The following piece of writing qualifies as fiction because I made it up, but it doesn’t meet all the criteria for a story. After I wrote it, I was inordinately proud of it (I don’t know, maybe fancy wording makes me proud) but I wisely let it sit. Admittedly, I tend to let all my writing sit, but that’s beside the point.
I’ve now taken this narrative back “out” and am looking at it critically with the aim of uncovering what it needs to become a successful story. Notice the important nouns in that previous sentence and you’ll find the first clue to what’s holding the piece’s success back: narrative, story.
Floundering about, as I have, with the notion of story* as it relates to fiction writing and the human need for evaluating life experiences under that rubric, I’ve tended to conflate narrative and story, to the detriment of the “stories” I write. This piece, “The 2:37 from Hannover,” is pure narrative – there’s a character (protagonist, if you will) and an event – and not much else.
After taking my sweet, foot-dragging, time to adopt a working definition of story, I’m going to go with one offered by Holly Lisle. Since I own several books in her “How to Write…” series (such as “How to Write Page Turning Scenes” ) and am a How to Think Sideways** student, I can’t tell you where, exactly, to find this definition (It’s around here somewhere, I swear), but my cobbled-together-from-memory version looks like this: a story must have: 1)a character 2) in a setting with 3) a desire and 4) a problem (or several) standing in the way of his obtaining it. Additionally, the 5) character’s actions must have 6) logical consequences (though not necessarily the expected ones) and lead either to overcoming the problem, thus obtaining the desired end, or, to not overcoming it and having the desire thwarted – all in a 7) meaningful way.
I know, that’s not a very elegant definition, but blame that on my cobbling skills. It’ll do for now, and as you’ll soon find out, the draft below is missing a number of those qualities. It remains to be seen if it can be fixed; whether or not it makes it to story status will be revealed in posts to come.
In all it’s narrative (and mostly descriptive) glory, I give you the inaugural work in an occasional “Fiction Going Nowhere” series:
The 2:37 from Hannover
Traveling southbound from Hannover, Hazel would be in Frankfurt well before six. A bit too early, but not something a cup of black coffee wouldn’t help her wait out. She’d tried other trains but none were right – either by their timing or the route they took or by the clatter and volume of other passengers picked up along the way.
No, it had to be the express that only stopped in Kassel at about half-past three to pick up a few airport-bound passengers heading into early jet lag. Even at the height of summer, the required darkness lasted until the approach into Frankfurt.
She would doze. It was inevitable and, honestly, necessary. The few times she’d fueled her flagging alertness with early coffee and had sat upright among the sprawled out passengers whose claim over two or three seats made the train feel far more occupied than it was, she’d only added a tight buzzing headache to the hum and rock of the speeding train. She’d seen nothing.
She figured she’d missed it, if it had ever come at all, on her second coffee-inspired trip to the bathroom. It had seemed too soon out of Kassel, far too early and yet she’d missed the moment she’d come to anticipate… no, that she’d actually come to need on her weekly trip south.
The touch of the ineffable and the sense of privately-offered mystery didn’t fade just for occurring among barely asleep businessmen and conked out college students, wasn’t diminished by the electric lights, blue upholstery or the periodic rattle of a window shade.
What mattered most was the entirety, the stepping off the cold platform and away from the diesel and trash smell, the attendant’s whistle signaling the start, and the snick of the doors cutting off the station announcement. What mattered was that no matter how many times she did this, she still marveled at the feeling, was still amazed at the smooth arrival of the sleek white cars, the train’s sometimes squealing stop, its welcome-by-open-doors and the distinction that now she was entering a vehicle to the unknown.
Anything could happen.
And something usually did.
Somewhere past the halfway mark, just when she feared it was too late or that they’d gone too far, just when her stomach gave a kind of flop at the thought that she’d somehow missed it again, had gotten too engrossed in her book or dozed a little too deeply, she’d glance up at a flash of color, a change in pitch. Her fear that maybe she’d wanted too much and the certainty that this would be an un-meaningful, tally-marked, trip between occurrences would drop away as the train left the last tunnel and a motion in the window and a shift in the light would catch her attention.
Always in the window across from her, no matter which side she sat on, she’d see the other train speeding next to hers, reflected into her car: red to the white of the ICE, on a parallel track that couldn’t exist in the narrow stretch near the hillside or between her train and the riverbed thick with plane trees below. The red train mattered all the more because it couldn’t be there, because no matter which side of her car she crossed to or which window she peered from, she could not pinpoint the source of its reflection and its faintly lit passengers. It just shot on alongside.
Cupping her hands around her face and looking out into the night revealed nothing but blurred vegetation lit momentarily by her car’s interior lights. Only if she stepped back was she granted the view of the red local train somehow keeping pace with the express. She could see its interior, lit from within and flickering with speed — as though seen between branches or in movie frames. If she stepped further from the window so that it was hard to make out details, she could see the forms of the other train’s passengers, eyes closed as though in introspection: a man with his mouth open, not snoring but singing, a woman, like her, with her elbows on the small table and her head resting on her folded hands as though in prayer, and somewhere across the aisle of the non-existent train, a child, bolt-upright next to a quiet parent, looking back at Hazel in astonished delight and complete understanding with shh-it’s-a-secret fingers laid across her lips like a kiss.
* in this post I alluded to eventually putting a story up here – this isn’t it! I thought I’d start with something more flawed first, because … why not?
** I am also an affiliate of Holly’s – that means that if you decide to purchase anything from her site through the links I provide I get a commission at no extra charge to you.