“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
I don’t know who this old black man is. Usually I see him on days I bike in, over on the other side of Lake Destiny Road, going south to my north.
He’s always riding a ratty little bike, so non-descript I can’t really remember what it is – maybe one of those banana-bikes popular twenty years ago, maybe a heavily-used Walmart coaster.
He’s got that old-man’s face: black, shopworn, seen-it-all. The writer in me would like to think he saw events of the Civil Rights era but he’s not quite that old. Maybe interesting stories all the same, like how the interstate split his black township in two like a concrete battle-axe and didn’t even give it a ramp.
The thing is, he’s always carrying a gas can, one of those plastic red numbers. Presumably he’s topping it off at the nearby 7-11, then riding home.
There are only two houses down the road he rides. Eatonville is the next likely destination but that’s like two miles away, quite a haul on an un-oiled, rusting bike.
Which leads me to ask – why is he getting this gasoline every morning? Why not just drive over? If it’s for a lawnmower, part of a service he works for, wouldn’t it be easier for someone with a car to get it? After all, getting gas in a car involves just pulling in. Getting it on a bike is a muggy long ride with a gallon sloshing around atop your handlebars.
There is a story there.
I saw this guy (again) while riding in the other day, pondering what I’d write about. And here it was – the idea of depth-in-scene, the hidden story. This element, in passing, raises a touch of curiosity in the reader. If my narrative mentions the writer-bicycling yuppie (with his safety gear and anality about the rules of the road) spotting the broken down black man inexplicably riding along in a symbolic opposite direction every morning with a gallon of gas, the reader’s interest will be piqued. Will the yuppie have some sort of contact with this man, and learn the depth of local history, or perhaps the life-lesson of acceptance?
Or maybe it will lead to some web of crime, a clue to the activities of an aging yet bitter militant, too poor to afford a car yet able to construct dreadful gasoline bombs which he will plant about town? A race against time?
Or perhaps this is a foil, to show the yuppie’s own shortcomings. How a casual let-it-be old man magnifies the yuppie’s own fruitless drive, his rules-following and pedal-pedal-pedal haste?
It could be that this is just a way to make a statement about the world, how in the shadow of the humming freeway, a marginalized black man rides past with a single gallon of gasoline.
It could be just a red herring, an odd moment that adds quirkiness to a scene, a playful artist trick.
The writer needs to decide how (and even if) this snapshot fits the story, that it serves a purpose (even if it is ironically a non-purpose). It needs to fit the mood and the story. It needs to tell us something, show us something. “Show, don’t tell” as the rule goes – and the showing doesn’t need to be clear. It just needs to be interesting, observant, relevant and picturesque. It will make a 2-D story 3-D.
As a writer, you need to see these things in your life and use them.
It is Chekhov’s Gun, and it needs to be fired, one way or another.