It was my son’s seventh birthday. We asked what he wanted. He told us. And so…
…we got a puppy.
A boy and his dog. Growing up together. How sweet. How classic. Our son is adopted. He comes from a hard place. He has struggled to attach, a long process of pendulum swings from safety to fear and back again. What a perfect gift for this boy we love so much: a puppy all his own to love too.
Trauma kids arrive with lacks, for instance eye contact, an understanding of cause and effect, and empathy. Trauma kids test and reject you. At the same time they cling with a choke hold. Some days our son follows my wife around, talking nonstop. One day she said, “Sweetheart, I really, really need to take a break.” He said, “Can I come with you?”
We’ve made huge progress, we’re proud of that, but it’s a lifelong journey. How excellent for this stage, we thought, to have a puppy. The puppy will make eye contact with those big, sad puppy eyes. Training the puppy will demonstrate cause and effect. Caring for the puppy will build empathy. All good, good, good.
Our puppy is a rescue. (In our oppressively hip neighborhood you will be lashed if you own a purebred.) She’s sleek and black and wickedly smart. She eats like a horse, has doubled in size, and we love her to pieces.
The trouble began with a corner of our baseboard molding. It looked like a beaver had attacked it. Of course it was Pup. Chewing. Everything. You dog owners can stop laughing now. It’s not funny. Our place is trashed. Carpets are rolled up and put away. When we set the table for dinner the dishes are pushed to the center. Pup also follows us everywhere. She sits outside the bathroom door and barks. She is needy, a bottomless bucket
There is so much we didn’t know or hadn’t considered. We were willfully blind.
A rescue? That means abandoned. She is an adopted kid. Eye contact isn’t a problem but training is difficult. Pup apparently has never heard of cause and effect. She is no respecter of kitchen counter tops or bedtime. Her empathy is low. Worse, we discovered that she is a mix of Labrador and Great Dane. Great Dane? Are you kidding me? She will grow up to be a giant.
Just like our son. Exactly like our kid. Little did we know that we were not getting a companion for our boy but a twin. We’re living in Groundhog Day, coping with the trauma of abandonment over and over again.
Of course. Right. Naturally. God is testing us and will keep testing us, I suppose, until we get it right. Just our luck. Our puppy’s name is Lucy. She’s a lesson. She’s symbolic, or at least she is for us. She’s big meaning wrapped up in a small (for now) package. We love her, though. We are committed, even more so because she needs us so much. The thing is we need her too. She completes us in ways we didn’t know we lacked.
Now, let’s get to your fiction.
Excellent novelists dig big meaning out of small events. Conversely, they can illuminate overlooked implications of large plot turns. They can deliver dry facts and make them matter. They can tie together a narrative that spans decades, or even a lifetime, and make it feel like a single tight story. They can make doing the dishes poetic.
Those feats of fiction skill are all accomplished with the same basic technique. It’s the same method that I described last month in my discussion of structural “pin connections” in airport architecture. In fiction the pin connections that fasten together the inner and outer journey are emotions and meaning. When you dig those out and use them, anything put on the page can become charged with electricity. Everything ties together and helps tell the story.
Take dry facts. Almost every story requires that you explain some things to your readers. Scientific, historical, occupational or local knowledge is needed for the story to make sense. This stuff can sit on the page like a lump. When it does it’s called “info-dump”. Or it can feel lively, engaging and important. It’s all in how you do it, and how you do it is to make that information mean something to a point of view character.
Everything has meaning. Tiny events reflect a larger truth. Large plot happenings are packed with many minor implications. Doing the dishes can define your existence. You can tie together anything at all, including different and distant phases of life, by asking (and answering) the same questions at each stage: What do I want? Have I found it yet? How does it seem different to me now? What unifies a life is not what happens in its long span but the questions that underlie long experience. Life changes but the quest is always the same.
Let’s turn this into a technique. For simplicity, let’s choose any small thing that happens somewhere in the middle of your manuscript. When you have it in mind, write down your answers to the following questions:
This small event is symbolic, but symbolic of what? Why is its timing perfect? What does your POV character notice about it that no one else does? What meaning might anyone see if they bothered to look? Is it good or bad to be reading meaning into this event? To feel this feeling and gain this understanding feels like what? (Create an analogy.) There is a big revelation here—what is it? There is a small satisfaction here—what is it? There is a troubling truth—summarize it. How is your POV character changed in this moment, even in a small way?
When you’ve made your notes, wrap it all up in a paragraph or a passage that conveys the meaning of this moment. Attach emotions and add insight to this small event. Don’t be afraid of slowing the pace. When you deepen the meaning of things no one will complain.
To sum up, the puppy has a purpose and it’s not just to chase bouncy balls. It’s to show us what really matters, why we truly care, and to illuminate the meaning of everything.
What secret meaning did you discover? What’s the meaning hidden in the scene you’re working on today? Share!