It’s 8 o’clock, a perfect summer night, and the sky is fading to steel blue. A middle-aged man, my next fare, comes out of the bar and holds up his index finger, then sidles up next to two women talking to the bouncer. He flirts with the older woman. Meanwhile, I wait.
“Don’t you leave me!” he shouts at me. It is the voice of someone used to shouting, used to getting his way.
“I’m going to head out soon!” I say, laughing, only half joking. He storms over towards me. My blood pressure rises. I consider driving away, waving goodbye through the sunroof.
“What did you say?” he asks, squinting his eyes. “You are not f***ing leaving me!” He throws his phone into the passenger seat, pulls out his wallet, leafs through a deck of bills, and tosses a twenty on to the passenger side floor. I do not pick it up.
* * * * *
I am not so good at waiting in the tension. I tend to avoid conflict at all costs and do anything to move towards speedy resolution of the story.
Does this feel like a counseling session?
Avoiding conflict may not sound like a life-destroying personality trait, but it sure makes for terrible fiction. Imagine if Scrooge looked up at the charitable gentlemen who entered his office in scene one and said, “Why, of course! Here’s a donation. And Merry Christmas.” End of story. Or if Bilbo Baggins looked up at one of the dark riders and handed him the ring straight away, muttering, “I’m not really into jewelry anyway.”
As writers, we have to allow our characters to sit in the conflict until it has worked its course in them.
I sometimes drive for Uber. The beginning of this piece? A real-life example of a conflict. In that moment, when the customer threw the bill in through the window, I wanted to leave. But if I would have fled, I would have ruined the story.
* * * * *
He goes back to his conversation. The $20 is still on the floor. He nudges his body up against the younger woman, puts his arm around her shoulders. She shifts. His hand drops, catches her waist on the way through, a passing glance, a pressure point impossible for her not to feel.
Nearly ten minutes later he finally comes back to the car.
“I need to make a pit stop,” he says. He bends over and picks up the $20 bill off the floor and hands it to me. “Here, this is yours.” I shrug and take it. He directs me to another bar. We arrive, and again he wants to control the situation.
“I need you to wait here,” he says. “I’m just having one beer. I will make it worth your time. Do not f***ing leave me!”
Ten minutes later he comes out of the bar alone and climbs into the car. I confirm the address and we start driving.
“I can’t believe you were going to leave me,” he says, starting in on the same old topic. He asks me how often I drive.
“Fifteen to twenty hours a week,” I say. “Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on my other work.”
I ask him what he does.
“I’m a business man,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of money.” He is not bragging. He says it as a statement of fact, the same way someone might say, “I could stand to lose some weight,” or “I had salmon for dinner.”
“I’m on my way home to my girlfriend. I was married. I have some kids. They won’t have anything to do with me, not now.” Now he is back again, chuckling, but in between each laugh is a tiny spark of something. I realize what it is: disappointment. I have never heard someone trying so hard to convince themselves they are happy. Talking to him is like being the lion tamer in the circus – circling, constantly assessing, now firm, now retreating. We pull up outside his house.
“Thanks for waiting,” he says, standing up out of the car. The street is tree-lined and dark and someone in the distance is mowing their yard. I can hear the mower. I can smell the grass.
“I can’t believe you were going to f***ing leave me,” he says. He pulls out a $100 bill and throws it onto the passenger seat. He slams the door.
* * * * *
So, that’s a true story about me staying in the conflict, not running away, not trying to shorten it. Just letting it play out.
As story-tellers, we’d do well to let our characters experience the conflict. Slow down. Let them live the entire story. Because that’s where the real story is hiding.
Shawn Smucker lives in Lancaster, PA, with his wife and their six children. He can also be found at shawnsmucker.com. The Day the Angels Fell is his first novel.
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