringly
note the high, plush posts of the great novelists, who manage to furnish their work with
not only a great amplitude of matter but also of insight. We will leave it to the poets and
especially to those lucky vessels who feel themselves recipients of divine inspiration to
aspire to the ratio of 100:100, wherein the great unimaginable gigantitude of the world is,
leaf-by-leaf, quantum-by-quantum, infused with the fullness of a supernaturally
omnipresent understanding. We here are only prose writers, and we have deadlines to
meet, so something like "just enough, not too much" will have to do. A little vodka is
good for you, let us be satisfied to say, and too much ain't.

On Munrovian Texture

Alice Munro's remarkable observational powers often feel uncanny: we wonder exactly
how the hell she knows so much about so much, and in particular we're struck by what
she knows about how we think, feel, hide our secret shames, succumb to our private
vulnerabilities, et goddamn cetera. How does she know all this?

Much of Munro's brilliance derives from a superior native insight into the ways human
beings tend to operate. Coupled with her notable fearlessness, not to say scalding
pitilessness, this makes for writing that can burn with intensely true, unsentimental
power. Joined with these basically inimitable talents is a tendency to resist certainty and
to qualify statements of fact. These qualifications tend to fall into two categories
temporal (when or how often things happen) and relational (such that two contradictory
or unrelated conditions occur simultaneously). These qualifications are texturizing
adding depth and complexity to the narrative field, increasing friction, interest, and
realism. Life is complicated, and Munro is a master at creating, and considering,

In fact, the more we read more of Munro, the more we may start to think that her secret
to "knowing all this" is really to know nothing at all at least not for certain.

Munro's temporal qualifiers include:

always usually
often frequently
sometimes rarely
hardly ever never

and her relational qualifiers include:

and or
but also
however on the other hand
at the same time perhaps
maybe probably
possibly unless
hardly when

all of which serve Munro as she investigates the complexities of certain situations.
Rarely, to use a Munrovian turn of phrase, is the truth simple.

In "The Beggar Maid", Rose is describing her interactions with her husband Patrick's rich,
forbidding mother; Rose has committed a faux pas. At this,

Something like fog went out from her [the mother]: affront, disapproval, dismay.
Rose thought that perhaps she had been offended by the suggestion that her

husband's family might have worked with her hands. 20 When she got to know
her better or had observed her longer; it was impossible to get to know her
she understood that Patrick's mother disliked anything fanciful, speculative,
abstract, in conversation. She would also, of course, dislike Rose's chatty tone.

Notice how the narrator's understanding of the mother is modulated over time ("When
she got to know her better") and how the narrator's reading of the interaction in the
moment is basically uncertain: "Something like fog", "perhaps she had been offended".
And, further, note how Munro actively widens the field of consideration (offsetting a
qualification within dashes, and including an observation about Rose's tone) and
thereby increases the texture of the situation at hand. Note that these texturizing details
follow the qualifiers perhaps, when, or, and also.

These texturizing moments often happen in conjunction with a kind of mental mining 21 ,
wherein a character, usually the point of view character, is seen uncovering one
possibility after another, getting down, it feels, to a few bedrock facts. Often enough these
are facts the narrator doesn't want to face or will face only in the privacy of (usually her)
own mind. 22 Years later, after the marriage between Patrick and Rose has disintegrated,
Rose considers why and how the disintegration happened. The section in which this
consideration occurs is seven paragraphs long. The first two long paragraphs recount the
history of Rose's thinking about her marriage: she "afterward reviewed", she "went
through a period"; "Nonsense, she might say later".

Then, the point, in the last paragraph:

What she never said to anybody, never confided, was that she sometimes
thought that it 23 had not been pity or greed or cowardice or vanity but

This is, we gather, also a Complex Nonverbal Interaction see that subject for discussion of these moments.

21 Munro is an expert at this kind of mining, digging through layer after layer of matter to arrive, often, at a

shining vein of diamond-hard truth. "He lay beside me stiff and wary, waiting, I suppose, for me to get out of
bed, go down to the basement, and figure out how to turn the pump on. Then what would he have done? He
could not have hit me, I was too pregnant. He never did hit me, unless I hit him first. He could have turned it
off again, and I could have turned it on, and so on.He would probably have just raged and sulked,
alternately, and I could have taken a blanket and gone to sleep on the living-room couch for the rest of the
night. I think that is what a woman of firm character would have done. I think that is what a woman who
wanted that marriage to last would have done. But I did not do it. Instead, I said to myself that I did not know
how the pump worked, I did not know where to turn it on. I said to myself that I was afraid of Hugo. I
entertained the possibility that Hugo might be right, nothing would happen. But I wanted something to
happen, I wanted Hugo to crash." from "Material".

22 Note, further, that characters, too, are often observed in this progressing, uncovering fashion, as one fact after

another emerges. In the creepy, lewd story "Lichen", Catherine has taken some pills, and "Stella wonders where
this new voice of Catherine's comes from, this pert and rather foolish and flirtatious voice. Drink wouldn't do
it. Whatever Catherine has taken has made her sharper, not blunter. Several layers of wispy apology, tentative
flattery, fearfulness, or hopefulness have simply blown away in this brisk chemical breeze." Later, after David
has spent some considerable time thinking of his wild, sexy mistress, we get this: "He knows that Dina is not
really so wild, or so avid, or doomed, as he pretends she is, or as she sometimes pretends she is. In ten years'
time, she won't be wrecked by her crazy life, she won't be a glamorous whore. She'll be a woman tagged by
little children in the laundromat." Everyone is composed of layers, and some people have a core of truth, too.

23 The motivation behind her decision to marry Patrick, in essense.

something quite different, like a vision of happiness. In view of everything else she
had told she could hardly tell that. It seems very odd; she can't justify it. She doesn't
mean that they had perfectly ordinary, bearable times in their marriage, long
busy stretches of wallpapering and vacationing and meals and shopping and
worrying about a child's illness, but that sometimes, without reason or warning,
happiness, the possibility of happiness, would surprise them. Then it was as if
they were in different though identical-seeming skins, as if there existed a
radiantly kind and innocent Rose and Patrick, hardly ever visible, in the shadow
of their usual selves. Perhaps it was that Patrick she saw when she was free of
him, invisible to him, looking into his carrel. Perhaps it was. She should have
left him there.

The stream of qualifiers small (or, but, and) and large (she doesn't mean, then it was as if)
drastically expands the field of possibilities. Even as Rose backs away from certainty,
what seems to emerge here is something like "knowledge" or, anyway, an attempt at a
broad, nuanced understanding. The story is a thinking-engine, so this is what it does: it

And if Munro's stories are indeed thinking-engines, they rely on this kind of unknowing
to operate. You can't really think about certainty, after all. Which means that secrets, lies,
artful concealments, and a considered but uncertain excavation of the past are Munro's
constant subjects. 24

This principle operates not only on the sentence and paragraph level but, of course, on
the larger levels of story and structure as well. In the triumphant "Family Furnishings"
an older cousin, Alfrida, finds herself falling into disfavor with the narrator (a young and
then college-aged girl) and the girl's mother and father. Looking back, the narrator tries
to puzzle out exactly why Alfrida was effectively shunned:

But there was a gap about to open.It may have been that Alfrida asked if she
could bring her [boy]friend[to a family dinner] and had been told that she could
not.But she may not have asked at all, she may have known enough not
to.She may have become a different person then, as she certainly was later on.
Or she may have been wary of the special atmosphere of a household where
there is a sick person who will go on getting sicker and never get better. Which
was the case with my mother.

The point is, the narrator doesn't know, but in not knowing, picks up and considers a
number of different possibilities, each of which may contain a partial truth. In this
particular story among Munro's very finest certainty and uncertainty become
overriding thematic elements. And when the narrator finally figures out the truth about
Alfrida, and the narrator's profound and heartbreaking ignorance is shattered, we arrive
at the shattering last line:

As, famously, in "Meneseteung" -- "And they may get it wrong, after all. I may have got it wrong. I don't
know if she ever took laudanum. Many ladies did. I don't know if she ever made grape jelly." Afine ending;
but it's worth noting that Munro actually added this entire paragraph, which constitutes the story's concluding
note, to the collected version of this story. In the magazine version the qualifier was absent. Evidently the story
as first published was insufficiently uncertain.

This was what I wanted, this was what I thought I had to pay attention to, this
was how I wanted my life to be.

If we've been reading the story carefully, we understand that we're supposed to put the
emphasis here on "thought" this was what I thought, in other words, but I was wrong. This
is the terrible poignancy of the story, that so much has been missed and so much
unknowing hurt has been done.

Note that very unfortunately for us the real content of this material is basically impossible
to replicate, relying as it does on Munro's Olympian understanding of human nature.
Technique is no substitute for genuine insight, and only Munro can really think like this.
On the other hand, we can adopt Munro's prompts both temporal and relational in
order to move our own thinking into areas we might not have otherwise reached.
Indeed, we might be tempted, were we a certain sort of person, to construct a sort of
Munrovian Complexity Generator, such that if we want to consider a character's, say,
"satisfaction", we plug it in like so:


always usually often frequently sometimes rarely hardly ever never

She was satisfied, and usually went about her business in a benign, unconsidered neutrality, but
sometimes she was visited with a distressing suspicion that she was wrong about everything, or, if
not wrong, then that she was usually blind to certain realities. John did not think so, or did not
admit it to her, but perhaps this was his own kind of blindness, and rarely, perhaps when they had
both been drinking, she sensed

Oh dear. This is about the point that we realize we aren't Munro. Yes, these techniques
can get us a certain distance into the mysterious cave of the human personality, but after
a certain point we're on our own. We can no longer handle this particular chariot! We
are falling from the seat! And look! -- the silver chassis of Munro's gleaming insight is
now rocketing away from us, sending off its unending shower of brilliant sparks! Oh
dear, dear me; it looks like we'll have to walk from here.

On Point of View, Ptolemaic Characters, and Useful Unknowing

The Greek astronomer Ptolemy did what he could. Saddled with a mistaken assumption
that the earth was at the center of the Solar System he was hard-pressed to make
sense of what he saw the planets actually doing.

But poor Ptolemy! According to contemporary understanding, each planet was moved
around the earth by two spheres. One of these spheres (called the deferent) was centered
on the earth. The other (called the epicycle) was actually embedded in the deferent.
While the deferent rotated around the earth, the epicycle rotated within the deferent. For
various complicated reasons not worth going into, Ptolemy found it helped to also
propose the existence of something called the equant, further complicating the already
delicate arrangement of interlinked perfect circles:

(Circle A is the epicycle, point B is the equant, and circle C is the deferent. The disk in the
center represents the Earth; the other disk represents the planet under observation. There
will not be a quiz.)

The problem was, of course, Ptolemy was trying to describe a system that didn't exist.
His point of view, literally, was wrong. He wasn't looking at the planets from a fixed
center, but from a body that was itself circling the sun. Copernicus' eventual
understanding of this fact led swiftly to the discovery of several other beautiful truths,
including those of Kepler, Brahe, and Newton suggesting that where you stand has
everything to do with what you can see. And that if you're standing in the wrong place,
or facing the wrong direction, you're going to see a very strange, distorted view.

All of which is to say, point of view matters. An author does well to be Copernican, even
if his characters start out almost entirely Ptolemaic. Gabriel in James Joyce's "The Dead"
begins as a Ptolemaic character (operating on mistaken assumptions) and ends as more
or less where the author himself is, in a state of Copernican understanding (getting the
big picture). Gabriel starts out believing his biggest worry is the speech he's got to give.
And as to his wife well, he feels he can afford to joke about her:

"O, Mr. Conroy," said Lily to Gabriel when she opened the door for him,
"Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming. Good-night, Mrs.
"I'll engage they did," said Gabriel, "but they forget that my wife here
takes three mortal hours to dress herself."

But by the end,

Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of
this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of
memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she
had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of
his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure

The story is unspeakably elegant and heartbreaking, if its conclusion is conceptually

rather simple. Gabriel gets it. Now he knows. Knowing doesn't really help him, but at
least he's not ignorant any longer. His viewpoint has been corrected, and he's looking at
the data with the proper hypothesis, and things make sense. He is now a fuller, more
coherent human being. Aaaahhhh, we think, all is set aright.

