First, See

Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes — study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.

—Dinaw Mengestu, from Tin House

SxS: How Did I Get Here from There?

Johnny Hake, the eponymous thief in John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” has just returned home in the dark from his burglary in the bedroom of Carl and Sheila Warburton:

Back in my own dark kitchen, I drank three or four glasses of water. I must have stood by the kitchen sink for a half hour or longer before I thought of looking in Carl’s wallet. I went into the cellarway and shut the cellar door before I turned on the light. There was a little over nine hundred dollars. I turned the light off and went back into the dark kitchen. Oh, I never knew that a man could be so miserable and that the mind could open up so many chambers and fill them with self-reproach! Where were the trout streams of my youth, and other innocent pleasures? The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins — your head would swim — and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure. I was crying.

I should have warned you: after you lift the lid on this paragraph and pour the water into Johnny at the top, some of it will come leaking out the bottom, in tears. In between, though, how expertly Johnny and you are moved under Cheever’s direction. Likely, you’re not a housebreaker, but don’t tell me you haven’t been caught in one of those complicated emotional binds that has prompted you to remember, longingly, and uselessly, when everything was much simpler. And certainly you’ve confronted the accompanying question, How did I get here from there?

I enjoy considering the spaces Cheever moves us into and out of, from the dark, still, troubled, enclosed present to the pungent, open, vibrant settings of irretrievable childhood. And I appreciate the play with fullness — full is that wallet, and the woods and waters of long-ago, but filling also are rooms of the mind, “with self-reproach.”

What most draws my interest, though, is the close of the paragraph, in particular that 52-word fragment that helps us break with Hake into the fresh outdoor freedom of his youth, before we are returned to the dark kitchen with the three-word, grieving endpoint: “I was crying.”

The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins—your head would swim—and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure.

Cheever interrupts the fragment twice. First, having brought to our noses that “wet-leather smell” of the rushing streams and rain-sharpened forest, and the “grassy breath of Holsteins” in the warm air blowing over the baseball field, he takes us one step further in to Johnny’s boyhood with the second-person invitation: “your head would swim.” For this moment, it’s as if Hake is talking directly to us; we’re nearly there with him. And then we’re withdrawing; our mental swimming leads back to the water, the brooks, which are full. I find it fascinating that right here Cheever inserts the second interruption: “or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen.” It’s an explanatory note, a reminder from the despairing present, separating the brooks from what they were full of, or imagined to be full of — trout, that innocent treasure. Sunken then, and moreso now. (The intruding parentheses, by the way, deliver a clever suggestion of Johnny’s present entrapment.) Though just delightfully aswim, we’ve got a kitchen floor under us, and darkness around us, and tears. How deep a sense of loss opens at Johnny’s moment of gain (nine hundred dollars!).  

This I steal for admiration: that the most complicated construction in the paragraph is a fragment depicting a simpler time. And what follows it is the simplest of complete sentences, from the most complicated of predicaments. 

SxS: Together and Apart

The other day, while stopped at a red light, I watched a woman descend the steps of a city bus carrying a large, cased instrument before her. On the sidewalk, she strapped the instrument to her back and adjusted it, and then she walked off. The light turned, and I turned to trying to recall a sentence I once knew.  

When I got home, I found it. Sofia Haines, a talented student from my "Emulations" class last fall at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, wrote it. Or maybe I should say she arrived at it: it followed several pages of character description in an early draft of a story she was writing.

He had often watched her lug the hefty instrument on and off the bus they both took each Tuesday to the center of town, where he went to his grandfather’s general store and she to her cello lesson. 

Now here was — and is — a beginning! A story is launched. The language throughout is simple; there is no straining for effect. There is, rather, clarity and a careful ordering of information. Notice how the immediately established point of view (“He had often watched her”) gains more and more narrative context as the sentence unfolds and we pan back. Following the hinge of that single, central comma, we peek at how different his Tuesdays in town are from hers. Learning of their distinctly separate destinations, I hear that "often" (from the start) a bit differently — I hear in it a kind of attentive longing he may be feeling. I can't know yet if my reading is accurate; I must read on. 

