5.09 / September 2010

Notes for a Story


The first line should be exciting, intriguing, baffling. It should fully engage the readers straight-away, drawing them inextricably in both by the artistry of its construction and by some inward, elemental need to explore the questionable (at best) connection to experienceable reality it suggests. It should provide in the reader an impulse to defend the nature and structure of the empirical universe, an impulse only satisfied through further ravenous reading.

It would be problematic to call this first line an introduction, though. Whereas it should introduce the style and tone of the story and the feelings of hollowness and emptiness at its heart, it should not necessarily introduce the content of the plot.

After reading the first line, the readers should exclaim, “Oh, another sad/tragic/hilarious story about existential despair and cognitive dissonance!’ They should not exclaim, “Oh, a story about a thin apartment wall!”

This will be a very difficult sentence to write. It should be followed quickly by the sound of a train screaming in the distance, which will mean very little to the readers.


First Lines Not To Use:

“The wall separating me from my neighbor is very thin.”

“I can hear everything my neighbor does through this thin wall.”

“The wall between us is so thin that the light passes right through, casting my neighbor’s shadow up on my wall, which I watch lustfully, playacting a life for us together.”



The story should be developed in short sections, each one separated by a thin line running from margin to margin. Through the course of the story, it should eventually become clear that the lines are symbolic reflections of the wall in the story. By extension, each section must therefore be a reflection of the two primary characters of the story, the narrator and the neighbor. Attempts by one section to overlap into the next — times when two adjacent sections seem not only topically linked, but also seem to flow seamlessly together so as to cause the readers to regard the line division as an unnecessary distraction — should be considered a symbolic representation of the characters’ desire to transcend the distance the wall imposes.

Normally, the sections should only be thematically or topically linked, a few sentences shy of direct connection.   This way, the thin line, while ostensibly separating the paragraphs, will also act as the uniting element between them. This should be the ultimate conclusion wrought by the story: the narrator is on one side, watching the neighbor on the other, and through this separation, through the shadow-play on the wall, the relationship is formed. Connection via separation.


A Scene:

The sun rises on the neighbor’s side, flooding through the windows and through the thin wall between, casting his or her shadow up on the wall, casting along with it his or her furniture, from sofas and dressers to art and clutter, up on the wall with him or her. The neighbor’s whole life is broadcast, flattened into a two-dimensional display.

The neighbor’s alarm goes off, waking both the neighbor and the narrator. They stretch their arms high over their heads, looking groggy and content. A normal morning. The neighbor’s shadows are so crisp, so clear on the wall that the narrator can accurately identify both the shape and material of his or her bedclothes. The wall acts as a scrim between them. It’s no wonder they can interact so well, so normally, under such abnormal conditions. From a certain perspective, the two really look like they are waking in the same bed.

This is an important contradiction that should be reinforced and repeated often: they act normally despite the abnormality; it is all very realistic despite the surreality. The narrator, three-dimensional and in full color, wakes next to the neighbor, a two-dimensional shadow on the wall. They stretch, scratch their heads. The narrator says, with a yawn, “good morning, dear neighbor,” and the neighbor echoes the same.

They then share a typical morning, drinking coffee at their kitchen tables, nibbling jelly toast, eventually showering and grooming and primping for their days. All the while, they should engage in highly artificial dialog about life and the mundanity of it all while also hinting at the greater meaning of things. They call each other “dear neighbor” and nothing ever else. This will be awful, but necessary. They say, “I’m lonely, dear neighbor. I’m lonely and alone.”


The Apartment:

The surreal impression left by the first line should not slack through the course of the story. When describing the apartments that contain the wall and characters and “story,” the reader should never suppose that such a place does or could ever exist anywhere in reality. It should be abundantly clear that the entire set-up is nothing but an over-realized metaphor for the author’s over-documented conception of the human condition. The word “apartment” should be repeated endlessly, especially at the beginning, until the readers, aware of the metaphorical nature of the story as a whole, may eventually come to understand that the word describes this condition, an apart-ment, rather than a physical dwelling.


The Set-Up:

The apartment-building, as a physical dwelling, sits atop a tall hill around which no other building or tree or other such distraction appears — a lone structure in a plain, cartoonish scene. There are only two apartments to the complex, one opening to the east, the other to the west, the wall between running north to south.

