Reading As a Writer: The Bear Came Over the Mountain

Alice Munro

Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
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Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” first appeared in the New Yorker in 1999. A revised version was collected in Munro’s 2001 collection “Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage” as the collection’s culminating story.

Filmmaker Sarah Polley (you may remember her as Ramona, from the television series) adapted it in 2006 into a feature film under the title “Away From Her,” starring Olympia Dukakis, Gordon Pinsent, and Julia Christie.

The heart of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is the changing relationship of two characters—Fiona and Grant—over more than half a century. And yet. It moves outward, and even inward, from there.

Read “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” at the New Yorker website.
Print “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as a .pdf document.
Read Jonathan Franzen’s 2004 review of Alice Munro’s collection “Runaway,” which includes discussion of her earlier work, including “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”

“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
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The four principal characters of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” are Grant, Fiona, Aubrey, and Marian. Each one, at one point or another, acts as an antagonist to each of the others. The rich structure of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”–there are twenty-seven individual sections!–both frames and supplements the actions of these four characters.

  1. Fiona’s early years, her home life, her getting together with Grant. (275-276)
  2. Fiona and Grant, over a half century later, are leaving for an adult rest home called Meadowlake, where Fiona will stay. (276-277)
  3. Fiona’s progressively worsening condition the year prior. Her notes to herself to aid with her forgetfulness; her wandering from a store and her subsequent conversation with a police officer. (277-279)
  4. Fiona and Grant having a conversation that same evening. (279-280). Note: this scene does not appear in the original New Yorker version of the story.
  5. Driving to Meadowlake, Grant and Fiona remember a moment they’d shared together in moonlight. (280)
  6. A supervisor explaining that new Meadowlake residents cannot be visited during their first thirty days. (280-281).
  7. Grant mentally juxtaposes his earlier visit to Meadowlake with his current visit to Meadowlake, and waits the thirty days by calling Meadowlake—and a nurse, Kristy—every so often, trying to imagine Fiona’s life there. (281-283).
  8. Grant’s home life, alone, and his remembrances of their home life together. (283-284).
  9. Grant dreams about affairs with other women he had in real life. (284-285).
  10. Grant awakens from dream and thinks about the reality of the affairs, not the dream of them. (285-287).
  11. Grant goes to visit Fiona at Meadowlake after the thirty-day transition period is over; he finds that Fiona has become close to a man named Aubrey, effectively replacing Grant. (287-292).
  12. Grant thinks about Fiona and Aubrey and asks Kristy about them. (292).
  13. A montage scene of various Grant visits to Meadowlake and talking with Kristy about Fiona and Aubrey. The relationship between Fiona and Aubrey. (292-294).
  14. A second montage scene of Grant’s visits. The relationship between Fiona and Aubrey. (294-296).
  15. Grant imagines a teenage date between Fiona and Aubrey. (296). Note: this scene also does not appear in the original New Yorker version of the story.
  16. Grant visits Meadowlake, and observes Fiona and Aubrey. (296-299).
  17. Grant at Meadowlake, talking with Kristy; residents who slip farther mentally are moved to the “second floor.” (299-300).
  18. Grant in a bookstore, browsing a book about Iceland (300-301). Note: this scene also does not appear in the original New Yorker version of the story.
  19. Grant remembers his affairs in detail. (301-303).
  20. Grant brings Fiona the book about Iceland, and learns that Aubrey has been taken home by his wife. (303-306.)
  21. Grant drives to see the wife, Marian, at her home. (306-307)
  22. Fiona’s grief at losing Aubrey. (307-309)
  23. The introduction of the possibility that Fiona will need to be moved to the second floor, because of her grief at Aubrey’s absence. (309).
  24. Grant at Marian’s house, trying and convince her to allow him, Grant, to take Aubrey to Meadowlake, periodically, for visits. Note: this is the longest scene of the story. (309-317)
  25. Grant drives home thinking about Marian, Aubrey, Fiona, and himself. (317-318).
  26. Grant, at home, thinking about Marian; she calls him twice, to ask him to a dance. (318-322).
  27. Grant brings Aubrey to see Fiona at Meadowlake. (322-323).

Let’s dive right in! We begin with a very short scene that introduces us to Fiona and to her parents, and to Grant–who will be the viewpoint character.

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish.

We’re set up right away in Grant’s point of view, and in a third-person-limited perspective. The details we get throughout the story will all be filtered through Grant’s point of view, and we’re cued to this perspective in the second sentence—“that seemed to Grant”. Once Munro has made this contract with us, between herself as writer and us as reader, she doesn’t waver from it. The entire story is narrated in the third-person-limited point of view of Grant. There are ways to shift this change in perspective, as detailed in the Foundational Elements of Creative Writing article, which involve signaling to the reader that a change is coming, or is occurring. But in this story Munro uses only Grant’s point of view.

Writing exercise: Re-write the above sentences in Fiona’s point of view. What does she think about her parents, as opposed to Grant?

Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.

We get Fiona’s mother both visually and through Grant’s perspective on her politics. We also get–in this very first paragraph–the introduction of the white hair motif, which will surface again as Fiona’s hair also turns white, and then when she cuts it.

Writing exercise: describe a mother character using both a physical feature and a political feature.

The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absentminded smile.

The judgment here, that the father (un-named, just like the mother) is an “important cardiologist,” is Grant’s judgment. We are so close to his consciousness in this story that we need to remember that the judgments are not Munro’s own as author, but are Grant’s as character. Hence, the abstract judgments being made. Notice as well, the brief details that develop the father’s character: revered yet “happily subservient,” the “absentminded smile.” We get the sense of the father both inside and outside the home.

Writing exercise: describe a father character through both their work life and their home life.

Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason.

The probably, here, is Grant’s point of view. He is the one who thinks these thoughts: we’re reminded that Munro has chosen to tell the story from his perspective.

Writing exercise: describe a character through two things they have, and one thing they don’t have.

Not that she cared. Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. 

We get a sense of Fiona’s character, here. She doesn’t care for politics–she thinks it’s a joke–but she’ll willingly play political music as a prank. She makes fun of her suitors. She makes fun of Grant’s “small-town” phrases. This is a key line, establishing Grant’s own background–small-town, with the implication also being economically poorer, relative to Fiona–and will come into play in his relationship with Marian, at the end of the story.

Writing exercise: show a character doing something that they only do when guests come over. What is this thing? Why do they do it?

He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet. “Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”

She proposes to him, and he thinks she’s joking. Notice the way she proposes, the sense of fun and spark that she has. The sense of adventure.

Writing exercise: show a “non-traditional” wedding proposal. What does this reveal about the characters?

He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.

We get Grant’s perspective on her, and the sense of their relationship at that time–all in a few short paint strokes. In this brief section we’ve gotten her background and personality, her parent’s personalities, and Grant’s own “small-town” background. And more than fifty years passes in the white space between this section and the next one:

Just before they left their house Fiona noticed a mark on the kitchen floor. It came from the cheap black house shoes she had been wearing earlier in the day.

We are unaware, as readers, where we are in time or space. We’re dislocated. We’ve been dropped into a brand-new scene, as if a new story.

Writing exercise: write two scenes featuring the same characters–that are fifty years apart.

“I thought they’d quit doing that,” she said in a tone of ordinary annoyance and perplexity, rubbing at the gray smear that looked as if it had been made by a greasy crayon.

The details make this scene come alive: the “gray smear” that resembles a “greasy crayon.” her “cheap black house shoes.” What does the adjective “cheap” signify? We know–or at least we think we know–that they have money, which means this reveals their thrift, and practicality.

Writing exercise: show a character by describing their shoes.

She remarked that she’d never have to do this again, since she wasn’t taking those shoes with her.

We are hearing her words they way Grant would hear them, and they’re being paraphrased for us, as readers.

Writing Exercise: paraphrase something that a character says. Don’t let us hear it directly, but through the point of view character paraphrasing it.

“I guess I’ll be dressed up all the time,” she said. “Or semi-dressed up. It’ll be sort of like in a hotel.”

Through direct dialogue, we hear her thoughts on the place she is going–which, at this point in the story, we don’t know, as readers.

Writing Exercise: have a character describe, in dialogue, something about a place they are going, that they have never been before.

She rinsed out the rag she’d been using and hung it on the rack inside the door under the sink. Then she put on her golden-brown, fur-collared ski jacket, over a white turtleneck sweater and tailored fawn slacks. She was a tall, narrow-shouldered woman, seventy years old but still upright and trim, with long legs and long feet, delicate wrists and ankles, and tiny, almost comical-looking ears. Her hair that was as light as milkweed fluff had gone from pale blond to white somehow without Grant’s noticing exactly when, and she still wore it down to her shoulders, as her mother had done. (That was the thing that had alarmed Grant’s own mother, a small-town widow who worked as a doctor’s receptionist. The long white hair on Fiona’s mother, even more than the state of the house, had told her all she needed to know about attitudes and politics.) But otherwise Fiona, with her fine bones and small sapphire eyes, was nothing like her mother. She had a slightly crooked mouth, which she emphasized now with red lipstick—usually the last thing she did before she left the house.

