Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
Alice Munro’s short story “Chance” first appeared in the New Yorker in 2004 and later appeared in her collection of short stories “Runaway” as the book’s second story. “Chance,” which works as a stand-alone story, is also the first part of a three-part story sequence that includes “Soon,” and “Silence.”
“Chance” explores the journey of the central character, Juliet, on her way to live with a man named Eric at Whale Bay, on the west coast of Canada. The story is known for Munro’s movement in time, as well as as the slow development of the character of Juliet.
As you read, note the structure of the story, and how it moves around chronologically and geographically. We start with the journey of the main character, Juliet, on the way to see the character Eric; then move into a long central section that describes how they met, the “chance,” of the title; then move back to the journey. Even within this three-part structure, however, Munro will frequently jump ahead or back in time to provide additional information and development.
Read “Chance” at the New Yorker website.
Buy the book “Runaway” online (in addition to “Chance,” this collection of short stories also includes “Runaway,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” all stories we’ve either looked already at or will be looking at in the upcoming months, so if this book isn’t yet on your bookshelf, now might be the time!)
Craft Lecture: “Reading As a Writer”
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading of “Chance,” designed to put into practice the story’s craft techniques. There are too many to do all–pick and choose the ones that appeal to you as practice exercises.
“A story is not like a road to follow […] It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows […] You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” ~Alice Munro
Halfway through June of 1965, the term at Torrance House School for Girls is over. Juliet has not been offered a permanent job—the teacher she was replacing has recovered from a bout of depression—and she could now be on her way home. Instead, she is taking what she has described as a little detour. A little detour to see a friend who lives up the coast.
This first paragraph sets up the famous Munrovian narrative style: a narrator who rises above the entire timeline of the story, and picks and chooses what to describe, no matter where it happens chronologically. Notice as you read the story the many different times that Munro changes the chronology, mentioning something that happens later, or happens earlier, without breaking the narrative movement of the story.
Writing exercise: pick a story you’ve written, and rise above it, looking at the entire chronology. Then rewrite it moving around in space and time as you see fit. The entire story happens simultaneously, from your new authorial perspective. What do you want to focus on, and when, and why?
About a month ago, she went with another teacher—Juanita, the only person on the staff who is near her age, and her only friend—to see a revival of a movie called “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” Juanita confessed afterward that she herself, like the woman in the picture, was in love with a married man—the father of one of her students. Then Juliet said that she had found herself in somewhat the same situation but had not allowed things to go on because of the tragic plight of the man’s wife, who was a total invalid, more or less brain-dead. Juanita said she wished that her lover’s wife were brain-dead, but she was not—she was vigorous and powerful and could get Juanita fired.
In an Alice Munro story, we are in no hurry. Characters–even minor characters–will be picked up, examined, and then put back down, all of it designed to deepen character, as opposed to maybe moving plot forward. And yet–because the plot is all about the development of character, these moments do serve to move character and plot forward.
Writing exercise: pick up an old story you’ve written and rewrite it, being in no hurry to move plot forward. Instead, move character deeper. And notice how that becomes the plot.
And shortly after that, as if conjured up by such unworthy lies or half lies, came a letter. The envelope looked dingy, as if it had spent some time in a pocket, and it was addressed only to Juliet (Teacher), Torrance House, 1482 Mark St., Vancouver, B.C.
Dear Juliet, I forgot which school it was that you were teaching at but the other day I remembered, out of the blue, so it seemed to me a sign that I should write to you. I hope you are still there but the job would have to be pretty awful for you to quit before the term is up and anyway you didn’t strike me as a quitter. How do you like our West Coast weather? If you think you’ve got a lot of rain in Vancouver, then imagine twice as much, and that’s what we get up here. I often think of you sitting up looking at the stairs stars. You see, I wrote stairs—it’s late at night and time I was in bed. Ann is about the same. When I got back from my trip I thought she had healed a good deal, but that was mostly because I was able to see all at once how she had gone downhill in the last two or three years. I’m glad I finally remembered the name of the school but I am awfully afraid now that I can’t remember your last name. I will seal the envelope anyway and hope the name comes to me. I often think of you. I often think of you I often think of you zzzzzz
The beginning of this story takes place near the end point, chronologically, of the story’s timeline. This will become clear upon a re-read (and, in general with Munro, at least two reads are highly recommended! The first one to grasp the story, and the second one (or more, hopefully!) to read to see how she’s handling the story.
Writing exercise: play with time in a story. Does it necessarily have to happen chronologically? Take the bird’s-eye view of it.
A bus takes Juliet from downtown Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay and onto a ferry. Then across a mainland peninsula and onto another ferry and onto the mainland again and up to the town where the man who wrote the letter lives. Whale Bay. And how quickly she passes from city to wilderness. All this term she has been living among the lawns and gardens of Kerrisdale, with the north-shore mountains coming into view like a stage backdrop whenever the weather cleared. The grounds of the school were sheltered and civilized, enclosed by a stone wall, and with something in bloom in every season of the year. And the gardens of the houses around it were the same. Such trim abundance—rhododendrons, holly, laurel, and wisteria. But before Juliet gets even as far as Horseshoe Bay, less than an hour away, real forest, not park forest, closes in. And from then on—water and rocks, dark trees, hanging moss. Occasionally, a trail of smoke from some damp and battered-looking little house, with a yard full of firewood, lumber, and tires, cars and parts of cars, bikes, toys—all the things that have to sit outside when people lack garages or basements.
Notice how the journey to Whale Bay is described in juxtaposition with other landscapes. The wildness is made more wild through comparison to more cultivated areas. Notice also that the wildness is not just landscape, but human-built, as well.
Writing exercise: show a landscape of some sort by comparing it to what it is not. This could be an opening paragraph, paragraphs from the middle of a story, the end, or anything in-between.
The towns where the bus stops are not organized towns at all. No paved streets, except the highway that goes through, no sidewalks. No big solid buildings to house post offices or municipal offices, no ornamented blocks of stores, built to be noticed. No war monuments, drinking fountains, flowery little parks. Sometimes a hotel that looks as if it were only a pub. Sometimes a modern school or hospital—decent, but low and plain as a shed.
And at some point—noticeably on the second ferry—Juliet begins to have stomach-turning doubts about the whole business.
I often think of you I often think of you.
It is only the sort of thing that people say to be comforting, or out of a mild desire to keep somebody hanging on.
There must be a hotel, or tourist cabins at least, at Whale Bay. She will go there. She has left her big suitcase at the school, to be picked up later. She has only her travelling bag, slung over her shoulder, so she won’t be conspicuous. She will stay one night. Maybe phone him.
And say what?
That she happens to be up this way to visit a friend. Her friend Juanita, from the school, who has a summer place—where? This Juanita has a cabin in the woods; she is a fearless outdoors sort of woman (quite unlike the real Juanita, who is seldom out of high heels). And the cabin has turned out to be not far south of Whale Bay. The visit to the cabin and Juanita being over, Juliet thought . . . she thought since she was nearly there already . . . she thought she might as well stop by.
Munro moves from the exteriority of the scene into Juliet’s consciousness, and back again. We glimpse what she sees, and we’re part of what she thinks, as well. Through this close third-person perspective, Munro gives us her characters in the same way that we as humans move around our worlds (both in the world physically and in our minds mentally).
Writing exercise: in three paragraphs, follow a character around through a town you know well. Show us the character experiencing the landscape, and provide their interior consciousness, as well. What are they thinking about, as they move around?
Rocks, trees, water, snow. These things, constantly rearranged, had made up the scene outside the train window six months earlier, on a morning between Christmas and New Year’s.
Note the transition, above. Munro uses the landscape to move us back in time, to “six months earlier,” and to a lengthy extended section of the story. In Munro’s work, there isn’t “story” and “backstory,” but it’s all (regardless of temporality/chronology) part of the main story.
