Wedding Rice

 

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The reception was drawing to its close, the tables had all been cleared, the music had ceased to play, and all of the guests had flocked to the front-lawn, waiting to cheer the new couple on their way to the honeymoon. Just through the front door and halfway down the connecting hallway, the groom, James, and his new father-in-law were waiting on the bride and her mother, who were in an adjoining room. James was grateful for the opportunity to be alone with the father, he had noted the elder having a somber moment earlier and wanted to ask him about it.

“How are you doing?” he approached gently. “I noticed you seemed a bit affected earlier.”

“You mean when I left all of a sudden?” Hector clarified. “Yes, I surprised even myself, getting so emotional like that. I suppose it was just the reality of it all setting in, the weight of the loss. Of course it is a happy day, but there’s still a loss to it as well.”

James nodded sympathetically. “I can imagine.”

“What is that loss, though, James? That I can’t answer. I don’t buy into the cliché ‘I’m losing my daughter’ nonsense. She’s still just as much my daughter as before, and yet–” he gesticulated with open palms his inability to finish the sentence.

“The loss of your relationship, perhaps?” James suggested. “She’ll still be your daughter, but not your little girl.”

Hector nodded solemnly. “That’s it. That’s it exactly. I couldn’t put the name to it before, but somehow my subconscious knew. All tonight it’s been bringing up to me happy, old memories of her as that ‘little girl’, I guess it was so I could say my good-byes.”

 

“I have so many memories of you as a little girl here, and now here I am saying my good-byes to her.”

Ada’s mother, Penny, had come to help with the last of the packing in the old, childhood room. In preparation for their evening flight Ada had changed into a simple skirt and jacket, both considerably more relaxed and subtle than her dress, though they were still white to keep with the wedding theme. Now she was rummaging through the old closet and shelves for any last childhood mementos she wanted to take with her. Everything else was destined for storage, at least until Penny would be able to stomach the idea of a yard sale.

“It’s only good-bye now?” Ada teased with a smile. “It’s not as though I’ve actually been living here for the last–what has it been?–five years.”

“Yes, but your things were still here. Now the room will be left barren.” It was an unfortunate choice of words, and Penny quickly looked downwards to try and hide the fresh emotion welling in her eyes. Ada had felt the same tremor, though, and paused her packing to look to her mother in kind pity. Penny wiped her eyes and, with decent composure, addressed the moment. “I always did feel guilty that you were alone in here. I know every girl longs for a room of her own, but I’m sure she longs for a sister more.”

“How could you feel guilty?” Ada asked with a sort of sympathetic-yet-disapproving tone. “Guilt isn’t for things you have no control over.”

“You don’t need to tell me its of no use, I know it. But believe me, it’s still there just the same. It was the same with your Father, too. I could tell he always felt so guilty that he wasn’t doing enough.” Her somber tone broke with a smile as a memory flitted across her mind. “I remember one evening how he wouldn’t stop doting on me in the hospital until I threatened him with my dinner knife!”

 

“Any last minute threats for me while you have the chance?” James asked with a cheeky grin.

Hector smiled too, but shook his head. “No threats. If I did, I would sound a hypocrite anyways, you’ve heard me talk about my ‘wild’ streak. From the moment Ada introduced us to you I was glad to see you’re a different sort of man.”

James wasn’t sure how to respond to this, would thanking him for the favorable comparison sound like condemnation? Thankfully, Hector didn’t seem to be expecting a reply as he continued reminiscing.

“In fact, the memory of Ada I’ve been thinking most of was with her as a little girl on my parents’ orchard, you know the one. Well they acquired that place specifically to help me with my struggles. To this day they still keep it on as a therapeutic retreat for other troubled kids. You go there and you’re responsible for a plot, it’ll thrive or die based off of the commitment you bring to it. It takes a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of believing in something other than yourself. I swear, there were trees and bushes there that I loved and cared for as if they were people.”

This was a topic of Hector’s life that he had only ever brought up once before, and then only briefly, so James still maintained silence, not wanting to pry. Hector continued. “Of course when I learned I was going to be a father I was well past those years, but still I was so afraid of passing on all my bad parts to my child. It’s been no small comfort to watch her grow and see how good she’s always been, so complete and whole.”

 

“Mom, my whole life I’ve always felt our family was complete,” Ada assured. “In some ways it simplified things to know that the three of us was just what we were supposed to be.”

Penny smiled ruefully. “There were times while carrying you that I worried whether or not it would always be the ‘three of us’. Oh you needn’t look so alarmed, the doctors were very positive and reassuring, but you know how the mind always goes to the worst. I thought that at the very least if I could just deliver this child, well then there would be someone to fill my place if I was gone.”

“Well I’m glad I didn’t grow up with that burden!” Ada laughed.

“No, that wouldn’t be fair on anyone, would it!” Penny chuckled as well. “Of course as soon as I saw you I stopped all that mopey nonsense. I knew I had to stick around to see that this little bundle was well taken care of.”

 

“Well you took good care of her,” James said sincerely. “I mean Ada has a good heart all on her own, but don’t discount what you did to nurture and cultivate that. You let her develop healthy and secure, and did the hard work necessary to not pass on the same challenges you faced.”

Hector shrugged modestly. “That has, certainly, always been my hope.”

“And it’s been more than a few times she’s shared with me how positive your influence on her has been. So in her eyes, you’ve succeeded.”

Hector stared down at the carpet, apparently not comfortable with the idea of showing tears to his son-in-law just yet.

