Monday, February 02, 2015

Want to Write Strong Fiction? Pull Out a Pair of Unworn Shoes

My students and I often talk about how objects, especially as related to characters, can make strong fiction even stronger. When it comes to objects, simple but significant can often win the day.

An example: I recently read Paper Moon, a novel by Joe David Brown published in 1971. (Some of you might be familiar with the film of the same name which starred Ryan O'Neill and Tatum O'Neill. Tatum won the Oscar for best supporting actress.)

The book chronicles young Addie and her maybe/maybe-not father Long Boy who travel through the south during the Great Depression and do "business": a series colorful grifting jobs where they bamboozle the pompous and the gullible. The descriptions are vivid, the language is zippy, and the relationship between Long Boy and Addie is one I'll remember for a long time. I don't know that I completely buy the back cover's glowing comparisons to Huck Finn and Scout--that's holy territory for me--but I certainly enjoyed the read and I'd recommend it.

The period details help support the narrative, particularly in the following passage that highlights the day Addie and Long Boy hustle their way through the crowds to hear the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, speak from the back of a train. Addie stands at the foot of the observation platform, close enough to see the hairs growing out of his nose and the liver spots on his hands.The passage reads like this:

     Mind you, I know how lucky I was. I was so excited I could hardly breathe when he first came out on the platform. I kept telling myself that I had to remember every little thing I saw and heard so that when I got to be an old lady I could tell my grandchildren all about it. But then I got distracted by Franklin D. Roosevelt's poor feet. I guess everybody knows he was crippled. That's why he went to Warm Springs, Georgia, all the time. But nobody ever talked about how crippled he really was, probably because it wasn't a nice thing to do. maybe it still isn't, but I want to tell the truth. I was just shocked.
     Why, he couldn't walk a step. He was leaning on a man, and he would kind of shift his body and let his feet swing forward in a shuffle. My head was right even with his light tan shoes. They didn't have any marks or creases, but looked stiff and unnatural, like shoes on a dummy in a department store. There were two cruel shiny steel braces running alongside each shoe. I know I must have heard what Franklin D. Roosevelt said that day, but I can't recall a word. What I remember most is those stiff, unmarked shoes and how shocked and sad I felt. It was a good thing I didn't get a chance to talk to him. I'm sure I would have started crying and blurted out, "Mr. President, I'm so sorry about your poor feet. It shouldn't have happened to a man as good and great as you."
     ...After Franklin D. Roosevelt's train pulled out, I felt like I wanted to go off by myself and think on what I saw and maybe cry a little. But Long Boy hadn't been the least bit impressed. (50-51)
What I like about this passage is how Brown takes an object--those tan, crease-free shoes--to explode this moment and load it with pathos. Roosevelt comes alive as a character through his actions--leaning on that man, shifting his feet in a shuffle--and in his appearance. Notice she doesn't describe his face or his voice: just the unworn shoes and those cruel braces which contrast with Addie's freewheeling, traveling lifestyle.

Addie's positioning at the foot of the platform is appropriate for her focus, and it offers some insight into the power structure: she's literally at his feet. But, through the use of the object, the power roles shift and a young, poor grifter feels sorry for the most powerful man in the country. The object not only paints Roosevelt, but Addie's response in her inner thoughts and her imagined dialogue tells us more about Addie. We see her sympathy for others, her ability to put herself (forgive me) in another person's shoes. The novel revisits this trait in the culmination of the plot, when Addie has a choice to act on her sympathies or cut loose and run.

For those of you who are writers and want a warm-up freewriting exercise, think of an object that a character might have that contrasts with his or her position or reputation. What's off? What doesn't fit? What draws an odd kind of attention, and what might that object mean for the character? Who views the object and interprets its meaning? Like Addie, does that spectator have an epiphany? Start with the object, grab a pen and paper, and go. Ten minutes, no stops. See what happens.

Or, for readers, what's an object related to a character that stands out to you in fiction, television, or film? Let me know what you come up with. I'd love to hear from you.

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Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

the telling detail. the one item or object around which the emotion coalesces.

3:46 AM  
Blogger harada57 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:46 PM  

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