The rocks were large, sometimes jutting out, sometimes smooth like boulders, dark gray or quite black. The trees were mostly evergreens, pine or spruce or cedar. The spruce trees—black spruce—had what looked like little extra trees, miniatures of themselves, stuck right on top. The trees that were not evergreens were spindly and bare—they might be poplar or tamarack or alder. Some of them had spotty trunks. Snow sat in thick caps on top of the rocks and was plastered to the windward side of the trees. It lay in a soft smooth cover over the surface of frozen lakes. Water was free of ice only in an occasional fast-flowing, dark, and narrow stream.
Juliet had a book open on her lap, but she was not reading. She did not take her eyes from what was going by. She was alone in a double seat and there was an empty double seat across from her. This was the space in which her bed was made up at night. The porter was busy at the moment, dismantling the car’s nighttime arrangements. In some places, the dark-green zippered shrouds still hung down to the floor. There was the smell of that cloth, like tent cloth, and a slight smell of nightclothes and toilets. A blast of fresh winter air whenever anyone opened the doors at either end of the car. The last to rise were going to breakfast now, other people coming back.
We move from the landscape in one paragraph to the interior of the train in the second paragraph, and we feel it through multiple senses: sight, sound, smell, feel.
Writing exercise: in two paragraphs, move the narration from an exterior landscape of some kind into a vehicle of some kind. A train, a plane, a car, a bus. Use at least four of the five senses to re-create the inside of the vehicle in full.
There were tracks in the snow, small animal tracks. Strings of beads, looping, vanishing.
Juliet was twenty-one years old and already the possessor of a B.A. and an M.A. in classics. She was working on her Ph.D. thesis in Toronto, but had decided to take some time out to teach Latin at a private girls’ school in Vancouver. She had no training as a teacher, but an unexpected vacancy at half-term had made the school willing to hire her. Probably no one else had answered the ad. The salary was less than any qualified teacher would be likely to accept. But Juliet was happy to be earning any money at all, after her years on stingy scholarships.
Note how, first, we’re seeing the landscape through Juliet’s eyes, the way she would see it, and then how we move instantly into what we might call her biographical information.
She was a tall girl, fair-skinned and fine-boned, with light-brown hair that would not retain a bouffant style, even when sprayed. She had the look of an alert schoolgirl. Head held high, a neat rounded chin, wide thin-lipped mouth, snub nose, bright eyes, and a forehead that was often flushed with effort or appreciation. Her professors were delighted with her—they were grateful these days for anybody who took up ancient languages, and particularly for someone so gifted—but they were worried as well. The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married—which might happen, as she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, not bad-looking at all—she would waste all her hard work and theirs. And if she did not get married her life would probably become bleak and isolated—she would lose out on promotions to men (who needed them more, since they had families to support). Either way, she would not be able to defend the oddity of her choice, to defy what people would see as the irrelevance, or dreariness, of classics, to slough off that prejudice the way a man could. Odd choices were simply easier for men, most of whom would still find women glad to marry them. Not so the other way around.
When the teaching offer came, her professors urged her to take it. It’ll be good for you. Get out into the world a bit. See some real life.
In these paragraphs, we understand much more about Juliet. The narration is both inside her (things she would think about herself) and outside her (things about her that the narrator is describing. For instance, Juliet would probably not think about herself the phrase “alert schoolgirl.” This is the outside narrator (Munro herself) telling us this information.
Writing exercise: describe a character by moving both inside and outside that character.
Juliet was used to this sort of advice, though disappointed to hear it coming from these men who did not look or sound as if they had knocked about in the real world very eagerly themselves. In the town where she had grown up, her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb, and people had been quick to point out the expected, accompanying drawbacks—her inability to run a sewing machine, or wrap a parcel neatly, or notice that her slip was showing. What would become of her was always the question.
It occurred even to her mother and father, who were nevertheless proud of her. Her mother had wanted her to be popular, and to that end had urged her to learn to skate and to play the piano. Juliet did neither willingly, or well. Her father just wanted her to fit in. “You have to fit in,” he told her. “Otherwise people will make your life hell.” (He made no mention of the fact that he, and particularly Juliet’s mother, did not fit in so very well themselves, and yet were not miserable. Perhaps he feared that Juliet would not be so lucky.)
I do, Juliet said, once she got away to college. In the classics department, I fit in. I am extremely O.K.
But now here came the same message, from her teachers, who had seemed to value and rejoice in her.
Nevertheless, on the train, she was happy.
Taiga, she thought. She did not know whether that was the right word for what she was looking at. She might have had, on some level, the idea of herself as a young woman in a Russian novel, going out into an unfamiliar, a terrifying and exhilarating landscape where the wolves would howl at night and where she would meet her fate. She did not care that, in a Russian novel, that fate would likely turn out to be dreary, or tragic, or both.
One of the most important things when writing character is to remember where we as author stop, and they are character begin. Munro, herself, knows (or easily could look up) whether or not “taiga” is the right word, but she allows the character not to know. Similarly, Juliet has her own family situation, her own personality, all distinct from the author. In the same way, as we create character, how close are we paying attention to our characters’ personalities, apart from our own?
Writing exercise: re-visit a character you’ve written and re-write that character, paying close attention to who they are, as opposed to who you are.
Personal fate was not the point, anyway. What drew her in—enchanted her, actually—was the very indifference, the carelessness and contempt for harmony, to be found outside her window on the scrambled surface of the Precambrian Shield.
A shadow appeared in the corner of her eye. Then a trousered leg, moving in.
“Is this seat taken?”
Of course it wasn’t. What could she say?
Tasselled loafers, tan slacks, tan-and-brown checked jacket with pencil lines of maroon, dark-blue shirt, maroon tie with flecks of blue and gold. All brand-new, and all—except for the shoes—looking slightly too big, as if the body inside had shrunk somewhat since the purchase.
He was perhaps in his fifties, with strands of bright golden-brown hair plastered across his scalp. (It couldn’t be dyed, could it, she wondered. Who would dye such a scanty crop of hair?) His eyebrows darker, reddish, peaked, and bushy. The skin of his face rather lumpy, like the surface of sour milk.
Was he ugly? Yes, of course. He was ugly, but so, in her opinion, were many, many men of his age. She would not have said, afterward, that he was remarkably ugly.
His eyebrows went up, his light-colored, leaky eyes widened, as if to project conviviality. He settled down opposite her. He said, “Not much to see out there.”
Notice how in this scene we are entirely in Juliet’s thoughts. Were we to be outside of Juliet’s consciousness, in this moment, this scene would not take on the extent of the tension that it does.
Writing exercise: write a scene where someone sits down next to someone else, but that someone else does not want the person to sit down. Tell it from that person’s point of view: why don’t they want the person to sit down?
“No.” She lowered her eyes to her book.
“Ah,” he said, as if things were opening up in a comfortable way. “And how far are you going?”
“Me, too. All the way across the country. May as well see it all while you’re at it, isn’t that right?”
But he persisted.
“So. Did you get on in Toronto, too?”
“That’s my home, Toronto. I’ve lived there all my life. You, too?”
“No,” Juliet said, looking at her book again and trying hard to prolong the pause. But something—her upbringing, her embarrassment, God knows, perhaps her pity—was too strong for her, and she dealt out the name of her home town, then placed it for him by giving its distance from various larger towns, its position relative to Lake Huron, Georgian Bay.
“I’ve got a cousin in Collingwood. That’s nice country up there. I went up to see her and her family a couple of times. You travelling on your own? Like me?”
As we know, character is revealed through action, description, dialogue, and their interior thoughts. We’ve seen this man’s actions, gotten the description of him, and hear his dialogue. So even though we’re not privy to his interior thoughts, we feel as though we have a solid grasp on him (through Juliet’s point of view), and understand her displeasure in this encounter.
He kept flapping his hands one over the other.
No more, she thought. No more.
“This is the first time I’ve gone on a major trip anywhere. Quite a trip, all on your own.”
Juliet said nothing.
“I just saw you there reading your book all by yourself, and I thought, Maybe she’s all by herself and got a long way to go, too, so maybe we could just sort of chum around together?”