The aaaahhhh moment can be grotesquely abused. Carloads of suddenly-he-realizeds are

delivered up daily from the epiphany mines. In the futuristic "*BD* 11 1 87", Joyce Carol
Oates, hunting desperately for an ending, has her none-too-bright 'body donor'
protagonist come to a final understanding in the death chamber:

He wondered how much they'd known about what was the name?
He smiled to think there'd always been a plan, a purpose. He had not
known that. Thoughts came now in slow rippling streams. He placed his feet in
the stirrups at the end of the table. They were made of sturdy metal.On the far
side of the glass wall invisible to him someone was observing him. He had never
been alone, evidently. All his life he'd never been alone

But it is a business of a higher order to ask that a character remain in at least partial
ignorance, or to have a complicated relationship with his or her own ignorance. The
dangers of this approach are obvious: the Copernican author treats his Ptolemaic
characters with condescension they can't know what I know and renders them less
than fully human. But the rewards are significant, and you avoid the encroaching feeling
of pat simplicity that threatens to disrupt even so beautiful and nearly perfect a story as
"The Dead".

The supreme example of a character remaining Ptolemaic within a Copernican story is

Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog". In this story, Chekhov knows nearly everything,
and Anna knows, perhaps, only a little less while the point of view character Gurov
knows almost nothing of what goes on around him. But he sure thinks he does!

A new person, it was said, had appeared on the esplanade: a lady with a pet
dogAnd afterwards he met 25 her in the public garden and in the squareseveral
times a day. She walked alone, always wearing the same beret and always with
the white dog; no one knew who she was and everyone called her simply "the
lady with the pet dog."

25 Encountered her, that is.

Poor Gurov. He's already hooked, and he has no idea who she is. Notice how there is, at
this early point, only putative knowledge of Anna: "it was said" and "everyone called
her", Chekhov writes, diffusing Anna into the air of Yalta as though puffing her through
an atomizer. But Gurov thinks he knows what's what. He's a ladies' man, after all, and
reports, of himself, that:

In his appearance, in his character, in his whole make-up there was something
attractive and elusive that disposed women in his favor and allured them. He
knew that, and some force seemed to draw him to them, too.
Oft-repeated and really bitter experience had taught him long ago that
with decent people particularly Moscow people who are irresolute and slow
to move, every affair which at first seems a light and charming adventure
inevitably grows into a whole problem of extreme complexity, and in the end a
painful situation is created. But at every new meeting with an interesting
woman this lesson of experience seemed to slip from his memory, and he was
eager for life, and everything seemed so simple and diverting

Oh, what love-weariness! What sad, worldly understanding! How sure he is of

everything! "He knew that", "really bitter experience had taught him", "inevitably grows"
-- and yet he is still game, he thinks this is Gurov thinking and young enough at heart
to fall, if only temporarily, in love.

What Gurov doesn't know is how thoroughly he's already being played. And Chekhov
isn't going to let him know, either. Not once. Watch what happens next:

One evening while he was dining in the public garden the lady in the
beret walked up without haste to take the next table.

In other words, Anna makes the first move. She's chosen him. But he doesn't notice this;
instead, he's blinkered by what he thinks he knows:

Her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did her hair told him that
she belonged to the upper class, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for
the first time and alone, and that she was bored there. The stories told of the
immorality in Yalta are to a great extent untrue; he despised them, and knew that
such stories were made up for the most part by persons who would have been
glad to sin themselves if they had had the chance

Note the emphasis on knowledge here, on Gurov's supposed understanding of the

situation, and how, next, Gurov succumbs, perhaps without exactly recognizing it, to the
allure of the false stories:

but when the lady sat down at the next table three paces from him, he recalled
these stories of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting
thought of a swift, fleeting liaison, a romance with an unknown woman of whose
very name he was ignorant suddenly took hold of him.
So Gurov is the kind of guy who will grasp at a convenient fiction if it serves him. But he
won't be bright enough to see that he himself will be taking part in what may well be a
fiction of Anna's making. 26

Poor Gurov.

During their first conversation, Gurov learns that Anna is married, though unremarkably
("She was not certain whether her husband was a member of a Government Board or
served on a Zemstvo Council") and that she has, perhaps, come down in the world as a
result of her marriage ("she had grown up in Petersburg, but had lived in S--- since her
marriage two years previously") and now lives far from the center of things. Gurov,
falling under her spell, immediately shows his cards, telling her that "he was a native of
Moscow, that he had studied languages and literature at the university, but had a post in
a bank; that at one time he had trained to become an opera singer but had given it up,
that he owned two houses in Moscow". In other words, he's a catch. Anna knows, now,
that she has the right fish on the line.

But is she just looking for an affair or for something more substantial? We know she's
spent a long time picking out her target, anyway, so we may deduce that she has grander
ambitions difficult as this will be, given the expectations of the day.

Either way, Gurov remains apparently unaware. After their first conversation,
considering Anna's youth and innocence,

he thought how much timidity and angularity there was still in her laugh and
her manner of talking with a stranger. It must have been the first time in her life
that she was alone in a setting in which she was followed, looked at, and spoken
to for one secret purpose alone, which she could hardly fail to guess. He thought
of her slim, delicate throat, her lovely gray eyes.
"There's something pathetic about her, though," he thought, and
dropped off.

Poor Gurov!

A week passes, and the acquaintance deepens. They go together to the pier to watch the
steamer come in with the new arrivals. When you're expecting someone to come, you
bring flowers and Anna has brought flowers. Who is she expecting? It's never
mentioned, but might it be her husband? Well, maybe:

Much of the evidence about Anna's motivation is by nature circumstantial, and at some point we will pass
over from reasonable surmise into unreasonable, or at least unsupportable, deduction. The evidence has to be
circumstantial, though, because Gurov remains outside the main stream of knowing in this story. Even the
reductive, delimited title, which has always been subtly bothersome (and not just because of the Lap/ Pet
problem) seems, now, to be indicative of Gurov's short-sightedness, his inability to see beyond the immediately
apparent. Sure, Anna has a dog: we know that right away. Indeed it's literally the first thing Gurov knows
about her. The title suggests that for Gurov, this is as far as his understanding reaches.

Owing to the choppy sea, the steamer arrived late, after sunset, and it
was a long time tacking about before it put in at the pier. Anna Sergeyevna
peered at the steamer and the passengers through her lorgnette as though
looking for acquaintances, and whenever she turned to Gurov her eyes were
shining. She talked a good deal and asked questions jerkily, forgetting the next
moment what she had asked; then she lost her lorgnette in the crush.
The festive crowd began to disperse; it was now too dark to see people's
faces; there was no wind any more, but Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna still stood
as though waiting to see someone else come off the steamer. Anna Sergeyevna
was silent now, and sniffed her flowers without looking at Gurov.

So, yes, it might be her husband she's waiting for (she has no use for him, but it'd be nice
to be paid some attention to). It might be a lover or a friend.

Or it might be nobody at all. After all, why would she bring Gurov down to the pier if
her husband's coming, or a lover, or even a friend? Chekhov never tips his hand here.
Gurov does seem astoundingly, even willfully thick; either he's actually this slow or he's
intentionally somehow decided on this unacknowledged unknowing because for some
reason it pleases him to let things remain unsaid with Anna; maybe he thinks it's
sophisticated to not notice, even to himself, that the object of his attention has just been
stood up by well, by someone. But given Gurov's inattention to this point, we may be
justified in deciding that he's just a bit of a stiff, and that he hasn't yet figured Anna's
angle or that he hasn't yet seen that she has one at all.

At any rate the ruse, or the apparent ruse (either seen or unseen!) works, because here's
what happens next:

"The weather has improved this evening," he said. "Where shall we go

now? Shall we drive somewhere?"
She did not reply.

No indeed! Silence as the trap is sprung!

Then he looked at her intently, and suddenly embraced her and kissed
her on the lips, and the moist fragrance of her flowers enveloped him; and at
once he looked round him anxiously, wondering if anyone had seen them.
"Let us go to your place," he said softly. And then walked off together
The air in her room was close and there was the smell of the perfume she
had bought at the Japanese shop. Looking at her, Gurov thought: "What
encounters life offers!"

So Anna has seduced Gurov, very possibly without him having noticed the elaborate
nature of her designs on him; and from Anna's point of view this is good. But now what?
What does Anna want? Does she just want an affair, or does she want more?

If we suspect she wants to extend the affair, and to capture Gurov in a way he's never
been captured before well, we can certainly say she's done her homework on the man.

She's studied Gurov well, after all, at long range and at short, having walked up and
down the esplanade for some time before sitting down next to him, and over the
following week she has studied him at very close range.

Maybe, after spending this week together, she likes him. Maybe she just sees something
in him she wants. Maybe it's both. Either way it is at any rate possible to read Anna's
behavior going forward as being at least partly calculating. Figuring Gurov for a serial
adulterer (and he is), she decides or is intuitively moved, if we want to moderate her
agency to give him what he can't get anywhere else: innocence. In other words,
unknowing. And it works. For the weary Gurov, there had been plenty of other women

very beautiful, frigid women, across whose faces would suddenly flit a
rapacious expressionno longer young, capricious, unreflecting, domineering,
unintelligent, and when Gurov grew cold to them their beauty aroused his
hatred, and the lace on their lingerie seemed to him to resemble scales.
But here there was the timidity, the angularity of inexperienced youth, a
feeling of awkwardness; and there was a sense of embarrassment, as though
someone had suddenly knocked at the door.

And further,

Anna Sergeyevna, "the lady with the pet dog," treated what had happened in a
very peculiar way, very seriously, as though it were her fall so it seemed, and
this was odd and inappropriate. Her features drooped and faded, and her long
hair hung down sadly on either side of her face; she grew pensive and her
dejected pose was that of a Magdalene in a picture by an old master.

She is the perfect picture of a fallen woman, all right. Anna goes on to play her part if it
is a part: ("How can I exonerate myself? No. I am a bad, low woman"). Gurov resists
briefly ("already bored with her; he was irritated by her nave tone") but as she presses
her advantage ("'Believe me, believe me, I beg you,' she said, 'I love honesty and purity,
and sin is loathsome to me'") he gives in. He's hers now, and he'll follow her to the end
of the earth.

Note that, and not for the last time, she confuses him why is she treating this matter so
seriously? Doesn't she know how to behave? Doesn't she know such a thing can't be
taken for more than it is? Doesn't she know she's supposed to be cynical and worldly?

Well, maybe she is worldly so worldly Gurov can't see it. Like a three-dimensional
creature intervening in Flatland, she can see around corners and into rooms from above,
and as Gurov tries to make sense of her, he can make his judgments only on a partial

The romance is now well-established, but Anna continues to play her role:

Complete idleness, these kisses in broad daylight exchanged furtively in dread of

someone's seeing them, the heat, the smell of the sea, and the continual flitting
before his eyes of idle, well-dressed, well-fed people, worked a complete change

in him; he kept telling Anna Sergeyevna how beautiful she was, how seductive,
was urgently passionate; he would not move a step away from her, while she
was often pensive and continually pressed him to confess that he did not respect
her, did not love her in the least, and saw in her nothing but a common woman.
Almost every evening rather late they drove somewhere out of town, to Oreanda
or to the waterfall; and the excursion was always a success, the scenery
invariably impressed them as beautiful and magnificent.


At this point, with Anna having consolidated her gains, the stakes increase. If Anna is
interested in continuing the romance, and possibly, eventually, using Gurov to get out of
S----, then the question becomes how to transfer the romance intact back to civilization,
back to their usual lives?

Now evidence grows thin on the ground, and we are left increasingly to our own
surmisings. The more straightforward clues (Anna's approach, the mysterious flowers)
fall away, as though Chekhov himself has become undecided on the matter of Anna's
motivations, or as though he wants to suggest that for Anna, matters have become
complicated, that her motivations have become uncertain even to herself. Maybe she
fears her plan is actually going to work and then what? Maybe she's afraid of her
feelings for Gurov, and runs from them. Or maybe Chekhov wants to cover his tracks, to
introduce uncertainty in us; maybe he fears we're beginning to see through his

On the other hand, it is still possible to read her actions as at least in part the
execution of a carefully considered operation. We may perhaps deduce that, given what
the story has shown us about her to this point, Anna is now going to gamble. The surest
way to transfer the romance intact, she perhaps decides, is to end it abruptly:

They were expecting her husband, but a letter came from him saying that
he had eye-trouble, and begging his wife to return home as soon as possible.
Anna Sergeyevna made haste to go.

