Case in Point Whats in the Living Room

To illustrate, rather than cite a finished, set story, I'll use my experience with one of my own short stories, so you can see how the method works.

The protagonist of "A Sense of Family" is a lanky middle-aged woman named Val, a sculptor. The initial scene shows how Val tends to lose track of the hours and the days, absorbed in her current project, a block of marble—a tombstone discarded for commercial use—that she's turning into a bas-relief horse. That first scene is Val alone in her drafty loft wandering vaguely around after a concentrated session of carefully carving and smoothing, as she reconnects by degrees with the realities of time, neighbors, weariness, not having eaten.

In the middle of the floor is the half-carved horse and the intense personal silence around it.

That dark quiet room, of which Val is barely aware except for the horse, seemed to me a good image of what and who Val was. So I repeated the pattern in the story's other two major scenes—one with a cheerful busybody of a neighbor, one with a man she seeks out to collect an almost-forgotten debt. Both men are sculptors too.

A week-old letter Val opens turns out to be a wedding invitation from her stuffy younger brother, who lives across the country. Nudged by her neighbor, Jerry the Welder, Val makes up her mind to reclaim the lapsed family connection and go, but lacks the money for bus fare.

Jerry's whole apartment is filled with a metal and neon construction with lots of sharp edges, reflective surfaces, and flashing lights, which he proudly calls "a social construct"; Val's terrified of it, but braves edging through it to use his phone (naturally, she doesn't have one: she's cut off from people and has just begun to notice it). Platz, the man she tries to phone and then crosses the dark city to confront, owes her money. In the center of Platz's room a slatternly woman repeats, "It's got nothing to do with me," several times, echoing Platz's refusal to pay what he owes, since Val got nothing in writing, no security, at the time she lent him the money. It was a loan of unconsidered but real trust, as one member of the artist "family" to another, which Platz has no qualms about betraying. He refuses to acknowledge either the responsibility of repaying the debt or the implied relationship that prompted Val to give him the money in the first place.

The first image (Jerry's "social construct") is one of involvement; the second (Platz's wife or lover) is a refusal to be involved. Val's reaction to each helps to show who she is.

The pattern was that each of the major people was characterized through what was in the middle of the room, mirroring situations that brought out what I felt to be the central truth of the people in this story's context.

The story's end returns Val to her loft with a bad cold, fussed over and nagged by assorted hippie neighbors who do, after all, supply something like a sense of family.

I think this basic method will work for you too. Look at your initial scene and what's important in it. Try to identify what the basic emotional dynamic is and how it's shown: what objects, what ideas, what words. Then repeat the pattern through the rest of the story—once, or more than once—to show what the meaningful differences are, scene by scene.

Alternatively, think of ways to contrast the initial scene and situation in what follows. Setting up pairs of opposites, or the continuum that connects such a pair, is also a kind of connecting, even when it's not repeating the identical pattern. The road to Rome is still the road to Rome, whether you're headed toward the city or away. The emotional connections continue.

That's the first thing to realize. Although the individual situations in your story may be different, even vastly different, from one part to another, if the emotional resonances of the scenes are at all similar or contrast on the same continuum, there's a way to build in even stronger mirrors and echoes so the reader will see the scenes as linked.

Heightening what's there—that's the beginning.

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