At those words, “chum around,” a cold turbulence rose in Juliet. She understood that he was not trying to pick her up. One of the demoralizing things that sometimes happened to her was that rather awkward and lonely and unattractive men would make a bald bid for her, implying that she had to be in the same boat as they were. But this man wasn’t doing that. He wanted a friend, not a girlfriend. He wanted a chum.
Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary—and so, in a way, she was. But she had also had the experience, for much of her life, of being surrounded by people who wanted to drain away her attention and her time and her soul. And usually she let them.
Be available, be friendly (especially if you are not popular)—that was what you learned in a small town and also in a girls’ dormitory. Be accommodating to all those who want to suck you dry, even if they know nothing about who you are.
She looked straight at this man and did not smile. He saw her resolve, and there was a twitch of alarm in his face.
“Good book you got there? What’s it about?”
In these paragraphs (mostly dialogue) we get direct experience of what’s happening in the scene, but notice how Munro also moves into Juliet’s experiences. She doesn’t just rely on dialogue to show us how Juliet is feeling in this moment, she also gives us a glimpse of similar experiences she’d had in the past.
She was not going to say that it was about ancient Greece and the considerable attachment that the Greeks had to the irrational. (She was supposed to be teaching a course on Greek Thought, so she was reading Eric Dodds again to see what she could pick up.) She said, “I do want to read. I think I’ll go to the observation car.”
And she got up and walked away, thinking that she shouldn’t have told him where she was going—it was possible that he might get up and follow her, apologizing, working up to another plea. Also, it would be cold in the observation car, and she would wish that she had brought her sweater. Impossible to go back now and get it.
The wraparound view from the observation car, at the back of the train, seemed less satisfying to her than the view from the sleeping-car window. There was now the intrusion of the train itself in front of her.
Perhaps the problem was that she was cold, just as she had thought she would be. And disturbed. But not sorry. One moment more and his clammy hand would have been proffered—she knew that it would have been either clammy or dry and scaly—names would have been exchanged, she would have been locked in. It was the first victory of this sort that she had ever achieved, and it was against the most pitiable, the saddest opponent. She could hear him now, chewing on the words “chum around.” Apology and insolence. Apology his habit. And insolence the result of some hope or determination breaking the surface of his loneliness, his hungry state.
When a character makes a decision, it leads them to new outcomes, which mean new decisions. She decides to leave: now she’s in a colder car, with less view. Yet she’s free of the man.
Writing exercise: a character makes a decision that has positive outcomes, but also a couple of negative outcomes. Just like life!
There were only two other people in the observation car. Two older women, each of them sitting alone. When Juliet saw a large wolf crossing the snowy, perfect surface of a small lake, she knew that they must have seen it, too. But neither broke the silence, and that was pleasing to her. The wolf took no notice of the train. He did not hesitate or hurry. His fur was long, silver shading into white. Did he think it made him invisible?
While she was watching the wolf, another passenger arrived. A man, who took the seat opposite hers. He, too, carried a book. An elderly couple followed—she small and sprightly, he large and clumsy, taking heavy, disparaging breaths.
“Cold up here,” he said, when they were settled.
“Do you want me to go get your jacket?”
“It’s no bother.”
“I’ll be all right.”
In a moment the woman said, “You certainly do get a view here.” He did not answer, and she tried again. “You can see all round.”
“What there is to see.”
“Wait till we go through the mountains. That’ll be something. Did you enjoy your breakfast?”
“The eggs were runny.”
“I know.” The woman laughed. “I was thinking I should just have barged into the kitchen and done them myself.”
“Galley. They call it a galley.”
“I thought that was on a boat.”
Juliet and the man across the aisle raised their eyes from their books at the same moment, and their glances met, with a calm withholding of expression. And in this second or two the train slowed, then stopped, and they looked elsewhere.
Juliet’s decision to move places her in proximity with a new man, who, we will later learn, is also the man she’s on her way to see, in the first section of the story.
Writing exercise: a character makes a decision, which leads to an unanticipated and unexpected outcome–whatever that is.
They had come to a little settlement in the woods. On one side was the station, painted a dark red, and on the other a few houses painted the same color. Homes or barracks, for the railway workers. It was announced that the train would stop here for ten minutes.
The station platform had been cleared of snow, and Juliet, peering ahead, saw some people getting off the train to walk about. She would have liked to do this, too, but not without a coat.
The man across the aisle got up and went down the steps, without a look around. Doors opened somewhere below, letting in a stealthy stream of cold air. The elderly husband asked what they were doing here, and what was the name of this place, anyway. His wife went to the front of the car to try to read the sign on the platform, but she was not successful.
When the movement in your scene changes (in this case, the train stops), slow down, as well, and show what is happening.
Juliet was reading about maenadism. The rituals took place at night, in the middle of winter, Dodds said. The women went up to the top of Mt. Parnassus, and one time, when they were cut off by a snowstorm, a rescue party had to be sent. The would-be maenads were brought down with their clothes stiff as boards, having, in all their frenzy, accepted rescue. This seemed like rather contemporary behavior to Juliet—it cast a modern light on the maenads’ carrying-on. Would her students see it that way? Not likely. They would probably be armed against any possible entertainment, any involvement in their studies, as students were. And the ones who weren’t so armed wouldn’t want to show it.
The call to board sounded; the fresh air was cut off; there were reluctant shunting movements. She raised her eyes to watch, and saw, some distance ahead, the engine disappearing around a curve.
And then a lurch or a shudder, a shudder that seemed to pass along the whole train. A sense of the car rocking. An abrupt stop.
Everybody sat waiting for the train to start again, and nobody spoke. Even the complaining husband was silent. Minutes passed. Doors were opening and closing. Men’s voices calling, a spreading feeling of fright and agitation. In the club car, which was just below the observation car, a voice of authority could be heard—maybe the conductor’s. But it was not possible to make out what he was saying.
Part of the genius of this scene is that we are so inside Juliet’s mind, and the reading she’s doing, that when we start to realize that something unusual is happening outside the world of the book, we are as dislocated as is Juliet. We get the details, but–like her–don’t understand the significance of these details, or what is happening.
Writing exercise: place a character into a scene in which something is happening, but have the character–and, by extension, the reader–not know what’s happening.
Juliet got up and went to the front of the car, trying to see over the tops of all the cars ahead. She saw some figures running in the snow.
One of the lone women came up and stood beside her.
“I felt that something was going to happen,” the woman said. “I felt it back there, when we were stopped. I didn’t want us to start up again. I thought something was going to happen.”
The other woman had come to stand behind them.
“It won’t be anything,” she said. “Maybe a branch across the tracks.”
“They have that thing that goes ahead of the train,” the first woman told her. “It goes on purpose to catch things like a branch across the tracks.”
“Maybe it had just fallen.”
Both women spoke with the same North of England accent and without the politeness of strangers or acquaintances. Now that Juliet got a good look at them, she saw that they were probably sisters, though one had a younger, broader face. So they travelled together but sat separately. Or perhaps they’d had a row.
Juliet attempts to contextualize what’s happening all around her, and is unable to. She listens to the thoughts of others, she thinks her own thoughts.
The conductor was mounting the stairs to the observation car. He turned, halfway up, to speak. “Nothing serious to worry about, folks. It seems like we hit an obstacle on the track. We’re sorry for the delay and we’ll get going again as soon as we can, but we could be here a little while. The steward tells me there’s going to be free coffee down here in a few minutes.”
Juliet followed him down the stairs. She had become aware, as soon as she stood up, that she had a problem of her own that would require her to go back to her seat and her travelling case, whether the man she had snubbed was still there or not. Monthly bleeding was the bane of her life; it had even, on occasion, interfered with the writing of important examinations, because she couldn’t leave the room for reinforcements.
As she made her way through the cars, she met other people on the move. People were pressing against the windows on one side of the train, or they had halted between the cars, as if they expected the doors to open. Juliet had no time to ask questions, but as she slid past she heard that it might have been a bear, or an elk, or a cow. And people wondered what a cow would be doing up here in the bush, or why the bears were not all hibernating now, or if some drunk had passed out on the tracks.
In the dining car, people were sitting at the tables, whose white cloths had all been removed, drinking the free coffee.
