And now for something completely different. Instead of my explaining a single idea or craft point, I’d like us to look together at a complete short story, the way we would if we were in a classroom or a critique group. I’ll give you my take on it, but I’m eager to know yours as well. (I hope the comments section will grow enjoyably lively.) I suspect there are things we can see looking at a story in its entirety that get missed in an article that focuses on a single aspect of writing.
The story is “Swim,” by Jennifer Weiner. It’s available for free from both Kindle and Nook. If you don’t own either of the magic devices, you can download the story onto any computer using free Kindle software. If you’re pressed for time, I think you can follow most of what I say without reading the piece. But it would be more fun if you did.
The first thing I noticed is how the story begins and ends with Caitlyn, giving the arc clearly-defined anchors at either end. The shallow, image-conscious teenager we meet at the beginning – sporting glitter lipstick and writing the essays she thinks adults want to read — mirrors Ruth’s own psyche, trapped by the self-consciousness of her first party, freshman year of college. It’s this self-consciousness she shares with Caitlyn that drives her away from screenwriting (and romance) and into the safe haven of coaching students with their college applications. When Ruth finally sees the more complex Caitlyn at the end, caring for her younger brother (who has cerebral palsy) in the mall with no self-consciousness, she’s inspired to shed her own fears and be her true self. Essentially, the arc of Ruth’s character growth is defined by the way Caitlyn’s meaning changes for her. Even though Ruth’s transformation is left open ended – we don’t know whether she dates Gary or how it turns out — the Caitlyn bookends make the story feel finite and complete.
Weiner skillfully weaves the theme of reality vs. perception through the story in other ways as well. There’s the contrast between Gary, who remains authentic even as he hires Ruth to revamp his generic online persona, and Rob, her co-worker at her former screenwriting job, whose wardrobe and car make it seem as if he doesn’t care how people perceive him but who betrays Ruth and turns out to be a fraud. The contrast between reality and image even shows up in the pairing of the beloved but out-of-place suburban furniture in Ruth’s apartment and the ironic Barcalounger in the studio. There are few people more aware of their image than those who create one ironically.
Weiner makes particularly good use of idiosyncratic yet plausible details to create her characters. Ruth’s laying claim to the coffee shop’s power outlet and fighting off her co-caffinators tells us a lot about her. Her grandmother’s mud masks and monthly thanksgiving meals are another telling detail. Weiner is a deft hand with metaphor as well, with swimming standing in for Ruth’s withdrawal from the world, which is also woven in with Gary’s less than interesting online name, SWM.
So where, if anywhere, does the story go wrong? Two places, I think, both of them involving slightly unfair manipulations of Weiner’s characters. Caitlyn strays into stereotype at the beginning of the story, embodying most of the clichés of a vacuous, rich high schooler – glitter lipstick, ear piercings, turning every statement into a question, benign self-absorption. These characteristics in themselves aren’t necessarily bad, especially as Weiner later suggests that Caitlyn developed the question habit while communicating with her brother, thus transforming the cliché into a serious character point. But there are no hints at the beginning that there is more substance behind the vacuousness, so Catilyn’s transformation from Valley Girl to loving sister seems to come out of nowhere.
Then there’s Gary. He is willing to approach Ruth cold in the coffee shop and keep talking to her despite her resistance. And during the scenes at the mall, he is witty and personable, and apparently interested in Ruth. So why is he still single? The question grows even more pointed when his improved online profile apparently only hooks him up with freaks. I suspect that Weiner needed a plausible romantic interest for Ruth, but also needed the cute initial meeting. As a result, Gary is a little too good to be believed. Giving Gary a reason for his dating trouble – a recent divorce, perhaps, or some quirk that can later become endearing – would have made him a bit more plausible.
One final thought. Notice how many things Weiner does at once. The Barcalounger helps you picture the setting, reveals the mindset of the writers who work at the studio, and serves as a metaphor for a larger theme. Caitlyn’s glitter lipstick is a sign of her empty conformity and of her love for her brother. Nearly everything in the story works on two or three levels.
When you’re reading the usual tightly-focused advice articles that people like me write, it’s easy to forget how much every element of your story has to work on different layers. This is especially true of a successful short story, where you have very little space in which to get a lot done. But within novels, too, everything has to do everything at once. Real life is not neat, with clear metaphors or convenient, telling details. It’s often mysterious, with ordinary events meaning things we could never have realized at the time, or meaning several things at once. If your readers sense that there are levels of meaning behind the ordinary, then your fiction is going to feel like real life.