The details continue to establish character, and movement: the “golden-brown, fur-collared ski jacket, over a white turtleneck sweater and tailored fawn slacks” shows us much about her socio-economic status, personality, and age, even before we get to the line “She was a tall, narrow-shouldered woman, seventy years old but still upright and trim, with long legs and long feet, delicate wrists and ankles, and tiny, almost comical-looking ears.” We also get the second reference to hair, which calls back to Fiona’s own mother’s white hair. It’s at this point that we feel located in time–if not necessarily space–and we know we’ve jumped about fifty years into the future.

Writing Exercise: fully describe what someone is wearing, their age, and the particular shape of their particular body, as done above. Whose point of view are we seeing this description through?

Over a year ago, Grant had started noticing so many little yellow notes stuck up all over the house. That was not entirely new. Fiona had always written things down—the title of a book she’d heard mentioned on the radio or the jobs she wanted to make sure she got done that day. Even her morning schedule was written down. He found it mystifying and touching in its precision: “7 a.m. yoga. 7:30–7:45 teeth face hair. 7:45–8:15 walk. 8:15 Grant and breakfast.”

Alice Adams’s ABDCE structure is on display here, the Action-Background-Development-Climactic scene-Ending structure in which a story (or in Munro’s case, a scene) doesn’t necessarily explain itself to start, but instead starts with Action (Fiona and Grant leaving the house) and then fills in the Background later on.

Writing Exercise: describe a character through the notes they leave for themselves–or for others. What does this reveal about them? How does it advance story?

The new notes were different. Stuck onto the kitchen drawers—Cutlery, Dish-towels, Knives. Couldn’t she just open the drawers and see what was inside?

Worse things were coming. She went to town and phoned Grant from a booth to ask him how to drive home. She went for her usual walk across the field into the woods and came home by the fence line—a very long way round. She said that she’d counted on fences always taking you somewhere.

It was hard to figure out. She’d said that about fences as if it were a joke, and she had remembered the phone number without any trouble.

This background continues to be developed, here. We learn what has been happening with Fiona–and start to understand where they’re going.

Writing exercise: Show, don’t tell, how a character is possibly being more forgetful by showing the specific things they say or do.

“I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said. “I expect I’m just losing my mind.”

Direct dialogue being one of the easiest ways to reveal character, we see her own humorous perspective on her situation.

Writing exercise: have a character make a joke about something they are embarrassed by. What embarrasses them? How do they use a joke to attempt to make it lighter?

He asked if she had been taking sleeping pills.

“If I am I don’t remember,” she said. Then she said she was sorry to sound so flippant. “I’m sure I haven’t been taking anything. Maybe I should be. Maybe vitamins.”

Note the contrast between Fiona and Grant: her levity, his seriousness. She makes a joke, and he brings it back more seriously: “He asked if she had been taking sleeping pills.” She returns with a joke, then meets his level of seriousness.

Writing exercise: two characters are talking about the same situation. One character is making a joke out of it, the other is not. Perhaps have one character apologize. What are they apologizing for?

Vitamins didn’t help. She would stand in doorways trying to figure out where she was going. She forgot to turn on the burner under the vegetables or put water in the coffeemaker. She asked Grant when they’d moved to this house.

Through the specificity of detail, we as readers see the situation directly.

Writing exercise: similar to above, show us a character becoming forgetful by showing us, specifically, what the details of that forgetfulness looks like.

Was it last year or the year before?”

“It was twelve years ago,” he said.

“That’s shocking.”

“She’s always been a bit like this,” Grant said to the doctor. He tried without success to explain how Fiona’s surprise and apologies now seemed somehow like routine courtesy, not quite concealing a private amusement. As if she’d stumbled on some unexpected adventure. Or begun playing a game that she hoped he would catch on to.

Notice how we don’t get the car ride to the doctor, we just get the scene presented in the doctor’s office. How much of our writing could be sharpened by eliminating our transitions in which we move our characters from one place to another, when those scenes are necessarily needed?

Writing exercise: get us as readers from one place to another without the transitional scene. Get us from a house to a grocery store, or from a store to another store, say, without including the driving, biking, or walking.

“Yes, well,” the doctor said. “It might be selective at first. We don’t know, do we? Till we see the pattern of the deterioration, we really can’t say.”

We are set up to see the “pattern of deterioration”…

In a while it hardly mattered what label was put on it. Fiona, who no longer went shopping alone, disappeared from the supermarket while Grant had his back turned. A policeman picked her up as she was walking down the middle of the road, blocks away. He asked her name and she answered readily. Then he asked her the name of the Prime Minister.

…which we then get.

“If you don’t know that, young man, you really shouldn’t be in such a responsible job.”

Again, her humor! Her sense of joy in life. We also get the continued sense of her age, in that she refers to him as a “young man,” and the scolding tone in which she speaks to him.

Writing exercise: have an older person say something unexpectedly to a younger person that reveals the age of both.

He laughed. But then she made the mistake of asking if he’d seen Boris and Natasha. These were the now dead Russian wolfhounds she had adopted many years ago, as a favor to a friend, then devoted herself to for the rest of their lives. Her taking them over might have coincided with the discovery that she was not likely to have children. Something about her tubes being blocked, or twisted—Grant could not remember now. He had always avoided thinking about all that female apparatus. Or it might have been after her mother died. The dogs’ long legs and silky hair, their narrow, gentle, intransigent faces made a fine match for her when she took them out for walks. And Grant himself, in those days, landing his first job at the university (his father-in-law’s money welcome there in spite of the political taint), might have seemed to some people to have been picked up on another of Fiona’s eccentric whims, and groomed and tended and favored—though, fortunately, he didn’t understand this until much later.

Not only are we getting the information about the dogs, here: we’re getting other things. The fact that they don’t have children (and are, by extension, each other’s sole caretakers). The fact that her mother has died. The reminder of the father-in-law’s money.

Writing exercise: describe a character who has dogs by describing their dogs–and what it is about their dogs that they love so much.

There was a rule that nobody could be admitted to Meadowlake during the month of December. The holiday season had so many emotional pitfalls. So they made the twenty-minute drive in January. Before they reached the highway the country road dipped through a swampy hollow now completely frozen over.

They are on their way. A transition that is rendered in scene because it also reveals and develops character:

Fiona said, “Oh, remember.”

Grant said, “I was thinking about that, too.”

“Only it was in the moonlight,” she said.

She was talking about the time that they had gone out skiing at night under the full moon and over the black-striped snow, in this place that you could get into only in the depths of winter. They had heard the branches cracking in the cold.

If she could remember that, so vividly and correctly, could there really be so much the matter with her? It was all he could do not to turn around and drive home.

His love for her, his concern for her, their mutual memories, their past life together.

Writing exercise: write the transition scene–in which two people are going somewhere–by having them talk about a shared memory.

There was another rule that the supervisor explained to him. New residents were not to be visited during the first thirty days. Most people needed that time to get settled in. Before the rule had been put in place, there had been pleas and tears and tantrums, even from those who had come in willingly. Around the third or fourth day they would start lamenting and begging to be taken home. And some relatives could be susceptible to that, so you would have people being carted home who would not get on there any better than they had before. Six months or sometimes only a few weeks later, the whole upsetting hassle would have to be gone through again.

This expositionary scene is necessary for us as readers, to learn why Grant won’t be seeing Fiona for thirty days, and to give the upcoming connection between Fiona and Aubrey a chance to take root.

Writing exercise: introduce the reader to a new place by having one of the characters in the story introduce it to another character. This is a common device, used in everything from Dante’s Purgatory to contemporary films. By having one character explain something to another, the author is also explaining it to the reader, but without the burden of a lot of expositional paragraphs.

“Whereas we find,” the supervisor said, “we find that if they’re left on their own the first month they usually end up happy as clams.”

Which, in fact, happens: Fiona finds Aubrey. Then, we move backward in time, again:

They had in fact gone over to Meadowlake a few times several years ago to visit Mr. Farquhar, the old bachelor farmer who had been their neighbor. He had lived by himself in a drafty brick house unaltered since the early years of the century, except for the addition of a refrigerator and a television set. Now, just as Mr. Farquhar’s house was gone, replaced by a gimcrack sort of castle that was the weekend home of some people from Toronto, the old Meadow-lake was gone, though it had dated only from the fifties. The new building was a spacious, vaulted place, whose air was faintly, pleasantly pine-scented. Profuse and genuine greenery sprouted out of giant crocks in the hallways.

This is the original Meadowlake, not the current one:

Nevertheless, it was the old Meadowlake that Grant found himself picturing Fiona in, during the long month he had to get through without seeing her.

We are in Grant’s consciousness, here. The story could have been in Fiona’s point of view, it is not. We are in his imagining of what Fiona’s life is like, as he is unable to contact her.

Writing exercise: a character pictures another character, trying to imagine what they are doing, or what they are up to.

He phoned every day

How much this reveals character!

Writing exercise: what is something that one of your characters does every day? Why do they do this?

and hoped to get the nurse whose name was Kristy. She seemed a little amused at his constancy, but she would give him a fuller report than any other nurse he got stuck with.

Munro cuts all but what is necessary. She doesn’t include Grant trying to get information from the other nurses, just mentions it in passing.

Writing exercise: use a similar sentence construction “she would________than any other____he got stuck with” in order to show, briefly, why the “he” (in this case) prefers the information from the “she.”

Fiona had caught a cold the first week, she said, but that was not unusual for newcomers. “Like when your kids start school,” Kristy said. “There’s a whole bunch of new germs they’re exposed to and for a while they just catch everything.”

