Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
Alice Munro’s short story “Runaway” first appeared in the New Yorker in 2003 and was later collected in her 2004 collection–also entitled “Runaway”–as the collection’s opening story.
“Runaway” explores the changing relationship between three characters—Carla, Clark, and Sylvia Jamieson–Carla’s failed attempt to change her situation, and the lasting result of that attempt.
The story is a master class in character, setting, dialogue, and point-of-view shifts.
Read “Runaway” at the New Yorker website.
Buy the book “Runaway” online (this collection of short stories also includes “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” all stories we’ll be looking at in this group in the upcoming months, so if this book isn’t yet on your bookshelf, now might be the time!)
Read Jonathan Franzen’s 2004 review of “Runaway.” (It’s less a review of that particular book, more a review of Alice Munro’s work overall, and highly worth both reading and re-reading!)
Craft Lecture: “Reading Like a Writer”
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading of “Runaway,” 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
“The complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” ~Alice Munro
The three principal characters of “Runaway” are Grant, Fiona, Aubrey, and Marian. Each of these characters, at one point or another, acts both as a confidant and as an antagonist to each of the other two.
Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill. It’s her, she thought. Mrs. Jamieson—Sylvia—home from her holiday in Greece. From the barn door—but far enough inside that she could not easily be seen—she watched the road where Mrs. Jamieson would have to drive by, her place being half a mile farther along than Clark and Carla’s.
This opening section–this opening paragraph, and the six paragraphs to come–is a typical Munrovian way to begin a story: we are placed right into the center of action without necessarily knowing who is who or why something is important to one of the characters–in this case, Carla watching for Sylvia’s car.
If it was somebody coming to see them, the car would be slowing down by now. But still Carla hoped. Let it not be her.
It was. Mrs. Jamieson turned her head once, quickly—she had all she could do to maneuver her car through the ruts and puddles the rain had made in the gravel—but she didn’t lift a hand off the wheel to wave, she didn’t spot Carla. Carla got a glimpse of a tanned arm bare to the shoulder, hair bleached a lighter color than it had been before, more white now than silver-blond, and an expression that was both exasperated and amused at her own exasperation—just the way Mrs. Jamieson would look negotiating this road. When she turned her head there was something like a bright flash—of inquiry, of hopefulness—that made Carla shrink back.
Maybe Clark didn’t know yet. If he was sitting at the computer, he would have his back to the window and the road.
But he would have to know before long. Mrs. Jamieson might have to make another trip—for groceries, perhaps. He might see her then. And after dark the lights of her house would show. But this was July and it didn’t get dark till late. She might be so tired that she wouldn’t bother with the lights; she might go to bed early.
On the other hand, she might telephone. Anytime now.
We’re given the tension–and the characters of Carla and Sylvia–but not the context. Within a few pages we’ll learn who Carla is, who Sylvia is, who Clark is, but right now all we have is that something is unsettled.
Writing exercise: go back to one of your past stories and change the opening, using a section from the middle as a short opening. Don’t explain what is happening or who the characters are: let it remain unknown.
This was the summer of rain and more rain.
This is how a lot of writers would have opened the story, this sentence above. What is the advantage of how Munro opened the story? Are there any disadvantages that you can see? How would you have opened it (once you’ve read it)?
They heard it first thing in the morning, loud on the roof of the mobile home. The trails were deep in mud, the long grass soaking, leaves overhead sending down random showers even in those moments when there was no actual downpour from the sky. Carla wore a wide-brimmed old Australian felt hat every time she went outside, and tucked her long thick braid down her shirt.
The weather here helps establish not only the mood of the story, but also the upcoming plot: much of the action of the story is derived from the fact that the rain is preventing people from coming to ride horses, as we see below. Meanwhile, the sentence “Carla wore a wide-brimmed old Australian felt hat every time she went outside, and tucked her long thick braid down her shirt” helps us get a solid visual on the main character, Carla.
Writing exercise: write a short stence so that we can visually see, very specifically, the main character of a piece you’re working on.
Nobody showed up for trail rides—even though Clark and Carla had gone around posting signs at all the campsites, in the cafés, and on the tourist-office bulletin board, and anywhere else they could think of. Only a few pupils were coming for lessons, and those were regulars, not the batches of schoolchildren on vacation or the busloads from summer camps that had kept them going the summer before. And even the regulars took time off for holiday trips, or simply cancelled their lessons because of the weather. If they called too late, Clark charged them anyway. A couple of them had argued, and quit for good.
This section shows us the financial situation Carla and Clark find themselves in, and also begins to foreshadow Clark’s temper and personality: his inability to get along with people.
There was still some income from the three horses that were boarded. Those three, and the four of their own, were out in the field now, poking disconsolately in the grass under the trees. Carla had finished mucking out in the barn. She had taken her time—she liked the rhythm of her regular chores, the high space under the barn roof, the smells. Now she went over to the exercise ring to see how dry the ground was, in case the five-o’clock pupil did show up.
We get here more information on their financial situation, as well as Carla’s current daily routine, and a continued sense of her character–“she liked the rhythm of her regular chores, the high space under the barn roof, the smells.”
Writing exercise: in a single paragraph, show not a character’s financial situation, but what a character is doing, and how that character feels internally about what they are doing. What are the small pleasures that a character enjoys?
Most of the steady showers had not been particularly heavy, but last week there had come a sudden stirring and then a blast through the treetops and a nearly horizontal blinding rain. The storm had lasted only a quarter of an hour, but branches still lay across the road, hydro lines were down, and a large chunk of the plastic roofing over the ring had been torn loose. There was a puddle like a lake at that end of the track, and Clark had worked until after dark digging a channel to drain it away.
On the Web, right now, he was hunting for a place to buy roofing. Some salvage outlet, with prices that they could afford, or somebody trying to get rid of such material, secondhand. He would not go to Hy and Robert Buckley’s Building Supply in town, which he called Highway Robbers Buggery Supply, because he owed them money and had had a fight with them.
Clark often had fights, and not just with the people he owed money to. His friendliness, compelling at first, could suddenly turn sour. There were places in town that he would not go into, because of some row. The drugstore was one such place. An old woman had pushed in front of him—that is, she had gone to get something she’d forgotten and come back and pushed in front, rather than going to the end of the line, and he had complained, and the cashier had said to him, “She has emphysema.” Clark had said, “Is that so? I have piles myself,” and the manager had been summoned to tell him that that remark was uncalled for. And in the coffee shop out on the highway the advertised breakfast discount had not been allowed, because it was past eleven o’clock in the morning, and Clark had argued and then dropped his takeout cup of coffee on the floor—just missing, so they said, a child in its stroller. He claimed that the child was half a mile away and he’d dropped the cup because no sleeve had been provided. They said that he hadn’t asked for a sleeve. He said that he shouldn’t have had to ask.
In this three-paragraph sequence, we continue to see the effect of the rain on the Carla and Clark; we see Clark’s ability to work, “Clark had worked until after dark digging a channel to drain it away; we see his financial constraints as he looks for used building materials, rather than new building materials; but we then move into the Clark’s internal obstacle that Carla deals with in her life–Clark’s temper, shown through specific details and encounters.
“You flare up,” Carla said.
“That’s what men do.”
Notice how these two lines of dialogue are separated from wherever they happened in space and time. We don’t know where or when this exchange happened: all we know is the essence of the conversation: Carla attempts to tell Clark how his behavior is affecting their life. Clark refuses to acknowledge it.
