How to Write Fiction for Close Reading: Pay Attention to Significant Detail

The first sentence of a well-written novel gives clues to its theme and structure. Some great novels begin with a sweeping view of past events or future possibilities, but without significant details in the first sentence.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby); or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice).

Neither of these sentences give details of characters, even whether the protagonist will be male or female, or of setting. Both of these novels, of course, incorporate significant details in the writing as they progress, and they both contain vivid characters and setting.  Because so many great novels contain similar sweeping views toward the past or future, we might think we need to write our opening sentences to show the scope of our ambitions. But there are exceptions.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road begins with two small details of events and an indication that time has passed between these two moments. In this first sentence, two characters are introduced and the setting of the kitchen—the home—which also has a role as character.

“Later, after Hanna made some cheese on toast, her mother came into the kitchen and filled a hot water bottle from the big kettle on the range.”

Being an admirer of well-crafted first sentences, I puzzled at this one. I read it several times. Why begin with “later”? It seemed confusing. Why mention two mundane acts? Neither captured my imagination. I liked Enright’s previous prize-winning novel The Gathering very much, and like its predecessor, The Green Road also won the Man Booker Prize, among others. I trust this writer. I know that details matter to her. So I read on, paying close attention.

Cheese on toast is a simple, common food. Filling the hot water bottle from the kettle is a simple act of comfort and self-care. I already know a lot about these characters, this domestic story. “Later” indicates that time will be an element and that this writer is in control of it.

‘Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you?’ she said. ‘Get me some Solpadeine.’

‘You think?’

‘My head’s  fog,’ she said.

So begins a novel that is all about the small moments of life, about paying attention or not paying attention to these moments, about retaining them in the memory and the heart, and about the time that passes between them and sequences them into a lifetime of moments well lived or not. The story is about what happens over the decades in the lives of the mother (Rosaleen Madigan) and her children Hanna, Emmet, Dan, and Constance.  In this post, I want to explore how and where the theme of paying attention to small moments manifests in Enright’s vivid writing.

Lesson: Loop time and use metaphor to mimic consciousness.

The first chapter, which begins on page 3, (Norton 2016 paperback edition) ends on page 35 with Roseleen again asking Hanna ‘Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you?’ and declaring ‘My head’s a fog.’ In those 32 pages, we travel out of the Madigan’s house and over the humpy bridge into town, out and back again. Through observing select moments that Enright presents, we learn a bit about youngest daughter Hanna and see all four Madigan children in their roles in the family, see indications of the best and worst of Rosaleen—her ‘horizontal solution’ for dealing with things, her giving and withholding of love. We see the father (Pat). We meet the uncle (Bart) and other relatives. We observe some family dynamics between Rosaleen’s Considine relatives and her husband’s Madigan relatives.

With these moments, Enright starts us abruptly in a moment in the past and draws us years forward to where the Green Road may lead. “My head’s a fog” begins and ends the chapter. Readers have come full circle, as most of us often do in our own musings of the past. We’ve begun the story understanding that Rosaleen’s mind isn’t sharp. There are gaps in Rosaleen’s thinking, in her memory. Near the end of the novel, Rosaleen is wandering in the night and lost. We are in her consciousness:…there were gaps between things, and this frightened her. This is where Rosaleen was now. She had fallen into the gap.

This is how we think, how we remember. We  compress time and incident, we stack memories and loop them back on themselves, gathering up as we go random incidents that happened after the earlier memory but now inform that memory through other memories. In her first chapter, Enright has prepared the reader for traveling forward and backward in time, naturally as we do in memory and consciousness, a device she’ll use throughout the book.

Lesson: Show a moment in time to detail characters, emotions and motivations

The sweep of characters is shown, not told, through an omniscient and close-third chronicling of moments of conflicted love and attention.

Rather than tell readers that Hanna has internalized her mother’s inconsistent demonstration of love, Enright shows Hanna moving from lack of attention to what her mother said, thus being not worried, to being concerned about her mother’s health. Rather than say that Rosaleen’s relatives are annoyed because they feel Rosaleen married beneath her, Enright shows Uncle Bart’s [Rosaleen’s brother’s] irritation.  Hanna is at the pharmacy on the errand to pick up medication for her mother. ‘What does she want?’ [Bart said.] ‘Em. I can’t remember,’ said Hanna. ‘Her chest.’ Hanna gets the Solpadeine but lingers at the perfume counter,  “Do you think Mammy’s all right?” Her uncle replies, ‘Oh for God’s sake. What?” 

Rather than tell readers that Hanna’ oldest brother Dan feels a loyalty to his mother, whom he has hurt, and rather than tell us that Hanna feels conflicted by a loyalty to her mother and to Dan, Enright shows us a moment on one Sunday before Easter, shortly after Dan announces he is going to become a priest. Rosaleen has gone upstairs to her room and is not coming down. Dan hangs around, rather than going back to college. Hanna carries food up to his room. Sometimes he only took a bit of the food and Hanna finished it as she took it back to the kitchen, and the stale edge to the bread made her even more fond of her brother, in his confinement.

Rather than tell readers that Dan doesn’t fit into this family, Enright shows us a moment between Dan and Hanna on one Christmas when Dan is back home. Dan passed Hanna in the hall and he took her to him, saying, ‘Save me, Hanna. Save me from these ghastly people.’ He folded her in his arms.

Rather than tell readers that eldest daughter Constance will bear the burden of guilt for Rosaleen and stay close to home to continue trying to prove her love, Enright shows the family dinner table one night. Her mother juddering and sputtering, with the carrots falling from her mouth in little lumps and piles. ‘Oh, Mammy,’ said Constance, leaning in, with her arm around her, to slip the plate neatly away.

