How to Use an Omniscient Narrator

14 Apr

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane "soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor," according to a New York Times review.

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. None of than the critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).

Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.

As everyone knows, Star Wars begins with a two-paragraph intro that scrolls up the screen, prefaced, famously, with the line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Just as the text that followed laid out the basics of the war (who is fighting, what’s at stake, and one of the characters), the opening paragraphs of On Sal Mal Lane lay out the basics of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The problem, though, is that a novel is not like a film, or, at least a literary novel is not like a B movie (which Star Wars absolutely was). If the voice that opens the novel vanished suddenly like the text that opens Star Wars, the reader might close it and walk away. It would be like a film changing from color to black and white, which can be done, but only under very special circumstances. Rather than risking that readers might not make the jump, the novel creates a narrator that can handle both the large scale of the war and the small scale of a few characters affected by it.

Of course, many readers will encounter that narrative voice and quite naturally ask, “Who is telling this story?” So, the novel provides an answer:

And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passed through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors. I am the road itself…

This self-identification goes on for a bit and ends this way:

To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing. I am that.

You can’t state the problem and solution more neatly than that. Now, how does such a voice operate, on a practical level?

Mostly, it follows different groups of characters, with each getting their own sections in the novel. In these sections, characters will be spoken about as groups (an entire family, for instance) and as individuals. But the voice will occasionally speak about things in general, as it does here:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

So, it operates by speaking in a kind of godlike voice but also, quickly, zooming down to a more human perspective—a perspective that we’re more comfortable with, being, as we are, humans and not gods.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing from an omniscient point of view,  using On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman as a model:

  1. Create a reason for such a point of view. The reason should be practical: what about your novel cannot be conveyed by a narrator with a limited point of view? Freeman’s reason is the complexity of explaining the context and development of a civil war. Your reason may be similarly political. Does the novel’s conflict involve parties larger than a single person or handful of individuals? Does it involve groups and national or international politics or movement (like migration)? Does writing the book require the occasional use of a kind of professorial or journalistic mode? If so, you might need an omniscient narrator.
  2. Identify the registers the narrative voice must hit. What is the range the voice must cover? Every novel (at least every one that I can think of) follows individual characters. But what is the opposite end of the spectrum? To use the language of film, how far out must the camera move? Will the voice talk about a community as a whole? About a region or country? About the entire world? The universe? The range doesn’t really matter; the important thing is to know in advance how much ground you must cover.
  3. Identify the voice. This may be the trickiest part. Freeman writes that the voice is the wind and the road (in other words, the world itself and also the people as a whole). Some reviewers have found this identification awkward. You can probably imagine how such a move would be met in workshop: “How can the wind talk?” But the move is probably also necessary. Without the identification, the same reviewers might ask, “Who is telling this story?” There’s no perfect solution. The short passage about the narrator’s identity is a bit like the scene from the original Rocky, when Apollo Creed is choosing his challenger, eventually picking Rocky Balboa. It’s the most contrived part of the film, a scene where the mechanics are laid out in the open, and yet it’s necessary because, without it, Rocky will keep collecting debts and will never meet Apollo. In short, without that scene, one of the most iconic American films of all time doesn’t exist. In the same way, without the passage about the narrator’s identity, Freeman’s great novel might not have come together. So, think about the identity of your narrator. Is it God? Is it some manifestation of the world? If so, what manifestation would make sense for your novel’s particular world?
  4. Write from the broadest register. What is the grandest, largest scale the voice can manage? Think about the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” Or think about Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” How can you craft a voice that is vast enough to make such statements?
  5. Transition to a more narrow register. Unlike Star Wars, a novel must make this transition as smooth as possible. This is where Freeman’s novel really shines. In two sentences, she moves from “God was not responsible for what came to pass” to “surely, these children were beautiful.” The first part is vast and the second is beginning to focus on specific characters: these children. Freeman links the two with a single world: surely. It’s not a causal connection but a logical one. Here’s the full sentence: “People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful.” Basically, the sentence says, “Beauty exists in the world, and these children are beautiful.” It’s moving from a general statement to an illustration of the statement. This is a great way to transition. Make a general statement and then illustrate it: “and here they are.”

