Yesterday I posted a story sketch “Evening at the Bus Stop” about an old man and a distressed woman having a conversation in which both are unable to really listen to each other. Today I want to go over some of steps that I took to complete that sketch.
It all started with an idea. I knew I wanted to write a story sketch. I hadn’t written one in a while and they are, in my opinion, the best kind of practice a creative writer can do. The initial idea, the spark that got me going, was the Buddhist parable of the mustard seed. You might have heard it, but if not, you can read a version of the story here.
The parable got me thinking about a woman so upset by the loss of her son, so consumed by her own sorrow, that she shuts out the rest of the world. This got me thinking about selfishness, how selfish our sorrow can make us — having experienced this first hand with the death of my mother and step-father when I was 17 — and how that selfishness isolates us from others. I then decided the theme for my sketch would be selfishness, and my purpose would be to provoke reflection on the social consequences of selfishness, specifically, how selfishness makes true connection and communication with other people very difficult, if not impossible. You can read more about my thoughts on the functions of story here.
Then I thought of an old man who has also lost someone, who wants to express his loss to someone, but the person he happens to speak with, the bereaved woman, is not interested in hearing anything about it. This got me thinking about the selfishness of the old man. He only wants to talk so that he can feel better, because he is alone, just like the woman. Although the old man appears less selfish then the woman, they are both attempting to use the other for their own emotional needs.
Once I got this far, I started sketching. The following is my first draft of the story (please excuse any typos or other errors, this is straight from my notes):
Good evening, says the man, pulling out his phone as he sits on the bench beside the woman.
The woman does not respond. She looks at the floor, her eyes are red, her face is pale.
The man shrugs, puts on glasses and holds his phone at a certain distance.
It’s not. The woman replies.
It’s not a good evening.
The man raises his brows. opens his jaw, keeping his lips together. I’m sorry to hear that.
The woman’s face becomes more desperate. She wants to say something, but she is fighting something.
The man looks back to his phone, sticking out his chin and letting his mouth open, raising the phone. Then he looks at the woman, lowers the phone, takes off his glasses. Sighs. Why?
The woman lowers her brows, her face looks defensive, shocked, she looks at him for a second and then away. her mouth curls down. Her brows raise. She takes a breath, like she momentarily forgot to breathe. Her lips quiver as she excelled. My son is dead.
The man’s mouth forms an O, he sits back against the bench back, looks straight ahead, tucks his lips into his teeth, takes a slow, deliberate breath, tongues the inside of his mouth.
The woman looks up at him, face in pain, fresh tears on her cheeks that she leaves to trail down her face. She looks like she thinks she made a mistake. Embarrassed.
The man pockets his phone. (takes off glasses) and turns his knees toward the woman. What happened?
The woman sits up straighter, fighting to keep her lips together, looking up and away from the man, wiping the snot from her nose with her hand inside her sweater sleeve. Her whole body trembling. She is preparing herself for something grave and important, a recital. The man asked for it, and here it was. He just had to hang on for the ride.
Robert — my son—
the bus comes, she wipes her eyes with her palm, digs into her purse, finds her ticket. The man glances at the number, it’s not his bus. It’s not the woman’s either apparently.
My son loves to ride his bike…
No, nothing like that. My son, he used to be overweight, you know? He worked from home, didn’t get out much. He was always looking for activities, you know? I bought him a bicycle a few Christmases ago—“ she took a shuttering breath, exhaled, settling into her familiar story. “He loved to ride it. He said it felt like flying. He rode it to work everyday—everyday.
Was he hit? Did a motorist hit your son?
The woman bites her lip, looks to heaven, gives it a knowing look, a sarcastic look, and shakes her head. If only. You can survive being hit by a car, you know?
The man gives a look of confusion. Watches a mother and daughter walk by hand in hand, notices the daughter wasn’t wearing socks. It’s too cold to go without socks…
No my Robert was very conscientious. He would assure me eveytime I spoke with him over the phone that he was being careful. I used to have nightmares about him being… No. It wasn’t an accident. My Robert was murderd.
Excuse me, says a man stopping in front of the two. He is in a large, dirty coat, with a heavy hat and large work boots covered in something black. He has gloves on his hands and a wool scarf that is frayed at the edges. I just ran out of gas. I’m trying to get home in Provo. Could you spare a dollar for gas?
The man has heard this routine before. It didn’t bother him. He decided a long time ago to give when he could, and he reached for his wallet.
