How to Make Characters Uncomfortable

16 Sep
Ted Thompson's novel, The Land of Steady habits, has earned comparisons to Richard Yates and John Updike.

Ted Thompson’s novel, The Land of Steady Habits, has earned comparisons to Richard Yates and John Updike.

Fiction should not be nice to its characters. As soon as a character reveals some preference (I like this but hate that), the story has an obligation to force the character into that hated thing. It’s a tried and true strategy that can produce some of the best moments in a story, regardless of genre (remember snake-fearing Indiana Jones facing a pit of snakes?). So, how do you set up a situation in which a character must face the thing he or she detests most?

Ted Thompson begins his novel The Land of Steady Habits with exactly this kind of moment. The novel was published by Hatchette Book Group, and you can read the opening chapter at Hatchette’s website.

How the Story Works

The first line of the novel establishes the hated thing:

One of the great advantages of Anders’s divorce—besides, of course, the end of the squabbling, and the sudden guiltless thrill of freedom—was that he no longer had to attend the Ashbys’ holiday party. The party, like all the parties he’d attended in his marriage, was his wife’s domain, and he was relieved to no longer have to show up only to be a disappointment to her friends.

The novel wastes no time forcing Anders to confront the thing he thought he’d left behind: “a card arrived from the Ashbys, as if with the season, inviting him once again to their holiday party.”

Of course, the invitation shouldn’t matter. Anders should simply toss it in the trash—the advantage of divorce. This seems to be his plan, and at first he treats it as curiosity—”the only invitation he’d received”—and tries “to decide if it was a peace offering of if they’d simply forgotten to take him off their list.”

But there’s a complication. As part of the divorce agreement, Anders agreed to give his wife the house (with its expensive mortgage), but he can’t afford to retire on what remains of their wealth and has, out of necessity and spite, quit paying the mortgage. The problem with this solution becomes clear with a second piece of mail: a note from his wife’s lawyers also comes in the mail that makes clear that he has “until the end of the year before the bank brought in a judge.”

To solve this problem, Anders must talk with his ex-wife—and that is why he decided to attend the party.

Thus, in the span of only a couple of pages, the novel creates a situation that Anders should absolutely avoid and a reason for him to necessarily confront it. As one might expect, his appearance begins uncomfortably and ends with disaster.

Side note: This novel was recently optioned by director Nicole Holofcener, whose films (Please GiveFriends with MoneyEnough Said) excel at putting characters into uncomfortable situations. When you read the opening chapter of Thompson’s novel, its appeal to a filmmaker will make a lot of sense.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put a character into an uncomfortable situation using the excerpt from The Land of Steady Habits by Ted Thompson as a model:

  1. Create a character and a reasonable dislike/hatred. You might actually use Thompson’s first line as a model: “One of the great pleasures of _____ was that he/she no longer had to ______.” Life is full of situations like this. Parents look forward to no longer changing diapers, people in apartments look forward to no longer carrying groceries up flights of stairs, people who’ve changed jobs look forward to no longer commuting or sitting next to So-and-so. And, of course, most of us know what it’s like to expect that something is over—and then it isn’t. So, imagine what life change your character has recently gone through and the annoying things this change has left behind.
  2. Create an opportunity to encounter that dislike. Thompson uses an invitation in the mail, which is, in a larger sense, a visit from somebody he used to know but now no longer encounters. So, imagine all the ways that your character’s dislike could return in the form of an unexpected encounter: running into someone in the grocery store, an event (wedding, funeral, graduation) that forces them together, a merger at work. We like to believe that the world is large and that we can make our own place in it, but the truth is that our places overlap more than we often acknowledge. How can you make your character’s worlds overlap in order to bring him/her into an encounter with some unpleasant thing that has been left behind?
  3. Create a reason for the character to seek out that encounter. Thompson gives his character no choice, really, but to attend the party (Anders has quit paying the mortgage on the house that his wife won in the divorce, and he needs to explain himself). As Thompson demonstrates, a good way to force a character’s hand is to make him/her do something that will have negative consequences. So, imagine an act that your character could commit that would force him/her to face some unpleasantness that has been left behind. Or, imagine a circumstance that is beyond the character’s control (layoffs, illness) that could turn the character back to a place that’s been left behind. The result will likely be a scene that the character wants desperately to avoid but has no choice but to enter.

Have fun!

An Interview with Amy Leach

11 Sep
Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, a collection of essays that Yiyun Li compared to "a descendent of Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson."

Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, a collection of essays that the writer Yiyun Li compared to “a descendent of Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson.”

Amy Leach’s book, Things That Are, is a collection of essays that are equal parts nature writing in the tradition of Mary Austin and language play like that of Lewis Carroll. Her work has been published in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion, and the Los Angeles Review. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers’ Award, Best American Essays selections, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. She plays bluegrass, teaches English, and lives in Montana.

In this interview, Leach discusses using rare words, beavers as a proof of God’s existence, and why nature has captured her imagination.