Good luck. Take risks. Have fun with the exercise.

An Interview with Jaime Netzer

10 Apr
Jaime Netzer's journalism has appeared widely, and her story, "How to Die" was published in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger.

Jaime Netzer’s journalism has appeared widely, and her story, “How to Die” was published in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger.

Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and journalist living in Austin. She served as the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer-in-Residence in Smithville, TX, and the nonfiction editor for the literary journal Front Porch. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Parcel, and Twelve Stories; her journalism has appeared all over, including (most recently) VarietyUSA Today Special PublicationsCowboys and Indians, and Austin Monthly.

To read an exercise on writing self-aware prose and Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” click here.

Michael Noll

The story starts really fast: right to the reality show and its irresistible hook. Did the story always start this way? Or was this a conscious decision that you made, to start in a way that would immediately grab the reader?

Jaime Netzer

I started this story in the thick of work on my thesis project at Texas State, back in the spring of 2012. I had been plodding away at this truly terrible attempt at a novel while also enrolled in a workshop with Tom Grimes, who asked me to turn in something other than part of the thesis, for everyone’s sake, I think. My memory is usually awful but I do remember the idea coming to me sort of whole, or something close to it. I wanted to write about a girl competing on a reality show to earn her own suicide. The published version is not that different from the version I sat down and wrote in one fell swoop—which is wholly unusual for me. Small things changed, but this story always felt more like play than work. Her voice was there from the start, which I think helped a lot.

Michael Noll

The story is set in Kansas City, which caught my eye, not just because I’m from Kansas, but because I so rarely read stories set in KC. In fact, I can’t think of another short story set there. Did you ever consider setting the story in a generic location, or did you always want to put it in Kansas City, at Arrowhead?

Jaime Netzer

I’m from Kansas too, just west of Kansas City. So I’ve sat in that weird concrete stadium and seen its shadows and felt the height and bowl-feeling of it—it’s an amazing place to watch a game, and it’s weird and cold and huge, and somehow that felt like the right place to start. The other part of this answer, honestly, is that I’m a chicken, and I don’t usually set stories places I haven’t had some serious experience with. The story is obviously a bit speculative, a bit not-here, not-now, but I wanted it very, very close to now and here. So I wanted to set it somewhere, and Kansas City felt right. Lawrence, the narrator’s name, is actually the name of my hometown.

Michael Noll

The thing I love most about this story is the demented sexuality of the narrator, the way she tries to seduce the guy who will interview her for the TV show. Her sexuality, and the way she wields it, is so unexpected. The story could have easily been about how the character lacks power and so wants to die, but the story gives her incredible power and control. Is this one of those characterizations that just appears in your head one day, or did you have to write toward a point of discovery, when you realized who the character was?

Jaime Netzer

She came to me fully formed, but I wouldn’t say her sexuality is demented at all, actually. And maybe it’s because she was always the voice in my head, but it doesn’t seem unexpected to me, either. Don’t we all wield our sexuality in an attempt to get what we want? I never saw her as lacking power, so in my head, the story hasn’t given power to her. She is the story, her power and control (and desires) are the story.

Michael Noll

A lot of readers will probably think of The Hunger Games when reading this story. I’m curious how much you thought about it. Did you read the books or watch the movies and feel compelled to write your own (different, weirder, better) version? Or is the connection coincidental or the result of reality TV’s prevalence in our lives?