Then the cold got better. She was off the antibiotics and she didn’t seem as confused as she had been when she came in. (This was the first Grant had heard about either the antibiotics or the confusion.) Her appetite was pretty good and she seemed to enjoy sitting in the sunroom. And she was making some friends, Kristy said.

We see Grant’s desperation to know and be part of what’s going on. Then we move to his own life:

If anybody phoned, he let the machine pick up. The people they saw socially, occasionally, were not close neighbors but people who lived around the country, who were retired, as they were, and who often went away without notice. They would imagine that he and Fiona were away on some such trip at present.

Grant skied for exercise. He skied around and around in the field behind the house as the sun went down and left the sky pink over a countryside that seemed to be bound by waves of blue-edged ice. Then he came back to the darkening house, turning the television news on while he made his supper. They had usually prepared supper together. One of them made the drinks and the other the fire, and they talked about his work (he was writing a study of legendary Norse wolves and particularly of the great wolf Fenrir, which swallows up Odin at the end of the world) and about whatever Fiona was reading and what they had been thinking during their close but separate day. This was their time of liveliest intimacy, though there was also, of course, the five or ten minutes of physical sweetness just after they got into bed—something that did not often end in sex but reassured them that sex was not over yet.

This is the end of the scene. And also the end of sort of the sweetness of the marriage of Grant and Fiona. After this scene, the characters are deepened. Up to this point, we see Grant the loving and devoted husband. In the next scenes, we see Grant the philanderer.

In a dream he showed a letter to one of his colleagues. The letter was from the roommate of a girl he had not thought of for a while and was sanctimonious and hostile, threatening in a whining way. The girl herself was someone he had parted from decently and it seemed unlikely that she would want to make a fuss, let alone try to kill herself, which was what the letter was elaborately trying to tell him she had done.

He had thought of the colleague as a friend. He was one of those husbands who had been among the first to throw away their neckties and leave home to spend every night on a floor mattress with a bewitching young mistress—coming to their offices, their classes, bedraggled and smelling of dope and incense. But now he took a dim view.

“I wouldn’t laugh,” he said to Grant— who did not think he had been laughing. “And if I were you I’d try to prepare Fiona.”

So Grant went off to find Fiona in Meadowlake—the old Meadowlake— and got into a lecture hall instead. Everybody was waiting there for him to teach his class. And sitting in the last, highest row was a flock of cold-eyed young women all in black robes, all in mourning, who never took their bitter stares off him, and pointedly did not write down, or care about, anything he was saying.

Fiona was in the first row, untroubled. “Oh phooey,” she said. “Girls that age are always going around talking about how they’ll kill themselves.”

He hauled himself out of the dream, took pills, and set about separating what was real from what was not.

Many writers are told not to use dreams in their work. But dreams can help reveal emotion. Through this dream, we get a sense of Grant’s fear, and possibly guilt (“a flock of cold-eyed young women all in black robes, all in mourning), and his fear of Fiona’s discovering.

Writing exercise: reveal a character through a dream they have. (Incidentally, this will be the focus of our 2020 writing retreats in Kaua’i: the literature of dreams.)

Once we’ve gotten this sense of Grant’s emotion, we get the reality of Grant’s affairs, in backstory:

There had been a letter, and the word “rat” had appeared in black paint on his office door, and Fiona, on being told that a girl had suffered from a bad crush on him, had said pretty much what she said in the dream. The colleague hadn’t come into it, and nobody had committed suicide. Grant hadn’t been disgraced. In fact, he had got off easy when you thought of what might have happened just a couple of years later. But word got around. Cold shoulders became conspicuous. They had few Christmas invitations and spent New Year’s Eve alone. Grant got drunk, and without its being required of him—also, thank God, without making the error of a confession—he promised Fiona a new life.

Nowhere had there been any acknowledgment that the life of a philanderer (if that was what Grant had to call himself—he who had not had half as many conquests as the man who had reproached him in his dream) involved acts of generosity, and even sacrifice. Many times he had catered to a woman’s pride, to her fragility, by offering more affection—or a rougher passion— than anything he really felt. All so that he could now find himself accused of wounding and exploiting and destroying self-esteem. And of deceiving Fiona—as, of course, he had. But would it have been better if he had done as others had done with their wives, and left her? He had never thought of such a thing. He had never stopped making love to Fiona. He had not stayed away from her for a single night. No making up elaborate stories in order to spend a weekend in San Francisco or in a tent on Manitoulin Island. He had gone easy on the dope and the drink, and he had continued to publish papers, serve on committees, make progress in his career. He had never had any intention of throwing over work and marriage and taking to the country to practice carpentry or keep bees.

We’re presented with the specificity of Grant’s affairs, and their effect on him–and on them.

Writing exercise: a character remembers an affair they had that they never told their spouse/partner about. How does this affect the story?

But something like that had happened, after all. He had taken early retirement with a reduced pension. Fiona’s father had died, after some be-wildered and stoical time alone in the big house, and Fiona had inherited both that property and the farmhouse where her father had grown up, in the country near Georgian Bay.

It was a new life. He and Fiona worked on the house. They got cross-country skis. They were not very sociable but they gradually made some friends. There were no more hectic flirtations. No bare female toes creeping up under a man’s pants leg at a dinner party. No more loose wives.

Just in time, Grant was able to think, when the sense of injustice had worn down. The feminists and perhaps the sad silly girl herself and his cowardly so-called friends had pushed him out just in time. Out of a life that was in fact getting to be more trouble than it was worth. And that might eventually have cost him Fiona.

These two scenes (the dream, and then the reality of the backstory) give us a more complete picture of who Grant is. The seriousness, the affairs, the early retirement. We also understand more completely their economic status, with the father-in-law’s money. At no point do we know for sure if Fiona knew about the affairs, although it’s heavily suggested twice (from his point of view, however) that she did not. Nor do we understand his motivation at this point for having them. What we know is that he’s desperate that she not find out. And so the upcoming scenes, in which he learns about Fiona’s new partner–for lack of a better word–take on heightened impact.

Writing exercise: have a character have a dream about some past event, then write in expositional narration what actually happened, so that we get both the lingering emotion of the event (expressed through the dream) and the objective reality of the event.

On the morning of the day when he was to go back to Meadowlake, for the first visit,

Notice that he is going there as soon as he possibly can.

Writing exercise: a character goes to see another character as soon as they are able. To a hospital, perhaps, or a military base, or other destination.

Grant woke early. He was full of a solemn tingling, as in the old days on the morning of his first planned meeting with a new woman.

Now that we know, as readers, his history, this backstory makes its way into the descriptions of him.

Writing exercise: Write a similar sentence construction as the first sentence of a story: “He was full of___________, as in the old days on the morning of his first planned meeting with___________.”

The feeling was not precisely sexual. (Later, when the meetings had become routine, that was all it was.) There was an expectation of discovery, almost a spiritual expansion. Also timidity, humility, alarm.

We’re seeing his complicated and multi-layered feelings as he’s going to see Fiona for the first time, and the comparison to how he’d feel during his affairs.

Writing exercise: try a similar sentence construction: “The feeling was not precisely______. (Later, when the _______ had become routine, that was all it was.)

There had been a thaw. Plenty of snow was left, but the dazzling hard landscape of earlier winter had crumbled. These pocked heaps under a gray sky looked like refuse in the fields. In the town near Meadowlake he found a florist’s shop and bought a large bouquet. He had never presented flowers to Fiona before. Or to anyone else. He entered the building feeling like a hopeless lover or a guilty husband in a cartoon.

It’s a fascinating character detail that he has never before brought anyone flowers. What are these unusual character details in our own fictional works? How can we use them to make our characters unique, and bring them alive?

Writing exercise: a character gives (or receives) flowers for the first time.

“Wow. Narcissus this early,” Kristy said. “You must’ve spent a fortune.”

So much is accomplished in these two short sentences. 1. We get Kristy into the narrative, 2. we see her practicality and straight-to-the-point speaking style, 3. we’re reminded of Grant’s money, and that 4. Kristy, probably, is not in that category. All this in eleven words.

Writing exercise: am not even going to include an exercise for this one. Just note the genius!

She went along the hall ahead of him and snapped on the light in a sort of pantry, where she searched for a vase.

Her practicality, his lack thereof.

Writing exercise: let us see a character doing something practical that another character failed to do.

She was a heavy young woman who looked as if she had given up on her looks in every department except her hair. That was blond and voluminous. All the puffed-up luxury of a cocktail waitress’s style, or a stripper’s, on top of such a workaday face and body.

Remember we are in Grant’s point of view. These are the thoughts he thinks as he looks at her.

Writing exercise: a character looks at another character, and makes judgements based on their appearance.

“There now,” she said, and nodded him down the hall. “Name’s right on the door.”

So it was, on a nameplate decorated with bluebirds. He wondered whether to knock, and did, then opened the door and called her name.

Kristy’s dialogue. Grant’s physical description of her. She’s a minor character in this story, and yet she is alive on the page through dialogue, description, and now, action, pointing out Fiona’s room. Note the “bluebirds.” These are the small details in our writing that puts real life on the page.

Writing exercise: have a character decorate their nameplate, or badge, or door, in some fashion. What does this show us about the character?

She wasn’t there. The closet door was closed, the bed smoothed. Nothing on the bedside table, except a box of Kleenex and a glass of water. Not a single photograph or picture of any kind, not a book or a magazine. Perhaps you had to keep those in a cupboard.