Every word in the sentence has a job and does that job well. I admire how Sofia withholds until the end just what that large instrument is, sustaining our curiosity. And I particularly like "on and off" for how the colloquial phrase makes me see him, regularly: he is on the bus already when she gets on; and, when the bus arrives in town, he is either behind her in the center aisle as the passengers file off, or (my preference) he is already on the sidewalk and glancing back at her — and at her cello.

Such efficient exposition. He had often watched her. Soon he will do more, won’t he?

"In character and beyond character"

I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.

— Flannery O’Connor (thanks to Matt Bell)

"Two of the greatest pleasures in fiction"

“Ambiguity, too many writers forget, comes with any and all language use. It’s a bigger accomplishment, as a writer, to make up a credible character who doesn’t know all the words we know, and it’s a greater artistic generosity to put readers in a (fictional) position of certainty and power. Two of the greatest pleasures in fiction include feeling — even for a moment — what it is to know, and feeling, intensely, what it is to be almost completely unsure.”   

— Daniel Bosch

Read "The Incredible Anthony Hecht"!

SxS: Flaubert on How to Look and Feel like Death

Emma Bovary, returning again from passionate hours with Léon in the city, sits among others in the stagecoach. Flaubert — and, dutifully following, translator Francis Steegmuller — gives us the others first:

One by one the Hirondelle’s passengers would fall asleep, some with their mouths open, others with their chins on their chests, leaning on their neighbor’s shoulder or with an arm in the strap, all the while rocking steadily with the motion of the coach; and the gleam of the lamp, swaying outside above the rumps of the shaft-horses and shining in through the chocolate-colored calico curtains, cast blood-red shadows on all those motionless travelers.

See how Flaubert directs us to see. First, the portraits of sleep — the open mouths here, the bowed heads there, the sideways slumps, the limp arms. Sleep has stilled the passengers. But then each member of this tableau is “rocking steadily” (“tout en oscillant régulièrement”) as the coach travels on, and we see these bodies — these heads, shoulders, arms — more clearly owing to the motion.

At the semicolon we reach the hinge of the sentence. We leave these bodies for a moment and move outside the coach to the source of the action — to where the horses pull; we need only see their “rumps” to know of their exertion. The “swaying” lamp above the rumps will take us right back inside, with both moving and colored light that will re-present the travelers. When we see the sleepers again, “blood-red shadows” pass over them; the overlay has the effect not only of re-stilling them but deadening them. And yet we know that they are being jostled by the movement of the coach. I love that Flaubert insists on referring to the travelers as “motionless” (“ces individus immobiles”). I think this tension vivifies them, ironically, in the mind’s eye, and that last untrue adjective underlines their unconsciousness; they feel nothing. They areemotionless.

The perfect set-up for introduction into the paragraph of our suffering heroine, in a sentence whose relative brevity contributes to her insularity. As Steegmuller translates:

Emma, numb with sadness, would shiver under her coat; her feet would grow colder and colder, and she felt like death.

The nothing she feels is from feeling too much. Her involuntary motion is from a different source — not from without but within, “under her coat.” The body part Flaubert shares is her feet, also from within (“colder and colder”). She does not look like death but explicitly feels it.

(For more related to stagecoach horses and the swaying lamps above them, see “From out of the darkness.”)

SxS: From Beginnings to Ends to In-Betweens

We open Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and read:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

So much to enjoy about these two sentences, which constitute the first paragraph of the novel and, in opening our introduction to Professor Pnin, provide a head-to-toe portrait of the man. One of the immediate effects for me is delight in Nabokov’s patient precision, which has me not so much reading the sentences as experiencing them. Pnin is traveling on that train, and I am traveling as well, with expectation, from beginnings through middles to ends.

The playfulness with beginnings and ends is of course explicit in the verbs of the second sentence: Pnin “began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his … but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” We leave the station at the dome (“impressively”) and arrive at the feet (“disappointingly”).

Now take a look back at the opening sentence and see that it, too, is built for arrival, but of a different kind. We begin with “the elderly passenger,” isolated for consideration by our narrator, and isolated as well by those empty seats around him, but not until we’ve reached the end — and have experienced the emphatic drum roll of “none other than,” a moment of withholding — do we have a name for the man, professional title included.