To read Leach’s essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” and an exercise on writing surprising descriptions, click here.

Michael Noll

One of the most striking things about your writing is your use of diction. In this essay alone, there are words that I knew but had to stare at for a moment before I recognized them in their new form (chatterboxy, sagitaries, heptangularly), words I’ve probably encountered before but couldn’t define with any certainty (glogg, yawing, gobbets, saltarellos),and words that I thought you’d invented until I looked them up (truckle, mouldywarp, bladderwort, mudpuppy), and words that I simply had never seen before (frumentary). I was reminded of the writer Alexander Theroux, who actively searches for forgotten words and has said that he believes it’s the duty of writers to keep such words alive. This keeping-alive philosophy extends to his work, which includes a book, Primary Colors, with three sections about everything that is red, green, or blue. I wonder if you feel this same way, especially given the last chapter of the book, “Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena”. Are you trying to save wonderful things (and with words, the effort and thought and experience that went into creating them) from oblivion?

Amy Leach

I like the idea of rescuing words from extinction, of books being arks for drowning words; but I don’t know if my impulse is responsible enough for me to call what I’m doing a duty.  I just enjoy words so long out of use they are almost nonsense again, as they were before they were used.  English can be as fun as Jabberwocky.

Michael Noll

As I reread the essay, I was struck by how much of it is purely informational: here is what beavers do, here is what salmon do. It’s not until the final section, really, that you put that information to work in a kind of argument. This runs counter to the usual structure of essays, which almost always contain some rhetorical turn after the first paragraph or so, a move to transform an interesting detail or anecdote into a thesis. But you don’t do this. The first four pages contain more and more descriptions of beavers. The next three are about salmon and their parallels with beavers. And then, in the last two pages, you apply these parallels to human experience, where the essay’s meaning—if we want to use that word—becomes clear. Have you ever gotten pushback from editors or your first readers, anyone asking you to use a more traditional structure?

Amy Leach

 I did want for the beavers to be beavers, for salmon to mean salmon, rather than being proof of a point. I remember, in doing research on this essay, watching a little video of beavers in the wild. Down below, in the comments section, there was an excited dispute over whether beavers proved the existence of God or proved the nonexistence of God. Nobody was excited about the beavers–just about their own opinions, which beavers happened to support. The beavers could have been wolverines or worms: the conversation below would have been the same. This seems to illustrate the philosophical peril of starting out with a thesis (opinion) and using the rest of the essay (the world) to prove it. This is how I often think–in a thesis-driven way–but it’s not how I want to think, and I love how in writing you can work out the way you want to think.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite lines in the essay is this one: “The beavers’ reaction to the papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness.” It’s so unexpected—even though the language is fresh and the opening situation (beavers being classified as fish) is almost fanciful, the descriptions of the beavers themselves are rooted in fact and observation. As a result, when I read the word qualities, I expected something about their physiology or behavior—anything but affability. It’s a word that seems to illustrate what you write at the end of the essay: that there is a kind of experience that “spills you into a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” Do you make choices (diction, sentence structure, details, metaphors) in your writing that aim for nonsense-making, or is this just an effect of your natural style?

Amy Leach

I suppose it is natural, my affinity for nonsense. If you’re naturally a sensible person and you try by conscious effort and choice to be nonsensical, it may just come off as quirky, effortfully quirky. It seems best to stay true to your own nature, whether that nature is sensible or not.

Michael Noll

Some of the essays in the book, like “Stairs,” are less about nature than human experience of nature and the world and experience itself. It makes me wonder if you can imagine a transition in which you begin to focus less on animals and plants and on something else (airplanes, societal structures). Or, do you think you’ll always focus on the natural world? After all, you live in Montana, where presence of the natural world is every bit the equal of the human presence.

Amy Leach

I wrote most of the book while I was living in Chicago, brimming with airplanes and societal structures–so these were the last things in the world I wanted to spend time thinking about. Where one’s real life is not swamped with airplanes and society, one could possibly afford to devote more imagination to them. Though I expect it will always be the green things and the creatures who have my heart, for they are real.

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Surprising Descriptions

9 Sep
One reviewer said of the essays in Amy Leach's Things That Are, "If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this."

One reviewer said this about the essays in Amy Leach’s Things That Are: “If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this.”

At some point in your story or novel or essay, you’ll need to write a memorable description, something better than red or big or happy. So, you start free writing and brainstorming to find the right words, but they’re all variations on the usual and expected. You want to find something new and startling, but how?

For essayist Amy Leach, writing eye-opening descriptions seems almost as natural as breathing. Her essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” is, in a way, one long description that develops and moves in surprising ways. It was published in The Iowa Review and included in her collection, Things That Are. You can read it here as a sample of the book or here at JSTOR.

