Try This: Sonder Stories
A voyeuristic nightmare
First my story, then better examples
For the past few years I’ve been a regular at a dive bar, going once or twice each week. The server presents as a rock-and-roll chick, as do most of the regulars. Wallets on chains. Vintage concert or Atari T-shirts. Skinny jeans or pegged Levis. The server jokes about her on-going, messy divorce. She’s mentioned her child. We banter, and she seems very carefree, always the life of the party.
This week two young women entered the bar as I ate lunch. Both were pretty and well dressed. The server introduced one as her sister, and the other as her daughter. As I went to shake hands with her daughter, the daughter threw both arms around me. In that moment, and the talk that followed, it hit me that she was developmentally disabled. It wasn’t a tragedy, but it moved me deeply.
My rock-and-roll friend had a depth to her life that I’d never seen. She will never occur to me as the same shallow party girl. This sudden sort of realization is called Sonder. For a fuller definition, please click here.
Here are some classic examples of Sonder Stories…
A Novella by Nathanael West
A reporter on the bottom rung in a newspaper newsroom must answer the letters sent to an advice column. His boss torments him, demanding that these letters be answered with rosy platitudes and upbeat assurances. In reality the letters share the secret agony of real people in situations that can’t be fixed. People suffering and facing their own death. Such awareness of pain drives the poor reporter to drink heavily, and to worse. To read this novella, click the title above or click here.
A Short Story by John Cheever
A couple needs a new radio, and the husband gets a deal on an enormous, ugly console radio. It’s a huge piece of furniture, a wood-veneered cabinet crowded with knobs and dials. Soon enough they find they can tune in to every home in the neighborhood. They become addicted to eavesdropping on their neighbors. Soon the wife becomes distraught. Exposed to such pain and emotion, she becomes addicted to the suffering she can’t resolve, but she also can’t ignore. She drinks and spends all of her time at the radio. To read this story, click the title above or click here.
A Short Story by Alec Wilkinson
A young married couple throws a party. Their baby is asleep in another room, and over the baby monitor the guests hear a series of telephone conversations. It’s clear that a neighbor is using a cordless phone—this is 1995—and the calls are coming through the baby monitor. In this, sad, sweet story the entire party learns the secrets of a stranger, their neighbor. Click on the title, or click here to read.
A Novel by Ira Levin
A young woman moves into an apartment in a high-rise building. She’s romanced by a young man who reveals that he actually owns the entire building. He takes her to a secret room filled with video monitors, and explains that every light fixture in every apartment contains a camera. The man lives a god-like life spying on everyone in the place. Soon the woman—played by Sharon Stone in the movie—joins him in his voyeurism. She attempts to resolve some of the issues, rescuing a small girl from her sexually abusive father, but the pain overwhelms her. She begins drinking and weeping.
As an added plot line, a murder had been committed in the building, and the woman is able to find the recording and solve the mystery.
For the film, please click here.
For a preview of the novel, click the title above or click here.
Sonder Stories are perennial
Note how all of these stories follow a similar plot. The only thing that changes is the technology. In some the main character is destroyed by the pain. In others, the characters destroy the device that shows them the pain—and they go back to living unaware of universal suffering and joy.
Most important, the Ira Levin book is the only one that uses a Sonder Story as packaging for a murder mystery. A wonderful trick, it allows the point-of-view character to have a god-like omniscience without explaining the cameras up front. See the preview.
Now that you’re aware of Sonder Stories, look for the technology that will allow you to reinvent one. And look for ways to package a genre story within this classic form. Read the examples above to learn the ropes. Then, like Levin, take the story in your own direction.
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