Nobody was in Juliet’s seat, or in the seat across from it. She picked up her case and hurried along to the ladies’.
Flushed, crampy, feeling a little dizzy, she sank down onto the toilet bowl, removed her soaked pad, and wrapped it in toilet paper, then put it in the receptacle provided. When she stood up, she attached the fresh pad from her bag. She saw that the water and urine in the bowl were crimson with her blood. She put her hand on the flush button, then noticed at eye level the warning not to flush the toilet while the train was standing still. That meant, of course, when the train was standing in a station, where the discharge would take place, disagreeably, right where people could see it. Here she might risk it.
But just as she touched the button again she heard voices close by, not in the train but outside the window of pebbled glass. Maybe train workers walking past.
She could stay until the train moved, but how long would that be? And what if somebody desperately wanted to get in? She decided that all she could do was put down the lid and leave.
She went back to her own seat. Across from her, a child of four or five was mashing a crayon across the pages of a coloring book. His mother spoke to Juliet about the free coffee.
“It may be free, but it looks like you have to go and get it,” she said. “Would you mind watching him while I go?”
“I don’t want to stay with her,” the child said, without looking up.
“I’ll go,” Juliet said. But at that moment a waiter entered the car, with the coffee wagon.
“There. I shouldn’t have complained so soon,” the mother said. “Did you hear it was a B-O-D-Y?”
Juliet shook her head.
“He didn’t have his coat on, even. Somebody saw him get off and walk on ahead, but they didn’t realize what he was doing. He must’ve got just round the curve, so the engineer couldn’t see him till it was too late.”
A few seats ahead, a man said, “Here they come back,” and some people got up and stooped to see. The child stood up, too, pressed his face to the glass. His mother told him to sit down. “You color. Look at the mess you’ve made, all over the lines.”
“I can’t look,” she said to Juliet. “I can’t stand to look at anything like that.”
Juliet got up and looked. She saw a small group of men tramping back toward the station, carrying a stretcher. Some had taken off their coats and laid them over it.
“You can’t see anything,” a man behind Juliet said to a woman who had not stood up. “They’ve got him all covered.”
Not all of the men who proceeded with their heads lowered were railway employees. Juliet recognized the man who had sat across from her, up in the observation car.
After ten or fifteen minutes more, the train began to move. Around the curve there was no blood to be seen, on either side of the car. But there was a trampled area, a shovelled mound of snow. The man behind her was up again. He said, “That’s where it happened, I guess,” and watched for a little while to see if there was anything else, then turned around and sat down.
The train, instead of speeding to make up for lost time, seemed to be going more slowly than before. Out of respect, perhaps, or with apprehension about what might lie ahead, around the next curve. The headwaiter went through the car announcing the first seating for lunch, and the mother and child at once got up and followed him. A procession began, and Juliet heard a woman who was passing say, “Really?”
The woman talking to her said, “That’s what she said. Full of blood. So it must have splashed in when the train went over—”
“Don’t say it.”
A little later, the man came through—the man from the observation car, whom Juliet had seen outside, walking in the snow.
She got up and quickly pursued him. In the black cold space between the cars, just as he was pushing the heavy door in front of him, she said, “Excuse me. I have to ask you something.”
This space was full of sudden noise, the clanking of heavy wheels on the rails.
“What is it?”
“Are you a doctor? Did you see the man who—”
“I’m not a doctor. There’s no doctor on the train. But I have some medical experience.”
“How old was he?”
The man looked at her with a steady patience and some displeasure. “Hard to say. Not young.”
“Was he wearing a blue shirt? Did he have blondish-brown hair?”
He shook his head, not to answer her question but to refuse it. “Was this somebody you knew?” he said. “You should tell the conductor if it was.”
“I didn’t know him.”
“Excuse me, then.” He pushed open the door and left her.
Of course. He thought she was full of disgusting curiosity, like all the other people.
“Full of blood.” That was disgusting, if anything was. She could never tell anybody about the mistake that had been made, the horrid joke of it. People would think her exceptionally crude and heartless were she ever to speak of it. And what was at one end of the misunderstanding—the suicide’s smashed body—would be seen, in the telling, to be hardly more foul and frightful than her own menstrual blood.
Quite a few critics have found this scene (where Juliet’s menstrual blood is mistaken for the blood of the body) to be overly cinematic, akin to some sort of plot device. As if it’s almost to unbelieveable, and brings us out of the world of the story. But that’s a reader response: each reader decides for themself. Personally, for me, it adds to the story, in that her menstrual blood is mistaken for his own blood, and reminding her of the connection they shared, with the emphasis on the guilt she feels for his death.
Never tell. (Actually, she did tell this a few years later, to a woman named Christa, a woman whose name she did not yet know.)
This is another one of the classic Munrovian examples of moving around in time, and the outside narrator (Munro herself) stepping in to bend chronology and time.
But she wanted very much to tell somebody something. She got out her notebook and on one of its ruled pages began to write a letter to her parents.
We have not yet reached the Manitoba border and most people have been complaining that the scenery is rather monotonous, but they cannot say that the trip has been lacking in dramatic incident. This morning we stopped at some godforsaken little settlement in the northern woods, all painted Dreary Railway Red. I was sitting at the back of the train in the observation car, and freezing to death because they skimp on the heat up there (the idea must be that the scenic glories will distract you from your discomfort) and I was too lazy to trudge back and get my sweater. We sat around there for ten or fifteen minutes and then started up again, and I could see the engine rounding a curve up ahead, and then suddenly there was a sort of Awful Thump.
She and her parents had always made it their business to bring entertaining stories into the house. This had required of Juliet a subtle adjustment not only of the facts but of her position in the world. At least, when her world was school. She had made herself, for her parents’ amusement, into a rather superior, invulnerable observer. And now this stance had become habitual, almost a duty.
One of the best ways to show character from multiple different perspectives is to show how they say (or write) things to specific other characters. How does a character shape themselves when presenting themselves to specific other characters? What roles or language style(s) do they take upon themselves? Why? Do they even necessarily know why they do it?
Writing exercise: have a character tell the same story to three different people. Who are these people? How does the story change as they tell it to these different people? Does it change even more if they write it down, in a letter or email or social media message or text message?
But as soon as she had written the words “Awful Thump” she found herself unable to go on. Unable, in her customary language, to go on.
She tried looking out the window, but the scene, although it was composed of the same elements as before, had changed. Less than a hundred miles on, the train seemed to have entered a warmer climate. The lakes were only fringed with ice, not covered. The black water, black rocks, under the wintry clouds, filled the air with darkness. She grew tired, watching, and she picked up Dodds, opening it at random, because after all she had read it before. Every few pages she seemed to have had an orgy of underlining. She was drawn to these passages now, but when she read them she found that what she had pounced on with such satisfaction, at one time, on rereading seemed obscure and unsettling.
. . . what to the partial vision of the living appears as the act of a fiend is perceived by the wider insight of the dead to be an aspect of cosmic justice. . . .
The book slipped out of her hands, her eyes closed, and she was now walking with some children (students?) on the surface of a lake. Everywhere each of them stepped there appeared a five-sided crack, all of these beautifully even so that the ice became like a tiled floor. The children asked her the name of these ice tiles, and she answered with confidence, “Iambic pentameter.” But they laughed, and as they did the cracks widened. She realized her mistake then and knew that only the right word would save the situation, but she could not get hold of it.
What do your characters dream about? How do they dream? What symbols from the waking world enter their life, and how do these symbols draw out the personalities of your characters to make them come alive on the page?
Writing exercise: include the brief snippet of a dream in a scene. What does it reveal about how the character thinks?
She awoke and saw the same man, the man she had followed and pestered between the cars, sitting across from her.
“You were sleeping.” He smiled slightly at what he had said. “Obviously.”
She had been sleeping with her head hanging forward, like an old woman, and there was a dribble at the corner of her mouth. Also, she realized she had to get to the ladies’ toilet at once. She said, “Excuse me” (just what he had last said to her), took up her case, and, hoping there was nothing on her skirt, walked away with as little self-conscious haste as she could manage.
