The Little Old Woman in the Basement

Photo by the remarkable Matheus Bertelli on

The story was lurching toward THE END. I could see the closing scene, taste victory of this fevered National Novel Writing Month draft.

Then she showed up. Gorgon sister.* Dragon Lady. Gatekeeper.

The little old woman wasn’t meant to be in this story. This was a quick, transitional scene where the protagonist files documents with city hall. She arrives but instead of the quick exchange, she is directed to the department in the lower level, down timeworn stairs, past stacks of broken chairs and desk lamps, piles of frayed extension cords, curtain rods, and window blinds. An enormous archaic furnace thunders at the end of the hall.

The protagonist hurries along, finds the room and the little old woman behind the battered desk. The protagonist is the first person who’s been down to that department in a long time.

Suddenly, a straightforward scene went sideways. These women needed to meet now — they have met before in the past. There was bad blood between them — both of them were spinning in a turning point.

How did I know this?
I didn’t.
I had to write the scene to find out.

I wrote the scene blind, pell mell, super fast to get past those questions all the way to finished pages. I struggled to get in front of my protagonist clutching the paperwork that she needed to have stamped and registered, the grudging bureaucrat wielding the only power remaining, the power of no.

The protagonist uses the wiles that work on everyone else, smart arguments, promises, pleas, charm, threats. The little old woman consigned to the basement flicks disdain, world-weary impatience, and more important-things-to-do-than-talk-to-you.

But, this is a pivotal scene! Shouldn’t there be a resolution, a successful outcome, maybe even a win-win moment where individual and city hall both succeed? This inadvertent digression has no place, has no reason, is a total waste of time. My novel doesn’t need this. My NaNoWriMo win does not depend on these words. I will definitely cut this stupid mess in revision.

Looking back on the scene, once I’ve cooled off and calmed down from furious wondering, I see why it’s here. It reveals the foundation of the story. The old woman is an important road block as well as the way through to success. She is part of the back story and also key to the front story, the story taking place in the now, the protagonist’s journey.

While the little old woman has been relegated to the basement after years of petty, politically motivated blusters, she is smart, powerful, creative, generous. Dismiss her and she will bury you. Work with her and you’ve got it made.

About to rip out the scene, I now highlight it, consider how it reveals a way forward that no one has bothered to take. She is one astounding person with her own ways of getting things done, of taking the longest possible view for the greatest possible good. When she got in the way, she was put out of the way. Oooh, what’s more, there is so much revealed about the protagonist, in how she approaches a challenge, works with others, and finds a way through.

Rather than delete the scene, I highlight it. There will be several meetings between these two women, ones that move the new plot forward in unlikely, completely logical ways.

I sent the protagonist on a simple errand. She met up with the old woman in the basement, the person who holds her fate with powerful claws. All the protagonist had to do was get some paperwork filed. Instead, her entire world is turned inside out.

No one gets past the little old woman in the basement unless she allows it. Possibly, she’s met up with Stephen King’s boys in the basement, doing the heavy creating in the unconscious. Or, maybe she’s a soon-to-retire, bitter old woman with an ax to grind — and use on the unsuspecting.

I can’t wait to learn more. Maybe she’ll even tell me her name. Her working name is Gorgon Sister. Interest her, gain her trust, and the story unfurls in a marvelous, new way.

In classical mythology, one of three sister monsters with wings, snakes for hair, terrible claws. Their gaze turned anyone looking at them into stone. Medusa was one of the sisters, the mortal one beheaded by Perseus.

The Writing Cooperative is sponsored by

Grammarly makes sure everything you type is easy to read, effective, and mistake-free. Take your writing to a new level. Try it for free!

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.