Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
“Why Don’t You Dance” was first published in the magazine Quarterly West in the fall of 1978 and then again as a slightly shorter version in the Paris Review in 1981.
The story was later collected into his 1981 collection of short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
“Why Don’t You Dance” features three characters, and, unusually for a story of this length (1,617 words), each character serves as a point-of-view character at some point in the story.
Read “Why Don’t You Dance” online.
Reading As a Writer: “Why Don’t You Dance,” by Raymond Carver
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading of “Why Don’t You Dance,” designed to put into practice the story’s craft techniques. Pick and choose the ones that appeal to you as practice exercises, for the purpose of generating new work of our own!
It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things–a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring–with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine– the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. ~Raymond Carver
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom— nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.
In this opening paragraph, we get the central action of the story (a man has moved nearly all of his things from inside the house to the yard), as well as the introdution of the central inciting conflict: the mention of “her.”
Writing Exercise: in the opening paragraph to a story, set up the initial central action of a story, and introduce the central conflict.
His side, her side.
Some readers think that this extra paragraph, “His side, her side,” is unnecessary in that the information has already been spelled out in the paragraph above. The single sentence takes up an entire paragraph, and calls extra attention to the central conflict: her absence.
However, without it, would it be emphasized enough that the “she” is gone? Perhaps re-read the first paragraph, and decide whether you think that paragraph needed the following paragraph.
Writing Exercise: look back over work you’ve previously written: is there a central conflict that is emphasized either too little or too much? How can you alter it so that it strikes just the right note.
He considered this as he sipped the whiskey.
In the first paragraph, we only know he’s having a “drink.” Here, now we know that the drink is whiskey. This helps characterize him in this situation: he’s drinking something heavy and hard, while performing an odd action (to say the least.) Both of these things cue us to his mental state.
Writing Exercise: show us a character’s interior mental state through 1. something that they’re doing, and 2. something that they’re drinking, using three paragraphs. Bonus: have the second two paragraphs be only one sentence each.
The chiffonier stood a few feet from the foot of the bed. He had emptied the drawers into cartons that morning, and the cartons were in the living room. A portable heater was next to the chiffonier. A rattan chair with a decorator pillow stood at the foot of the bed. The buffed aluminum kitchen set took up a part of the driveway. A yellow muslin cloth, much too large, a gift, covered the table and hung down over the sides. A potted fern was on the table, and a few feet away from this stood a sofa and chair and a floor lamp. The desk was pushed against the garage door. A few utensils were on the desk, along with a wall clock and two framed prints. There was also in the driveway a carton with cups, glasses, and plates, each object wrapped in newspaper. That morning he had cleared out the closets, and except for the three cartons in the living room, all the stuff was out of the home. He had run an extension cord on out there and everything was connected. Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.
Notice the variations in paragraph length, from long to short to short to long, etc. Notice also the richness of the details that we get in the above paragraph. Why are certain objects described as “gifts”? Does it help to show the socio-economic status of the man? What else do we learn from the details of what he’s moving from the house to the yard?
Writing Exercise: because possessions are things that people choose, they can help to show/reveal character. Write a paragraph in which a person is moving their things from one place to another (for whatever reason.) What are these things? What does it show us about the character?
Now and then a car slowed and people stared. But no one stopped. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t, either.
This is such an interesting thing for him to be thinking, and asks the reader to consider, what it is about the scene that means an outsider wouldn’t stop. Is there a sense of depression? Of downturn? We don’t know for sure, but we think we can guess. Additionally, and somewhat crucially for this story, we are in his point of view, at this point in the story. Generally (although not always), writers choose as their point-of-view character the one who is the most changed by the sequence of events within the story. So we’ll pay close attention to how this point of view shift moves from the man to the girl later in the story.
Writing Exercise: have a character looking at some kind of room set-up, thinking either positive or negative thoughts about the scene they’re seeing.
“It must be a yard sale,” the girl said to the boy.
This girl and this boy were furnishing a little apartment.
“Let’s see what they want for the bed,” the girl said.
“And for the TV,” the boy said.
The two final characters in this story are now introduced: the girl, and the boy. Note that right now we are not in the point of view/consciousness of either of them. This action is being related from the outside of their consciousnesses, from the point of view at this point of an omniscient narrator.
Note also their dialogue: the girl is immediately attracted to the bed, the boy to the TV. Does this show their characterization, at all?
The boy pulled into the driveway and stopped in front of the kitchen table.
They got out of the car and began to examine things, the girl touching the muslin cloth, the boy plugging in the blender and turning the dial to MINCE, the girl picking up a chafing dish, the boy turning on the television set and making little adjustments.
He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match into the grass.
