Many writers mine newspapers for potential story ideas. I wasn’t consciously setting out to do that when I turned to the local news section of my paper that morning. But there was something about the article that I couldn’t shake: It detailed a traveling real estate auction, whose organizers tended to prey on unsuspecting bidders—mainly immigrants and urban citizens of lesser means—by promising them land at rock-bottom prices, sight unseen. And of course, in many cases, these opportunities proved too good to be true.
In the days that followed, I sensed a chance to treat in fiction a topic of serious socio-economic significance. The unscrupulous auctioneers—as unscrupulous businesspeople have done since time immemorial—were exploiting people’s dreams. And they were aided by the then-cresting wave of real estate speculation so many people were trying to ride. It seemed perfectly pitched for the moment, and I got down to writing almost immediately.
I began a short story whose protagonist would be one of those unlucky, exploited buyers; I saw the antagonist as one of the auctioneers. And the story’s title was a no-brainer for me: “Dreamland.”
The problem? The story just wasn’t coming together the way I wanted it to. At first I followed the traditional approach: Protagonist meets obstacle as represented by antagonist; conflict ensues and tension develops; climax occurs, resolution is made, and every reader comes away wiser and richer with understanding. For some reason, though, I just couldn’t make a connection with the piece as was it unfolding. In fact, I soon sensed the traditional setup was the problem. And I realized my own ambivalence about the topic played a role.
Fact is, I’m like many Americans in that I pretty much buy into the American dream, or at least the basic idea. What’s wrong with owning—or for that matter, selling—real estate? At the same time, the greedy, grubby, land-grabbing aspect of it is really a turn-off. Consequently, my stagnating short story reflected these simple dichotomies. Struggling would-be purchaser, good! Greedy salesman, bad! I needed an approach that would allow me to investigate the layered complexities of the scenario I’d plotted. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a story, but a screed, as the following passage from an early version indicates.
“You misled me, deliberately,” Wilton said, conscious of his diction, making it as precise and formal as possible. “It is my right to protest, Mr. O’Rourke, to bring my grievance personally to you!”
“But Mr. D’Angelique,” the salesman answered. He held palms out, but Wilton did not trust the gesture. “I’ve done you no wrong. It pains me to think that you believe I did.”
Wilton felt his Adam’s apple bob as the anger coursed through his body.
“Now, I have to ask,” the salesman said, his voice falling like a feather into a softer, cajoling register. “Did you do due diligence? Did you,” he continued, “do your research?”
Wilton swallowed; he couldn’t speak. To be accused of this—to be portrayed as stupid, as naïve. How could he tell the salesman how much he’d read, how much time he’d spent online at the library? This man. He should have to explain himself, to Wilton. Not the other way around. This man was a crook! It just didn’t strike me as very original or interesting. And it didn’t seem like something that would help this story get the attention of an editor.
I decided to break down the piece into its constituent parts and approach each of them from different angles. First, I wrote from the young salesman’s point of view, as he attempts to explain why he’s out there auctioning plots of land to anyone who can put up a percentage of the price. Then, I made my protagonist a lesser player—in essence turning him into the young salesman’s foe. Still, the story seemed slight.
So I imagined other buyers, and what might happen to them. And I thought of people who might have already owned land for years, and how they felt about that. And I thought of someone who truly was swindled, and of someone else who simply felt so lucky in getting his own piece of property that he didn’t care it was a boggy acre in the middle of nowhere.
If that makes it sound like I suddenly had a whole new cast of characters, well, that was exactly the case. And in drafting the smaller tales of these individuals, one at a time, I saw a structure coming into focus—a structure I knew could work. The story in essence became a loosely linked series of first-person vignettes, in which the parties bumped up against one another in encounters that are purposely fleeting, so as to keep the focus on each narrator’s relationship to the “dream.” There was no central character, I soon saw—and that was going to have to be fine.
That’s when the work got really hard. Squeezing half a dozen characters of equal importance into the confines of a short story proved a challenge. First, the young salesman from above was receiving too much airtime. Then my swindled buyer became too prominent. For a while, the proud owner of the swampland took over. And then it was the middle-aged Italian-American businesswoman. The only choice was the democratic one: I would give each of these characters equal billing, in a separately labeled section of his or her own, and show them interacting with the secondary characters.
This necessitated yet another round of drafts, but I knew that I was onto something. As I warmed to my “non-traditional” approach, I grew to have faith in the choice I made. It was becoming more than an interesting story; it was a story told in an interesting way.
The final challenge? Deciding the order in which the vignettes should appear. It had to begin with the young salesman at the auction, since that section depicts the only act of sale in the entire piece; it was only logical that a sale kick things off. Further, the auction served as a recurring image in the other sections. Thus it made sense to start this way and gradually move through the other sections, then wrap up with the happy yet nervous owner looking over his (less-than-spectacular) property.
I was finally satisfied with the result: No overtly bad guys, no overtly good guys—but plenty of tension to propel the narrative. Better yet, the story accomplished my overall aim: To examine the numerous conflicting facets of the dreams we’re conditioned to dream. Only with a multiplicity of characters could I effectively do so.
This article first appeared inThe Writer magazine.