Okay, so we’ve all heard it about story writing a billion times: your character has to want something and there should be something at stake or the reader won’t care one bit.
That’s fine. And true. But what if you do that, and your story still falls flat on the page? There’s something missing. A tension, maybe. But how to fix this, and easily?
With some help from the ideas of Charles Baxter, I’m going to show you an overlooked approach that may save your story. It involves one simple step:
Add a request moment.
This instalment of Margin Notes will use a scene from Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral” to demonstrate how simple and powerful a request moment can be in your narrative.
Here is the unmarked passage for you to read first:
Margin Notes on Carver’s Use of a Request
Unlike my previous Margin Notes, you might notice that I’ve marked very little in the margins this time. This is because this approach is SO simple and straightforward.
The request moment, as Charles Baxter claims, reveals social obligations between characters. That’s what makes the request moment so incredibly powerful as a simple dramatic tool.
So let’s think of three kinds of exchanges between characters, the kinds of exchanges which might require a decision.
Advice is the weakest kind of exchange. It’s just advice. There’s no obligation implied—you take it or leave it and you don’t even have to let the advice giver know if you’re going to do anything with the advice. As Baxter acknowledges, advice has no urgency.
And our stories need some sense of urgency.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are commands. But commands actually hold little dramatic weight because they carry the notion that the person doesn’t have much of a choice. There is a power relationship when a command is given that can create a feeling of pressure on the character, but to get really good tension, you’re better off create a split within your character—a pull between things. And a pull is created when we agonize over a choice.
Enter the request. The request implies that there is some obligation between the characters. In the Carver example below, you can see that a request can include the setting of a condition. For example, “if you don’t do this, then…” Maybe “If you don’t do this, then you’re a terrible school teacher.” Carver uses the common condition, “If you love me…” Although the remainder of this scene does not address the request directly, it’s been planted and suddenly the suspense doubles because we want to see how he responds to the request. Will he fulfill it? Can he fulfill it?
One thing that is often overlooked in character development is the question of morality or ethics, which, when inserted into our stories deepens and intensifies the narrative and our characters. A request automatically inserts an ethical question: is he ethically obligated to fulfill her request? Or think of the ethics in terms of the Amy Hempel example I mention below.
Once I learned about the request moment from listening to Charles Baxter, I started to look for it everywhere. Actually, as a quick aside, Baxter points out that pretty much every Shakespeare play hinges on a request. Hamlet, for instance, starts off with a request from his ghost of a father that he avenge his death. Anyhow, in looking for it everywhere, I started to find it in some of my favourite stories. For example, I have always loved Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” and boom, first sentence holds the request moment (and sends the entire story on its trajectory) when the narrator’s dying friend requests, “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting… make it useless stuff or skip it.”
Even better than the suspense and the friction a request creates, is the inherent tension it builds in the character. Because requests presume the character has a choice. And choice is the heart of good drama. In fact, Baxter points out that Hamlet is perhaps the most passive protagonist ever (and we’re told not to create passive protagonists, am I right?), but that it’s because of the request from his dead father and the resulting dilemma of choice over whether to commit regicide that we become nonetheless riveted by his tension.
Margin Notes on Cathedral (Click here if you want a larger PDF version):
I’m super excited for you to try this out because it will truly ramp up your tension instantly. That’s why I think it’s a fantastic tool for reviving stories that were maybe not going anywhere for whatever reason. In fact, after I learned this, I rummaged madly through my drawers to see how I could resuscitate some old stories that I felt particularly attached to, but couldn’t quite get right.
I also plan to spend some time revisiting Shakespeare because Baxter points out that often one request leads to another, and I want to see how you might build requests cumulatively. And, I love his observation that the Bible, as a narrative, is a series of requests from God that people failed to fulfill, starting with the request to not eat the forbidden fruit. Just makes me realize how ubiquitous in powerful narratives the request moment is!
What do you think of the request moment? Are you excited to look for opportunities in your manuscript? If you think of any other famous request moments in stories you love, please let me know! Leave me a comment below!
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