If You Write It, They Will Come

In the novel It, by Stephen King, there is a scene I have always enjoyed.

it

 

It’s actually a flashback sequence, where Ben Hanscombe, one of the “Losers Club,” volunteers to stay after school on a cold January day–the first day back to class after Christmas vacation.  He is helping his teacher, Mrs. Douglas, count the books that had been turned in just before the holiday.  The task takes quite a while, and after they put the books away in the storage room, Ben realizes that the school has all but emptied out, the only sounds the clanking of the radiators and the whoosh-whoosh of old Mr. Fazio the janitor’s broom as he sweeps up and down the corridors.

Mrs. Douglas apologizes, saying she’s kept Ben too late.  Dusk is descending, the last flickers of daylight bleeding away into the rapidly approaching winter evening.  She tells him that, if she drove, she’d give him a ride home, but she doesn’t.  Her husband will stop by a bit later to pick her up.  If Ben were willing to wait . . .

But he tells her not to worry.  It’s still light enough, and he’ll walk right home.  And yet . . . and yet–there is something about the day, the faint, cold lighting of a winter dusk in northern New England.  Ben feels alone, as if something is about to happen.  Something bad.  The scene creates a mood, preparing the reader for what follows.

But King is not finished setting the tone.  Before Ben leaves the building, the janitor passes by again, sweeping the floors, gathering dust with his broom.  “Be careful of de fros’bite, boy,” he says, and walks on, completing his rounds.  And for me, as a reader, that one line really resonates.  It is the exclamation point that puts the finishing touches on the scene.  As he walks home in the darkening twilight, just before he spots the monster Pennywise the Clown along the way, the janitor’s words echo in his ears. “Be careful of de fros’bite, boy . . .”

Would the scene have worked even without Mr. Fazio and his broom and his dust?  Of course.  The tone had been set, the mood established.  But the janitor, even with just a single line of dialogue, enhances what is already there.  He is one of those bit characters, so minor he shuffles off the page after a moment, an eye-blink, but whose presence, no matter how brief, adds something worthwhile to the story.

minorchars

The thing is, characters like this–little strands of string and twine that add nuance and texture to a scene–often are not thought of ahead of time.  In this case, especially knowing that Stephen King (as he shares in his memoir, On Writing) does not generally plot his novels in advance, I certainly picture old Mr. Fazio suddenly appearing, unplanned, unasked, out of the periphery of King’s imagination.  I could be wrong about that.  Maybe before he sat down to write this scene, King knew the janitor would be a part of it.  But I suspect this is not the case.  I would venture to guess that, as he wrote the scene, as it unfolded on the page, Mr. Fazio simply decided to appear, as if through a will, a desire, of his own.

creative1

 

I guess this in part because it has happened to me countless times during the creative process.  I begin writing a short story, or a chapter in a novel, and, before I know it, someone, well . . . just shows up.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, this happened several times, perhaps best illustrated in chapter 4.  In this chapter, the four main characters are sitting alongside The Erie Canal, talking about the threat of the “ghost girl” in their shared dreams and what to do about her.

eriecanalpath

 

Before I tackled this sequence, the only thing I had to go on was just that–that the boys would be sitting there, pedestrians and bicyclists constantly passing by on the canalside recreational path behind them.  What I did not envision was what occurred on the very first page of the chapter.

As they talk, a little boy in a farmhouse across the canal comes outside, in his backyard, smiles at them, and begins to toss a baseball to himself.  He offers very little to the story in any substantive way, but he does attract the boys’ attention, and serves as a sort of catalyst to the conversation they are having, and to the scene as a whole.  Would chapter 4 be shorter without the nameless boy’s presence?  Probably.  Would it be better?  I suppose that can be debated either way.  But once the first draft of The Eye-Dancers was finished, and I went to work on the rewrite, examining the flurries and inspirations of the initial draft with a more objective and critical editorial eye, I thought the farm boy added to the canal scene–and so he stayed.

beopen

 

After all, he was the one who announced himself upon the scene, not me.  I didn’t even know he existed until he showed up.  I had no concept of him, no idea he would barge onto the stage, as it were, like a bold, uninvited actor determined to win a role.   Maybe when things like that happen, they represent our subconscious telling us that something is needed to flesh out a scene, something we never would have thought of in advance.  Or maybe they come from our muse, gifting us with a discovery, a missing piece to the fabric of our story.  Maybe they’re just blind chance.  Whatever they are, these unforeseen character appearances strike me as very intuitive, and very organic within the creative process.  As such, we as writers, as creators, need to listen very carefully when they come calling.

