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

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.

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.

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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.

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.

Your story is underway. But whose story will you tell? Grady’s or Alice’s, one central character, remember!

The decision you make will depend on the themes you want to explore, on the character who is more interesting to you. Perhaps the one with the most to lose.

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So let’s say you decide it’s Grady’s story, and what he wants is to bring Alice home, to heal the wound that he’s open, to repair the damage that Hope’s addiction and death have done to the marriage; he wants redemption.

Now his desire to bring Alice home has to be considerable. Motivation provokes action; you can’t write about a passive central character. So he loves her; he can’t live without her. He wants her forgiveness for absolution. He wants redemption.

Now you know he has sufficient reason to try to save the marriage and every time he does, you’ll write a scene. In fact, you can simply write the obligatory scenes all the way to the end for the climatic moment of the story.

Who is going to tell the story?

Grady can tell it, or a third person narrator can tell it and grant us access to Grady’s thoughts and feelings, and maybe to Alice.

All first-person narrators are unreliable. They have a stake in the outcome. If you want Grady’s reliability to be a part of the meaning of the story, then you’ll let him tell it. But if you want to focus more clearly on his concerted efforts to save the marriage, then you’ll let a third person narrator tell it.

So now you have a central character. You know what he wants and why he wants it. And now he has to struggle against the obstacles. You can’t write about a passive central character.

So you leap ahead to the evening when Grady goes to Alice’s sister’s condo and asked her to come home. She says, “Her home was with Hope.”

He says, “You threw her out when she needed us the most”, and the argument escalates.

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