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 on.
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 know him.
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. Borrowing paper.
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 done with.
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 spinning-on-one-leg-roundhouse-right-out-of-a-martial-arts-movie kind 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 more damage?
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.