When I teach fiction to undergraduates, I stress several writing process tenets, probably foremost among them that of intent. I want for them as writers to write deliberately, to thoughtfully arrange their stories in order to achieve deeper and more resonant impacts. I don't mean that they should literally outline everything in advance
but I do hope that they remember that stories are carefully composed, that stories are delicate arrangements of many fiction elements, and that they as writers should have a clear sense of how those elements ought best to work together. I.e., a plan.
Plans get boring.
A few years ago we were reading Raymond Carver's story "Neighbors." We'd gone through several Carver stories already, and we agreed that many of his pieces establish their boundaries quickly and keep their characters stuck on paths of miserable inevitability. But "Neighbors." Quick refresh: Bill and Arlene agree to feed their neighbors' cat while the neighbors go on vacation. Simple set-up, starts slow, Bill goes over, feeds the cat, steals a bit of booze. The next day Arlene goes over, listens to music. And then Bill goes back and Arlene shows up, they make out. We're in Carverland.
well, one day, Bill starts trying on the neighbor woman's clothes.
The moment passes quickly—Bill changes back, leaves, Arlene goes over next, the alternating structure continues, and soon the story ends (poor Bill and Arlene—poor cat!—accidentally lock themselves out of the apartment). My students politely listened as I stressed the concepts of necessary dislocation and how we all need to have another space
but mostly they wanted to talk about how weird that moment was! Why does Bill put on women's clothes? What the heck? Is he a transvestite? Why?? What did it mean?
We talked quite a bit and finally agreed that the story wasn't clear, that we could never truly understand why Carver put that moment in. It flashes in, flashes out—but we certainly didn't forget it. Months later, at semester's end, everyone still agreed that it was one of the most memorable moments we'd read all term—baffling but indelible.
Such is the power of the strange. It jars our expectations and unsettles us while also focusing our attentions. Even if you write with a plan: try, every now and then, to forget that plan. Set it aside a moment. Have a character just
be weird. Or surprise the character. Surprise yourself. You don't need to hijack the entire story—just give it a little shake. After all, any time we're set on a path, be it in reading a story or writing a story or on a literal trip, any unexpected interruption is not only jarring, it's also true. It's honest. Life is pocked with deviations bizarre and unexpected, deviations that can't be explained. Not convincingly, anyway. So by adding such deviations to our fictions, we make our work both more memorable and more realistic, a sincere representation of the nonlinear ways our lives unfold.
Let's call this Just Add Cowboy. You've seen The Big Lebowksi. The scene where our heretofore unseen narrator, The Cowboy, suddenly appears onscreen bellied up to the bowling alley bar, chatting with the Dude. This scene is not explained. It happens. It ends. It makes no sense other than within the logic of weirdness that is the truth of existence. Or if not Just Add Cowboy, let's call it Sad Darth, after my favorite scene in the Star Wars saga, where Vader is sitting in some weird enormous black metal lotus blossom, and we can hear him—it's very quiet, it happens in a split-second—we can hear him sobbing, whimpering about how badly everyone's behaving, how tired he is, how much he needs a break. Oh—that didn't happen?
It should have. It would have been true, and we'd certainly all remember it, right?