We’re inside his viewpoint. Crucially, notice that he notices there is no photograph of him. And then immediately we get his hopeful rationale “Perhaps you had to keep those in a cupboard.”

Writing exercise: show a character through what is in their room.

He went back to the nurses’ station. Kristy said, “No?” with a surprise that he thought perfunctory. He hesitated, holding the flowers. She said, “O.K., O.K.—let’s set the bouquet down here.” Sighing, as if he were a backward child on his first day at school, she led him down the hall toward a large central space with skylights which seemed to be a general meeting area. Some people were sitting along the walls, in easy chairs, others at tables in the middle of the carpeted floor. None of them looked too bad. Old—some of them incapacitated enough to need wheelchairs—but decent. There had been some unnerving sights when he and Fiona visited Mr. Farquhar. Whiskers on old women’s chins, somebody with a bulged-out eye like a rotted plum. Dribblers, head wagglers, mad chatterers. Now it looked as if there’d been some weeding out of the worst cases.

“See?” said Kristy in a softer voice. “You just go up and say hello and try not to startle her. Just go ahead.”

Note the continued development of Kristy’s character: first the “sighing,” then the “softly.” We see many sides of this minor character!

Writing exercise: a character goes to a place they have never been before. How do they see it? What do they notice?

He saw Fiona in profile, sitting close up to one of the card tables, but not playing. She looked a little puffy in the face, the flab on one cheek hiding the corner of her mouth, in a way it hadn’t done before. She was watching the play of the man she sat closest to. He held his cards tilted so that she could see them.

Classic scenario of showing versus telling: “She looked a little puffy in the face, the flab on one cheek hiding the corner of her mouth, in a way it hadn’t done before” shows us not only what she looks like, but Grant’s attention to these kinds of details. “She was watching the play of the man she sat closest to” shows us their connection, and “He held his cards tilted so that she could see them” deepens that showed connection.

When Grant got near the table she looked up. They all looked up—all the players at the table looked up, with displeasure. Then they immediately looked down at their cards, as if to ward off any intrusion.

But Fiona smiled her lopsided, abashed, sly, and charming smile and pushed back her chair and came round to him, putting her fingers to her mouth.

We see the difference between their reaction–“displeasure”–and hers: a sly smile, coming up to him. But even in this moment the scene takes on added dimension: she puts “her fingers to her mouth.” Not for his benefit, but for theirs. She isn’t necessarily coming up to Grant in order to see him, but to protect her new friends from Grant, and/or protect him from them. Either way: to keep them away from each other, and, by extension, keeping her own life–her present, and her past–apart from each other.

Writing exercise: a character attempts to keep another character away from a third character or set of characters. For what purpose?

“Bridge,” she whispered. “Deadly serious. They’re quite rabid about it.” She drew him toward the coffee table, chatting. “I can remember being like that for a while at college. My friends and I would cut class and sit in the common room and smoke and play like cutthroats. Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? I’m afraid the coffee isn’t up to much here.”

Grant never drank tea.

This comment, “Grant never drank tea,” is in his point of view. He’s realizing she either doesn’t remember this detail about him or never was deeply cognizant of it.

Writing exercise: a character asks another character if they want something that they should really know the character would not want. What does that show us?

He could not throw his arms around her. Something about her voice and smile, familiar as they were, something about the way she seemed to be guarding the players from him—as well as him from their displeasure—made that impossible.

He now reaches the conclusion that we as readers had already reached through the details, and we experience his thought process as he does so: as he realizes that something has shifted in their relationship. His determination to find connection leads to the following lines:

“I brought you some flowers,” he said. “I thought they’d do to brighten up your room. I went to your room but you weren’t there.”

This is said, “but you weren’t there,” almost as an accusation, or at least a questioning. What he’s saying, in effect, is, You weren’t there for me.

“Well, no,” she said. “I’m here.” She glanced back at the table.

What she’s saying: No, I wasn’t. I’m here, with them.

Grant said, “You’ve made a new friend.”

The subtext is almost comically obvious, but after spending thirty days doing nothing but wait for the opportunity to see her, calling Meadowlake every day to check up on her (out of altruism? or control?) he wants to get a sense, here, of how things lie.

He nodded toward the man she’d been sitting next to. At this moment that man looked up at Fiona and she turned, either because of what Grant had said or because she felt the look at her back. 

In this moment Munro makes sure to present both options: that she’s either looking back at her friend because of Grant, or because of Aubrey himself.

Writing exercise: a character does something for two reasons, simultaneously.

“It’s just Aubrey,” she said.

But this initial attempt to minimize him for Grant’s sake doesn’t last:

“The funny thing is I knew him years and years ago. He worked in the store. The hardware store where my grandpa used to shop. He and I were always kidding around and he couldn’t get up the nerve to ask me out. Till the very last weekend and he took me to a ballgame. But when it was over my grandpa showed up to drive me home. I was up visiting for the summer. Visiting my grandparents—they lived on a farm.”

“Fiona. I know where your grandparents lived. It’s where we live. Lived.”

Grant is also dealing with two things simultaneously–the seeming arrival of a new rival, and the reminder of her current mental state. In the parlance of Creative Writing 101, neither of his wants–for Fiona to be loyal to him, and for Fiona to remember their past–are being met. Fiona, for her part, has her own want: for Aubrey to feel happy:

Writing exercise: a character is dealing with two things at once. What do they do in an attempt to handle this?

“Really?” she said, not paying her full attention because the cardplayer was sending her his look, which was one not of supplication but of command. He was a man of about Grant’s age, or a little older. Thick coarse white hair fell over his forehead and his skin was leathery but pale, yellowish-white like an old wrinkled-up kid glove. His long face was dignified and melancholy and he had something of the beauty of a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse. But where Fiona was concerned he was not discouraged.

This is seen through Grant’s point of view.

Writing exercise: describe a romantic rival through the point of view of one of the rivals.

“I better go back,” Fiona said, a blush spotting her newly fattened face. “He thinks he can’t play without me sitting there. It’s silly, I hardly know the game anymore. If I leave you now, you can entertain yourself ? It must all seem strange to you but you’ll be surprised how soon you get used to it. You’ll get to know who everybody is. Except that some of them are pretty well off in the clouds, you know—you can’t expect them all to get to know who you are.”

She slipped back into her chair and said something into Aubrey’s ear. She tapped her fingers across the back of his hand.

Grant realizes Fiona has made her decision, and he retreats:

Grant went in search of Kristy and met her in the hall. She was pushing a cart with pitchers of apple juice and grape juice.

“Well?” she said.

Grant said, “Does she even know who I am?” He could not decide. She could have been playing a joke. It would not be unlike her. She had given herself away by that little pretense at the end, talking to him as if she thought perhaps he was a new resident. If it was a pretense.

Fiona’s sense of humor from the beginning of the story is re-introduced, in this moment, as is something else: Grant’s unwillingness to believe that Fiona’s new friendship could be in any way “real.” His question to Kristy, “Does she even know who I am,” is comprised of a desire to know if she’s joking or not, if she’s aware of him or not–and, by extension, if she’s aware of Aubrey in a real way or not.

Writing exercise: a character attempts to understand a character they thought they knew well by seeking out a third person.

Kristy said, “You just caught her at sort of a bad moment. Involved in the game.”

“She’s not even playing,” he said.

“Well, but her friend’s playing. Aubrey.”

“So who is Aubrey?”

“That’s who he is. Aubrey. Her friend. Would you like a juice?” Grant shook his head. “Oh look,” said Kristy. “They get these attachments. That takes over for a while. Best buddy sort of thing. It’s kind of a phase.”

“You mean she really might not know who I am?”

“She might not. Not today. Then tomorrow—you never know, do you? You’ll see the way it is, once you’ve been coming here for a while. You’ll learn not to take it all so serious. Learn to take it day by day.”

This dialogue sets up a montage:

Day by day. But things really didn’t change back and forth and he didn’t get used to the way they were. Fiona was the one who seemed to get used to him, but only as some persistent visitor who took a special interest in her. Or perhaps even as a nuisance who must be prevented, according to her old rules of courtesy, from realizing that he was one. She treated him with a distracted, social sort of kindness that was successful in keeping him from asking the most obvious, the most necessary question: did she remember him as her husband of nearly fifty years? He got the impression that she would be embarrassed by such a question—embarrassed not for herself but for him.

This paragraph takes place over an undefined period of time: all we know is that Grant comes visiting, and Fiona’s reactions to him.

Writing exercise: describe a character’s habitual actions over an undefined period of time. What do they do? Why do they do it?

Kristy told him that Aubrey had been the local representative of a company that sold weed killer “and all that kind of stuff” to farmers. And then when he was not very old or even retired, she said, he had suffered some unusual kind of damage.

“His wife is the one takes care of him, usually at home. She just put him in here on temporary care so she could get a break. Her sister wanted her to go to Florida. See, she’s had a hard time, you wouldn’t ever have expected a man like him—they just went on a holiday somewhere and he got something, like some bug that gave him a terrible high fever? And it put him in a coma and left him like he is now.”

This brief introduction of the un-named (as of yet) Marian, presents Kristy’s perspective and point of view on the character of Marian, whom we’ll get to know later on. At this point in the story, we continue with the montage of Grant’s visits: everything seen through his point of view:

Writing exercise: have one character describe the history of second character to a third character, in the way that Kristy describes Aubrey to Grant.