How the Essay Works

As we grow older, we fall into patterns of seeing. We perceive not the thing itself but our expectation (built on years of seeing) of what the thing should look like and what it is. A good description, then, wipes away those years of seeing and allows us to see the world the way we saw it as babies and children: for the first time. Watch how Leach strips away the usual ways of perceiving in the first paragraph of “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters”:

In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision, but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish. They decided not to truckle to their new specification, not to be perfect fish, textbook fish; instead they became fanciful fish, the first to have furry babies, the first to breathe air and the first fish to build for themselves commodious conical fortresses in the water. If Prince Maximilian, traveling up the Missouri River, had taken it in mind to categorize them as Druids or flamingos, beavers would have become toothy Druids, or portly brown industrious flamingos.

The last phrase of the paragraph (“portly brown industrious flamingos”) would have been an inconceivable string of words without the rest of the paragraph. But, by introducing the idea that beavers might not actually be beavers, Leach removes the usual way of viewing the animal and gives herself the opportunity to see them as something totally new. The same thing is true of the description that ends this next two sentences:

The beavers’ reaction to their papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness. They affably yield not. If they are deemed fishes, they respond by becoming lumberjack fishes.

How amazing is that phrase: lumberjack fishes? And how impossible it would be to pair those words in a passage that looks at beavers in the usual way.

Despite the inventiveness of the descriptions, Leach actually arrives at them in methodical ways:

  1. First, she introduces a wrong way of viewing something: the Pope says beavers are fish.
  2. Then, rather than correcting the wrong idea, she accepts it as a fact: okay, if beavers are fish, then these are the kind of fish they are.
  3. Finally, she introduces more wrong ways of viewing the beavers (if they’re already fish, why not make them flamingos?).
  4. This last, previously inconceivable way of viewing beavers creates the opportunity to describe them in new ways.

It might be tempting to think that these descriptions (lumberjack fishes, portly brown industrious flamingos) are simply cute, but Leach uses them to set up alternate ways to view not just beavers but nature as a whole and our place within it. In fact, the collection of essays as a whole repeatedly offers new ways of thinking about basic human experience—and these new ways are almost always tied to descriptions that scramble the usual order of things.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write surprising descriptions using “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters” by Amy Leach as a model:

  1. Introduce a wrong way of viewing something. This happens in real life on a daily basis. Two people witness the same event and describe it in different ways. The resulting miscommunication can turn tragic or comic. But there are simpler ways to introduce an odd perspective. Take any common human interaction (lovers meeting or fighting, workers conferring, cashier checking out a customer) and label it as something that it clearly isn’t. In other words, write a scene in which two people kiss and then suggest that it’s a fight. Or, show two people shaking hands or passing money and suggest that they’re in love. This mashup challenges the ideas of loving and fighting and the typical way that we view these common scenes. You can actually do this with any interaction that you’ve already written in a story. Simply label it as something that it isn’t.
  2. Accept the error and write as if it applies. What if the people kissing really are fighting? What if the people shaking hands are in love? What would that mean? Are they pretending? Acting a certain way in public, for show? Fulfilling an obligation? Or, does love mean something different than we think it means? For instance, there are office wives and husbands—think about how odd that pairing and description is. Try to explain how the scene you’ve chosen can look one way but be called something that it doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be.
  3. Introduce more wrong ways of viewing the same thing. If we can have office wives or husbands, what other kinds of wives and husbands can we have? Bar spouses? Church spouses? Internet spouses? Or, if a coworker can be an office wife, what else can they be? An office sister? An office mother? An office lieutenant? An office gravedigger? If you’re going to break the bond between words and bind them to new, unusual words, don’t stop. Keep going to see how far you can push the idea.
  4. Describe the encounter or person or thing. What is a handshake between lovers? A pillow handshake? A spooning handshake? What is a kiss between people who are fighting? A blistering peck? A wolfish smooch? You can do better than these example. Play around. Try to surprise yourself. The immediate goal is to find an interesting description, but doing so may require creating an entirely new way to view an essential part of the story. 

Have fun!

An Interview with Sarah Frisch

4 Sep
Sarah Frisch won a Pushcart Prize for her story, "Housebreaking," which appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch won a Pushcart Prize for her story, “Housebreaking,” which appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Paris Review and The New England Review, and she has won a Pushcart Prize and been a finalist for the National Magazine Award.

In this interview, Frisch discusses the challenges of finding the right beginning, doing research on the tribal areas of Pakistan, and avoiding one-dimensional political speech.

To read Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” at The Paris Review and an exercise on making unlikely scenarios more plausible, click here.

Michael Noll

The story begins with the main character, Seamus, doing things that are unlike him. He’s not a drinker, but he drinks several beers. He’s depressed, but he strikes up a conversation with a complete stranger and eventually asks her to stay the night. On the flip side, his house is a mess (and he’s a stranger as well), but Charity agrees to stay with him. I can imagine a lot of versions of this opening that don’t work–but this opening absolutely works. I heard Richard Ford once say that stories make the impossible possible, and that seems to be the case here. How did you approach this beginning? Did you ever find yourself thinking it wasn’t believable and needing to revise?