Lesson: Prepare the readers for what you want them to notice.

Writers notice details. Through our writing, we pay attention to what we notice and want our readers to notice.  By showing and telling, we decide what matters and what is important to our stories. The masterful handling of significant details can make good fiction more vivid and memorable. You can guide your readers into the story by starting with the sweeping view or starting with small, but meaningful, details. Enright could have begun with a view of the green road, which is an important element in the story. She could have given us a bird’s-eye view of the road curing through the landscape and shown the houses, the village, the cliffs. She could have begun high on the road, overlooking the sea, and brought us swooping down into the Madigan’s home, into their kitchen, to the boiling kettle. A cinematic beginning. But this book doesn’t have a cinematic feel. It feels close to the body, held within the family, within traditions even as characters strain against them. When Dan and Emmet venture far beyond Ireland, their conflicted emotions of family, of Rosaleen, her neediness—her inability to give unconditional love or to graciously accept the love they give—tethers them to her and to their home.

In the end, Rosaleen says, “I have paid too little attention. I think that’s the problem. I should have paid more attention to things.” But readers have paid attention. Enright has made sure that we noticed all those things that Rosaleen missed.


How to Write a Memoir – Reveal & Frame

Have you thought of writing a memoir and wondered if readers will be interested in your experiences?

Fiction shows truths about the human condition through invented characters. Memoir reveals the author’s particular truths through his or her character.

In memoir, you frame for your readers particular views of the world, revealed through your experiences. And you frame mirrors for your readers’ own revelations, prompted by yours. Readers of memoir relate to how you select the experiences for them. The elements and techniques of fiction are useful in memoir to structure your story and make it vivid.

Just as a novelist doesn’t include everything about the invented characters, a memoirist doesn’t include every experience of his or her life.

In his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson writes, “So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly.” His specific experiences are of growing up in the Midwestern United States in the 1950s. But anyone who has been a kid and has grown into an adult can relate. Being small and getting larger slowly is a universal experience. He makes the everyday minutia of his childhood memoir-worthy by framing it through humor, exaggeration, and a remembered in-the-body sensory awareness.

“I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.”

His reason for sitting inside a bush may be different from mine, but I can relate to being small enough to hide in one when playing hide and seek with the neighbor kids. Can you?

By valuing your life experience, discovering its universal essence, and magnifying it through vivid writing aided by fiction techniques, you can write a memoir that could make a splash!

Now— Reminisce on your childhood. What comes to mind vividly? What do you remember through all your senses? Write about it to discover your personal framing and its universal appeal.

Prepare yourself for Moments of Mastery!

How to Write Fiction – Tell Truths

“Truth” is a hot topic these days. Truthiness. Truth isn’t truth. Alternative facts. Fake news. Fiction is an art form based on questioning and finding deeper truths about ourselves and others—about what it is to be human.

In the 1960s, author Flannery O’Connor said,We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Written a half-century ago, her words speak to us today. “Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.”

For instance, a writer’s story about a town’s divisive politics—one group of people clinging to the past, another group wanting change—could become a polemic if the writer uses the narrative to argue his opinion and refute the other.

But what if this writer, inspired by seeing a small-town Fourth of July parade, creates a fictional character, who clings to the past and is afraid of the new. Let’s call him Ray. He’s a mechanic, a restorer of cars. His daughter marries someone of another race or religion. Then a family that Ray sees as “foreign” moves in next door. He’s angry. He’s used to fixing things, but he can’t fix this. He doesn’t have the tools. His world is disrupted. Now we have the beginnings of a story. Because fiction is about transformation, we know Ray must change, but how and why? What actions will he take?

In what ways will the daughter and neighbors also transform? Will they help Ray through a crisis? Will he help them? The writer avoids a timeworn polemic and explores universal human truths about choosing to love and making things right. Whether humorous, poignant, or tragic, the story becomes timeless. Through writing it, through reading it, we discover our own ability or inability to love deeply and to restore lovingly what’s been damaged.

Wherever fiction is set, past or present, fictional town or real, when it’s grounded in human truths, it will ring true for readers now and into the future. Without human truths, fiction would feel false. By telling truths with imagination, we make fiction readable, believable and memorable.

Go to for a free trial of my online course “Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery.”

Now – go out into the world or turn on the news. Listen for differing opinions and deeply held beliefs. Listen for anger and hurt. Listen for human truths. Then give one deep belief to one character, the opposite to another.

Write a scene where they argue. What truths are at the depths of their emotions? What does each character have to gain or lose by changing? You, the writer, takes each side in your heart. What can you learn from them?

Prepare yourself for moments of mastery!

A Man Called Ove and What Love’s Got to Do with It

“Ove is fifty-nine.” That opening line, which is the complete first paragraph of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Called Ove, contains a world of inference about the curmudgeonly character. He exists, he’s of an age, and he’s called “Ove.” On first glance at the book’s cover, I read “Love.” My brain wanted to insert the missing “L.” Hmm. My mind corrects —no, not “love.” It’s Ove—an unusual name. However, the author is Swedish, so maybe not so unusual. (Later checking online there are many famous Scandanavian men called Ove.) But I’m English speaking, and I can’t help but hear the refrain from one of my favorite Tina Turner songs—“What’s love got to do with it?”

Backman spends the rest of the book answering this question, even as Ove protests. As it turns out, love has everything to do with it. We’re told in the third sentence that this man called Ove “is the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” I admit to not liking Ove here on page one, even if he does drive a Saab—a sturdy car which once saved a friend of mine’s life. So why did I read on?

Lesson: Make the reader want to spend time with the character.