Most afternoons the pair could be found at the card table. Aubrey had large, thick-fingered hands. It was difficult for him to manage his cards. Fiona shuffled and dealt for him and sometimes moved quickly to straighten a card that seemed to be slipping from his grasp.

Grant would watch from across the room

This perspective is what third-person-limited allows us, as writers, to do: the author, Munro, moves the narration out of his consciousness to show us his position in space relative to Fiona and Aubrey, before we’re moved back into his consciousness. If this were a first-person narration, the first-person narrator would have to say something like, “I would watch from across the room,” which would also show the narrator’s awareness of their physical perspective. Because we’re in third person, the author can show the character’s position–in this case, Grant–without him necessarily being aware of it.

Writing exercise: show us the position of a character in a room. What does this position signify about their role in the social scene?

her darting move and quick laughing apology.

In this moment, we’re back in Grant’s consciousness:

He could see Aubrey’s husbandly frown as a wisp of her hair touched his cheek. Aubrey preferred to ignore her, as long as she stayed close.

But let her smile her greeting at Grant, let her push back her chair and get up to offer him tea—showing that she had accepted his right to be there— and Aubrey’s face took on its look of sombre consternation. He would let the cards slide from his fingers and fall on the floor to spoil the game. And Fiona then had to get busy and put things right.

If Fiona and Aubrey weren’t at the bridge table they might be walking along the halls, Aubrey hanging on to the railing with one hand and clutching Fiona’s arm or shoulder with the other. The nurses thought that it was a marvel, the way she had got him out of his wheelchair. Though for longer trips— to the conservatory at one end of the building or the television room at the other—the wheelchair was called for.

In the conservatory, the pair would find themselves a seat among the most lush and thick and tropical-looking plants—a bower, if you liked. Grant stood nearby, on occasion, on the other side of the greenery, listening. Mixed in with the rustle of the leaves and the sound of plashing water was Fiona’s soft talk and her laughter. Then some sort of chortle. Aubrey could talk, though his voice probably didn’t sound as it used to. He seemed to say something now—a couple of thick syllables.

Take care. He’s here. My love.

The physical–and emotional space–here is clear. Fiona and Aubrey, with Grant at a close distance, not necessarily wanted. Unlike his own affairs, in which we as readers never know for sure if Fiona knew of, or not, he is forced to experience the loss of his wife’s affections, and see her with someone else.

Writing exercise: a character overhears snatches and snippets of conversation. What does this reveal, both about the character listening, and the characters speaking?

Grant made an effort, and cut his visits down to Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Notice how we’ve stopped getting descriptions of his home life. His emotional life is completely involved with, and wrapped up around, Fiona and Aubrey.

Writing exercise: the life of one character is completely revolving around the lives of others.

Saturdays had a holiday bustle and tension. Families arrived in clusters. Mothers were usually in charge; they were the ones who kept the conversation afloat. Men seemed cowed, teen-agers affronted. No children or grandchildren appeared to visit Aubrey, and since they could not play cards—the tables being taken over for ice-cream parties—he and Fiona stayed clear of the Saturday parade. The conservatory was far too popular then for any of their intimate conversations. Those might be going on, of course, behind Fiona’s closed door. Grant could not manage to knock when he found it closed, though he stood there for some time staring at the Disney-style nameplate with an intense, a truly malignant dislike.

This is the first moment where we’re directly told, through “malignant dislike,” what Grant is actually feeling. We’ve been able to observe and guess, but now he is allowing himself to feel this dislike on a conscious level.

Writing exercise: directly tell the reader what a character is feeling, but in the vernacular that the character themself would use.

Or they might be in Aubrey’s room. But he did not know where that was. The more he explored this place the more corridors and seating spaces and ramps he discovered, and in his wanderings he was still apt to get lost. One Saturday he looked out a window and saw Fiona—it had to be her—wheeling Aubrey along one of the paved paths now cleared of snow and ice. She was wearing a silly wool hat and a jacket with swirls of blue and purple, the sort of thing he had seen on local women at the supermarket. It must be that they didn’t bother to sort out the wardrobes of the women who were roughly the same size and counted on the women not to recognize their own clothes anyway. They had cut her hair, too. They had cut away her angelic halo.

The white hair, mentioned earlier with Fiona’s Icelandic mother, and referenced as one of Fiona’s defining characteristics, is now gone. His blame, “They,” implicates all of Meadowlake with his loss of his wife. They had forced him to stay away thirty days, they hadn’t told him about the new relationship with Aubrey, they think he takes things too seriously, they think he’s not letting go, they have cut her hair.

Writing exercise: a character thinks about things happening that they personally don’t have any control over, but which they feel negatively about.

On a Wednesday, when everything was more normal and card games were going on again and the women in the Crafts Room were making silk flowers or costumed dolls—and when Aubrey and Fiona were again in evidence, so that it was possible for Grant to have one of his brief and friendly and maddening conversations with his wife—he said to her, “Why did they chop off your hair?”

Fiona put her hands up to her head, to check.

“Why—I never missed it,” she said.

They aren’t just talking about hair, here: the hair has come to represent their past life. Her family, their marriage. It’s been, in Grant’s parlance, not just cut “chop”ped. We leave this moment, at this point, and go back into Grant’s backstory. He remembers women he’d had affairs with–older women, younger women–and the specificities of his relationship with them. He thinks about how it must have been on their end, and how it must be, now, on Fiona’s end. He remembers:

a gigantic increase in well-being. A tendency to pudginess which he had had since he was twelve years old disappeared. He ran up steps two at a time. He appreciated as never before a pageant of torn clouds and winter sunsets seen from his office window, the charm of antique lamps glowing between his neighbors’ living-room curtains, the cries of children in the park, at dusk, unwilling to leave the hill where they’d been tobogganing. Come summer, he learned the names of flowers. In his classroom, after being coached by his nearly voiceless mother-in-law (her affliction was cancer in the throat), he risked reciting the majestic and gory Icelandic ode, the Höfudlausn, composed to honor King Erik Bloodaxe by the skald whom that king had condemned to death.

Even in his memories of his other women, he’s thinking of his mother-in-law (we’ve seen her make recurring appearances in the story, either mentions of her death or, as in this case, her cancer. This leads him back to memories of:

Fiona had never learned Icelandic and she had never shown much respect for the stories that it preserved—the stories that Grant had taught and written about. She referred to their heroes as “old Njal” or “old Snorri.” But in the last few years she had developed an interest in the country itself and looked at travel guides. She read about William Morris’s trip, and Auden’s. She didn’t really plan to travel there. She said there ought to be one place you thought about and knew about and maybe longed for but never did get to see.

Nonetheless, the next time he went to Meadowlake, Grant brought Fiona a book he’d found of nineteenth-century watercolors made by a lady traveller to Iceland. It was a Wednesday. He went looking for her at the card tables but didn’t see her. A woman called out to him, “She’s not here. She’s sick.”

Her voice sounded self-important and excited—pleased with herself for having recognized him when he knew nothing about her. Perhaps also pleased with all she knew about Fiona, about Fiona’s life here, thinking it was maybe more than he knew.

“He’s not here, either,” she added.

Grant went to find Kristy, who didn’t have much time for him. She was talking to a weepy woman who looked like a first-time visitor.

The above example shows one of the advantages of third-person limited. The first sentence, “Grant went to find Kristy, who didn’t have much time for him,” is shown through his consciousness–he’s the one feeling that she doesn’t have much time for him. The next sentence, “She was talking to a weepy woman who looked like a first-time visitor,” is also seen through Grant’s point of view, but the implication, for the reader, is a reminder that Grant is just one of the many, many family members that Kristy has to deal with throughout the day. The text doesn’t specify whether Grant realizes this, the way it would in a first-person narration, or if only we as the reader discover this. Because the story is in limited third, Munro can be inside Grant’s consciousness when it suits her needs, and outside of it when suits her need.

Writing exercise: show a character who doesn’t have time for the needs of another character. How is this manifested?

“Nothing really,” she said, when he asked what was the matter with Fiona. “She’s just having a day in bed today, just a bit of an upset.”

Kristy omits to tell him the big news: that Aubrey is leaving; that Aubrey’s wife is coming to pick him up. She’s busy, today, and doesn’t have time for him, leaving him to discover the situation directly, only when he arrives at Fiona’s room. Consider how well-developed as a character Kristy is, in this story. Her character is dynamic, not merely static. She’s an active player in her life, not merely background for Grant and Fiona.

Writing exercise: bring an existing “minor” character in one of your stories a little more to the foreground. Not so much that they dominate too much of the action, but enough that they become real, on the page.

Fiona was sitting straight up in the bed. He hadn’t noticed, the few times that he had been in this room,

That line, “the few times he had been in this room” shows how very little alone time the two of them had had together.

that this was a hospital bed and could be cranked up in such a way. She was wearing one of her high-necked maidenly gowns, and her face had a pallor that was like flour paste.

Aubrey was beside her in his wheelchair, pushed as close to the bed as he could get. Instead of the nondescript open-necked shirts he usually wore, he was wearing a jacket and tie. His natty-looking tweed hat was resting on the bed. He looked as if he had been out on important business.

Whatever he’d been doing, he looked worn out by it. He, too, was gray in the face.

