A Short Story at the Tail End
of Writer's Block
by Daniel R. Snyder
It was a dark and stormy
night. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to begin a story
with a cliché, but what can I say? A narrative has to
start somewhere. I could start in medias res, but I don’t like to
do that. I think a good story needs context, so bear with me as I
ignore the advice of my undergraduate writing teacher, Ms. Phipps, the
one I had a crush on. Besides, I’ve got writer’s block big time,
and the only way I know to get over it is to keep writing. The
trick is not to get angry about it. Sooner or later it will pass,
like a bad cold that seems like it’s never going to end, but one
morning you wake up feeling fine and the illness is forgotten. (That
last sentence ends with a passive voice construction. When I revise,
I’ll change it to an active verb form). Besides, writing a
cliché is better than not writing anything at all.
Allow me to continue.
Okay--so it wasn’t that
stormy. A little drizzle mainly, just enough to tease the parched
plants in the gardens. And it wasn’t that dark either. It
never actually gets dark here on the corner of Coldwater Canyon and
Burbank Boulevard in the heart of North Hollywood, California (a
shameless naming of a specific location just in case I want to send
this off to a regional publication). Light perpetually pours
upward into the pink clouds pasted over the valley, a river of rays
reflecting and rebounding randomly from a steady stream of
streetlights, a teeming torrent of head and tail lights, and a tidal
wave of televisions transmitting trash through torn window
treatments--waves of wayward wavelengths washing across the waters of
the wasted heavens. (I’m using both alliteration and extended metaphor
here, poetic devices that critics of both contemporary and classical
literature consider consummately clever. It’s hard to do
well. It helps if you have a thesaurus.)
Anyhow, in a relative sort of
way, it was dark. I noticed this as I pulled back the curtain
over the bedroom window, which has an excellent view of the
rock-covered roof of the downstairs apartments. They do that here
in the valley--construct buildings with flat roofs and then cover them
with rough little white stones embedded with glitter. I have no
idea why. It seems rather silly to have a rock garden on the
roof, but I mention it because I need to describe as well as narrate in
order to write a good story. Ordinarily, you should describe only
that which helps set the mood or establish character. (The rocks don’t
seem to be doing either, but they’re all I can see, so they’ll have to
do.) I looked out the window because, like I said, it was a dark
night, and I hoped to see a couple of stars. They weren’t
there. There was, however, a man on the roof.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
He was wearing a white martial
arts outfit, bell legs, bell sleeves, a belt wrapped around the waist,
and he must have been wearing sandals because he was moving on the
stones, slowly, in some kind of motion that indicated he was running
through a series of exercises.
So there you have it--a Bruce Lee
wannabe on the rock roof of an apartment building in downtown North
Hollywood on a semi-dark-and-stormy night. That sets the
scene. Now we need some more exposition. I know it’s not
fashionable in today’s literary market (sorry Ms. Phipps, but I don’t
have a crush on you anymore either), but I honestly believe some people
still appreciate good story telling, the kind that begins at the
beginning, moves through the middle, and ends at the end.
So let me tell you about the man
on the roof.
It was the guy from number six,
which is down the wrought iron steps, the last door before the parking
garage off the alley where I’ve had three radios stolen out of my
car. That doesn’t matter, really. After all, I have
insurance, and it’s not significant to the story.
Forget I mentioned it. Let’s move
Even though we’ve been neighbors
for more than a year, I’ve only spoken to him twice, which might seem a
little strange since this is one of those small apartment buildings
where everyone is kind of smooshed together (smooshed is a lousy word
choice, and I need to find a better one when I revise this), and it
seems like everyone should know everyone, but they don’t. As a
matter of fact, we try very hard to not know each other.
I have a theory about that.