We may catch in this a whiff of the atomized Anna. How indeed does Gurov know
Anna's husband is expected? When and where does this letter appear? Where is the
envelope, the weeping as she reads it, the despairing toss of the letter into the fire? These
scenes do not exist. In fact Chekhov glides smoothly over this moment without
comment. And since at this point we can't trust Gurov to see what's happening in front
of his own nose, we may be justified in suspecting there's actually no letter, and that
Anna has engineered the whole thing just as she (perhaps) engineered the moment at
the pier. Anna is, perhaps fittingly, firm on what is to happen next:

She was not crying but was so sad that she seemed ill, and her face was
"I shall be thinking of you remembering you," she said. "God bless
you; be happy. Don't remember evil against me. We are parting forever it has
to be, for we ought never to have met. Well, God bless you."

And Gurov? Has the hook been planted? Well, he thinks he's fine:

The train moved off rapidly.Left alone on the platform, and gazing into the
dark distance, Gurov listened to the twang of the grasshoppers and the hum of
the telegraph wires, feeling as though he had just waked up. 27 And he reflected,
musing, that there had now been another episode or adventure in his life, and it,
too, was at an end, and nothing was left of it but a memory.

So the knowing cad has had his fun. And alas, Anna's (possible) gamble appears to have
failed. But wait:

He was moved, sad, and slightly remorseful: this young woman whom he would
never meet again had not been happy with him; he had been warm and
affectionate with her, but yet in his manner, his tone, and his caresses there had
been a shade of light irony, the slightly coarse arrogance of a happy male who
was, besides, almost twice her age. 28 She had constantly called him kind,
exceptional, high-minded; obviously he had seemed to her different from what
he really was, so he had involuntarily deceived her.

This is the best Gurov can do. Lacking a critical piece of information that Anna is
herself an independent agent, and full of her own intention his analysis is wrong, or at
least incomplete. Yet his point of view is, for all that, more or less coherent: from where
he's standing, he's drawing some reasonable conclusions. Epicycles, deferents, equants --
not seeing that his assumptions are insufficient, not seeing Anna at work, he cannot
account for his feelings (sorrow, remorse) any other way. 29 And we notice this
particularly as he makes no conscious connection between these thoughts and the next
two paragraphs, which close section II:

Here at the station there was already a scent of autumn in the air; it was
a chilly evening.
"It is time for me to go north, too," thought Gurov as he left the platform.
"High time!"

In other words Hey, Anna, wait up!

In Part III, Gurov's cluelessness continues. After a relatively quiet period back in
Moscow he finds himself increasingly obsessed with the memory of Anna. He can't

And he had a headache.And the following nights too he slept badly; he sat up
in bed, thinking, or paced up and down his room. He was fed up with his

27 As perhaps he has.
28 In other words, beyond Anna's grasp; she cannot hope to meet his level of sophistication.
29 Facing off against Chekhov here we may begin to feel queasily like Gurov. Wrestling an entity capable of

superior acts of imagination, we are bound to take the last fall and leave the mat not sure exactly what's just

children, fed up with the bank; he had no desire to go anywhere or to talk of

At this point, he lies to his wife and takes a trip to Anna's town of S----, driven by forces
he doesn't understand ( "What for? He did not know, himself.") And then the famous
details in the hotel room:

at the hotel [he] took the best room, in which the floor was covered with gray
army cloth, and on the table there was an inkstand, gray with dust and topped
by a figure on horseback, its hat in its raised hand and its head broken off
Without haste Gurov made his way to Staro-Goncharnaya Street and
found the house. Directly opposite the house stretched a long gray fence
studded with nails.
"A fence like that would make one run away," thought Gurov, looking
now at the fence, now at the windows of the house.

The guy is still trying to make sense of things. Clues, there must be clues. Staring
hopelessly at the inkstand, the floor, the nails in the fence, his vision is limited to his
immediate surroundings, his forensic capabilities hopelessly, hilariously misapplied. It
must be the fence! The fence is to blame, surely!

Poor Gurov.

In S---, he waits for her to appear, walking up and down outside her house. She doesn't
show up. So:

He went back to his hotel room and sat on the couch for a long while, not
knowing what to do, then he had dinner and a long nap.
"How stupid and annoying all this is!" he thought when he woke and
looked at the dark windows: it was already evening. "Here I've had a good sleep
for some reason. What am I going to do at night?"

The "for some reason" is a dead giveaway, of course: there's something here he's not
getting. 30 He's slept well because he's finally near Anna again, but he has no
understanding of this. And when he finally sees her at the theater that night well,
here's what all the fuss is about:

She sat down in the third row, and when Gurov looked at her his heart
contracted, and he understood clearly that in the whole world there was no
human being so near, so precious and so important to him; she, this little
undistinguished woman, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lorgnette in
her hand, filled his whole life now

30 The "for some reason" tactic is too often used by authors who need to get from one place to another and

cannot be bothered with even a minimal accounting. A character can say "for some reason" as often as he
wants; an author should be expected capable of producing an explanation, as is the case here. If Gurov is in
Flatland and Anna is the three-dimensional intervener, Chekhov is the four-dimensional creature who inhabits
a world beyond even Anna's comprehension.

So he can see her, all right vulgar, little, undistinguished, provincial but he can't make
sense of what he sees. Is he in love with her? Possibly. Does he know why? No. There
are some things he doesn't know, and never will.

And Anna? Well, maybe she's forgotten him. Maybe she's lived the few months away
from Gurov in a state of increasing relief, having fled (perhaps voluntarily, having faked
the letter?) a situation in Yalta that had grown too hot to handle. Maybe she chickened
out, deciding she had too much to lose even in her wanker of a husband. After all, her
reaction to Gurov when he appears is one of convincing horror:

She glanced at him and turned pale, then looked at him again in horror, unable
to believe her eyes, and gripped the fan and the lorgnette tightly together in her
hands, evidently trying to keep herself from fainting. Both were silent.

But she's fooled Gurov before, hasn't she? (Or has she?) Does Chekhov send us a hint a
little later, as the lovers part?

She pressed his hand and walked rapidly downstairs, turning to look round at
him, and from her eyes he could see that she really was unhappy.

But this is Gurov seeing her. Silly old half-dense Gurov. He has got her very wrong
before, has he not? And this is a look that she sends him on purpose, over her shoulder
is it intentionally loaded with meaning? Has she, in fact, been waiting for this moment
all along, rehearsing it, even? (The last time she acted this convincingly, down at the pier
if it was an act! he followed her back to her hotel room.)

Or is it all of the above? Has she been privately, deliciously rehearsing for a longed-for
moment she has dearly hoped would never come?

Oh, dear, we have gone very far afield now way out here, all is surmise. Whatever
Anna's understanding by this point, she's worlds beyond Gurov who, by the end, is still
struggling to make even the most basic sense of things. Having come all this way, he is
still trying to unfold his map:

It was plain to him that this love of theirs would not be over soon, that
the end of it was not in sight....The shoulders on which his hands rested were
warm and heaving. He felt compassion for this life, still so warm and lovely, but
probably already about to begin to fade and wither like his own. Why did she
love him so much? [Yeah, why?]....Only now when his head was gray had he
fallen in love, really, truly for the first time in his life.

But it's a romance, if it is one, colored by a very Anna-like need for planning and for
strategy. The story ends on its famously inconclusive note:

Then they spent a long time taking counsel together, they talked of how
to avoid the necessity for secrecy, for deception, for living in different cities, and
not seeing one another for long stretches of time. How could they free
themselves from these intolerable fetters?

"How? How?" he asked, clutching his head. "How?"
And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found,
and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them
that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and
difficult for them was only just beginning.

Note the subtle dance this last sentence peforms. It belongs to Gurov first: "And it
seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and
glorious life would begin" --

But how, G? Mustthinkharder!

And then it's both of theirs, from their very different perspectives: "it was clear to both of
them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult
for them was only just beginning." So Anna has work yet to do; if she is to continue, if
she is to make her way forward with Gurov, she faces the prospect, now, of not only
leaving her husband but also extracting Gurov from his family and his marriage. Gurov
must undergo the extraction, with only ignorance as his anaesthetic. This will not
prevent a good deal of pain. And naturally Anna will feel it too perhaps all the more,
as the instigator and conscious creator of the situation.

It's Chekhov's genius that puts these characters one knowing, the other unknowing
together at the end, neither able to effect the change they each desire. And part of his
genius, too, to leave us with them, perhaps not entirely sure what's transpired. And
thinking, as perhaps he means us to, that doesn't matter what you assume or what you
plan either way, you'll never know everything.

We can remember this about our characters that to deliver them into complete
understanding isn't necessarily what we're aiming for. And perhaps, if we are of an
optimistic turn of mind, we can also remember this about ourselves as writers that our
unshakeable ignorance is a useful model, and that our woefully incomplete
understanding is a potentially powerful generator both of story and of interest within a
story. In this regard, we can amend the old-fashioned dictum to: write what you don't
know, because what you know ain't much. At least not as much as Chekhov.


Or: What's That You've Got There?

In the opening paragraph of "The River" (1953), Flannery O'Connor gives us a boy, a
father, and something else:

The child stood glum and limp in the middle of the dark living room while his
father pulled him into a plaid coat. His right arm was hung in the sleeve but the
father buttoned the coat anyway and pushed him forward toward a pale spotted
hand that stuck through the half-open door.

The boy is Harry Ashfield (who will also call himself Bevel) and this hand belongs to the
new babysitter, Mrs. Connin, a skeletal, benighted, pig-keeping horror whose idea of a
Good Time will turn out to include an outdoor baptism. 31 But she is, at least initially,
shown to be conscientious, as she spends a moment "shaking him down in his coat" and,
outside a minute later, tells him, apropos the "gray morning", that

"It's going to fair up laterbut this is the last time we'll be able to have any
preaching at the river this year." 32

In other words, good thing you brought a coat. And indeed it is, for when Mrs. Connin
falls asleep on the streetcar, Harry takes the opportunity to use the coat as a hiding place
for Mrs. Connin's handkerchief:

he took out the flowered handkerchief [from his pocket] and unfolded it and
examined it carefully. Then he folded it up again and unzipped a place in the
innerlining of his coat and hid it in there and shortly he went to sleep himself.

Mrs. Connin is taking Harry/Bevel to her house for the day. Her own children are there:
Spivey 33 , Sinclair, Sarah Mildred, and J.C. 34 As Harry enters what can only be called her
tarpaper shack, he is greeted bizarrely:

The three boys watched him while he unbuttoned the coat and took it off. Then
they watched him hang it on the bed post and then they stood, watching the coat.
They turned abruptly and went out the door and had a conference on the porch.

This conference results, unsurprisingly, in a plot to kill Harry/Bevel. This plot,

abandoned at the last minute, provides some entertainment anyway when Harry/Bevel
is trampled by a pig and unpermanently harmed. Mrs. Connin comforts him and shows
him her family Bible, which Harry then contrives to steal, managing "to get the book
inside his innerlining without her seeing him". As they walk to the aforementioned
outdoor baptism the book "made his coat hang down a little farther on one side than the

In other words, she is a character from Flannery O'Connor.
We might call this happily contrived bit of business The Handwaving Effect.

Good thing he brought the coat.

At the river, Mrs. Connin delivers Harry/Bevel over to the traveling preacher, who
unceremoniously baptizes the boy. "'You won't be the same again,'" the preacher tells
him: '"You'll count.'" When Mrs. Connin brings Harry/Bevel home to his (relatively)
cosmopolitan apartment house, a party is under way. Harry is somewhat the worse for
wear, as

his nose was running and he kept his mouth open and breathed through it. The
damp plaid coat dragged down on one side.

The coat, Zelig-like in its understated persistence, continues to figure. When he pulls the
Bible out (evidently still dry) the book is snatched from him. It's a genuine rural
curiosity! A guest at the party wonders how much the book might be worth, and Harry
is put to bed.

Deprived of his cunningly acquired prize, Harry/Bevel nurses a formless resentment.

Up early the next morning, with his hungover parents still asleep, Harry/Bevel performs
some minor vandalism. Then O'Connor's notoriously unsteady point-of-view performs
one of its jarring pratfalls, as we witness:

Very slowly, his expression changed as if it were gradually seeing appear what
he didn't know he'd been looking for.