They both looked up at Grant with a stony grief-ridden apprehension that turned to relief, if not to welcome, when they saw who he was. Not who they thought he’d be. They were hanging on to each other’s hands and they did not let go.

The hat on the bed. The jacket and tie.

It wasn’t that Aubrey had been out. It wasn’t a question of where he’d been or whom he’d been to see. It was where he was going.

The way the narration has played out, is that Grant discovers all these things on his own, through observation. He had come to bring Fiona a book, and discovers that everything is about to change.

Writing exercise: a character brings another character a gift, only to find, when they arrive, that everything they took for granted (pun!) has changed.

Grant set the book down on the bed beside Fiona’s free hand.

The attention paid to Fiona’s other hand–the not free hand, which Aubrey is holding–reminds us that Grant is an outsider in this scene. The physicality of him putting the book next to her free hand shows his lack of awareness of what Fiona is really needing right now. The last thing that Fiona wants to talk about is this book about Iceland.

Writing exercise: a character is holding another character’s hand out of fear of leaving.

“It’s about Iceland,” he said. “I thought maybe you’d like to look at it.”

“Why, thank you,” said Fiona. She didn’t look at the book.

“Iceland,” he said.

We continue to see Grant muddling through the way he sees their marriage versus the way she sees their marriage.

Writing exercise: let’s keep it fun and simple: one character tries to get another character to pay attention to a gift they are trying to give them, but the other character isn’t interested in the gift. Why not? What are they interested in, instead?

She said, “Ice-land.” The first syllable managed to hold a tinkle of interest, but the second fell flat.

She’s really trying to pay attention to Grant’s needs, but is about to lose her boyfriend.

Anyway, it was necessary for her to turn her attention back to Aubrey, who was pulling his great thick hand out of hers. “What is it?” she said. “What is it, dear heart?” Grant had never heard her use this flowery expression before.

“Oh all right,” she said. “Oh here.” And she pulled a handful of tissues from the box beside her bed. Aubrey had begun to weep.

“Here. Here,” she said, and he got hold of the Kleenex as well as he could and made a few awkward but lucky swipes at his face. While he was occupied, Fiona turned to Grant.

“Do you by any chance have any influence around here?” she said in a whisper. “I’ve seen you talking to them …”

Her want, her focus, in this scene is for Aubrey not to have to leave. Grant, in her mind, can assist in achieving this want.

Writing exercise: one character asks another character for a favor. For what? Why?

Aubrey made a noise of protest or weariness or disgust. Then his upper body pitched forward as if he wanted to throw himself against her. She scrambled half out of bed and caught him and held on to him. It seemed improper for Grant to help her.

Physicality is one of the best ways to show grief (or protest, or weariness, or disgust.)

Writing exercise: show grief (or protest, or weariness, or disgust) through a physical action.

“Hush,” Fiona was saying. “Oh, honey. Hush. We’ll get to see each other. We’ll have to. I’ll go and see you. You’ll come and see me.”

Aubrey made the same sound again with his face in her chest and there was nothing Grant could decently do but get out of the room.

Character change is what we’re constantly seeking in our fiction. How do our characters overcome the obstacles placed in their paths (or not!) and how does it change them, as people. Grant is on the cusp of a major change in how he treats Fiona, as we’ll see.

Writing exercise: finish (or start) a scene with the same construction: “there was nothing ____ could decently do but get out of the room.

“I just wish his wife would hurry up and get here,” Kristy said when he ran into her. “I wish she’d get him out of here and cut the agony short. We’ve got to start serving supper before long and how are we supposed to get her to swallow anything with him still hanging around?”

Grant said, “Should I stay?”

“What for? She’s not sick, you know.”

“To keep her company,” he said.

Kristy shook her head.

“They have to get over these things on their own. They’ve got short memories, usually. That’s not always so bad.”

Grant left without going back to Fiona’s room. He noticed that the wind was actually warm and the crows were making an uproar. In the parking lot a woman wearing a tartan pants suit was getting a folded-up wheelchair out of the trunk of her car.

This is our first physical introduction to Marian.

Writing exercise: give us an introduction to a character through a brief description of what they’re wearing and something they’re getting out of a car.

Fiona did not get over her sorrow. She didn’t eat at mealtimes, though she pretended to, hiding food in her napkin. She was being given a supplementary drink twice a day—someone stayed and watched while she swallowed it down. She got out of bed and dressed herself, but all she wanted to do then was sit in her room. She wouldn’t have had any exercise at all if Kristy, or Grant during visiting hours, hadn’t walked her up and down in the corridors or taken her outside. Weeping had left her eyes raw-edged and dim. Her cardigan—if it was hers—would be buttoned crookedly. She had not got to the stage of leaving her hair unbrushed or her nails uncleaned, but that might come soon. Kristy said that her muscles were deteriorating, and that if she didn’t improve they would put her on a walker.

“But, you know, once they get a walker they start to depend on it and they never walk much anymore, just get wherever it is they have to go,” she said to Grant. “You’ll have to work at her harder. Try to encourage her.”

But Grant had no luck at that. Fiona seemed to have taken a dislike to him, though she tried to cover it up. Perhaps she was reminded, every time she saw him, of her last minutes with Aubrey, when she had asked him for help and he hadn’t helped her.

They have passed, Fiona and Grant, into a new stage in their connection. He realizes this:

He didn’t see much point in mentioning their marriage now.

An added dimension soon takes shape, as well:

The supervisor called him in to her office. She said that Fiona’s weight was going down even with the supplement.

“The thing is, I’m sure you know, we don’t do any prolonged bed care on the first floor. We do it temporarily if someone isn’t feeling well, but if they get too weak to move around and be responsible we have to consider upstairs.”

He said he didn’t think that Fiona had been in bed that often.

“No. But if she can’t keep up her strength she will be. Right now she’s borderline.”

Grant said that he had thought the second floor was for people whose minds were disturbed.

“That, too,” she said.

Grant, who’s “want” had initially been the reconnection of himself with Fiona, is now faced with a new want: that she be able to return to the status quo she’d shared with Aubrey was around. This leads us to a new section, in which Grant is driving in an attempt to find Marian, Aubrey’s wife, and convince her to allow him to take Aubrey back to Meadowlake for visits, in order that she’ll start eating again; that she can avoid the second floor.

The street Grant found himself driving down was called Blackhawks Lane. The houses all looked to have been built around the same time, perhaps thirty or forty years ago. The street was wide and curving and there were no sidewalks. Friends of Grant and Fiona’s had moved to places something like this when they began to have their children, and young families still lived here. There were basketball hoops over garage doors and tricycles in the driveways. Some of the houses had gone downhill. The yards were marked by tire tracks, the windows plastered with tinfoil or hung with faded flags. But a few seemed to have been kept up as well as possible by the people who had moved into them when they were new—people who hadn’t had the money or perhaps hadn’t felt the need to move on to some place better.

The house that was listed in the phone book as belonging to Aubrey and his wife was one of these. The front walk was paved with flagstones and bordered by hyacinths that stood as stiff as china flowers, alternately pink and blue.

He hadn’t remembered anything about Aubrey’s wife except the tartan suit he had seen her wearing in the parking lot. The tails of the jacket had flared open as she bent into the trunk of the car. He had got the impression of a trim waist and wide buttocks.

Because we are in Grant’s point of view, in a limited third, we see Marian the way he sees her.

Writing exercise: a character drives into a neighborhood previously unfamiliar to them.

She was not wearing the tartan suit today. Brown belted slacks and a pink sweater. He was right about the waist— the tight belt showed she made a point of it. It might have been better if she didn’t, since she bulged out considerably above and below.

We’re inside of his gaze.

Writing exercise: describe a character that another character is meeting for the first time using physical description. Do this through the point of view of one of the characters.

She could be ten or twelve years younger than her husband. Her hair was short, curly, artificially reddened. She had blue eyes—a lighter blue than Fiona’s—a flat robin’s-egg or turquoise blue, slanted by a slight puffiness. And a good many wrinkles, made more noticeable by a walnut-stain makeup. Or perhaps that was her Florida tan.

He said that he didn’t quite know how to introduce himself.

From this moment of paraphrase, we go into dialogue. Along with description (which we’ve gotten, above, not only of her looks but her clothing choices and the neighborhood in which she lives), the actions that someone takes, and the inner thoughts someone has (which we won’t get in the dialogue that follows as we’re in Grant’s point of view, not hers), dialogue is one of the ways in which character can be revealed.

“I used to see your husband at Meadowlake. I’m a regular visitor there myself.”

“Yes,” said Aubrey’s wife, with an aggressive movement of her chin.

With this we get not only her abrupt answer (dialogue) but a corresponding action, as well, “an aggressive movement of her chin.” Munro could have written “Marian seemed busy and gave short answers, with aggressive movements of her chin,” but it’s presented as direct dialogue.

Writing exercise: a character says something, with a corresponding physical movement.

“How is your husband doing?”

The “doing” was added on at the last moment.

“He’s O.K.,” she said.

Still short answers, not inviting. Because we’re outside her consciousness (and the way we, in real life, remain outside of the consciousness of others) we guess and make judgments about how someone is feeling based on what they are saying, and how they are saying it.

Writing exercise: one character is trying to strike up a conversation, and the other is trying to close it down.

“My wife and he struck up quite a close friendship.”

“I heard about that.”

“I wanted to talk to you about something if you had a minute.” 

