Small Cuts (5) James Again #fiction

This is a continuation of a series I started a long time ago. Maybe you remember it: two couples out for dinner together, the internal thoughts of each one? Read the opening thoughts of each of them: James, Elaine, Oliver and Genevieve. And now back to James again…

It always begins with words. Some will try to tell you it’s the sight of someone that brings on those first feelings of love, but that’s just lust, hormones, chemicals. Love, genuine affection, true feelings —they begin with words. The problems arise when the words are lies.

The ride home from the restaurant was quiet. I made several attempts at conversation, but gave up after receiving one or two word answers in return. I thought Elaine would say something about the way Genevieve and I talked for once. I wondered if she had noticed our hands touch across the table, or if she had been too enthralled with Ollie’s fawning. Whatever the case, she had no more words for me. Not tonight anyway.

I stole a quick glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Her pretty face was lighted from the glow of her phone’s screen. Facebook or Instagram, no doubt. She could spend hours scrolling through the newsfeed. Watching cooking videos for recipes she’d never try, taking trivia quizzes and commenting on all her many friends’ posts. Everyone’s highlight reel. I couldn’t understand it. It was fake life. By the time we got home, she would have posted photos of our meals, the selfie she took as soon as we got to our table and maybe a shot of me when I wasn’t looking. It was our fake life, too.

I met Elaine the old fashioned way —in a bar. I had gone out with a couple of other guys from the firm to celebrate winning a hard fought and highly lucrative settlement for our clients. The Bar was so named to attract the lawyers who had situated their offices strategically near the center city courthouse. Tonight my colleagues and I bought rounds of drinks for the house, toasted each other on our performances and got joyfully wasted in short order. So that was the state of things when Elaine and her friends walked in and settled at a table in the back. She was lovely. Flawless skin, dark hair she had piled in a loose bun with tendrils framing her face, dimples that appeared when she smiled —and she smiled often as I watched her.

For a man who needs to display unassailable confidence in front of the court, I am not especially outgoing when it comes to people in general. I am not unfriendly, just choosy about whom I decide to call a friend. So if not for alcohol fueled courage, I might never have approached the table of four women. Might never have talked with Elaine way past the time our friends had left for the night. All those words…

Sometimes, when that initial lust, those hormones and chemicals make the brain function poorly, you pretend. You pretend that every word the other person says to you is the most interesting thing in the world. You agree about everything. You like all the same things. You fake your way through topics of conversation in which you haven’t a clue. You hope the other person doesn’t notice.

I didn’t notice. Out of character, I did most of the talking, Elaine smiled, nodded, agreed, seemed genuinely interested. In retrospect, I realized that she asked questions to keep me talking —a deflection so I would’t catch on that she knew nothing about history, the law, classical music, Renaissance art. When last call came I was besotted. I asked her if we could see each other again and she readily agreed. I kissed her goodnight as she got into a taxi.

On our first date, I took her to the art museum. She had seemed enthusiastic that night at The Bar when I told her about the exhibit I wanted to see. She played the part perfectly that day and the next time we went out and for all the times after that as well. We fell in love. I proposed. We got married.

When in a relationship do the blinders come off? Or for that matter, when do we take our masks off and show our true selves? It’s never abrupt, rather more like a subtle slippage over time. Begging off on the gallery opening, staring at her iPad instead of the film on TV, playing her streaming music instead of mine. I can’t remember ever really noticing, not until I saw how she was with Oliver. It was the way we used to be in the beginning. Except this time, it didn’t feel like she was pretending.

Connecting the dots: writing between the action

Working out the issues in novel writing.

What do you think is the hardest thing for a writer to write? For many, it’s finding a way to connect the dots, or points of action in the plot. After all, your writing cannot be non-stop action. (That’s a very clumsy sentence and I apologize.)  When you start writing, maybe you begin with a short story or a piece of flash fiction. Both are excellent ways to dip your toes into the pool of storytelling. However, with pieces of short fiction, you have only a small space to present your plot from inception to conclusion and that leaves no room for “downtime.” The action of the story will take place all at once. Maybe you excel at, and enjoy short story writing and you want to continue. If so, you can stop reading now!

If, however, you want to move into the world of long-form fiction, or novel writing, then you need to find a way to add and fill spaces between the action bits. You can imagine your storyline as a radio wave, with peaks and valleys rising and falling as each conflict presents itself and is resolved. Or as a set of stairs where the action climbs then levels off, then builds again and finally reaches the top floor or conclusion.