Jaime Netzer

To be honest, I didn’t give The Hunger Games a moment’s thought when writing it—I saw one of the movies (now I’m curious about the timing) at some point, but it’s the opposite story, right? Those people are not fighting of their own accord, and they’re fighting to live. I have, however, long admired Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and The Hunger Games‘ premise is fantastic. I actually had three people ask me if I’d seen Black Mirror after reading the story. I haven’t, but apparently it’s similar in tone and there may have even been an episode with a reality show of some kind.

April 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Self-Conscious Prose

7 Apr
Jaime Netzer's story, "How to Die," appeared in Black Warrior Review and was reprinted in LitRagger.

Jaime Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” appeared in Black Warrior Review and was reprinted in Litragger.

It’s been said that every writer secretly wishes to be a musician—on stage, performing before a crowd. The experience is very different from the life of a writer, working alone in a room and being read by people who are far removed in other rooms. Yet the idea of performance has a place in writing. In fact, when it comes to first-person narration, a writer’s voice often becomes a consciously public act. You can see this clearly in Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Things They Carried, in stories like “How to Tell a True War Story,” when the narrator says things like, “This one does it for me. I’ve told it before—many times many versions—but here’s what actually happened.” The narrator is performing for his audience, and the effect is powerful; as a reader, you can feel yourself leaning forward into the prose.

This is the same strategy used (to the same effect) by Jaime Netzer in her story, “How to Die,” which was published recently in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The writer’s performance begins with the title: “How to Die.” It’s a particular kind of title (a How to) that has become almost a genre in itself. Tim O’Brien has written a version, and Lorrie Moore has written several. The genre often employs a second-person narration (You do this, you do that), and even in first-person stories, you tends to pop up a lot. It’s the nature of the story, not unlike when you were assigned to stand in front of a middle school classroom and deliver a demonstration: how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or how to give someone a buzz cut (at least that’s the speech that I gave). It’s a story that’s difficult to tell without directly engaging the audience. That engagement is an inevitable part of the story’s voice, as you can see in the first two paragraphs of “How to Die.”

Everybody knows this, but, die young. I look around at my fellow contestants and start to smirk. I’m only twenty, won’t even be drinking legal for months and months. I can see them peering at me, thinking thoughts they don’t realize are petty and unflattering, thinking, for example, why would little One-Eye want to win her own death?

But they’re here, too. We aren’t any different. Except I have a better story.

In the first sentence, the narrator is speaking directly to us. She doesn’t say “you,” but it’s understood who “die young” refers to. The narrator is also self-conscious in her performance. She’s aware of the effect she is trying to make and is delivering a spiel that feels rehearsed, if not in front of an actual audience, then to herself in her head.

The entire story is about performance. The narrator is auditioning for a reality show in which the contestants are competing to receive a show-assisted suicide at centerfield of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. They “win” by being both sexy and appealing and also miserable enough to want to die. The very nature of this premise requires the characters to put on an act and to think about how best to put on that act. This is why the narrator says things like, “Die sexy,” and “Die while you’re still sharp, smart, with it. Don’t let them pull one over on you.” She is calibrating her performance for the audience but also calibrating her own ideas for how to live, which is the subject of most fiction—how to be in the world.

What Netzer has done, then, is create a narrator who feels compelled to tell her audience how to be in her particular world—in the immediate, reality-show sense and in the broader, 20-year-old-in-America sense. It’s this voice telling us how to be that pulls us into and through the story, not the premise, as outlandish and engaging as it is.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write narration that tells the reader how to be, using “How to Die” by Jaime Netzer as a model:

