This isn’t a textbook, and so there aren’t a lot of exercises, but I want to offer you one now, in case you feel that all this talk about situation replacing plot is so much woolly-headed bullshit. I am going to show you the location of a fossil. Your job is to write five or six pages of unplotted narration concerning this fossil. Put another way, I want you to dig for the bones and see what they look like. I think you may be quite surprised and delighted with the results. Ready? Here we go.
After Little Nell's birth things got even worse, much worse than Dick had imagined. His misfortune had started five years ago. Precisely one year after his father had passed away. It was a mild summer night in August when Dick was making his way out of the cemetery where he had just placed a bouquet of mirasols, his father favorite flowers, at his father's grave. Dick hastily paced towards the exit, relieved to leave this place behind, leaving his sisters behind. Meeting them had predictably not gone well. The three siblings had run out of things to say to each other. The silence, sporadically interjected by faint accusations and spiteful remarks, made the atmosphere unbearable and left Dick longing to leave. The relationship between Anne and Marie had always been toxic, but after their father's demise, their hate and their envy made them snap at Dick as well. Meeting with them had become a painful experience. Encased by their cloak of silence, encountering them suffocated his desire to talk uninhibitedly. Cold shivers ran down his spine as he recapped the last two hours. He moved faster. How had this started? He could not remember Anne and Marie ever getting along. But his aunt had told him once that before he had been born (the sisters were six and four at the time, respectively) they had been as thick as thieves. So, was he the reason for their falling out? Was it because their mother had run away shortly after Dick had been born? Nobody knew where she had gone to, or even if she was still alive. Dick started to put his mind on other things, this was just too painful. Why couldn't they just be like an ordinary family? Why was all this suppressed anger, this misery, this silence, corroding everything?
Although he hadn't relapsed after quitting smoking two months ago, the urge for cigarettes was strong in Dick when he felt the asphalt of the street beneath him and he uneasily searched for a nearby kiosk. He had planned to immediately go home and watch the final episode of his favorite TV series, but now he succumbed to his craving and decided to take a detour. Dick now lived in the villa his father had died in. The house had been in the family for generations and although his sisters took care of their father before he passed, the father gave the house to Dick. His father loved him madly. Although Anne and Marie didn't think that giving the house to Dick was just, they had grudgingly accepted their father's decision. Thereafter all the legal formality was completed, they had each moved to another side of town. They never had any visitors, but rumor had it, they both lived alone with their cats, dogs and guinea pigs and that their only form of human contact was writing complaints to their neighbors almost daily, lamenting trivial banalities. Dick felt sorry for his sisters, but he was also a little bit afraid of them. He wiped the cold sweat of his face and entered the kiosk. "A pack of Camels light, please, and a lighter." Outside, he immediately lit a cigarette, closed his eyes and eagerly inhaled the smoke. "Nothing beats this", he thought and the first smile of the day appeared on his face. His dim mood started to fade at once. He opened his eyes and there she was.
Everyone is familiar with the basic details of the following story; with small variations, it seem to pop up in the Police Beat section of metropolitan daily papers every other week or so. A woman – call her Jane – marries a man who is bright, witty, and pulsing with sexual magnetism, We’ll call the guy Dick; it’s the world’s most Freudian name. Unfortunately, Dick has a dark side. He’s short-tempered, a control freak, perhaps even (you’ll find this out as he speaks and acts) a paranoid. Jane tries mightily to overlook Dick’s faults and make the marriage work (why she tries so hard is something you will also find out; she will come onstage and tell you).
"It was a beautiful day, it was the best day of my life," Dick fondly browsed through the wedding album. "She really looked great in that lime green dress, her waist, her petite and firm breasts.. This wonderful creature, she said "yes"! Even Anne and Marie came to the wedding, paid their respects and even brought a little lemon tree as a present." Dick got up, went to the bathroom and filled a watering can. Just as he was about to open the door to the balcony, he heard the sound of keys turning from the main door. An elated excitement took over his body, which primarily manifested itself between his legs. The loud bang of the door announced her arrival and there she stood angrily, the shade of red in her face almost matching that of her hair. "What a shitty day, I'm sick of it." Startled by the strong words, Dick dropped the watering can. "And you, what are you doing? The floor, everything is wet. Are you too stupid to hold a watering can?" "Uhhmm, honey, what happened?," Dick is stammering. "What happened? You are just incompetent. Idiot! I'm out there, working hard and you, you lie around all day and you're just totally incompetent. Idiot." "Is that how you talk to me?", Dick was perplexed. She had had small fits before, but the intensity of this one was new. "I'm talking to you in any way I want. After all, I own you, you scumbag." She took off her jacket and threw it at him. She then proceeded to take her big wedding ring off and used all her force to throw it at Dick. "Ouuuuch"- Dick was grimacing with pain. He felt his face with his fingertips and there was a narrow strip of blood running down his face. "What's gotten into you?" "Oh, my poor Dick." She dashed towards him, put her arms around him, smothered his face with kisses. "My poor little Dick. I'm so sorry." Tears were flowing down her face. "My love, we belong together, just us." Dick wanted to say something, wanted to push her away, but she held on tightly and her hands started to work the zipper of his pants.