In each case we are in a different place come the period; we have traveled and arrived. The sentence itself is an act of discovery (for us), movement toward revelation.

What has been revealed, interestingly, is quite a lot of in-between about Pnin: He’s elderly, but if you get close enough — step inside that first set of parentheses — you’ll see the “infantile absence of eyebrows.” He is “ideally bald,” with additional features that our narrator modifies as “apish,” “thick,” “strong-man,” and yet look at those “spindly legs” and “frail-looking, feminine feet.” (At the close of the next paragraph of the novel we will learn that “except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself.” He’s not only physically composed of both the masculine and the feminine; he’s physically positioned between the masculine and the feminine.) 

And naturally, as a traveler on that moving train, Pnin is in an in-between place. I want to say that Nabokov promptly places us in a kind of in-between place as well with the repetition of the demonstrative “that”: “that inexorably moving railway coach,” “that great brown dome of his.” We’ve only just begun this novel; we don’t know anything, really, about this train or this particular man on it; but in these instances we’re spoken to as if we do know. We’re at once distant, observing, and close, knowing. 

That’s where Nabokov wants us: we’re about to know something more that will make us understand what’s especially inexorable about that train, and that will worry “that great brown dome.” We’ll arrive at the knowledge before Pnin does:

"Now a secret must be imparted," Nabokov writes at the start of paragraph three. "Professor Pnin was on the wrong train." 

That’s a whole new kind of in-between. We read on, inexorably.

(For more from the Characters-on-Trains file, click here.)

SxS: The Space Between

I have just finished rereading Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story” and am happy to be reacquainted with the reasons I’ve considered it one of my favorite stories. (An additional reason, I’ve discovered, is not on the page but asleep in her crib as I write.) My admiration of the whole work — character, voice, structure, and more — makes my consideration of the interplay of two quiet sentences feel terribly insufficient. I’m going to delight over just a couple of small trees (well, there’s really only one tree, as you’ll see) and feel beholden to the extraordinary forest.

But Dubus wrote the sentences; he made them, and put them side by side, and put them in the story. And so on I go with my chosen task and my magnifying glass, offering the barest in narrative context … 

The wind has been blowing all night, until now:

I looked at the still maple near the window, and thought of the wind leaving farms and towns and the coast, going out over the sea to die on the waves. I smoked and gazed out the window.

Unremarkable these sentences seem, but the more time I spend with them, the more I admire what Dubus has done, even without reflection on how beautifully they operate in the story.

See how stillness — of the maple tree, first, and of the narrator with cigarette (Luke Ripley is his name), second — surrounds movement in this excerpt. (The repetition of “the window” makes this framing clear to the ear.) Now notice how the landscape of Luke’s thought expands from “farms” to “towns” to “the coast” to the open sea; there are no barriers for the departing wind. There’s a lovely tension here between not only stillness and movement but also internal and external spaces, and that includes the imagined (internal) image of the wind, or where it blows, and the concrete (external) looked-at object, that maple tree.

Let’s zoom in on where the first, longer sentence ends and the short second sentence begins. From a construction of thirty-one words organized in three balanced parts (see the placement of the commas) we enter a seven-word sentence whose only punctuation, the terminal comma, we reach promptly. Now hear the song in the final phrase of the first sentence — “over the sea to die on the waves” — and how it runs into the prosaic, factual, conciseness of “I smoked and gazed out the window.” Picture that free-flowing wind crossing vast open distances, and then the cigarette smoke collecting inside. Luke Ripley stands still in his smoke, looking through the window at that maple tree that also stands still, wind-less.

The trapped longing, even helplessness — the sense of being no greater than human — that I feel operating in this small sample fits the story, certainly. It also prompts me to envision the next time I will teach the story. I often make model sentences big by projecting them on a screen so that my students can join me in feeling closer to the functioning parts, and in turn more aware of the small but significant choices a writer has made. I imagine that the next time I teach “A Father’s Story” I will put my finger down on the space between these two sentences and say, “This is what we’re after.” Precisely here, in this absence that is transition, in this quiet movement from the internal life to the external reality, is evidence of the empathic imagination at work, the sensibility that a fiction-writer must practice in order to render character compellingly and authentically.

