Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
Although famous for his use of what has come to be called “magical realism,” in which seemingly extraordinary events–a woman pricks her finger and the blood doesn’t stop flowing; a plague of insomnia descends on a town; an angel falls out of the sky and is imprisoned in a chicken coop–are related in a matter-of-fact style, most of Gabriel García Márquez’s work is written in a traditional “realist” style, particularly his early (1955-1967) and his later (1982-2004) periods of writing.
Published in 1962, García Márquez’s short story “One of These Days” makes use of this realism. The story explores layers of empathy, humanity, revenge (and moments of equality!) between a dentist and the powerful mayor of a small Colombian town. “One of These Days” features three characters only (the dentist, the dentist’s son, and the mayor), all of whom appear in his novel “In Evil Hour,” also published in 1962.
“One of These Days” opens with the weather:
Monday dawned warm and rainless.
I mean what is this, a terrible dinner party, where we’re talking the weather right off the bat?
What. The. Hell.
While descriptions that begin with the weather tend to be less in vogue in contemporary writing than in the past, it remains a good way to bring the reader into the sensory universe of the story.
Notice how in five words only we get 1) the day of the week, 1) the time of day, 3) the sensory detail of warmth on our skins, and then 4) the description of “rainless” that not only tells us today’s condition, but also suggests it has been raining frequently in this area.
All this in five words! (A no less impressive seven words in the original Spanish.)
Writing exercise: begin a short story with a five-word description of the weather–and continue from there!
Aurelio Escovar, a dentist without a degree, and a very early riser, opened his office at six.
We move immediately here from the temporal conditions of the story to the central character. Unlike the mayor later on, this character is named: Aurelio Escovar. We’re given his profession (and his lack of training for his profession, suggesting both the size and the education level of the town, without ever having to mention it directly), and we’re given his character of being an early riser.
Writing exercise: create a character in a position they don’t have a degree for. How do they make it work? What is the context for this character?
He took some false teeth, still mounted in their plaster mold, out of the glass case and put on the table a fistful of instruments which he arranged in size order, as if they were on display. He wore a collarless striped shirt, closed at the neck with a golden stud, and pants held up by suspenders.
García Márquez is using a third-person-limited observational/objective point of view, in which we view a character from the outside only.
We are watching the dentist the way a film camera would: without access, at this point, to his consciousness.
The only layer of authorial interpretation we’ve been given so far is that the dentist is an “early riser.” In a true observational/objective point of view, we wouldn’t be told that information but would be shown it. This omniscient interpolation preps us, however, for two additional point-of-view shifts that will be forthcoming: once when we will go into the dentist’s consciousness and once when we will go into the mayor’s consciousness.
So overall, while we’re mostly in a pure observational/objective point of view (for more on this point of view style, please check out the page Foundational Elements of Creative Writing), there will be slight moves in the story away from that point of view.
Writing exercise: show us a character doing something, at that character’s workplace, but keep the viewpoint outside the character, as an objective/observational point of view.
He was erect and skinny, with a look that rarely corresponded to the situation, the way deaf people have of looking.
Not that kind of erect, you perv. Remember, this is in translation. He had good posture, in other words. M’kay?
We have not yet entered the consciousness of this character: we observe the character as if we were in the room, but not privy to his thoughts.
Thinking exercise: It is questionable as to whether the line “the way deaf people have of looking” would be used in contemporary writing in the contexts in which many of us live and write. What was publishable in 1962–is it still publishable in a contemporary context? Discuss with yourself in the mirror. Use hand gestures to get your point across. Do it now. Include culture, language, history, and many more things in your thought process.
When he had things arranged on the table, he pulled the drill toward the dental chair and sat down to polish the false teeth. He seemed not to be thinking about what he was doing, but worked steadily, pumping the drill with his feet, even when he didn’t need it.
The strengths of an observational/objective narration are that we can only guess at the character’s interior state, based on their exterior actions. This forces us as writers to show the specific details of each character, and pay closer attention. Note the word “seemed,” as well (the translation is exact, from parecía in Spanish): the author could easily know the interior state of the dentist’s mind, but chooses not to, in this instance. We remain on the outside, only interpreting actions, description, and dialogue. Based on the details given, we guess that he is perturbed or preoccupied about something–and these guesses enhance the tension of the story. What is going on outside the walls of the building that he is worried about?
Writing exercise: think about that word “seemed,” and cross-reference with the first paragraph of Jane Austen’s novel “Emma”: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” That word, “seemed,” is almost the word on which all of “Emma” hinges: the gap between Emma’s internal state and her external state, and how she navigates it throughout the course of the novel. The word functions similarly in this story. As a writing exercise, write a paragraph using the word “seemed.”
After eight he stopped for a while to look at the sky through the window, and he saw two pensive buzzards who were drying themselves in the sun on the ridgepole of the house next door. He went on working with the idea that before lunch it would rain again. The shrill voice of his eleven-year-old son interrupted his concentration.
