Guest Post, Marylee MacDonald: The Man in a Room Alone

The “Man In A Room Alone” Problem (And How to Solve It)

Marylee MacDonald bio pictureAll of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.— from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées

Writing teachers often tell students that it’s Death To Your Story to place “a man in a room alone.” Is this good advice, or, like “Show. Don’t tell,1” advice that is applied far more often than is warranted? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Mrs. Dalloway and the Ticking Clock

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway time moves millisecond by millisecond while Clarissa Dalloway’s thoughts flit from flowers to passersby to memories to the meaning of life. Many scenes in this literary novel have no dramatic action and no other characters or events to bump the protagonist off course. However, the author’s goal was not to write a page-turner. Woolf’s project as a writer was to capture the ephemeral moments of time.

Laying her brooch on the table, she had a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her. She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, and, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there— the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself.2

Clarissa Dalloway is doing what Pascal says is nearly impossible. She sits—and forces us to sit—within the glass bell jar of her own thoughts. The novel is both wonderful and (for many of today’s readers) incredibly slow. We’re stuck in nondramatic scenes where there’s little overt conflict. Characters rarely strive to reach a goal.

The Man In Bed (Alone)

No man is more alone—and no scene less dramatic—than one with a character awakening from sleep. One of my favorite novels— Paul Bowles’s Sheltering Sky— opens with a man in a room alone.

He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire.

If it’s truly a no-no to place a man in a room alone, how could I have read that novel and taken any pleasure from it? I’m not talking the movie version with John Malkovich, but the actual book from which the movie sprang.

But wait! Bowles’s 1949 novel about alienation and despair isn’t the only novel opening with a touseled-haired protagonist.

A Woman In Bed (Alone)

The High Road, by Irish writer Edna O’Brien begins with woman in a room alone in bed:

It rose, swelled, then burst and dispersed in a great clatter of sound. First it seemed to be a roar inside my head, a remembered roar, a remembered summons, but then through the warmth of sleep it became clear that it was a roar being uttered at that very moment, either in the room or on the landing outside. I thought I heard my name—Anna, Anna—being uttered with malice.

My hand went instinctively toward the bedside table only to find that there was no lamp, nor table where a lamp could be, and then slowly and unnervingly it came to me that I was not at home, that I had come to this place, this new place, and gradually I remembered my walk of the evening before, the strange town, a mountain, and now this intemperate roar while it was still dark.

Not only is this gal alone. She can barely remember how she got there.

An Epidemic of Amnesia

Walk down a bookstore’s aisles. Open novels at random. A good many (about an eighth by my count) begin with a character emerging from sleep. Not only that, but a frightening number of fictional characters have amnesia. I mean, really, how many people have you ever known who’ve had amnesia? None, I daresay. 

Authorial Choices

Why do authors begin their novels this way? Two reasons:

  • It’s efficient.
  • We’re overly fascinated with our characters.

Let’s look at efficiency. When a book opens with only one character, readers have only one name to learn. The author can get the story rolling without the distraction of other characters and without over-much attention to setting. The reader watches the character’s teeth-brushing, hair-combing and staring-at-a-face-in-the-mirror. (That, too, has turned into a cliché.)  Essentially, the author has one ball to juggle, not three or four.

But I think there’s another reason authors open with characters getting out of bed. Very likely we authors got to know our characters by yanking back the sheets and saying, “Wake up! Time to get moving.” Like nutmeg on cappuccino, we sprinkle on amnesia. It’s purpose? To add tension.

An author who kicks off a novel with a character in a room alone, or who writes scenes such as those in Mrs. Dalloway, risks losing the reader to boredom. (Sorry, Virginia Woolf.) Adding amnesia doesn’t help. Readers think, “I’ve read this before.”

Coming Up With A Plan

Once in a while, having a character in a room alone is exactly what the story demands. Just as in real life, fictional people need to make plans.  Often they start planning right after an action scene, particularly if what they’d been planning before has failed.

In Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a novel about shell-shocked World War I vets, Dr. Rivers is desperately trying to figure out a strategy to fix soldiers’ psyches and return them to the battlefield. In this passage, he’s in his office considering what kinds of treatments might work best:

The change he demanded of them—and  by implication of himself—was not trivial. Fear, tenderness—these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of what it meant to be a man. Not that Rivers’s treatment involved any encouragement of weakness or effeminacy. His patients might be encouraged to acknowledge their fears, their horror of the war—but they were still expected to do their duty and return to France.

After running through the difficulties of achieving his objectives, he comes up with a plan to try a new set of experiments. These involve “ice cubes, bristles, near-boiling water and pins.” If the reader hadn’t spent time with Rivers in a room alone, his new plan to try these experiments would strike us as cruel. Instead, when we witness his thought process, we understand that the experiments make ghastly good sense.

Calming Down and Processing

In the same novel the soldier/poet Sassoon has seen ghosts. He needs to process what he’s seen, and weighs the likelihood that Rivers will believe him or write him up as crazy.

The palms of his hands were sweating and his mouth was dry.

He needed to talk to Rivers, though he’d have to be careful what he said, since Rivers was a thorough-going rationalist who wouldn’t take kindly to tales of the supernatural, and might even decide the symptoms of a war neurosis were manifesting themselves at last. Perhaps they were.

Sasson goes to find Rivers, but an orderly tells him Rivers isn’t there and won’t return for three weeks. Sassoon, a man who ought to be talking to someone, faces this setback and must come up with a new plan. Again, he keeps his own counsel and makes his decision when he’s by himself.

Sasson went slowly upstairs, unable to account for his sense of loss. After all, he’d known Rivers was going…Sassoon collected his washbag and went along to the bathroom. He felt almost dazed. As usual he turned to lock the door, and as usual remembered there were no locks. At times like this the lack of privacy was almost intolerable. He filled the basin, and splashed his face and neck. Birds, sounding a little stunned as if they too needed to recover from the night, were beginning, cautiously, to sing.

As in real life, characters in fiction must let their feelings surface. It’s only when they’re alone—after the crisis has passed—that they can regain their equilibrium.

When characters have gone through an ordeal and we’ve seen that ordeal dramatized in real time, we should push them into a room alone. That’s when they can let their feelings surface, process what just happened, and plan what to do next.

Scene and Summary

Writers who want to capture a reader’s attention would do well to avoid the cliché of having an amnesiac character or one awakening from sleep. Similarly, if you write lengthy, nondramatic scenes with solitary characters, readers may lose interest. In summaries the opposite is true. Readers want to see how characters react and how they’re going to cope with what just happened.

Pascal was right about humankind’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. We can take it, but only when we’re not forced to sit for too long. Passages of soul-searching and rumination are better handled in narrative summary than in scene.

  1. “Show” refers to scenes. The action slows down and the clock ticks in real time. “Tell” refers to summary passages. These are also called narrative or expository passages. It means that the story is crunching events that take place over minutes, hours, or days into a compact ball. Summary passages don’t try to simulate real time.
  2. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway: (Annotated) (Kindle Locations 492-497). Unknown. Kindle Edition.


Marylee MacDonald, Guest Post: Tweaking Setting to Heighten Tension

Marylee MacDonaldSetting is not like the backdrop in a play, hanging inertly behind the actors. In fiction, setting creates tension and tension is what keeps readers turning the page. There are three kinds of setting we ought to be thinking about as we write. One is private space, the second is workspace, and the third is public space.

Private space is our home, car, or hotel room. By describing a private setting in detail, writers allow readers to infer a great deal about the world the character has constructed for him or herself. None of us would live in a home where we can’t relax. At home, we’re seeking a haven. In my story “Oregano,” Janice Dawkins comes in at the end of a long day to find a cluttered service porch. The mess enrages her, but she stuffs it down. The mess in the character’s private space sets up the story’s conflict, as it does in Laura M. Flynn’s Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir (Counterpoint Press). Here, the narrator describes her childhood apartment.

