This year’s Mendocino Coast Writers Conference was good for me. Vanessa Hua, who taught the short story workshop, chose a different element of story to examine (setting, dialogue, stakes, character, etc) each day. We opened with a writing exercise and then workshopped the stories. It was a great group, too; lots of skill, lots of unique voices and, as a group, dedicated and generous readers. While you do tend to get that at this conference, you don’t always get it, and I am always appreciative when I do.
(Vanessa has a book of short fiction out, and just released, (or is releasing, the pub date is a week away as I write this) a novel called A River of Stars.)
Dialogue: Without calling it “subtext,” Vanessa asked us to write a passage of dialogue between two people that was very fraught, where the topic of the conversation was not what was really going on.
The story I submitted was about 90% subtext, so naturally I liked this one. I like stories where, with the main character, I have to puzzle out what people really mean, what they are hiding, what they are uncomfortable saying and hope someone will coax out of them.
Setting: Setting, and what the MC notices of the setting, tells us a lot about the story. Our exercise for that day was to remember a place from our past that carried a strong feeling; then put a character with a conflict into it. I really had trouble with this one. I was remembering a library from when I was a kid, but I wasn’t getting much of a charge from it. Later I looked over what I’d written and realized I chosen a library that was pretty, or neat looking, but wasn’t the one that resonated emotionally. I think this exercise would have clicked into place for me better if I had used the tiny little library from my elementary school, which is the first library I clearly remember.
Raising the stakes: We put a character in trouble. I think the assignment was to have a character do a bad thing. The idea here is that the stakes, the consequences, have to be high in order for a piece of fiction to work. This doesn’t mean Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer style Saving-the-World stakes, although that does explain the stakes in a lot of genre fiction, especially thrillers. It means that the main character will lose something important to them. Stakes don’t have to be realistic but they have to be believable for the character.
Stakes are easier in genre, as I noted above. Basically, in a mystery, the stakes are that a killer will go uncaught if the mystery isn’t solved, or others may die. To raise the stakes, the case will usually have some meaning to the detective character.
In general fiction, which nearly all of our stories were, it’s harder to figure out what the stakes are sometimes, and how to raise them. It’s going to be hard for me as a reader to care too much if the MC brings the same casserole as another person to the neighborhood potluck, for instance, unless you have developed the character so thoroughly (or, perhaps the setting… maybe this is a really tough neighborhood!) that I believe that this would be a catastrophe for them.
Among the stories themselves, we had some beautifully depicted settings. One story, about a young mother experiencing post-partum depression, was claustrophobic, and I mean that as a compliment. In one scene, when she goes outside for a walk with the baby, I felt air whoosh into my lungs and realized I’d been holding my breath. The setting, as experienced in close third-person POV by the MC, contributed to the heaviness, the paralysis she was feeling.
Another story, about a woman who has isolated herself in Alaska and the old lover who comes to find her, had such beautiful atmospheric descriptions it felt like a folk song.
When it came to dialogue and subtext, one of the most interesting passages in the workshop came when a woman desperate to hide secrets encounters another woman who feels she has nothing to lose. The story took place in an upscale southern California neighborhood where appearances are important. Against the backdrop of conversations where no one says what they mean, one woman has gotten news that makes her think it’s time to stop caring what people think. And she’s going to confront some folks. Her dialogue is the opposite of subtext! And the story crackles with energy when she confronts someone who is fighting to maintain her facades.
My friend Donna’s story employed an engaging main character who is, in one specific area, an unreliable narrator. He is a retired widower, living in a Dallas neighborhood. He is mostly satisfied with his garden and his birdwatching, but he’s attracted to recently widowed Madeline, who lives in the neighborhood. Trevor is an astute observer with lots of wry and witty observations about birds, about people and about Texas. His perceptiveness deserts him, however, whenever he encounters Madeline, leading to a sad missed opportunity. It got me thinking about unreliable narrators.
All in all, a great workshop left me with lots to think about. Another great conference experience down.