(The results of an experiment, described in the first and second parts of this series about the writerly reader. A condensed version of this study appears in my book Narrative Madness, which you can acquire at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon. I have sometimes altered spelling, punctuation and capitalization in the responses to make them more accessible.)
Twenty respondents (71%) gave their longest answers to the question “What happened?”, sometimes two, three, four and five times longer. Obviously, this is the part of the story that matters.
Regarding motivation, she told him “I love you” because she meant it: “She loved him, I reckon.” “She does.” “She loves him.” “She loved him . . . really loved him.” “Maybe they used to have a relationship, then it ended in friendship, but she wants it to be more than that.”
She told him “I love you” for other reasons: “It was the early part of the relationship and she thought she should say it.” “She said I love you because she is trying to save [their] relationship.” “She’s betraying a friendship.” In other versions, she said it because she was feeling emotional: “They were having an intimate, emotionally connected time,” or “She was needy!” Maybe she was tipsy: “The drink was floating her emotions.”
She said it “as an apology, perhaps [for] infidelities.” “She cheated on him.” She said “I love you” ironically: “She was being sarcastic. ” “She said it sarcastically. That’s the only reason I could justify the response. ” “She meant it as she said it. Sarcastic.” This last response seems to imply that sarcasm is the correct reading because of her tone: “She meant it as she said it.”
He threw the drink because he was “uncomfortable with being caught off guard by the statement made in public.” He did it for effect: “He was being dramatic.” Because he was angry: “He knew she didn’t mean it.” “He did not like her being sarcastic.” “Whether or not she meant it that way, he assumed she was mocking him.” “He was slightly angry, and a little indignant. Their relationship hasn’t always been romantic, and they have been trying to reconcile.” “He is angry. Hard to tell why. Maybe they used to have a relationship, then it ended in friendship.” “He’s caught her in a lie and is calling her out on it.” “He was still hurt over her affair with his friend.” “He knew she cheated on him and knew she was saying she loved him just to get back in his good graces.” “He was over her shit. . . . I laughed and laughed.”
It was an illicit affair: “He’s her married professor and thinks she’s after a better grade.” “He was saying that this affair was wrong; she was an employee of his and that if they didn’t deny their feelings he would have a very unpleasant task to bear, and would she please understand and help make the situation less taxing on both of them.” In the last response, notice how a drink in the face has become a polite request: “would she please understand and help make the situation less taxing.”
He misunderstood her: “She was carrying her dog and whispered to it and he was angry that she always brought her dog everywhere.” “She actually whispered ‘olive juice,’ which was inaudible to the man and looked exactly like ‘I love you.’” He was unbalanced: “I think the guy is crazy.”
One of them was not behaving correctly: “I’m just imagining a scene in a restaurant and somebody behaves inappropriately . . . kind of a comedy scene from a movie.”
The choice of drink is important because alcohol might partly explain why the characters were acting so emotionally. Of those who mentioned the drink, eleven (79%) said it was alcoholic. Several Mormon friends and relatives of mine (who do not drink) selected nonalcoholic beverages. The beverage also indicates whether the woman’s clothes were damaged. Water probably does not harm them, but red wine ruins them. He was drinking water (2), lemonade, “a bottomless glass of diet root beer,” alcohol (2), “an alcoholic drink (of course ;-)”, “some alcohol otherwise he wouldn’t have behaved so boorishly,” beer, red wine (2), scotch, a cocktail, a “giant cocktail in a giant martini glass,” a gin and tonic and a lime, a Manhattan and “cosmos” (notice how the plural of “cosmos” extends the story into the past — he has had more than one). Of the fourteen who answered the question about the drink, eleven (79%) named the drink exactly; two mentioned the container (a glass); one mentioned the size of drink and container; one referred to the garnish; one described the special deal at the restaurant (“bottomless”).
In the resolution, a writer wraps the story up. Since I did not offer much of a coda, most readers generously stepped in for me and finished the story.
