Home » How to Write a Story: John Dufresne (Full Transcript)

How to Write a Story: John Dufresne (Full Transcript)

Alice is sitting on the sofa, slumped in the corner, teacup in one hand, tissues in the other hand. Grady sitting in a ladderback chair, elbows on his knees, staring at his folded hands.

Grady believes if he had been listened to, Hope would still be with them now. And he wants Alice to admit her role in what happened, and you wonder what did happen.

Grady says to Alice…when you write a story, you’ve got two choices: you can show or you can tell the right scene or summary.

Scene is vivid and intimate. Summary is distant and efficient. Scene is where the writer engages the imagination and the emotions of the reader. Everything important in your story should happen in theme and this looming expression of Grady’s resentment is certainly that.

So you begin as close to greatest pronouncement as you can when everything but the action is over. If this is a story about a marriage in trouble, you don’t need years of prosperity and bliss.

But before you can write the scene, you need to look more closely at the stage that you are setting, at the bereaved Bells in their living room. Because when people speak, they also act and you need to know the potential of the room and every detail in that living room will tell you about the people who live there.

Writing a story is archeology. Not every detail will make it to the page in black and white. But more importantly, every detail will afford you insight into the characters. The details that make it will be those that are vivid and significant.

So now you know your characters a little better. You feel more confident to go back to the scene. Grady’s blue tie is stuffed into the breast pocket of his jacket. You notice he has a scar on his left hand, his left wrist. And you know that every scar tells a story. But will this story be relevant to yours? You’ll find out.

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He has a milagro, a religious charm used for healing purposes in the shape of an eye, pinned to his lapel. He bought it from an old woman outside a church in Shibuya, New Mexico.

You decide Grady has glaucoma. When he told the woman he wanted a milagro for his daughter as well, the woman said, “What’s wrong with her?” And he said, “Everything.”

Now if you hadn’t stopped to get, look more closely at Grady and get to know him better, you would not have stumbled on to the themes of vision, what we see and what we don’t in healing. And you’re already writing about death and about marriage and about grief and about loss, and you haven’t even started.

And what about Grady saying that everything was wrong? What did he mean by that? You decide to find out. So you write about Hope in your notebook and you learn that Hope was a drug addict who robbed her parents blind and died alone of an overdose in a vacant lot. You had no idea.

Back to the living room. Alice’s black hair is cut in [mangs], streaked with gray and held off her face with Turquoise barrettes. When the sweater slips from her shoulder, you notice your left arm is tattooed with a flaming heart.

On the coffee table is an emblem of their loss, a framed photo of baby Hope on a beach blanket, floppy blue hat on our head, zinc oxide on her nose.

When you look past Alice, you can see the staircase that leads up to Hope’s bedroom. You know you’ll be up there soon to try to uncover what you can of Hope’s secret life.

Under the coffee table is a thread of gold. You see it. The Bells don’t: it’s a necklace. And you wonder what role this piece of jewelry will play in the story.

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Alice sets your teacup down on a copy of Food & Wine. There’s a sleek black cat sitting resplendidly on the bookcase shelf. On the windowsill is a potted lily which tells you it’s EASTER. You know the irony. You realize you could use the season to set the tone for your story.

And now you’ve got the themes of renewal and rebirth to consider. Grady reminds Alice that he was against throwing Hope out of the house after her last relapse. “You wanted her to hit bottom,” he says, “and she did.”

Alice feels like she’s been clubbed in the face. What does she say? What does she do? You watch her intently, and you wait with a pen in your hand.

She smashes the teacup; the cat blasts off into the kitchen. She calls Grady the monster. She cries until she can’t catch her breath. You write all that down.

Grady knows he should go to her, but he’s frozen with anger and overcome with guilt. When Alice runs to the doorway, he follows her and tries to calm her down. She pushes him away, runs out to the driveway, and screams. The neighbors peek out their open windows. She runs off.

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