The readers can assume that the rest of the development has been destroyed, that there is rubble of previous tenements over these two or around them, pipes emerging from anywhere, going nowhere, etc. The readers can make this a very post-apocalyptic scene if they want to, as long as they don’t assume there was ever an actual apocalypse that rendered the place as such — as long as they understand that the rubble indicates previous failed apart-relationships, other failed attempts to connect, or something along those lines. The readers may also assume that the apartment-building is a lovely duplex fully intact and in good repair sitting up on a green, grassy knoll. It doesn’t substantially affect the meaning either way.

The interiors of the apartments, it should be clear, are mirror images of each other: sofa-to-sofa, clutter-to-clutter. The lives of the narrator and neighbor unfold in equal, opposite settings such that when the narrator sits at his or her table, the neighbor may sit with him or her at the other side of the space so the two may, from a certain perspective, share a delicious meal together or a warm cup of coffee. This also allows them to sleep together in beds only separated by that wall, one of them (assuming certain illumination schemes) 3-D and in full color, and the other in flat shadows. It’s all very platonic.


Another Scene:

The sun sets on the narrator’s side, flooding through his or her windows and casting his or her shadow up on the neighbor’s wall. A total reversal. His or her furniture, from sofas and dressers to art and clutter, cast up on the wall with him or her. The narrator’s whole life is broadcast, flattened, two-dimensional.

The narrator and the neighbor come home at the same time from their jobs and duties, entering through their opposite-facing doors, each of them carrying a briefcase or portfolio or some kind of iconic day-job-related item.

“Welcome home, dear neighbor,” one of them may say to the other. “Oh, how was your day in the world?”

The two will change their clothes, pour themselves drinks.   They will sit down before the TV together and relax.   Nothing out of the normal. They will discuss, in their particular tone, their lives and woes, their longings and what to make for dinner.   Should they order pizza, they wonder. Is joy a dream? Maybe some Chinese?

The scene should echo the first in its mundanity, even language. The readers should understand that these are normal people living normal lives, only separated by a thin apartment wall. They live rather contentedly together in their apart-ment. Their apart-ness.

The complication here is that the narrator can no longer see the neighbor and the neighbor can only just now see the narrator. This should come as a sudden and intriguing insight to the reader. The narrator cooks, lounges on the sofa, assuming all the while that the neighbor is with him or her, though he or she can’t be sure.

This has immediate and profound consequences that should not be shied away from by the characters. They should address it directly, the narrator saying at night, when he or she can’t see the neighbor, how he or she is lonely, how he or she misses him or her. The neighbor can say the same kind of thing in the mornings when the neighbor can’t see the narrator. Whichever character receives these lines should express that he or she doesn’t understand because that person can clearly see the shadow on the wall and is, in that sense, not alone. For example:

“I’m lonely, dear neighbor. I miss you when I’m here all alone.”

“I don’t understand, dear neighbor. You are with me on the wall.”

Neither the narrator nor the neighbor will ever fully explore this conversation and when either one does approach it, it will always end in confusion.



It’s important to make the story gender-neutral for a variety of reasons. If the neighbor is female and the narrator male, the morning stretching scene risks appearing crass and voyeuristic. Any details added to such a scene may strike the readers as creepy and may distract from the story as a result. The readers may find themselves wondering more about the author’s voyeuristic impulses than the symbolic elements of the scene, which would severely disrupt the integrity of the piece. It’s vital to the success of the story that the author not be considered creepy or unlikable in any way. If the opposite of this impression can be made instead, so much the better.

There is also the idea that gender neutrality may suggest a more general interpretation, that with nonspecific pronouns the reader may more easily assume that the characters, like set-up, are more undeveloped abstractions than “people” and therefore shouldn’t be confused with real life. If the readers wish for more concrete details or characters, they will have to invent them themselves, which requires a more engaged reading.

It should be noted that repeating “his or her” and “he or she” for the entire story may very well counter this effect by annoying the reader out of the story. It will be hard line to maintain. ________________________________________________________________________


The couple, if that is an accurate term, wake on Monday. They stretch and yawn, bid each other morning salutations. They coffee and breakfast together, bathe and prepare for their days.   They stand at their opposite doors when the time comes and say sweet things, wish each other the best of days.

They do this again on Tuesday, on Wednesday, all through the week. The ritual, the routine, should be explained from every possible perspective and angle, every variation included. The neighbor’s sadness should be clear, talking through a wall at an unseen face, the contentedness of the narrator, in exactly the opposite situation, should also be fully articulated. There are mornings when they have slept well, there are mornings after a night of tossing. These are discussion points, variables to consider.