  1. Create a narrator with something to say. In real life, we have obsessions that feel the need to explain to people: what it means to grow up in _____ or what it’s like to be _____ or do _____. Sometimes these obsessions center around traumatic or elevated experiences (going to war or encountering racism or sexism), but just as often these obsessions involve nuances that most people probably overlook but which are important to us. For this exercise, try giving your obsession(s) to a narrator. Or, if you’re a born fiction writer, create a character with an obsession that he/she feels compelled to explain. Obsession, of course, can mean something unusual (licking lamp posts) or something quotidian (how to die).
  2. Give the narrator a reason to explain the obsession. Most of us don’t need much of an excuse to talk about the things that preoccupy our minds. But, as an audience, we’re more receptive to those thoughts if there’s some reason for us to listen. This is the difference between wanting to listen to someone rant or lecture and wanting to run away. The reason doesn’t need to be something huge. Mostly, it needs to be dramatic. In Lorrie Moore’s story “How to Be an Other Woman,” the reason we listen is because we can’t help but want to know about affairs. So, rather than wringing your hands over that age-old workshop question, “Why is the narrator telling us this?” instead ask yourself, “What is the story or dramatic action that has prompted the narrator to start talking?” Give your character a story to talk about—not just an obsession to talk about.
  3. Shake the character. In a story like this, the narrative arc takes a toll on the narrative voice. In other words, the narrator has changed by the story’s end and that change is evident in how he or she talks. Often, this means undermining the narrator’s certainty about the world he or she is narrating—making the narrator vulnerable. For all her bluster about how to die and how to appeal to a reality-show audience, the narrator in “How to Die” doesn’t end up quite where she expected, in part because she did not anticipate something essential about her world. When that unanticipated thing arrives, her voice is shaken. So, in your story, find a way to introduce an element that will shake the narrator. If the voice talks as if it knows everything, introduce something that it does not know.

Good luck.

An Interview with Nicole Haroutunian

2 Apr
Nicole Haroutunian's debut collection, Speed Dreaming, has been called

The Paris Review blog compared Nicole Haroutunian’s debut collection, Speed Dreaming, to the HBO hit Girls: “Her protagonists, all women, admit to melodrama, but they go one step further than the characters in Girls in that they question what’s behind their woe-is-me antics.

Nicole Haroutunian’s short fiction has appeared in the LiterarianTin House Flash Fridays, Vol. 1 BrooklynTwo Serious Ladies, and other publications. Her short story “Youse” was the winner of the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Short Story Contest. She is coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York, works as a museum educator, and lives with her husband in Woodside, Queens. Her first story collection, Speed Dreaming, was recently published by Little A.

To read an exercise on showing dramatic elements twice and her story, “Youse,” click here.

In this interview, Haroutunian discusses the inspiration for her story, “Youse,” the process of revising a published story for inclusion in a collection, and one possible difference between literary and young adult fiction.

Michael Noll

“Youse” is a story that could have gone in a very different direction. We could have seen Margaret the way other people see her, as an object of pity, but the story doesn’t allow that view. Was it difficult to avoid sliding into that perspective, or did the story always see the world so firmly through Margaret’s eyes that pity wasn’t a possibility?

Nicole Haroutunian

As is often the case, I had to trick myself into starting this story with a self-devised writing exercise. I work as a museum educator at, among other places, the American Folk Art Museum. One of my favorite branches of the collection is schoolgirl art—amazing samplers, embroideries and watercolors done by 18th-19th century schoolgirls. Some of this work takes the shape of mourning drawings—ritualized drawings made to commemorate a death. I chose a selection of schoolgirl art, wrote descriptions of each work, and then tried to weave a contemporary story around those descriptions, with each new scene sparked by another artwork. One of the first paragraphs I wrote was about a mourning drawing created for the artist’s father, hence Margaret’s father’s death. Eventually, Margaret’s story took shape and the framework could be excised; there’s no explicit trace of the art in the story now. My residual positive associations with schoolgirl art still come through, though; these girls exhibited such strength, personal vision and insightfulness—I transferred those feelings onto, or into, Margaret. Of course it’s possible to feel pity for the schoolgirl artists—they dealt with a lot of death and had to live within the parameters of a pretty circumscribed life—but they also had a lot of privilege. The same is true of Margaret. At least half of the adversity she faces is of her own making and comes from a place of privilege, so although I have empathy for her, it’s hard to feel too sorry for her.