Writing exercise: three paragraphs showing through specific detail a character whose personality causes conflicts with other people, to the detriment of their life. Follow up with a two-line exchange dislocated from any specific scene in time and space: another person attempts to show them this, but the first character brushes it off.
She had not dared say anything about his row with Joy Tucker, whom he now referred to as Joy-Fucker.
The line “whom he now referred to as Joy-Fucker” was removed for the version of the story that appears in the book. In the book’s version, the sentence becomes two sentences. “She had not dared say anything about his row with Joy Tucker. Joy Tucker was the librarian from town who boarded her horse with them.”
But note what remains: “She had not dared.” A recurring theme in this story–which takes on much added weight at the end–is Carla’s fear of Clark.
Joy was the librarian from town who boarded her horse with them, a quick-tempered little chestnut mare named Lizzie. Joy Tucker, when she was in a jokey mood, called her Lizzie Borden. Yesterday, she had driven out, not in a jokey mood at all, and complained about the roof’s not being fixed and Lizzie looking so miserable, as if she might have caught a chill. There was nothing the matter with Lizzie, actually. Clark had even tried—for him—to be placating. But then it was Joy Tucker who flared up and said that their place was a dump, and Lizzie deserved better, and Clark said, “Suit yourself.” Joy had not—or not yet—removed Lizzie, but Clark, who had formerly made the mare his pet, refused to have anything more to do with her.
Although we see more sides of Clark’s character here, “Clark had even tried—for him—to be placating,” and his character is complicated and deepened (as all people are!) we also see his petulance and responses to slights, even when he doesn’t react outwardly: “but Clark, who had formerly made the mare his pet, refused to have anything more to do with her.”
It isn’t just that Clark can be threating verbally (with the accompanying unspoken threat of physical violence, given his physical capabilities), it’s that even when he doesn’t “flare up,” his withdrawals and passive-aggression are something that Carla notices–and, we extrapolate–fears.
Writing exercise: a character responds in a surprising way to something, and that response shows new things about their personality.
The worst thing, as far as Carla was concerned, was the absence of Flora, the little white goat who kept the horses company in the barn and in the fields. There had been no sign of her for two days, and Carla was afraid that wild dogs or coyotes had got her, or even a bear.
She had dreamed of Flora last night and the night before. In the first dream, Flora had walked right up to the bed with a red apple in her mouth, but in the second dream—last night—she had run away when she saw Carla coming. Her leg seemed to be hurt, but she ran anyway. She led Carla to a barbed-wire barricade of the kind that might belong on some battlefield, and then she—Flora—slipped through it, hurt leg and all, just slithered through like a white eel and disappeared.
All of this description of the goat, Flora, and a reminder of Carla’s love for Flora, is designed to build toward the final end. We’ve gotten a description of Flora (and, again, Carla’s love for Flora) earlier in the story, but get it again, here, so that we’re reminded of it.
A lot of short story writers use a rule of three, in which something important, or something that will be important, is mentioned (at least) three times. This keeps it fresh in the reader’s mind.
Writing exercise: find a past story, essay, or long poem that you’ve written. If something at the end is important to the work, have you mentioned it at least twice previously? (Note: you may not need it three times, but it’s good to look at. Is it fresh in the reader’s mind when it needs to be?)
Up until three years ago, Carla had never really looked at mobile homes. She hadn’t called them that, either. Like her parents, she would have thought the term “mobile home” pretentious. Some people lived in trailers, and that was all there was to it. One trailer was no different from another. When she moved in here, when she chose this life with Clark, she began to see things in a new way. After that, it was only the mobile homes that she really looked at, to see how people had fixed them up—the kind of curtains they had hung, the way they had painted the trim, the ambitious decks or patios or extra rooms they had built on. She could hardly wait to get to such improvements herself.
In this above paragraph, and in the subsequent two paragraphs, below, we get a sense of the living space of both Carla and Clark, and the continued tone of entrapment (financially, physically, and in terms of the relationship)
Clark had gone along with her ideas for a while. He had built new steps, and spent a lot of time looking for an old wrought-iron railing for them. He hadn’t complained about the money spent on paint for the kitchen and bathroom or the material for curtains.
What he did balk at was tearing up the carpet, which was the same in every room and the thing that she had most counted on replacing. It was divided into small brown squares, each with a pattern of darker brown, rust, and tan squiggles and shapes. For a long time, she had thought that the same squiggles and shapes were arranged the same way in each square. Then, when she had had more time, a lot of time, to examine them, she decided that there were four patterns joined together to make identical larger squares. Sometimes she could pick out the arrangement easily and sometimes she had to work to see it.
I’ve heard people try to equate these rug-squares with something metaphorical abou the story: in my view, these are just sensory details, letting us experience Carla’s life as she experiences it. We also feel such things as boredom, loneliness, and lots of empty time.
Writing exercise: a character looks at a rug, or wallpaper, or peeling paint, or a sagging porch, and sees all the different details.
She did this at times when Clark’s mood had weighted down all their indoor space. The best thing then was to invent or remember some job to do in the barn. The horses would not look at her when she was unhappy, but Flora, who was never tied up, would come and rub against her, and look up with an expression that was not quite sympathy; it was more like comradely mockery in her shimmering yellow-green eyes.
This above paragraph encapsulates nearly all of the story in one simple paragraph: again, the tension, the feeling of being trapped, the freedom of the barn, her love for Flora, almost a fellow female friend that she can rely on: which makes the death of Flora, later on, at the hands of Clark, feel even more devastating.
Flora had been a half-grown kid when Clark brought her home from a farm where he’d gone to bargain for some horse tackle. He had heard that a goat was able to put horses at ease and he wanted to try it. At first she had been Clark’s pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was as quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love had made them both laugh. But as she grew older she seemed to attach herself to Carla, and in this attachment she was suddenly much wiser, less skittish—she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor. Carla’s behavior with the horses was tender and strict and rather maternal, but the comradeship with Flora was quite different. Flora allowed her no sense of superiority.
“Still no sign of Flora?” she said as she pulled off her barn boots. Clark had posted a “lost goat” notice on the Web.
“Not so far,” he said, in a preoccupied but not unfriendly voice. He suggested, not for the first time, that Flora might have just gone off to find herself a billy.
The description of Clark’s tone, “in a preoccupied but not unfriendly voice,” is key, in this passage: the fact that “not unfriendly” needs to be spelled out shows just how tense Carla is about Clark’s usual tone of voice, a great deal of the time. Also notice the difference in expression between “friendly” and “not unfriendly.”
No word about Mrs. Jamieson.
Carla put the kettle on. Clark was humming to himself as he often did when he sat in front of the computer. Sometimes he talked back to it. “Bullshit,” he might say, replying to some challenge. He laughed occasionally, but rarely remembered what the joke was when she asked him afterward.
Such great character detail, here. The “humming,” the talking back to the computer, the fact that Carla has no idea what he’s doing online, nor does he himself remember (or doesn’t care enough to share.)
Writing exercise: sketch out a character in a few single short strokes.
Carla called, “Do you want tea?” And to her surprise he got up and came into the kitchen.
One of the incredible strengths of the character descriptions in this story is when Clark does something to Carla’s “surprise.” She is constantly surprised whenever he is not tense–which reinforces what her life in this story is usually like.
