Thursday, March 09, 2006

It Takes Two Sticks

Something that's good to remember when developing a short story idea is that if you're lost in the woods, it takes two sticks to make a fire. You can't rub one stick against itself.

Okay, if you have a Zippo or a dry matchbook from your favorite bar maybe one stick will do. Or you could break one stick in half, if it's long enough. So maybe it's not a great analogy. The point is, a short story usually needs more than one thing going on in order to be surprising and hold our interest. This week's New Yorker story, "The Trench," may be the rule-proving exception, but "The Trench" has that built-in arc to carry us forward. If you don't have such an arc, you need something else.

Let's say you want to write a story about a farm wife who recently lost her 18-year-old son to encephalitis. She's struggling to deal with both the emotional burden and the practical burden of doing the farm work that the boy used to do. Dealing with the loss of a child is a common theme; the farm gives the story a setting, but alone it doesn't add much in the way of dramatic interest. What would you do? Have the woman reflect ad nauseum on her son? Spend pages showing how raising crops is like raising children? Inject a long heartfelt scene between the woman and husband, brimming with a lot of indirect "Hills Like White Elephants" dialogue, in which they discuss everything but the dead son, but the reader is supposed to know that they are really talking about the dead son? Aren't you bored already, just thinking about writing another one of those stories?

You could write that kind of story; there have been many such stories written, most still taking up room in a file cabinet somewhere. For me, reading such a story is like taking that single stick and jabbing it in my good eye.

Or you could take Tim Gautreaux's approach in "Returnings" (from his collection Same Place, Same Things) and find a second stick. The setup is as outlined above, and the farm wife is in the fields, trying to start a balky tractor.
Wiping her hands, she heard at the periphery of her attention the steady chop of a helicopter in the distance, a common sound in this part of the parish because of an air-training facility across the line in Mississippi. She mounted the tractor, pulled out the choke, and, with a finger in the starter ring, paused to look toward a helicopter that was passing closer than usual. A gunship, armed and camouflaged, skirted the edge of her field. It hovered a moment, approached with a whopping roar, and finally settled down in a circular dust storm seventy yards from her.
Now why didn't you think of that? Just land a helicopter in your story. The chopper is being flown by a Vietnamese trainee (the story is set in the early '60s); he is lost, and he has to find his way back to base in an hour or face being sent back to Vietnam and fighting in the infantry.

The woman gets in the helicopter and they take off over the parish. She eventually helps him get directions back to the base, and he returns her to the farm and the balky tractor. Her husband comes out in his truck, having missed the entire helicopter adventure. He helps her start the tractor, and the conversation turns, very briefly, to the dead son.
He [the husband] thought a bit. "One morning I tried and tried to start this thing. I ran down a battery before Joe--he was about nine then--came out to the shed and turned on the gas for me. He said, 'Daddy, what you ever do without me?' "

She walked over and stood next to him, the skin on her arms prickling. The empty quiet of the field was oppressive, and she pulled the starter ring. The tractor chuckled alive, but as soon as it did, he reached over and pushed the kill switch, the quiet settling on them like a memory. "We've got to get away for a while," he said, his voice so shaky it scared her. "Leave the tractor here. Let's get cleaned up and drive into town." He glanced up into the sky. "Let's drive two towns over and get a fancy meal. You need it. You never get off this place."
A nice ironic touch.

There are other elements that tie the helicopter ride to the main theme, mainly that the pilot is about the same age as the son. His life is indirectly in danger (he believes that if he doesn't make it back on time, he'll die with a rifle on his back), and she has a chance to protect him, something she was unable to do for her own son. But it's the helicopter ride that makes the story work, not because of any belabored metaphor, but just because it's surprising and interesting. It's the second stick, and Gautreaux uses it to build a pretty good flame.