By Laura Lindengren
“The Dead Tree” is one of my favorite entries from the Fall 2022 submission period. It succeeds in a skill that is surprisingly rare: writing about reality in a way that actually feels realistic. Realistic fiction authors must face the balancing act of creating an engrossing reality, while not sounding like a documentary voiceover in the process.
Gonzales’ story depicts the struggles of a (presumably married) couple living in “fire country.” In their backyard is an aphid-infested lemon tree, which only the narrator (who is not given a name) seems to be concerned about. Her husband, Gideon, couldn’t care less. Despite her emotional investment and growing concern, her inaction ultimately deteriorates any remaining hope— and her tree. Here is a walkthrough of the successes behind this prose piece.
- You can imagine the dialogue happening in real life.
Too many submissions focus so hard on how normal and relatable their characters are. That’s fine and all, but what’s the point if the dialogue doesn’t expand beyond that? When you speak to someone, you aren’t actually thinking, “Wow, look how normal and casual this conversation is!”, so don’t make a big point of it. Obsessing over the ideal “sound” and presentation of the characters will distract from what really matters: getting the reader inside the characters’ minds. Read your dialogue aloud—would you cringe if you saw this conversation unfolding right in front of you? Having someone else read it aloud is even more helpful. Here is an example of Gonzales’ realistic dialogue:
“Aphids,” I said. “On the tree. They’re a pest.”
[Gideon:] “Sounds like a problem.”
“It is a problem,” I was getting irritated…
“Sounds like a problem,” well duh, Gideon! This is exactly how couples speak to each other. These opening lines perfectly characterize the anxiety and apathy coexisting in the narrator’s life. The first line silently carries emotion through its rigidity and brokenness. We don’t immediately know what that emotion is—nervousness, sadness, anger? The clarification (that she is irritated) comes afterwards in order to preserve the realism: if the line were “I was getting irritated: ‘Aphids. On the tree…’” the narrator’s thought process would appear interrupted and broken. Her dialogue also wouldn’t have played much of a role if her emotion was already stated.
2.) It’s to-the-point.
The opening paragraph is not an immediate deep dive into the narrator’s mind. Short stories don’t have much time for that. Instead, Gonzales opens with one, very short line of dialogue and segues into a description–not dialogue–of Gideon. This immediately cues the reader to identify the contrasting roles in this relationship—one active character, and one passive:
“‘The lemon tree has aphids,’ I said. Gideon was in his boxers sipping his morning coffee and checking his phone, his morning ritual…”
This one sentence tells you all you need to know about Gideon. Do we really need to know everything about Gideon’s thoughts, behaviors, and background? Expecting the reader to be one-hundred percent invested in every character (especially in a short story) is simply unrealistic.
3.) It saves the sentimentality for later.
Something I love about this piece is that I felt concern for the narrator before I actually knew why this tree was important in the first place. Gonzales slowly induces the reader’s emotions but holds off on making the story sentimental. She indicates the tree’s significance by explicitly detailing the aphids’ widespread destruction:
“The red bumps left behind [on my arm] are the only evidence we get, a reminder that while you slept, something crawled, something insidious and invisible, and without you even knowing, took a bite…When I wasn’t watching, they were burrowing into the yellow rinds, lapping up the tangy liquid…”
These paragraphs humanize the tree and reduce its role as simply a spectacle. If the narrator feels invaded, then of course the tree would too, if it could. In effect, the reader and narrator are experiencing the same emotion, without Gonzales telling the reader to feel a certain way. It isn’t until the bottom of the second page that we learn the reason why we should have concern at all:
“[My parents] built [their home] with their bare hands and planted the tree in the early months of their first spring. That same night, my mother went into labor and I was born.”
Although it sounds counterintuitive, this is a much more effective approach in holding the reader’s attention. Overflowing sentimentality in the opening lines will make any following description dull and unwarranted. The sentimentality isn’t sappy either (get it?) and is only mentioned briefly, as not to distract from the present moment. Lastly, this excerpt clarifies why the narrator has become agitated with Gideon, and why we should, too. It’s screaming, “Look how inconsiderate he is!” without actually saying it.
4.) The chaos is not distractingly chaotic.
Chaos is not always a screaming frenzy of disarray. It is often controlled and steadily destructive. As is the case in this story, something can also be chaotic in the sense that you are aware of the impending chaos, but can’t accept it as your reality. The narrator repeatedly acknowledges the depressing truth of her tree, but is unable to tackle this as she ultimately takes no action:
“Aphids were crawling up and down the branches right then, right at that moment. Sure, one bug was no big deal, even a few, but the masses of them, the sheer number, get enough of anything and they can do whatever they want. Ants could take over the world if they tried.”
At this point, the couple’s inaction to the mayhem right in front of them isn’t just sad. It’s so pathetically relatable that it makes you laugh. You know that meme of the dog sitting in a burning room, saying, “This is fine”? That’s what this is. Anybody reading this is internally screaming, “Do something, you idiot!!”
As expected— the tree ends up destroyed— not by aphids, but a wildfire. The tree catching fire is actually less chaotic than its destruction by the aphids, probably because we already knew to expect the worst. Although the fiery ending is also chaotic (because, well, it’s a fire), I didn’t feel particularly stirred up while reading this— mostly just disappointed with the characters.
Gonzales’ depictions of the aphids and the fire are exactly how chaotic moments should be written. She doesn’t pressure the reader to feel any particular way. The chaos creeps up on the reader unexpectedly, while keeping them emotionally invested. Don’t include mayhem purely for the “WTF” factor; this often erases any sense of organization and leaves the reader feeling confused and excluded.
The irony of (well written) realistic fiction is that it removes the reader from their own reality and into a new fictional reality. It becomes a point of escape when it’s so feasibly realistic that it’s immersive. This is presumably why it’s enjoyed by so many. It sounds redundant, but loyalty to realism is the most important component of realistic fiction; just because your writing feels realistic to you doesn’t mean that any reader will assume the same.
[Alysia Gonzales’ short fiction “The Dead Tree” will be published in Minnesota Review Issue 101, Fall 2023!]