Whereupon Harry/Bevel, having been the recipient of An Idea, gets back on the streetcar
and, alone, returns to the scene of yesterday's action. He intends to plunge himself
forever into The River of Life, not understanding what this will mean in the practical
day-to-day area of breathing, et cetera 35 . This is by way of making his life matter,
something he feels it doesn't at home which the incident with the stolen Bible has
conclusively demonstrated to him. So the coat has done its work, offering itself as a
delivery system for the final fateful turn of the story. Like the expiring stage of a booster
rocket, the coat would now appear to decouple itself from the speeding narrative. But in
fact it has one last, if implicit, job to do. When Harry/Bevel gets to the river he

bounded into it with his shoes and his coat on and took a gulp.In a second he
began to gasp and sputter and his head reappeared on the surface; he started
under again and the same thing happened. The river wouldn't have him

But, angry and insistent, he finds the current, and, burdened by his soaking coat and
heavy shoes, he

plunged under [again] and this time, the waiting current caught him like a
long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down.

Harry/Bevel is, by O'Connor's best guess, "four or five", and this unruffled solo trip on the streetcar is a
troubling implausibility until we consider that Harry's given age may have been, for the childless O'Connor, a
genuine stab in the dark. Given what he gets up to in this story, he seems to be about seven. Unlike the girl in
"A Temple of the Holy Ghost", he has almost no internal life.

So what does the coat mean? In and of itself, nothing. It's not a symbol, it's a prop. In its
shifting roles it helps O'Connor 1) mark time (it was dry, now it's wet); 2) demonstrate
character (Harry steals things with it), and 3) advance the plot.

These are useful things, these objects 36 , and it's handy to give your characters a Thing to
lug around. Consider the utility of Manley Pointer 37 's suitcase in "Good Country People"
where else would you keep your condoms, dirty playing cards, and liquor and where
else would you put Hulga/Joy's artificial leg? By what other means might O'Connor
have so efficiently shown us who this fellow really is?

Another example. In Tobias Wolff's 1985 story "The Rich Brother", Pete drives from
Santa Cruz to Paso Robles (a trip of about 100 miles) to retrieve his brother, Donald, who
has been kicked off the commune where he has lately washed up. On the drive back to
Santa Cruz these mismatched brothers stop at a Denny's to eat. As they're leaving, they
are approached by a man who calls himself Webster, who asks for a ride.

The hapless Donald is a spiritually-minded, soft-hearted sucker. Pete is the opposite, and
immediately sees through Webster's ridiculous story:

"Engine trouble," the man said. "I'm afraid it's a bit urgent. My daughter is
sick. Urgently sick. I've got a telegram here." He patted the breast pocket of his
Pete grinned. Amazing, he thought, the old sick daughter ploy, but before
he could say anything Donald got into the act again. "No problem," Donald said.
"We've got tons of room."

Wolff has already described Webster, who is wearing:

a red blazer with some kind of crest on the pocket, little black moustache, glossy
black hair combed down on his forehead like a Roman emperor's. A rug, Peter
thought. Definitely a rug.

and when he gets this trio into the car, Wolff, with characteristic efficiency 38 , marks
Webster with his Useful Object, a cigar:

As soon as they left the parking lot the man lit a cigar. He blew a cloud of
smoke over Pete's shoulder and sighed with please. "Put it out," Pete told him.
"Of course," the man said. Pete looked into the rear-view mirror and saw the
man take another long puff before dropping the cigar out the window. "Forgive
me," he said. "I should have asked."

These objects are usually 1) portable i.e., smaller than a breadbox; 2) inanimate; 3) discretely tangible
notwithstanding Munro's example given here and 4) without explicit symbolic meaning.
The actual name.
Also on display here is Wolff's customary, remarkable fearlessness in the face of seeming clich. That this
story is a fable interestingly complicates Webster's characterization. Wolff is a much stranger writer than one
ever remembers, more drawn to the uncanny.

But it's a long way to Santa Cruz, and Webster starts telling his story. "'It was my own
vaulting ambition that first led us to the tropics and kept us in the tropics all those many
years, exposed to every evil,'" Webster tells the brothers. "'Truly I have much to answer
for. I left my wife there.I buried here with these hands. The earth will be repaid, gold
for gold."

It's the setup to a con, as Pete sees immediately, but

Pete bit his lip. Webster was a find, and Peter didn't want to scare him off
by hooting at him. In a voice low and innocent of knowingness, he asked, "What
took you there?"
"It's difficult for me to talk about."
"Try," Pete told him.
"A cigar would make it easier."
Donald turned to Pete and said, "It's okay with me."
"All right," Pete said. "Go ahead. Just keep the window rolled down."
"Much obliged." A match flared. There were eager sucking sounds.
"Let's hear it," Pete said.

So a subtle adjustment of character relations is demonstrated by means of the cigar.

Webster smokes and, temporarily in charge of things, tells his story. It is a flagrant
fabrication from start to finish, full of fantastic clichs: gold mines in Peru, tropical death,
sympathetic Indians, and, at the end of course comes the pitch.

"I drew up a program for returning the bulk of the wealth to the Indians
themselves. A kind of trust fund. The interest alone will allow them to secure
their ancient lands and rights in perpetuity. At the same time, our investors will
be rewarded a thousandfold. Two-thousandfold. Everyone will prosper
"That's great," Donald said. "That's the way it ought to be."
Pete said, "I'm willing to bet that you just happen to have a few shares left.
Am I right?"
Webster made no reply.
"Well?" Pete knew that Webster was on to him now, but he didn't care. The
story had bored him. He'd expected something different, something original,
and Webster had let him down. He hadn't even tried. Pete felt sour and stale.
His eyes burned from cigar smoke and the high beams of road-hogging truckers.
"Douse the stogie," he said to Webster. "I told you to keep the window down."
"Got a little nippy back here."
Donald said, "Hey, Pete. Lighten up."
"Douse it!"
Webster sighed. He got rid of the cigar.

It's really the word "prosper" that's suddenly gotten to Pete the story's opening section
concludes this way:

the real issue between them [was prosperity]. Pete prospered and Donald did
not prosper.

So when the word appears here again, Pete's reaction is strong. He's not just angry at
Webster. He's angry at the fate that's given him the life he's living, and the brother he
has. This same fate has also made Pete into the brother he is. So Pete, angrily defending
himself from these feelings, reasserts his mastery over his little kingdom his new
Mercedes and does it by means of Webster's Useful Object. A tricky little turn in the
story is executed with tidy aplomb, and we feel the result without necessarily knowing
how it's been effected.

But when deployed sensitively, these Useful Objects can have devastating emotional
results. Consider Alice Munro's "Walker Brothers Cowboy" (1968). A girl and her
younger brother are allowed, one afternoon, to accompany their father on his rural sales
route. It is the Depression, and of course it is Ottawa, and the girl's father is the regional
representative more of a peddler, really for an outfit called Walker Brothers, "a firm
that sells almost entirely in the country, the back country." Visiting suspicious, hard-
eyed farm wives, the father sells what appear to be genuinely useful things, including

cough medicine, iron tonic, corn plasters, laxatives, pills for female disorders,
mouthwash, shampoo, liniment, salves, lemon and orange and raspberry
concentrate for making refreshing drinks, vanilla, food coloring, black and green
team, ginger, cloves, and other spices, rat poison.

He has the obligatory sad peddler's case-of-wares, and an old car. But it is none of these
that will serve as the story's Useful Object. No, the story's useful object is dust.

On the hot summer afternoon where the bulk of the story's action takes place, the father,
Ben Jordan, sets off to drive his regular route. His daughter describes the landscape:

No roads paved when we left the highway. We have to roll up the windows
because of dust. The land is flat, scorched, empty. Bush lots at the back of the
farms hold shade.

And their car:

with its wide running board (an Essex, and long past its prime). Cars somewhat
like it, many older, none dustier, sit in the farmyards.

And the population:

The children are far away, following dry creek beds or looking for blackberries,
or else they are hidden in the house, spying at us through cracks in the blinds.
The car seat has grown slick with our sweat
Then Ben Jordan knocks at one last, as it turns out fateful, door. No one answers:

This house has no porch, just a bare, slanting slab of cement on which my father
stands. He turns around, searching the barnyardJust then a window is opened
upstairs, a white pot appears on the sill, is tilted over and its contents splash
down the outside wall. The window is not directly above my father's head, so

only a stray splash would catch him. He picks up his suitcases with no particular
hurry and walks, no longer whistling, to the car. "Do you know what that was?"
I say to my brother. "Pee." He laughs and laughs.

For Ben, who has already suffered a comedown in life (a former fox farmer, he is now
scratching out this perilous living; his wife, the children's mother, is ill), this is a terrible
humiliation to suffer in front of his kids. So he goes off the reservation and, leaving his
territory, takes the kids to visit an old flame of his, Nora Cronin. The Jordans interrupt
Nora as she is getting ready to clean out her chicken house. She is ashamed at her get-
up, and more than this, Nora is surprised, even a little alarmed, to see him there. She is
surprised to see that he has become a Walker Brothers man; she is subduedly surprised
to see that he has children. Nora invites him and the children into her house; her mother,
who is blind, is sitting at the kitchen table. Nora excuses herself to change into
something less henhousy.

By all evidence the now-historical romance between Ben and Nora was a nonstarter. She
is a Catholic and he is not. But they have maintained an unaspiring, unkilled fondness
for one another, and it is poignant to discover Nora here, in the country, unmarried and
alone. Her house is an oasis in the parched desert of western Ottowa:

the kitchen is cool, high-ceilinged, the blinds of course down, a simple- clean,
threadbare room with waxed worn linoleum, potted geraniums, drinking-
pail and dipper

and even the old woman's eyes weep a "drop of silver liquid, a medicine, or a miraculous

In the masterful scene that follows, Ben Jordan's daughter watches her father reconstruct
himself upon the firm foundation of Nora's undiminished affection. Nora, after
freshening up, returns wearing a brightly flowered dress and Cuban heels. The party
moves to the front room, where Nora takes a bottle of whiskey out of the top of the
organ. Ben recounts the story of the pee-dumping, telling it for laughs. Everyone is
having a good time, and the daughter is seeing a side to her father she had not known
existed. Then Nora starts up the gramophone and, too shy to ask Ben himself to dance,
instead asks the daughter:

I say no. "A big girl like you and so good-looking and can't dance!" says Nora.
"It's high time you learned. I bet you'd make a lovely dancer. Here, I'm going to
put on a piece I used to dance to and even your daddy did, in his dancing days.
You didn't know you daddy was a dancer, did you?"

Finally the daughter agrees:

Round and round the linoleum, me proud, intent, Nora laughing and moving
with great buoyancy, wrapping me in her strange gaiety, her smell of whisky,
cologne, and sweat. Under the arms her dress is damp, and little drops form
along her upper lip, hang in the soft black hairs at the corner of her mouth. She

whirls me around in front of my father causing me to stumble, for I am by no
means so swift a pupil as she pretends and lets me go breathless.

And then comes the breaking point. Nora turns to Ben:

"Dance with me, Ben."

"I'm the world's worst dancer, Nora, and you know it."
"I certainly never thought so."
"You would now."
She stands in front of him, arms hanging loose and hopeful, her breasts, which a
moment ago embarrassed me with their warmth and bulk, rising and falling
under her loose flowered dress, her face shining with the exercise, and delight.
My father drops his head and says quietly, "Not me, Nora."
So she can only go and take the record off. "I can drink along but I can't
dance alone," she says. "Unless I am a whole lot crazier than I think I am."
"Nora," says my father, smiling. "You're not crazy."
"Stay for supper."
"Oh, no. We couldn't put you to the trouble."
"It's no trouble. I'd be glad of it."
"And their mother would worry. She'd think I'd turned us over in a ditch."
"Oh, well. Yes."
"We've taken a lot of your time now."
"Time," says Nora bitterly. "Will you come by ever again?"
"I will if I can," says my father.
"Bring the children. Bring your wife."
"Yes, I will," says my father. "I will if I can."
When she follows us to the car he says, "You come to see us too, Nora. We're
right on Grove Street, left-hand side going in, that's north, and two doors this
side east of Baker Street."
Nora does not repeat these directions. She stands close to the car in her soft
brilliant dress. She touches the fender, making an unintelligible mark in the dust

And if that doesn't take the top of your fucking head off, nothing will. That's what the
dry countryside, the hot summer, the dust has been for all along to give Nora something
to do at this final, unspeakable moment. She marks him; but it will not last; and anyway
her mark is unintelligible. The scene is full of brilliance 39 , but without the dust it would
only be brilliant. With the dust it is unforgettable.