Sarah Frisch

I drafted the first version of this story over a decade ago, at a time when I was inclined to write chance encounters of this sort that I could almost never pull off. Nothing survives from that original version except the setting, Seamus and Charity’s names, and the opening scene where the two of them meet and immediately start a relationship. I decided to keep the premise of their instant connection because it seemed right for Seamus to get taken in by an illusion of intimacy. I thought it was a good way to start a story which is about, in part, the difference between thinking you know something and really knowing it in a way you can’t shake. I did have a lot of trouble making this section feel believable, and I was still struggling to revise it even after the rest of the story was done. It wasn’t until a very good reader recommended that I cut my random and utterly goofy first three pages (at one point they played a game of jacks) and start further into the encounter that I felt like I finally might be able to pull off the opening.

Michael Noll

It’s a long story, about 12,000 words. The opening scene alone is 1700 words, and as a result, I think, the story feels paced differently than shorter stories. More time is spent with dialogue. It’s still snappy, like this bit:

“You work in PR?”

“It’s an exclusive firm. We only take clients who can demonstrate a total absence of social conscience.”

“That’s not what I expected,” he said, suddenly awkward. “I imagined you were a teacher or an artist.”

“You’re looking at Weekend Charity. Wait till you see me in a suit.”

But a shorter story might end the scene with that line. But this one keeps going:

“He asked why she’d chosen to work with her company, and she shrugged and said that she’d mostly taken the job to piss off Greg.” 

I’m curious at what point you knew that this was going to be a long story—and if you ever had second thoughts about it. Did you ever try to revise to make it shorter (and more submittable to most journals)? Or did you always know that it needed to be long?

Sarah Frisch

The story was probably 7,000 words—about average for my stories—until I committed to setting part of it in Pakistan. Then it ballooned to almost 25,000 words, and I decided I was writing a novella. By the time I had finished revising and cutting out all the extraneous stuff, I was back down to forty-some pages. I might have tried to keep it shorter, but I was focused on finishing a collection and not thinking much about publishing in journals at the time. I knew how lucky I was when the Paris Reviewaccepted the story, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that the Paris Review is one of only a few journals that publish stories this long.

Now that you mention it, I can see how the pacing is a bit more novelistic than in shorter stories. I think this is partially the result of having committed to a clock of an entire romantic relationship, from beginning to end. Also, at some point I scrapped the idea that I would summarize Seamus’s time in Pakistan using backstory and dialogue. That was when I really felt I had committed to telling two stories at once and showing how both the past and the present played out in full for Seamus. By then I had entirely lost sight of the pacing required for short stories and started taking my time.

Michael Noll

I love that the story takes on some sensitive political issues. Here are two characters talking about drone strikes:

Seamus made a point from one of the readings, that the civilian deaths and constant terror caused by hovering drones must be working against U. S. interests in the region.

“I hate that argument,” Melinda said. “People have a right to life outside our political agenda.”

What I love is that this moment has such clarity of moral vision, but that vision doesn’t take over the story, which is kind of a mess, morally speaking. The ending leaves us in a place of total uncertainty, not just in terms of what will happen but also how to feel about it all. How did you keep the politics from hijacking the story?

Sarah Frisch

You really hit on what I struggled with the most. When I started this version of the story, I had already been reading about the drone strikes for a couple of years in the New York Review of Books. This was back when there was barely any media coverage of drones, and I had just given birth to my youngest daughter. I couldn’t get over how the American government was killing families and kids and nobody was even talking about it. I was so angry about it, I felt as if it were my moral duty to write about it. This turns out to be a pretty difficult place to write fiction from. Throughout the drafting of this story, I felt as if I was fighting my own tendency toward one-dimensional political speech. I tried doling out my personal opinions to various characters, including the more problematic ones, and taking my beliefs to the extreme or mixing them up with opinions that I didn’t agree with. I also tried to have characters challenge each other’s opinions in scene.

A real turning point for me in drafting this story was when a friend put me in touch with a reporter and writer who had traveled in the tribal areas and was willing to read a draft of the section set in Pakistan. She was very generous and insightful and gave me notes on my scenes and access to the journals she wrote during her travels. She pointed out that things were actually a lot more complicated in the tribal areas than I was making them out to be and that it was difficult to know what was real and what was propaganda (and  who was a human rights worker and who was a fighter). She suggested that I play up the effects of not being able to tell right from wrong in the loss of Seamus’s faith. This change ended up working perfectly with the rest of the story and complicating everything in a way that helped keep a simplified moral vision from taking over.

The ending came to me all at once. I already knew that I wanted Seamus and Charity to break into a house together, but I was struggling with it until a sentence popped into my head while I was washing my hands. (I don’t mean to be romantic about it; this normally doesn’t happen to me.) The story had to “take a left turn through a window,” where it would hit up against some reality that Charity could not have communicated in her verbal account of herself. The arrival of the ending felt like magic at the time, but I think it actually grew out of a year’s worth of pushing against my own tendencies toward oversimplification and reductive political speech.