I need a word for the space between sentences.

SxS: A Sentence in Six Acts


To consider how T.C. Boyle introduces person, place, and predicament in the opening sentence of his novel When the Killing’s Done, let’s go phrase by phrase: 

[1] Picture her there in the pinched little galley

No fooling around with exposition: we are prompted to see “her” immediately in this cramped space. And the use of a pronoun — instead of her name — brings us close, assuming our familiarity (the redundancy of “pinched” and “little,” establishing the colloquial voice,  contributes to the familiar feel). 

[2] where you could barely stand up without cracking your head,

And now we’re closer. Having been directly addressed (“you”), we, too, are hunched in the galley. What was “there” in the galley feels more like “here" in the galley.

[3] her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make

Now that Boyle has us beside “her,” sharing the tight space, it’s time for empathizing, in a couple of ways: physically, in reaction to the pain of the “raw and stinging” burn, and emotionally, in consideration of the tension between a sense of duty and the questioning of it. At this point, we question as well: for whom did she perform — or try to perform — this duty? 

[4] so they could have something to keep them going,

The camera pans back in answer: “they” need her support, or at least that’s how she thinks. Notice that we’ve entered her thinking; we’re no longer just “picturing” her. Yes, we’re listening to the narrator still, of course, but “something to keep them going” is a phrase colloquial and vague enough that it could be hers, to herself (a moment of free indirect style). And with that phrase emerges a new question: “to keep them going” where? Doing what? Why? Boyle gestures to the larger story, outside this galley, and for a moment our attention is directed forward, is future-oriented.  

[5] a good sport, always a good sport,

Whose words are these? I receive them as the words of the crew (the absent “they”) as they sound inside “her” mind; the repetition in the phrasing is self-sustaining. Although the camera panned back a moment ago, we’re now zoomed-in, closer than we’ve ever been to her.

[6] though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

To exit, we’ve returned to the omniscient narrator’s direction; the panning-back is retrospective, informing us of what went on before we ever tried to “picture her” — and what went on (“vomiting”) is a consequence of the greater situation on this boat.

All together now:

Picture her there in the pinched little galley where you could barely stand up without cracking your head, her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make so they could have something to keep them going, a good sport, always a good sport, though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

Mirroring her position inside the boat — “there in the pinched little galley” — her predicament is nested within a larger scenario, clearly a troubled one. Not a bad sentence to mimic, phrase by phrase, to launch story-making, or -finding.

SxS: The Blouse


From Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, as translated by Daphne Hardy:

From time to time, when Rubashov was tired by dictating, he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move; then he found the phrase he had been searching for, and, resuming his wandering through the room, he went on dictating.

Nothing much seems to happen in this sentence of simple phrasing and language, but that what does happen is packaged into a single sentence of three parts, hinged by semicolons, is of interest to me. Part One prompts the question: Is something going to happen? Part Two answers: No. Part Three responds, Okay, then; where were we? But we’re told that this sequence of actions happens “from time to time” — that is, repeatedly; if that’s the case, the silent, still tension in Part Two increases.

I want to look more closely at that middle act: “under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move.” The whole sentence is written in a seemingly innocent third-person; this is mere reportage, just the facts. Reference to “the blouse,” with that definite article, appears at first to maintain this distance. But as I read what surrounds the blouse and hear the possessive pronouns — “… he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move” — I notice more that “the,” and, fleetingly, I sense a slight crack in the omniscient delivery; I receive Rubashov’s point of view, his desire, his focus on what comes between his hands and her warm skin.

And while we’re talking about what surrounds that blouse, it’s interesting that “the blouse” appears at the exact center of this construction, no?

From time to time, when Rubashov was tired by dictating, he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under   [27 words]

the blouse

her warm shoulders did not move; then he found the phrase he had been searching for, and, resuming his wandering through the room, he went on dictating.  [27 words]

Koestler, or his translator, has us join Rubashov in focusing on it.