When she came back, he was still there.
He spoke at once. He said that he wanted to apologize. “It occurred to me that I was rude to you. When you asked me—”
“Yes,” she said.
“You had it right,” he said. “The way you described him.”
This seemed less an offering, on his part, than a direct and necessary transaction. If she did not care to respond, he might just get up and walk away, not particularly disappointed, having done what he’d come to do.
Shamefully, Juliet’s eyes overflowed with tears. This was so unexpected that she did not have time to look away.
“O.K.,” he said. “It’s O.K.”
She nodded quickly, several times, sniffled wretchedly, and blew her nose on the tissue she eventually found in her bag.
“It’s all right,” she said, and then she told him, in a straightforward way, just what had happened. How the man had bent over and asked her if the seat was taken, how he’d sat down, how she’d been looking out the window and how she hadn’t been able to do that any longer, so she had tried or had pretended to read her book, how he had asked where she’d got on the train, and found out where she lived, and kept trying to make headway with the conversation, until she just picked up and left.
The only thing she did not reveal was the expression “chum around.” She had a notion that if she were to say it she would burst into tears all over again.
“People interrupt women,” the man said. “Easier than men.”
“Yes. They do.”
“They think women are bound to be nicer.”
“But he just wanted somebody to talk to,” she said, shifting sides a little. “He wanted somebody worse than I didn’t want somebody. I realize that now. And I don’t look mean. I don’t look cruel. But I was.”
A pause, while she again got her sniffling and her leaky eyes under control.
He said, “Haven’t you ever wanted to do that to anybody before?”
“Yes. But I’ve never done it. I’ve never gone so far. And why I did it this time—it was because he was so humble. And he had all new clothes on that he’d probably bought for the trip. He was probably depressed and thought that travelling would be a good way to meet people and make friends. Maybe if he’d just been going a little way—” she added. “But he said he was going to Vancouver and I would have been saddled with him. For days.”
“I really might have been.”
“Rotten luck,” he said, smiling a very little. “The first time you get up the nerve to give somebody the gears he throws himself under a train.”
“It may have been the last straw,” she said, now feeling slightly defensive. “It may have been.”
“I guess you’ll just have to watch out, in future.”
Juliet raised her chin and looked at him steadily. “You mean I’m exaggerating.”
Then something happened that was as sudden and unbidden as her tears. Her mouth began to twitch. Unholy laughter was rising.
“I guess it is a little extreme,” she said.
He said, “A little.”
“You think I’m dramatizing?”
“But you think it’s a mistake,” she said, her laughter now under control. “You think feeling guilty is just an indulgence?”
“What I think—” he said. “I think that this is minor. Things will happen in your life—things will probably happen in your life—that will make this seem minor. Other things you’ll be able to feel guilty about.”
“Don’t people always say that, though? To somebody who is younger? They say, ‘Oh, you won’t feel that way someday. You wait and see.’ As if you didn’t have a right to any serious feelings. As if you weren’t capable.”
“Feelings,” he said. “I was talking about experience.”
“But you are sort of saying that guilt isn’t any use. People do say that. Is it true?”
“You tell me.”
They went on talking about this for a considerable time, in low voices, but so forcefully that people passing through the car sometimes looked surprised, or even offended, as people can when they overhear debates that seem unnecessarily abstract. Juliet realized, after a while, that though she was arguing—rather well, she thought—for the necessity ofsome sense of guilt in both public and private life, she had stopped feeling any for the moment. You might even have said that she was enjoying herself.
Dialogue, when used well, reveals character (both to the reader and to the characters themselves) and advances story. We can feel, as readers, the attraction between the two through their dialogue: their mutual interests, the way their personalities fit together, their areas of friction, their different levels of experience and power.
Writing exercise: place two characters in a space, and eavesdrop as they talk, writing down what they say. Don’t try to bring it to a close. Let them go on and on. You may not use all of it, but things they say may also surprise you.
He suggested that they go forward, to the lounge, where they could drink coffee. Once there, Juliet discovered that she was quite hungry, though the lunch hours were long over. Pretzels and peanuts were all that could be procured, and she gobbled them up in such a way that the thoughtful, slightly competitive conversation they’d been having before was not retrievable. So they talked instead about themselves.
His name was Eric Porteous. He lived in a place called Whale Bay, somewhere north of Vancouver, on the West Coast. But he was not going directly there; he was breaking the trip in Regina, to see some people he had not seen for a long time. He was a fisherman; he caught prawns. She asked about the medical experience he had referred to, and he said, “Oh, it’s not very extensive. I did some medical study. When you’re out in the bush or on the boat, anything can happen. To the people you’re working with. Or to yourself.”
He was married. His wife’s name was Ann.
Eight years ago, he said, Ann had been injured in a car accident. For several weeks she’d been in a coma. She’d come out of that, but she was still paralyzed, unable to walk or even to feed herself. She seemed to know who he was, and who the woman who looked after her was—with the help of this woman, he was able to keep her at home—but her attempts to talk, and to understand what was going on around her, had soon faded away.
They had been to a party the night she was hurt. She hadn’t particularly wanted to go, but he had. Then she’d decided to walk home by herself, not being very happy with things at the party.
It was a gang of drunks from another party who’d run off the road and knocked her down. Teen-agers.
Luckily, he and Ann had had no children. Yes, luckily.
“You tell people about it and they feel they have to say, ‘How terrible. What a tragedy.’ Et cetera.”
“Can you blame them?” said Juliet, who had been about to say something of the sort herself.
No, he said. But it was just that the whole thing was a lot more complicated than that. Did Ann feel that it was a tragedy? Probably not. Did he? It was something you got used to; it was a new kind of life. That was all.
All of Juliet’s enjoyable experience of men had been in fantasy: one or two movie stars; the lovely tenor—not the virile heartless hero—on a certain old recording of “Don Giovanni”; Henry V, as she’d read about him in Shakespeare and as Laurence Olivier had played him in the movie.
In actual life there had been humiliation and disappointment, which she had tried to push out of her mind as quickly as possible.
Notice how late the introduction of Whale Bay comes into the story. The opening of the story gave us Juliet headed out to this remote environment, but it’s only now that we find out why. To see this character, Eric Porteous. Notice how not-in-a-rush Alice Munro is in giving us this information. Her prime motivation is to explore and reveal and develop character, not necessarily push the chronological plot or timeframe forward. And because of this, we’re allowed to slow down, and linger, in each of these moments. Andre Dubus calls this the different between horizontal and vertical writing. In vertical writing, we go slow, and explore character.
Writing exercise: find a piece of writing you’ve done that rushes toward a plot, or a conclusion. Can you slow down, and focus deeply on character, instead?
There was the experience of being stranded head and shoulders above the gaggle of other unwanted girls at the high-school dances, and making a rash attempt to be lively on college dates with boys she didn’t much like, who did not much like her. Going out with the visiting nephew of her thesis adviser the year before, and being broken into—you couldn’t call it rape; she, too, had been determined to make it happen—late at night on the ground in Willis Park. On the way home, he had explained that she wasn’t his type. And she had felt too humiliated to retort—or even to be aware, at that moment—that he was not hers, either.
She had never had fantasies about a particular, real man—least of all about any of her teachers. Older men—in real life—seemed to her to be slightly unsavory.
This man was how old? He had been married for at least eight years—and perhaps two or three years more than that. Which made him probably thirty-five or thirty-six. His hair was dark and curly with some gray at the sides, his forehead wide and weathered, his shoulders strong and a little stooped. He was hardly any taller than she was. His eyes were wide-set, dark, and eager, but also wary. His chin was rounded, dimpled, pugnacious.
She told him about her job, the name of the school. She told him that she was not a real teacher but that they were glad to get someone who had majored in Greek and Latin at college. Hardly anybody did, anymore.