Ben's sad, almost aggressive restraint; his demurrals, which he must know are cruel, but by means of which
he manages to return himself to his rightful life; Nora's desperate concessions; his attempts at appeasement,
which she turns aside without dignifying them.

On Disguising Your Transitions, Even if They're Not There

Transitions are difficult because they are often, by their nature, rawly functional. It's
hard to get a character from one place to another, to introduce new people, and to move
characters through time, without some of your narrative machinery showing through.
Mechanical as they are, we can call these transitional moments hinges, since they are at
once joiners and points at which a story turns.

It can often be useful to pad a hinge in other words, to muffle or disguise the
mechanism that moves the reader from one part of a story to another. Sometimes this is
done simply to preserve the fictional dream; sometimes it seems better to avoid certain
transitional moments in a story, and a padded hinge can serve to do this too 40 . Usually
this padding consists of some detail of character or setting some bit of eye-candy that
directs the reader's attention away from the mechanism of transition and toward some
interesting particularity.

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is notable for its narrative speed and
powerful, confident progression from section to section. A measure of this power and
speed arises from the way O'Connor handles the business of transitions. The story's six
sections are joined bluntly to one another, as one thing happens, then the next; but we are
carried swiftly over each seam into the next section by means of eye-catching details:

"Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?" the
grandmother asked.
"I'd smack his face," John Wesley said.
"She wouldn't stay at home for a million bucks," June Star said. "Afraid
she'd miss something. She has to go everywhere we go."
"All right, Miss," the grandmother said. "Just remember that the next
time you want me to curl your hair."
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.
The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to
go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus
in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the
cat, in it.

The "head of a hippopotamus" is superb, suggestive of the grandmother's own size and
blunt, unthinking influence. 41 And Pitty Sing will be crucial to the plot, too. But just as
important, and the thing O'Connor doesn't want us to notice, is that these details serve to
direct our attention forward to the next section of the story.

40 Needless to say there are plenty of cases where you might want your transitions to show; this discussion
assumes you'd rather not have them visible. I mean, sometimes you want people to see a hint of undies, and
sometimes you don't.
41 Good similes bring a whole train of associations with them, as the writer gets more than one comparison for

the price of a single image. Earlier in this story we see "the children's mother, a young woman in slacks, whose
face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage". Associative Bundling allows us to see the mother's head as
'round' even before O'Connor tells us she has a kerchief 'tied around' her face. In "The Life You Save May Be
Your Own", Mrs. Shiftlet is "about the size of a cedar fence post" a comparison that gives us not just her size
but her color (a weathered bronze) and shape.

The family drives off through Georgia, on their way to meet The Misfit, but O'Connor
can't take the story straight there because it would be silly, wouldn't it! So she's got to
have the family stop somewhere. The grandmother tells a cringe-worthy story about
Edgar Atkins Teagarden, and June Star reacts:

She said she wouldn't marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on
Saturday. The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr.
Teagarden because he was a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it
first came out and that he had died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.
They stopped at the Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a
part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside
of Timothy. A fat man named Red Sammy Butts ran it and there were signs
stuck here and there on the building and for miles up and down the highway

Here the details are literally eye-catching. We can observe O'Connor hunting for the
right detail -- "part stucco and part wood" doesn't do much for us, and neither does "a
clearing outside of Timothy". But then she hits on the man himself and the man's signs,
which are as indicative of character as anything could be. Once we know about these
signs (and we sense O'Connor is discovering them as we are) we want to meet Red
Sammy Butts and presto, we're taken into the next section.

The padding around a transition doesn't need to be new every time, of course; an author
can make use of recurring imagery to produce the same attention-diverting effect. Here's
the opening of Hemingway's "The Killers":

The door of Henry's lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat
down at the counter.
"What's yours?" George asked them.
"I don't know," one of the men said. "What do you want to eat, Al?"
"I don't know," said Al. "I don't know what I want to eat."
Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the
window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the
counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they
came in.
"I'll have a roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes,"
the first man said.

Hemingway's control is what makes him Hemingway, and we note with what sudden
and exact completeness he renders the feeling in the diner, in particular with the three
sentences "Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the window. The
two men at the counter read the menu." The outside world, the inside world, the feel of
isolation and private peril all described or suggested here.

But that's not all those sentences are for. He'll come back to the image of the streetlight
throughout the story, always at moments of transition, using it (and in particular Nick's
experience of it) to draw the eye away from the fact that what really happening in the
story is mechanical: a change of scene or situation.

Later, after the killers have made their threats they go away:

The two of them went out the door. George watched them, through the
window, pass under the arc-light and cross the street. In their tight overcoats
and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team. George went back through
the swinging-door into the kitchen and untied Nick and the cook.
"I don't want any more of that," said Sam, the cook. "I don't want any
more of that."
Nick stood up. He had never had a towel in his mouth before.
"Say," he said, "What the hell?" He was trying to swagger it off.

Note the art here, serving to pad the hinge: the exact vision ("tight overcoats and derby
hats"), the funny metaphorizing ("a vaudeville team"), and, most of all, the incisive and
sympathetic portrait of Nick's reaction unportrayed, in fact, though we know just what
he's doing when we read "He had never had a towel in his mouth before." With this the
sleight of hand is complete; we're now interested in Nick, and we've been taken over the
seam of the transition into the next section of the story. This is no mean trick, as the
killers are charismatic and full of drama, but the story has got rid of them and succeeded
in transferring our attention thanks to the padding.

A minute later, Nick Adams goes looking for the Swede, the target of the killers'
unsuccessful hit. George knows where the Swede is:

"He lives up at Hirsch's rooming-house," George said to Nick.

"I'll go up there."
Outside the arc-light shone through the bare branches of a tree. Nick
walked up the street beside the car tracks and turned at the next arc-light down a
side-street. Three houses up the street was Hirsch's rooming-house. Nick
walked up the two steps and pushed the bell. A woman came to the door.

It looks simple, but in fact this move is deceptively difficult. The story has to this point
taken place entirely in the diner; the action now has to move out of this environment and
into the world. So Hemingway uses the arc-light as a sort of touchpoint, then wraps the
transition, again, in the vivid (although, typical of Hemingway, only implied) experience
of Nick the dangerous isolation, the creepy (again, implied) sound of Nick's knocking
footsteps 42 . Again, the vehicle of character is what really takes us through this transition;
our eye will always be drawn to people. 43

42 There's some more Associative Bundling going on here, as the "bare branches" and "side-street" combine to
produce a feeling of threatening emptiness and ominous silence in concert with the thrust of the story.
43 Note that the strategy of character-centered sleight-of-hand works for expository moments generally, not just

moments of transition. For example, the often awkward task of introducing a character's age can be handled
this way. In Faulkner's "Two Soldiers", a boy and his older brother learn of the attack on Pearl Harbor from a
neighbor's radio, and then:

Padded hinges can also occur at a juncture that would, if outfitted with a more elaborate
transition, alter the feel or course of a story. In this sort of environment these hinges
become, essentially, avoidance devices. In Tobias Wolff's "The Rich Brother", one brother
the responsible one, Pete considers his obligations to another, Donald, who is a
screwup. Donald now lives on a sort of commune:

The farm was owned by several members of Donald's community, who had
bought it and moved there with the idea of forming a family of faith. That was
how Donald explained it in the first letter he sent.

But things don't go well, and Pete has to go rescue his brother. Wolff does it this way:

The day before he left to bring Donald home, Pete received a letter from
a man who described himself as "head of household" at the farm where Donald
had been living. From this letter Pete learned that Donald had not quit the farm,
but had been asked to leave. The letter was written on the back of a
mimeographed survey form asking people to record their response to a
ceremony of some kind. The last question said:

What did you feel during the liturgy?

a) Being
b) Becoming
c) Being and Becoming
d) None of the Above
e) All of the Above

Pete tried to forget the letter. But of course he couldn't. Each time he
thought of it he felt crowded and breathless, a feeling that came over him again
when he drove into the service station and saw Donald sitting against a wall
with his head on his knees. It was late afternoon. A paper cup tumbled slowly
past Donald's feet, pushed by the damp wind.

Now, what's the task of the story? Pete and Donald have to be put in the same car. But
Pete has to drive a hundred miles or so to get the brother, and we can imagine this
ninety-minute drive being full of private fuming and self-justifying scorn; and we can
further imagine that this drive will be interrupted (because it would have to be) by some
telling encounter or significant incident. But that's not what the story's about the story

We went home. Maw and pap was already asleep, and me and Pete laid in the bed, and I still
couldn't understand where it was, and Pete told me again the Pacific Ocean.
"What's the matter with you?" Pete said. "You're going on nine years old. You been in school
now ever since September. Ain't you learned nothing yet?"
"I reckon we ain't got as fer as the Pacific Ocean yet," I said.

Here again the information (age, schooling) is transmitted, then hurriedly contextualized and linked to
character "Ain't you learned nothing yet?" then made part of the relationship between the brothers, as the
younger boy stands up for himself in the manner he can.

is about the brothers. Wolff has to avoid the drive down. The story needs to skip ahead
to the moment at the service station. So Wolff creates the letter, a handy distraction (our
attention is particularly caught by the fact that choices d and e should be reversed; this
bothers us and shows us exactly what sort of place this farm really is). From the letter,
Wolff perhaps arbitrarily extracts a feeling ("crowded and breathless") and gives it to
Pete; then uses this feeling again, an experience of a character to get Pete to Donald.
A great transition in space and time is effected, and we don't notice that in fact the
moment has been entirely avoided.

And to seal the deal? The image of Donald against the wall and the paper cup. Look,
everyone, a cup! Watch it rolling! Our eye is caught, our attention diverted, our
intelligence convinced of the reality of this new place and then we're off again, safely
over the seam. 44

44 This parable of a story also features a "magic sleep", typical of fairytales and resourceful storytellers

everywhere. A character, plausibly or implausibly, nods off in one place, state, or condition and awakes in
another, a tactic used so often and so widely that it seems an instinctive gesture. Magic sleeps are also padded
transitions -- sometimes literally, depending on whether pillows are involved.

On Awkward Necessity

There are times when you just need certain things to happen in order for a story to work.
Sometimes these things are implausible, unlikely, or wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. How
do you handle this?

The trick is:

acknowledge the difficulty;

provide one reason the difficulty isn't quite what it seems;
provide another reason; and finally
introduce the false, required conclusion.

Sure but and so.

Think, for example, of the hidden implausibility that begins -- and in fact makes possible
The Great Gatsby:

I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father,
and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the
Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless.
Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like
the ragged edge of the universe--so I decided to go east and learn the bond
business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it could
support one more single man. All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they
were choosing a prep-school for me and finally said, "Why--ye-es" with very
grave, hesitant faces. Father agreed to finance me for a year and after various
delays I came east, permanently, I thought, in the spring of twenty-two.
The practical thing was to find rooms in the city but it was a warm
season and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees, so when
a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a
commuting town it sounded like a great idea. He found the house, a weather
beaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month, but at the last minute the firm
ordered him to Washington and I went out to the country alone. I had a dog, at
least I had him for a few days until he ran away, and an old Dodge and a Finnish
woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom
to herself over the electric stove.

Well, it ain't much, but it'll have to do. Of course Nick Carraway would live in the city:
he works there, after all, and what young man wouldn't want to live in the great hustle-
and-bustle instead of out among the stuffed shirts of Long Island?

But Nick can't live in the city, because if he did there'd be no book. So we get the sure-
but-and-so, tidy as any syllogism:

[Sure] The practical thing was to find rooms in the city

but it was a warm season

and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees,
so when a young man at the office suggested that we take a house
together in a commuting town it sounded like a great idea.

Hey -- great idea!

Note, too, how quickly these devices are dismissed after they've served their purposes!
The "young man at the office" vanishes completey (never to be mentioned again) and
even the dog, whose presence argues for the lawns and trees, runs away. And the
awkward necessity of Nick's being on Long Island is never discussed and Fitzgerald
hopes we never notice how very awkward it is.