James did him the courtesy of looking away, instead turning his eyes to the back of his hand where shriveled flesh and burn marks traced up over his wrist and continued under the cuff of his shirtsleeve. It prompted him to speak further. “When Ada and I were starting to talk about a life together, I thought a lot about my scars, and it was a great comfort to me that none of them would be passed on to my children, that despite my being warped, I can still create something beautiful. I guess that’s the role of fathers, to bear their ugly burdens so their children don’t have to.”

 

“Of course, every mother carries the heaviest burdens for their children,” Ada said softly, resting her hand on her mother’s belly.

“It is hard,” Penny agreed, “but if you take anything from all this conversation, it should be that while this whole family thing may be difficult, it is so very worth it…. You, Ada…”

Ada smiled in understanding, her hand still over her mother’s core, her eyes on her mother’s heart. “I know you made a space for me to fill, and now it aches because I’m leaving a void there, but I promise mine won’t be the only child’s voice to ring between those walls.”

Penny nodded appreciatively. “There needs to be an emptiness first, so there is place to receive the new.”

They paused for a moment, then Ada shrugged back to reality and exclaimed “Well look at the two of us! They must be wondering what’s taking so long.” The suitcase snapped shut and the two made their way out to the hallway.

 

“Sorry we’ve kept you,” Penny said. “It’s all my fault, of course. What have you two been up to? Just talking about sports and hunting?”

“And you two about makeup and jewelry?” Hector teased back.

Penny smiled. “Well, I’m sure we’ve kept everyone waiting long enough. Hector and I will go outside and make sure they’re all prepared, you follow us in another twenty seconds.”

As the new couple was left alone they instinctively held hands, yet stood in silence, mulling over their individual thoughts. James noticed a bowl of rice perched on a nearby end table, an indicator of what was awaiting them outside. He remembered that the rice is the seed of the plant, and it struck him that ancestral generations spent each year parting with a portion of their life, all in the faith that it would bring them back more again. Even the broken and discolored ones could produce a new plant, whole and full.

Ada looked down the darkened hall at the open doorway to her childhood room, from which a soft, white sunlight spilled into the void. That light was fading as the sun outside was setting, though it would brighten again the next morning.  As she focused on the growing dimness and the resonating silence ringing throughout the home, she gradually became aware of the muffled voices of their loved ones on the other side of the door, all their words unintelligible, seeming like vague mutterings only half-received through a thick veil.

James looked to her. “Are you ready to go?” She met his gaze, nodded, and they, the last ones left in the home, left its hollow shadows to step out into the dusky light.

***

Well there it is, the culmination of these wedding-setting pieces. Please note that in this one I have tried to blend all three of the elements mentioned in Monday’s post. The plot, admittedly, is in miniature, but it does occur in the transitions from one room’s conversation to the other, and in the gestation of the core ideas which progress linearly from start to finish. The dialogue took up the main bulk of the piece, not only in what was spoken, but also in the human emotions and reactions being illustrated. And there is a smattering of descriptions, particularly at the end, which is meant to reinforce the messages from the plot and dialogue. And speaking of that message, there is a consistent theming I tried to maintain throughout all of the previous three pieces (Caterpillars, The House’s Finest Hour, Scars and Soothing) and then in this one as well; themes of wholeness from brokenness, fullness from emptiness, gain from loss, joy from travail.

I’ve enjoyed this series of pieces I’ve developed over the last four weeks, and I rather like the set they all form together. It’s time to call it to a close, though, and next week I’ll be shifting on setting and tone entirely. Check back Monday to see where we’re going next!

Plot, Descriptions, and Dialogue

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been sharing a few short pieces, Caterpillars, The House’s Finest Hour, and Scars and Soothing, all of which have shared the same setting and theme, but each have presented a different component of a whole story. There are many ways that a story could be divided into parts, today we’ll be looking at just one of those possible divisions. When written out, a story is nothing more than a collection of words, and the vast majority of those words could be divided into the categories of plot, description, and dialogue.

Plot: In this instance I am referring to the times when you write something into your story for the express purpose of moving the plot along. These are those turning points where something unforeseen comes into the fray so that we can move from one arc into the next. When you are summarizing your story to someone it is the plot that you tell, and it is the skeletal outline you hash out before writing your novel in earnest:

  • characters are a family on a farm
  • a fire brings them to financial ruin
  • they receive an offer of aid from an estranged uncle if they first help him in a bizarre task

Generally these shifts and turns are hidden under layers of character exposition or pretty scenery-painting, but they still show through in the moments when our farming family wake up to see their crops blazing and when they receive the mysterious letter from their long-forgotten uncle, these moments are pure plot. In short, plot is WHAT is told in your story. My previous post called Caterpillars was meant to illustrate this component of a story, as one plot point followed another with only minimal elements of descriptions or dialogue in between.

Descriptions: Here I mean the times you are providing atmosphere and flavor to your text. I call it descriptions, as that is the form it most often takes. It is where you describe the way things look, sound, feel. You take the raw bare-bones idea of the fire burning the farming-family’s fields and you start detailing the way the grain pops in its shells from the heat, the way the charred crop’s ash lifts up into the air and floats softly down like the dreams it had once represented. Descriptions will be the part of your story that come to mind when most people describe how it “feels”. This is the voice, not of a character, but of the author directly, and it is how you leave your fingerprints on the tale. In short, descriptions are HOW you tell your story. My earlier post, The House’s Finest Hour, captures this, where everything was communicated through descriptive text, leaving behind any notion of sequenced plot points or dialogue.

