Unthank School of Writing Blog

8 May 2016

Writing Prompt: The Vanisher

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There’s an anecdote told by Eudora Welty in her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings (First Harvard University Press, 1995). It provides a perfect ‘glimpse moment’ that could be developed into a realised story. It could be short, it could be long, but all the raw materials are there.

Once, when my train came close to one of those inexplicable stops in open country, this happened: Out there was spread around us a long high valley, a green peaceful stretch of Tennessee with distance farmhouses and threading off toward planted fields, a little foot path. It was sunset. Presently, without a word, a soldier sitting opposite me rose and stepped off the the halted train. He hadn’t spoken to anybody for the whole day and now, taking nothing with him and not stopping to put on his cap, he just left us. We saw him walking right away from the track into the green valley, making a long shadow and never looking back. The train in time proceeded, and as we left him back there in the landscape, I felt us going out of sight for him, diminishing and soon to be forgotten.

The reason why this snippet contains so much potential story material is that is asks questions: How? Who? Why? What happens next? What happened before?

If you fancy trying to use this glimpse as a story spur, try asking yourself the following questions:

Whose story is it?

A radically different story will emerge depending on whose point of view you take. We could tell the story as it is here, fleshing out the narrator into a witness upon whom the vanishing solider has some lasting impact. His departure could seem to stand in for some personal or wider human truth,” or perhaps she could decide to follow him?

Or, we could tell the story from the soldier’s point of view, making us privy to why he wanders off. Alternatively, these events could have happened offstage and are reconstructed later by a detective, military policeman or worried relative or lover searching for the soldier who disappeared in the fields (who for our purposes need not be a man, or a soldier).

Where are we?

The story here is clearly set in the vast farmlands of the American South sometime in the 1940s. It doesn’t have to be. What happens when you change the setting? This event could occur anywhere there are railways. What if we change the setting to the Australian Outback, Darkest Peru or the Lincolnshire Fens? What if we are in East Germany in 1962? Or at a Hapsburg station in the Ukraine in 1894, or the Orient Express in 1924?

The setting can be a character in itself and provide the story’s charge and atmosphere.

The struggle

A story needs a direction, something to fight for or over. This can be an inner struggle, or a conflict with other people or with society or the environment (he could be dodging the draft, for example).

What is our vanisher running away from? What does he think he’s heading towards? What does he want? Why can’t he have it? What does he decide to do about it? What could possible happen to realise or finally thwart his ambitions? Is the problem solved or does the crisis show us something else?

Reject any first ideas here that could be too obvious, or too unlikely. Somewhere between these two points, cliche, and hyperbole  there will be something fresh and distinct.

This happened when?

‘Story’ is all of the events in chronological order, everything that happens during the time frame. ‘Plot’ is how the parts are arranged by the writer. Significant moments are connected, ’cause and effect’, and brought to the fore. Trivial stuff is backgrounded, summarised or left out altogether.

So where does this event occur in the story? It could be the start of a story and all about what happens next, when the vastness of the landscape finally hits him, when he realises what he’s doing or what he’s done. Or this event could be the end of the story that relies on a flashback or the accumulation of memories and associations, a ‘why’ story.

Similarly, the event could occur in the middle of the story and reveal the consequences of something that happened earlier that day, or in the past, in childhood, something that has come home to roost somehow but still take us to a point of no return. Where this event is positioned could be what makes the story most interesting.

What type of story is it?

In Welty’s account, the story is realist in tone. We can imagine her version as a slice-of-life tinged with the high emotion and melancholy of the Southern Gothic. Like the setting, though, the key ingredient of the story – someone wander off – can be adapted to any genre.

What if this is the start of a romance? A noir-thriller? A SF story where the railway is on a mining colony on a distant moon? A weird story or cosmic horror? A spy story (if we set the story in East Germany in 1962)? Or any of the above but set in the past beyond living memory (historical fiction)? Or it’s told in an unusual way, by assembling newspaper cuttings of the disappearance that have been collated over the years, or through the medium of tittle-tattle and Chinese whispers, graffiti on the advertising hoardings and shotgun shacks. You can play it anyway you want.

Use your notebook to explore some of these questions and find what’s interesting to you. Where did he go? Where did he come from? What happened to him?