The sure-but-and-so is sometimes more implicit than explicit. In The Folded Leaf, William
Maxwell has to convince us that two very unalike boys the meek, anxious Lymie Peters
and the bluff, easygoing Spud Latham become powerfully close friends, if not lovers. 45
This friendship is begun when, after they participate in the same (high-school) fraternity
initiation, the boys separately discover they're peeing green. Big fearless Spud worries
he's contracted some sort of VD (from a toilet seat, he figures), and when he sees Lymie
at school the next day:

He walked faster but Lymie hurried too and caught up with him as he started up
the wide cement steps. They went into the building together. Neither of them
mentioned the initiation but as they passed the door of the boys' lavatory on the
first floor, Lymie said, "Did you pee green this morning?" and deprived Spud of
the last hope, the one comfort left to him.
The disease showed.
If it had been any of the others, Spud would have swung on him. He
couldn't hit Lymie. Lymie wasn't big enough. Besides, he remembered what he
saw the night before when he ripped his blindfold off: Lymie, his thin naked
body marked with circles and crosses and the letters I EAT SHIT, trying to get to
his feet, without help from anyone. The scene had stayed in his mind intact.
Also the curious feel of Lymie's shoulder under his hand. Instead of lying, which
he would have done if it had been any of the others, he still had enough trust in
Lymie to be able to say "Yeah," in a weak voice. "Yeah, I did."
"So did I," Lymie said. "I thought it might be you know. So I asked my
father. He said it must be that pill they gave us."
The sickness receded, leaving Spud without any strength in his
knees.He wanted to laugh out loud and prance and dance.Spud and Lymie
walked in together.In spite of the babel and the steady tramping outside in the
corridor, each of them heard the other's footsteps; heard them as distinctly as if
the sound were made by a man walking late at night in an empty street.

So the friendship begins in earnest (relatively late; this is page 63 of a 289-page book)
thanks to a bonding experience and helped along by an implied sure-but-and-so:

45 Maxwell himself is elusive on this point but the boys do appear to be both romantically and physically

involved. The young James Baldwin will have none of this coyness; in "Preservation of Innocence" (1949),
Baldwin categorizes the book together with Vidal's The City and the Pillar and Charles Jackson's The Fall of Valor,
calling all of them "novelsconcerned with homosexuality."

sure -- If it had been any of the others, Spud would have swung on him.
but -- He couldn't hit Lymie. Lymie wasn't big enough.
and -- Besides, he remembered what he saw the night before when he ripped his
blindfold off: Lymie, his thin naked body marked with circles and crosses and
the letters I EAT SHIT, trying to get to his feet, without help from anyone. The
scene had stayed in his mind intact.
and [again] Also the curious feel of Lymie's shoulder under his hand.
so Instead of lying, which he would have done if it had been any of the others,
he still had enough trust in Lymie to be able to say "Yeah," in a weak voice.
"Yeah, I did."

This is a handy tool, although not one to be deployed too often. And it may even serve
as a useful diagnostic. If it seems you need a sure-but-and-so, it's worth asking whether
your scenario is entirely well-considered. We succeed, mostly, in forgetting about Nick's
reasons for being on Long Island, but do we ever quite believe in Lymie and Spud?

A more illuminating sort of sure-but-and-so is not an author's trick but a character's self-
deception. With its dubious logic, the sure-but-and-so can be used to show us someone
trying to convince themselves of a convenient truth. In Alice Munro's "Family
Furnishings" the narrator explains how she justified avoiding making contact with her
cousin, the once-favored Alfrida:

I won a scholarship. I didn't stay home to take care of my mother or of

anything else. I went off to college. The college was in the city where Alfrida
lived. After a few months she asked me to come for supper, but I could not go,
because I worked every evening of the week except on Sundays. I worked on the
city library, downtown, and in the college library, both of which stayed open
until nine o'clockNor did I think that Alfrida was the sort of person to show up
at the library. The very word, "library," would probably make her turn down her
big mouth in a parody of consternation, as she used to do at the books in the
bookcase in our house."Lot of hotshot reading in there," Alfrida had said. "Bet
you don't crack those very often." And my father had said no, he didn't, falling
in with her comradely tone of dismissal or even contempt and to some extent
telling a lie, because he did look into them, once in a long while, when he had the
That was the kind of lie that I hoped never to have to tell again, the
contempt I hoped never to have to show, about the things that really mattered to
me. And in order not to have to do that, I would pretty well have to stay clear of
the people I used to know.

The sure-but-and-so is well buried, but it's just as present as it is in Fitzgerald and
Maxwell with the crucial distinction that it's the character making the excuses, not the
author: 46

sure, we lived in the same city and I should have made contact,

This is closely related to the "for some reason" tactic discussed in The Copernican Author.

but I worked in the library,
and Alfrida scorned libraries and all those people who loved them,
and in order to preserve my sense of myself I had to stay clear of people who
didn't love them,
so I avoided Alfrida.

The syllogistic nature of this argument is stark, and this starkness adds to the feeling of
the narrator's self-serving fatuity. You can't reliably apply logic to the workings of
relationships, after all, especially complicated ones. And when you do, you're only
fooling yourself. That's the point of a sure-but-and-so, of course fooling someone.
When a character does it early in a story, you're usually supposed to notice, and you can
usually count on the argument collapsing later on. But when an author resorts to the
same tactic, he's hoping you don't notice.

On Wolffian Action

The breathtaking, elegaic conclusion to Tobias Wolff's justly famous 1996 story "Bullet in
the Brain" tends to erase our memory of the opening paragraphs, which operate with
typically remarkable Wolffian efficiency. Here's how the story opens:

Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the
line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid
conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of
tempers anyway, Anders a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery
with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.
With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a
"POSITION CLOSED" sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank,
where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling
papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched
the teller with hatred. "Oh, that's nice," one of them said. She turned to Anders
and added, confident of his accord, "One of those little human touches that keep
us coming back for more."
Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he
immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. "Damned
unfair," he said. "Tragic, really. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg, or
bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions."

What Wolff does here, and what we don't notice him doing, is propelling us deep into
places, situations, and minds with the steady use of the conceptual hinges (conjunctions,
most of them) of until, with, but, and and, among others. Notice how most of these
sentences are made up of more than one independently interesting situation, and how
these clauses or clause-like items are knit together, so that you 1) don't stop within a
sentence, because the sentence is likely propelling you forward in time or through a
variety of cases and circumstances; and so that you 2) find the beginning of the next
sentence knit somehow into the end of the previous one. Much of the time, anyway:

Anders couldn't get to the bank until

just before it closed, so
of course the line was endless and
he got stuck behind two women whose
loud, stupid conversation put him in a
murderous temper.

He was never in the best of tempers

anyway, Anders a book critic known for
the weary, elegant savagery with which
he dispatched almost everything
he reviewed.

the line still doubled around the rope,
one of the tellers stuck a "POSITION
CLOSED" sign in her window and
walked to the back of the bank, where
she leaned against a desk and
began to pass the time with
a man shuffling papers.

The women in front of

Anders broke off their conversation and
watched the teller with

"Oh, that's nice," one of them said.

She turned to Anders and

added, confident of his accord, "One
of those little human touches that
keep us coming back for more."

Anders had conceived his own

towering hatred of the teller, but
he immediately turned it on the
presumptuous crybaby in front of him.

"Damned unfair," he said.

"Tragic, really.

they're not chopping off the
wrong leg, or
bombing your ancestral village,
they're closing their positions."

We see, in the third sentence, for example, 1) the line is still doubled around the rope; 2)
the teller sticks a sign in her window; 3) walks; 4) leans; and 5) begins to pass the time
with 6) a man who is shuffling papers. An immense flood of action and situation is
described here, managed by the Army Corps of Engineer-type sluice gates of with, and,
where, and with. And then this river of activity is then neatly merged with its natural
result: its effect on the women, who are 1) placed in front of Anders; 2) made to break off
their conversation; 3) made to watch the teller; and 4) made to be full of hate.

We find a similar, though somewhat less varied, approach in the opening paragraphs of
Wolff's 1985 story, "The Rich Brother". Here the sentences are much more frankly
composed of a front half and a back half: one thing compared to another thing, two
things coexisting with one another. This makes perfect sense, as the story itself operates

as a machine to compare and contrast Pete and Donald, the two brothers in this fable-like
story. Notice how these sentences tend to have explicit hinges, and how these hinges
create a propositional, logic-problem sort of feeling if X, then Y; if Y, then not Z; if A,
then possibly B. It is interesting to note, too, how well this overtly schematic approach
goes with the fable-y feeling overall. Here's the opening:

There were two brothers, Pete and Donald.

Pete, the older brother, was in real estate. He and his wife had a Century 21
franchise in Santa Cruz. Pete worked hard and made a lot of money, but not any
more than he thought he deserved. He had two daughters, a sailboat, a house
from which he could see a thin slice of the ocean, and friends doing well enough
in their own lives not to wish bad luck on him. [implied hinge] Donald, the
younger brother, was still single. He lived alone, painted houses when he found
the work, and got deeper in debt to Pete when he didn't.
No one would have taken them for brothers. Where Pete was stout and
hearty and at home in the world, [hinge] Donald was bony, grave, and
obsessed with the fate of his soul. Over the years Donald had worn the images
of two different Perfect Masters around his neck. Out of devotion to the second
of these he entered an ashram in Berkeley, where he nearly died of undiagnosed
hepatitis. By the time Pete finished paying the medical bills [hinge] Donald had
become a Christian. He drifted from church to church, then joined a pentacostal
community that met somewhere in the Mission District to sing in tongues and
swap prophecies.
Pete couldn't make sense of it. Their parents were both dead, but while they
were alive neither of them had found it necessary to believe in anything. They
managed to be decent people without making fools of themselves, and Pete had
the same ambition. He thought that the whole thing was an excuse for Donald to
take himself seriously.

Again, we're never given a chance to stop reading, as nearly every sentence, to mix
metaphors, contains a little narrative engine 47 of its own: a but or an and, or something
similar. The ands propel us further along the path we're taking; the buts change our
direction. 48

This technique is a cousin of Munro's; Wolff's technique differs in that it is deployed in

the service of action and, especially, external comparison. While Munro's and-but-or-
while-so-however complex is often used to describe the interior, contradictory nature of
a single character, Wolff's and-but-while complex tends to describe two different people
or situations. This is one reason Wolff's narratives are more forward and feel classically
active, while Munro's narratives tend to be circular and contemplative.

A third comparison: if each sentence is a cell, then the ands and buts are the mitochondria; and while the
major business of narrative content is performed by the nouns and verbs, these larger structures depend
invisibly on the fuel provided by these smaller, deceptively energetic bodies.
A fourth comparison might be to the rhythmic action of rowing each stroke containing an action, a change
of direction, and a second action, as the rower pulls against the water, lifts the paddles, and returns the oars to
the original position.

On Natural Dialog

Generally, good conversation is a glancing, inexplicit affair. 49 Topics are batted around,
dropped, picked up again, transitions are slight or nonexistent, and comedic recall is the
rule. Direct questions are almost never answered, and conversation instead tends to
ricochet from topic to topic as each speaker executes his own agenda. Good dialog
should aim to mimic this randomized, forward-tending movement, which resembles the
path of a steel ball through a pachinko machine:


Lots of Complex Verbal Interaction going on, et cetera.

In this exchange in Flannery O'Connor's "The River", notice how eight topics cascade and
return through a short dialog. This is an extreme and somewhat showy example, but
when writing dialog, do work toward a natural effect by breaking up rote question-and-
answer strings, by introducing new elements without elaborate preamble, and by
avoiding direct answers to direct questions.

Here the conversant in bold is Harry/Bevel's father. The unbolded dialog is Mrs.


A (fixing) He ain't fixed right.

A, B (time) Well then for Christ's sake fix him. It's six
o'clock in the morning.
C (money) D (judgment on the apt) And his and my carfare. It'll be twict we have to
ride the car. I couldn't smell those dead
cigarette butts long if I was ever to come sit with
C Here's the change.
B I know what time it is. I ought to. My shift goes
on at 10 PM and don't get off till 5 and it takes
me one hour to ride the Vine Street car.
E (planned return) Oh, I see. Well, we'll expect him back tonight,
about eight or nine?
F (plans with healer) Maybe later. We're going to the river to a
healing. This particular preacher don't get
around this way often. I
D wouldn't have paid for that. I would have drew
it myself.
E All right, Mrs. Connin, we'll see you then.
G (wife) Bring me an icepack.
G Too bad his mamma's sick. What's her trouble?
G We don't know.
F We'll ask the preacher to pray for her. He's
healed a lot of folks. The Reverend Bevel
Summers. Maybe she
G ought to see him sometime.
G, E Maybe so. We'll see you tonight.
F You'll like this preacher. The Reverend Bevel
Summers. You ought to hear him sing.
H (goodbye son) Good-by, old man. Have a good time.
H Good-by.
D I wouldn't have drew it.

