Story Without a Plot?
Ray Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?”
It’s not often that you find a story where the main plot is non-existent, or at least not specifically or clearly defined. Some if not most pundits of writing and short-story theory would say it can’t be done successfully. But that’s the case with Ray Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” There is no clearly defined plot. This story attracted me because it seemed especially out of character for an action/adventure kind of writer like Ray Carver, at least at first glance.
The ultimate question, of course, is whether the story works or not.
Writing a story without a plot, or with a thin or mysterious and undefined plot, takes a certain skill, like playing nello in a card game like 500. “Nello” means you won’t take a trick in an entire hand; you must win the bid and be the first to lead. Not only do you need to know how to play the game well, you need to know enough about what to do that you purposely don’t do it. Indeed, you strategize to avoid what we normally consider “winning.” In nello, the normal rules of the game apply in a kind of role-reversal — you have to not win any tricks, but you have to follow suit, adhere to the rule of trump, use suit wisely, and use the lead and player placement to avoid taking any cards, hopefully aided with strings of low cards and good (meaning “off”) suit. Similarly in writing, creating a story without a plot means that the normal elements of the “game” (language, setting, action, tension, drama, characters) have to carry the story by themselves, without a plot.
“Why Don’t You Dance?” starts with an odd scene – for a normal story: (p. 155)
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom – nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.
His side, her side.
He considered this as he sipped the whiskey.
This opening raises more questions than it answers. Why is the bedroom suite in the front yard — did I read that right? “Except for” the entire suite being in the yard instead of in the house where it should be, “everything is normal.” But nothing is normal or as it should be here. Nightstands and reading lamps are in their “normal” place — they just happen to be outside. “His side, her side” — so we know there was a relationship here, perhaps a relationship that no longer exists — but why doesn’t the relationship still exist? What happened? And the man is calmly drinking whiskey and observing the entire scene from inside the house – calmly because he is sipping. What’s with that?
Carver sustains the mystery initially created by continuing to describe a very abnormal scene with very normal (and good) writing technique. The man, whose name we are never given, has moved almost everything in the house to the driveway. We understand that the action has been taken, but have not been given the reason why: (pp. 155-156)
That morning, he had cleared out the closets, and except for the three cartons in the living room, all the stuff was out of the house. He had run an extension cord on out there and everything was connected. Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.
Now and then a car slowed and people stared. But no one stopped.
It occurred to him that he wouldn’t, either.
“Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.” “No different” — but all different. So what we have developing is a story that is a normal story in every way — except that there is no central reason why things are being done the way they’re being done. We have an ongoing tension building between what is normal and what is obviously not normal. We know the man himself is relatively normal, at least that he knows what normal is inside the house– but for some reason unknown to us something has happened to turn his reality inside out. In this way Carver is playing nello with us – his plot, if there is one, is that there isn’t a plot, there isn’t a reason for the abnormal situation – or at least he is not going to tell us what the reason is. The object of the game is not to score points, but to not take any points. His action in the story is not to give us any reasons why, just to show us what now is.
Even as the action, if you will, progresses, we are not given any certain answers. The girl and the boy who happen upon the scene, who are “furnishing a little apartment,” give us one possible reason for the man’s actions: “It must be a yard sale.” But even this may not have been the man’s intent or original purpose — we’re never told for sure. Besides, none of the furniture outside has a price tag — if the intent was to have a sale, wouldn’t the items have been marked? The man is very open to the idea of selling his things to this couple, which makes us wonder even more — about the man’s previous relationship, whether he sees his previous elf in this young couple just getting started in life.
Carver also maintains mystery as well as suggestions of allegory by not giving us any of the main characters’ names — they are simply the man, the boy and the girl — and finally, “the old man.” Yet his settings, dialogue, action are all realistic and believable. This writing technique gives “Why Don’t You Dance?” the feeling of a parable (like a medieval morality play). The only missing element, purposely missing element, is the “why.”