Michael Noll

What kind of research did you do for this story? I’m assuming you’ve never been to Islamabad (though I could be wrong, of course), and so you had the challenge of describing a place based entirely on research. To that end, I was struck by two things: the reference to the market, Jinnah Super, and the wound on Seamus’s foot. The first is specific and makes us believe that the story really does know the place, and the second seems to divert our attention so we’re not asking questions about the accuracy of the depiction of Islamabad. Was this intentional or just the work of your imagination?

Sarah Frisch

You’re right, I’ve never been to Islamabad. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. (Some guy drove around the city holding a video camera. There’s endless footage of avenues and intersections and cars.) I also read blogs and message boards where people discussed the city, and I asked a couple of people who had either grown up or lived in Islamabad to read over the Pakistan sections for accuracy. I ended up with a lot more information than I could use about Islamabad, but not nearly enough about the tribal areas, which I found very difficult to research. (Few news stories, no travel blogs, and only minimal video footage, some of which I would later learn was probably propaganda.)I lucked out when I was put in touch with the reporter. Her notes included a detailed account of the culture, customs, setting, and what it was like to travel as a woman in the tribal areas. She was incredibly generous about sharing her experience, making suggestions, and helping with the accuracy of those sections.

I hadn’t considered how the market and the athlete’s foot worked to make the Islamabad section more believable, but I can definitely see what you mean. I knew I wanted to set a scene in a market because markets are so different around the world, yet visiting them is a pretty common thing to do for travelers. I included the athletes foot because 1) There’s something disorienting about the way minor illnesses that would have been nothing back home take on weird ominous forms during travel. 2) I wanted Seamus to get sick in a way that he found difficult, uncomfortable, and slightly humiliating to share with Melinda. I think these are all emotions that in sickness women are made to feel more than men, and I got a rather sadistic pleasure out of having Seamus suffer an illness that he sensed made him appear unfit and ridiculous to Melinda. 3) Fungus cracks me up, at least in theory.

The information about the drone strikes was not that easy to find, and it took me a year to compile and confirm everything. I lucked out again when, a few weeks before the edits on the story were due, researchers from NYU and Stanford put out a report containing personal accounts of the devastation caused by drone strikes in northwest Pakistan. I was able to confirm a lot of my information and add details I didn’t know. The report is available online, and now there’s also a website with information and resources: http://www.livingunderdrones.org

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make the Impossible Possible in Stories

2 Sep
Sarah Frisch's story, "Housebreaking," appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of The Paris Review.

If a story is to keep its readers from walking away, it must do something unexpected, something that makes the reader say, “I didn’t see that coming.” These moments of surprise are what almost all stories are about—if we know how it will play out, why keep reading? The writer Richard Ford once put it this way: The job of fiction is to make the impossible possible. That’s fine to say, of course, but how do we do that?

Sarah Frisch offers a kind of textbook model for how to put Ford’s maxim into practice in her story, “Housebreaking.” It was published in The Paris Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about two strangers who move in together after a chance encounter. It’s the sort of story that would cause a listener in real life to say, “Wait—you did what?” Most people don’t move in with perfect strangers for a lot of good reasons. As a result, any story in which this happens must overcome a great deal of skepticism on the reader’s part. Frisch begins to do this in the first paragraph:

Seamus lived in Wheaton, Maryland, in the last house on a quiet street that dead-ended at a county park. He’d bought the entire property, including a rental unit out back, at a decent price. This was after the housing market crashed but before people knew how bad it would get—back when he was still a practicing Christian Scientist, still had a job and a girlfriend he’d assumed he would marry. Now, two years later, he was single, faithless, and unemployed. The money his mother had loaned him for a down payment was starting to look more like a gift, as were the checks she’d been sending for the last year to help him cover the mortgage. His life was in disrepair, but for the first time in months he wasn’t thinking about any of that: he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman. Her name was Charity, and she was a stranger.

Notice how Frisch skips over their initial encounter. By the time we meet the woman, Charity, the story has already begun. The next paragraph fills in some of the details about the encounter but also continues to skip over a great deal:

Earlier that afternoon Seamus had been weeding by the driveway, and she’d stopped to ask him if the cottage in the backyard was available to rent. It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack Charity had been carrying and that she confessed she’d planned on drinking alone.

Both paragraphs use a similar technique, one that’s not unlike the famous yada-yada from Seinfeld: “His life was in disrepair” yada-yada “he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman.” “It was already rented” yada-yada “they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” In both cases, if the story had shown that first encounter in great detail, those details would have needed to explain the thought processes behind both characters’ decisions to continue the encounter. Imagine trying to write dialogue for such a scene. Even in real life, we tend to skip over such details; we sometimes don’t even know exactly how we get into situations. The being-there is more important than the how. Yet in fiction, in early drafts, we tend to write those scenes out, and then we get lost.