This is a fiction writer’s great challenge, especially if the main character, for the sake of the narrative arc, is not a likeable guy or anticipated hero. On page one, Ove is trying to buy an iPad or laptop. He counters his feelings of being diminished by this experience—the confusing technology, the skinny young assistant who offers more arrogance than assurance (a common sales practice that in the nonfictional world often signals how much the clerk doesn’t know him or herself)—with demands. “I want a computer!” When the clerk tells him that a laptop is a computer, Ove explodes. “You think I don’t know that!”

With this, Ove steps into the reader’s heart. Whether you’re young or old, tech literate or not, shop at Apple, Best Buy, or big box, no doubt you’ve felt as Ove does—like a complete idiot (which you know you are not), extremely frustrated (which you have been for reasons having nothing to do with buying a computer and which exist in your life outside of the store), and shamed by someone whose help you need but who makes you feel (1. too old) (2.too young) (3. too dumb) (4. t00 desperate). You choose.

In the next chapter, we meet Ove’s wife through his eyes. She doesn’t speak when he talks to her, but we believe she loves him in a way no one has ever loved him—unconditionally. We see their routines, the way she tolerates his difficult personality, perhaps even loves him all the more for it. On his daily perambulation, we meet a cat and a few of his neighbors. Ove has grievances with everyone we meet, except for his wife. And then we discover that she had died, but continues to be very much alive in his imagination. Sonja is easy to love, and soon we join Ove in grieving her loss. Misery needs company.

Lesson: Craft a pitch-perfect narrative point of view.

Backman brings us close to Ove and leaves room for surprises. It’s Ove’s world and becomes ours too. Through a close-enough but not-all-the-way close third-person, Backman draws us into Ove’s head and heart, even though Ove would push us out, as he tries to do with everyone else. We see Ove as he sees himself, but we don’t see everything or make sense of everything until the right time in the narrative. We’re close enough to feel empathy for him and, at times, affinity with him. We often see or learn something that Ove doesn’t yet understand or never will. We are at once within Ove and outside of him, growing to care for him as his neighbors do, cheering him on to fail at each attempt he makes to end his life and to win happiness in the end.

With admirable skill, the author crafts a pitch-perfect, humorous, and deeply empathic narrative that keeps the reader wondering what’s next for Ove and hoping for the best. We feel the fist of his heart opening to accept the love of a family that move in next door, of people he meets and tries to avoid, of neighbors who have lived on his street for decades.

The last chapter could be called “A Man Called Ove and a Reader Who Laughs and Cries because She’s Going to Miss Him When She Closes the Book.”


A Working Theory of Character

Pre-publication reviews for A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins promise a great debut novel—”brainy, bright, brilliantly observant about the way we live now, brilliantly inventive, incandescent with humor and insight, astonishing, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over-kind of novel”—and the book doesn’t disappoint. I agree with author Charles Baxter’s jacket blurb that the “haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”

It’s lodged in mine. But is it the story or character that haunt? Those strands weave together in any good fiction. In this book there are two main characters‚ Neill Jr (the first-person narrator) and “drbas” (Dr. Bassett, Neill Sr), and two story lines that lace tightly, inextricably and, yes, brilliantly, for a fast, enjoyable read. The laudable invention of the book is Dr. Bassett, whose role in the story is as a computer being groomed for artificial intelligence. He has been programmed with the diaries that the human Dr. Bassett kept while alive. The book’s most haunting aspect, to this reader, is how the “drbas” character lives beyond the page.

Lesson: Grow affection for characters by revealing their vulnerabilities

The narrator (Neill Jr) is flawed. He confirms this on page one by comparing himself to an upstairs neighbor, a hermit who is carted out of the apartment building by paramedics. Though Neill wouldn’t trade places with Fred, he isn’t living a much more colorful or enviable life. He is thirty-six, divorced, commutes two hours a day to his job at Amiante Systems—a linguistic computer project (Neill has no computer science background), and “without self-pity” follows an uneventful bachelor’s routine of daily rituals. He states that “[n]ot everyone’s life will be a great love story,” but in that statement lies the promise that this book just might tell his. He is waiting for something to fill him, and we feel his huge hole. He has room to grow.

Drbas is also flawed. He was flawed as a man, husband, and father who committed suicide, and also leaves much to be desired as a computer linguistics program. He’s awkward, inarticulate, full of clichés and platitudes, and emotionally distant. He has room to grow.

Rachel, a twenty-year-old woman Neill meets at a hostel, is also vulnerable. A spiritual seeker involved with the cult of “Pure Encounters” when they meet, she becomes his love interest and adds unpredictability (always a benefit for good fiction) to his staid life. She has room to grow.

All this room to grow gives readers room to grow their affection for the characters. To the end, we’re rooting for them to claim the potential the story suggests they deserve.

Lesson: Make characters memorable through their relationships with other characters 

Drbas is only a computer, but through Dr. Bassett’s diaries with which he’s been programmed and Neill’s daily interactions with him, he gains a real presence in Neill’s life and in the story. In fact, he seems to take on a life of his own to the extent that Neill confides in him about his new girlfriend and also looks to him for insight and closure on their father/son relationship.

Neill is evolving his own presence as a man who is able to inhabit a full, adult life. He is becoming a person who can better negotiate his fear of being in a relationship, of being disappointed, of giving and receiving unconditional love—whether with a parent or a mate.

Rachel can never meet the real Dr. Bassett, long dead at the time of the story, but Neil juxtaposes them in the narrative. “Rachel’s eyes were crystalline green and bright, but here they’re dark and dull, the color of old limes. Her skin is waxy white; a broad brush of young blood runs from cheek to jaw. Blood, as my father once, said, is both vital and mortal. He was a physician, after all.”

