I think we can take as a given that the story we appear to be telling is just the vehicle for the “real” story we tell. Many people have said the same. This secret is the story’s engine: Your character’s hidden flaw, an ideal that drives her, some event which she must acknowledge, resolve or deny.
Stories ration out this secret or “bottom” story, repeatedly salting the plot with clues. For me, this balancing act is one of the most difficult things about writing fiction. Nancy Zafris echoes this, saying, “It’s a kind of dance—how much to reveal, when you are saying too much.” One thing is for sure, by the end of the story, it’s all about the secret. The what-happens-next more or less falls away.
Lead is turned to gold. The alchemists understood the transformative power of objects; we writers should as well. This may be an old-fashioned way to look at crafting stories, but objects are both the catalyst for and markers of this change.
It could be a physical object. A wooden leg, say. A father’s ghost. A white whale. A child’s sled.
It could be a process. I once wrote a story about a woman who sees her life as a mathematical equation that needs solving.
It could be a place we are returning to. Our childhood home. The Cracks of Doom.
A journey. Riding horseback into Mexico after your parents die. Making a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Rafting the Mississippi.
An event. Witnessing a rape and falsely identifying the assailant.
Whatever it is, the telling object bridges the plot, the seeming story, with the secret story our character must resolve or refuse. They do that because they exist both in the material plane where we situate our stories and the emotional world where our characters live. We humans attach to objects because they elicit feelings in us.
Objects in fiction are more than simple metaphorical equations. There are a host of emotions triggered by them. Proust bites into a plump little cake and seven volumes of reminiscences ensue.
T. S. Eliot put it like this, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding ... a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events ... such that when the external facts ... are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” It is the way we’re hardwired.
Because of this, there’s a marvelous economy telling a story through objects. They can say things words only hint at. Through it the bottom story leaps off the page and strikes the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer, resolving everything, explaining nothing.
Ironic spoiler alert! When we arrive at that image of the sled at the end of the film “Citizen Kane,” we understand Charles Foster Kane; everything that came before makes sense in a can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it kind of way. The power of an effective object in storytelling lies in its unexpectedness. And its inevitability. When we understand the sled’s power over Kane, we can’t imagine his sad story going any other way.
You can’t plan a character’s object. You might get away with planning her disposition, her looks, her manner of speaking, but I’ve found the object to be slippery. It must be earned. It isn’t some hackneyed Hallmark equivalency.
As I whack my way through the what-happens-next, it isn’t very clear to me what the story is about. The protagonist (I’m mostly talking about the protagonist here, although other characters should have their telling objects too) is shifting and the object along with her. In that story I wrote about the woman who thinks of her life as math, for a long while the object wasn’t a formula, but Mission figs, then mud pies. After more than a year, I think I finally got it right, though I still have some doubts.
Try using the power of objects. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Write a complete (beginning/middle/end) story using an object in 300 words. If you need a place to start, use exercises 3 and 4 from my last post. Then try writing that story at the same word count, but without the object. Which version was more powerful?
2. Try sketching a character: features, backstory, temperament. (You could also use a character from one your own stories.) Come up with a list of possible objects that match. How would each object direct a story you might tell? How might the stories differ?
3. Re-read Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” Analyze each character’s object. Can you sketch out this story without them? Imagine how you’d tell Joy’s story without her wooden leg. After you do this, you might want to read what Flannery O’Connor said about the wooden leg and how the telling object differs from a symbol.
If you want to read more about the use of objects in fiction, try Catherine Brady’s difficult, but rewarding, “Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction.” Thanks to Deb Vanasse for recommending the book. Thanks to Nancy Zafris for introducing me to these concepts.
Lucian Childs lives in Anchorage, Alaska where he makes his living as a graphic designer. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s April 2012 Family Matters competition. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cirque, Compass Rose, Quiddity, Sanskrit and Rougarou.