Evenings, Monday through Friday: the same.   The narrator comes home, the neighbor comes home, they set about their routines. They exchange witty, artificial dialog while discussing dinner, life. They watch TV, go to bed. They make love some nights and complain about not making love on others. Mostly, they are content to simply fall asleep, ready to start the day anew.



Overall, the dialog should be slow, mundane, and elevated. The narrator and the neighbor are bored, lonely, and alone and the tone should echo such. They should never say, “Good morning, sweetums!” or “Oh, this wretched lonesome life of dread!” Rather, they should say, “Good morning, dear neighbor,” every morning without exception. The narrator should say, as the neighbor should say, “I’m lonely, dear neighbor,” without exaggeration or elaboration, but maybe “I’m lonely and alone.” There should be no exclamation points in the story.

Here and there, the characters should be allowed open questions about the state of life, such as “Why must there always be this wall between?” or “Sometimes it’s as if you’re really here, dear neighbor.” The character receiving these statements should never understand what exactly the other means by such things, though each will utter the same phrases at some point through the story.

Neither character should ask specific questions about these misunderstandings, but instead, consistent with the tone of the rest of the dialog, say, “I don’t understand, dear neighbor,” and then change the subject.


Stylistic Effect:

A distant train should whistle once at the beginning of the story and once at the end. This will provide a new dimension to the set-up, both characters encountering an outside event together, equally alien to each. These should be sad, hollow scenes. The repetition should suggest both an end to the story and the unending repetition of the lives it contains.



Saturday, the sixth iteration, the alarm doesn’t go off. The narrator and the neighbor sleep in in happy, comfortable, well-deserved rest. By the time they wake, it’s already late in the morning – sun high, the neighbor’s shadow much less crisp than on usual mornings. The characters gradually rouse themselves from bed and enjoy a typical Saturday morning and all it contains: a heartier breakfast, an extra cup of coffee. They read a newspaper, check their email. Maybe they each call their grandparents or mothers. Throughout the scene, the dialog should continue as normal:

“Oh, dear neighbor,” the narrator can say, “you are so dim and distant on these days.”

“I don’t understand,” the neighbor can tell him or her. “I am all alone, dear neighbor, as I am always on these days.”

This should continue in real time as the morning slowly passes: mundanity, ennui, existential despair. This should continue, that is, until noon when the narrative focus suddenly becomes tight, the language markedly thicker and richer than it has been through the rest of the piece. The section should sing with piercing prose and grand, highly symbolic imagery.

For five minutes around noon, two and a half minutes before and two and a half minutes after, when the sun is at its zenith and the daylight is most intense, the sun will flood through both apartments at once, filling each room with terrific, penetrating light. In this moment, the wall between will grow, though not quite transparent, translucent at least. It will be lighted in such a way that both the narrator and the neighbor will be able to see, with a third dimension and a hint of color even, the furniture sets, sofas and dressers, art and clutter of the other through, not on, the wall. Along with this, of course, the narrator will be able, however dimly, to see the neighbor and the neighbor, for this short instant, will at last see the narrator as he or she sees him or her.

The significance of this should be immediately obvious.

It will be important for the author to back off a little during this moment to let the scene and all of the heavy emotionality it presents ring fully and unambiguously. Every effort should be expended to guarantee that the readers register this swell of emotion and participate in it as much as possible without resorting to cheap sentimentality or cliche.

As far as action, both the narrator and the neighbor will freeze in place during the event and remain silent and still, each staring at the other with hard, unblinking stares, through the duration. If the narrator, for example, were dunking his or her biscotti into his or her coffee, he or she would remain as such for the full five minutes regardless of scalding fingers or dissolving cookie. The neighbor, likewise, if in mid-itch at 11:57:30 would keep his or her hand still, however awkward, at his or her face until 12:02:30, staring silently with the narrator’s same joyous, miserable stare.

It will be a beautiful moment between them that will be terribly difficult to convey, given the restraints set forth by the structure of the story.



After the five minutes, the sun will pass over and take with it the illusion of union it provided. The image of the narrator will be replaced with the shadow version and the neighbor will disappear until morning.

The final moment of the piece should be dialogic, something dry and understated, lines that have been repeated through the story so often they already echo a sad, endless echo. For example:

“I’m lonely, dear neighbor. I’m lonely and alone.”

“But I don’t understand, dear neighbor. I’ll never understand.”

This would be a good place to bring back the train.