The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
This is a short section — less than a page. The point Hills makes is a simple one but it has important implications.
All stories show a moment of transformation from who a character is to who that character becomes. There is one kind of story, however, in which nothing seems to happen, yet such stories also depict a critical moment:
The reader is to understand as the story ends that Martin has lost his last chance to change and will now stay “forever” as he was.
Not only is this “loss of the last chance to change” potent in fiction, we’ve all met people whose lives have been defined by an inability to evolve. I tend to describe people like this as unable to get out of their own way, but that’s probably too harsh. The forces that variously compel a person to action or immobility are complex and often subconscious.
While stories of this type often resolve as tragedies, that’s only a function of context. A character who resists every entreaty to change — perhaps in some dark or destructive way — may actually be heroic or courageous. Depicting the loss of the last change to change is one way of showing a critical moment in the life of a character: how you dramatize that moment is up to you.
In the previous section Hills said it’s important for the character at the heart of a short story to have the potential for movement and I agree. It’s also the norm for some characters in a story of any length to be portrayed as fixed. (A fixed character is not boring or two dimensional, it’s simply shown in a way that portends no evolution.) Too, the very fact that a secondary character is fixed may elevate the drama or tension of a story. For example, if a protagonist is trying to change but their best friend is against that change — indeed is incapable of that change — drama is heightened. The same holds true when a belief system or bureaucracy stands in the way of a character’s evolution. It’s the rare character that can change as a result of internal convictions, let alone compel or convince others to change.
Whether you grew up in a small town, a suburb or an urban neighborhood, you probably knew people who had to leave that environment in order to grow and evolve. While “loss of the last chance to change” stories may be rarer than stories that show change, the forces encouraging people not to change are quite often just as powerful as the forces driving change.
Next up: Recognizing the Crucial.
— Mark Barrett
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