However, this moment of calm immediately ends:
“So,” he said. “So, Carla.”
“So she phoned.”
“Her majesty. Queen Sylvia. She just got back.”
“I didn’t hear the car.”
“I didn’t ask you if you did.”
Note how character is explored through dialogue, here. It is Clark who chooses the agenda for the conversation. We, as readers, don’t yet know what the subject of the conversation will be about (a common literary technique for heightening tension), but we can see the power imbalance between Clark and Carla by the way he speaks, and by the way she speaks.
“So what did she phone for?”
“She wants you to go and help her straighten up the house. That’s what she said. Tomorrow.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her sure. But you’d better phone up and confirm.”
Carla said, “Why do I have to, if you told her?” She poured their mugs of tea. “I cleaned up her house before she left. I don’t see what there could be to do so soon.”
“Maybe some coons got in and made a mess of it while she was gone. You never know.”
“I don’t have to phone her right this minute. I want to drink my tea and I want to take a shower.”
“The sooner the better.”
Carla took her tea into the bathroom.
“We have to go to the laundromat. When the towels dry out, they still smell moldy.”
“We’re not changing the subject, Carla.”
Even after she’d got in the shower, he stood outside the door and called to her.
“I am not going to let you off the hook, Carla.”
The dialogue continues to show Carla’s attempts to avoid doing whatever it is that Clark wants her to do, and shows Clark’s increasing verbal bullying as he senses this. His direct insistence escalates as she attempts evasion and delay, as opposed to outright refusal–which she feels she cannot safely do.
She thought he might still be standing there when she came out,
This shows her general experience with him,
but he was back at the computer.
And yet another example, in the story, where his behavior is unexpected.
She dressed as if she were going to town—she hoped that if they could get out of there, go to the laundromat, get a takeout at the cappuccino place, they might be able to talk in a different way, some release might be possible. She went into the living room with a brisk step and put her arms around him from behind. But as soon as she did that a wave of grief swallowed her up—it must have been the heat of the shower, loosening her tears—and she bent over him, crumbling and crying.
He took his hands off the keyboard but sat still.
“Just don’t be mad at me,” she said.
“I’m not mad. I hate when you’re like this, that’s all.”
“I’m like this because you’re mad.”
“Don’t tell me what I am. You’re choking me. Go and get control of yourself. Start supper.”
These final lines of dialogue: her attempting to negotiate with him, his direct orders to her. “Start supper.”
Writing exercise: two people in a relationship: one attempting to negotiate and say things in a roundabout way that they don’t feel safe to say directly. The other: bossy, demanding.
That was what she did. It was obvious by now that the five-o’clock person wasn’t coming. She got out the potatoes and started to peel them, but her tears would not stop. She wiped her face with a paper towel and tore off a fresh one to take with her and went out into the rain. She didn’t go into the barn because it was too miserable in there without Flora. She walked along the lane back to the woods. The horses were in the other field. They came over to the fence to watch her, but all except Lizzie, who capered and snorted a bit, had the sense to understand that her attention was elsewhere.
We see Clark’s effect(s) on Carla, here, as well as her own personality.
Writing exercise: follow a lengthy exchange of dialogue with a paragraph showing them doing something. How has the dialogue exchange affected them?
The next several pages in the story (which I’m not reproducing here) involve the complicated subplot that began the story: Carla, it is revealed, had worked as a housecleaner/assistant for Sylvia’s semi-famous husband (a poet), who has since died. Carla had made up a story for Clark that the bedridden husband had made sexual demands. While the stories were untrue, they excited Clark sexually, and Carla felt that these stories relieved the ongoing tension in the house between her and Clark. Clark, however, had a scheme come into his head that they would go to Sylvia and demand money as payment. This is the conversation Carla has been avoiding, and the one Clark wants to have. We read:
In fact, she had dreaded going to the Jamiesons’, but she needed the money, and she felt sorry for Mrs. Jamieson, who seemed so haunted and bewildered, as if she were walking in her sleep. Once or twice, Carla had burst out and done something really silly just to loosen up the atmosphere. The kind of thing she did when clumsy and terrified riders were feeling humiliated. She used to try it, too, when Clark was stuck in his moods. It didn’t work with him anymore. But the story about Mr. Jamieson had worked, decisively.
So we see here again why Carla has made up these stories (again, “to loosen up the atmosphere” between her and Clark), but not seeing the direction that Clark would take it.
After a section break, we switch in Sylvia’s point of view.
At the house there was nothing for Sylvia to do except open the windows. And think—with an eagerness that dismayed without really surprising her—of how soon she could see Carla.
This paragraph is followed by several paragraphs in which we learn that Sylvia has had a crush on Carla, that once Carla kissed Sylvia on top of the head, and that Sylvia hasn’t been able to get that kiss out of her mind. Then we transition to:
The day after Sylvia’s return, she was speaking to Carla about Greece.
Twelve simple words, but they get us from Sylvia’s backstory with Carla to the current day, and the current moment. How often to we as writers feel like we need to walk the character from one house, over to the other house, when often it’s as simple as, “The next day…”
“Where I was, this little tiny village with my two old friends, well, it was the sort of place where the very occasional tourist bus would stop, as if it had got lost, and the tourists would get off and look around and they were absolutely bewildered because they weren’t anywhere. There was nothing to buy.”
The large-limbed, uncomfortable, dazzling girl was sitting there at last, in the room that had been filled with thoughts of her. She was faintly smiling, belatedly nodding.
For the first time since the “Australian hat,” we’re seeing Carla fully from the outside, as opposed to in her point of view. And we’re seeing Carla through the eyes of someone attracted to Carla, seeing her through Sylvia’s point of view as a “large-limbed, uncomfortable, dazzling girl.”
Writing exercise: in a short story with two point-of-view characters, let us see one of the characters through the eyes of the other, and vice-versa.
“And at first I was bewildered, too. It was so hot. But it’s true about the light. It’s wonderful. And then I figured out what there was to do. There were just these few simple things, but they could fill the day. You walk half a mile down the road to buy some oil, and half a mile in the other direction to buy your bread or your wine, and that’s the morning. Then you eat some lunch under the trees, and after lunch it’s too hot to do anything but close the shutters and lie on your bed and maybe read. Later on, you notice that the shadows are longer and you get up and go for a swim. Oh,” she interrupted herself. “Oh, I forgot.”
Sylvia’s character is complicated and brought more fully forward, in this description: we’re not just getting Sylvia’s description of Greece, we’re getting Sylvia’s life experiences, as well, and her character is deepened by the things she does. We experience this silence and solitude along with Sylvia: the bread, the wine, the oil, the long walks, the warm emptiness and silences of her days. We also see the expanded worldview that she has: the sun and warmth contrasts with the rain and coldness (both literal and metaphorical) experienced by Carla.
Writing exercise: one character tells another character about a trip they’ve taken: use this as a way of exploring the character of the person telling the story.
She jumped up and went to get the present she had brought, which in fact she had not forgotten about at all. She had not wanted to hand it to Carla right away—she had wanted the moment to come more naturally, and while she was speaking she had thought ahead to the moment when she could mention the sea, going swimming. And then say, as she now said, “Swimming reminded me of this because it’s a little replica, you know, it’s a little replica of the horse they found under the sea. Cast in bronze. They dredged it up, after all this time. It’s supposed to be from the second century B.C.”