There’s no privacy in the city,
so we try our hardest not to be noticed, to let no one know who we are,
to be invisible to each other, to provide us with the illusion of
privacy. It’s the psychological equivalent of building a wall
between your neighbor’s yard and your own. (Frost knew what he was
talking about). Suburbanites in the valley build walls because
their houses are too close together. Without walls, they can look
out their kitchen windows into the kitchen windows of their neighbors,
and they have to pretend not to notice each other as they rinse out
their coffee mugs at the sink before heading to work. Walls
provide the only real privacy in the suburbs, but apartment dwellers
don’t have yards, so we build walls out of anonymity. It doesn’t
always work, though. Case in point, my neighbor on the roof tonight; I
Writer’s block is a funny
thing. It’s not that you’re not writing--you’re probably writing
a lot--you just don’t feel inspired, like tonight, which is why I’m
writing about rock roofs and crazy neighbors. I’m just killing
time until the Muses reappear. They seem to be taking more and
more vacations lately, but I’m trying not to get angry about that.
Back to my neighbor.
I’ve met him before, and although
I’ve tried really hard to forget his name to help maintain our Frostian
wall, it hasn’t worked. His name is John. If this were a
real story, I would probably give him some clever name that would
provide insight into his character, then provide a plethora of clever
and subtle metaphors buried throughout to support it, but since this is
not a real story, I won’t bother.
I’ll just tell you about the
circumstances of our meeting.
He came up to my apartment about
a year ago in the middle of the night, wanting to borrow some
paper. At that point, it would have been rude of us to not
introduce ourselves, and so we did. I asked him in, and then went
to the closet to grab a fresh ream. When I got back into the
living room, he was standing by my desk. This was, of course, at
a time when the muses were crashing on my couch fairly regularly.
He asked me what I was writing, and I told him a short story. He
said he was writing a screenplay, and that’s why he needed more
paper. No surprise. Everyone around here is writing a
screenplay or a novel or working on a painting or a sculpture.
It’s that kind of neighborhood. Artists live here because it’s
cheap and they don’t make much, if any, money at their art. Take
me for example. As of February, I’ve had fifteen short stories
published in various literary magazines across the country but haven’t
made more than a few bucks on any of them. It feels good to get
published, but it would be nice to get paid in something more than
prestige and laundry money.
Right. My neighbor.
I asked him what his screenplay
was about. He said he couldn’t talk about it because that would
jinx it: make it so it wouldn’t sell. He said that this was his
sixth screenplay and that he was still looking for an agent but hadn’t
had any luck, and it was really pissing him off because the screenplays
were all really good, maybe the next Citizen Kane or Casablanca.
I have no idea. Maybe they were good, and maybe they
weren’t. Maybe he should have been talking about them and then
they’d be better. There are two schools of thought on that
one. Hemingway said to never talk about what you’re working on,
but I’m not that way. I like to talk about it because it helps me
clarify what I’m doing. Each to their own, I guess. I gave
John the paper, and a couple of days later he brought me a new ream.
We haven’t spoken since.
So that’s the end of the
exposition. Now it’s time to present the conflict, the rising
action. Traditional stories have four parts: exposition, rising
action, climax, and falling action. Stay with me, and I’ll get
you through most of them. (Yes, Ms. Phipps, I learned a few
things that stuck. Thank you very much, oh my mentor.)
So I’m looking out the window at
him--oops. I just switched verb tenses. Oh well, maybe I’ll
just write in the present tense for a while and see what happens.
A lot of stories are written in the present tense nowadays, so I’m in
good company. Besides, there’s a sense of immediacy for readers
when they read something in present tense, like the story is happening
to them right here, right now, rather than something that’s over and
Conflict. Right. So
here we go.
A dog walks up the stairs.
Hey, if Raymond Carver can write about earwax, then I can sure as heck
write about a dog. It’s a Dalmatian--white body, black spots,
leather collar, wagging tail, pink tongue. (OK, so you probably know
what a Dalmatian looks like, but I have to get some more description in
here to keep it interesting). John whistles. The dog perks
up its ears, wags its tail even harder, then slips under the balcony
railing to join his master on the roof. It must be his
master because John calls him by name. Calls him George
Lucas. Funny name for a dog, but George Lucas doesn’t seem to
mind. It pads over to him and leans against John’s legs.
