Here is a non-story.
A waiter works in the café at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Every smoking break, he goes and looks at the view. Afterwards, he goes back inside the café and continues serving customers.
Here is a story.
An old Korean woman who lives in North Korea has a secret – hidden in a hole in a wall of her apartment, she has an old French grammar textbook and, within it, a postcard of the Eiffel Tower. When no-one is around, which is rare, she goes through the lessons. Although she knows the book by heart, still she learns. And although she can see the Eiffel Tower with her eyes closed, still she looks at the postcard. One day, the old woman’s nine year-old granddaughter returns unexpectedly to the flat, and hears the strange sounds her grandmother is making with her mouth. She comes into the old woman’s room and sees the grandmother’s book and postcard. Terrified, the grandmother tries to hide them. But as it’s clear the granddaughter has already seen what’s up, the grandmother decides she has to trust her granddaughter. The grandmother explains what French is, what Paris is and what the Eiffel Tower is. The granddaughter says she wants to learn French so that one day she can visit Paris and go up the Eiffel Tower. And so, in secret, the grandmother begins teaching the granddaughter French.
Exercise: Think for a few moments, of the story you could write, continuing from this point. Write a few notes.
Now I’m going to make a suggestion. Somehow, to make this play out, you need to take the granddaughter, out of North Korea, all the way to Paris and up the Eiffel Tower.
Think of how many scenes you would have to write, in order for the nine year-old granddaughter to grow into the young woman and for the young woman to escape North Korea and travel to Paris. Things will go wrong, and more wrong, and she’ll come through.
Okay, instead of that, think of writing the story of the waiter. Or rather, think of trying to turn the non-story of the waiter into a story.
Your efforts would have to go into the details of his consciousness. And that’s do-able, certainly. But what’s out of place? What’s going wrong and more wrong?
Now, instead, let’s put the waiter and the North Korean girl alongside one another, looking at Paris from the Eiffel Tower. They both say, ‘It is beautiful,’ but for one it is a routine beauty, for the other it is an incredible, joyous, grief-filled beauty.
Here’s the most important thing.
For each of the two, answer the question: Why this day? Why this hour?
For the young woman, the answer is – in fact – the telling of the whole story. Why this day? Well, because years ago, my grandmother who lived in North Korea had a secret…
For the waiter, there is no good answer – unless the answer is, Because this is the day I, as the waiter, have randomly chosen to write about in this eventful language. For the waiter, as for the person in Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine, it is not the quality of their day but the quality of the language that describes it that makes the story. What is out of place? The words. (The waiter is obviously a writer.)
Or, possibly, the answer is, Because this is the day you, as the writer, have chosen to write about an invented waiter in eventful language.
The less that happens for the people in the story, the more that has to happen in the words giving them to the reader.
Going back to your story-start, can you answer those questions?: Why this hour? Why this day? Can you answer with a strong, confident answer? Why this day and not the day before, or the same day of the week a week later?
If there isn’t a clear reason for why this hour, then you might be trying to tell a non-story.
My North Korea story, may be exaggerated, sentimental, unrealistic, but I don’t think you can say it’s not a story. And, more than this, I don’t think you can say it’s not (at least potentially) involving and moving.
Briefly, let’s provide the waiter with two answers for Why this hour?
Here is a first answer.
A waiter works in the café at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. One smoking break, he goes to look at the view of Paris which he has seen so often he has come to take it entirely for granted. He stands beside a young Asian woman who is looking out over the rooftops and crying. ‘How beautiful it is,’ she says, in perfect French. ‘How beautiful.’ And the writer looks at the city and sees it properly for the first time in years, and says, ‘Yes, it is.’
Here is a second answer.
A waiter has been working in the café at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris for years. But today is his last day. He is getting too old. Yesterday he spilled hot soup on a tourist wearing shorts. They didn’t have to go to hospital, but they did threaten to sue. The café manager wanted to fire the waiter immediately, but the waiter begged to be allowed to work one more day – just one more day – because if he did the one more day he would have worked in the café for exactly fifty years. During his smoking break, he goes to look at the view of Paris. ‘How beautiful it is,’ he says. ‘How beautiful.’ He says this in Korean because, years ago, it was on this spot that he met his future wife and she said those same words to him, in French.
Exercise: Write a non-story. It need only be a page long. Write about someone going about their routine. But do this in full awareness you’re writing a non-story, and that your concentration is on representing a whole life through undramatic details.
Why this hour?
It’ll soon be time to talk about time.