Lesson: Infuse the writing with sensory material to bring your characters come alive

Hutchins follows beautifully the cardinal rule of fiction writing and engages all the senses. He uses sensory material economically, such as when introducing in the first paragraph the fact that Neill has been married by having him say “my ex-wife used to complain about the smell” of Fred’s cigarette smoking. He uses it pointedly, singling Rachel out from the two girls he meets at the hostel.”The girls are lightly dressed, as if we’re hitting the clubs in Miami: short skirts with Ugg boots, tube tops skintight and grimacing. They shiver. The blonde, Rachel—the more handsome but less cute of the two—reddens and speckles from the gusting cold.” He uses it to set a tone at work with Livorno, his eccentric boss: “The rhythmic ting-tock-ting-tock of Livorno’s practice putts comes to a stop.”

Neill craves the human touch. Drbas and Rachel represent the extremes of that desire. He never felt enough affection from his father while Dr. Bassett was alive, and the computer falls short in that department. But Rachel is fully fleshed. “I put my hand under the heavy band of her sweatshirt and help her take it off, feeling the ridges of her ribs. A clavichord, a scallop shell. Her deodorant smells warmly of cloves.”

Lesson: It’s okay to have your characters live “happily ever after”

No spoilers here. I won’t give away the plot such as it is—more than to say that the charm of this story is greatly how these characters grow on us and the affection we feel for them. This is a human and hard-wired character-driven story with many lessons for the writer and a few hours of pure enjoyment for the reader.

Expectations in “To The Lighthouse”

An Alice Walker poem begins, “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”  How differently Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse would admonish us. “Expect everything,” she might say. “Live richly on expectation.”

Lesson: Contrast your characters’ outlooks

In Mrs. Ramsay’s world, tomorrow will always be fine, even if it’s storming today. “And even if it isn’t fine tomorrow, it will be another day.” The matriarch enriches those around her with her optimism. Her young son, hearing her promise that he may go tomorrow to the lighthouse, endows a picture of a refrigerator he is cutting from a catalog “with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”

Mr. Ramsay dampens the enthusiasm, saying, “But it won’t be fine.”  A houseguest reiterates, “No going to the Lighthouse, James.” Mrs. Ramsay counters the men’s harshness, saying to James, “Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing.” She recognizes her son’s passion for going to the lighthouse, recognizes the satisfaction that comes with anticipating, with always having something on the horizon to look forward to, plan for, and imagine.

Lesson: Enrich your characters with complex character

Expectation is the core of Mrs. Ramsay’s being. Matriarch of the large summer home full of her family and guests, she expects her children and companions to possess good manners and good natures and be pleasant conversationalists; she expects happiness for those she loves. In “The Window,” the first long third of the three-part novel, one day elapses. It is a summer day by the sea, one appearing to be much like many others that summer and all the summers before and many to come for the Ramsays; that is, if Mrs. Ramsay can keep hope alive, but there are signs that she can’t do this, not even for herself. At dinner, a wave of dissatisfaction submerges her own optimism: she wonders what she’s done with her life; she has no affection for her husband; she can’t perceive beauty anywhere. We see Mrs. Ramsay through the eyes of Lily Briscoe, a painter and friend of the family. “How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote.”

The first lines from Alice Walker’s poem, “Expect Nothing,” might characterize more readily Lily’s philosophy. As a single woman artist, employed in housekeeping for her father, she lives, however frugally, on the generosity of her friends and on her own resources, not the least of which is her enthusiasm for capturing her on her canvas some sense of the grandeur or fine essence of the world and life around. Lily’s thoughts on how to live might resonate with another line from Walker’s poem, “Wish for nothing larger than your own small heart or greater than a star.”  She is modest in her expectations of material things and in what her station in life might bring—not a large home, brood of children, fine drapery, dinner parties, nor servants.  But her artist’s heart is ambitious: if she could, she would paint a masterpiece.

“She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odd to maintain her courage; to say: ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.”

She would capture the seascape, the lighthouse in the distance, and the family in its glory—especially Mrs. Ramsay’s expansiveness—if she could do justice to her vision of beauty. Many painters come to the seashore to paint the lighthouse, but Lily does not want to be one of the many who imitate all the others, nor follow the newest fashion. She seeks her own vision; the expression of it eludes her.

Lesson: Give your characters a relationship to time

Art is made of expectation, of keeping hope—or the vision inspired by it—alive.  Vision is the ability to see within oneself and beyond oneself. With that ability, the artist connects deeply to the world and creates a tangible expression that lasts beyond a lifetime. Mrs. Ramsay has the ability to connect, but her expressions are ephemeral: conversation, her giving nature, caring for her household and friends, love.

The thousand forces, which plague both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily, include the ravages of time. In the first section the reader is transported from one character’s consciousness to another, in the short second section, “Time Passes,” the deserted summerhouse and its caretaker bear witness to the family’s fate: ten years pass, Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children die. With Woolf, time is fluid, and she is a master at controlling it for the reader. She makes a moment within a character’s thought expand far beyond the clock’s measure, and makes years of time compress to a moment.

Lesson: Develop character arcs in ways that are consistent with what is set up early in the story for each character

In the third section, “The Lighthouse,” Lily has returned with Mr. Ramsay and the younger children, including James, who, in spite of his mother’s promise, has never been to the lighthouse. It’s a beautiful day and Lily, feeling like a stranger to the familiar summer place, cannot rouse emotions over the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew, even though she loved them.

