The Coffee Table Quest

The search to replace a coffee table inspired me to demonstrate my understanding of basic story structure. Why? What seemed like a simple task-go to the store, choose one, request delivery-morphed into an extended challenge. (I admit the story may be more soap opera than literary fiction, but anyway…)

The Beginning:

According to Aristotle, and most other writing instructors I’ve encountered, every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. So, let’s begin.

Once upon a time, my husband and I moved from a large house in the suburbs to a small condo in the city.

Our previous living room tables were much too large to fit into the new space. If we preferred to walk on top of furniture instead of around it, we could have kept them. We did not. Instead we decided to temporarily substitute a smaller table previously used in the bonus room.

Pros: it had wheels and a glass top. Cons: it was worn and the finish didn’t match other items in the condo.

Ordinary World:

Some instructors recommend beginning a story in the character’s ordinary world to provide contrast and demonstrate growth for events that occur later in the narrative.

We settled into our new home and gradually replaced the large furniture with condo-sized pieces, except for the ugly coffee table. It provided a place to store tv remotes, stash magazines, and place morning coffee cups or evening wine glasses. Function trumped form.

Inciting Incident:

An event occurs that hurtles our characters into action.

We remodeled our kitchen, fireplace surround, and master bathroom.

After work was completed, the coffee table spoiled the aesthetic effect of our lovely remodel. We imagined a chic, modern table in its place. Maybe the new table would have a unique shape, hidden drawers, or look like it had just been felled in the forest.

With this vision firmly fixed in our minds, we dismantled the old one and threw it away. While we embarked on our hunt, two worn footstools served temporary coffee table duty. There would be no turning back now.

The middle:

The characters face increasing obstacles and struggles to obtain their goal.

The quest began online.

First Problem: Do you know how many ottomans and coffee tables are listed on Wayfair? Our search was complicated by my need to browse through ALL available options.

(This slight personality quirk drives my family crazy. Unless I’m along for my wallet or a second opinion, my daughter only shops with me under duress. I nearly drove her insane trying to find shoes for a special event. Who knew there were so many stores with shoes in my size?) Anyway, a writer needs to weave in the backstory. Let’s return to the search.

That meant I not only looked on Wayfair, but also Macy’s, JC Penney, Overstock, etc… You understand the extent of the issue. In my defense the very next table might have been the one. (Spoiler Alert: It wasn’t)

After failing to find a suitable candidate online, we decided to visit furniture stores. (I will speed up this part of the story…you don’t want an account of each store visit. Consider this a shopping montage. You’re welcome.)

Second Problem: After several of these trips I noticed the look in my husband’s eyes. It was desire. The desire to run away.

We found nothing that both of us liked. Some tables were too big, and others too costly. Some were the wrong color while others were the wrong height. (According to my husband you can’t put your feet up on an ottoman taller than 15 inches.)

The one possible contender was expensive and a special order. What if we didn’t like it when it arrived? In the meantime, we still had no place to put remotes, wine glasses, or the popcorn bowl.

We admitted defeat and retreated to square one. We debated basic features. Ottoman or table, shelves or hidden storage, glass, wood, or leather?

Did we want to put our feet up? (Me-yes, him-no.)

Did we want to lift a lid for storage? (Me-no, him-don’t care.)

Should we try to match our grey couch or brown leather chairs? (Me-they won’t ever match, him-they will too.)

Third Problem: One Sunday he found a possible candidate on Macy’s website. We hiked (literally, we walked downtown) and checked out an upholstered storage ottoman. Could it be the one we’d been searching for?

No, it was green grey, not pewter grey. Also, it was LARGE, how could it be moved for cleaning or seasonal furniture rearranging? (After all, the Christmas tree must make its annual appearance.)

Yet again disappointed, we began to despair. No coffee table, no contenders. The garbage bin had been emptied, we needed to find a replacement. What should we do? Our neighbor blamed the emotional aftereffect of downsizing. Shedding too much good stuff made it difficult to spend money on new things.

That evening I balanced my glass in one hand, the computer on my lap, and dove into yet another online search. A compromise needed to be reached. We eliminated upholstered styles and narrowed the remaining candidates to those we both tolerated. The choices dwindled, four, three, two, and then one. A round two-tier table at a reasonable price. I was hopeful but still undecided. I asked if he was sure. He said yes.

The dark moment:

The turning point where all seems to be lost.

Did we choose the right one? The lag time between order and delivery seems destined to fuel shopper’s remorse. Would the table fit in the space, be the right style, send us to the dump to find the old one?

The day of reckoning arrived. Does it ever seem like you’re waiting for a delivery on a day when you just wanted to chill out, maybe read a book? NO. I had things to do. While I waited, concentration was impossible. I couldn’t focus. I felt anxious and unsettled. I ran to the window whenever I heard a large vehicle. Patience has never been my strong suit.

(For example see my previous reading list post.)

The End:

The coffee table finally arrived in the evening. My husband opened the box and assembled the table. He was not friendly or polite during the process, but he completed the task and moved it into place. To my relief, it was not oversized, the hidden casters made it easy to move, but it didn’t have the chic vibe we’d imagined.

It wasn’t actual wood, but plastic with a faux wood finish. (He said that he’d pointed that out. I said that he’d told me to order it.)

The color was such a deep brown that it appeared black. (He said that it looked better than its picture. I said…What? You thought it looked bad? Why did you tell me to order it?)

Have I told you about the time my husband and I spent months trying to replace our dishes? He wanted china. CHINA? We had teenagers. Do you know what a teenager can do to china? But that’s a story for another day.

As I feared, it’s not exactly the table of my dreams. It’s functional, looks okay, and we didn’t need a loan to buy it. Besides, I’m not about to disassemble, repackage, and ship it back. I’m sure we’ll learn to love it, someday. Is the story finished? There may be a sequel. Before the dark days of winter set in, we need new floor lamps.

If you’d like to learn more about story structure, I recommend these two blogs as great resources, Jami Gold, and Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. What are your favorite writing resources?

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