No, said the woman sharply. The man looks up. What good is a dollar going to do you anyway? You can’t buy half a gallon for that.
The man looks like he is fighting saying something, he looks upset, looks away. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.
We don’t, says the woman decisively. And I don’t think you need money for gas at all. Just leave us alone.
The man walks away.
The old man purses his lips, gives the woman a sideways glance. She apologizes and says that she can’t stand people like that. They have no shame, no decency. She says she would never give money to them. They just want alcohol, or drugs.
The man wonders why alcohol and drugs are so bad. He thinks of a time when he was going to buy a homeless man a bottle of alcohol but was stopped by the liquor store. They told him he can’t have alcohol, that he is not allowed to drink. The man feels bad about that. He isn’t sure if he feels worse for not getting the alcohol or for being reprimanded by the store clerk.
You were saying about your son? says the man, feeling upset by this woman and wanting very much for his bus to come. Someone killed him?
Not someone. God killed my son.
The man looks like he has just heard something ridiculous. He quickly changes his expression, becoming aware of it on his face. How did God kill your son?
Lightning. My son was riding home from work in the rain. I told him never to ride in the rain, the roads aren’t safe, people can’t see, no one can see… But he loved to ride that bike, the bike I gave him. He was struck by lighting on Hill road. A bolt of lighting just struck him, right through the head. The doctors said it must have been the bike. The bike. The bike I gave him.
The woman is a mess now. She is leaking from her eyes, nose, and mouth.
He killed him. He killed my son. And for what? My son was a honest, religious man. He was a good man. He was a good man.
The man feels obligated to say something. He has no desire to say anything. He wishes he never decided to take the bus that day. He touches the woman once, lightly on the shoulder, and pinches the bridge of his nose. I’m so very sorry. When did this happen?
June 6th, the woman says, 2013. now fully weeping, and leaning in against the man, covering his coat with her liquid. 2 years? 2 years…
The man looks up, looks around at the darkening street, at the passing cars, looking down the street for the bus, feeling suddenly very out of place and disoriented. 2 years?
You know… says the man slowly, still begging with his eyes for a way out. I lost my son last year in a car accident. The driver was drunk, hit my son head on. His wife was in the car. She lived, thank God.
Thank God for what? the woman snaps, sitting up and looking angrily at the man. My son is dead.
There is a high pitched screech as the bus arrived.
It’s the woman’s bus, she checks her ticket, collects her things, dries her face. She leaves the man with a horrible remark about God and his insensitiveness to others.
It starts to rain.
It is the man’s bus as well. He tears up his ticket and decides to walk home.
As you can see, many of the elements of the final sketch are present in this first draft. What you might notice right away is the looseness of my grammar, diction, and syntax. When I do a hot sheet like this, I don’t worry about typos or other mistakes. I just try to run through the scene to get a feel for it. It is important that I don’t let my internal editor speak up at this point. In my opinion, it is best to write out what you can, quick n’ dirty, then tidy it up in your revisions.
After this initial draft, I took some time to explore the characters. I felt they weren’t believable. They seemed more like mouthpieces, saying what I wanted them to, and not necessarily what they should be. This brought me to my next step, which consisted of sketching out some crude bios and exploring their motivations.
The following is what I came up with for these characters (again, please excuse any errors):
The man is older, wiser looking. He is well put together. He is riding the bus because while he is too old to drive, his vision is going, he would rather be in control of his travel than schedule it with other people. He thinks about his wife and children a lot. His wife died of breast cancer. His children live far away now. His daughter is supposed to visit for christmas, but she said that last year and couldn’t make it because of business. He was just out buying her a christmas gift. He has it in his lap. It is wrapped in gold paper with a red bow. It was done by a service and not himself. He has arthritis in his hands and it hurts to do small things. His son sent him an iPhone to stay in touch with the other kids, but he has trouble using the device because of his vision and his fingers. He does not like to look unable. He also wants people to be happy. He spent a great deal of his life trying to make others happy, his wife, his kids. He does this because it gratifies him to do it. This is his selfishness. He helps other people because of the pleasure it brings him and as soon as the pain outweighs the pleasure, he does not help. As he’s grown older, his patience with people has grown shorter. He used to be neigh unwindable, he could seem very selfless.
He’s the kind of man who wants to help so long as the reward of helping is greater than the cost.