Dialogue: As descriptions covers the text where the author speaking to the reader, dialogue covers the communication that comes from the characters themselves. This communication obviously occurs when they speak, but also when we hear what they think or feel. It is text that is meant to capture the human experience in the story, and as such it is the part that perhaps best grounds the reader to the world. You might read about the events that are described in the plot, you might observe the descriptions of the narrator, but the dialogue makes you feel like you are on the street-level experiencing the events personally. This would be the part of the story where the author concludes describing the physical aspects of the burning fields and shifts to sharing how the father of the family fell to his knees as he felt every past back-breaking labor in those fields afresh, recalled every burden and sweat in perfect detail, now knowing it was all for naught. In short, the dialogue is WHO’s perspective your story is told through. Obviously my exercise in this format was Scars and Soothing, where the entire story was sharing the words, feelings, and actions of the piece’s characters.

Each of these elements is critical to have pinned down before ever starting on chapter one of your story. If you are still trying to figure out these elements while plowing ahead with your first draft then you are building without a plan, and it will rob your writing of consistency and character, and often results in sudden jarring shifts, based on your own changing emotions at the times of writing. I highly recommend due diligence in establishing your plot outline at high detail, in settling on a tone for unveiling your world to the reader, and in understanding exactly which personalities will serve as companions to your reader while journeying through your tale.

The final point I would touch on is that if your story carries a message—something I would argue every story should carry—then each of these three elements should be selected to reinforce that message. If you were to describe your plot in 30 seconds you would want the hearer to perfectly understand what the story is about. When you develop your tone and style, you want it to provide an atmosphere that supports your message. When you design the human experience in the dialogue of your tale, you want the emotions those elicit to tie directly to the message.

As I mentioned before, each of my previous three posts utilized a different element of a complete story, yet each one carried the same theme, or message. That message was of the union of both bitter and sweet, and how the meeting of these two contrasts can be for the greater good. This Thursday I shall attempt to deliver a new short piece, one that uses all three of the components described in this post, that will borrow moments from each of the prior wedding-day pieces, and that will stand as its own complete tale with the same message at its core. Come back then to see how it turns out!

Scars and Soothing

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“Okay, so who was that one?” she asked, half-laughing at how many times she had queried this of the well-wishers coming through their wedding reception line.

“Barry. He, uh–”

She recognized the name. “He was one of the ones there for the IED wasn’t he?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Knocked him out right away, though, he doesn’t remember anything.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen him at the Project?”

He shook his head.

“Why not?”

He smiled awkwardly, the smile of one unsure how to explain.

“I just mean, you asked him if he was working and he said he hasn’t been able to get anything…”

“It’s not as simple as that.”

“Oh, you mean pride?” she said with a simple bluntness that for some reason aggravated him. As he thought about it he realized it did so because she was right.

“Yes, I suppose” he conceded. Before he could continue, the next guest, one of her high school teachers approached to express congratulations. After the teacher had left he proceeded. “But, I suppose everyone needs some pride, don’t they?”

She thought this over for a moment. “Yes…I guess from what you’ve shared of your experience one might say it was your pride that kept you going until you could find healing?”

“I’d agree to that.”

“Still, I’m sure he could benefit from a friendly hand. Not a knock against his pride, you understand, it’s just we all would benefit from a kind lift.”

“Well I won’t argue with you there. And maybe one day he won’t, either.”

Obviously pleased with their understanding of one another she reached over and gripped his hand with her own. “I love you, you know.”

“I should certainly hope so!” He stroked his thumb along her hand. It was so smooth, so soft…such a complete contrast to the charred, marbled flesh of his own arm. He had been trying to cast around in his mind for a loving sentiment to offer in return, but he didn’t dare say anything now, the tears were too close to the surface. It didn’t matter, though, at this moment she happened to glance over and saw the water forming in his eyes.

“Hey…” she whispered tenderly, “talk to me.” It was a simple, kind invitation, one that let him open up at his own pace.

“Oh, I—uh–it’s hard to explain–” he paused, looking for the right words. How was he to express the notion of ugliness to one so beautiful? “I do think part of it is pride, but that’s not all there is to it,” he began slowly. “Sometimes it’s just hard for the guys to accept that they even deserve to be helped.”

One glance to her made it clear she was troubled and confused by the statement. She didn’t say anything, though, waiting for him to continue. “See, it doesn’t matter even if you were a complete saint, never did anything over there you felt guilty about. Just the fact that you saw some terrible things is enough to make you think like you don’t deserve to be with the innocent. Maybe that’s not a right way to feel, but that’s how it is. Just being a witness to that stuff makes me scarred…and it seems like scars shouldn’t touch beauty.” His eyes trailed down to their still-entwined hands, realizing the Freudian slip in his pronouns.

She followed his gaze, her own eyes moist now. When she spoke, though, it was with a voice calm and clear. “I’ve seen how there’s a tendency to push good things away, to isolate. That’s so no one becomes…hurt by the roughness?” she stroked her finger along the burn on the back of his hand.

He nodded, a lump in his throat.

“Hey look at me,” she said firmly. He obeyed, her eyes entirely unflinching as they stared into his. “Do I look like I have any regrets?”

“No, ma’am.”

“You are not damaging me. Now I won’t tell you to never have fears and self-doubts, I understand this is a process and that’s just how it’s going to be. But here’s what I will tell you, we’ll call it marriage rule number one: any time those fears show up you come and tell me so I have a chance to show you how undamaged and whole I feel being with you. You got that?”

He made a mental note to ask her later if she knew how attractive it was when she gave him orders. For the time being he simply whispered “Yes, ma’am,” and let his face break into a sincere smile.

