The behavior of couples in coffee shops is endlessly fascinating to me. There’s the match/e-harmony/zoosk/cupid.com-type coffee dates, all pressed and dressed and cute and eager, one of them hoping for 25 years of loving matrimony, the other angling for 25 minutes in the sack; the omg-we’re-soooo-in-love-and-have-pet-names-for-each-other-that-seriously-annoy-everyone-else-as-if-we-all-haven’t-had-our-own-schmoopie-at-one-time-or-another cuddly pair; the “study” dates, where he’s clearly enamored with her and she thinks of him as her practically-a-girlfriend-who-happens-to-be-really-good-at-chemistry or vice versa; the been-together-too-long-and-could-barely-stand-each-other to-begin-with ones, and my personal faves, the too-quirky-for-a-category couple. Of course, I eavesdrop on them all, because you can pick up really good dialogue to use in stories, plus I’m nosy as hell.
The last pair I observed had difficulty agreeing on where to sit. She unloaded her coat, ample purse, phone, bagle, napkins, and latte at a table by the window, but her mate protested:
Him: Not that table.
Her: But I already put my stuff down.
Him: But do you remember, how we were sitting there and the sun got in my eyes?
Her: Yes, but the sun isn’t shining.
Him: But do you remember how it was?
[Repeat the “Do you remember” “Uh-huh” bit a few times with increasing plaintiveness on his part and increasing annoyance on hers.]
Her: Okay, but like I said, the sun isn’t shining.
Him: But it will be eventually.
Gotta love a guy who can efficiently anticipate peril, get being upset done with in advance, and get his gal to sigh loudly, scoop up her coat, purse, phone, bagel, napkins, and latte and relocate to another table four feet away to avoid a problem that hasn’t actually happened and by the look of the sky ain’t gonna.
In stories, aren’t we often worried about how to create obstacles for our characters? And what constitutes a dramatically viable obstacle? Sometimes I think we’re prone to think bigger than we may need to for the character at hand, or we pile on obstacle after obstacle, so between page 20 and the middle of page 22 our beleaguered hero has battled vampires, prevented a train from derailing, rescued a pony from a burning barn, and invented a new formula for glue. We aim for knock-down-drag-outs and big explosive moments, and really all we need is to have some guy with astigmatism and a significant amount of ear lobe hair to worry about whether two hours from now he might feel a little put out because the sun is arrogantly shining.
I wanted to follow that guy and his gal home to see what future perils awaited. Really, I wanted to know his backstory. And then I wondered if I needed to. Because the moment at hand was so perfect on its own and allowed for an implied backstory far better than anyone needed to bother spelling out.
My notes for the day: 1) The problem the character faces can indeed be anything big or small, as long as it’s of real concern for the character. It’s less about the obstacle than the character’s reaction to it. 2) The character can face the same problem over and over again and get just as baffled or distraught each time, possibly never really solving the problem. 3) Often we are prone to start a story in the middle of the action, which I fully agree with, but isn’t it true that starting the story in the middle of the problem is just as effective? Further, starting the story in the middle of a merely anticipated problem seems to be fine as well, maybe better! 4) How great to build a character who spends more time anticipating problems that never actually happen than actually having to deal with problems. And of course, the anticipation becomes for that character the real problem. 5) Can a character with an intriguing backstory be even more interesting if we leave out all backstory and insist on going only forward in the story? 6) Every story ought to contain at least one guy with lots of ear lobe hair.
None of my conclusions are original. We can all point to examples where really good writers manipulate characters and plot in marvelous manners. But sometimes craft techniques resonate for me differently when I see them spontaneously enacted. I’m going to get to the coffee shop early next week to see if the dear duo is back and if the pesky sun comes out one more time before it snows. I can only hope so.
Carry on, fellow coffee shop writers!
xo Laurel Leigh
Photo from Wikipedia.