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?)
An example of what I’m getting at here can be found in Borges’s wonderful short story “The Aleph.” Early on in the story, we learn that a character bearing Borges’s own name has spent more than a decade mourning the death of a woman called Beatriz Viterbo, who had been his great abiding love. Each year, on Beatriz’s birthday, Borges makes a pilgrimage to her house, honoring her memory, displaying his devotion to a woman who, alas, had plainly never returned his affection. On one such visit, as the story gets under way, Borges encounters Beatriz’s first cousin, a man named Carlos Argentino Daneri. Carlos is portrayed as a vain, pompous, contemptible human being—a poet without talent, a pretender, and a competitor with Borges for literary honor. Not much later in the story, Carlos informs Borges that as a child he had made a remarkable discovery in Beatriz’s house. In the cellar, beneath the dining room, is an Aleph: a point in space that contains all other points. An Aleph is to space what infinity is to time, Carlos explains, and if you properly position yourself on the cellar floor, you will see a tiny sliver of light that contains everything—everything that ever was, everything that will be.