It was only after a few moments of continued eye-gazing that they realized another well-wisher had arrived. It was Carlos, probably the member of his unit who had adjusted back to regular life the most easily. It had been his idea to start the Patterson Project, a local non-profit to help soldiers get integrated back into the real world and connected to their communities. The name came from another member of their unit, Blake Patterson, who had taken his life just five weeks after returning back home.

“Oh hey, don’t stop on my account,” Carlos smiled with raised eyebrows. “Only you’ll understand if I feel a little jealous. See that’s the way this guy always used to look at me.”

“With your ugly mug?” he laughed, reaching out to give a firm, back-slapping hug. When they pulled away Carlos had genuine tears in his eyes.

“Hey look, I know sentimental isn’t really my thing,” Carlos said. “But I really am proud of you, man.” He clapped the groom’s shoulder firmly, then turned to the bride. “And hey, y’know none of us could be happier to have you officially becoming a part of the family. It really means a lot that you wanted to come and help us out at the Project, even though we were all strangers to you. You’re the angel in our lives.”

“That day means a lot to me.” She laughed and glanced to her new husband. “I guess for some pretty obvious reasons.” Carlos concluded his congratulations and moved onwards, leaving the couple alone once more. “But not just because of today,” she continued, “also because I see it as the day I started to empathize.”

Now it was her husband’s turn to look confused. “‘Started to empathize?!’ You’ve always been perfectly understanding.”

She shook her head. “No, I’ve always tried to be nice. But like you were just expressing, there’s pains and pangs I simply didn’t understand, ones I still don’t fully. Something I’ve come to realize is niceness doesn’t go a very long way without being able to grieve together first.”

“Huh,” he mulled the sentiments over.

“You should take that as a compliment, because I’ve only been able to understand from how vulnerable you’ve allowed yourself to be. You’re the gatekeeper, not just to your heart but the hearts of all those with these experiences. It’s your ability to connect to the suffering deep at their cores that forms the conduit through which the rest of us bring our healing and hope.”

He blinked a few times as he processed this, a warm twinkle in his eyes. “Y’know something? I think it’s a good thing we’re getting married.”

“I should certainly hope so!”

And with that, they finally kissed.

***

Well, there’s our piece for the week. As I said on Monday, the key to all of this was identifying the core principles that each of our two characters represents, and looking for a way to make them relatable to the reader. The groom is the sorrowful, wounded heart. Not in a bitter, angry way, but grieving nonetheless. The wife is innocence and joy, but as she states, she doesn’t have the empathetic experiences necessary to share that warmth with others on her own. Then, to help make their experience relatable I fit them into this wedding dynamic, as I think most people have an idea of a wedding being not only the marriage of two people, but of all the things they represent. With that I knew how they should sound, how they would react to one another’s feelings, and the message I needed to steer the piece to as a whole.

Over the past few weeks my short pieces have each been built around a different core facet of storytelling. With Caterpillars, The House’s Finest Hour, and now Scars and Soothing we have represented overall plot, scene descriptions, and dialogue. This is one way (of many) that a story can be divided into individual parts. Come back on Monday when we will look into the blending of these three more closely. Until then, have a great weekend!

Lacking Character

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Stories, as a general rule, need characters, because characters, as a general rule, satisfy two of the most important needs of a story. The first is that they provide the component of a narrative that makes it relatable to the reader. Any good character will function as a bridge to bring the reader from being a passive observer over into an active participant of the world and setting. The presence of a relatable character is what changes a story from a “telling” to an “experiencing”. Though a story be entirely a work of fiction and made up of a cast of anthropomorphic animals such as The Wind in the Willows, if the characters are relatable enough most people will find personal significance in the tale and then struggle to find any life lessons from the fact-driven accounts of their own ancestors in historical texts. Thus, if you want your story to be elevated to something more than just a sequence of events, you’re going to need powerful characters.

So what makes a character powerful? First off, let me reject the notion that there is any “style” of character that is inherently better than another. For example, should a character be single-dimensional or multi-faceted? Static and consistent throughout the story, or dynamic and evolving? The fact is it depends entirely on what story you are creating. In one film, Inside Out, Joy and Sadness are flat and monotone by design, they are supposed to represent one-dimensional ideas, the emotions they are named after. It was the right choice for that story. Alternatively, in another film, Schindler’s List, we meet Oskar Schindler who evolves from selfish and disinterested to sacrificing and empathetic. He celebrates and grieves in the very same scene. And he’s supposed to, because he’s an actual and complete person.

In fact, it’s not at all uncommon to have within a single story all manner of different types of characters. In Faust our title character and Gretchen are both wretched, yet striving. In each lays a flaw that seems to give the devil claim on them, yet also a virtue that gives mercy a chance to reclaim them. Here in the same story, though, is also Mephistopheles, who represents a single destructive purpose and everything he does is in in service of that never-deviating focus. In the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde we literally have two intentionally single-dimensional characters, yet the two of them unite to create a multi-faceted whole.

So what is it then that makes all of these diverse characters “good” characters? There is one common principle they share, and it is that principle that is the second function of characters in your story: they all represent something. Each of these characters has a core attribute that they remain true to, and in performing their arc we gain a lesson on that attribute. As you might imagine, what exactly they might represent is as wide and varied as the plethora of different they stories they possess. In Pinocchio our character represents mortal man, striving to become like his creator-father. In Ahab we have monomaniacal vengeance, and see how it destroys self no matter what cause it is employed in. In George Bailey we have the dreaming, ambitious heart, and see how it struggles to feel adequate when its yearnings have been smothered by duty. In Sydney Carton we have unrealized potential, and the hope of one last un-squandered chance.