Even when Frisch uses dialogue, she works fast, making the scene happen quickly so that we don’t have time to object:

“My ex’s house has the gravitational pull of a black hole,” Charity said. “I can’t believe I’m still here.”

“Congratulations,” Seamus said. Then he asked her to stay for dinner.

Something big happens in that moment, internally for Seamus, but we don’t get any details about it. The story doesn’t show us his thoughts, though the next passage does explain how he was unprepared for this moment: his kitchen is a mess, and he has no food ready except “package of ground beef rotting in the crisper.”

A few lines later, the story gives Charity a similar moment:

“I don’t want to go back to that hellhole,” she said.

“Stay here till you find a place,” Seamus heard himself say.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” She looked embarrassed, as if he had accused her of something.

“Everybody needs help.”

“It seems like a bad idea,” she said, quietly.

Seamus said he was trying to be more open to bad ideas.

When she accepted, it was with such obvious relief that he wished he’d offered the instant they’d met.

Notice how matter-of-factly the story skips over the internal struggle: “Then he asked her to stay” and “When she accepted.” If the story had shown that struggle, it likely could have gotten bogged down, taking longer to get to the real story, which is what happens when these two people move in together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s overcome unlikely plot scenarios using “Housebreaking” by Sarah Frisch as a model:

Before you can use this exercise, you need to Identify the problematic plot point. It could be the scenario itself (two strangers move in together). It could also be a decision that a character makes deeper into the story. The point is to know which points you’re having trouble defending or explaining. Where is the explanation of a character’s thoughts or psychology bogging down the narrative? Once you’ve identified the sticking point, you can figure out how to yada-yada over the parts that don’t matter—in other words, you can skip to the good stuff.

  1. Skip over an unlikely initial encounter. Frisch begins the story by explaining Seamus’ situation and then saying, essentially, “but all that went out the window because now he was doing something totally unlike what was just described.” This can serve as a good model for any opening: Here’s a description of a character that suggests he/she is a particular way, but one day he/she found him/herself doing something totally out of character. This opening not only skips over difficult details but also creates tension: how did this unlikely thing happen?
  2. Use a transition to glide across time. Sometimes the right word or phrase can help the story leap over a few minutes to a more interesting moment in a scene. Look at the word soon in this sentence: ” It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” That word skips over the conversation about the rental unit, which is not only less interesting but also tricky to write since it involves a conversation about doing things the characters wouldn’t normally do. So, try introducing something that would normally end a scene (“It was already rented”) and then use the word soon to keep the scene going (“but soon they were on his deck.”
  3. State a character’s action or decision outright, with no explanation. There are statements that we consider making or actions that we consider doing for days (or for a few tortured seconds) before we actually make or do them. That mental state is hard to describe and often not particularly interesting. But if you’ve set up a character and the way he/she tends to act, it can be jarring (in a good say) to state that he/she did something totally out of character (“Then he asked her to stay for dinner”). So, if you’ve tried to describe that mental state and crisis, cut it completely and just state the result as quickly as possible. Once you’ve surprised the reader, you can give details (as Frisch does) for how the character is totally unprepared for this decision.
  4. Use a dependent clause to make a decision seem inevitable. Another mental state that we often try to describe is a moment of waiting: I just said this, and now I’m waiting to see how she’ll respond. It’s a really hard thing to describe, and often it’s better to just skip the response entirely and get to the result. You can do this with two basic pieces of grammar: a subjective conjunction (when, after, although) and a dependent clause (the string of words that usually accompanies these words). Like the word soon, these words skip over time (“When she accepted”). You can do something almost identical with many scenes. Skip over the conversation or waiting period and use when or after to get to the thing being discussed or waited for.

Good luck and have fun!

An Interview with Sean Ennis

28 Aug

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which "expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia" according to a review by Largehearted Boy.

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, a collection of connected stories set on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Ennis is a Philadelphia native now living in Water Valley, Mississippi. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Mississippi and with the Gotham Writers Workshop. His work has appeared in Tin House, Crazyhorse, The Good Men Project, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, Hot Metal Bridge, LitNImage, Filter, and The Best New American Voices anthology.

In this interview, Ennis discusses staged and real violence, how the real story can be found in repercussions to dramatic events, and why game theory helps explain adolescence.

To read Ennis’ story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase,” and an exercise on plot spoilers, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the fact that the story puts the characters into two fights. The obvious thing to have done would be for the narrator to have learned a lesson from the first fight and responded differently in the second. But that’s not what happens. In fact, the second fight sort of sneaks up on him. He doesn’t even see it clearly. Did you always handle these fights in this way, or were there other versions of them in early drafts?

Sean Ennis

The structure for this story was a bit of a happy accident.  I had just finished reading a group of great, super-short novels (Ray by Barry Hannah, So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustaffson), so I thought I might try my hand at something longer than my typical 15 page piece, and see what happens if I took my foot off the gas a bit.  My own experience playing soccer for ten years seemed like good enough fodder, and so I thought I’d tell every soccer story I had and see what fell out.  If I had originally approached the subject matter without thinking of it as a longer project, I probably just would have written the one long scene of the boy’s death.

