Recently, in my memoir class, we were dissecting a scene in the book Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro.
It’s the first time readers meet Lenny, (a pseudonym, but he’s definitely a real-life stinker). The protagonist, Dani, calls Lenny’s office, and his assistant answers the phone. And then Shapiro reveals the first character detail:
“I have often wondered how she [the assistant] keeps it all straight: wife, daughters, girlfriend.”
We know this about Lenny before Shapiro even tells us his name.
Is Shapiro using this scene to frame Lenny as a serial adulterer and a villain? No. She’s establishing the nature of their relationship.
In Elements of Fiction, novelistWalter Mosley writes that our characters are “synonymous with journey, because every important player moves within and is transformed by the story.” So, when they first appear, you’re not merely introducing them as people. You’re launching your story.
By the time Dani calls Lenny, she knows her parents have been in a serious car accident, the book’s inciting incident. She knows she must return home to New Jersey from California. But her first call is not to an airline, or a best friend, or even to her half-sister, whom no one has yet thought to notify. Dani’s first call is, instead, to Lenny.
As she tells him about the accident, Dani hyperventilates. Lenny coaches her through it. “Just do what I tell you,” he says, advising her to breathe into a bag. “Good girl,” he says.
Also, he also calls her “cupcake.”
“It is worthwhile, I believe,” Mosley writes, “to attempt to tell a story from its negative spaces, to allow the reader to wonder what is real before you reveal the truth, affording the reader an understanding of the lies told to keep the narrator safe and sound — she believes.”
When she can breathe again, Dani asks Lenny to get her home. Dani is 23 years old, with a phone and a credit card (it’s pre-internet), but she asks her married boyfriend to book her a flight to New Jersey. To me, this is the most important detail of the scene because, while it definitely establishes multiple red flags about Lenny’s character, the big takeaway is how dependent Dani is on him.
It’s not a long or ornate scene, but with it, Shapiro effectively sets the story in motion. Already struggling, our protagonist hurtles into an ordeal, weighed down with Lenny, and whatever internal reasons she bears for being so dependent on him. She’s erected what Mosley calls any narrative’s “major, and certainly most irreplaceable, pillars.”
“The [characters’] world is always in flux,” Mosley writes. “Its inhabitants are flotsam, seeking refuge in each other on the relentless tide of story.”
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