While the situations around the character change, while their perspectives and resolutions might evolve, these cores define them and drive all that they do. These core representations are the very purpose for the author brining them into being.

When you know your character’s core, what it is they represent, and you know how you want the reader to personally relate to that core, then you will find that you already know how to move them through your story. When you don’t know these things, you’ll probably find, as I have, that all of your characters sound exactly the same as one another, and the person they all sound like is the author. In fact, I ran into this very issue with the novel I am currently working on, which is supposed to feature four main characters, each with their own identity and mannerisms. I’m going to quote for you verbatim the note I made to myself as I was reviewing my plot outline at the time:

Right now you have 1.5 main characters out of the adventurers, and the rest are supporting, if that. You have scenes and conversations that are motivated by completing your checklists, not driven by arcs and needs. You should establish the arc for ALL adventurers, even Clara. Each point in the plot ask what experience there is driving their arc along.

Having recorded that, the very next line in my notes was for me to establish what this particular character, Clara, represents:

Clara Whit-Innocence and Potential

That might not seem like much, but determining this changed everything in the story. I had started asking myself how is young potential stimulated or stymied? What should happen in this scene to either tarnish or reinstate this character’s innocence? Is this scene being true to Clara’s core? What does Clara need from the other characters in this part of the story? I went to each of the other characters and figured out what they represented as well and things quickly became more complex as I was now asking questions like how do Clara’s core attributes interplay with William’s? How does he either reinforce or undermine her character? A great deal changed in the plot and my characters finally seemed to have found their voices.

Speaking of finding voices, I mentioned in my last blog post that I wanted to explore what the newly married couple was whispering to one another at the wedding reception. I’ve already established what core attributes I want each of the two characters to represent, and how I want the reader to relate to them. Over the next few days I will build a dialogue between them with the intent of being true to those representations, check in Thursday to see the result!

The House’s Finest Hour

It’s not every day that a house sees a wedding, indeed many homes are built and unbuilt without ever seeing a single such occurrence in between. But to the home that does host such an event, what other festivity could possibly compare? Not only does the moment call up such lavish gaiety and decoration as to never be forgotten, but also there is no other event that could be a better consummation of all that the home represents. For what is a wedding but the embryo of family life? And what is a house, then, but the gestational womb of such embryo?

Indeed, man has long been in the practice of constructing stone and metal wombs around his varied facets of life, and invariably he communicates in the outward appearances that which is conducted within. Thus he builds a skyscraper for the conducting of sharp, calculated business, and he designs the building to be a sharp and calculated edifice, designed in ultimate efficiency with cold and compressed steel, lifting itself against its neighbors in competition for the skyline. The man seeks an structure to dedicate to all that is spiritual and shrouded, and so he builds a church, and he builds it after a mysterious and mystical pattern. Spires and domes everywhere, what functional purpose do those give to a worldly structure? Nothing, but so again prayer and fasting are not meant to give functional purpose to the worldly either. How can your temple know anything of the higher sphere if I can make perfect sense of it in my lower one? Man builds a University for learning, and he uses as his blueprint the structures of the ancient Grecian and Roman worlds. No other category of construction would be considered superior for being of a great age, but in the academic world every crack and fade is but the more revered. What care I for your degree in philosophy unless you obtained it in a structure that might have once housed Aristotle and Plato? I could continue, we have the unvarnished sterility of the hospital, the imposing invariableness of the courthouse, the sprawling reaching of the airport, the ugly isolation of the prison, the elaborate facade of the theater; but I have strayed too far from home already.

As I was beginning to say before, homes are made for the founding and developing of family, and as marriage is the core of the family, no home is more a home than when hosting a wedding. Nor was this singular significance lost in the minds that carried out the decorating and preparations of the home. Untold hours have been spent in such scrubbing and polishing that it is a wonder the walls themselves weren’t rubbed away. Not that you can hardly find an inch of naked wall anywhere beneath the strands of lightbulbs, the garlands, the laces, the banners, the paintings and photographs, all so tightly overlapping upon one another as to appear like a giant petticoat.

But come, let us take it room-by-room and give each form of adornment the examination it deserves. First we come in by the entryway, and here we are greeted by what can only be described as a shrine to flowers. It’s fortunate there is a receptionist to welcome us or we might have assumed we entered by the wrong door and stepped into the garden. Surely Dionysus never knew such a worthy offering: flowers here in metal vase and flowers there in a clay pot, flowers laying in glass case and flowers tucked in every spot. See how in this basket they have cleverly placed both rose-colored violets and violet-colored roses, and over in this vial we have a family reunion of the flora sisters: Daisy, Lily, and Petunia. I see they’ve been creating their own species as well, it would appear a marigold nestled like the pollen core into the center of crocus petals, and all perched on stalks of amaranth.

Yet for all the perfumes and fragrances produced by this floral bounty, the perceiving inhaler would not be able to ignore that there is a competitor to these flowers’ dominance of smell. Yes, there’s something else in the air, and it’s wafting from down this main hallway.

Ah, here we find the challenger’s corner in the kitchen. Whereas the entryway was buried in surfaces soft and thin, one can’t help but notice this room’s contrasting hard steel and granite slabs, all meticulously cleaned and sterilized. Wipe away every crumb if you can, it’s of no use, one snuff betrays all the dusty and spotted surfaces you must have held but an hour ago. On this counter I detect the scent of fresh bread, in this pot there remains a whiff of butter, in the oven I find the traces of both vanilla and chocolate, clearly someone spilled cinnamon on the floor here. And sugar? The aroma of that is to be found just everywhere. Stand back and take in all the pungence together and you might mistake the room as a factory for the manufacturing of girls, given the copious savor of sugar and spice and all that’s nice. But enough of the smelling, how about the tasting? Where could all these goodies have been ushered off to?… Let’s duck into the living room, that’s a likely candidate.