Character is shown through action, description, dialogue, and interior thought. We don’t know the interior thoughts of either, nor do we have descriptions of either. So we’re making all our judgements from their exterior actions and what they’re saying to one another.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star.
“Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows,” she said. “How is it?” he said.
“Try it,” she said.
So much happening in these three (very short) paragraphs! In the first, we are placed into her consciousness/thoughts (“She thought she could see a star”) but we’re not let into the thoughts of the boy. In the second paragraph, we are given the boy’s name. But we never know, throughout the story, the names of the man or the girl. So our two point of view characters are un-named, while our non-point-of-view character, Jack, is named.
Writing Exercise: in a short story, move consciousness from one character to another.
He looked around. The house was dark.
And here, we move into Jack’s consciousness. (We are seeing that the “house was dark” through Jack’s eyes.)
“I feel funny,” he said. “Better see if anybody’s home.” She bounced on the bed.
“Try it first,” she said.
He lay down on the bed and put the pillow under his head. “How does it feel?” she said.
“It feels firm,” he said.
She turned on her side and put her hand to his face.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Let’s get up,” he said.
“Kiss me,” she said.
She closed her eyes. She held him.
He said, “I’ll see if anybody’s home.”
We see character through dialogue, here: she is wanting to connect, he is wanting to figure out the situation in which they find themselves.
Writing Exercise: place two characters into the same place. Have one of them wanting to connect, in some fashion, and the other character wanting to figure out the background to the scene they are in, and why things are happening the way they are.
But he just sat up and stayed where he was, making believe he was watching the television.
The beautiful thing in this paragraph is that Jack’s dialogue and his actions are at odds with one another. What he says and what he does are not the same thing, showing more about his character.
Writing Exercise: a character says they will do something, but they don’t do it. Or, a character says they won’t do something, but end up doing it.
Lights came on in the houses up and down the street.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if,” the girl said and grinned and didn’t finish.
The boy laughed, but for no good reason. For no good reason, he switched the reading lamp on.
The girl brushed away a mosquito, whereupon the boy stood up and tucked in his shirt.
“I’ll see if anybody’s home,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s home. But if anybody is, I’ll see what things are going for.”
“Whatever they ask, offer ten dollars less. It’s always a good idea,” she said. “And, besides, they must be desperate or something.”
“It’s a pretty good TV,” the boy said. “Ask them how much,” the girl said.
The man came down the sidewalk with a sack from the market. He had sandwiches, beer, whiskey. He saw the car in the driveway and the girl on the bed. He saw the television set going and the boy on the porch.
The point of view shifts again: we move back into the consciousness of the man, on his way home. Because we’ve spent so much time with the girl and with Jack, all three characters are now on equal footing in terms of our understanding of who they are, as the action of the story continues.
“Hello,” the man said to the girl. “You found the bed. That’s good.”
“Hello,” the girl said, and got up. “I was just trying it out.” She patted the bed. “It’s a pretty good bed.”
“It’s a good bed,” the man said, and put down the sack and took out the beer and the whiskey.
We were told earlier that the man had bought “sandwiches, beer, whiskey.” But he only takes out the alcohol. Why do you think that is? Why is that highlighted, here?
Writing Exercise: a character makes three purchases, but only uses two of them. What does this show us about the character?
“We thought nobody was here,” the boy said. “We’re interested in the bed and maybe in the TV. Also maybe the desk. How much do you want for the bed?”
“I was thinking fifty dollars for the bed,” the man said.
“Would you take forty?” the girl asked.
“I’ll take forty,” the man said.
He took a glass out of the carton. He took the newspaper off the glass. He broke the seal on the whiskey.
“How about the TV?” the boy said. “Twenty-five.”
“Would you take fifteen?” the girl said.
“Fifteen’s okay. I could take fifteen,” the man said.
The boy lies, initially, when he says that they thought nobody was there. That line of dialogue is for the benefit of the man, explaining why they were lying on the bed. Then, they proceed to negotiate the way the girl asked him to, while the man unpacks a glass and opens his whiskey (actions revealing his character/current state of mind.)
Writing Exercise: one character tells another character a lie.
Writing Exercise: one character starts to fix themself a drink while talking to two other characters.
The girl looked at the boy.
“You kids, you’ll want a drink,” the man said. “Glasses in that box. I’m going to sit down. I’m going to sit down on the sofa.”
The man sat on the sofa, leaned back, and stared at the boy and the girl.
The boy found two glasses and poured whiskey.
“That’s enough,” the girl said. “I think I want water in mine.”
She pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.
“There’s water in that spigot over there,” the man said. “Turn on that spigot.”
The boy came back with the watered whiskey. He cleared his throat and sat down at the kitchen table. He grinned. But he didn’t drink anything from his glass.