The book’s color palette evokes light and fog; the rhythm suggests the ocean’s ebbs and tides. The story is carried on opposing currents of tangible and intangible, order and chaos, masculine and feminine, structured and ephemeral. These currents ripple through Lily. There are the predictable elements that lend order to the day and seasons: architecture—the solid summerhouse, the obelisk of lighthouse, domestic tasks, clock, and calendar. There are the unpredictable and more volatile forces of weather, fate, emotions, and artistic intent. In attempting to depict the lighthouse, Lily has struggled to find her artistic voice; as a woman artist, she has struggled to define herself in the social landscape. “Life is a work of art,” she says, but still she attempts to secure a moment in paint.

Mr. Ramsay, James, and Cam set out across the waves to the lighthouse; Lily remains on shore with her easel. For sixteen-year-old James, the trip cannot possibly meet his expectations, which are entwined with memories of his mother and her promise. There are two lighthouses: the one seen from across the bay and the stark tower close-up. But the journey for him becomes not as much about reaching the lighthouse as winning praise, long withheld, from his father. Finally, when they land on the rock where the lighthouse perches, Mr. Ramsay has exclaimed to James, “Well done!”

Lesson: Use symbol and metaphor to show fulfillment

Across the bay, Lily paints the scene. She had attempted the same scene a decade ago, but “there had been a problem about a foreground.” As she paints a fresh canvas, she is overwhelmed by emotion and cries for Mrs. Ramsay, for life itself, “so short…so inexplicable,” and for a vision of beauty that Mrs. Ramsay represented (and, as well, perhaps, because of Lily’s own demons mentioned above). She notices that the lighthouse “had melted away into a blue haze, and the effort of looking at it and the effort of thinking of him landing there, which both seemed to be one and the same effort, had stretched her body and mind to the utmost.”  She is thinking of Mr. Ramsay, to whom Mrs. Ramsay had devoted her life, and of a confused “rapture of sympathy”the glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender she had seen on so many women’s faces (on Mrs. Ramsay’s, for instance).” Lily had tried to give Mr. Ramsay that glow earlier in the morning, feeling perhaps that she owed it to Mrs. Ramsay, or to him, or to some unfilled promise of her own womanhood.

Finally, Lily feels, more than sees through the fog, that the boat has reached its destination; finally Mr. Ramsay has fulfilled Mrs. Ramsay’s promise to James. “He has landed,” she said aloud. “It is finished.”

Released from expectation, she regards her picture, “all its greens and blues…its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter?” The canvas blurs and in an instant she sees clearly, then draws a line in the center. She puts down her brush in satisfaction, surprised, perhaps, at the results before her, and thinks, “I have had my vision.”

In the seascape of greens and blues on her canvas, she has made the lighthouse appear with one single stroke, a stroke whose full effort has taken her lifetime.

The Elements of “Housekeeping”

Earth, water, air, and fire bind the alchemy that is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. From the opening mention of the sod house where narrator Ruth’s grandfather grew up, the story is grounded in home and place and the departure from it. Ruth’s mother and Aunt Sylvie grew up in Fingerbone, Idaho, in a house put down “in this unlikely place” by the grandfather, who died when his train derailed into a lake from a bridge. The lake and bridge figure prominently in the bleak terrain and in the story — Ruth’s mother also plunged into the lake in a car and with intention.

Ruth and her sister Lucille come to live in their grandmother’s house in Fingerbone, where they’re raised by the grandmother, then by the grandmother’s sisters-in-law, and finally by Aunt Sylvie, who is ill-suited for housekeeping and child-rearing. The girls’ longing for family and their survival instincts make them inseparable, until they must choose between very different ways of “housekeeping.”  

Lesson: Give the weather of place a thematic role in your story

The many character introductions in the first several pages make a difficult entry into this novel. There are the girls Ruth and Lucille, a grandmother named “Sylvia,” the aunt “Sylvie,” sisters-in-law Nona and Lily, the grandfather, Ruth and Lucille’s dead mother Helen and estranged father, a friend Bernice who loaned Helen the car she drove into the lake, and more. Stay with it, patient reader. The complex family structure underpins the theme, as does the landscape and house itself. It’s a story about keeping and losing house and home and family.

As the novel progresses, the initial tangle of relationships unravels and is lost. Lucille leaves Ruth and Aunt Sylvie for a more conventional upbringing with her home economics teacher. Ruth and Aunt Sylvie escape Fingerbone to avoid legal action that could separate them. The elements, which have treated them harshly, become their allies and constant companions. They burn the house and don’t refute a news item that they’ve drowned in the lake. They ride trains, elusive and uprooted.

These passages show how elements shape character and story:

Wind  Ruth’s grandmother was a good mother and housekeeper. 

Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind. (p.12)

Snow  Ruth’s great-aunts are nervous and uncomfortable in their care-taking role.

Sometimes the sun would be warm enough to send a thick sheet of snow sliding off the roof, and sometimes the fir trees would shrug, and the snow would fall with surprisingly loud and earthly thuds, which would terrify my great-aunts. It was by grace of this dark and devastating weather that we were able to go very often to the lake to skate, for Lily and Nona knew that our house would fall, and hoped that we at least might be spared when it did, if only to die of pneumonia. (p.33)

Sun  Sylvie is at first a ray of hope for Ruth and Lucille.

The week after Sylvie arrived, Fingerbone had three days of brilliant sunshine and four of balmy rain. (p.60)

Air  But Sylvie doesn’t become the constant mother the girls desire.