Yes, here they are. I don’t believe these tables were intended to support such a weight of food, they’re already starting to buckle at the center and by the end of the night may well be better shaped for use as chairs. Whichever source of sugar prefer most, I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere in this confectioner’s mountain. Have some strawberries dipped in chocolate, then chocolate éclairs topped with a vanilla sauce drizzle, and then vanilla pudding with strawberries stuck on top. One wonders that there isn’t a Neapolitan cake. Oh wait, there it is, I didn’t see it behind the pound cake and ice cream cake. After you have enough bites of cake be sure to get some cake bites, and so segue to the smaller offerings of tarts, cookies, taffies, and fruits and cheeses for fondue. If you favor a little savor and salt with your sweet we have caramelized bacon roses and sea-salted caramels and a bag of something called bacon-salt that I guess is meant to be applied judiciously to whatever you please. Come now, I believe I’ve already gained 10 pounds and I haven’t even had a bite.

Thus far we’ve dwelt on the preparations of the home, but what on the people housed within? As a general rule, weddings seem to be the events to which ill feelings and long faces are most forbidden. It truly speaks to the magnanimity of the occasion that an event which only truly benefits two individuals can still ripple goodwill and positive cheer to all attendees, though they number more than a hundred. And indeed, there is not a one of the guests to be found here today that is not succumbing to this epidemic of genuine mirth, you can see its symptoms in all the cheerful talk and warm laughter. Perhaps this phenomenon is explained in the fact that weddings afford us one of the rare opportunities to examine how the threads of our disparate lives all come together in unexpected ways, and each attendee is the embodiment of one of those individual threads that makes up the tapestry of the new couple. Thus they are permitted, nay, even expected, to show off that little bit of themselves that the whole of the honored duo might be understood:

“Yes, I knew him well, I was his football coach. There was this one time, we were down by 5 and I entrusted him with the last play of the game…”

“That’s right, she’s my sister… oh yes, of course I have all sorts of embarrassing stories to share…”

“I know he may seem so strong and solemn now, but when he was but a child in my class he betrayed a very tender heart. There was one time when the class pet was ill…”

“Ah, well, if you think she looks lovely now you should have seen how she radiated when our debate team won the nationals…”

“I should hope he’ll be able to provide, he’s got an excellent employer: me! I knew I wanted him on my team right away when in his interview he…”

“Yes, the family doctor. One time, as I was concluding a routine house call, she came to me with her decapitated doll…”

Can we express pride and admiration for the beauty of the weaving, without also admitting a pride in our own fibers that lay within it? The more the newlyweds glow brightly the more we all shine with them. And a truly radiant pairing it is this day. See the groom, tall and straight, broad shoulders that are prepared to bear much and undoubtedly soon will. His darling whispers something in his ear and his face becomes sharp and attentive, then, as he understands the joke it breaks into a handsome grin and deep, healthy laughter. He speaks back to her and it is a voice steady and purposeful, a voice that has confidence in that which it speaks. And as he speaks she pushes back a curl of her auburn hair to better lend her sympathetic ear. Her expression is one of cheerful anticipation. His comment to her does not elicit laughter, but tenderness, as evidenced by how she palms his chin and leans up to affectionately kiss his cheek. That done she bobs back down to her heels and ever so slightly leans backwards, a pose that communicates utmost comfort and calm, a stance that invites others to lean forward and bask in her smiling warmth.

Yes, this truly is the day that best epitomizes all the house represents. It is the day that it truly realizes its full purpose, the very apex of its existence. But there is a bitter-sweetness in finding a summit, for it means no following days will compare. In every symphony there is a solitary loudest note, and everything that follows seems but the duller reverberations of that one greatest moment. Then, even after all the instruments have sounded their last the air still seems to pulsate with the tone. So it was for the halls of this home, ever seeming to ring with the sounds of mirth and laughter of that one grandest day. As the place was eventually left desolate and dust collected thick on every surface it still at times seemed to be stirred by the echoes, now so low they are but the haunting of days beyond memory.

***

Well, there it is. That’s the result of taking my idea that needed to be cut from last Thursday’s post, and trying to flesh it out into a thing of its own. And as I discussed in my Monday blog entry, I think this was a far better solution than if I had just trashed my idea. The Caterpillars story is properly trimmed and this idea can live forever as its own thing.

Obviously this piece is entirely focused on describing the setting without any of the characters getting to speak for themselves, and I find myself curious as to what it was the newly married couple was whispering to each other at the end. We’ll start examining that on Monday as we discuss the methods for creating characters and then representing them to the reader. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.

