Sometimes the best thing in a story is something that doesn’t actually happen in the story... it’s something that’s imagined-as-happening.
I noticed it recently in a David Sedaris story, Accidental Deception. Even though what occurs in the story is wonderful and hilarious, it’s the moment when Sedaris describes what kinds of things could occur, that the story becomes one of my favorites.
At the start of the piece, He’s on the Metro in Paris, alongside an American tourist who doesn’t realize that Sedaris is also an American. Because of the way Sedaris positions his body (and because of the tourist’s sheer ignorance), the tourist thinks Sedaris is a French thief, and instructs his wife (in English) on how to avoid getting taken-advantage-of by this kind of “scum”. Rather than correct him, Sedaris acts the part, staring into space as if he doesn’t understand what the American is saying.
When the train comes to a stop, Sedaris begins imagining what he might say... and that’s where Sedaris opens the door to a world of infinite possibility. “I tried to imagine Martin’s conversation with a French policeman, and pictured him waving his arms shouting, ‘That man tried to picka my friend’s pocketoni!’” Sedaris allows his imagination to get specific, including several phrases he would mutter in the presence of the police officer, during this imagined encounter.
In the end, Sedaris doesn’t say anything (at least, not in this version of the story). As soon as he gets finished relating the hypothetical, he brings the story to a close as quickly as possible. And it’s best this way because anything that could have happened in the story wouldn’t have been as good as what he had imagined.
When you listen to this story, notice the proportion of the piece that occurs in Sedaris’ mind vs. in the train compartment. Notice how he includes primarily train-car material at first, simply observing what’s happening outside him, then slowly the proportions invert and Sedaris’ internal monologue comes to dominate the stage. That’s the hero of this story, Sedaris’ internal monologue. That’s the character who takes everything to the next level.
When you tell stories, don’t forget about this character: your own inner voice. This voice has the power to endlessly generate stories that can most entertain and deliver insight. The mind can open a window to an internal story that’s just as vivid and important as the story outside.
By David Sedaris on This American Life in 2000