The mess that had been steadily overtaking every surface in the apartment since my father left stretched before us in all directions. Mail had accumulated near the front door, first on the shelves of the console table, but now it extended in unstable piles along the wall halfway to the living room, which was in turn a confusion of color and texture. Layers of clothing, papers, and toys blanketed the floor. Books pulled off the shelves but not put back circled the bookshelves. Records—some exposed, some in their white slips, some still in the album covers—fanned out in a widening arc at the foot of the stereo. Near the couches, fat metal knitting needles, holding twenty or so uneven lines of scarf, were jammed into balls of yarn—projects my older sister Sara and I had abandoned.

By simply looking at the objects the narrator holds up for our inspection, readers can infer that something is amiss. We don’t know quite what, but the description of this disorderly private space makes us yearn to know more. The disorder puts pressure on the characters. The plot hinges on “fixing” the setting so that the character can comfortably live in it. Or not. The other possibility is that the disorder is so great that the character can never live there and has to leave. In some stories, disorder in the protagonist’s private space sets the plot in motion.

Let’s look now at workspace. If the home is the foreground of our setting, then the office is the middle distance. In stories with office settings, such as Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation” (Orientation and Other Stories; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), it’s the impersonality of the environment that injects tension.

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it.

A dead voice simply shows us the objects in the setting and leaves it to the reader to infer what kind of workplace this is going to be. I felt trapped. That’s great for tension.

No setting should be feelings-neutral, nor should it be exactly what we’d expect. If the setting for a story is the suburbs, invest those suburbs with feeling just as Josh Mohr does in Fight Song (Softskull Press).

Way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs, Bob Coffen rides his bike to work. He pedals and pants and perspires past all the strip malls, ripe with knockoff shoe stores, chain restaurants, emporiums stuffed with the latest gadgets, and watering holes deep enough that the locals can drown their sorrows in booze. Each plaza also contains at least one church, temple, or synagogue— a different way altogether to drown one’s sorrows.

The setting—suburbia–puts pressure on Bob Coffen, and that’s before we know anything about his conflicts with other characters or with himself.

What about public spaces, especially those that aren’t as familiar as the neighborhood mall? Put a character in a slum, and the reader’s danger-antennas shoot up. By describing the particulars, as Aleksandar Hemon does in Love and Obstacles (Penguin Group), the slum becomes as vivid and frightening to the reader as it is to the protagonist.

Spinelli and Natalie picked me up at the crack of dawn; the light was still diffused by the residues of the humid night. We drove toward the slums, against the crowd marching in antlike columns: men in torn shorts and shreds for shirts; women wrapped in cloth, carrying baskets on their heads, swollen-bellied children trotting by their sides; emaciated, long-tongued dogs following them at a hopeful distance. I had never seen anything so unreal in my life. We turned onto a dirt road, which turned into a car-wide path of mounds and gullies. The Land Rover stirred up a galaxy of dust, even when moving at a low speed. Shacks misassembled from rusty tin and cardboard were lined up above a ditch, just about to tumble in. I understood what Conrad meant by inhabited devastation. A woman with a child tied to her back dipped clothes into tea-colored water and slapped the wet tangle with a tennis racket.

I desperately wanted the Land Rover to turn around. I just knew something bad was about to happen.

At its core, every story needs something to happen. The setting itself can be part of a story’s dynamic change. Here is what Annie Proulx has to say about settings that are in flux (The Missouri Review, Issue 22.2, Spring, 1999).

I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings… The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change.

Think about “Brokeback Mountain:” traditional cowboy heroes fall in love, thus violating old taboos. In San Francisco the story of two male lovers would not have the same power, but a rural setting heightens the tension because we know these guys are going to have to sneak around. The more powerful their attraction, the more they find themselves in conflict with the environment.

Setting cannot be incidental. By taking the trouble to place the story in a particular setting, an author can set the mood of the story and lay the groundwork for the actors to play their parts. To raise tension even more, place the actors on a moving stage and watch them scramble.