Pruning Your Story

On Thursday I posted a story about young girls and caterpillars (they have more in common than you might think!) and it started at a home during a wedding reception. When I first sat down to write this piece, I found myself facing a common difficulty for me, not having any good idea for how to begin. I knew exactly where the short story would ultimately go and what it would do, but how to introduce the reader to this world? I decided describing the environment was as good an approach as any, so I just started with that until I had the following:

It’s not every day that a house sees a wedding, and so, accordingly, the place is decorated such as it had never known before. Come in by the entryway and you first are greeted by what can only be described as a shrine to flowers. Dionysus never knew such a worthy offering, if there was ever a florist’s scavenger hunt, one stop here would satisfy the entire list. Such variety of color, shape, and smell … smell? Well hang on, there seems to be a challenge to the flower’s dominance of that particular sense. Ah, the source of competition is over here, come down the hall towards the kitchen. While you won’t see a single crumb of evidence on the granite and steel surfaces, one snuff and you know exactly how well this room has been used this week. You might mistake the room as a factory for the manufacturing of girls, given the copious smells of sugar and spice and all that’s nice. Enough of the smelling, though, how about the tasting? Where could all these goodies have been ushered off to? Ah, let’s duck into the living room, that’s a likely candidate. Yes, here they are. Quick now, those tables are likely to burst any moment under the weight, so grab whichever sugar you prefer and then come look on the mantle where–

WHAM! The door to the living room slams open and the master of the house enters, a good deal more quickly than he’d intended…

Now I had reached the actual start of the story, so I paused to read over the intro as a whole. My conclusion was that at best, I was making my short story too top-heavy, and at worst, this segment was a complete distraction and disconnect from everything that would follow. This sort of stuff might have had a place in a broad, sweeping novel, but in a short story there’s just no time for it, clearly it had to go.

But… I liked it. It was a lot of fun to make, I didn’t want to just throw it away. This is, of course, not a rare conundrum, if you’ve written any amount yourself I’m sure you’ll remember a similar situation of your own. Maybe that segment you wrote is really, really good in it’s own right…but it just doesn’t fit with everything else. Maybe that last chapter took you weeks to create, and you don’t want to admit that all that time meant nothing. Maybe that scene was the very seed you started this whole thing from, but as it grew it changed so that the kernel it came from no longer fits. Whatever the specifics, I think it can all be summed in a single word: pride. You’re proud of something you made, and even if cutting it is the right thing to do, it hurts you personally. That should be respected.

So, should you cut it out? I’m sure people have come up with different formulas for answering that question, for me personally it comes down to just two points.

  1. What is the broad purpose of your story as a whole, and what is the narrower purpose of this moment in the story? Does the sequence in question satisfy those purposes? If not, then it’s just distracting from your message.
  2. Perhaps it does satisfy the purposes mentioned, but does it do so at the cost of being disruptive to tone or pace? If so, then this isn’t the right solution to the need at hand.

If your chunk of story falls afoul of either of those two criteria then it’s time to get out the pruning shears. Exactly the right way to perform surgery on your work, though, depends on which of the two principles are violated. In the case of the first point, you probably need to amputate the segment as a whole, with refactoring in the parts preceding and following to smooth things over. My intro to the caterpillars fell under this category, so I omitted it entirely. The fact is, if I had paused to first ask those questions about what my purposes here were, I probably wouldn’t have even written that segment. So it’s not so much that I’m cutting out a part my story as that I’m undoing what should never have been written in the first place.

In the case of the second point, you clearly can’t just cut your piece out and leave it empty, your piece was fulfilling a purpose that still needs to be fulfilled. Perhaps instead of cutting the whole thing out you could try and refactor your scene to satisfy the needed tone and pace. Suppose that for some reason I really did need to start my story with introducing the reader to the house and all the preparations therein. Instead of cutting that segment out entirely, I could just tighten it up a good deal:

It’s not every day that a house sees a wedding, and so, accordingly, the place is decorated as never before. Observing each room betrays some new evidence of all the preparations made for the occasion. The entryway, buried in flowers; the halls, a gallery of lace; the kitchen, laden with scents, scents that all answer to the feast of goodies garnishing the living room.

WHAM!…

If you can’t just refactor your scene, then you need to get the most creative. You should extract the core that you needed from it, the essential purpose it was fulfilling, and either insert it into another already-existing scene or else incorporate it into a new scene that takes the place of the troublesome piece.

Perhaps the most important point I want to make, though, is that just because a piece you love might not belong in your story, that in no way means it belongs in the trash. Hard work and personal pride should never be disregarded, and you should consider finding some other way to preserve your work. If it was something about the mechanics of the scene you liked, well that’s an idea you can jot down in your notes and save it for some other story where it will better fit. For example, I thought it was interesting how my intro utilized an action in the story (the door opening) to interrupt the narration mid-sentence. For this short piece it didn’t really fit, but I think I’ll pocket the trick to use somewhere else.

Another option is to take the pruned branch of your story, and plant it somewhere else to see if it can grow into its own tree. Sometimes a character, location, or chase sequence can be so fascinating that it distracts from the rest of the plot, it shines too brightly in contrast with its surroundings. In that case maybe it has the capacity to support an entire new story where it’s the main centerpiece. For better or worse, that’s what I’ve decided to do with the Caterpillars intro I wrote. Check back Thursday where I’ll post the result of me letting it loose to evolve into its own thing.

Caterpillars

WHAM! The door to the living room slams open and the master of the house enters, a good deal more quickly than he’d intended. It couldn’t be helped, though. One glance at his heaving chest and shining eyes make it evident he is at the brink of losing his careful composure. For a moment a scene of the outdoor wedding reception is framed by the open doorway, the families and friends all waiting patiently in line to give congratulations to the bride, the groom, and their parents. Well, all of the parents, that is, but the now-absent bride’s father. As the door swings back closed and the concerned stares of his loved ones are blocked, the man lets loose his emotions in a great, rushing torrent. Hot, fresh tears streak down his cheek and his breath shudders between each sob. Suddenly he feels his balance sway uncertainly and he reaches a hand to the mantelpiece for support.