The furtive closing of a door is a sound the wind can make a dozen times in an hour. A flow of damp air from the lake can make any house feel empty. Such dread is always mirrored upon the dread that inheres in things. For example, when Sylvie looked over the bridge she must have seen herself in the water at the foot of the trestle. But as surely as we tried to stay awake to know for certain whether she sang, or wept, or left the house, we fell asleep and dreamed that she did. (p.83)

Light  Sylvie’s strange ways intrigue the girls. They’ve learned to fend for themselves, but they crave security. Lucille eventually turns away from her aunt’s transient nature, but when Sylvie takes Ruth out on the lake in a stolen boat one night, Ruth is compelled as much as repelled by that free spirit. 

“The sun’s coming up,” [Sylvie] said. The sky above Fingerbone was a floral yellow. A few spindled clouds smoldered and glowed a most unfiery pink. And then the sun flung a long shaft over the mountain, and another, like a long-legged insect bracing itself out of its chrysalis, and then it showed above the black crest, bristly and red and improbable. In an hour it would be the ordinary sun, spreading modest and impersonal light on an ordinary world, and that thought relieved me. Sylvie continued to pull, strongly and slowly. (p.147)

Fire & wind  Sylvie and Ruth undertake a major house cleaning to impress the town people and sheriff who see Sylvie as unfit to care for Ruth. Even after Sylvie’s scheme fails, they continue to put the house in order, burning debris which has accumulated since Sylvie arrived.

Sylvie brought newspapers from the shed and we balled them up and stuck them in among the magazines and lit them with matches, and after a little while the magazines began to swell and warp and to page themselves and finally to ascend the spiraling air. That was a pretty day…We could watch the heat from the fire pull and tease the air out of shape, stretching the fabric of dimension and repose with its furious ascending. The magazine pages went black, and the print and the dark parts of pictures turned silvery black. Weightless and filigreed, they spiraled to a giddy height, till some current caught them in the upper air, some high wind we could not feel assumed them. (p.199)

Wind  Ruth chooses transience with Sylvie and never sees Lucille again, but she imagines her in the old house, refurbished after the fire, or settled elsewhere. Ruth passes by her grandmother’s house on the train but never gets off, though she says she would like to see the people who live there.

“Seeing them would expel poor Lucille, who has, in my mind, waited there in a fury of righteousness, cleansing and polishing, all these years. She thinks she hears someone on the walk, and hurries to open the door, too eager to wait for the bell. It is the mailman, it is the wind, it is nothing at all. Sometimes she dreams that we come walking up the road in our billowing raincoats, hunched against the cold, talking together in words she cannot quite understand. (p.217)

Full-bodied Characters

Fiction invites us to experience other peoples’ lives. As writers and readers, we enter territories—geographic, physical, psychic—that would not otherwise be available to us. A believable character is a guide to another world. For the masterful writer and the fortunate reader, “real” characters inhabit lives of their own that extend past the time of writing and reading.

As writers, we know and invent more about our characters than we show or tell. We can develop histories, physical descriptions, and emotional baggage for our characters through lists, biographies, interviews, photos, scrapbooks. (More on these tools in another post.) To make our characters appear and seem “real,” we need to put ourselves in more than their shoes. We need to shape-shift into their bodies.

The figure below serves as a nudge to ground our writing in the senses and body of a character. Add your own action verbs and sensory verbs. Keep in mind the three guiding verbs for character-driven fiction: desire, choose, act.

Know Your Characters - Body, Mind & Soul

Ground writing in the body and senses


Let’s see how masterful authors do it…

Italo Calvino, Baron in the Trees 

Biagio describes Cosimo upon waking: In the morning, on the other hand, when the jackdaw croaked, from the bag would come a pair of clenched fists; the fists rose in the air and were followed by two arms slowly widening and stretching, and in the movement drawing out his yawning face, his shoulders with a gun slung over one and a powderhorn slung over another, his slightly bandy legs (they were beginning to lose their straightness from his habit of always moving on all fours or in a crouch). Out jumped these legs, they stretched too, and so, with a shake of the back and a scratch under his fur jacket, Cosimo, wakeful and fresh as a rose, was ready to begin his day.

Rachel Cusk, The Country Life  

Stella, the first-person narrator, suffers: I examined my arms, and to my dismay saw that they were  a furious red, cross-hatched with hundreds of thick, raised white lines, as if I had worms embedded beneath my skin. Crying out, I flung back the eiderdown… I scratched, tearing at my nightdress like a maniac, and then understood that I was going to lose control of myself if I continued in this fashion. I sat, hot and exhausted, on the corner of the bed, my head in my hands. My skin tingled and itched now that my fingers were not attending to it. I bridled my urge to scratch, forcing my hands into my mouth. My back felt unbearably hot. Around me the night was shrunken and dense, like the pupil of an eye contracted to a pinprick.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Readers (listeners) are in concert with Mrs. Ramsay: But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out f pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half and hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

The author Tim O’Brien gets inside his character Tim O’Brien: I remember the monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes. The sun and the heat and the endless paddies. Even in the deep bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach disorders. You’d be sitting at the top of a high hill, the flat paddies stretching out below, and the day would be calm and hot and utterly vacant, and you’d feel the boredom dripping inside you like a leaky faucet, except it wasn’t water, it was a sort of acid, and with each little droplet you’d feel the stuff eating away at important organs. You’d try to relax. You’d uncurl your fists and let your thoughts go. Well, you’d think, this isn’t so bad. And right then you’d hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you’d be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.

Richard Yates, Doctor Jack-o’-lantern (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness)

Body language reveals Vincent Sabella’s trepidation at being a new kid in class in : He arrived early and sat in the back row — his spine very straight, his ankles crossed precisely under the desk and his hands folded on the very center of its top, as if symmetry might make him less conspicuous — and while the other children were filing in and settling down, he received a long, expressionless stare from each of them.

Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt

An illicit encounter elicits desire and implies what will happen next for Sophia: He presses her flush against the stone wall with his heavy, clothed body. Now he is running his hand along the inside of her thighs, splitting her legs apart, nestling his body between them. Sophia thinks she will lose her breath forever, will drown and not care, will always have this sensation of inner heat and outer cold. He cradles her against the quarry rock. She trembles in his arms. She knows what she will say and without hesitation. Yes.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway begins her day with senses heightened and flows to the reader a spectrum of color and fragrance: Ah yes—so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half-closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale—as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses! 

Loving The Country Life

Everything about Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life is at odds with the ease suggested by the book’s title. When protagonist Stella Benson flees her complications in London—job, parents, husband—for reasons she doesn’t disclose other than that she’s unhappy, she hopes life will be sweeter and simpler in the country. She’s wrong, delightfully so. Cusk starts the story at a fast clip and keeps the pace speeding like an arrow, sweeping the reader — breathless and clueless as Stella — into the romp. Stella can’t help herself from becoming ensnarled in predicaments from cheerfully uncomfortable to hilaroulsy life-threatening. Each day of her new country life sprouts opportunity for disasters. The reader sees them coming at the same time as Stella, or a moment before she does, which makes them doubly sportive.

Lesson: Give your character trouble and misery

Teachers and books on writing craft push us to give our characters trouble. Make them miserable! Put them in predicaments! Watch them squirm! I’ve always found this hard to do. I don’t like trouble; I prefer happiness. But happiness start to finish contains no transformation, no character arc. Early in my writing career, I  learned about the Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy. A Comedy starts with misery, ends with happiness (or promise of.) A Tragedy starts with happiness, and ends with misery (or promise of.)  

The Country Life is a Comedy. Whatever Stella endured in her London life was bad enough to make her want to escape to an anticipated idyllic life in the country. But if Cusk handed Stella what she wanted, there would be no story. From the moment Stella steps foot in the country, she is plagued by sunburn, insect bites, tarred roads, allergies, heat — a myriad of problems. Her off-balance sense of self engenders pratfalls, thievery, near car-wrecks, pet abuse, and near-drowning. This woman lives on the edge. She flings, has flung, and will continue to fling herself at life, even after the story’s end. She’s a flinger. And we love her for it!

She’s propelled by opposite forces within — bravery and embarrassment (or desire to avoid it), meticulous obsession and recklessness. She intends well, but misses, and suffers the consequences of her actions. Hey—better her than us! The joy of this kind of book is in our believing that Stella will survive, maybe even triumph!, as we cheer her on from our comfortable reading spot.

Lesson: For a Comedy, make trouble comedic

We learn a valuable lesson from Cusk about dishing out trouble: To keep it comedic, spoon a dollop of black humor. Stella has no driver’s license, but chauffeurs her ward, Martin, to town. He’s a disabled teenager, wheelchair bound, for whom she’s been hired as a companion and helper. They make it to town—barely—to Martin’s school and need to get back home. In the parking lot, Martin encourages her (what teenager wouldn’t love the adrenalin rush of this illicit ride!), “You’re doing fine, Stel-la.” She protests, “I could get us both killed….What if I injured you?  You could be crippled for life.”

Lesson: Give trouble a purpose

Martin, a wise young man with family problems of his own, engages Stella in philosophical discussions that illumine her plight—we still aren’t sure, really, why she’s fled London.

[Stella speaking:] “I happen to believe that the search for happiness is often itself the greatest cause of unhappiness.” 

 But if you were happy, you wouldn’t be searching,” said Martin.

“I didn’t say I was. I was speaking generally. I think it is almost impossible to be happy and to know yourself to be so at one and the same time. People believe that happiness is a goal, as opposed merely to the absence of problems. Looking for happiness is like looking for love. How do you know when you’ve found it?”

“I always imagined they came together,” said Martin.

“Nonsense. Love makes people more miserable than anything else.”

Cusk could have told us more about the character’s early problems through exposition or had Stella narrate  her own back story. But this masterful author writes a character who give us her own evidence for comparison. We see the misery she encounters through her misguided choices and get a sense that whatever the misery was that she escaped from in London was, at least in part, of her own making.

Lesson: Mirror emotions in the physical

Love and all its complexities — the difficulties of loving and being loved—are what Stella is escaping from and discovering in The Country Life. But love is abstract. Insect bites, sunburn, dangerous roads and near drowning are not.

Cusk uses an old mirror found in the cottage where Stella lives as a prop, in standard literary and inventive ways, to show us Stella. Through her reflection, Stella reveals her interior thoughts to herself and us. Our heroine (or anti-heroine) is, at the same time, so self-absorbed and detached from herself physically and emotionally that she can barely function. Her descriptions have her at arm’s length to herself. “Sensing that I stood on the brink of an abyss of self-consciousness—a void into which I often fall, rendering me unable, even over several hours, to dress myself—I dug deeper into the cases and was surprised to find a summer dress I did not remember packing. It seemed imperative that having made this discovery I activate it immediately and with determination, before my first, faint protests…”  

As the story progresses, Stella becomes more real to herself and us, more present in her body, and more aware of herself in the grander scheme of life.

“I stood transfixed by the mirror, for some time, accustoming myself to this stranger of whose desires and motives I was not entirely sure.”

“Whatever cream it was that the creature had applied to my sunburn had worked wonders, for when I got up and looked in the wardrobe mirror I saw that the colour of my skin had completely altered from emrgency red to an attractive brown.”

