Narrative Transitions: Get Your Characters out of the Room

As I noted in a previous post, one of the biggest challenges in writing narrative, whether it be fiction or creative nonfiction, is moving characters through space and time. Authors often wonder, “How do I get my characters out of the room?”

There are a seemingly infinite number of choices to make regarding how much to show, which moments to open up and explore and which to skim over to move the action along, and which to simply leave out. While making good choices is a matter of expertise, careful and critical revision, and personal style, we can learn a lot from writers who know the right moves.

Take the following excerpt from, Olive Kitteridge, the Pulitzer Prize-winning short-story collection by Elizabeth Stout, who is a master in bringing economy, elegance, and powerful yet understated emotional moments to her stories and novels. Here’s a

As you read, do two things:

  1. Notice where the action shifts in time and place. These shifts are pretty easy to find as Strout uses the simple, time-honored device of the paragraph change to signal them. As you do this also notice where she makes specific references to time (bolded below) and place (underlined below). Below I discuss how her use of time and place affect our experience of the passage.
  2. Also pay attention to where Strout shares information about Henry’s inner life, specifically the information his thoughts and what he is responding to in each scene. Below I also discuss how these function to knit the passage together.

“The Pharmacy,” the first story in Olive Kitteridge.

Note: Henry Kitteridge, the pharmacist has just hired a new assistant, Denise, he asks Olive, his wife, about having Denise and her husband, to dinner.

“Not keen on it,” Olive said, when he suggested they have the young couple to dinner. Henry let it drop. This was a time when his son—not yet showing the physical signs of adolescence—had become suddenly and strenuously sullen, his mood like a poison shot through the air, and Olive seemed as changed and changeable as Christopher, the two having fast and furious fights that became just as suddenly some blanket of silent intimacy where Henry, clueless, stupefied, would find himself to be the odd man out.

But standing in the back parking lot at the end of a late summer day, while he spoke with Denise and Henry Thibodeau, and the sun tucked itself behind the spruce trees, Henry Kitteridge felt such a longing to be in the presence of this young couple, their faces turned to him with a diffident but eager interest as he recalled his own days at the university many years ago, that he said, “Now, say. Olive and I would like you to come for supper soon.”

He drove home, past the tall pines, past the glimpse of the bay, and thought of the Thibodeaus driving the other way, to their trailer on the outskirts of town. He pictured the trailer, cozy and picked up—for Denise was neat in her habits—and imagined them sharing the news of their day. Denise might say, “He’s an easy boss.” And Henry might say, “Oh, I like the guy a lot.”

He pulled into his driveway, which was not a driveway so much as a patch of lawn on top of the hill, and saw Olive in the garden. “Hello Olive,” he said, walking to her. He wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away. He told her the Thibodeaus were coming for supper. “It’s only right, “ he said.

Olive wiped sweat from her upper lip, turned to rip up a clump of onion grass. “Then that’s that, Mr. President,” she said. “Give your order to the cook.”

On Friday night the couple followed him home and the young Henry shook Olive’s hand. “Nice place here,” he said. “With that view of the water. Mr. Kitteridge says you two built this yourselves.”

“Indeed, we did,”

Christopher sat sideways at the table, slumped in adolescent gracelessness, and did not respond when Henry Thibodeau asked him if he played any sports at school. Henry Kitteridge felt an unexpected fury sprout inside him; he wanted to shout at the boy, whose poor manners, he felt, revealed something unpleasant not expected to be found in the Kitteridge home.

to read a longer excerpt of “The Pharmacy” go here

What’s Left Out

First let’s examine the details regarding time and place that Strout has left out, which are considerable. In other words, let’s look at what we don’t know.

The passage of time.

How much time elapses between the moment in the first paragraph when Henry talks to Olive about inviting the Thibodeaus to dinner to the actual invite in paragraph two? We don’t know because Strout has decided not to tell us. Really, it doesn’t matter  exactly when in summer the invite or even the dinner took place or how much time has expired, what matters is what Strout chooses to tell us, that his decision was made at the end of a late summer day.

These words, the end of a late summer day, so simple, yet so strategically deployed tell us more than any time stamp can. They speak of lateness and endings. They tell us this is an important moment for Henry Kitteridge. Perhaps the first time he has done anything quite as bold as issue an invitation.

Details about place

There are very few references to place and these come with almost no description —parking lot, driveway, garden, home, table. Yet, we are never in doubt about where the characters are. At the same time we have a strong sense of place. As Henry drives home after he has invited the Thiodeaus to dinner, the only physical description of his drive is this: “He drove home, past the tall pines, past the glimpse of the bay.” Pretty simple. Yet here word choice also matters. By using the definite article “the” Strout communicates volumes about the role routine and repetition play in Henry’s life. These are the tall pines we sees every day. This is the single glimpse he gets.

What Is Included

You no doubt noticed each small scene is devoted more to Henry’s thoughts and reactions than any action. What may not be immediately evident is how artfully small shifts into his inner life are developed over the course of the passage to create a clear dramatic through line for Henry, one that binds the passage together so well that we can ignore, even enjoy, the leaps in time and place.

Here is a quick break down:

First, in paragraph one, we get clues about his dissatisfaction, perhaps even the pain, he experiences at home with his son and Olive

In the second paragraph, in the parking lot, Strout references Henry’s memory of his days at university as a precipitating factor in his impulsively issuing the invitation. In doing so, she manages in very few words to show us a man deep in the throes of nostalgia, a kind of pain. We are getting deeper into Henry’s pain as the factor driving the action. (BTW: you might be interested that the word nostalgia comes from the Greek “nostos” [return home] + “algos” [pain])

The build up in the previous paragraphs allows us to experience Henry’s fleeting desire to put his arm around Olive as a climactic moment in this dramatic through line. We already see him struggling with small actions, craving connection.

This through line resolves in the last paragraph, in a moment of profound deflation, as Henry experiences fury and shame when his son Christopher can’t manage to respond to Henry Thibodeau’s question at dinner.  Henry’s small but soaring hopes are dashed in this single moment.

Takeaway

We tend to think of transition making as a problem related to style and rhetorical devices. As a result, we may be spending too much energy fussing over these stylistic elements, hoping if we get them just right our prose will flow.

But the real problem is even more interesting. It is a problem of information. What do you want to tell readers? What do they need to know? What do you want them to see and hear? What experience do you want them to have? How does the information you provide create a compelling dramatic through line?

These are not necessarily easy questions to answer. But this is writing. And check out the link below to hear Elizabeth Strout’s talk about being a writer, the need to write, the excitement and the difficult of living with the “dis ease” that writing brings, and what keeps her going…