The man gazed at the television. He finished his drink and started another. He reached to turn on the floor lamp. It was then that his cigarette dropped from his fingers and fell between the cushions.
The girl got up to help him find it.
“So what do you want?” the boy said to the girl.
The boy took out the checkbook and held it to his lips as if thinking.
“I want the desk,” the girl said. “How much money is the desk?”
The man waved his hand at this preposterous question.
“Name a figure,” he said.
He looked at them as they sat at the table. In the lamplight, there was something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling.
“I’m going to turn off this TV and put on a record,” the man said. “This record-player is going, too. Cheap. Make me an offer.”
He poured more whiskey and opened a beer.
What is the significance that the man dropped his cigarette into the couch? What do we learn about him, if anything? What do we learn knowing that the girl gets up to help him find it, but Jack does not. What do we learn knowing that Jack is just sitting there grinning, and not drinking the drink? Does it mean he’s nervous? What is your interpretation?
The significance of the man pouring more whiskey and opening a beer is fairly clear!
“Everything goes,” said the man.
The girl held out her glass and the man poured.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very nice,” she said.
“It goes to your head,” the boy said. “I’m getting it in the head.” He held up his glass and jiggled it.
Up to this point, we haven’t actually seen the boy drink anything.
The man finished his drink and poured another, and then he found the box with the records.
“Pick something,” the man said to the girl, and he held the records out to her.
The boy was writing the check.
“Here,” the girl said, picking something, picking anything, for she did not know the names on these labels. She got up from the table and sat down again. She did not want to sit still.
“I’m making it out to cash,” the boy said.
“Sure,” the man said.
The man drinks, and pours another. His actions with the records and the girl show that he’s trying to connect with her, just as she’s trying to connect with/understand him. The boy is all business with the check. The man, saying, “sure,” shows how little he cares about any of the business aspects.
They drank. They listened to the record. And then the man put on another.
Why don’t you kids dance? he decided to say, and then he said it. “Why don’t you dance?”
“I don’t think so,” the boy said.
“Go ahead,” the man said. “It’s my yard. You can dance if you want to.”
Arms about each other, their bodies pressed together, the boy and the girl moved up and down the driveway. They were dancing. And when the record was over, they did it again, and when that one ended, the boy said. “I’m drunk.”
The girl said, “You’re not drunk.”
“Well, I’m drunk,” the boy said.
The man turned the record over and the boy said, “I am.”
“Dance with me,” the girl said to the boy and then to the man, and when the man stood up, she came to him with her arms wide open.
Here, we see their physical connection. He’s wanting human connection, and at the beginning she was wanting physical connection (“kiss”) with the boy, and now she connects with the man.
Writing Exercise: two characters wanting physical, human connection, in some fashion, for some reason. How do they attempt to obtain this?
“Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “It’s my place,” he said.
“Let them watch,” the girl said.
“That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?”
He felt her breath on his neck.
“I hope you like your bed,” he said.
The girl closed and then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s shoulder. She pulled the man closer.
“You must be desperate or something,” she said.
She continues to try to understand him, even as they know they are on display. Notice how the boy has disappeared from the narration: it has becomes simply the two of them, and their human connection.
The narration then moves both in time and place, and exclusively into her point of view:
Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy give it to us. and all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “Why Don’t You Dance” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted? (This exercise is all about getting to the true heart of the story and is useful to apply to your own work, as well. What is essential?)
- As titles are not copyrightable, write a short work of 55 words that also uses “Why Don’t You Dance” as a title, but uses the phrase in a different way than this story. What is the particular resonance of the phrase for your specific story? As a even moderately well-read reader will know the Carver story, how can your story play with that set of reader awareness and expectations?
- Write a short work of 101 words in which a character moves something from their living room to the front yard. Why are they doing this? What happens as a result?
- Write a short work of 300 words in which a character moves something from their front yard to their living room. Why are they doing this? What happens as a result?
- Write a short work of 500 words in which you re-tell “Why Don’t You Dance” from the point of view of Jack exclusively. How does this change the story?
- Write a short work of 750 words that takes place with three characters, two of whom are buying something from the third.
- Write a short work of 1,000 words in which the story takes place only in the front yard of a house.
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which one character is trying to get rid of their possessions. Why are they doing this? What happens as a result?
- Write a short work of 5,000 words in which one character is trying to buy something, but a second character is trying to convince them to pay less for it. What happens next? What happens as a result?
- Write a short work of 7,500 words that starts with three characters sitting outside and drinking. Who is the point of view character? What does each character want?
Read Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” What do you think about his style? Are there elements you find useful to your own work? Are there elements you find not useful?