““Before I could fend it off, the sight had filled me with a sense of my destitution….What surprised me was to realize how familiar this sight was. I had seen it on busy London pavements, amidst a throng of faces; one or two whose eyes looked out from their bodies as if from behind bars, as they paid for the crime of permitting their misfortunes to outweigh the space their flesh was entitled to occupy.

Stella’s arc transforms her from being armored and distant from herself to begin to being able to be close to at least one other person. She’s confronted herself in the mirror but still has trouble facing the choices she made in abandoning her past. Finally, someone from her former life chances to find her in the country and will be at the dinner table with Martin’s family, to whom Stella has lied and omitted truths. Martin advises her…“Everyone has to face things. It’s the only way.”  He helps her gather courage.

In the final scene, we don’t just glimpse her or see her reflection, we are in her skin “..presently I felt the warm clammy pressure of another hand, Martin’s, taking one of mine.”

A clammy hand may not be Stella’s idea of true happiness, but in the manner of a Comedy, the story promises happiness for this character at some point beyond the book’s ending.

Ordinary, Extraordinary Boy: Baron in the Trees

In Italo Calvino’s fabulous tale Baron in the Trees, a young boy, Cosimo, has a spat with his father during dinner and, out of spite and stubbornness, climbs into a tree and refuses to come down—ever. What makes this story believable and compelling are the details reported by the younger brother, Biagio, who narrates, and the determination of the little rascal, Cosimo, who fulfills his destiny and lives aloft his whole life, taking his birthright of “Baron” upon his father’s death. Biagio narrates from the time of the fateful dinner until Cosimo’s fortuitous heaven-ward ascent as an old man. As promised, he never touches the ground, even in death. What makes this story unforgettable is Cosimo, an ordinary, extraordinary boy.

Lesson: Contrast vivid images and physicality to show character transformation

Writers can get bogged down by description. How much visual information is enough or too much? When does a “catalog” serve the story? What does body language say about character?

Biagio describes Cosimo’s escape with a matter-of-fact assessment from head to toe: “We saw him through the windows climbing up the holm oak. He was dressed up in the most formal clothes and headdress, as our father insisted on his appearing at table in spite of his twelve years of age; powdered hair with ribbon in the queue, tricorne, lace stock and ruffles, green tunic with pointed tails, flesh-coloured stockings, rapier, and long white leather gaiter halfway up his legs, the only concession to a mode of dressing more suitable to our country life. (I, being  only eight, was exempted from powdered hair except on gala occasions, and from the rapier, which I should have liked to wear.)” Calvino then puts Biagio’s attention fully on the body: “Cosimo climbed up to the fork of a big branch where he could settle comfortably and sat himself down there, his legs dangling, his arms crossed with hands tucked under his elbow, his head buried in his shoulders, his tricorne hat tilted over his forehead.” 

Compare this sketch of Cosimo the boy to Biagio’s description of his brother a lifetime later: “…he was getting to be a shrivelled old man, with bandy legs and long monkey-like arms, hunch-backed, sunk in a fur cloak topped by a hood, like a hairy friar. His face was baked by the sun, creased as a chestnut, with clear round eyes between the wrinkles.”

What we see is what we get. The first scene is comedic because even though Cosimo is dressed “normally” for a boy of his social standing, he looks extraordinarily out of place perching in a tree. But we believe he is there—we feel him there—because Biagio has noticed the legs dangling, the head buried in the shoulders. He is a typical rebellious child, having done the deed, now makes sure he’s observed, perhaps petulant, but stubbornly staying put in the tree. The later scene might be comedic had we happened upon it at first. But by now, we’ve lived for decades in the trees with Cosimo through Biagio’s faithful reporting. For all the extraordinary life he’s lived, Cosimo seems quite normal with his bandy legs and face like a chestnut. It feels right that he’s fur-cloaked and moves like a monkey.

Calvino uses the “fashion catalog” of the early scene to launch Cosimo in his arc. Fully clothed in the symbols of his father’s expectations, he has much to lose by disobeying. As he transforms from disobedient boy to a young man in search of himself, so do the details:  the rapier, “which, in spite of family orders, he kept very sharp” becomes a useful tool and weapon, not merely decoration; the tricorne gives way to a cat’s fur cap; ruffles become “bright-coloured feathers of kingfisher or greenfinch.”

Lesson: Focus and heighten the essence of character traits

The word “trait” comes from “tractus” — a drawing out, line. Just as people are distinguished by certain traits, memorable characters have traits that keep them intact in our minds and set them apart from others in the story. Cosimo wants his own way and proceeds to find it. He’s hard-headed, but not hard-hearted. He becomes his own type of leader, telling his father: “I realize that when I have more ideas than others, I give those others my ideas, if they want to accept them; and that to me is leading.” He sees the social strata as a charade and, in his own way, tries to live a meaningful, authentic life. As a wild child, he captures our imaginations and childhood ambitions — endless camping out under the stars, magical tree forts, no dressing up for dinner. As a young man, he realizes he won’t discard essential aspects of his upbringing: “A gentleman, my lord father, is such whether he is on earth or on the tree-tops.” He hangs on to his stubbornness, determination, fortitude, rebelliousness, belief in charting one’s own destiny—all much the same trait, depending upon how you value it—to his dying day.

He becomes a legend in his own time, helping to right injustices when moved to do so, enduring praise from from visitors near and far. “Were I not the Emperor Napoleon, I would like to be the Citizen Cosimo Rondo!” Biagio is quick to tell us that Cosimo did not give a rap about receiving honors, but “it would have given us pleasure in the family.” It is this force of character that we remember. Biagio sums it up well: “Only by being so frankly himself as he was till his death could he give something to all men.”