“What’s the matter with me?he asks the empty room, as a series of emotions and confusions tumble through his mind. How could he be so shaken at his own daughter’s wedding? It wasn’t as though he was against the marriage, quite the contrary! He was so very proud of her, so excited to see her blossom in her new adventure. And yet…

As if looking for answers he raised his eyes to the mantel he was leaning against. In honor of the occasion every square inch of it had been dedicated to pictures of the bride and groom, starting with them at their youngest at either end and then moving inwards on the wooden plank and forward in years until meeting together at the center with their engagement photo. As his eyes scanned along the pictures he found his attention arrested by one of his daughter as a very young girl. Under her dark curls of hair she was locking eyes with him and she was giving him a smile—he had forgotten what it was like to face that particular late-toddler, dimple-cheeked grin. This. This was what his sorrows were for, the loss of this beautiful little girl that would never be again. As his conscious sank more deeply into the picture he noticed the wall of vines that formed the backdrop of the image. Oh of course, this was that first spring with her at his parent’s orchard…

She had turned three the week before they came. He remembered how captivated with it all she had been, to her it truly had been like discovering a new world. Though most people might consider the orchard and attached homestead as quite docile and calm, compared to the city where she lived this was practically brimming with wild adventure and naked nature around every turn! He still remembered her dancing barefoot on the fields of grass with a flower-crown her mother had woven through her hair. And there had been that night they found her bed vacant, and in a panic they rushed outside only to find her sitting calmly just down the path, staring up ceaselessly at the magnitude of stars. And the animals, how she had loved them all from the largest of the horses to the tiniest of the… caterpillars…

One day when picking fresh berries off the vine together he had found a caterpillar on a leaf. Excited to share yet another miracle of nature with her he had cupped it in his hands and brought it home to place in a jar. She was already pleased with this novel arrangement, and then even more thrilled when he told her that she could keep it for her very own pet. That very first day she spent every spare moment entranced with her little friend, surveying every step of its circling journeys. The next day he had shown her how the leaves in the jar were dried up and crumpled and he explained they would need to regularly replace them. Well, every morning after that his daughter would greet him with her jar and an injunction that it was time to do their “caterpillar chores”. It got so she wouldn’t settle down to her own breakfast until the caterpillar’s had been served first.

Initially she was too nervous to let the caterpillar touch her. She loved to watch her parents handle the creature, but even then she would stand at a distance, trembling all over with excited uncertainty. As day after day passed, though, she worked up the nerve to stroke its back with a single finger, then to hold a leaf while the caterpillar sat on top, and finally she let it crawl against her bare hand. “Hand-walks” became another daily requirement after that.

She didn’t really grasp the meaning of giving a pet a name, so it simply remained “the caterpillar”, or rather whichever of the adorable mispronunciation of “caterpillar” she happened to use on a given day. One morning, though, she came to her father in grave concern, holding up the jar and pronouncing that her beloved caterpillar was gone. He peered inside and, as expected, saw a cocoon hanging from a stick. He soothed her and explained that the caterpillar was just hiding in that little, white thing, and soon would come out. And when it did, he promised with a smile, she would receive a wonderful surprise.

Well, he had been right about the “surprise” part at least. With perfect clarity he could still recall the day that she came to him, tears streaming down her face, accusing him of being mistaken in his promise. The cocoon had opened, but it was certainly not her caterpillar friend that had emerged. In vain he tried to explain to her that the fluttering bright-blue butterfly was, in fact, her same caterpillar. To her mind, how could it be? It was an entirely different creature, and one that she evidently had no compassion for. She begged him to bring her caterpillar back, and when he couldn’t she insisted on opening the jar and shooing the strange butterfly away.

He was helpless to comfort her little, broken heart, as he never found a way to explain things in a way she could understand. Naturally she moved on from her grief, and some time later so did he, and so the caterpillar remained unspoken of as the seasons faded one into another until it was Spring and they took a trip to the parents’ orchard again. There, while once more picking berries among the leaves, he turned to see his daughter pointing in utter bewilderment at a cluster of little caterpillars emerging from their eggs. He sighed, and paused, but then… somehow this time he knew how to explain the experiences she had been having with these strange creatures.

“I know it was so sad for you when your caterpillar left to go be something else. You loved it and you wanted it to stay. But the things about caterpillars is, they have to leave or else there never can be anymore of them. If yours didn’t leave you, then these little ones here could never have been.”

Somehow this made sense enough to the four-year-old mind, and at last she seemed to be at peace on the matter.

Back in the living room the present-day father was also at peace as his memories drew to a close. He caressed the picture of his young child with his fingers, then he turned and went back to the loved ones waiting outside.

***

Please take a moment to pause and gather your thoughts about the story.

Now, if you need a refresher, look back to the post on Monday where we discussed the value of leaving things unsaid and letting the reader make connections on their own. I hope you can agree this story is better the way it ends now than if I had tried to tack on:

And so the man realized it was the same for him. Sad as it may be, little girls have to grow up and leave their fathers. For if they did not, there would never be any more little girls, and that would be saddest of all.

It’s just too on the nose, isn’t it? Aside from the lack of subtlety, it gives readers permission to turn off their brains because they are being spoon-fed everything. Also, once you let your readers start making a single connection on their own, there’s a chance they might make even more. Perhaps they might start recognizing other sad, yet meaningful losses they’ve experienced in their own lives, and then the story means something personal to them.

Thanks for joining me for this first week of the blog, I’ve really been having a lot of fun with it. In fact, when I first started writing today’s piece I began with a very different intro that I had a blast making. Unfortunately, it just didn’t fit and I ended up having to cut it out entirely. For my next post I’ll let you see what the intro was like and then we’ll talk about that particular facet of writing: cutting out things you love in your story to make the whole better. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you on Monday.