What did he do afterwards? He went home (4), which is an ambiguous ending for the man. He fumed: “He stormed outside, walking around.” “He stormed into the parking lot of the Fashion Place Mall next door.” In the next three versions, he brushes off the dramatic scene in an apparently nonchalant way: “He went dancing.” “He went to a bar a few blocks away.“ “He went and played pool with the boys.” I say “apparently” because I am reanimating each person’s answer. I see him acting as if he does not care, but I sense him boiling under the surface. In some versions, he not only reacts nonchalantly, he finds someone else: He “went down the street to another bar for happy hour, flirting with an old friend who was waitress.” “He went home to her roommate.” In this last answer, he not only gets one up on the woman by sleeping with someone else, he gets revenge.
One response was deceptively simple: “He went to his car where he lights up a cigarette.” In this resolution, the man is sitting and smoking in his car, but not driving, which subtly expresses an agitated, but not a melodramatic state of mind. Perhaps he is watching for her.
Another continuation took the story several more steps: “He went and stood on the curb for a few minutes, then went back in to pay the tab, but he never went back to the table . . . When he finally decided to check on her, she was already gone.” The writerly reader packed a lot into this coda. He stands in confusion on the curb, not sure what to do. Then, remembering his obligation, he goes back in to pay, but he deliberately does not return to the table. Not at first. Although we read, “he never went back to the table,” his resolution crumbles, and, somewhat repentant and maybe even concerned, he “checks on her,” but she has already left. Definitely an unhappy ending, but it hints at a moral: “Don’t wait too long to make up with the one you love.”
What did she do? “She remained seated.” “She left as well.” She went home (2). All of these are ambiguous endings. “She changes her blouse and finishes her pasta.” “She cleaned herself up, then called a friend to come pick her up.” “She phones/texts a friend in the restroom, cleaned up and left to go home.” These answers show consequences (she has to clean up and find a way to get home), but she is acting as though it does not really matter. “She just sat there mad that she had to pay for lunch” is another ending that envisions consequences (the bill!), but with an angry reaction. “She sat stunned for a long time.” “She wiped her face, maybe cried.” She “cried in the bathroom and went home.” Unhappy endings all. In one case, she moves on and improves her situation: “she is rescued by a good looking guy who’s been eyeing her.”
Only one answer was a traditionally happy ending: “He went home. She followed later and apologized and they made up and got married some months later.” I said it was a happy ending, but I am worried about this couple. She apologized for saying “I love you,” but he did not apologize for throwing his drink in her face. That smells like trouble. At least that is how I read the reading.
Readers in this experiment chose the time, setting, decor, lighting, characters, motivations, costumes, props and endings. The range and exactness of detail demonstrate how effectively a reader can step into a story, even one that is so short that there hardly seems room.
You may object that the tale was vague enough to allow creativity, but I would argue that readers do the same with the most exhaustive texts. Even when the writer offers ornate descriptions, readers interpret detail in their own way. What’s more, long descriptions are unpopular. Few readers can stay focused on all those specifics if they cannot see their relevance to the story. The story is what matters. In our hunger for a piece of tale, we all overlook details and supplant our own. No one ever pictures the same scene. From this we can gather that writers should carry out their end of the deal, but leave enough room for the reader. (How about you? Do you have enough space?)
Explaining the intent of the experiment to Omar (my first guinea pig), I told him that readers must do the same with every piece of writing, including a nonfiction work like Narrative Madness. Readers have to animate my voice, visualize concepts, produce narratives, participate in experiments, consider ideas, give opinion, add examples and even finish the book. When I had explained all this, Omar blinked and asked, “And they still have to pay for the book?”
I have been discussing reading, but readers are not the only geniuses. Even those who cannot read have highly advanced narrative skills. When they hear a story, they animate the narrative as any thoroughly as any reader does. We could conduct the experiment orally with similar results, so let’s say “Happy birthday!” to reader and listener alike.