We see how much thought Sylvia has put into how she wants to present the gift. We see the differences in her financial situation and Carla’s. Once again, Carla is in a relationship of unequal power, although the specifics of the situation are different.
Writing exercise: a character goes from one unequal power situation to another.
The following paragraphs, however, complicate this power dynamic:
When Carla had come in and looked around for work to do, Sylvia had said, “Oh, just sit down a minute. I haven’t had anybody to talk to since I got back. Please.”
We see that Carla has something Sylvia needs, after all: Sylvia, like Carla, is lonely, and in need of someone to talk with, someone with whom to have a connection (which will take on additional resonance near the end of the story, in the scene with Clark.)
Writing exercise: a seemingly unequal power dynamic becomes more equal as we see that each character needs something from the other–whether that need is internal or external.
Carla had sat down on the edge of a chair, legs apart, hands between her knees, looking somehow desolate. As if reaching for some distant politeness, she had said, “How was Greece?”
Now she was standing, with the tissue paper crumpled around the horse, which she had not fully unwrapped.
“It’s said to represent a racehorse,” Sylvia said. “Making that final spurt, the last effort in a race. The rider, too—the boy—you can see that he’s urging the horse on to the limit of its strength.”
She did not mention that the boy had made her think of Carla, and she could not now have said why. He was only ten or eleven years old. Maybe the strength and grace of the arm that must have held the reins, or the wrinkles in his childish forehead, the absorption and the pure effort there. It was, in some way, like Carla cleaning the windows last spring. Her strong legs in her shorts, her broad shoulders, her big dedicated swipes at the glass, and then the way she had splayed herself out as a joke, inviting or even commanding Sylvia to laugh.
We’ll see Sylvia’s continued obsession with Carla, in the twenty-one paragraphs that follow, without intertextual comment. We’ll see her increased attempts to keep her in the house, “Let’s have coffee, shall we?” and glimpse more of Sylvia’s backstory in Greece, and how she talked about Carla to her friends–but was unable to find the right definition for how she felt about Carla, feeling “crush” too juvenile a word.
“You can see that,” Carla said, conscientiously now examining the little bronzy-green statue. “Thank you very much.”
“You are welcome. Let’s have coffee, shall we? I’ve just made some. The coffee in Greece was strong, a little stronger than I liked, but the bread was heavenly. Sit down another moment, please do. You should stop me going on and on this way. What about here? How has life been here?”
“It’s been raining most of the time.”
“I can see that. I can see it has,” Sylvia called from the kitchen end of the big room. Pouring the coffee, she decided that she would keep quiet about the other gift she had brought. It hadn’t cost her anything (the horse had cost more than the girl could probably guess); it was only a beautiful small pinkish-white stone that she had picked up on the road.
“This is for Carla,” she had said to her friend Maggie, who was walking beside her. “I know it’s silly. I just want her to have a tiny piece of this land.”
Sylvia had already mentioned Carla to Maggie, and to Soraya, her other friend there—telling them how the girl’s presence had come to mean more and more to her, how an indescribable bond had seemed to grow up between them, and had consoled her in the awful months of last spring.
“It was just to see somebody—somebody so fresh and full of health coming into the house.”
Maggie and Soraya had laughed in a kindly but annoying way.
“There’s always a girl,” Soraya said, with an indolent stretch of her heavy brown arms, and Maggie said, “We all come to it sometime. A crush on a girl.”
Sylvia was obscurely angered by that dated word—“crush.”
“Maybe it’s because Leon and I never had children,” she said. “It’s stupid. Displaced maternal love.”
But the girl was not, today, anything like the Carla that Sylvia had been remembering, not at all the calm, bright spirit, the carefree and generous creature who had kept her company in Greece.
She had been almost sullen about her gift. Almost sullen as she reached out for her mug of coffee.
“There was one thing I thought you would have liked a lot,” Sylvia said energetically. “The goats. They were quite small even when they were full grown. Some spotty and some white, and they were leaping around on the rocks just like—really like the spirits of the place.” She laughed, in an artificial way; she couldn’t stop herself. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d had wreaths on their horns. How is your little goat? I forget her name.”
Carla said, “Flora.”
“Gone? Did you sell her?”
“She disappeared. We don’t know where.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But isn’t there a chance she’ll turn up again?”
No answer. Sylvia looked directly at the girl—something that up to now she had not quite been able to do. She saw that her eyes were full of tears, her face blotchy—in fact, it seemed grubby—and that she was bloated with distress.
The scene changes from its innocence to the deeper realities being revealed: Carla’s terror and sadness about her current relationship. Notice too that it’s only when the goat, Flora, is brought up that this change occurs.
Carla didn’t do anything to avoid Sylvia’s look. She drew her lips tight over her teeth and shut her eyes and rocked back and forth as if in a soundless howl and then, shockingly, she did howl. She howled and wept and gulped for air, and tears ran down her cheeks and snot out of her nostrils, and she began to look around wildly for something to wipe with. Sylvia ran and got handfuls of Kleenex.
Writing exercise: flip the script on a scene halfway through. It was about one thing–then it becomes about another.
“Don’t worry, here you are, here, you’re all right,” she said, thinking that maybe she should take the girl in her arms. But she had not the least wish to do that, and it might make things worse. The girl might feel how little Sylvia wanted to do that, how appalled she was, in fact, by this fit.
Carla said something, said the same thing again.
“Awful,” she said. “Awful.”
“No, it’s not. We all have to cry sometimes. It’s all right, don’t worry.”
And Sylvia could not help feeling that, with every moment of this show of misery, the girl made herself more ordinary, more like one of those soggy students in her—Sylvia’s—office. Some of them cried about their marks—but that was often tactical, a brief, unconvincing bit of whimpering. The less frequent, real waterworks always turned out to have something to do with a love affair, or their parents, or a pregnancy.
Note how fully we are inside Sylvia’s point of view in this scene. Were this scene in Carla’s point of view, it would be very different–much more of Clark, rain, goat, horses, mobile home–but because we’re in Sylvia’s point of view we continue to see Carla from the outside. And we don’t just see Carla, we also see Sylvia seeing Carla–her sudden loss of her “crush” on Carla, how she now sees Carla as just an “ordinary” woman–albeit one that Sylvia will then try to help.
“It’s not about your goat, is it?”
“Then what is it?”
Carla said, “I can’t stand it anymore.”
What could she not stand?
It turned out to be the husband.
Alice Munro relates this dialogue switching between direct dialogue and paraphrasing. In addition to helping move the scene through, paraphrasing allows us as readers to hear Carla’s dialogue the way Sylvia is hearing/interpreting it, as opposed to the way Carla is saying it. We get a little more distance, the way Sylvia is distanced, meaning that two characters are being developed at once, not just one.
He was mad at her all the time. He acted as if he hated her. There was nothing she could do right; there was nothing she could say. Living with him was driving her crazy. Sometimes she thought she already was crazy.
“Has he hurt you, Carla?”
No. He hadn’t hurt her physically. But he hated her. He despised her. He could not stand it when she cried and she could not help crying because he was so mad. She did not know what to do.
“Perhaps you do know what to do,” Sylvia said.
Carla is finding herself in the same kind of situation she is constantly in: talking around an issue, while whoever she’s talking with, Sylvia, in this case, cuts directly to the issue at hand.
Writing exercise: a person changes houses, but their core personality stays the same.