A lot fell out though. Lengthy descriptions of indoor soccer, which is a bizarre game played with tiny goals and enormous tennis balls on basketball courts.  Errant coaches with hard drug problems who couldn’t keep their genitals from falling out of their shorts.  Feral sideline mothers who preyed on teenage referees.  The taste of yellow oranges in November at halftime.  All fine details, I guess, but eventually they felt irrelevant to the piece, and got cut. I didn’t want it to be turned into my lame soccer memoir.

The heart of the piece really seemed to be violence—the somewhat staged violence of the sport, and the real violence of the neighborhood.  On the field, there was, theoretically, some adult who would stop things from going too far.  Off the field there was not, even when their help was requested.

To the point of the narrator learning something, I guess my thought is that there is nothing to be learned.  He’s a coward in the best sense—he doesn’t believe that violence solves problems, or at least that he can use violence to solve problems—but might be surrounded by people who do.  I guess if he’s learned anything is that from now on, there is no one blowing a whistle to stop bad behavior.  He’ll have to manage it himself.

Michael Noll

I also really love the soccer field that you create in Fishtown. It’s not just a poor version of other fields—it’s not really even a field. What I love is how the absurdity of the field seems to change the tone of the story. We start out in familiar territory, familiar descriptions of poor neighborhoods, but then the field alters the scope of what is possible. It’s so beyond the bounds of what we think we know. I wonder if that second fight would have been believable in the story without that gravel soccer field. What do you think? Did any of this occur to you as you worked on the story?

Sean Ennis

This may diminish me as a story-teller, but that field was a real place. I played on it. This probably isn’t a shocker, but is it a bummer when writers say their best details are real?

Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

And in real life, I think the field was a metaphor. That neighborhood was very serious about soccer. They always kicked ass. They could have come up with money for grass. But it was a rite of passage in Philadelphia to play on that cinder field. We were shocked by it and had no idea how to negotiate it, so we complained and were totally intimidated and then lost. I distinctly remember my dad telling me it was a “cinder” field while we were driving there, and I had no idea what he meant. Had it been on fire?

Something that I think the whole collection is interested in is the idea of real objects out of place in a way that causes anxiety. Expanses of gravel and glass are not strange territory in an urban setting.  But when a hundred yards of them are contained by white lines and called a “field,” there’s something not right. To me, it’s the first clue for the narrator that something universal is off. The adults just shrug about the field.  Just say, sorry if you don’t like the rules, but you must play. For me, this is an idea running through most of the stories in the collection. For a while the whole manuscript was called “Deep Play,” an idea taken from Jeremy Bentham, a British political philosopher. He was talking about instances where players get involved in a game where it is impossible to win, but they play anyway. A lot of young adulthood feels like this, I think. I’m no expert in game theory, and “Deep Play” isn’t the sexiest of titles for a collection, but that superficial version of Bentham’s idea struck a chord with me in terms of the types of stories I was writing.

This relates to the second fight, I think. The natural progression of violence among these kids is that someone is going to be killed; it’s already in motion. Also, the narrator’s team’s manicured field is the place of real danger. Even the brutes from Fishtown understood when a fight was over and won. But the swarming idiots from the suburbs were less equipped to understand the repercussions of their actions.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a spoiler (“The night Roger was beaten to death…”). That’s a move that can really work and can also backfire (in this case, of course, it works really well). What went into your decision to start the story that way? And, how did foregrounding that line affect the way you structured the story?

Sean Ennis

My thought there was to just get that bit of drama out of the way. I think we all know stories about kids who died too early, and, of course, they are tragic, but I was interested in figuring out a way where that death wasn’t the climax of the piece. If the reader knows it first thing, then hopefully something else is going on to keep people reading. In general, I’m much more interested in the repercussions of dramatic events than the dramatic events themselves. Things that seem bad can have positive outcomes and vice versa. So, my hope is that what happens after the death is where the real heart of the story is.

Michael Noll

This is not the only story I’ve read that combines sex and death. First to mind is Stuart Dybek’s story, “We Didn’t.” But the novel Skippy Dies also came to mind. To that end, I guess even the movie Dead Poet’s Society fits the description. What is it, do you think, about sex and/or death that makes it natural to bring them together?

Sean Ennis

This question is probably above my pay grade, but I’ll speculate that there’s something evolutionary about an animal’s interest in these topics.  The ultimate conflict—have sex or die. The echoes of that impulse remain, right?  Freud?  Darwin? Help me out.

I also think for young people these are both concepts becoming real at about the same time.  By the age of twelve or so, most young boys are waging their virginity against their potential death in some stunt.  Before that age, neither sex nor death seem like possible outcomes, or even knowable outcomes. When they both come crashing in: chaos.