If you think of a typical conversation between two people, and how much dialogue is contained in it, the question for as as writers becomes, when to share dialogue and when to render it through summary. As we’ve seen, Munro does not shy away from giving us pages and pages of dialogue. However, here, we get all this information summarized. The reason is that Munro is trying to communicate basic information here, not the attraction between the two, as we saw earlier. We get the backstory of her dating history; we get the information she communicates to him, but that is the information Munro wants us to have here, not the specific way in which it’s delivered.
Writing exercise: place two people into conversation. Give us some of the conversation through dialogue, and other parts through summarizing what is said. Mix in the backstory of the point-of-view character you’ve selected.
“So why did you?”
“Oh, just to be different, I guess.”
Then she told him what she had always known she should never tell any man or boy, lest he lose interest immediately.
“And because I love it. I love all this stuff. I really do.”
They ate dinner together—each drinking a glass of wine—and then went up to the observation car, where they sat in the dark, all by themselves. Juliet had brought her sweater this time.
“People must think there’s nothing to see up here at night,” he said. “But look at the stars you can see on a clear night.”
Indeed the night was clear. There was no moon—at least not yet—and the stars appeared in dense thickets, both faint and bright. And, like anyone who has lived and worked on boats, he was familiar with the map of the sky. She was able to locate only the Big Dipper.
“That’s your start,” he said. “Take the two stars on the side of the Dipper opposite the handle. Got them? Those are the pointers. Follow them up, and you’ll find the polestar.” And so on.
He found for her Orion, which he said was the major constellation in the Northern Hemisphere in winter. And Sirius, the Dog Star—at that time of year the brightest star in the northern sky.
Juliet was pleased to be instructed but also pleased when it came her turn to be the instructor. He knew the names but not the history.
She told him that Orion had been blinded by Enopion but got his sight back by looking at the sun. “He was blinded because he was so beautiful, but Hephaestus came to his rescue. Then he was killed anyway, by Artemis, but he got changed into a constellation. It often happened that when really valuable people got into bad trouble they were changed into constellations. Where is Cassiopeia?”
He directed her to a not very obvious W.
“That was on account of beauty, too,” she said.
“Beauty was dangerous?”
“You bet. She was married to the King of Ethiopia and she was the mother of Andromeda. She bragged about her beauty, and for punishment she was banished to the sky. Isn’t there an Andromeda, too?”
Even when guiding her, telling her where to look in the sky, he never touched her. Of course not. He was married.
Here, we get a mix: we get a mix of direct dialogue and summarized dialogue. We get their actions. We get her thoughts. And then we transition back to the opening scene, and continue from there, knowing now why she is here, and what (whom!) she is looking for.
Whale Bay. There is a long dock, a number of large boats, a gas station and store with a sign in the window saying that it is also the bus stop and the post office.
A car parked at the side of this store has in its window a homemade taxi sign. She stands just where she stepped down from the bus. The bus pulls away. The taxi toots its horn. The driver gets out and comes toward her.
“All by yourself?” he says. “Where are you headed for?”
She asks if there is a place where tourists stay. Obviously there isn’t a hotel.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody renting rooms out this year. I could ask them inside. You don’t know anybody around here?”
Nothing to do but say Eric’s name.
“Oh, sure,” he says, with relief. “Hop in, we’ll get you there in no time. But it’s too bad—you pretty well missed the wake.”
At first she thinks that he said “wait.” Or “weight”? She thinks of fishing competitions.
“Sad time,” the driver says, now getting in behind the wheel. “Still, she wasn’t ever going to get any better.”
Wake. The wife. Ann.
“Never mind,” he says. “I expect there’ll still be some people hanging around. Of course, the funeral was yesterday. It was a monster. Couldn’t get away?”
Juliet says, “No.”
“I shouldn’t be calling it a wake, should I? Wake is what you have before you’re buried. I don’t know what you call what takes place after. You wouldn’t want to call it a party, would you? I can just run you up and show you all the flowers and tributes, O.K.?”
Inland, off the highway, after a quarter of a mile or so of rough dirt road, is Whale Bay Union Cemetery. And close to the fence is a mound of earth altogether buried in flowers. Faded real flowers, bright artificial flowers, a little wooden cross with the name and date. Tinselly curled ribbons have blown about, all over the cemetery grass. The driver draws her attention to all the ruts, the mess made by the wheels of so many cars yesterday.
This is the only other aspect of this story that is sometimes criticized: the coincidence and convenience of the wife, Ann, having died right before the arrival of Juliet.
Thinking exercise: what do you think about this? Is it a plot device? Is it not? If you were the author of this story, what would you have done?
“Half of them had never even seen her. But they knew him, so they wanted to come anyway. Everybody knows Eric.”
They turn around, drive back, but not all the way to the highway. Juliet wants to tell the driver that she has changed her mind—she does not want to visit anybody, she wants to wait at the store and catch the bus going the other way. She can say that she really did get the day wrong, and now she is so ashamed of having missed the funeral that she does not want to show up at all.
But she cannot get started. And he will report on her, no matter what.
They are following narrow, winding back roads. Every time they pass a driveway without turning in, there is a feeling of reprieve.
“Well, here’s a surprise,” the driver says, and now they do turn in. “Where’s everybody gone? Half a dozen cars when I drove past an hour ago. Even his truck’s gone. Party over. Sorry—I shouldn’t have said that.”
“If there’s nobody here,” Juliet says eagerly, “I could just go back down.”
“Oh, somebody’s here, don’t worry about that. Ailo’s here. There’s her bike. You ever meet Ailo? You know, she’s the one who took care of things?”
In the paragraphs that follow, pay particular attention to the character of Ailo, and how she speaks to Juliet. How, specifically, can you tell that Ailo doesn’t like her, and doesn’t think she should be around? Note that it will never be spoken directly, but it will be worth, as you read, keeping an notepad and pen handy to note where and when Ailo seems disapproving. We as humans have so many ways of saying things without saying them: how, specifically, does Ailo say things to Juliet without saying them?
As soon as Juliet steps out, a large yellow dog comes bounding and barking, and a woman calls from the porch of the house.
“Aw, go on, Pet,” the driver says, pocketing the fare.
“Shut up. Shut up, Pet. Settle down. She won’t hurt you,” the woman calls. “She’s just a pup.”
Pet’s being a pup, Juliet thinks, does not make her any less likely to knock you down. And now a small reddish-brown dog arrives to join in the commotion. The woman comes down the steps, yelling, “Pet! Corky! You behave. If they think you are scared of them, they will just get after you the worse.”
Her “just” sounds something like “chust.”
“I’m not scared,” Juliet says, jumping back when the yellow dog’s nose touches her arm.
“Come on in, then. Shut up, the two of you, or I will knock your heads. Did you get the day mixed up for the funeral?”
Juliet shakes her head as if to say that she is sorry. She introduces herself.
“Well, it is too bad. I am Ailo.” They shake hands.
Ailo is a tall, broad-shouldered woman with a thick but not flabby body and yellowish-white hair loose over her shoulders. Her voice is strong and insistent, with some rich production of sounds in the throat. A German, Dutch, Scandinavian accent?
“You better sit down here in the kitchen. Everything is in a mess. I will get you some coffee.”
The kitchen is bright, with a skylight in the high, sloping ceiling. Dishes and glasses and pots are piled everywhere. Pet and Corky have followed Ailo meekly into the kitchen, and have started to lap up whatever is in the roasting pan that she has set down on the floor. Beyond the kitchen, up two broad steps, there is a shaded, cavernous sort of living room, with large cushions flung about on the floor.
Ailo pulls out a chair at the table. “Now, sit down. You sit down here and have some coffee and some food.”
“I’m fine without,” Juliet says.
“No. There is the coffee I have just made—I will drink mine while I work. And there are so much things left over to eat.”
She sets before Juliet, with the coffee, a piece of pie, bright green, covered with some shrunken meringue.
“Lime Jell-O,” she says, withholding approval. “Maybe it tastes all right, though. Or there is rhubarb?”
Juliet says, “This is fine.”
“So much mess here. I clean up after the wake, I get it all settled. Then the funeral. Now after the funeral I have to clean up all over again.”
Her voice is full of sturdy grievance. Juliet feels obliged to say, “When I finish this, I can help you.”