Michael Noll

The story contains a lot of heavy material: a dead father, catcalling from some pretty sketchy guys, and a trade of sexual favors for exam answers. How did you manage to keep all those balls in the air, so to speak? Did you ever wonder if you’d included too much for a single story?

Nicole Haroutunian

I see this story as being about the relationships between a pair of teen girls and their mothers. All the material you mention is there to serve the tension in and development of these relationships. So it didn’t feel like too much to me because the central concerns of the story seemed fairly straightforward in the midst of all the drama.

Michael Noll

The ending is lovely, a very small and intimate moment. Did you always have it in mind? Or did it occur to you as the story came together?

Nicole Haroutunian

Following from my last answer, it took me many, many drafts to decide which relationship was truly at the center of the story—Margaret and Joanna or Margaret and her mother. When I finally decided it was Margaret and her mother, I knew I wanted the last moment of the story to be between the two of them. When the story was originally published in the Literarian, a few things were different—the major one is that it was set in the 2010s rather than the 1990s (I knocked it back fifteen years so that it was plausible, in the context of my collection, that Margaret could grow up to become Meg, the protagonist of a few other stories). The last few lines, though, are in a slightly different order. It’s really subtle, but I think it does change the ending for the better.

Michael Noll

Since the story is about teenagers, I’m curious about how you would categorize your fiction. I’ve heard of writers who write a book that they imagine is literary fiction and then an agent says, no, this should sell as a young adult novel. (This happened with Margo Rabb’s forthcoming Kissing in America.) Do you think about these distinctions at all? Do you think there’s a difference?

Nicole Haroutunian

Before last summer, when I worked as a teaching artist for a book club summer camp for 9-13 year olds, I hadn’t read much, if any, young adult literature since I was a teenager. I’ve still read very little, so I don’t say this with a lot of confidence, but what I thought I noticed is that often the reader has to do less work when reading young adult literature and more work when reading literary fiction. YA books are forthcoming in a way that my stories aren’t. There’s more overt emotion, plot and resolution; there’s less ambiguity. In literary fiction, there’s often a lot of room for readers to make their own meaning. To me, it’s not about how old the characters in the story are, but how the fiction is written. I don’t think this is true in every case, of course, and it’s also not a value judgment. Some of my literary touchstones for this story were Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, both of which I think are sometimes categorized as YA, but don’t read that way for me despite being about teenagers. I think a young reader would probably find “Youse” a little, or a lot, boring. It ends with the implication that someone is about to take a sip from a glass; a teenager would probably expect a little more in the way of payoff.

April 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

Why a Story Should Show Its Dramatic Elements Twice

31 Mar
Nicole Haroutunian's story, "Youse," was published at The Literarian and is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming.

Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse,” was published at The Literarian and is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming.

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

A great example of showing a scene twice can be found in Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse.” It is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming, and was published at The Literarian, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Showing moments twice in a story gives you the opportunity to create parallels. In life, we tend to see something and then react when we see it again because the first experience has stayed with us. In fiction, letting this happen gives characters a chance to reveal more complex sides of themselves. It also provides a sense of depth of vision. The statue of liberty, for instance, might look small if shown by itself, but when a tourist is standing in front of it, you perceive its actual size. The same can be true for stories.

Haroutunian’s story contains two scenes with the same bronze SUV. The first time it appears, the main character, Rae, is walking home from school with her friend, Joanna:

The man inside yells, “How about youse sit on my dick?”

That’s the end of it. The man drives off. What’s more important is the girls’ reactions:

“Did he say ‘youse’?” Rae asks, shuddering.

Joanna rubs her arms as if she’s showering. “Dirty,” she says. “Bad grammar makes me feel dirty.”

“I bet he’s married,” Rae says. “My dad never believes me when I say that men do that. He can’t conceive of it.”