“Get away? I would if I could,” Carla began to wail again. “I’d give anything to get away. I can’t. I haven’t any money. I haven’t anywhere in this world to go.”
“Well. Think. Is that altogether true?” Sylvia said in her best counselling manner. “Don’t you have parents? Didn’t you tell me you grew up in Kingston? Don’t you have a family there?”
Her parents had moved to British Columbia. They hated Clark. When she ran away and got married, they didn’t care if she lived or died.
Brothers or sisters?
One brother, nine years older. He was married and in Toronto. He didn’t care, either. He didn’t like Clark. His wife was a sickening snob.
This is the New Yorker version of the story: in the version of “Runaway” that ended up being collected in the book–revised by Munro–the final line of that paragraph changes to “His wife was a snob,” cutting the word “sickening.” Something to think about: why do you think Munro made that change? Do you think it’s a more effective description with or without the removed word?
Writing exercise: go through your currently completed creative work and remove (or add!) a word.
The subsequent conversation between the two focus on Sylvia–out of love with Carla, and now trying to help her as a friend–trying to find solutions and Carla having to be cajoled and convinced to give them a try.
“Have you ever thought of the women’s shelter?”
“They don’t want you there unless you’ve been beaten up. And everybody would find out and it would be bad for our business.”
Sylvia smiled gently. “Is this a time to think about that?”
Then Carla actually laughed. “I know,” she said. “I’m insane.”
“Listen,” Sylvia said. “Listen to me. If you had the money to go, where would you go? What would you do?”
“I would go to Toronto,” Carla said, readily enough. “But I wouldn’t go near my brother. I’d stay in a motel or something and I’d get a job at a riding stable.”
“You think you could do that?”
“I was working at a riding stable the summer I met Clark. I’m more experienced now than I was then. A lot more.”
“And all that’s stopping you is lack of money?”
Carla took a deep breath. “All that’s stopping me,” she said.
The verbal introduction of money into the scene places their power imbalance out in the open–but also places Sylvia’s ability to help out in the open. Carla (who will get on the bus, but not go through with her runaway attempt) will keep any money Sylvia gives her, even after not going through with the attempt.
Writing exercise: an unspoken power imbalance between two people is brought fully into the open by one of the characters through dialogue.
“All right,” Sylvia said. “Now, listen to what I propose. I don’t think you should go to a motel. I think you should take the bus to Toronto and go to stay with a friend of mine. Her name is Ruth Stiles. She has a big house and she lives alone and she won’t mind having somebody to stay. You can stay there till you find a job. I’ll help you with some money. There must be lots of riding stables around Toronto.”
“So what do you think? Do you want me to phone and find out what time the bus goes?”
Carla said yes. She was shivering. She ran her hands up and down her thighs and shook her head roughly from side to side.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I’ll pay you back. I mean, thank you. I’ll pay you back.”
Ron Howard narrator voice: she won’t.
Sylvia was already at the phone, dialling the bus depot.
Character shown through action: Sylvia is the one making the decisions, making the call (literally!) Carla is the one being convinced, slowly coming around to what is possible.
There follows a great scene in which Sylvia and Carla select clothes for Carla to wear–clothes which Sylvia can no longer fit into, and anyway she doesn’t think she looks very good in them. Carla is delivered to the bus depot, along with her recollections about Clark, but the point of view stays with Sylvia, as she returns home.
Around six o’clock, Sylvia put in a call to Toronto, to Ruth, knowing that Carla probably wouldn’t have arrived yet. She got the answering machine.
“Ruth,” Sylvia said. “Sylvia. It’s about this girl I sent you. I hope she doesn’t turn out to be a bother to you. I hope it’ll be all right. You may find her a little full of herself. Maybe it’s just youth. Let me know. O.K.? O.K. Bye-bye.”
She phoned again before she went to bed but got the machine, so she said, “Sylvia again. Just checking,” and hung up. It was between nine and ten o’clock, not even really dark. Ruth would still be out, and the girl would not want to pick up the phone in a strange house. She tried to think of the name of Ruth’s upstairs tenants. They surely wouldn’t have gone to bed yet. But she could not remember it. And just as well. Phoning them would have been going too far.
She got into bed, but it was impossible, so she took a light quilt and went out to the living room and lay down on the sofa, where she had slept for the last three months of Leon’s life. She did not think it likely that she would get to sleep there, either—there were no curtains on the huge south windows and she could tell by the sky that the moon had risen, though she could not see it.
The next thing she knew she was on a bus somewhere—in Greece?—with a lot of people she did not know, and the engine of the bus was making an alarming knocking sound. She woke to find that the knocking was at her front door.
In a classic Munrovian move, we move back in time, here, and the point of view switches from Sylvia back to Carla:
Carla had kept her head down until the bus was clear of town. The windows were tinted, nobody could see in, but she had to guard herself against seeing out. Lest Clark appear. Coming out of a store or waiting to cross the street, ignorant of her abandonment, thinking this an ordinary afternoon. No: thinking it the afternoon when their scheme—his scheme—had been put in motion, eager to know how far she had got with it.
We’re inside her mind, her consciousness again, and seeing the world the way she sees it.
Once they were out in the country, she looked up, breathed deeply, took account of the violet-tinted fields. Mrs. Jamieson’s presence had surrounded her with a kind of remarkable safety and sanity, had made her escape seem the most rational thing you could imagine—in fact, the only self-respecting thing that a person in Carla’s shoes could do. Carla had felt herself capable of an unaccustomed confidence, even a mature sense of humor. She had revealed her life to Mrs. Jamieson in a way that seemed bound to gain sympathy and yet to be ironic and truthful. And adapted to live up to what, as far as she could see, were Mrs. Jamieson’s—Sylvia’s—expectations.
Note the way the narration moves both inside of her consciousness (in which we see and feel things exactly the way she does) and outside her consciousness into Munro’s authorial voice: “Carla had felt herself capable of an unaccustomed confidence, even a mature sense of humor. She had revealed her life to Mrs. Jamieson in a way that seemed bound to gain sympathy and yet to be ironic and truthful” in which we get Carla’s thoughts, but not necessarily exactly the way she thinks or processes them.
This technique allows us both direct experience of Carla’s consciousness (for instance, thinking of Clark coming “out of a store or waiting to cross the street, ignorant of her abandonment, thinking this an ordinary afternoon”) and Munro’s authorial paraphrasing of that consciousness, which allows scene to move along more quickly than it does when we’re in a purely stream-of-consciousness work of art.
Writing exercise: mix the interior of a character’s consciousness (how they experience the world) with an authorial layer of that character. For example, something like “The daffodils smelled so good, shivering in the morning wind. She must pick some! Janice always liked to have fresh flowers on her kitchen table. It made her feel that life–real life–bloomed in her house, not just the stale walls and comfortable but inert furniture. I need a new pair of clippers, she thought.”
The sun was shining, as it had been for some time. At lunch, it had made the wineglasses sparkle. And there was enough of a wind blowing to lift the roadside grass, the flowering weeds, out of their drenched clumps. Summer clouds, not rain clouds, were scudding across the sky. The whole countryside was changing, shaking itself loose, into the true brightness of a July day. And as they sped along she didn’t see much trace of the recent past—no big puddles in the fields, showing where the seed had washed out, no miserable spindly cornstalks or lodged grain.
