Deficiencies of Desire:
Simply stated, we are creatures of desire. Doug helped me focus this idea into my writing. He told me that my characters should desire something, almost obsessively, and that someone (or something) should resist this desire. Desire plus resistance creates a dramatic arc, which plays out again and again in a story, until the character either achieves her desire or fails in that quest. Think of two characters locked in a closet and fighting it out, until one or the other either wins, loses or calls it a draw. (This is DG’s image from his essay on SS structure.) Subtext should echo from the central conflict to create unity in a story. I’m not going to belabor the details of this. Read the essay on short story structure or just spend tend minutes with DG and you’ll become acutely aware of it.
What I’m going to talk about, instead, were my particular problems applying this concept to my writing. My desire deficiencies, as it were.
I kept running into a problem when I wrote: I understood the concept of strong desires but I couldn’t seem to enact that concept on the page. I submitted eight short stories last semester: six new ones and two revisions. (This is fuzzy math: the total stories would be 7 because one story was brand new and revised once…this is why we write and don’t study calculus.) I’m going to briefly summarize the desire lines in each to offer some idea of how it went.
One huge problem for me was finding desire motifs that were ‘story worthy.’ Hell, they often weren’t even scene worthy. My first story involved a Navy pilot who was heading home after quitting flight school. The main thing he desired, to quit flying and return to a simpler life, happened in backstory and memories. In the front story, I had a lot of people standing around doing nothing, a lot of ruminating and anticipating. The problem was that my character’s strongest desire had already been acted out and the drama was over. Those careful NC readers will recognize this as a ‘bathtub’ story.
My second attempt wasn’t a whole lot better. A married couple lost a baby late in the wife’s pregnancy. The husband desired to talk with his wife to repair the damage, but she wouldn’t open up about this tragedy. There’s a slight improvement here, because at least the desire is apparent, but what happened on the page was a lot of ‘not talking.’ (Reminds me of that great line in Christopher Guest’s movie, Best in Show, when the woman says, “We can talk, or not talk, all night.”) DG told me that not talking usually creates no drama, and that it takes a really experienced writer to pull it off.
By my third story, I hit upon an idea. If my characters’ desires could be played out in historical settings, when wars raged, where the conditions of life beleaguered the characters, then survival itself could become a desire. I wrote two stories set in various battles during WWII. My most simple attempt involved sticking two soldiers in a foxhole during the siege of Leningrad. These soldiers were fighting each other over a stolen pair of gloves. They desired things intensely, like food, water, a pair of gloves, because conditions were so dire. Of course DG shredded the story itself (though not the structure…a minor, though hard-fought victory) because historical fiction quickly descends into tired imagery. Mention the Neva. Mention the Hermitage. Throw in a few Nazi’s and some snow, and voila, a Potemkin village of historical fiction. Clearly, in order to create an effective story, I’d have to inhabit the place, not just pop in for a visit. Hence the story did not work as written, but the desire motif was clarified. The other historical story I wrote also had a strong desire component but suffered for other structural reasons.
In order to create strong desires in contemporary stories, my work became highly sexualized. The remaining three stories all involved adultery, betrayal, or dangerous sexual behavior. I basically defaulted to one of the strongest desires humans feel. (I suppose it could have been worse: I could have defaulted to stories about eating, sleeping or going to the bathroom!) There was nothing wrong with using sex to play out desires, and it was kind of fun, but I began to realize that these stories were some of the lower fruit on the fiction tree. It was hard to find ways to say new things. They also ran another risk: titillating rather than exploring the human condition. But at least with sex, I had found a strong, comprehensible desire motif that allowed me to explore characters, plots, and themes which otherwise had been getting lost.
So what’s left? I read a lot of stories that work without sex, without war, without betrayals of trust, but I still struggle to find ideas for my own writing. I recently finished Robin Oliveira’s novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. Her character desires to become a surgeon and that desire carries most of the novel. (Though interestingly, much of that desire can only occur because the story is set during the American Civil War, when women couldn’t become surgeons. Robin, however, fully inhabits the time period. No Potemkin villages in Mary Sutter. ) Another favorite story of mine is Lorrie Moore’s “Dance In America,” which operates entirely without sex or violence and seems to replace a clear desire motif with a ‘life-force’ motif. So it can be done. My characters don’t have to be tying each other up to bedposts, cheating on their spouses or fighting a battle to enact desire. But I haven’t found a balance yet.
Last point: I often found the desire motifs worked for a page or two before I gave up on them and shifted into some other area. This creates a huge problem for story unity. Finding a central desire to carry the story remains one of the great challenges going forward.
I know there are many other types of stories that do not work directly off the desire/resistance model, but it was a useful tool. It helped me generate dramatic action on the page. It helped me push stories forward.
Up Next: #2, Verbs, verbs, verbs.
Nicely done! For me, the issue is who is telling us what to do, and when we listen to our culture, we get some pretty forced messages. I try to listen to my characters and let them tell me what they’re going to do — and not do.
Thanks, Gary. Listening to your characters matters more than I realized. I’m not good at this yet, and patience is a bitch when you want to do things right away.
I just read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “The Lie,” and maybe because it starts with a man wanting to call in sick after the alarm goes off and the baby wakes up and I’ve been sleepless for 3 weeks with a new English Bulldog puppy named Jauss (yes after Dave and with his permission), but I am obsessed with this story, and your essay has provided me with another reason why. (By the way, how’s that for a run-on sentence?) The man’s desire is all over the story. Though it starts with his desire, as stated, to just call in sick, really it’s about his desire to call in on his life. Boyle states the first desire clearly in the first sentence, yet builds upon the later desire so that it’s never fully expressed but realized through action and dialogue. This works well with the first person POV, and I’m wondering how POV affects character desire. Any thoughts?
I can only say one thing after reading this series – I wish DG was my MFA teacher. Sigh.