John kneels and scratches George Lucas under the chin. George
Lucas sits on his haunches. John’s hand moves to the dog’s ears,
then to its chest, and then the dog lays down on its side (Down is
redundant because nobody lays up. Damn. Is it lays or
lies? Look it up.) John scratches the dog’s belly, and
George Lucas starts to move one of his rear legs like he’s running.
I’ve always wondered what makes
dogs do that.
They continue for a while, John
scratching, George Lucas being scratched, and then John finally stands,
grabbing the dog’s muzzle. I hear a growl. (Did I mention
the window was open? I’ll have to add that in the
revision.) Well, it is, in fact, open, and I can hear George
Lucas growling, but John doesn’t let go. The dog lowers himself
to get a stronger purchase on the roof and tries to back away, but it
doesn’t work and the growl gets louder. I hear John laugh, not a
nice laugh, a menacing one. George Lucas breaks free. John
grabs for the leather collar, but the dog sidesteps him and bites him
on the hand. I hear John swear. I won’t tell you what he
said because profanity is so common in fiction nowadays that it’s lost
its shock value. Suffice it to say that John calls George Lucas
an expletive common in today’s literature, but one that might still
offend some people.
And then John kicks the dog.
A really impressive
of kick that catches George Lucas in the throat. I hear a yelp
and then the dog goes down. It’s on its side now, on the rooftop,
whining, tongue hanging out, and John is getting closer, closer,
closer, and then he kicks George Lucas in the stomach. Not a
fancy karate kick this time, just a foot-in-the-stomach-street-fight
kind. I hear a thud as his foot connects and then the dog stops
moving. There’s thin black streams coming from both eyes that
don’t look like spots.
So there’s the conflict.
What is John going to do
next? Kick George Lucas again? Pick him up and throw him
off the roof? Turn around and notice I’m watching? And,
more importantly, what am I going to do? Pretend I didn’t see
it? Play canine savior and go out and stop John from doing any
If this were a typical short
story, this would be the point of epiphany, the culmination of the
conflict where the protagonist is called upon to make a decision.
Sometimes the protagonist makes a good decision and it gratifies, and
sometimes the protagonist makes a bad decision and it disappoints, and
sometimes the protagonist doesn’t make any decision at all: the
non-epiphany, a type of literary paralysis that is all too common in
fictional characters these days.
In case you haven’t figured it
out yet, John is a foil, another angry and frustrated writer. Of
course, if I were the protagonist in this story, I wouldn’t know
that. Only the reader would. But I’m not the protagonist.
I’m the author. Still, I need to make a decision about the story
playing out before me on the rooftop, and so I do. I’m no hero,
and I don’t want my crazy neighbor, who has probably just karate-kicked
his dog to death, to do the same thing to me, so I do not go outside to
rescue George Lucas.
I simply move into the living
room and call the cops.
I’m not going to tell you what
happens next. (I wrote it, but I deleted the whole thing.)
One of the signs of bad writers is letting the falling action turn into
a long didactic paragraph that neatly wraps up the whole thing, as if
the writer wasn’t confident that the readers would get it, so he or she
feels the need to write a conclusion. Short stories are not
essays, and they don’t need conclusions. Honestly, it’s better to
just let the story end at the moment of epiphany and let the readers
come to their own conclusions. That’s why I’ve decided not to let
you read mine.
So this is where I’m going to end
it: exposition, rising action, climax. No falling action this
time. You decide how you think the story should end. As for
myself, after I called the cops, I went back to my computer and began
to write this. I don’t know if it’s going to be any good, but I’m
hoping the Muses will drop by while I’m working on it.
Originally Published in Adirondack Review
© 2008 Daniel R. Snyder