He was a restaurant manager for a big chain of restaurants. He had a lot of money and privilege in the past, but he left his work out of anger about his mistreatment that he had let go on for too long, let himself be stepped on for too long. He still has this quality of letting people step on him, to keep them happy. He doesn’t want people to be unhappy and he doesn’t want to look like he makes people unhappy.
He is an old man, in his seventies, a widower due to breast cancer, a weak father, a failed business person, a man trying to seem important and wise to offset his past and daily increasing feeling of incompetence and fear, but discovering he has less and less energy to do so, so he finds he is left with someone he doesn’t want to face, a useless, selfish old man.
He cares about three things: seeming wise and important, seeming gracious and virtuous, seeming competent and valuable.
The woman is an ugly character. We don’t like her off the bat. She wears a purple jacket with loud material and black gloves with no fingers. She has a nest of red hair, curly and short. She is overweight and in her fifties. She wears stretchy pants and Wal-Mart sneakers.
She is so absorbed with her personal tragedy, she only cares about finding ways to express it, to let others know, to put it on them too, because she cannot understand the world outside her grief. She is so sorrowful because she was almost entirely dependent on her son and her husband. Her son was struck by lightning, riding his bike home from work. Her husband left her after because she would speak and think of nothing else and he could not stand the sorrowful atmosphere, and she did not care for him after that. She did not tend to their relationship of her husbands needs because all she could do is collapse in on herself and feed her grief, trying to keep her son alive in her memory, trying to talk about him, trying to think about him always, and reinforcing her sorrow. She defined herself by her son. She had accomplished nothing in life that meant anything. She only saw herself through her son and his accomplishments. And his death left her cold, old, lost, failed. And now it is her duty to tell the world about him, to seep in perpetual sorrow over him. She used to take care of herself, but now besides through the force of one well-meaning friend who is so unbearable, no one else wants to be around her, she has gone to a salon and had her hair dyed, this horrible, blackish, red, permed and cut. Her head and hair with the fresh makeup and newly styled hair gives the impression of steam rising from a sewer drain.
She is the type of woman who tells you all about her troubles but has not care or desire to hear yours.
She is an older woman, utterly destroyed by the death of her son, who let it destroy her marriage and her friendships. She cares only about her sorrow, and spreading it as much as she can. She can’t stand to accept the person she is without her son, a nobody, someone with no ambition or passion, someone who has done nothing with her life, who could possibly still do something to fulfill herself, but is too afraid of failing, of not being good enough.
She cares about three things: justifying her miserable life through the story of her son, being pitied for her loss, seeming brave and strong for her actually non-existing dealing with her life.
I wanted to point out a few things about character sketches that I find most helpful. First, just roughing in some basic physical description helps to flesh out the character for me. I like to explore their history, always with the intent of rationalizing their behavior in the story I’m working on. Second, the three things list (He cares about three things…) is very helpful for keeping myself cognizant of how these characters will behave and the subtext of their thoughts and actions. Third, I like to explicitly note something about the character that defines them in a broad stroke, the “He is the type of man who…” line. This is a kind of hook for my brain, quickly reminding me who a character is.
I am still experimenting with how much detail I need to sketch out for a character depending on the length of the story, and what questions to ask of my characters and when, but I thought it might be interesting for you to see the kind of character work I put into a sketch like “Evening at the Bus Stop”.
At this point, I took the character sketches, condensed them, and kept them open in a separate window. Then I began rewriting the story, referring back to the character sketches, modifying some of it on the fly, and trying to shape the story to fit my theme and purpose.
After the drafts came closer to “good enough,” I started listening to the story out loud, listening for parts that sounded off, that didn’t flow. I always listen to my writing with my Mac’s built in text-to-speech functionality as well as reading it out loud myself. This helps me nail down my style, makes the writing more readable, and helps me judge the pacing of action and emotion. Always returning to my theme, purpose, and characters, I continued to draft until I got the sketch to an acceptable point for posting. Since this is a sketch, and not meant for publication, I spent considerably less time on each step then I would otherwise.
Looking back on this sketch, if I could do something different, I would explore different settings that might support the theme and purpose better, add defining mannerisms to the characters that reinforce their personalities, and I would probably rework the structure and dialogue over and over again until I got it just right… Good thing this was just a sketch.
I hope this post wasn’t too long to be useful for you; I know it will be useful for me in the future, looking back on how I tackled certain problems, what modifications I made, what I missed, what I might do differently in the future, and so on. Thanks for reading, and keep writing.