We are in Carla’s consciousness, in the paragraph above, contrasted to, in the paragraph below–
It occurred to her that she should tell Clark about this—that perhaps they had chosen what was, for some freakish reason, a very wet and dreary corner of the country, and there were other places where they could have been successful.
–with Munro’s authorial overlaying–“It occured to her that she should tell Clark about this”–with a return to her thoughts the way she thinks them.
The narration continues in this way–moving inside and outside her consciousness–as she decides to get off the bus and return to Clark.
The point of view then shifts again, back to Sylvia, to that night:
The door was not locked. And it occurred to Sylvia that she should be locking it now, not opening it, but it was too late, she had it open.
And nobody there.
Yet she was sure, sure, that the knocking had been real.
She closed the door and this time she locked it.
There was a playful sound, a tinkling tapping sound, coming from the wall of windows. She switched the light on, but saw nothing there, and switched it off again. Some animal—maybe a squirrel? The French doors leading to the patio had not been locked, either. Not even really closed, since she had left them open an inch or so to air the house. She started to close them, and then somebody laughed, close by, close enough to be in the room with her.
“It’s me,” a man said. “Did I scare you?”
He was pressed against the glass of the door; he was right beside her.
“It’s Clark,” he said. “Clark from down the road.”
The progression of this scene, in the eight short paragraphs above, moves us from Sylvia thinking she hears something, to the thought processes she–and anyone–might have when faced with an unfamiliar knocking, to seeing the menace that Clark represents.
Writing exercise: a character hears a knock at the door. Who is it? What do they want?
She was not going to ask him in, but she was afraid to shut the door in his face. He might grab it before she could get it closed. She didn’t want to turn on the light, either. She slept in a T-shirt. She should have pulled the quilt from the sofa and wrapped it around herself, but it was too late now.
In this paragraph, we experience the thoughts as she experiences them, albeit filtered through the authorial narration. But the things that any one of us might feel in this situation are what she feels.
“Did you want to get dressed?” he said. “What I got in here could be the very things you need.”
He had a shopping bag in his hand. He thrust it at her, but did not try to move forward with it.
“What?” she said in a choppy voice.
“Look and see. It’s not a bomb. There, take it.”
She felt inside the bag, not looking. Something soft. And then she recognized the buttons of the jacket, the silk of the shirt, the belt on the pants.
“Just thought you’d better have them back,” he said. “They’re yours, aren’t they?”
She tightened her jaw so that her teeth wouldn’t chatter. A fearful dryness had attacked her mouth and throat.
By playing around with both chronology and point of view, Munro adds extra tension to this scene. Because we’re in the point of view of Sylvia, we feel the threat and the fear as she feels it: because this scene (in many ways replaces) a scene in which Carla returns back to her home, we are as dislocated as Sylvia is.
Writing exercise: looking through existing work, where could the point of view change to heighten the tension? Note: sometimes by making the point of view character the character who has the most to lose in any given situation (for example, in this scene Sylvia is the one who most feels at risk), it increases the natural tension in our work.
“I understood they were yours,” he said.
Her tongue moved like a wad of wool. She forced herself to say, “Where’s Carla?”
“You mean my wife Carla?”
Whenever Munro uses direct dialogue, it both advances story and reveals character. Here, we see Clark using the understated “I understood they were yours” to add menace to his speech. This isn’t a casual drop-by, nor is it friendly. Her immediate reference to Carla shows where her concern his, and his immediate re-framing of Carla from “Carla” to “my wife Carla” attemps to establish possession and control in the conversation. Were this dialogue to be paraphrased in this instance, we could lose some of these details.
Writing exercise: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Two people having a conversation. What is each attempting to accomplish in the conversation?
Now she could see his face more clearly. She could see how he was enjoying himself.
“My wife Carla is at home in bed. Where she belongs.”
The repetition of the possessive “my wife.” The delivery of the message Clark has come to deliver. “Where she belongs.” Then, we move back into Sylvia’s consciousness:
He was both handsome and silly-looking. Tall, lean, well built, but with a slouch that seemed artificial. A contrived, self-conscious air of menace. A lock of dark hair falling over his forehead, a vain little mustache, eyes that appeared both hopeful and mocking, a boyish smile perpetually on the verge of a sulk.
She had always disliked the sight of him—she had mentioned her dislike to Leon, who said that the man was just unsure of himself, just a bit too friendly. The fact that he was unsure of himself would not make her any safer.
Writing exercise: move from dialogue into the consciousness of one of the two characters in order to frame and supplement the outward dialogue. This is an advantage available to us as writers that isn’t available to playwrights or screenwriters, in which everything must be shown or spoken outwardly.
“Pretty worn out,” he said. “After her little adventure. You should have seen your face—you should have seen the look on you when you recognized those clothes. What did you think? Did you think I’d murdered her?”
Note the way that Clark talks: the dismissiveness of “her little adventure,” followed by his renewed aggression. The dialogue then renews:
“I was surprised,” Sylvia said.
“I bet you were. After you were such a big help to her running away.”
“I helped her—” Sylvia said with considerable effort. “I helped her because she seemed to be in distress.”
“Distress,” he said, as if examining the word. ‘‘I guess she was. She was in very big distress when she jumped off that bus and got on the phone to me to come and get her. She was crying so hard I could hardly make out what it was she was saying.”
“She wanted to come back?”
“Oh, yeah. You bet she wanted to come back. She was in real hysterics to come back. She is a girl who is very up and down in her emotions. But I guess you don’t know her as well as I do.”
“She seemed quite happy to be going.”
“Did she really? Well, I have to take your word for it. I didn’t come here to argue with you.”
Sylvia said nothing.
“Actually, I came here not just to return those clothes. I came here to tell you that I don’t appreciate you interfering in my life with my wife.”
“She is a human being,” Sylvia said, though she knew that it would be better if she could keep quiet. “Besides being your wife.”
“My goodness, is that so? My wife is a human being? Really? Thank you for the information. But don’t try getting smart with me. Sylvia.”
“I wasn’t trying to get smart.”
“Good. I’m glad you weren’t. I don’t want to get mad. I just have a couple of important things to say to you. One thing—that I don’t want you sticking your nose in anywhere, anytime, in my life. Another—that I’m not going to want her coming around here anymore. Not that she is going to want to come, I’m pretty sure of that. She doesn’t have too good an opinion of you at the moment. And it’s time you learned how to clean your own house. Now—” he said. “Now. Has that sunk in?”
“Oh, I really hope it has. I hope so.”
Sylvia said, “Yes.”
“And you know what else I think?”
“I think you owe me something.”
“I think you owe me—you owe me an apology.”
Sylvia said, “All right. If you think so. I’m sorry.”
Sylvia is attempting to accomplish multiple things in this conversation: she’s trying to feel out if Carla is safe, and she’s simultaneously trying to feel out whether she, herself, is safe. This requires her to say things she might not say where she at a crowded restaurant, say, or some other place where she felt she could speak her mind. Dialogue doesn’t happen in a vacuum: how people speak is very often dictated by the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Writing exercise: two characters in a place in which one of them feels unsafe. How does that affect how they speak?
And then, the scene shifts: from combativeness and danger, we’ll move, as readers, into a scene in which Sylvia and Clark find connection with one another, in a surprisingly astonishing way:
He shifted, perhaps just to put out his hand, and with the movement of his body she shrieked.
He laughed. He put his hand on the doorframe to make sure she didn’t close it.