“My husband did not try to start anything with your wife if that’s what you’re getting at,” she said. “He did not molest her. He isn’t capable of it and he wouldn’t anyway. From what I heard it was the other way round.”

Not only do we get long dialogue from Marian here, but expositionally we also discover more about the relationship between Fiona and Aubrey: Fiona’s agency in her choosing to be with Aubrey.

Grant said, “No. That isn’t it at all. I didn’t come here with any complaints about anything.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, I’m sorry. I thought you did. You better come in then. It’s blowing cold in through the door. It’s not as warm out today as it looks.”

The dialogue (the apology) followed by action: the invitation to come inside–which Grant also notices.

So it was something of a victory for him even to get inside.

This is going to be harder than he thought, he is realizing. Now we, as readers, at this point, don’t know Grant’s purpose (his want) in coming here, which will be to try and get Marian to agree to take Aubrey to see Fiona at Meadowlake. This is a classic Munrovian technique, to open a scene without the reader knowing necessarily what the character’s purpose is. Other writers would include, at the very beginning, something like, “The only way to keep Fiona from the second floor was to bring Aubrey to her,” and then go into the scene. But Munro prefers to let those layers be peeled slowly. Remember how the scene opened: Grant driving into the neighborhood, and we don’t know why, or what he’s doing there.

Writing exercise: a character invites another character inside, and the visiting character considers it a victory to even get inside the house.

She took him past the living room, saying, “We’ll have to sit in the kitchen, where I can hear Aubrey.”

This line shows the caretaking relationship she has with her husband: also her directness, her leadership, and her control.

Writing exercise: let us see the contours of a relationship based on one line of dialogue! (Isn’t it fun learning from a Nobel Prize winner?!)

Grant caught sight of two layers of front-window curtains, both blue, one sheer and one silky, a matching blue sofa and a daunting pale carpet, various bright mirrors and ornaments. Fiona had a word for those sort of swooping curtains—she said it like a joke, though the women she’d picked it up from used it seriously. Any room that Fiona fixed up was bare and bright. She would have deplored the crowding of all this fancy stuff into such a small space. From a room off the kitchen—a sort of sun-room, though the blinds were drawn against the afternoon brightness—he could hear the sounds of television.

Another great way to reveal character: how do they choose to fill the rooms of their houses?

Writing exercise: how does a character decorate their house?

The answer to Fiona’s prayers sat a few feet away, watching what sounded like a ballgame. His wife looked in at him.

This cues us in to Grant’s mission, here: “The answer to Fiona’s prayers.”

She said, “You O.K.?” and partly closed the door.

Note her brusque question to Aubrey, and the physicality of “partly” closing the door. This muffles the television slightly for her and Grant’s benefit, and it also allows them to talk with slightly more privacy. But it also serves as a physical barrier between Aubrey and Grant/Marian that reflects the mental and emotional distance between them.

Writing exercise: have a character close or open a door on another character, for whatever reason.

“You might as well have a cup of coffee,” she said to Grant. “My son got him on the sports channel a year ago Christmas. I don’t know what we’d do without it.”

Each line of dialogue in this story doing more than one thing. It isn’t Marian that got Aubrey the sports channel (is it her lack of interest? is it a lack of finances?) and her line, “I don’t know what we’d do without it,” when Aubrey has just returned home, shows the absence of any real connection between the two of them in their home life.

Writing exercise: show financial fragility based on someone buying something for someone else.

On the kitchen counters there were all sorts of contrivances and appliances—coffeemaker, food processor, knife sharpener, and some things Grant didn’t know the names or uses of. All looked new and expensive, as if they had just been taken out of their wrappings, or were polished daily.

He thought it might be a good idea to admire things. He admired the coffeemaker she was using and said that he and Fiona had always meant to get one. This was absolutely untrue—Fiona had been devoted to a European contraption that made only two cups at a time.

We observe Grant trying to get on her good side, while at the same time getting details about the house. We start to understand what he’s doing–we start, perhaps, to root for him to succeed.

“They gave us that,” she said. “Our son and his wife. They live in Kamloops. B.C. They send us more stuff than we can handle. It wouldn’t hurt if they would spend the money to come and see us instead.”

Grant said philosophically, “I suppose they’re busy with their own lives.”

“They weren’t too busy to go to Hawaii last winter. You could understand it if we had somebody else in the family, closer at hand. But he’s the only one.”

She poured the coffee into two brown-and-green ceramic mugs that she took from the amputated branches of a ceramic tree trunk that sat on the table.

“People do get lonely,” Grant said. He thought he saw his chance now. “If they’re deprived of seeing somebody they care about, they do feel sad. Fiona, for instance. My wife.”

“I thought you said you went and visited her.”

“I do,” he said. “That’s not it.”

And then we get Grant’s purpose in his visit:

Then he took the plunge, going on to make the request he’d come to make. Could she consider taking Aubrey back to Meadowlake, maybe just one day a week, for a visit? It was only a drive of a few miles. Or if she’d like to take the time off—Grant hadn’t thought of this before and was rather dismayed to hear himself suggest it—then he himself could take Aubrey out there, he wouldn’t mind at all. He was sure he could manage it. While he talked she moved her closed lips and her hidden tongue as if she were trying to identify some dubious flavor. She brought milk for his coffee and a plate of ginger cookies.

Having a character make a discovery (that Grant himself could take Aubrey to visit Fiona) that surprises them (he was “rather dismayed to hear himself suggest it”) reveals them deeply. We see what Grant is willing to do for Fiona’s health and happiness.

Writing exercise: one character is trying to convince another character of something while the second character hosts the first in their home.

“Homemade,” she said as she set the plate down. There was challenge rather than hospitality in her tone. She said nothing more until she had sat down, poured milk into her coffee, and stirred it.

Then she said no.

In the following dialogue (which I haven’t included), we see Grant’s increased attempts to convince Marian, followed by her increased reasons why she won’t. He attempts various methods to try and persuade her: she explains further and further her reasons why not.

He discovers that she doesn’t know his name, or Fiona’s name. She doesn’t have the same level of involvement with Fiona and Aubrey as he does. Then, he learns that all of Marian’s money is tied up in the house.

“No, it isn’t. But the way I am, I don’t have much choice. I don’t have the money to put him in there unless I sell the house. The house is what we own outright. Otherwise I don’t have anything in the way of resources. Next year I’ll have his pension and my pension, but even so I couldn’t afford to keep him there and hang on to the house. And it means a lot to me, my house does.”

He realizes he can’t convince her to let him take Aubrey to visit Fiona. He realizes she won’t–can’t–but Aubrey back into the rest home, on even a financial basis. They have closing dialogue:

“It’s very nice,” said Grant. [Referring to the house].

“Well, it’s all right. I put a lot into it. Fixing it up and keeping it up. I don’t want to lose it.”

“No. I see your point.”

“I’m not making judgments of that sort. It’s your life.”

“You bet it is.” 

He thought they should end on a more neutral note. So he asked her if her husband had worked in a hardware store in the summers, when he was going to school.

“I never heard about it,” she said. “I wasn’t raised here.”

As Grant drives away, he recollects the conversations he’d had with her:

Grant realized he’d failed with Aubrey’s wife. Marian. He had thought that what he’d have to contend with would be a woman’s natural sexual jealousy—or her resentment, the stubborn remains of sexual jealousy. He had not had any idea of the way she might be looking at things. And yet in some depressing way the conversation had not been unfamiliar to him. That was because it reminded him of conversations he’d had with people in his own family. His relatives, probably even his mother, had thought the way Marian thought. Money first.

He realizes that what repels him from Marian is that it reminds him of his own “small-town” upbringing that was referenced in the very first scene.

They had believed that when other people did not think that way it was because they had lost touch with reality. That was how Marian would see him, certainly. A silly person, full of boring knowledge and protected by some fluke from the truth about life. A person who didn’t have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around dreaming up the fine generous schemes that he believed would make another person happy. What a jerk, she would be thinking now.

Being up against a person like that made him feel hopeless, exasperated, finally almost desolate. Why? Because he couldn’t be sure of holding on to himself, against people like that? Because he was afraid that in the end they were right? Yet he might have married her. Or some girl like that. If he’d stayed back where he belonged. She’d have been appetizing enough. Probably a flirt. The fussy way she had of shifting her buttocks on the kitchen chair, her pursed mouth, a slightly contrived air of menace—that was what was left of the more or less innocent vulgarity of a small-town flirt.

She must have had some hopes when she picked Aubrey. His good looks, his salesman’s job, his white-collar expectations. She must have believed that she would end up better off than she was now. And so it often happened with those practical people. In spite of their calculations, their survival instincts, they might not get as far as they had quite reasonably expected. No doubt it seemed unfair.

Writing exercise: a character reflects back upon a time they spent with another character, thinking the conversation through. Bonus exercise: the one whose point of view we’re in is ahead of the other one financially and thinks themself superior.

In the kitchen the first thing he saw was the light blinking on his answering machine. He thought the same thing he always thought now. Fiona. He pressed the button before he took his coat off.

“Hello, Grant. I hope I got the right person. I just thought of something. There is a dance here in town at the Legion supposed to be for singles on Saturday night and I am on the lunch committee, which means I can bring a free guest. So I wondered whether you would happen to be interested in that? Call me back when you get a chance.”

A woman’s voice gave a local number. Then there was a beep and the same voice started talking again.

