What Can We Steal From Alexandra Salerno’s “Don’t Go Waiting on My Doorstep, Because I’m Not Gonna Come Home”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Don’t Go Waiting on My Doorstep, Because I’m Not Gonna Come Home,” short story
Author: Alexandra Salerno (on Twitter @alisalerno)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published in the Winter 2011 issue of The Gettysburg Review. Why not pick up the back issue? You can also access back issues of The Gettysburg Review through library databases. (Aren’t libraries awesome?)
Bonus: Why not check out “Figure Drawing,” another work by Ms. Salerno?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tension
“Don’t Go Waiting on My Doorstep, Because I’m Not Gonna Come Home” takes place during what will probably be the worst few moments of Kara’s life. She and Craig, her husband, are the parents of identical twins Nate and Kenny. There’s been a terrible accident; the boys were playing on and around the backyard swingset. Somehow, Nate’s eye was impaled on a nail that was stuck through a board. Kara considers her life and her relationship with her sons as the doctors, nurses and surgeons minister to Nate in the next room. I don’t want to ruin the end of the story. It is apparent, however, that Kara recognizes that her life will irrevocably change the next time a doctor leaves the OR to give her an update.
Ms. Salerno grabs you by the lapels in the first line of the story:
Kara and Craig are waiting to hear about their son, Nate, and Craig points to the vending machines and says, “Kara, I’ll get us some coffee,” but she sends him down to the cafeteria.
Ms. Salerno immediately establishes the dramatic present, the point of view, the primary conflict and a little bit about the inciting incident of the story. The reader knows the third-person narrator is close to Kara, who is in the hospital because her son has had some sort of terrible accident. Does she have your attention? Of course she does. There’s an injured kid in play. With her setting and characters and situation established, Ms. Salerno can be sure that the reader is with her all the way.
Ms. Salerno’s paragraphs are very long and Kara’s thoughts are forever zooming about. Her mind is racing, and for good reason. “Don’t Go Waiting…” follows Kara during the most stressful episode in her life. Her mind is racing and she can’t help but confront all of the events that led to her current situation. It makes sense, therefore that all of the paragraphs are very long. There are no extended dialogue scenes that would make the margins a little more jagged. That’s fine, too. Why? Because, as Kara knows, there isn’t much meaningful conversation to be had. All she can do is pace and wait and hope.
Ms. Salerno’s story excels in a way in which many of my stories fail. There isn’t a lot of whiz-bang “action” in the story. It is a story focused upon a woman who is waiting for news about her son. Because Ms. Salerno is such a great writer, she doesn’t need to have “stuff” happen all the time. I would be tempted to add in some ninjas or explosions or dancing girls because of my impatience. (And I really like ninjas.) There is a TON of action in Ms. Salerno’s story, but it doesn’t come from external forces. Instead, Ms. Salerno allows the action to arise from the characters’ thoughts and feelings and experiences. We learn about what it was like when Kara and Craig were dating and what the boys were like when they were younger and about Kenny’s “troubles” with the other students.
Ms. Salerno’s story makes perfect use of her structure. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Kara gets her news at the end of the piece. Ms. Salerno SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWS down her story. Instead of thinking about how she came to be in that place, Kara is drinking up every detail of the moment in slow motion and Ms. Salerno gives us access to it all. A narrator that previously flitted about instead stands ramrod-straight by the reader’s side. Best of all, Ms. Salerno doesn’t make the resolution of her story easy. Instead, she makes it true.
What Should We Steal?
- Establish the important facets of your story very quickly. No, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Your reader should, however, have an idea of your story’s primary elements before too long.
- Mold your scenes according to your characters’ needs. There may not be a lot of dialogue when your character is waiting for the news that will determine the course of his or her life. Conversely, your paragraphs may be very brief if he or she is asking for directions to the bus station.
- Resist the temptation to make things happen inorganically. Drama doesn’t necessarily come from “stuff” happening. Drama can very easily result from a young mother sitting in a hospital waiting room, hoping that the surgeon comes back with good news.