They have a child, and for awhile things seem better. Then, when the little girl is three or so, the abuse is verbal at first, the physical. Dick is convinced that Jane is sleeping with someone, perhaps someone from her job. Is it someone specific? I don’t know and don’t care. Eventually Dick may tell you who he suspects. If he does, we’ll both know, won’t we?
"You're late!" "I went to the sauna after the course," Dick responded. "At the fitness center?" "Yeah, at the one next to the bridge." "Where that blonde cunt works at?" "Who?" "Don't pretend, you know which one, the one that puts on her cutest smile whenever she sees you!" "Mmmhh, I have no idea who you're talking about." "Come on, the one at the counter, big breasts!" "Oh, you mean Doris? Yeah, she might have been there, but I'm not sure." "You're not sure? Don't lie to me! Doris, Dorissss. So you actually know her!" "Honey, it's a small place, I know everybody there." "And her you probably know verrryyyy well. Did she join you in the sauna?" "Honey, why are you always so jealous? There's no reason for it." "No reason? I'm sitting here in our home, looking after your child and you're going to the sauna with another one?" "Honey, first, it's our child and second I went to the sauna with no one. I needed that, some time with just myself." "In the sauna, with many naked women?" "Honey, I don't see any other women, just you, I love you, you know I do. Please, stop it now!"
"Would you hand me the butter?" They were sitting at the dining table. "Of course, here you go. Could you spread some butter on that piece of bread for Little Nell?" "Yes, bread but with cheese also," their little daughter interjected. "Ok, bread with one slice of cheese coming up!" Dick announced. "No, no, I want two!" "You get one or you don't get anything at all. Stop getting on my nerves or you go to bed immediately." "Honey, you don't have to be so strict with Little Nell," Dick tried to mediate. "You wanna tell me how to raise the kid?" she is shouting. "I can do whatever I want, because who is earning the money in this house?" "Please, calm down, honey!" "I want two cheese, twoooooo!" the child cried out. "That's enough, you brat!" She got up, lifted Little Nell out of her high chair and slapped her in the face. "Stopppp! Cut it out!" Dick cried out feebly. The child sobbed, "Don't Mommy!" She was about to hit her again, but the child shrieked loudly and so she grabbed the little one, hauled her off to the corridor and then locked Little Nell in her room. Silence. Gobsmacked, Dick sat in his chair, unable to move. Then she came back to the table, whistling a tune, and kissed Dick on the forehead, seemingly enchanted. "Ok, finally, some peace and quiet for us, tell me about your day!" "You must not do that to our child. This is simply not acceptable," Dick quietly said. "Are you going to start with that again?" Her face darkened and lickety-split she had rammed her fist into his nose. Blood was dripping on Dick's plate. She pushed Dick's face down onto the table, put her mouth over his ear and hissed, "Will you remember this once and for all? You must obey me. Next time I'm getting the cane again. Now, let's finish dinner." She let off of him and asked, "Would you pour me another glass of wine?"
At last poor Jane can’t take it anymore. She divorces the schmuck and gets custody of their daughter, Little Nell. Dick begins to stalk her. Jane responds by getting a restraining order, a document about as useful as a parasol in a hurricane, as many abused women will tell you. Finally, after an incident which you will write in vivid and scary details – a public beating, perhaps – Richard the Schmuck is arrested and jailed. All of this is back story. How you work it in – and how much of it you work in – is up to you. In any case, it’s not the situation. What follows is the situation.
"It's beautiful here," Dick thought as he looked out of the hotel room window and down at the harbor. With great pleasure he stretched out on the bed that was right next to the window and observed a heavily loaded transport ship on its way to the open sea. "It was just the right decision. To hell with self-doubt and frustration! This is the right place to think about my future. My fresh start." The last one and a half years had been unbearable. To file for divorce hadn't been easy for Dick, but he had taken Little Nell's future into consideration, also. The child wasn't supposed to grow up in an environment like that, never-ending fights, beatings. It just had been unbearable, the constant fear of doing something wrong, Little Nell's choked back tears. However, Dick couldn't have imagined in his worst nightmares what happened after the final court hearing… Dick went to the bathroom and searched his vanity bag for Aloe Vera gel. The blisters covering almost his entire legs and torso were itching like crazy. Dick applied the wholesome gel on a wide area of his skin. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Startled, Dick dropped the tube of Aloe Vera. His heart was beating like crazy, he couldn't move. "Room service," a joyful voice announced. "I'm bringing your breakfast!" Dick breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at himself in the mirror. "It's over." He opened the door and accepted a richly loaded tray, the coffee emanating a gorgeous scent.