“What’s what?” he said, as if she were trying out a trick and it would not work. But then he caught sight of something reflected in the window, and he snapped around to look.
Not far from the house was a wide shallow patch of land that often filled up with night fog at this time of year. The fog was there tonight, had been there all this while. But now the fog had changed. It had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First, a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then it condensed itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hellbent, something like a giant unicorn rushing at them.
“Jesus Christ,” Clark said softly. He grabbed hold of Sylvia’s shoulder. This touch did not alarm her at all—she accepted it with the knowledge that he did it either to protect her or to reassure himself.
Then the vision exploded. Out of the fog, and out of the magnifying light—now revealed to be that of a car travelling along this back road, probably in search of a place to park—out of this appeared a white goat. A little dancing white goat, hardly bigger than a sheepdog.
Clark let go. He said, “Where the Christ did you come from?”
“It’s your goat,” Sylvia said. “Isn’t it your goat?”
“Flora,” he said. “Flora.”
The goat had stopped a yard or so away from them, had turned shy, and hung her head.
“Flora,” Clark said. “Where the hell did you come from? You scared the shit out of us.”
Flora came closer but still did not look up. She butted against Clark’s legs.
“Goddam stupid animal,” he said shakily.
“She was lost,” Sylvia said.
“Yeah. She was. Never thought we’d see her again, actually.”
Flora looked up. The moonlight caught a glitter in her eyes.
“Scared the shit out of us,” Clark said to her. “We thought you were a ghost.”
“It was the effect of the fog,” Sylvia said. She stepped out of the door now, onto the patio. Quite safe.
“Then the lights of that car.”
“Like an apparition,” he said, recovering. And pleased that he had thought of this description.
“The goat from outer space. That’s what you are. You are a goddam goat from outer space,” he said, patting Flora. But when Sylvia put out her hand to do the same Flora immediately lowered her head as if preparing to butt.
“Goats are unpredictable,” Clark said. “They can seem tame but they’re not really. Not after they grow up.”
“Is she grown up? She looks so small.”
“She’s as big as she’s ever going to get.”
They stood looking down at the goat, as if hoping that she would provide them with more conversation. But she apparently was not going to. From this moment, they could go neither forward nor back. Sylvia believed that she might have seen a shadow of regret in his eyes that this was so.
But he acknowledged it. He said, “It’s late.”
“I guess it is,” Sylvia said, just as if this had been an ordinary visit.
“O.K., Flora. Time for us to go home.”
“I’ll make other arrangements for help if I need it,” she said. “I probably won’t need it now, anyway.” She added lightly, “I’ll stay out of your hair.”
“Sure,” he said. “You’d better get inside. You’ll get cold.”
“Good night,” she said. “Good night, Flora.”
The phone rang then.
It was Ruth.
“Ah,” Sylvia said. “A change in plans.”
She did not sleep, thinking of the little goat, whose appearance out of the fog seemed to her more and more magical. She even wondered if, possibly, Leon could have had something to do with it. If she were a poet, she would write a poem about something like this. But in her experience the subjects that she thought a poet would write about had not appealed to Leon, who was—who had been—the real thing.
This scene of the goat returning–although it will return in a deadly, damaging way at the finale of the story–transforms the scene with Sylvia and Clark. The tension between them breaks, as noted: they find connection between themselves as humans: the connection that Sylvia has been seeking for the entire story is found with the most improbable of characters–Clark. Sylvia isn’t feeling fear, anymore: she’s feeling a sense of wonder, almost seemingly of delight.
Writing exercise: interrupt an uncomfortable or dangerous scene between two people with something seemingly magical, or miraculous. How does it affect the two?
Then, we have a final point-of-view shift, and we finish the story in Carla’s point of view, as Carla is the one who makes the final, devastating discovery:
Carla had not heard Clark go out, but she woke when he came in.
He told her that he had just been checking around the barn.
“A car went along the road a while ago, and I wondered what it was doing here. I couldn’t get back to sleep till I went out and checked whether everything was O.K.”
“So, was it?”
“Far as I could see. And then while I was up,” he said, “I thought I might as well pay a visit up the road. I took the clothes back.”
Carla sat up in bed.
“You didn’t wake her up?”
“She woke up. It was O.K. We had a little talk.”
‘‘It was O.K.”
“You didn’t mention any of that stuff, did you?”
“I didn’t mention it.”
“It really was all made up. It really was. You have to believe me. It was all a lie.”
“You have to believe me.”
“Then I believe you.”
“I made it all up.”
He got into bed.
“Did you get your feet wet?” she said.
He turned to her.
“Come here,” he said. “When I read your note, it was just like I went hollow inside. It’s true. I felt like I didn’t have anything left in me.”
We see the reconciliation between the two, but we also see the danger on which it is founded. Nothing has really changed, and in fact, Clark has worsened, now lying by omission about having found Flora. He knows how much Flora means to Carla, yet he doesn’t tell her he found her. And indeed, later we’ll find out that he killed the goat.
Writing exercise: a character doesn’t tell another character something. Why? What are they hiding?
The final section of the story:
The bright weather had continued. On the streets, in the stores, in the post office, people greeted each other by saying that summer had finally arrived. The pasture grass and even the poor beaten crops lifted up their heads. The puddles dried up, the mud turned to dust. A light warm wind blew and everybody felt like doing things again. The phone rang. Inquiries about trail rides, about riding lessons. Summer camps cancelled their trips to museums, and minivans drew up, loaded with restless children. The horses pranced along the fences, freed from their blankets.
In the way that the rain governed the first sections of the story, the rain now departs. Their finances improve…
Clark had managed to get hold of a piece of roofing at a good price. He had spent the whole first day after Runaway Day (that was how they referred to Carla’s bus trip) fixing the roof of the exercise ring.
…they seem to be on better footing in their relationship, albeit the power imbalance remains. They are in a lull in the storm. Carla’s actions are still referred to deprecatingly. She refers to her own self in the same way, as they both call her attempt to leave “Runaway Day”…
For a couple of days, as they went about their chores, he and Carla would wave at each other. If she happened to pass close to him and there was nobody else around, Carla might kiss his shoulder through the light material of his summer shirt.
…yet she feels like things might be getting better…
“If you ever try to run away on me again I’ll tan your hide,” he said to her, and she said, “Who are you now—Clint Eastwood?”
Then she said, “Would you?”
“Tan my hide?”
…and we get a piece of information placed so innocuously that our eyes, as readers, drift right over it:
Birds were everywhere. Red-winged blackbirds, robins, a pair of doves that sang at daybreak. Lots of crows, and gulls on reconnoitering missions from the lake, and big turkey buzzards that sat in the branches of a dead oak about half a mile away, at the edge of the woods. At first they just sat there, drying out their voluminous wings, lifting themselves occasionally for a trial flight, flapping around a bit, then composing themselves, to let the sun and the warm air do their work. In a day or so, they were restored, flying high, circling and dropping to earth, disappearing over the woods, coming back to rest in the familiar bare tree.
The genius of this section is that we as readers think we’re just getting a montage paragraph of time passing through descriptions of birds. And we are: but a seed needed for the ending is being planted here. Note the attention paid to the “big turkey buzzards” (birds who flock near where there is a recently deceased animal), and how they stay for at least “a day or so” in that area.
This small, seemingly innocuous, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it section takes on deep and frightening resonance in the final paragraphs of the story.