So the next time someone like old Mr. Fazio crashes the party created by your imagination as you type feverishly at your keyboard, perhaps you can pause, take a moment to enjoy the mystery and wonder of the creative process.

creative2bulb

 

Where did that character come from?  They just . . . appeared, on their own.

Or, to paraphrase one of the most memorable lines in motion picture history . . .

“If you write it, they will come . . .”

fieldofdreams

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

36 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mjdresselbooks
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 18:51:13

    Great post, and observation about Mr. Fazio. The same thing happened to me as you. I’m waiting to see if my editor questions this new character I decided to keep too.The way he pushed his way in, I felt he had to stay. He, like your character, did appear for a reason, out of the blue. Personally, I love when this happens.

    Reply

  2. sonya solomonovich
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 19:25:11

    So true! I love it when these random little characters make their appearance.

    Reply

  3. John W. Howell
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 21:39:01

    Great!!!!

    Reply

  4. insearchofitall
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 22:45:40

    I kept looking for the canal boy to be in the parallel universe in some way. Maybe I missed him.

    Reply

  5. The Other Side of Ugly - Letters to Humanity
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 23:42:49

    You are a great writer Michael. I read from your book last night. I’m finding myself so drawn in by all the characters in your book. No wonder you can give such good advice, because you can and do actually do it. Thank you. Sheri

    Reply

  6. Fashion Mayann
    Sep 13, 2013 @ 14:10:39

    Another interexciting post (interesting + exciting !) from you. I particularly enjoyed the “they come from our muse” line. You’re a really talented creator indeed !

    Reply

  7. puckishwird
    Sep 13, 2013 @ 17:38:01

    One of my favorite scenes in the book. I loved Ben. He was my hero. Those little gems of ‘volunteers’ that show up while you’re writing are just the best. I love them all. Some of them have made themselves into my favorite characters.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 13, 2013 @ 18:24:35

      Yes–they are almost always good characters, genuine characters that add something to the story. Almost always welcome additions! And I agree about Ben–he was one of my favorites too. Ben and Bill . . .

      Reply

  8. Sam Han
    Sep 14, 2013 @ 14:13:56

    “If you write it, they will come . . .” New food for thought 😀

    Reply

  9. lolarugula
    Sep 14, 2013 @ 14:51:58

    I’m a huge King fan and the way that he writes has always fascinated me. He’s a pro at adding in the little things that amp up the story. I also remember the farmyard boy with the ball from The Eye Dancers and agree that he belongs there – it’s characters such as him that only add depth to the tale.

    Reply

  10. eemoxam
    Sep 14, 2013 @ 17:22:39

    I think that is one of the best, if not the best, thing about writing, is finding out what happens and feeling like you somehow had nothing, or very little to do with it. I don’t know where these things come from, these characters that come out of nowhere, but I always get a fluttery feeling when they do, like they just have to be there.

    Reply

  11. Suzanne Steele
    Sep 14, 2013 @ 20:12:04

    “If you write it they will come”
    I truly believe this….

    Reply

  12. isabelburt
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 15:50:44

    Lovely post and I absolutely agree – one of my characters literally bounded into the scene – with absolutely no invitation – and I agree with last comment – a fluttery excitement at what is happening.

    Reply

  13. stormy1812
    Sep 16, 2013 @ 21:53:27

    seems to me those characters help flesh out the story and make it more real. people are always coming and going in our every day lives but can always leave an impression. maybe we meet a person over and over for a period of time and then they just are gone for whatever reason but helped direct our lives somehow. those characters are needed for stories to help direct the characters or plot, just like they do in our every day lives. it makes it more real for the reader too.

    Reply

  14. Charron's Chatter
    Sep 19, 2013 @ 17:52:13

    That was a very effective tool. Misdirection–or maybe better said–oblique device propelling the story forward. Sneaky like that…;)

    I love Steve’s ON Writing–and have surpassed the “million word” mark..hehe..you too?

    Reply

  15. fashionassist
    Sep 19, 2013 @ 17:57:32

    Like in cooking, a little seasoning can flavour so much…
    and the same is true with minor characters like Mr. Fazio…
    they truly do add a burst of flavour to the story…
    they stimulate the palette, making things more interesting…
    and definitely more appetizing to the reader!
    PS Like your little farm boy, he definitely added more flavour to the canal scene 😉

    Reply

  16. Holistic Wayfarer
    Sep 20, 2013 @ 04:01:23

    Love the showing up.

    Reply

  17. Ampbreia
    Sep 24, 2013 @ 14:59:19

    It adds more realism to a story I think. When it happens, you know you’ve become immersed in this alternate reality and not fully in control of it. It can become a very useful expression of synchronicity as well as proof positive that the creative mind is far deeper than the little bit we see on the surface.

    Reply

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