One day shortly after Dick’s incarceration in the city jail, Jane picks up Little Nell at the daycare center and ferries her to a friend’s house for a birthday party. Jane then takes herself home, looking forward to two or three hours´ unaccustomed peace and quiet. Perhaps, she thinks, I’ll take a nap. It’s a house she’s going to, even though she’s a young working woman – the situation sort of demands it. How she came by this house and why she has the afternoon off are things the story will tell you and which will look neatly plotted if you come up with good reasons (perhaps the house belongs to her parents; perhaps she’s house-sitting; perhaps another thing entirely).
Something pings at her, just below the level of consciousness, as she lets herself in, something that makes her uneasy. She can’t isolate it and tells herself it’s just nerves, a little fall-out from her five years of hell with Mr Congeniality. What else could it be? Dick is under lock and key, after all.
With his hands full, Dick entered the Villa, almost tripping over the empty cans of paint that the handymen had left behind and wanted to pick up the following day. The smell of fresh paint immediately clogged his nose. But something was wrong. He started to get nervous. "Breathe, breathe," he tried to calm himself. "Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in.. It will take some time until all the ghosts have left the building - that's also what Sylvie predicted!" Sylvie was a shaman that Dick had started to consult a few weeks ago. He put his bags on the table, but the feeling of unease grew stronger. "It's probably ghosts and unhappy souls that used to live here, woken up by the painters. Yeah, that must be it!" Gloomy images appeared before his inner eye: his father's corpse, hollowed out by cancer, which reminded him of a Pieta scene when he saw the body laid out in the morgue; the distorted bodies of his sisters, who lost their lives in the fire incident; they, seemingly throw flames out of her eyes as they were taken away by the men in white coats.. "Stop, I'm gonna fight this, what did Sylvie advise?" Dick opened a drawer bursting with all kinds of herbs that the shaman had given to him, of course not free of charge. "Was it frankincense? No, that would be too obvious. Thyme? No, it was somethinnnng.. Ha, sage! Yeah, that's it! White sage!" Relieved to have remembered the right herb, Dick fished a lighter out of the pocket of his jacket and set the whole bundle of exorcism herbs on fire. "Yikes, it has to work, a stench like that," Dick was coughing, but then started to walk around the ground floor in circular motions.
Before taking her nap, Jane decides to have a cup of herbal tea and watch the news. (Can you use that pot boiling water on the stove later on? Perhaps, perhaps.) The lead item on Action News at Three is a shocker: that morning, three men escape from the city jail, killing a guard in the process. Two of the three bad guys were recaptured almost at once, but the third is still at large. None of the prisoners is identified by name (not on this newscast, at least), but Jane, sitting in her empty house (which you will now have plausibly explained), knows beyond a shadow of doubt that one of them was Dick. She knows because she has finally identified that ping of unease she felt in the foyer. It was the small, faint and fading, of Vitalis hair-tonic. Dick’s hair-tonic. Jane sits in her chair, her muscles lax with fright, unable to get up. And as she hears Dick’s footfalls begin to descend the stairs, she thinks: Only Dick would make sure he had hair-tonic, even in jail. She just must get up, must run, bit she can’t move…
"I should have invested in an alarm system instead," it occurred to Dick. The smell was getting stronger. How much he had loved her, and how attractive and nubile her scent was for Dick. But everything was different now. Fear had enveloped him and swallowed everything. "Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick," she cried out as if to attract an animal. He felt her getting closer. "Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick, Diiickkkk! Come out of your hideout, I wanna finish our game! Dick, Dick, Dickkkk!"
It’s a pretty good story, yes? I think so, but not exactly unique. As I’ve already pointed out, estranged hubby beats up (or murders) ex-wife makes the paper every other week, sad but true. What I want you to do in this exercise is change the sexes of the antagonist and protagonist before beginning to work out the situation in your narrative – make the ex-wife the stalker, in other words (perhaps it’s a mental institution she’s escaped from instead of the city jail), the husband the victim. Narrate this without plotting – let the situation and that one unexpected inversion carry you along. I predict you will succeed swimmingly…if, that is, you are honest about how your characters speak and behave.
italic = quotes by:
Stephen King: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft