I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s book, Saturday. As the title implies, the entire 304 pages take place on a single day. McEwan is skillful at making this day realistic and, though it’s told in the third-person singular, the reader closely follows the thoughts and feelings of Henry Perowne, eminent and aging neurosurgeon whose life, overall, is fulfilling. He still loves and desires his wife. His two nearly grown children are well-adjusted-one a talented musician, and the other a successful poet married to a successful lawyer. However, we have the sense that underneath this façade, cracks and chasms exist.
The book begins in the early morning on Saturday with Perowne rising out of bed and ends with him falling headlong back into that same bed after a very trying day. (Please note: he does not awaken because his alarm clock goes off. He is aroused by a distressing noise outside; a sound that later turns out to be a plane crash.)
Most the events of the story are ordinary. He plays a grueling game of squash with his longtime friend. He visits his mother at her nursing home. He goes to the grocery store to buy fish for a dinner party planned for that evening. And yet…
Throughout the book, because we are close to the thoughts of this man, the story feels tense.
Perowne, we quickly learn, is a man who sees and anticipates disaster often. The reader, too, feels an impending sense that things are not quite right-a darkening sky seems to be gathering on the horizon. At the same time, it is clear that Perowne inhabits this state of mind each and every day. He feels as if the life he’s built is always on the verge of crumbling beneath his feet. And of course, since the writer is the ever-skillful Ian McEwan, on this particular day, he happens to be right. Things will have shifted significantly in the course of this single day.
As writers of short stories, what can we learn from this novel? A few things.
First, we are not tricked. McEwan carries us along with this uneasiness and then delivers on it; in other words, he sets up an expectation and fulfills it for the reader. How disappointing and even wrong it would feel if we reached the final pages and discovered that this unease was for aught; if nothing of note happened and it was simply an ordinary day. (Side note number two: beware the “slice of life” story. Unless your character’s everyday life is always compelling, complicated, and surprising, we do not care about what happens to him on the day that nothing in particular happened.)
Which brings me to the second lesson of the novel. This particular Saturday is lifechanging; you can sense that all of the characters are going to be altered slightly by what happens during this singular day. At the same time, no one dies, nothing explodes, aliens do not invade, the apocalypse doesn’t occur. Though what happens is dramatic, it is not melodramatic; and we believe the action of the story because, like the main character, we’ve sensed all along that this was no ordinary day. (Third side note: this does not mean you have to write about the worst day of someone’s life. That day can be just as boring or cliché as the day nothing happened. In a short story, while we want something of note to happen, it need not be a decapitation or nuclear explosion. It can be a gesture toward change; a noticeable shift in the balance of things illustrating that the character’s life trajectory has altered over the course of the story.)
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the dramatic action arises because of how the main character behaves. In other words, the character’s behavior toward a person and a situation early in the story causes that situation to be heightened and sets in motion the chain of events. How Perowne behaves is also reflective of his job, of his personality- it’s not the character trying on a new personality suddenly; it’s a character behaving as he would on any other day. It just so happens that, on this day, his behavior propels the action forward in a dramatic way. In this way, the book illustrates one of the common fiction mantras-character is fate.
More specifically, because Henry Perowne is a neurosurgeon who can recognize neurological disorders, and because he is a person who is used to behaving calmly in difficult situations (again, a reflection of his job), and because he is slightly egotistical, he is able to diffuse the situation by throwing out a diagnosis. However, because he is also someone who likes to be right, this tactic causes worse consequences
in the long run. If he had been someone else, he would have handled the situation differently, and it would have ended in a different way. But because character is fate, the final scenes of the book are set in motion by Perowne’s actions, by his personality, by his strengths and his weaknesses. Knowing your characters well (their jobs, how they feel about their partners, their level of insight, their blind spots) will help you light the way through the first
drafts of the story as you figure out how the dramatic action will unfold.
Let the character, not the plot, set in motion the action of the story. If you follow your character, your readers will be carried with you, over the course of one extraordinary day or decades of a life.
Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.