Here, we move very slightly into the dentist’s consciousness: 1. we see what he sees, and 2. “He went on working with the idea that before lunch it would rain again.” We move from the objective/observational narration to a third-person-limited narration in which we have access to his internal consciousness. Because of this move, we’re inside his consciousness when the “shrill voice” of his son enters the narration, and thus experience it as if we’re experiencing it ourselves: from the inside, not the outside.
Writing exercise: write a paragraph in which you move from an objective/observational point of view to an interior point of view.
“The mayor wants to know if you’ll pull his tooth.”
“Tell him I’m not here.”
He was polishing a gold tooth. He held it at arm’s length, and examined it with his eyes half closed. His son shouted again from the little waiting room.
Notice that we are outside the dentist’s consciousness again. We don’t, at this point, know why he doesn’t want to see the mayor. By placing us as reader’s outside his consciousness again, García Márquez creates tension through the unknown.
Writing exercise: one character does not want to see another character. Don’t explain why. Just show one character avoiding the other.
“He says you are, too, because he can hear you.”
The dentist kept examining the tooth. Only when he had put it on the table with the finished work did he say:
“So much the better.”
He operated the drill again. He took several pieces of a bridge out of a cardboard box where he kept the things he still had to do and began to polish the gold.
He still hadn’t changed his expression.
“He says if you don’t take out his tooth, he’ll shoot you.”
Without hurrying, with an extremely tranquil movement, he stopped pedaling the drill, pushed it away from the chair, and pulled the lower drawer of the table all the way out. There was a revolver. “O.K.,” he said. “Tell him to come and shoot me.”
A great way to complicate and deepen our fiction is to have a character say one thing, but have their actions suggest the opposite. The dentist’s words suggest that he is resigned to the mayor having power over him “Tell him to come and shoot me.” The dentist’s actions, however–pulling out a drawer in which there is a revolver–give him just as much power as the mayor, in this time, in this place. The two men are on equal, albeit dangerous, footing.
Writing exercise: a character’s actions belie their words.
He rolled the chair over opposite the door, his hand resting on the edge of the drawer. The mayor appeared at the door. He had shaved the left side of his face, but the other side, swollen and in pain, had a five-day-old beard.
The dentist saw many nights of desperation in his dull eyes. He closed the drawer with his fingertips and said softly: “Sit down.”
How quickly the story changes! We’re set up to expect a possible shoot-out, until the dentist sees the mayor and not only tells him to sit down (i.e., let me take care of you) but he also closes the drawer with the revolver inside, taking away his access to his gun. We see the compassion of the dentist; we see his humanity. When presented face-to-face with the mayor’s suffering, he is now willing to help him, despite all the refusals from before. Now, crucially, at this point in the story we still don’t know why the dentist is angry with the mayor–but we know that he is, and at the same time we see that he’s willing to put that aside to help the mayor out.
Writing exercise: show a character being compassionate, when they didn’t want to before.
“Good morning,” said the mayor.
“Morning,” said the dentist.
The dentist is being compassionate, yes, but notice his truncated response (which also exists in the original Spanish.) We can see that he’s still not pleased to be doing this. Willing, but not pleased.
Writing exercise: show one character’s displeasure (or joy) with another by their response to a greeting.
While the instruments were boiling, the mayor leaned his skull on the headrest of the chair and felt better. His breath was icy. It was a poor office: an old wooden chair, the pedal drill, a glass case with ceramic bottles. Opposite the chair was a window with a shoulder-high cloth curtain. When he felt the dentist approach, the mayor braced his heels and opened his mouth.
Aurelio Escovar turned his head toward the light. After inspecting the infected tooth, he closed the mayor’s jaw with a cautious pressure of his fingers.
“It has to be without anesthesia,” he said.
“Because you have an abscess.”
The mayor looked him in the eye. “All right,” he said, and tried to smile.
We as readers, like the mayor, are guessing as to the dentist’s purpose is forgoing anesthesia. And, like the mayor, we guess that the dentist wants the mayor to feel pain, regardless of the excuse that he gives, as further indicated by:
The dentist did not return the smile.
We see a dentist doing his job not out of any sense of duty to the mayor, but to his role as a healer itself.
Writing exercise: have one character smile at another, but the second character doesn’t return the smile.
He brought the basin of sterilized instruments to the worktable and took them out of the water with a pair of cold tweezers, still without hurrying. Then he pushed the spittoon with the tip of his shoe, and went to wash his hands in the washbasin. He did all this without looking at the mayor. But the mayor didn’t take his eyes off him.
It was a lower wisdom tooth. The dentist spread his feet and grasped the tooth with the hot forceps. The mayor seized the arms of the chair, braced his feet with all his strength, and felt an icy void in his kidneys, but didn’t make a sound. The dentist moved only his wrist. Without rancor, rather with a bitter tenderness, he said:
“Now you’ll pay for our twenty dead men.”
And now we know. Now we understand why the dentist has been so uncaring of seeing the mayor. The mayor is responsible–in some way, we don’t know precisely–for the deaths of twenty men in the town.
