“Old Paint” by Megan Lindholm

When someone says old paint, you think of an old adult stripping wallpaper from the wall with a glue-covered scraper in one hand and a hand full of ’40s reminiscent wallpaper. You don’t think of super futuristic smart cars rebelling against the owners (SPOILER – too late). But maybe that’s just my thoughts. Either way, the title fits, and you won’t figure out why until you read the story.

This was a good read. I really enjoyed it. Partially because it was direct and to the point and partially because it encompassed a large timeline of the family’s life and was squished into a short story, in order to frame the main character – the car. Lindholm did a good job weaving in intermittent characterizations, transitioning over great lengths of time, and using miniature scenes to sketch over what happened rather than dive into each of the events. I think it would be accurate to say, she’s really good at writing summaries.

1) Intermittent characterizations

Most authors spend great lengths describing their characters, and for many authors that can do this, it works. Others like to develop their characters through actions and words, which is what Lindholm primarily does.

“Mom, I think you broke it,” Ben said. “Maybe we shouldn’t touch anything until we can have a mechanic look at it.” Ben was fourteen then, and for some reason, he now believed that if he didn’t know something, Mom didn’t know it either. She just snorted and got out of the car and went around to open the hood the rest of the way. (Lindholm 16)

For example, when she mentioned Ben, she snuck in a single sentence about his character. This was toward the beginning of the story, so this is one of the lengthier examples. The next sentence – Mom opening the hood of the car, showed that his mother knew her way around cars. This is what was to be expected for most of the story for characterization – defining through actions.

2) Transitions

There are two kinds of transitions I want to emphasize in this story – the obvious and the subtle.

Obvious: “On the way home, she kept pushing buttons…” (18)

Subtle: Explaining DVD’s to her son on the drive home, and then…”We had a parking spot at our building that we’d never used before. The first time we pulled up in the car…” (18)

I really enjoyed the fact that she could use her obvious transitions when she was making great leaps in time, but when she was going from one action to the next, she used the next logical step and its description to move smoothly into her next mini-scene.

3) Miniature scenes (aka micro-scene)

What made these work is her dialogue and details. Scenes are made up of descriptive settings, actions, and dialogue, to the extent that the reader should be able to picture the scene that’s occurring, and Lindholm did not only do this within two to three paragraphs but within a few sentences as well. She conveyed a matter of months and more than a million intra-family conflicts in these seriously short descriptions. For example:

[Ben] kept telling Mom how the car would be safer if it could drive itself and how we could get better mileage because it would self-adjust routes to avoid traffic or to take short cuts, and that statistics showed that car-brains actually reacted faster than human brains in dangerous situations. / “Maybe so, but they can only react one way, and human brains can think of a dozen ways to react in a tough situation. So the answer is still no. Not yet. Maybe never.” / Mom scored big points on him the next week when there were dozens of accidents on I-5 that involved driverless cars. (21)

In the first paragraph (3 sentences long – I didn’t include all of it), Lindholm overviews Ben’s need for upgrades, posing his exact argument, which made it feel realistic, and then retorted with the exact dialogue from his mother (2nd paragraph – 2 sentences and 2 fragments). The third paragraph (7 sentences) then went on to outline how she eventually won the fight, which transitioned into a bigger conflict in the story.

Let me review. This micro-scene was successful because it said and showed how Ben was arguing for his wants and how his mother retorted. We didn’t need to see the exact fight, which for families and children may occur a million times per day. We were more concerned with the dialogue of the fight since it was one of the weird, coincidental fights that transitioned into a main complication within the story.

Lindholm does a wonderful job with details, and she uses these to her advantage. While seeming slightly reluctant to write major scenes, she uses her strengths with summaries and micro-scenes to really overcome this and break the standard for writing short stories. She achieves in fitting a major life event, spanning several months, into a good short story. I would definitely recommend this to others if you’re looking on how to fit a large timeline into a few pages.

Lindholm, Megan. “Old Paint.” Year’s Best SF 18. Ed. David G. Hartwell. New York, NY: Tor, 2013. 34-54. Print.


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