A story has two basic engines that drive it along: the characters and the plot. A character-driven story is one in which something about the character’s essential self, leads to a particular action or event in the story. For example, your female lead may be fiercely independent which causes her to reject help from friends or family to overcome the obstacle she is facing. Her individuality is going to greatly effect the way the action proceeds.

A plot-driven story is one in which the actions taken by the characters in a story result in a particular plot point. But in this case, the action is driving the plot, not the qualities of the character’s personality.

Independent from that, external circumstances outside the characters’ control will influence both plot and character driven stories. For example, imagine that a super storm is about to hit the East Coast of the USA, your characters are trapped in harm’s way, how will they survive? The actions they take as well as the motivations that impel them are the two aspects of spinning a tale. Tension builds as the storm approaches, but for a time, at least, there is not much going on. If you excel at writing action scenes, these downtimes between crises might prove to be daunting. What to do?

The lulls between these sequences of action are the perfect times to explore your characters’ personalities. How are they managing in the situation in which they find themselves? Are their strengths or weaknesses being revealed? What are their motivations for acting/reacting the way they do?

Let’s take the super storm scenario and suppose our main character is a nurse in a hospital in Savannah, Georgia – a city directly in the path of the storm. Let’s call her Ellen. The patients of the hospital need to be evacuated and Nurse Ellen is selected to stay to the bitter end. The suspense in the story escalates as the weather rapidly deteriorates. Only a few of the patients are left in the hospital with just one doctor and Nurse Ellen. The water is rising and the winds are too high for the ambulances to get back for one last trip. The 6 people left behind will have to hunker down and try to ride it out. A character-driven story now asks the writer to show Nurse Ellen being a strong, capable leader or alternatively to show her falling apart as she realizes she may never see her husband and young child again. We may even see a little bit of both. Nevertheless, during this time of waiting, Nurse Ellen’s inner self is revealed.

Now is the time for meaningful dialogue among the characters. For our purposes, let’s suppose that Ellen is going to shine during the crisis and not fall apart. She will care for and comfort the few remaining patients. Perhaps the doctor is the one coming unglued and Ellen has to deal with him panicking and not pulling his weight! The way she speaks, the words she chooses, and her movements will show the reader what kind of person she is. The writer may include Ellen’s thoughts and internal conflict by describing her facial expressions and body language. She may frown, bite her fingernails, twirl a lock of hair, rub her face, wring her hands… things like that. And even though the action is at a low point, the story moves forward. We the reader, are engaged while we wait for the next disaster to hit!

With a look inside the mind of the characters, they become real, fully immersed in the story and the conflict. And without it, they remain generic and unrelatable. It’s hard to sympathize with them, to root for them to overcome their obstacles and triumph in the face of danger. By using the space between the dots, we fully develop the depth and breadth of an excellent story.

Now, I’m off to write a disaster story, starring Nurse Ellen! Happy writing!

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe…

Inspire:  breathe in

Inspire:  fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative

Writers look for inspiration everywhere.  In some of my previous posts I’ve mentioned finding inspiration in music, in art, and in my own personal life experiences.  Having your senses stimulated this way, often fires your creative process.  There’s another way, though…

Like the rest of you, my life is busy and my mind can be a very noisy and messy place.  It can get to the point where it feels like I can’t catch my breath.  Maybe even like I’m under water.  When that happens, it’s time to take a break and find some quiet time.  For me, that means getting outside, no matter the weather.  Walking the country roads past the crumbling old walls that line the pastures, I let my mind wander.  There’s a fallen down barn on the dirt road about a mile away.  The red-tailed hawks perch on the half-rotted beams and watch for field mice and rabbits in the tall grass.  The wind sighing, the birds singing, the chatter of the squirrels is the only music to my ears.  Cross the creek, rushing with last night’s rain.  The smell of damp leaves, the early spring mud, all loamy and decayed.

Breathe it in deeply.  Inspire…

Maybe you live in the city and can’t get out into nature that easily.   Go out and walk the sidewalks, enjoy the sunshine, the hum of traffic, the jostle of people hurrying to their destinations.  Spend an hour, if you have it, without your phone.  Ignore the texts, e-mails and alerts for a while.  They’ll be there when you get back.  Find a park, sprawl on a bench, listen to the buzz of conversations going on around you, the laughter of children playing.  Let it be like white noise, vague and mesmerizing.

Inspire…

Now go home and write something beautiful.