The scene ends with this bit of foreshadowing:

“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”

Of course, this means we’re expecting the dude to drive by again, and, of course, he does (it’d be a tremendous missed opportunity if he didn’t). It begins in the same way:

Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them. They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.

The scene diverges from the first one in how the girls react:

Rae does not want to hear the rest of his sentence. “How about we fucking kill you?” she yells, kicking her foot in the direction of the car.

“I’m going to scream,” Joanna murmurs. “Let’s scream.”

“No,” Rae says, walking faster. “We’ll get in trouble if someone comes. He just wants attention—he’s full of shit.”

This reaction prompts a response from the man in the SUV:

“What are you going to do?” the guy asks, keeping pace with them. His voice is deep and mean; he’s also dropped the “youse.”

And this is how the scene ends:

Joanna grabs for Rae’s wrist and starts off toward someone’s yard. Rae leans back in opposition. Their tug of war paralyzes them in place. It’s not that she’s being stubborn by not changing course—the yard is full of shrubs, shrubs she can picture lying dead in.

He rolls down the window a little farther. No one is moving.

“I can see you,” Rae says, although she can’t. “We know what you look like.”

He says, “Oh yeah?” in this threatening way, like there’s more he has to say, but before he does, he pops open the passenger door. It swings so close it almost hits them.

Then they’re running.

It’s pretty clear how much this scene appearance of the SUV adds to the story. The first time it rolls up, the girls react the way anyone would: with surprise. It’d be unbelievable if they had the wherewithal to respond to the man in any meaningful way; few people have that kind of presence of mind. So, by reintroducing the SUV later, it gives the girls a chance to respond in almost premeditated way—in a way that reflects some essential thing about their characters. Because those essential things aren’t necessarily compatible with most people’s deeply embedded desire to avoid confrontation, their responses increase the dramatic tension.

On their own, these scenes don’t carry a ton of weight—though they’re certainly compelling. It’s when they’re put into the larger context of the story that they become truly interesting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a scene twice using “Youse” by Nicole Haroutunian as a model:

  1. Write a short scene that interrupts the thread of the story. Fiction is often structured around routine; drama comes from the interruption of that routine. The routine can along the lines of “Everyday Joe read the paper at his favorite coffee shop until one day.” Or it can be the sort of routine that Haroutunian uses. The story begins with two high school girls talking and quick, awkward sexual encounter—pretty common high school behavior. Then the SUV rolls up. So, think about a story that you’re already writing or that you’ve written but which seems incomplete. Find a way to interrupt whatever routine the story has established. Here’s the catch: the interruption doesn’t need to seem significant at first. In “Youse,” the SUV drives away as quickly as it appeared. It’s only when it returns that it really impacts the story. So, don’t make too much of your interruption; just be sure it’s something that can be repeated in some way.
  2. End the scene with foreshadowing. This doesn’t need to be subtle. In “Youse,” the character says, “Next time that dude drives by…” The difference between that phrase and “Wow! Wasn’t that weird?” is the difference between the scene ending with no impact and ending with a bit of resonance that carries forward into the story.
  3. Write the scene again. This time, let your characters respond in a more thoughtful way. This is similar to those moments we all experience, when something happens and we think of the right thing to say only after the moment has ended. In your story, you’re basically giving your characters the chance to react the way that they wished they’d reacted the first time. The nature of this reaction will depend on the kind of story you’re writing and the context for the scene.
  4. Don’t put too much pressure on the scene. It’s no accident that “Youse” doesn’t end with the second appearance of the SUV. Instead, the story continues on, with the emotional impact of the scene carrying forward into what the story is really about—Rae’s relationship with her mom, in the aftermath of her father’s untimely death. So, don’t make your entire story about the scene. Simply use it as a way to provide depth of vision for the part of the story that is foregrounded.

Good luck.

How to Write Energetic Character Descriptions

24 Mar
Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart remains a staple of the World Literature canon, though it reads as contemporary as any fiction written today.

Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart remains a staple of the World Literature canon, though it reads as contemporary as any fiction written today.

The great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe died two years ago, but he was given a second passing a few days ago when The New York Times’ Twitter post announcing his death was somehow reposted. A lot of people were fooled, but it was a good opportunity to remember how great a writer Achebe truly was. It’s astounding at how contemporary and fresh the writing in his novel Things Fall Apart remains, despite having been written half a world away and fifty years ago. In particular, the character descriptions have a vitality to them that any writer today would be lucky to emulate.

The American writer James Baldwin felt the same way. Achebe was an admirer of his, and here is Achebe writing about the day they finally met:

What he said about my novel Things Fall Apart was quite extraordinary. He read it in France, he said. It was about people and customs of which he knew nothing. But reading it, he recognized everybody: “That man, Okonkwo, is my father. How he got over, I don’t know, but he did.”

Here the opening chapter of Things Falls Apart.

How the Novel Works

In the following passage, Achebe is describing his main character, Okonkwo, a man who gained fame for a fight with an undefeated fighter nicknamed The Cat. Notice how much time the descriptions spans and how active it is.

Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end, Okonkwo threw the Cat. That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look.

He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.

It’s startling how much Achebe packs into this description. It starts with a fight, moves to a physical description that focuses on eyebrows, of all things, and then moves to breathing, the way he walked, the way he talked, and his relationship with his father. It’s an incredible jumble of information that makes absolute sense. So, how does Achebe pull it off?

The description depends so much upon the fight, those nerves and muscles stretched to a breaking point. This is a man of not only strength but also intense drive, and those ideas (the high energy of a fighter in action) carry the description forward: bushy eyebrows, heavy breathing, walking on springs, stammering, fighting, and finally lack of patience with people he viewed as lesser than him, especially his father. By establishing Okonkwo’s fighting ability, Achebe created a way to think about every part of the character’s personality and life.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an active character description using Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe as a model:

  1. Establish the character in action. It’s tempting to describe a character as a portrait, with as much action as a still-life painting of flowers. But people are rarely still, and, in writing as in life, we tend to learn about characters and people by what they do, how they encounter the world and its obstacles. So, choose a moment where your character is struggling with something. It can be another person, as in Okonkwo’s fight, or it can be an inanimate object: a lunch box or a seat belt. Think about how people act when stuck in traffic. Do they bang on the steering wheel? Sit back and sigh? Pull out their phone? Before painting a picture of the character in repose, show us the character in action.
  2. Distill that action to a phrase or image. Okonkwo’s taut and stretched muscles serve as a kind of guiding post for the rest of the description. How can you do something similar with your character? Think of the character stuck in traffic. Is she leaned forward or back? Is her jaw clenched or does she turn on the radio and close on eye? Does she text furiously? Scroll through Twitter casually? Use the adjectives or adverbs as an opportunity for repetition.
  3. Carry the idea of the phrase or image forward. Try to repeat the adjective or adverb without literally repeating it. You’re trying to find other ways to suggest the idea of those adjectives or adverbs. So, it’s no accident that Okonkwo’s eyebrows are bushy. Bushy fits better with the idea of taught muscles than thin. And, it’s no accident that he breathes loudly. It would be weird for him to be exaggerated in one sense and quiet and invisible in another sense (or, it might work, but it would be a contrast that would need to be suggested and created). So, think about every aspect of the character and try to convey the same adjective or adverb that you established in the initial moment of action.

Good luck.

An Interview with D Watkins

19 Mar
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D. Watkins is a writer and Baltimore native whose essays about living and growing up in Baltimore have been widely published. His essay for Salon, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” went viral, and, since then, Watkins has been featured on NPR’s “Monday Morning” and “Tell Me More,” and sold a memoir, Cook Up, to Grand Central Publishing (forthcoming in 2016). Watkins holds a Master’s in Education from John Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a professor at Coppin State University.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

March 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.


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