Carver’s next story action gives us a very realistic exchange between the boy and girl as they discuss what they might buy and how much they might pay. When the man returns with some groceries, they negotiate several deals for items on the yard. Mystery and tension are further maintained by these and other passages: (p. 159)
“I want the desk,” the girl said. “How much money is the desk?”
The man waved his hand at this preposterous question.
“Name a figure,” he said.
He looked at them as they sat at the table. In the lamplight, there was
something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling.
“There was no telling.” Carver is not telling us. We have to try to figure it out for ourselves. The answer is in the process of figuring it out, not in the telling in this “reverse” genre. There was no telling, but Carver is teasing us with clues and possible answers, as we see in the next couple of scenes. The characters decide to play records (something the boy and girl may not have ever seen, let alone know the performers — another example of contrast and tension between them and the man), and then they decide to dance. However, the boy can only dance a short while because he is drunk: (p. 160)
The girl said, “You’re drunk.”
“Well, I’m drunk,” the boy said.
The man turned the record over and the boy said, “I am.”
“Dance with me,” the girl said to the boy, and then to the man, and when
the man stood up, she came to him with her arms open wide.
This scene is the shift in the story line. We expect resolution, but we’re not going to get it from Carver or this story. We continue the contrast between the boy and the man (the man can hold his liquor, the boy is drunk; the man can dance, the boy no longer can). But perhaps more importantly, the girl is now the aggressor, the protagonist. She asks the man to dance with her, she initiates the action. Again, Carver doesn’t give us any answers, but he drops clues of past relationships: (pp. 160-161)
“Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said.
“It’s ok,” the man said. “It’s my place,” he said.
“Let them watch,” the girl said.
“That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over
here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?” he said.
He felt her breath on his neck.
“I hope you like the bed,” he said.
The girl closed then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s
shoulder. She pulled the man closer.
“You must be desperate or something,” she said.
This exchange seems very revealing but on closer analysis really doesn’t tell us anything. It is pointedly sexual. It carries through the concept of ownership, possession (“It’s my place”). It challenges social norms (they’re watching, “They thought they’d seen everything over here, but they haven’t seen this”). There is something of a “shock value” in all that the man is doing, something others wouldn’t understand. The girl senses his loss, his pain, she draws closer to him — and we are left with her terrible assessment: “You must be desperate or something.” There is tremendous power in this short and poignant exchange. Carver is presumably resolving action; this is the point in a “normal” story where the action would get resolved. But that never quite happened for me in “Why Don’t You Dance?”
As if to add a crowning irony, Carver gives us the denouement from his non-existent resolution: (p 161)
Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us those records. Look at this record player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”
She kept talking, She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.
“There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out.” Indeed. Typical woman, try to “talk it out”? What had happened to the “old guy”? Anything? Or nothing? Whose story is this, the man’s or the boy’s and girl’s? Obviously the experience had an impact on the girl; she was the main character, the one that changed the most and meets Rusts’ rule. But she was too young or naïve or innocent or inexperienced to put her finger on a valid explanation. Or, she was just like us, the readers — we know “there is more to it,” but Carver’s not telling us what that is. The answer is up to us to determine or not to determine.
Does it work, writing the whole story around a catalytic event that we aren’t told and can’t describe? Can a highly skilled writer write a whole story of aftermath “to something”? I think so. Would I recommend it to any other writer as a technique to emulate? Maybe as an exercise in futility, but not for a normal course of action. Why does it work? Because Carver is a master card player and writer. It’s all there but the reason, the plot itself – unless you can live with the ambivalence that “something” happened to bring us to this point in these characters’ lives. Is that realistic? Yes. Is it true to life? Absolutely — we don’t always get the whole picture, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Do writers often even try to write like this? Not recommended. Did Carver pull it off? For me he did.
“There is more to it,” and Carver didn’t spell it out for us. There is no right or wrong, perhaps — as long as our answer fits the story. And maybe that IS the story.
The only problem is, it’s usually the other way around. Welcome to nello. Welcome to Ray Carver and his minimalist “dirty reality.”
Carver, Raymond. Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, Vintage Books, 1989.