In terms of story-telling, a piece needs stake, and sex and death impart this pretty quickly. I’ll be the first to admit that maybe they do it cheaply.  Still, they’ve been staples in story-telling for thousands of years, which suggests readers are usually compelled by it.  All of which to say, I think this story, if it succeeds, is retreading very familiar thematic territory, if only because it is the story-telling I was trained in.

That said, I’m working to figure out how sex and death are no longer the backbone of my stories without becoming a bad version of Carver or Salinger (heroes of mine).  Surely there is a drama in between.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

26 Aug

Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. The novelist Paul Murray actually did this with the title of his book: Skippy Dies. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?

Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase.” It was included in his collection of linked stories Chase Us, and you can read it now at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

The first seven words of the story give away the ending: “The night Roger was beaten to death.” That’s the plot spoiler. A lesser story might depend on that spoiler alone to generate suspense. After all, it’s a powerful statement: Roger wasn’t killed but beaten to death. It’s natural for the reader to want to know what happened. Who was Roger? How did he arrive at such an awful ending?

But those seven words are just the beginning of passage that build suspense in a variety of ways. Here are the first two paragraphs in their entirety:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time.

The initial pulse of suspense comes from “beaten to death,” but that suspense is heightened by the incongruity and mystery of what comes next: “I was out there running, too.” What does this mean? Running away? But what about that word too? He was running with Roger? The sentence makes perfect grammatical sense but leaves a great deal unclear in terms of the scene and what was happening. So, now the reader not only wants to know how and why Roger died but also what was going on in the background. Then, the next sentence introduces the word playground, which we don’t normally associate with beaten to death or beer and wild nudity. Again, it’s important to note that there is nothing literally  confusing about the paragraph. The sentences are not purposefully obscuring the facts. The confusion or mystery comes from not seeing only a glimpse of the entire picture. The narrator cannot explain everything in a few words, in part because it is first-person and therefore imperfect in the ways that all people are imperfect, rather than third-person and capable of omniscience.

The second paragraph continues the incongruity of playground/beaten to death by stringing together kids who “got in fights, smoked” with soccer and the idea that “Seventh grade is a tenuous time.” These are just kids, we realize. They’re playing at being adults but still stuck with the trappings of childhood—playgrounds and soccer.

So, even though the first sentence contains an enormous plot spoiler, the rest of the opening two paragraphs introduce a complexity and confusion that the reader wants to unravel and understand. If you read the entire story (which you most definitely should), you’ll likely find that the plot point of Roger’s death is less important than everything that was going on around it. In other words, the spoiler isn’t really a spoiler at all but a way of directing the reader’s attention toward what is truly important.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a plot spoiler into the beginning of a story using “Saint Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis as a model:

  1. Identify the most important thing that happens in your story. There are, of course, likely several important points, and the biggest of them might be internal—but internal plot points don’t really work as spoilers. Part of the problem is that even the deepest moments of realization for a character can sound, when distilled to a sentence, like the sentiments of a Hallmark card (“The Things They Carried”: Don’t let grief get you down.). To make a spoiler work, you need plot, which almost always means action and often means the external consequence of some internal turning point. So, identify the biggest plot point in the story.
  2. Write a sentence that states the spoiler plainly. You can’t get much plainer than “The night Roger was beaten to death.” But notice what else that sentence does: it suggest that other things are happening. It’s even a good idea to use Ennis’ first sentence as a template: On the _____ that ____ happened… You want to hint to the reader that though you’re revealing some parts of the story, there are others yet to be found out.
  3. Surround the plot spoiler with incongruities. Some spoilers aren’t really spoiler (A man went to war and died. A couple met in Vegas and got married and a year later they were divorced.) No one is going to wonder how those things happened because of course they happened. You want to provide details that make the spoiler not quite make sense. Ennis pairs “beaten to death” with a playground and wild parties and, eventually, seventh grade. These are things that don’t usually appear alongside a brutal murder. So, fill your first paragraph with details that one wouldn’t normally expect to find alongside the plot point that you’ve revealed. Keep in mind, though, that you’re not searching for opposites. Don’t be blatantly thematic (He died in a maternity ward). Be weird. Be unexpected. Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of Stuart Dybek’s famous story “We Didn’t”: “We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you’d slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father’s rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent’s meat market.” Nobody expects to find smoked chubs in a sentence about sex. Allow your imagination to roam. What detail would make the reader sit up and say, “Huh?”
  4. Run with those details. Once you’ve got the plot spoiler in the story (and if it’s a good one), then there’s no doubt that you’ll return to it eventually. It’s also almost inevitable that it will press its face against the pane of your story over and over again. You won’t be able to get rid of it. So don’t feel the need to remind your readers that it’s there. Instead, elaborate on the incongruous details you’ve discovered. Ennis puts a playground and soccer in a paragraph with murder, and it’s the playground and the soccer that the story focuses on for a very long time—except that they’re not just soccer and a playground. They’re soccer and a playground that are accessories to murder. As a result, we pay attention. We want to know how the incongruous details will be brought together.

Good luck and have fun!

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