Editorial: States of Suspension

Haven’t we all heard that quote about there only being two plots? Attributed frequently to John Gardner, it goes sometimes like this: “There are only two kinds of stories – a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town.” I haven’t been able to verify if Gardner actually said this, but it has been regurgitated at workshops and in MFA programs since at least the 1980s.

What I’ve sometimes wondered is what about those characters that don’t go on a journey or don’t meet a stranger? What about those that stay put? What about those that are left behind? Trapped, bound even. Isn’t having just two plots a bit too simplistic?

My first concern is that the Two Plots theory sets us up to assume that those left behind don’t have “main character energy.” That stranger—the one coming to town—they have main character energy, never mind all those NPCs (non-playable characters) manning the stores. I know how it goes, I’ve played as Link rolling around Hyrule restocking his arrows and throwing people’s chickens around. Of course, the game designer’s answer to this is the side quest, which gives us the slightest bit of insight into the NPC’s goals and motivations.

The writer’s answer is that a character in a state of immobility doesn’t have to merely respond to the stranger coming to town. They can be the one to go on a journey, at least internally. Their character arc can center on the choice to stay or “move on.” And yes, we can unpack that phrase. We can definitely question whether the rush to move on is helpful considering what we’ve been through and what we’re facing. Perhaps because the decision to move on can be so thorny and personal, I appreciate the authors that attempt to imbue that stay-or-go choice with the tension it deserves.

The bigger question, one that I still wonder about, is whether this internal wrangling can be called a journey or if that’s taking too many liberties with the word. Perhaps the stories for this month will give us some insight. Throughout this issue, we have stories that depict characters in some sort of suspended state.

In “Leavings” by Shira Musicant, the wife’s internal journey, as we’ve described it, is a search for understanding about her husband’s mental health, and eventual suicide.

In “The Lime Monster” by Shelly Jones the protagonist chooses to take her journeys through the stories she writes, but physically she remains rooted to her family land.

This physical immobility is even more literal in “Sparsely Populated with Stars” by Jennifer Mace. The reader experiences an entire universe while the main character remains anchored in place.

In “On the Wing” by Lindz McLeod, domestic scenes are juxtaposed with bird metaphors, increasing the tension surrounding the choice between staying in a loveless marriage and flying away.

Finally, Samir Sirk Morató’s beautifully poetic language in “limerence” takes us to a bog where a short love story emerges between the remains of two ancients trapped in peat.

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