Dead fathers II, moon landing

Yesterday we saw how an apparently trivial scene -an almost unbelievable one- can carry a strong emotional load.And that isn’t achieved through big abstracts words to emphasize the characters’ feelings. Instead, the emotion comes from what we know about the characters and how, through our own experiences in the world, we can relate to that -the pain of losing a parent, the contrast between the dinner and the hospital room, the loneliness. It’s the old “show, don’t tell”. This is how we build stories, scene by scene, adding on what we know from the previous one. No need to underline what the characters feel. Note how the dialogue doesn’t include any speech notes, yet from his words we know that the teacher does not believe the story.

Here’s another of McCourt’s students’ stories about dying fathers, from “Teacher Man”, chapter 16:

photo by Álex Hernández-Puertas

Phyllis wrote an account of how her family gathered the night Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, how they shuttled between the living room television and the bedroom where her father lay dying. Back and forth. Concerned with the father, not wanting to miss the moon landing. Phyllis said she was with her father when her mother called to come and see Armstrong set foot on the moon. She ran to the living room, everyone cheering and hugging till she felt this urgency, the old urgency, and ran to the bedroom to find her father dead. She didn’t scream, she didn’t cry, and her problem was how to return to the happy people in the living room to tell them Dad was gone.

This could be a micro-story in itself, because it tells more than it contains: it starts before the beginning (we can imagine a long sickness, the arrangements for the family gathering) and it continues beyond the end (when the news are passed and the smiles fade).

But don’t mistake a scene and microfiction and a novel. They are different things. You can hardly build a novel out of great scenes unless they are logically (and emotionally) connected and you can hardly say you master the techniques of narration if all you play is the guessing game of microfiction.

If McCourt’s books lack anything it’s direction, but we forgive that because they’re non-fiction. Autobiographical elements can bring colour and feeling into your story, can bring -quite literally- life into your writing, but real life rarely has a purpose, a plot, a direction, a meaning, a theme. Fiction feeds on these. Juggle them all at your convenience. Or as the saying goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I’m sure even McCourt didn’t.

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Lo que comentas sobre el diálogo entre el profesor y Daniel me ha hecho recordar una novela que leí este verano, se trata de “Black black black” de Marta Sanz. Si no recuerdo mal, no usa ninguna marca en los diálogos. Y aunque intervengan varios personajes, siempre sabemos de quien se trata. Me llamó la atención mucho, pues he visto en algunas novelas marcas de diálogos totalmente innecesarias.