If You Write It, They Will Come

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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