‘In your different ways.’ The waitresses in this dark place had been obliged to squeeze themselves into wench outfits – bibs, stockings, all that again. Market research had no doubt established that this was the most common male fetish. They also said enjoy your meal and have a nice day and you’re welcome the whole time. People think that’s a natural American foible, a natural winsomeness. Don’t they understand? It’s just company policy. They’re trained to say it. They’re programmed. It’s all money. God I can’t wait to leave this moneyworld.
Craft is a set of expectations.
Expectations are not universal; they are standardized. It is like what we say about wine or espresso: we acquire “taste.” With each story we read, we draw on and contribute to our knowledge of what a story is or should be. This is true of cultural standards as fundamental as whether to read from left to right or right to left, just as it is true of more complicated context such as how to appreciate a sentence like “She was absolutely sure she hated him,” which relies on our expectation that stating a person’s certainty casts doubt on that certainty as well as our expectation that fictional hatred often turns into attraction or love.
Our appreciation then relies on but also reinforces our expectations.
Here is a convention up for debate, one in the process of becoming visible: in an essay on the pathetic fallacy, author Charles Baxter argues that setting in literary realist fiction should less often reflect the protagonist’s inner state. Baxter has seen too much rain when the hero is sad, too many sad barns when the hero has lost a child (as in the famous John Gardner prompt). In reality, rain is not contingent on emotion and objects do not change their appearances to fit people’s moods. (The Gardner prompt, to describe a barn from the perspective of a grieving father, is more about what a person in a certain mood would notice—but the point holds.) Baxter thinks realism should do more to resist story conventions and accurately represent reality.
Yet on screen, the pathetic fallacy seems widely accepted (especially if there is no voiceover to provide a character’s thoughts), and student fiction seems more and more influenced by film expectations than prose expectations.
What tone tells us is that if fiction regularly presents a difficult world, it also indicates how to make sense of that world—and for whom the world is difficult. Whether positive or negative, fiction always says something about how we live, and not in an individual sense but a contextual one. When we write fiction, we write the world. Even if that world looks almost the same as ours, it will always be a representation, not a universal. If there is a distance tone inhabits, it is the distance between our world and the world of the story.
nother common rags-to-riches plot is the marriage plot (see: Cinderella). Typically in this case, a poor straight woman becomes the love object of a rich straight man and thereby gains wealth. Here the world also fails to be changed. This world suggests women should become sexual objects to rich men if they want to become rich. Such, of course, is our world, which also has consequences for purpose, theme, and audience. (It should be noted that in many Cinderella stories, the character arc is fairly shallow: the love object starts off being extremely desirable—that is, beautiful, good, selfless, etc.—and her desirability is simply better showcased by a “change” like a makeover. It is her desirability that actually changes the lover, who goes from, say, an asshole-with-a-heart-of-gold to learning how to be a better person.)
As Kurt Vonnegut says (see the chapter “What Is Craft?”), the Cinderella story makes money. People consume it and reproduce it. This means something. There are all sorts of interesting theoretical reasons for this, and most of them boil down to: the story says that there is hope of becoming powerful in a system by accepting your powerlessness within it.
Writing other characters with similar but different types in fact helps make each type stand out. One of the best ways to emphasize the heart of gold the asshole has is to introduce an asshole without a heart of gold (and/or the “too nice” character who gets stuck in the friend zone). The easiest way to invite sympathy for a character is to write in a worse character. The easiest way to make the protagonist’s change stand out is to write a similar character who is never able to change. Characters (fictional beings that require meaningful choices) always exist in relation to each other (and the world). They may be opposite (foils) or similar except for some crucial difference (mirrors) or models of different ways of becoming (often mothers and fathers) or so on. But like a single word in a system of language, what gives a character meaning is its difference from others.
Take, for example, a domestic drama about a couple falling apart. They fight, they break up. They go their separate ways. One of them falls ill and dies. The other goes to the wake, to remember their good times. At the wake the body stands up and starts eating brains. Now it’s a zombie story.
You could build the possibility of zombies into the rules of the story, the way “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” starts with the grandmother not wanting to go to Florida where the criminal called the Misfit has broken out of prison, and ends with the Misfit killing the grandmother—you could make the illness mysterious or give one of the lovers a dream about zombies or set their first date at a zombie flick—but it’s not necessary that you should plant these kinds of seeds.
It’s not actually prior rules that make zombies seem like a frustrating turn of events or an interesting one. Some of it is personal taste or the question of audience—I never questioned the bike ride in my MFA workshop because I didn’t care whether a bike ride could go on all day or not; I would be happy to see zombies interrupt a familiar domestic story. On a craft level, the complaint that something is not “believable” or “realistic” or that we don’t “buy it” or that it’s not “earned” is really an indication that the story doesn’t seem to recognize that something unusual has happened. This is why planting seeds is one way to make the change read more “smoothly.” But it’s not the only way.
If I’ve gotten away from how to use setting, it’s because the effects of noticing are profound. What is noticed depends on who does the noticing. Cold weather affects someone not used to cold weather far more than it affects someone who is used to it. A strange man in an otherwise empty parking lot is a different setting for a female protagonist than for a male protagonist. A speed trap is a different setting for a Black protagonist than for a white protagonist. A staircase is a different setting for a protagonist in a wheelchair than for a protagonist who can easily ascend it. Etc. Perhaps one of the reasons a white author might have trouble writing a protagonist of color is that the author is noticing the wrong things. The author is thinking of setting as a character of its own rather than reliant on character.
Like everything else, setting is tied intrinsically to character, plot, theme, arc, and so on. A narrator who doesn’t notice the economy collapsing is different and has a different arc that says something different about the world than a narrator who notices nothing but the economy collapsing or than a narrator who notices the economy collapsing but really has to figure out how to take care of an ailing family member or escape a murderous ex or so forth. [...]
Extended to larger parts of a story, like scene, the order of things is crucial. Take a story like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Hell-Heaven,” in which a daughter narrates her mother’s crush on a family friend. At the end of the story, the grown-up narrator reveals a secret: that after the friend got married, the mother doused herself in gasoline and stood in the yard with matches. The final line of the story is about how the narrator came to know this secret. It gives us the context of this revelation: the mother revealed her near-suicide when the narrator’s own heart was broken. We are reminded that amid the drama of her mother’s unrequited love, the daughter not only played witness but also lived her own life affected by the love she witnessed. Before this ending, it is easy to forget about the narrator as an active character, since the mother’s story is so compelling. The secret reconfigures meaning. To reveal it at the beginning would have made it a lens rather than a shared act relegating the daughter to the background of her own childhood.
Really examine every time you use “look,” “watch,” “see,” “feel,” etc., and any other words that “filter” (via John Gardner) the prose through a perspective that is already well established. If we are in Jose’s close-third perspective, for example, we don’t need to know that Jose looked at the clock in order to know that he read the time. “The clock read 7:00” does the job of implying that Jose looked at the clock. This is an innocent example, but sometimes the “filter” can obscure the object. Significant looks are cultural—I suspect they come from watching screens. On screen a significant look is something we can see the specific details of. In prose, “She glared at his mouth” cannot be used to take the place of “She wanted to rip his mouth” or especially “His mouth puckered stupidly.”