“No. I don’t think so,” Ailo says. “I know everything.” She is moving around not swiftly but purposefully and effectively. She continues drying the dishes, putting what she has dried away in cupboards and drawers. Then scraping the pots and pans—including the one she retrieves from the dogs—submerging them in fresh soapy water, scrubbing the surfaces of the table and the counters, wringing the dishcloths as if they were chickens’ necks. And speaking to Juliet, with pauses.
“You are a friend of Ann? You know her from before?”
“No. I think you don’t. You are too young. So why do you want to come to her funeral?”
“I didn’t,” Juliet says. “I didn’t know. I just came by to visit.” She tries to sound as if this were a whim of hers, as if she had lots of friends and wandered about making casual visits.
With singular energy and defiance, Ailo chooses not to reply to this. She lets Juliet wait through several more pots before she speaks.
“You come to visit Eric. You found the right house. Eric lives here.”
“You don’t live here, do you?” Juliet asks, as if this might change the subject.
“No. I do not live here. I live down the hill, with my husband.” The word “husband” carries a weight, of pride and reproach.
Without asking, Ailo refills Juliet’s coffee cup, then her own. She brings a piece of pie for herself. It has a rosy layer on the bottom and a creamy layer on top.
“Rhubarb custard. It has to be eaten or it will go bad. I do not need it, but I eat it anyway. Maybe I get you a piece?”
“No. Thank you.”
“Now. Eric has gone. He will not be back tonight. I do not think so. He has gone to Christa’s place. Do you know Christa?”
Juliet tightly shakes her head.
“Here we all live so that we know the other people’s situations. I do not know what it is like where you live. In Vancouver?” Juliet nods. “In a city. It is not the same. For Eric to be so good to look after his wife he must need help, do you see? I am one to help him.”
Quite unwisely, Juliet says, “But do you not get paid?”
Note the intrusion of the narrator Munro, here. The judgment of “quite unwisely.” This is the narrator making a statement, not the character. Juliet is making this statement as a way to attempt to balance the level of power with Ailo: the narrator steps in to show its effect on Ailo.
Writing exercise: write a paragraph in which you, as the author, step in to contextualize a character’s statement for the reader. Does this make the writing stronger or weaker? What do you think?
“Certain I am paid. But it is more than a job. Also the other kind of help from a woman, he needs that, too. Do you understand what I am saying? Not a woman with a husband, I do not believe in that—it is not nice, that is a way to have fights. First Eric had Sandra, then she has moved away, and now he has Christa. Christa is an artist. She makes things out of wood that you find on the beach. What is it you call that wood?”
“Driftwood,” Juliet says unwillingly. She is paralyzed by disappointment, by shame.
“That is it. She takes them to places and they sell them for her. Big things. Animals and birds but not realist. Not realist?”
“Yes. Yes. Eric has told you this? Would you like more coffee? There is still some in the pot.”
“No. No, thanks. No, he hasn’t.”
“So. Now I have told you. If you have finish, I will take the cup to wash.”
She detours to nudge with her shoe the yellow dog, who is lying on the other side of the refrigerator.
This scene, between Juliet and Ailo, is worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading, even in isolation from the rest of the story. Juliet’s agenda: to stay, to learn more about Eric. Ailo’s agenda: to convince this outsider to leave. Notice how all this is un-stated; both are outwardly polite, and their agendas delivered only in the most seemingly imperceptible ways. Yet it’s clear to both what’s at stake, and clearto both that Juliet staying will have lasting consequences, of which Ailo doesn’t approve.
Writing exercise: put two characters in either a kitchen or a living room (or both), and have each one try to convince the other of something. But don’t let either character ever directly state what it is they’re trying to convince the other to do.
“You got to get up. Lazy girl. Soon we are going home. There is a bus goes back to Vancouver—it goes through at ten after eight,” she says, busy at the sink with her back to Juliet. “You can come home with me, and when it is time my husband will drive you. You can eat with us. I ride my bike—I ride slow so you can keep up. It is not far.”
The immediate future seems set in place so firmly that Juliet gets up without a thought, looks around for her bag. Then she sits down again, but in another chair. This new view of the kitchen gives her resolve.
“I think I’ll stay here,” she says.
“I don’t have anything much to carry. I’ll walk to the bus.”
“How will you know your way? It is a mile.”
“That’s not far.” Juliet wonders about knowing the way, but thinks that, after all, you just have to head downhill.
“He is not coming back, you know,” Ailo says. “Not tonight.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Ailo gives a huge, perhaps disdainful, shrug.
“Get up, Pet. Up.” Over her shoulder she says, “Corky stays here. Do you want her in or out?”
“I guess out.”
“I will tie her up, then, so she cannot follow. She may not want to stay with a stranger.”
Juliet says nothing.
“The door locks when we go out. You see? So if you go out and want to come back in, you have to press this. But when you leave you don’t press. It will be locked. Do you understand?”
“We did not use to bother locking here, but now there are too many strangers.”
This is one of those many moments, when Ailo says, “strangers,” in which she communicates her disapproval of Juliet to Juliet directly.
Writing exercise: have a character say something that seems possibly innocuous, but is clearly directed at another character.
While they were looking at the stars, the train reached Winnipeg, where it stopped for a while. They got out and walked in a wind so cold that it was painful for them to breathe, let alone speak. When they boarded the train again, they sat in the lounge and he ordered brandy.
“Warm us up and put you to sleep,” he said.
He was not going to sleep. He would sit up until he got off at Regina, sometime toward morning.
Most of the berths were already made up, the dark-green curtains narrowing the aisles, when he walked her back to her car. All the cars had names, and the name of hers was Miramichi.
“This is it,” she whispered, in the space between the cars, his hand already pushing the door for her.
“Say goodbye here, then.” He withdrew his hand, and they balanced themselves against the jolting so that he could kiss her thoroughly. When that was finished, he did not let go, but held her and stroked her back, and then began to kiss her all over her face.
But she pulled away. She said urgently, “I’m a virgin.”
“Yes, yes.” He laughed, and kissed her neck, then released her and pushed the door open in front of her. They walked down the aisle until she located her berth. She flattened herself against the curtain, turning, rather expecting him to kiss her again or touch her, but he slid by almost as if they had met by accident.
How stupid, how disastrous. Afraid, of course, that his stroking hand would go farther down and reach the knot she had made, securing the pad to the belt. If she had been the sort of girl who could rely on tampons, this would never have happened.
In these nine paragraphs, above, Munro leaves the present moment to return to a scene on the train. Her ability to move around in space and time, as if from a perspective above it all, in which she can pick and choose what to pick up and write about (or, in her own words, exploring the various life events of a character as “rooms in a house”) allows her to constantly focus on wherever the stakes are the highest, at any particular moment. And then we move back from that memory (although it’s not presented as a memory) to Whale Bay:
And why virgin? When she had gone to such unpleasant lengths, in Willis Park, to insure that that condition would not be an impediment? She had needed to tell him something—she would never be able to tell him that she was menstruating—in case he hoped to carry things further. But how could he have done so, anyway? How, where? In her berth, with so little room and all the other passengers likely still awake around them? Standing up, swaying back and forth, pressed against a door, which anybody could come along and open, in that precarious space between the cars?
So now he could tell someone how he had listened all evening to this fool girl showing off what she knew about Greek mythology, and in the end—when he finally kissed her good night, to get rid of her—she’d started screaming that she was a virgin.
He had not seemed the sort of man to do that, to talk like that, but she could not help imagining it.
She lay awake far into the night, but had fallen asleep by the time the train stopped at Regina.
Left alone, Juliet could explore the house. But she does no such thing. It is twenty minutes, at least, before she can be rid of the presence of Ailo. It isn’t that she is afraid that Ailo will come back to check up on her, or to get something she has forgotten. Ailo is not the sort of person who forgets things, even at the end of a strenuous day. And if she had thought that Juliet would steal anything she would simply have kicked her out.
She is, however, the sort of woman who lays claim to space, particularly to kitchen space. Everything within Juliet’s gaze speaks of Ailo’s occupation, from the potted plants (herbs?) on the windowsill to the chopping block to the polished linoleum.