A somewhat less extreme, more organic example is found in John Updike's "Walter
Briggs". Notice the way questions often go unanswered, but not unconsidered, and how
the conversation is handed off from Jack to Clare, then back again. They're driving
together with their young daughter asleep beside them, and together they're trying to
remember the name of a man they knew at a summer camp, where Jack and Clare both
worked, some years ago.

Jack: Now let's think about that fat man. It began with B. Baines. Bodds. Byron.
They went together, so you never thought of him as one name or the other but
as both run together. Walter Buh, buh isn't that maddening?

Clare: Byron sounds close. Remember he was so good at shuffleboard, and organized
the tournaments every week?

Jack: He played cards at night, in the rec hall. I can just see him, sitting there, on a
brown, steel, folding chair.

Clare: Didn't he live the rest of the year in Florida?

Jack: He used to sell plumbing equipment. He was retired. I should remember them
all. I wrote all their names down on those damn cards.

Clare: Yes you should. Who was that girl who had to leave the island because she
started throwing stones at people?

Jack: God, yes. Mentally disturbed, and awfully good-looking. And never said

Clare: She used to stand under trees and brood.

Jack: Oh, how Young worried with her! And that other Special Case, who was
always coming back on the train

The effect is of an exchange between intimates who know more than they're saying. Jack
and Clare's conversation resembles something like an archipelago of not-quite-connected
memories, with the great unseen depths of their mutual history only suggested.

And now for a list of fourteen suggestions.

1. Read your dialog aloud to yourself: literally. Listen for repetition, unnatural cadences,
and inappropriate formality.

2. Go easy on 'um', 'yeah', 'well', and other such placeholders. Spoken language is full of
these throwaway words. In written dialog they're often a sign of a conversation that has

yet to reach its core subject. If a line of dialog consists entirely of one of these words, you
can almost always do away with it.

3. Avoid having your characters answer direct questions. When a character asks, "What
time is it?" it's better to have the answer be along the lines of "Why do you want to
know?" than "Six o'clock." Answering a direct question brings conversation to a
momentary, and sometimes permanent, dead end.

4. Allow dialog to move in a nonlinear fashion. A better answer to "What time is it?" is
something like "I've never seen it get cold so fast" or "Did you ever write to your

5. Don't begin a story with a line of dialog.

6. Be funny. Jokes make for addictive reading. People who don't take themselves too
seriously are more attractive than somber types.

7. Don't overdo namedropping. People don't usually mention their interlocutors' names
in conversation. The exceptions car salesmen, chronic glad-handers are obvious.

8. In telephone conversations, cut to the quick. No need to include "hello" or "goodbye".

We know how the phone works. "The phone rang. It was Harry, wanting more money"
will get you to the crux of the conversation immediately.

9. The more intimate people are with one another, the less likely they are to address each
other's core concerns in an explicitly verbal way. People who know one another well
don't have to talk things over a whole lot; there are other, more efficient ways of

10. Similarly, people who have access to a common body of information are very
unlikely to spell things out explicitly. A husband will say to his wife, "The Herberts
drive me nuts" rather than explain to his wife that they've been roped into helping with
their neighbor's barbecue again. She knows, he knows. Find another way to tell your
readers the backstory, and allow the husband to complain. That's where the fun is

11. Remember that every character in a story has a life history. If the deliveryman
appears at Felicity's door, instead of him saying "Here's your package, ma'am", he ought
to say something that gives us a glimpse into his own world. We're all the stars of our
own lives; the deliveryman has just a cameo in Felicity's life but he is a star all the same.
What private joy does he bring to the door with him along with the package?

12. Don't worry if a conversation begins to take a strange and unexpected turn. In fact,
be very happy. This is a sign that the characters in question have begun to take on life.
Let them talk. Don't try to rein anybody in during a first draft: let them talk and talk and
talk. Much of what you produce you will have to discard. Discard dialog that does not
advance the story. But during the course of writing a draft you'll discover things about

your characters you didn't know before, and will likely discover what the story is really
supposed to be about.

13. As with any aspect of writing, often the first impulse that comes to mind isn't the right
one, but the second or third. If the first thing you can imagine your character saying feels
too familiar or too easy, pause and try to think of something else. Your readers ought to
be given fresh surprises all the way down the page, and if you're not surprised by what
your characters say, your readers won't be either.

14. It is daring and dramatic to have characters declare their loathing for one another. It
is more daring, and more difficult, to have your characters declare their love. Avoid easy
disaffection and the attractive 'emotionally numb' character by allowing your people to
feel, and talk about, the things they hold dear.


Or: Here Comes the Bus

In the hot, close work of writing fiction it is easy to produce an unwanted claustrophobic
effect, wherein every object, event, and setting contrives to be directly meaningful to the
characters, or their situation, or to both. Julie leaves the nursing home where her father is
dying and what else? sees a father and his daughter in the park, and her sorrow
deepens. Dexter, the plumber and adulterer, goes to dinner and overhears a
conversation about plumbing and/or adultery, and is plunged into guilt, so to speak.

The result of this sort of reduplication is the uneasy feeling that the shape of the character
exactly maps onto the shape of his or her world and that everywhere the character goes
he or she will find a tool, symbol, or meaningful interaction directly at hand, rather in the
way the adventurers in Philip K. Dick's Ubik, not knowing they're actually dead, find the
world shaping itself around their expectations with an uncanny obligingness, like a
vacuum-fitting suit. 50

Visually we might imagine this exact mapping to look something like this:

world of story character character mapped onto world of story

More optimally, we will implant our character within a world much larger than him or
herself, such that the diagram looks more like this:

character mapped onto larger world

We want to produce the impression that the characters we're following are moving as
free agents within a world not of their own making, where anything can happen, as it can
in life, and where meaning arrives in a sideways fashion, when it arrives at all. At any
rate we want to reproduce the uncanny unotherness of the world, or the World, its
fundamental unrelatedness to the self, with weirdo rays of unpredictable eventuality
arriving, seemingly at random, like this:

character receiving event radiation from the larger world, in wingdings font

The purposeful deployment of this claustrophobia can have powerfully disturbing effects, as in Kafka's "In
the Penal Colony".

Among the many means to produce the effect of a world underway without the character
("without" in both senses of the word) is, very simply, to have the character look into the
distance. 51 Sounds dumb, but it makes a big difference.

You can have a character look at the weather, at the mountains, at the sky, at the light in
the room, or at something in the distance.

For example, watch what happens in Flannery O'Connor's "The River" (again). Mrs.
Connin, the babysitter, has just retrieved Harry/Bevel from his apartment; they go to the
trolley stop. She's taking him on a day's outing:

they walked on to the corner and leaned against the side of a closed drugstore
to wait for her car. Mrs. Connin turned up her coat collar so that it met her hat in
the back. Her eyelids began to droop and she looked as if she might go to sleep
against the wall. The little boy put a slight pressure on her hand.
"What's your name?" she asked in a drowsy voice. "I don't know but only
your last name. I should have found out your first name."
His name was Harry Ashfield and he had never thought at any time before
of changing it. "Bevel," he said.
Mrs. Connin raised herself from the wall. "Why ain't that a coincident!" she
said. "I told you that's the name of this preacher!"
"Bevel," he repeated.
She stood looking down at him as if he had become a marvel to her. "I'll
have to see you meet him today," she said. "He's no ordinary preacher. He's a
healer. He couldn't do nothing for Mr. Connin though. Mr. Connin didn't have
the faith but he said he would try anything once. He had this griping in his gut."
The trolley appeared as a yellow spot at the end of the deserted street.

With a whoosh the eye travels that long distance a distance made longer because the
street is deserted, and made ominous for the same reason and the world of the story
becomes literally, physically enlarged. It's their trolley, yes but it's not there yet 52 .

A related moment occurs late in the story, when Harry/Bevel the next morning is the
first one awake in his apartment. His parents are hung over again, and he is at a familiar

He didn't wake up early but the apartment was still dark and close when he did.
For a while he lay there, picking his nose and eyes. Then he sat up in bed and

Again, there are many methods to suggest that a character is alive in a living world, but this ranks among the
neatest and quickest. First among the other methods must be the introduction of minor characters with wills of
their own (the UPS man with a life story).
"we walked to the road and stood in the bright hot morning beside the mailbox until the bus came up and
"It was the school bus, the one I rode back and forth to Frenchman's Bend to school in last winter, and that
Pete rode in every morning and evening until he graduated, but going in the opposite direction now, in to
Jefferson, and only on Saturday, seen for a long time down the long straight stretch of Valley road while other
people waiting beside other mailboxes got into it. Then it was our turn." William Faulkner, "Shall Not Perish"

looked out the window. The sun came in palely, stained gray by the glass.
Across the street at the Empire Hotel, a colored cleaning woman was looking
down from an upper window, resting her face on her folded arms.

Pourquoi? No reason, exactly, at least no reason that I can divine, except in the services
of physical enlargement 53 the idea being simply to place the character in a
contextualized, and therefore realized, world.

We may revisit Tobias Wolff's "The Rich Brother" here too. In this instance the looks
away into the larger world serve to ratchet the topic of conversation deeper and deeper:

There was a long silence between them as Pete drove on and the day
darkened toward evening. On either side of the road lay stubble-covered fields.
A line of low hills ran along the horizon, topped here and there with trees black
against the grey sky. In the approaching line of cars a driver turned on his
headlights. Pete did the same.
"So what happened?" he asked. "Farm life not your bag?"

And later:

Donald bent one knee onto the front seat and leaned against the door so that
he was facing Pete instead of the windshield. Pete was aware of Donald's
scrutiny. He waited. Night was coming on in a rush now, filling the hollows of
the land. Donald's long cheeks and deep-set eyes were dark with shadow. His
brow was white. "Do you ever dream about me?" Donald asked.

Some time passes, some stories get exchanged, and then:

The car topped a rise. In the distance Pete saw a cluster of lights that
blinked out when he started downhill. There was no moon. The sky was low
and black.
"Come to think about it," Pete said, "I did have a dream about you the other

These looks-away serve, in addition, as a means to introduce a natural pause in these

brothers' conversation, to introduce a possibly discomfiting lull, which Pete and Donald
feel compelled to fill.

This desirable attention-to-and-involvement-with-the-outside-world is related to similar

discussions involving character, complex nonverbal interactions, objects, and so forth.

This is not the sort of physical enlargement about which one receives so very much extra-friendly spam.


Or: Free Gift!

Alice Munro's sublime story "Walker Brothers Cowboy" (1968) begins like this:

After supper my father says, "Want to go down and see if the Lake's still
there?" We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making
clothes for me against the opening of school. She has ripped up for this purpose
an old suit and an old plaid wool dress of hers, and she has to cut and match
very cleverly and also make me stand and turn for endless fittings, sweaty,
itching from the hot wool, ungrateful. We leave my brother in bed in the little
screened porch at the end of the front verandah, and sometimes he kneels on his
bed and presses his face against the screen and calls mournfully, "Bring me an ice
cream cone!" but I call back, "You will be asleep," and do not even turn my head.

What color is the light above the mother?

Munro is an alien, in possession of a furious self-excoriating intelligence that earthlings

do not, as a rule, share. Her technology is very advanced, but now and then we can try
to back-engineer an effect to see how it has been produced. The light is yellow, of course,
and the room surrounding the mother is dark, and the mother is somewhat hunched
over. The mother's work is illuminated, while her face remains in relative shadow.
There is little other furniture in the room, and what there is stands dark against the
murky walls. None of this is there, of course (you may be surprised to note that there is no
table 54 , either, though it has a polished brown surface and reflects the yellow light) but it
is nonetheless there. How did it get there?

