R. Shapiro photo

Story Idea: Make Sense of the Ridiculous

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

April 2012

"Why this becomes believable is that it’s based on a very human quality…"
Rereading Sam Shepard’s Day Out of Days, (Knoph, 2010), I thought of how he takes a situation that could never happen and spins it into a satisfying short, short story, and that maybe I could do it too.

In his eight page story, Haskell, Arkansas, (Highway 70), a man taking a stroll comes across a ditch containing a man’s severed head in a basket. The man is torn. He wants to walk away, but keeps getting pulled back. Slowly, the head becomes the master of the man—getting him to swing the basket up onto his own head and walk where he’d never intended to go.

Why this becomes believable is that it’s based on a very human quality—one’s ability to be taken over by a smart talker, someone with charisma, someone much older, or younger? Even if this happened to you in childhood, it would stay in your memory and you would be able to suspend belief because the feeling of being dominated is so real to you. The story stays doggedly in the moment. The man with the whole body never even asks the head what happened, because then it would turn out to be a particular story between two individuals. This way, the story becomes universal and you fill in your own thoughts about the time you were taken advantage of as Gore Vidal observed when he said, “No good deed goes unpunished.” The chutzpha of the severed head, who should be the most vulnerable, to tell the man who is carrying him that he’s doing him a favor. We all know people just like that, which pulls us along with the man and the head.

The story, however absurd, has the classical turn. The full-bodied man who has been threatening to leave the arrogant head behind suddenly feels “a deep, crushing loneliness that presses down through his chest.” He discovers it’s the same feeling he’s carried since he’s been a little boy, the feeling he has when he has to get up and brush his teeth each morning. He picks up the head and goes where it tells him, a whole man now.

"The head is a metaphor for the abandoned part of our minds, what we are trying to run from…"
The head is a metaphor for the abandoned part of our minds, what we are trying to run from, our despair, and how caring for someone else, even a part of someone can help. So the ridiculous becomes sensible, even moral.

Heads independent of bodies seem to be a theme in In a one-paragraph story, The Recent Beheadings, he writes less metaphorically, “The kind of separation that terrifies us the most—losing our heads.”

" It’s creepy, absurd, might even strike you funny, but it sounds real because he’s given us enough detail…"
Pity the Poor Mercenary is the story of a hired killer who has to strip off his victim’s face to prove that he’s killed him instead of just taking a photo. Of course the writer has never done such a thing and I doubt if he researched how to do it, but he confidently makes up details. “I decided that the best method of preservation was to dust the inside of the face with baby powder and salt, then roll the paper thin skin into a loose roll. I bound the whole thing up with blue rubber bands, like the kind they use for holding broccoli together.” It’s creepy, absurd, might even strike you funny, but it sounds real because he’s given us enough detail to make it real.

In Cracker Barrel Men’s Room (Highway 90 West) a man accidentally gets locked in a handicapped stall for the night and is driven crazy by having to listen to Shania Twain songs in an endless loop “She clawed at his ears with her silver talons.” He flushed every toilet to squash her sound, but it did no good. When he tried to get the speakers out with his pocketknife, he managed to impale himself. Really, who hasn’t been driven mad by an endless sound? Ever sleep with a loud snorer or have a neighbor whose security alarm is set off after he goes to work on a day when you have to stay home to wait for a repairman? How about the person who talks on his cell phone through the whole movie in these modern times when there’s no matron with a flashlight to get him out? Yes, the situation of the man in the Cracker Barrel’s bathroom is improbable, but emotionally, we can understand it. And as the poor fellow is bleeding to death on the floor, Shania Twain comes in on stiletto heels, still singing. Now that’s purgatory for you.

Think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis :

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.”

He gives this impossible event credibility by going into Gregor’s new anatomy with patient and exacting detail:

“He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown arched abdomen divided up into three rigid bow-like sections…”

Why we will read on is that this story is really about a young man who is being taken advantage of by his family, who has to stay in a job he hates in order to support all of them. Who among us hasn’t been made to feel like a bug by a family member at least once in his life?

The rest can be read on http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/stories/kafka-E.htm

If you have a weird idea for a story, something outré that couldn’t possibly happen, tell it with authority, with detail, and most of all, relate it to a real emotion inside you that the reader can connect with. Then you will have made the impossible, possible, which is the alchemy of a fine writer.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro



Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink.
Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/