And when she has finally managed to push away the thought of Ailo, Juliet comes up against Christa. Eric has a woman. Of course he has. Christa. Juliet sees a younger, a more seductive Ailo. Wide hips, strong arms, long hair—all blond with no white—breasts bobbing frankly under a loose shirt. The same aggressive—and, in Christa, sexy—lack of chic. That same relishing way of chewing up and then spitting out her words.
Two other women come into her mind. Briseis and Chryseis. Those playmates of Achilles and Agamemnon. Each of them described as being “of the lovely cheeks.” When her professor had read out the Greek word for it (which she could no longer remember), his forehead had gone quite pink and he’d seemed to be suppressing a giggle. For that moment, Juliet had despised him. So if Christa turns out to be a northern version of Briseis/Chryseis, will Juliet be able to start despising Eric as well?
How will she ever know, if she walks down to the highway and gets on the bus?
The fact is that she never intended to get on that bus. So it seems. With Ailo out of the way, it is easier for her to discover her own intentions. She gets up at last and makes more coffee, then pours it into a mug, not one of the cups that Ailo has put out.
She is too keyed up to be hungry, but she examines the bottles on the counter, which people must have brought for the wake. Cherry brandy, peach schnapps, Tia Maria, sweet vermouth. These bottles have been opened but the contents have not proved popular. The serious drinking has been done from the empty bottles that Ailo has ranged beside the door. Gin and whiskey, beer and wine.
Juliet pours Tia Maria into her coffee, and takes the bottle with her, up the steps into the big living room.
There is no “action,” here: we sit with Juliet as she thinks, as she moves about the house, as she explores the space.
This is one of the longest days of the year. But the trees around here, the big bushy evergreens and the red-limbed arbutus, shut out the light from the descending sun. The windows in the living room are nothing but long slits in the wall, and the darkness has already begun to accumulate. The floor is not finished—old shabby rugs are laid down on squares of plywood—and the room is oddly and haphazardly furnished. A huge leather chair, of the sort that reclines and has a footrest. A couch covered by a ragged patchwork quilt, an ancient television set, and brick-and-plank bookshelves—on which there are no books, only stacks of old National Geographics, with a few sailing magazines and issues of Popular Mechanics.
Ailo obviously has not got around to cleaning up this room. There are smudges of ash where ashtrays have spilled onto the rugs. And crumbs everywhere.
Juliet just sits in the leather chair, adding more Tia Maria as the level of her coffee goes down.
Nothing is much to her liking on this coast. The trees are too large and crowded together and do not have any personality of their own—they simply combine to make a forest. The mountains are too grand and implausible, and the islands that float upon the waters of the Strait of Georgia are too persistently picturesque. This house, too, with its big spaces and slanted ceilings and unfinished wood, is stark and self-conscious.
The dog barks from time to time, but not urgently. Perhaps she just wants to come in and have company. But Juliet has never had a dog—a dog in the house would be a witness, not a companion, and would only make her feel uncomfortable.
Kallipareos. Of the lovely cheeks. Now she has it. The Homeric word is sparkling on her hook. And beyond that she is suddenly aware of all her Greek vocabulary, of everything that has been put in a closet for nearly six months now. Because she was not teaching Greek, she simply put it away.
That is what happens with that kind of thing. You put it away and now and again you look in the closet for something else, and you remember, and you think, Soon. Then after a while it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all.
The thing that was your bright treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not have contemplated, at one time, and now it becomes something you can hardly remember.
That is what happens.
And even if it’s not put away, even if you make your living from it, every day? Juliet thinks of the older teachers at the school, how little most of them care for whatever it is that they teach. Take Juanita, who chose Spanish purely because it goes with her Christian name (she is Irish). You could not say that Spanish is her treasure.
Few people, very few, have a treasure, and if you do you must hang on to it. You must not let yourself be waylaid and have it taken from you.
The Tia Maria has worked in a certain way with the coffee. It has made Juliet feel careless but powerful. It enables her to think that Eric is not so important, after all. He is someone she may dally with. Dally is the word. As Aphrodite did with Anchises. And then one morning she may slip away.
She gets up and finds the bathroom, then comes back and lies down on the couch with the quilt over her—too sleepy to notice Corky’s hair on it, or Corky’s smell.
When she wakes, it is full morning, though only twenty past six by the kitchen clock.
She has a headache. There is a bottle of aspirin in the bathroom—she takes two and washes herself and combs her hair and gets her toothbrush from her bag and brushes her teeth. Then she makes a fresh pot of coffee and eats a slice of homemade bread without bothering to heat or butter it. She sits at the kitchen table. Sunlight, slipping down through the trees, makes coppery splashes on the smooth trunks of the arbutus. Corky begins to bark, and barks for quite a long time, before the truck turns into the yard and silences her.
Juliet hears the door of the truck close, she hears him speaking to the dog, and dread comes over her. She wants to hide somewhere. It’s like the moment at school before the winner of a prize is announced. Only worse, because she has no reasonable hope of winning. And because there will never be another chance so momentous in her life.
When the door opens, she cannot look up. On her knees the fingers of her hands are interwoven, clenched together.
“You’re here,” he says. He is laughing in triumph and admiration, as if at a most spectacular piece of impudence and daring. When he opens his arms, it’s as if a wind had blown into the room and made her look up.
Six months ago, she did not know that this man existed. Six months ago, the man who died under the train was still alive, picking out his clothes for the trip.
She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay.
It turns out that Eric is not as surprised as he pretends. Ailo phoned him last night, to warn him about the strange girl, Juliet, and even offered to check for him whether the girl got on the bus. He thought it somehow right to take the chance that she would do so—to test fate, maybe—but when Ailo phoned to say that the girl had not left he was startled by the joy he felt. Still, he did not come home right away, and he did not tell Christa, though he knew he would have to tell her very soon.
As writers, we’re told to “show,” not tell. But sometimes the reader just needs to be told something. “She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her.” We don’t necessarily know, in this instance, what it is in his voice that lets her know this. It’s enough, for the purposes of this paragraph, to know his intent, and we move on to her standing up, “numb,” how he seems heavier–all the “showing” that helps to continue to bring the characters to life.
All this Juliet absorbs bit by bit in the weeks and months that follow. Some information arrives accidentally, and some as the result of her imprudent probing.
Her own revelation (of non-virginity) is considered minor.
Christa is nothing like Ailo. She does not have wide hips or blond hair. She is a dark-haired, thin woman, witty and sometimes morose, who will become Juliet’s great friend and mainstay during the years ahead—though she will never quite forgo a habit of sly teasing, the ironic flicker of submerged rivalry.
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “Chance” 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?)
- As titles are not copyrightable, write a short work of 55 words that also uses “Chance” as a title, but uses the phrase in a different way than this story. What is the particular resonance of the phrase for your specific story?
- Write a short work of 101 words in which two people meet on a train. Set it in 1965.
- Write a short work of 300 words in which two people meet on a train. Set it in 2019.
- Write a short work of 500 words in which two meet on a plane. Set it in a contemporary period.
- Write a short work of 750 words in which one character meets two other characters, and is repulsed by one in some way, and attracted to another in some way.
- Write a short work of 1,000 words in which one character is going to visit another character, but the other character doesn’t know that the visit is coming.
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which two characters are talking to one another in a kitchen.
- Write a short work of 5,000 words that moves around in chronological time, with the purpose of moving deeper into character, instead of forward in time.
- Write a short work of 7,500 words that uses the same structure as “Chance”: an opening scene in which a character is on a journey to see someone, a middle section that discusses how the two characters met, and then a final section that returns to the journey, and to the meeting of the two characters.
- As you read “Chance,” as yourself what would happen if the time chronology were played with in different ways. Why has Alice Munro structured the sections in the order she has?
- Read “Chance” thinking about the word “chance” in terms of “chance occurrence,” which is how Juliet meets Eric. Also consider other meanings of the title: a “chance” at love, for instance, or a “chance” for a new life.