It is dangerous to go too far down this road, as we may be convinced that these effects
are 1) intentional; 2) producible at will. I don't think they are, as a rule. Rather, I suspect
they are most often the happy collision of a story with the reader's mind. The reader
arrives at the story with a ready databank of accessible imagery, and by a mysterious
associative process, images that are not mentioned are nonetheless evoked. If as writers
we try to produce these effects intentionally especially in the first draft we risk a
devastating paralysis. We may become afraid to take a false step, and will hesitate to
write anything imperfect. And anyway we're probably wrong about what imagery
we're producing in the mind of the common reader; we may intend one thing, and the
reader may imagine quite another.

For forensic purposes, however, we may investigate the yellow light: it is really just
uncannily there without being mentioned, and, like apes at the monolith, we cannot resist
creeping up to it and making some sort of primitive contact.

The first two sentences would appear to be the key here, the first hardly less than the

This is unrelated to the fact that "there is no spoon", the advice Neo receives before visiting the Oracle.

After supper my father says, "Want to go down and see if the Lake's still
there?" We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making
clothes for me against the opening of school.

The image produced is 1) old-fashioned; 2) domestic; 3) remote in time; 4) sorrowful.

Whence these things? Despite our uneasiness with this procedure we are driven to pop
off the back of this machinery and, removing piece-by-piece the innards of this passage,
we shall now attempt to see how these effects are produced.

After supper
"After", with its connotations of a finished thing, of a moving on, places us
immediately into a nostalgic mindframe. And the archaic "supper" holds
within its gentle bowl the notions of soup, the family table, formal
domesticity, rural getting-by, and time past. So: old-fashioned, domestic,
remote in time, sorrowful from two words.

my father says
It's "says", rather than "said", and the handy ambiguity of English at this
point sets this action both in the immediate present and the habitual past
so that this action is at once occurring now and at a series of
unspecified moments in history. So: remote in time. And, by faint
implication, sorrowful, as this is not the child speaking as a child, but the
adult observing herself as a child -- distant from her now presumably
absent father. And notice that it's it's "father" rather than "dad", which
sets the speaker at a certain psychological distance from him, and
calculates the long dive into the father's character that this story will

"Want to go down and see if the Lake's still there?"

Well, this is old-fashioned entertainment, all right. Not an X-Box in
sight. Old-fashioned, domestic, remote in time. And from the funky
capital L we get, simultaneously, the adult child's appreciation of her
father's goofy dadness and the child's primitive acceptance of things as
Things. And now that this time has presumably passed, we get sorrow.

We leave my mother sewing

"We leave" is the point here. It's the first time we see the mother, and she
is already being left before she's even mentioned. And notice that while
the father's verb "says" is an active/habitual verb, the verb form "sewing"
fastens mother in an indeterminate, smeared-out present. Father is
active, mother is static. As will be the case in the story to come. Sorrow,
sorrow, everywhere. And sewing? Please. Can't get more remote in
time than that.

under the dining-room light,

And here it is, the flux capacitor of this paragraph and the secret to its
weird transportative powers. We're already in a world of sorrowful old-
fashioned domesticity, and now we get a dining-room light. Mother has
already been verbally isolated from the reader's mind's eye. Now she's
visually set alone, too. And she's "under" the light, and with this, notice
how our eye automatically supplies the shadows both above the light
itself and around the mother. And notice how the table she works on is
automatically supplied 55 by the adjective "dining-room". Why? Maybe
because "table" is the automatic mental "first choice" to go after "dining-
room" so 56 the neural connections associated with "dining-room" cause
"dining-room table" to light up. And what does that table look like?
Obscure, brown, probably polished, and bringing along, in many cases,
its own set of associated sadnesses, including but not limited to 1)
formality itself, with its many necessary sorrows; 2) the basic
hopefulness of a dining- room table, the ideal and almost always
underexploited scene of enforced domestic success; 3) the deeply sad
impression that one is doing what one should by having a dining-room
table, that one is following, like a good domesticated adult, the rules set
down from on high, with the tertiary follow-on sadnesses implied in this
good behavior, that one is awaiting approval from the shadowy
ancestors that cluster around such a table, and the fundamental good-
child sadness that this suggests 57 . Dining rooms are just sad.

making clothes for me

Old-fashioned, remote in time, domestic and again she is fastened
into her indeterminate present by "making".

against the opening of school.

The slight archaism of "against" implies a mild antagonism, or at any rate
a setting-off-from, which reinforces our vision of here there alone, in

But why a yellow light? Here the ape-man has to put the device down and speculate. Are
sad isolated individual old-fashioned lights yellow? Is it just because solitary bulbs are
yellow can it be that simple? But this isn't just a naked bulb, of course, it's a light. Is it
the dimness that implies the yellow? But where does the dimness come from? From the
shadows? Do the surrounding shadows leak in and operate to dim the light? Is this a
cinematic image? Is there some photograph or scene we're bringing in as backup here?
Is it the combination of solitude and old-fashionedness which adds up, alchemically, to a
yellowish parchmenty shade? I don't know.

This table is not as universally seen as the yellow light; but the majority of readers do see it.
Speculating wildly now.
For the supreme description of good-child sadness, see Julia Whitty's description of Jimmy sinking helplessly
to the bottom of a frozen lake during a sledding accident: "Dying all those years ago in the lake was a seamless
experience. Jimmy lay on the bottom and the cold settled into him. It froze him, then froze him some more. He
became aware of his heartbeat slowing, the lengthening interval of stillness bracketing each contraction. It
seemed the right thing to do under the circumstances, and he remembers thinking, I am a good boy." from
"Jimmy Under Water", in A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga (2002).

Me ape-man.

Okay, one more.

Mary Robinson's short-short "Yours", from An Amateur's Guide to the Night (1983), opens
this way:

Allison struggled away from her white Renault, limping with the weight of
the last of the pumpkins. She found Clark in the twig-and-leaf-littered porch
behind the house.
He wore a wool shawl. He was moving up and back in a padded glider,
pushed by the ball of his slippered foot.
Allison lowered a big pumpkin, let it rest on the wide floor boards.
Clark was much older seventy-eight to Allison's thirty-five. They were
married. They were both quite tall and looked something alike in their facial
features. Allison wore a natural-hair wig. It was a thick blonde hood around her
face. She was dressed in bright-dyed denims today. She wore durable clothes,
usually, for she volunteered afternoons at a children's day-care center.
She put one of the smaller pumpkins on Clark's long lap. "Now, nothing
surreal," she told him. "Carve just a regular face. These are for kids." (p. 95)

All right: what color is their house? White, of course to match Allison's Renault 58 , I
suppose, but more to conform to the rest of the visual landscape, autumnal and
archetypically Northeastern. Rather than go phrase by phrase here, I'll just list the things
that reinforce the image of the house's archetypical Northeastern autumnal whiteness:

Allison, with its jaunty New Englandy properness, along with an aural briskness
provided by the short i;
white Renault, because of the color of course but also the air of money and an
upper-crust traditionalism;
pumpkins, being a traditional autumnal thing to do;
Clark, with its New Englandy stodginess and WASPy air;
twig-and-leaf-littered, suggestive of an archetypically moneyed-casual approach
to tidiness and domesticity;
wool shawl, padded glider, slippered foot, all ditto;
wide floor boards, meaning that this is an old house, indicative of their tastes
and possibly of their financial status;
both quite tall, suggestive of an inherited upper-crust willowy loomingness;
durable clothes, also suggestive of an archetypically moneyed-casual approach
to tidiness and domesticity;
volunteered afternoons, suggestive again of financial status;
long lap, suggestive of his height (see above); and
"Now, nothing surreal," suggestive of their respective educational backgrounds
and again of their positions within the hierarchy of class.

This may be a faint Proximate Effect.

Add it all up and you get a white house, because it's the sort of house these people would
have. In fact it's such a white house that your eye keeps scanning to make sure you didn't
miss its explicit statement. We almost find it in "wide floor boards", which sounds an
awful lot like "white floor boards" which coming after "white Renault" is almost certain
to be the case.

To repeat: the danger, again, is in trying to do this sort of thing on purpose, at least the
first or second time around. The best you can hope for is to get across something of the
impression, the feeling, that you're hoping to convey 59 . This is where a good, attentive
reader will be most useful to show you exactly what you're showing them.

In Climbing Mount Improbable, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins describes an elephant as just
elephant DNA's way of making more elephant DNA that, contrary to our macroscopic experience, the
elephant is just a vehicle for the transmission of information. So, too, are stories: they're vehicles for the
transmission of an otherwise ineffable or indescribable, often impressionistically defined, set of emotions or
experiences. The DNA of the story is the feeling that propels it, the sense of is-ness that originated it. The story
is the elephant for the transmission of this feeling. The reader, upon reading the story, decodes the emotional
DNA of the story; and so reproduction into the next generation is accomplished.

Or: Mom, He's Touching Me

Now and then you'll come across a phenomenon where a quality attributed to one object
manages to work its way loose from its proper owner and attach itself to something
nearby a weird, quantum-jumping effect that we are wise to be on the lookout for.
Heaven forbid the smell of bananas should attach itself somewhere we don't want it.

Experience suggests this is a somewhat subjective phenomenon, no doubt depending in

part on your personal bank of mental imagery; nonetheless, this notion is best illustrated
by example.

In Couples (1968), Piet Hanema and Matt Gallagher are old Army acquaintances and
longtime partners in a construction firm in the small town of Tarbox, Massachusetts.
Late in the novel, after Piet has proven himself a serial adulterer, Matt and Piet have a
rare private conversation. The scene is from Piet's point of view:

Matt spoke carefully, picking his words in such a way that Piet saw he was no
friend; one did not have to speak so carefully to friends. Matt had grown to
dislike him, and why not?he had grown to dislike Matt, since he had first seen
him, in a pressed private's uniform, his black button eyes as shiny as his shoes:
an eager beaver.

Now, what color is Matt's hair? Why, it's black and shiny, to match his shoes and his
eyes. And why do we think of his hair? That "beaver", suggestive here of a kind of pelt.

In Darrell Spencer's story "Until Alcohol is Made Legal", from Bring Your Legs With You
(2004), Las Vegas boxer Tommy Rooke is being coaxed out of retirement. At a small
fundraising party he meets a woman named Philadelphia. Philadelphia is married to one
of the money men. There is a mobbish vibe to the party, and Tommy's old dog, Vegas
Vic, is roaming poolside. We begin with Philadelphia, as seen by Tommy:

You can tell she has retiled herself in her early forties. She clunks the slider
closed and steps onto the patio. Her longish skirt is crinkled and reaches her
ankles. It's called a broomstick. You can roll them into the smallest ball for
traveling. Tommy's bought one for Jane [Tommy's wife]. Hers is blue-gray,
plum. This woman's is exactly the color of the wine Tommy was drinking
earlier. Vic barks. Once. Harrf.
Tommy says to the woman, "Do people really call you Philadelphia?"
She says, "My husband and people who aren't friends."

So what does her voice sound like? Sultry, a little rough. Why? Because of her name,
certainly, and because of the context 60 ; but most of all because we've got a certain sound
in our ears already. What is it? It's sultry. It's rough. It's from the dog. Harrf.

60The line between proximate effects and the more important process of associative bundling can be blurry, as
seen here.

In Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1925), Jake Barnes sets off from Pamplona on a
fishing expedition with his old friend Bill. The bus that takes them into the mountains is
full of locals, and some passengers ride on the roof, Jake and Bill among them. The scene
is everyday-celebratory, and leather wineskins are passed around, and an impromptu
demonstration of, or contest in, wineskin-squeezing takes place:

"No! No!" several Basques said. "Not like that." One snatched the bottle away
from the owner, who was himself about to give a demonstration. He was a
young fellow and he held the winebottle at full arms' length and raised it high
up, squeezing the leather bag with his hand so the stream of wine hissed into his
mouth. He held the bag out there, the wine making a flat, hard trajectory into his
mouth, and he kept on swallowing smoothly and regularly. (p. 105)

We hear the wine "fizzing" somehow, so we're surprised to see that the word "fizzing"
doesn't occur here. Where does the fizzing come from? We build it from the component
parts of "squeezing" and "hissed" which together make "fizzing".

This is a very minor effect and not much to be minded. We may occasionally find it
economical to use a man's shoes to represent also his hair, in a sort of partial synecdoche.
But proximate effects are most usefully considered during later drafts, when we are
combing through a manuscript looking for awkwardnesses and unintentional gaffes.