What Makes a Story Great: Part 2

Narrative Imperative

by Jim Doering, Executive Editor of Blue Monday Review

I sit next to my quiet father at the dining room table of our two-story house in South St. Louis. The herbed roast chicken carcass has been stripped of its meat. The bowl of mashed potatoes sits, ravaged. The gravy boat has only a tiny smear in the bottom that proves there was ever anything inside.

Dad lights up a filter-less Pall Mall, enjoying the nicotine rush after finishing another of Mom’s satisfying meals. The acrid smoke burns my throat as I inhale an undulating wave that has wafted my way. He grins at me as if to say, Ain’t life grand? Mom leaves, taking dishes to the kitchen. After the cigarette has burned down to the smallest of butts, he stubs it out in a dirtied brass ashtray made in the shape of a ten-gallon hat. A last gasp of foggy vapor rises from the metallic brim. He looks around the table, three sets of tiny eyes upon him. He looks at me and asks, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?”

It is a story. There have been many stories from him. Tales hewn from the painful memories of his hard-scrabble past. Stories of poverty, of commitment, of abandonment, of betrayal, of family, of love. Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end. There are characters and relationships, sights and sounds, conflict and resolution.

All too soon his yarn is done. I feel closer to him, allowed this brief passage into his inner sanctum. I feel proud to be his son. I want another but the door has closed. He gazes impassively, and quietly lights another cigarette. Carefully rising from the table, he retreats to the back of the house and the concrete porch. He sits by himself on the top step, taking in the night air and surveying the garden that he has meticulously planted and cultivated in our small city backyard. I never ask, but I wonder if this is his thinking time, a time of contemplation to wind down from his hurried day, girding him for the next.

Life flashes by. Things change. Not too many months after that satisfying evening we lost him. I’m grateful to have had the small glimpses of what was inside my stoic father. I savor every tiny morsel that I can remember. They’re my inheritance. More than anyone else, he’s the reason I became a writer.

Writing is art. Every writer must find their voice and hone it to razor sharpness. Sometimes it helps to try to break out of our rut, experiment with form, defy convention. Do something different. Get crazy. Play with your writing like a rambunctious toddler with a brand-new toy.

I’ve written plenty of stories, most traditional. Some have been experimental. By getting out of my rut, my usual way of constructing a story, I’ve pleasantly surprised myself. Some of those experiments have turned out to be my best stories.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” There are stories inside us. Our challenge is to find a way to extract them. We must kill our darlings, torch our characters, and sometimes obliterate our usual style. Make a kitty explode. Give readers words that will linger.

Sometimes I imagine my-long dead father’s ghost is sitting in the chair across from me while I write. When I finish, I read it to him. He smokes his cigarette, watching and listening, silent as usual. The story complete, I look to him. Smoke curls up into his squinting eye. He utters no words, but gives me the only thing that has ever mattered, the silent nod of his hard-earned approval. I am complete.

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