“I just realized I’d forgotten to say who it was. Well, you probably recognized the voice. It’s Marian. I’m still not so used to these machines. And I wanted to say I realize you’re not a single and I don’t mean it that way. I’m not either, but it doesn’t hurt to get out once in a while. If you are interested you can call me and if you are not you don’t need to bother. I just thought you might like the chance to get out. It’s Marian speaking. I guess I already said that. O.K. then. Goodbye.”

Her voice on the machine was different from the voice he’d heard a short time ago in her house. Just a little different in the first message, more so in the second. A tremor of nerves there, an affected nonchalance, a hurry to get through and a reluctance to let go.

Something had happened to her. But when had it happened? If it had been immediate, she had concealed it very successfully all the time he was with her. More likely it came on her gradually, maybe after he’d gone away. Not necessarily as a blow of attraction. Just the realization that he was a possibility, a man on his own. More or less on his own. A possibility that she might as well try to follow up.

But she’d had the jitters when she made the first move. She had put herself at risk. How much of herself he could not yet tell. Generally a woman’s vulnerability increased as time went on, as things progressed. All you could tell at the start was that if there was an edge of it then, there’d be more later. It gave him a satisfaction—why deny it?—to have brought that out in her. To have roused something like a shimmer, a blurring, on the surface of her personality. To have heard in her testy broad vowels this faint plea.

He set out the eggs and mushrooms to make himself an omelette. Then he thought he might as well pour a drink.

Writing exercise: a character calls another character and leave a message/voicemail. Let us hear their dialogue precisely. How do they leave the message? What does that reveal about their character?

Anything was possible. Was that true—was anything possible? For instance, if he wanted to, would he be able to break her down, get her to the point where she might listen to him about taking Aubrey back to Fiona? And not just for visits but for the rest of Aubrey’s life. And what would become of him and Marian after he’d delivered Aubrey to Fiona?

Remember Munro’s dictum, “The complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” Grant’s character is contsantly deepened, throughout the story: we see him as the boyfriend, as the husband, as the philanderer, as the devoted husband, as the jealous husband, and, finally, as the husband so in love with his wife that he’s willing to pimp himself out to woman in order to be able to take that woman’s husband to visit his wife.

Marian would be sitting in her house now, waiting for him to call. Or probably not sitting. Doing things to keep herself busy. She might have fed Aubrey while Grant was buying the mushrooms and driving home. She might now be preparing him for bed. But all the time she would be conscious of the phone, of the silence of the phone. Maybe she would have calculated how long it would take Grant to drive home. His address in the phone book would have given her a rough idea of where he lived. She would calculate how long, then add to that the time it might take him to shop for supper (figuring that a man alone would shop every day). Then a certain amount of time for him to get around to listening to his messages. And as the silence persisted she’d think of other things. Other errands he might have had to do before he got home. Or perhaps a dinner out, a meeting that meant he would not get home at suppertime at all.

What conceit on his part. She was above all things a sensible woman. She would go to bed at her regular time thinking that he didn’t look as if he’d be a decent dancer anyway. Too stiff, too professorial.

He stayed near the phone, looking at magazines, but he didn’t pick it up when it rang again.

“Grant. This is Marian. I was down in the basement putting the wash in the dryer and I heard the phone and when I got upstairs whoever it was had hung up. So I just thought I ought to say I was here. If it was you and if you are even home. Because I don’t have a machine, obviously, so you couldn’t leave a message. So I just wanted. To let you know.” The time was now twenty-five after ten.

“Bye.”

Writing exercise: a character leaves a second message/voicemail. Why? How does their specific wording in the second message change, if at all?

He would say that he’d just got home. There was no point in bringing to her mind the picture of his sitting here weighing the pros and cons.

Drapes. That would be her word for the blue curtains—drapes. And why not? He thought of the ginger cookies so perfectly round that she had to announce they were homemade, the ceramic coffee mugs on their ceramic tree, a plastic runner, he was sure, protecting the hall carpet. A high-gloss exactness and practicality that his mother had never achieved but would have admired—was that why he could feel this twinge of bizarre and unreliable affection? Or was it because he’d had two more drinks after the first?

The walnut-stain tan—he believed now that it was a tan—of her face and neck would most likely continue into her cleavage, which would be deep, crêpey-skinned, odorous and hot. He had that to think of as he dialled the number that he had already written down. That and the practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue. Her gemstone eyes.

This all through Grant’s point of view: we see the return of the philandering Grant; the Grant of the sexual appetite. And yet a primary purpose is to make sure that Marian is willing to let him bring Aubrey to Fiona, for Fiona’s benefit. His character is complicated and deepened.

Writing exercise: write a story in which the character of someone is constantly deepened and complicated. Challenge the reader’s expectations by constantly surprising them, either with new information or with the character legitimately changing over the course of the story.

Fiona was in her room but not in bed. She was sitting by the open window, wearing a seasonable but oddly short and bright dress. Through the window came a heady warm blast of lilacs in bloom and the spring manure spread over the fields.

This is Grant’s point of view–what he’s seeing. We can see it (Fiona sitting, the open window, a short dress, a bright dress), we can feel it on our skins (the “warm blast of lilacs in bloom and the spring manure).

Writing exercise: let us both see and feel on our skins the physical details of a short scene.

She had a book open in her lap.

She said, “Look at this beautiful book I found. It’s about Iceland. You wouldn’t think they’d leave valuable books lying around in the rooms. But I think they’ve got the clothes mixed up—I never wear yellow.”

Her thinking is still scattered–

“Fiona,” he said.

“Are we all checked out now?” she said. He thought the brightness of her voice was wavering a little. “You’ve been gone a long time.”

“Fiona, I’ve brought a surprise for you. Do you remember Aubrey?”

She stared at Grant for a moment, as if waves of wind had come beating into her face. Into her face, into her head, pulling everything to rags. All rags and loose threads.

“Names elude me,” she said harshly.

We’re so often advised, as writers, never to use adverbs. But the strength of this adverb, “harshly,” is that we can see her attempt to hide her emotion.

Writing exercise: use an adverb in a way that helps the story! (Note: if you’re in a writing group not connected to this course, you’ll get a lot of flack for this and everyone will want you to remove it. Sitting in circles and crossing out adverbs are how people know we’re writers. And we should be wary of too many adverbs. But every now and then, we need one.)

Then the look passed away as she retrieved, with an effort, some bantering grace. She set the book down carefully and stood up and lifted her arms to put them around him. Her skin or her breath gave off a faint new smell, a smell that seemed to Grant like green stems in rank water.

What I love about this ending, is that we don’t necessarily know who the “he” in the next lines are–whether they are Grant or whether they are Aubrey. The most beautiful reading is obviously that it’s referring to Grant–and since Grant was the last named pronoun, it’s probably the most accurate reading. We also don’t know, here in this ending, whether Aubrey is coming by only for a visit (Marian allowing Grant to take Aubrey to visit) or whether Grant is paying for Aubrey to return as a permanent resident. We don’t know this, because Munro wants us to focus on the final moment of connection: either between herself and Aubrey or, more likely, between herself and Grant.

“I’m happy to see you,” she said, both sweetly and formally. She pinched his earlobes, hard.

“You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”

He kept his face against her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull. He said, “Not a chance.”
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Additional Writing Exercises

  1. Rewrite “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted?
  2. Select a long scene of the story and rewrite it from a different point of view. Marian’s, perhaps, or Aubrey’s, or Fiona’s, or the nurse, Kristy’s. How does that change the scene, if at all? What is now included? What is now omitted? What is heightened? What is lessened? What takes on new resonance?
  3. Write a scene of 300 words  in which a jealous person is watching their spouse/partner play cards with three other people. What is causing this spouse/partner to be jealous? How does that abstract concept, “jealousy,” manifest itself specifically in this situation? Use a close third-person-limited perspective, but tell the story from the point of view of any of the characters in the scene that you choose.
  4. At the very beginning of the story, Fiona’s parents are described in brief paint strokes. “Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.” “The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absentminded smile.” Describe the parents of a character in similar brushstrokes, but include all the brushstrokes for each parent, making the description longer.
  5. When Grant sees that Fiona has cut her hair, he feels that something that connected them (family, history) has been lost. Write a scene of 300 words in which one character interprets something about another character by the way they cut their hair.
  6. Similar to Grant’s attempts to convince Marian to let him take Aubrey to see Fiona, write a scene of 500 words in which one character attempts to convince another character to let them take their spouse somewhere. In what various ways do they try to convince the other person?
  7. Aubrey, in desperation about having to leave Meadowlake with Marian, throws his body against Fiona’s bed. Write a 101-word description of a character experiencing some emotion (grief, anger, frustration, neediness, fear) by showing it through a physical action.
  8. Write the scene–or part of the scene–of Grant visiting Marian through the point of view of Marian. What is now included? What is now omitted? What is heightened? What is lessened? What takes on new resonance?
  9. This story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” was retitled as “Away From Her” for the film version. Titles are the lens through which the reader accesses a story: what other titles might work, for this story? What if this story were entitled “Grant”?  What if this story were entitled “Fiona”? Think of an alternate title that would fit, in some way.
  10. Write a 300-word scene or story in which one character realizes that their spouse or partner needs to be moved to alternate living arrangements, of some kind.
  11. Write a 300-word scene or story from the point of view of the character who is being moved to this new living arrangement.

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