Writing exercise: use a single line of dialogue to have one character explain to another why they don’t like them.
The mayor felt the crunch of bones in his jaw, and his eyes filled with tears. But he didn’t breathe until he felt the tooth come out. Then he saw it through his tears. It seemed so foreign to his pain that he failed to understand his torture of the five previous nights.
We move again away from the observational/objective point of view into the consciousness of a character. This time, we move into the mayor’s point of view in order that we as the reader’s can feel both the pain of the tooth and the relief of the tooth being pulled.
Writing exercise: in a paragraph, write about losing a tooth. Either painfully or pain-free. What was the experience like? Then, can you fictionalize it into a 200-word story? How could a character change through the experience of losing a tooth? What could they discover, about themselves or someone else?
Bent over the spittoon, sweating, panting, he unbuttoned his tunic and reached for the handkerchief in his pants pocket. The dentist gave him a clean cloth.
We’re outside the mayor’s consciousness again. Notice that in this very short story (912 words, in the English version; 878 in the Spanish), we go into the consciousness of two different people. Generally, as writers, we’re cautioned to stick to one point of view in a story of this length, but García Márquez shows us how shifting consciousnesses can work.
Thinking exercise: Do you find this technique effective? Ineffective? Would you handle it differently?
“Dry your tears,” he said.
Such a great line of dialogue. Blunt, and dismissive, and yet also calling back to the fact that the mayor is responsible for at least twenty deaths in the town. The dentist is, in effect, not just telling the mayor to dry his tears from the pain, but also reminding him of all the other tears he’s caused on the town, and how much less the mayor deserves to cry than everyone else.
Writing exercise: one character says something bluntly to another character. Why? For what purpose?
The mayor did. He was trembling. While the dentist washed his hands, he saw the crumbling ceiling and a dusty spider web with spider’s eggs and dead insects.
It is not completely clear whose consciousness we’re in, here. And these details take on slightly different significance depending on who is seeing these things.
Thinking exercise: are we inside the dentist’s point of view or the mayor’s point of view? How does that change your reading of this section?
The dentist returned, drying his hands. “Go to bed,” he said, “and gargle with salt water.”
We continue to see the dentist, through dialogue, being brusque and to the point. He is helping to cure the mayor’s pain, but only because of his own character.
Writing exercise: a character gives a brusque direction to another. What does that show about each character?
The mayor stood up, said goodbye with a casual military salute, and walked toward the door, stretching his legs, without buttoning up his tunic.
Note the mockery of the “casual military salute.” The original word, “displicente,” could also be translated as “disdainful military salute,” or “unenthusiastic military salute,” all of which reinforce the mayor’s dismissal of the dentist. Now that he’s gotten what he has come for, the equal footing on which the two men had found themselves is ending: the mayor’s power is returning.
“Send the bill,” he said.
“To you or the town?”
The mayor didn’t look at him. He closed the door and said through the screen: “It’s the same damn thing.”
The moment of equality is over: the mayor has all the power behind him. He hears the dentist’s parting barb “To you or the town?” and acknowledges the corruption, but responds in such a way as to not only agree, but remind the dentist of the source of his power. We don’t know if the mayor doesn’t look at the dentist, at the end, out of dismissal or out of shame–we’re back on the outside, outside of these consciousnesses, only interpreting what we can see and hear.
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “One of These Days” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted? (This exercise is all about getting to the true heart of the story and is useful to apply to your own work, as well. What is essential?)
- Write a short story of 55 words that uses “One of These Days” as a title, but using the phrase in a different way than this story. What is the particular resonance of the phrase for your specific story?
- Write a short story of 101 words set in a dentist’s office, of some sort. Two people are in conflict–a dentist, a receptionist, a patient, possibly a patient’s child or a relative or spouse/partner of one of the people who work at the office.
- Write a short story of 300 words in which two people are speaking to one another through the intermediary of a child. What are they talking about? Why are they speaking through the child, and not directly to one another?
- Write a short story of 500 words in which the point of view is that of the child who is the intermediary. In “One of These Days” that child is eleven years old. Use this age, or another age that makes sense in the context of your story.
- Write a short story of 750 words in which one character helps the other, despite intensely disliking the other.
- Write a short story of 1,000 words in which an authority figure (an employer, say, or an administrative or government official) attempts to persuade someone to help them do something, but is declined.
- Write a short story of 2,500 words in which you place the dentist and the mayor in a contemporary setting. Why doesn’t the dentist want to help the mayor/city manager/council member in this context? What point of view would you select? Why?
- Write a short story of 5,000 words whose opening paragraph includes any four nouns from “One of These Days,” used in some order.
- Write a short story of 7,500 words that begins with an animosity that one character feels for another–but that character has to do something for the other character.
Read Gabriel García Márquez’s 1962 novel “In Evil Hour,” in which these characters also appear. How is the character of the mayor presented when there is the time and space of the novel to show him from many different angles? Do the short brushstrokes of the short story portray him just as well?