Essays Fiction 2009

Telling Tails

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary. In daily life, one would not say to a drinking companion, “Hey, here’s a great story for you. Yesterday morning I ate Cheerios. Then I set off for work. Work was boring. Nothing happened. I left the office at five o’clock sharp. That night I ate a steak, not a great steak, but a pretty darned good one. I went to bed about nine.” Very quickly, I think, one’s drinking mate would seek more interesting company. A better story, though not necessarily a good one, might begin: “Yesterday morning, over my usual bowl of Cheerios, I was alarmed to note that the Cheerios were shaped not as standard circles, but as semicircles, as if someone had used a surgical scalpel to slice each individual Cheerio precisely in half. Odd, I thought. And odder still, those particular Cheerios tasted only half as delicious as Cheerios usually taste. And even odder yet, I found myself half hungry at work that morning, half wishing for a bowl of Cheerios. My hunger was soon tempered, however, by the disturbing realization that I was now but half a man.”

Again, I don’t claim literary merit for this example. But I do claim, pretty emphatically, that the second opening is one to which most of us would pay attention. Your drinking companion might frown and ask, “Half a man how?” The last sentence begs for a next sentence. The last event begs for a next event.

As a qualifier, I want to be clear that when I write about the need for extraordinary human behavior in well-imagined fiction, I am not arguing that a successful story must contain elements of the bizarre or the supernatural or the fantastic. Although by temperament I’m disposed to what is called “magical realism,” I admire and love the fiction of Dubus and Chekhov and Munro and Cheever and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and many, many other masters of realism. What I do suggest, when I’m under pressure to suggest something, is that even the most realistic tale succeeds by reaching beyond the run-of-the-mill or the banal. Even if one’s goal is to depict ordinary human beings in ordinary human settings, a story must find striking, dramatic, and unexpected ways to accomplish this. Something, somehow, must strike the reader as compelling enough to warrant continued reading. Certainly in the work of those masterful realists I listed a moment ago, you will find on virtually every page examples of what I mean by extraordinary human behavior, incidents that surprise and delight.

To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer. It is also the labor we so rarely talk about, perhaps because we can think of so little to say beyond the exhortation: Do it! Be brave! Envision fictional events that aren’t borrowed from last night’s rerun of Starsky & Hutch, that aren’t copped from that best seller you read last week or that classic you almost finished back in college.

Another element of a well-imagined story, in my view, is a sense of gravitas or thematic weight. Inventing a nifty, extraordinary set of behaviors for our characters is not enough. A fiction writer is also challenged to find import in those behaviors. In the Cheerios example, at least a small, dry germ of gravitas can be found in the line “I was now but half a man.” Without a turn such as that, and without the additional work of extending that bit of language into a larger dramatic whole, the anecdote amounts to little more than a clever but trivial riff on “halfness.” Cleverness, in the end, is a sorry (though common) substitute for thematic weight.

To imagine a next bit of action that is at once surprising and fitting, while at the same time reaching into the deeper chambers of the human heart, is always among the fiction writer’s great challenges. “I love you,” Jack says to Jill, which is action, and which leads Jill to say, “I love you, too,” which leads to an exchange of wedding vows, another bit of action, which leads to Jack and Jill’s sailing off on their honeymoon to the South Pacific aboard a rented yacht, which leads to a sudden leak, which leads to the yacht’s swift sinking, which leads to Jack’s appropriating for himself the only life jacket within reach, which leads to Jill’s fetching into her lungs more than a pail of water, which leads Jack to contemplate, as he floats in solitude upon the vast Pacific, the contours of his pitiful and cowardly life. Betrayal, remorse, inconstancy—here is the sort of resonant thematic material that a serious fiction writer finds tempting. (Another plot possibility: On the third night of their honeymoon voyage, 400 miles west of Honolulu, might Jack discover a small but indisputable tail coiled at his lovely new bride’s behind?)

Presented by

Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien has written eight books, including The Things They Carried and the National Book Award–winning Going After Cacciato.

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