Writing exercise: plant the seed for the ending somewhere in a story. Write it so that it doesn’t call attention to itself.
Lizzie Borden’s owner—Joy Tucker—showed up again, tanned and friendly. She had got sick of the rain, and gone off on her holidays to hike in the Rocky Mountains. Now she was back. Perfect timing.
She and Clark treated each other warily at first, but they were soon joking as if nothing had happened.
“Lizzie looks to be in good shape,” she said. “But where’s her little friend?”
“Gone,” Clark said. “Maybe she took off to the Rocky Mountains.”
“Lots of wild goats out there. With fantastic horns.”
“So I hear.”
Everything seems to be going so well. They seem to be on solid relationship footing. Even their earlier antagonist Joy Tucker has returned “tanned and friendly”! But another seed is being planted: we get a key scene of Clark pretending that he doesn’t know what happened to Flora.
Writing exercise: a character says something to someone else we know to be a lie.
For three or four days they had been too busy to go down and look in the mailbox. When Carla opened it, she found the phone bill, a promise that if they subscribed to a certain magazine they could win a million dollars, and Mrs. Jamieson’s letter.
What follows is Sylvia Jamieson’s letter to Carla. Note where the letter is given directly, and where it is paraphrased. Not as a writing exercise, but perhaps as a thinking exercise, ask yourself why certain sections of the letter are directly quoted, and certain sections are paraphrased!
My Dear Carla, I have been thinking about the (rather dramatic) events of the last few days and I find myself talking to myself, but really to you, so often that I thought I must speak to you, even if—the best way I can do now—only in a letter. And don’t worry—you do not have to answer me.
Mrs. Jamieson went on to say that she was afraid she had involved herself too closely in Carla’s life and had made the mistake of thinking somehow that Carla’s freedom and happiness were the same thing. All she cared for was Carla’s happiness, and she saw now that she—Carla—had found that in her marriage. All she could hope was that perhaps Carla’s flight and turbulent emotions had brought her true feelings to the surface, and perhaps a recognition in her husband of his true feelings as well.
She said that she would perfectly understand if Carla wished to avoid her in the future and that she would always be grateful for Carla’s presence in her life during such a difficult time.
The strangest and most wonderful thing in this whole string of events seems to me the reappearance of Flora. In fact, it seems rather like a miracle. Where had she been all that time and why did she choose just that moment to reappear? I am sure your husband has described it to you. We were talking at the patio door, and I—facing out—was the first to see this white something, descending on us out of the night. Of course it was the effect of the ground fog. But truly terrifying. I think I shrieked out loud. I had never in my life felt such bewitchment, in the true sense. I suppose I should be honest and say fear. There we were, two adults, frozen, and then out of the fog comes little lost Flora. There has to be something special about this. I know, of course, that Flora is an ordinary little animal and that she probably spent her time away getting herself pregnant. In a sense, her return has no connection at all with our human lives. Yet her appearance at that moment did have a profound effect on your husband and me. When two human beings divided by hostility are both, at the same time, mystified by the same apparition, there is a bond that springs up between them, and they find themselves united in the most unexpected way. United in their humanity—that is the only way I can describe it. We parted almost as friends. So Flora has her place as a good angel in my life and perhaps also in your husband’s life and yours. With all my good wishes, Sylvia Jamieson
As soon as Carla had read this letter she crumpled it up. Then she burned it in the sink. The flames leaped up alarmingly and she turned on the tap, then scooped up the soft disgusting black stuff and put it down the toilet, as she should have done in the first place.
Everything that has come before is now turned on its head: Clark has killed the goat, Flora, to punish Carla for attempting to run away. The seed planted earlier with the Joy Tucker scene (that Clark doesn’t necessarily flare up publically in order to punish someone) is fully developed here. The threat of physical violence that has been under the surface of the story since the beginning, has surfaced.
Remember how much Carla loved the goat. And now she’s forced to come face-to-face with what Clark has done: but look at what she does, instead:
She was busy for the rest of that day, and the next, and the next. During that time, she had to take two parties out on the trails, she had to give lessons to children, individually and in groups. At night when Clark put his arms around her—he was generally in good spirits now—she did not find it hard to be coöperative. She dreamed of things that were of no importance, that made no sense.
She pushes it down: she doesn’t think about it:
It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.
Note how the abstract (her fear of Clark, and her awareness of what he has done) is shown through specific, concrete detail, “a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs” so that we have to feel it in a sensory way in our own bodies, the way she does.
Writing exercise: show a character’s internal feeling by comparing it to something that can be felt. A coin, a needle, cardboard, a feather, a rock, a napkin.
Sylvia Jamieson had taken an apartment in the college town where she taught. The house was not up for sale—or at least there wasn’t a sign out in front of it. Leon Jamieson had got some kind of posthumous award—news of this was in the papers. There was no mention of any money.
Many writers would simply elide this part, but Munro lets us know where Sylvia has ended up, as the story reaches its closing: six paragraphs of Carla, and how she chooses to deal with what she now knows:
As the dry golden days of fall came on—an encouraging and profitable season—Carla found that she had got used to the sharp thought that had lodged inside her. It wasn’t so sharp anymore; in fact, it no longer surprised her. She was inhabited now by an almost seductive notion, a constant low-lying temptation.
She had only to raise her eyes, she had only to look in one direction, to know where she might go. An evening walk, once her chores for the day were finished. To the edge of the woods, and the bare tree where she had seen the buzzards.
Where she might find the little dirty bones in the grass. The skull, with shreds of bloodied skin still clinging to it, that she could settle in one hand. Knowledge in one hand.
Or perhaps not.
Suppose something else had happened. Suppose he had chased Flora away, or tied her in the back of the truck and driven some distance and let her loose. Taken her back to the place they’d got her from. Not to have her around, reminding them of this bad time.
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “Runaway” 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 uses “Runaway” 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?
- Take out a letter! Write a short work of 101 words with the title “Runway,” “Run,” “Away,” or “Way.” How can this title be used to frame and supplement the story you end up writing?
- Write a short work of 300 words in which one person is afraid of another person, but, like Carla, doesn’t let themself feel that fear for whatever reason.
- Write a short work of 500 words in which two neighbors come into conflict, of some kind.
- Write a short work of 750 words in which one character tries to help another, but it doesn’t go well–or does it?
- Write a short work of 1,000 words in which one character is constantly getting into arguments with other people. How does this positively or negatively impact their life, during the course of the story?
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which one character’s spouse or partner is constantly constantly getting into arguments with other people. How does this positively or negatively impact their life, during the course of the story?
- Write a short work of 5,000 words that has a section in which one character goes to a foreign country (whatever that means, in the context of the story) and returns and tells about it. What does this telling show about the character? What does it show about the listener?
- Write a short work of 7,500 words in which rain plays a role of some kind in the story. In “Runaway,” the rain serves both a literal reason that Carla feels isolated and poor and as a metaphor for this sense of oppressive, trapped feeling she has. You might look at such other stories as Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain” or even the full Ken Kesey or Tom Robbins novels “Sometimes a Great Notion” or “Another Roadside Attraction” for other angles on how rain can be used both literally and metaphorically.
Read “Runaway” looking through it for point-of-view changes. Sometimes (mostly) we’re in Carla’s point of view, and sometimes we’re in Sylvia’s point of view. Where does it change, and why? Would you do it the same way? Why or why not?