Simple Stories, Complex Worlds

4 Feb

George Saunders’ story collection, “Tenth of December,” includes the story discussed here.

George Saunders is not only an amazing writer. He’s a guru. People talk about him with the reverence of pilgrims returning from a visit with the man at the top of the mountain. His stories have the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time—laughing at their absurdity (dead aunt’s reanimated corpse encourages her nephew to show his—ahem—at the Hooters-like restaurant where he waits tables) and crying because the stories reveal a humanity so fresh and true that our perception of the world is deepened. Reading a George Saunders story can be like putting on glasses for the first time.

So let’s say this now: no writing exercise can make you as wise as George Saunders. You can, however, learn how he structures a story, introduces a character, constructs a scene, writes dialogue, or describes a dog. In other words, you can build a toolbox of George-Saunders wrenches and use those wrenches in your own work. If you are wise or smart or imaginative—or even if you’re not—you might write a pretty good story. Maybe an awesome one.

Even if you don’t, you still get to appreciate and spend time with a great story.

So, to kick off this blog, I want to begin with one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. It was originally published in The New Yorker, and you can find it here.

How the Story Works

Here are the two best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received.

  • Every story should be easily explained. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Boy gets on raft, floats south on river with an escaped slave. Hamlet: Man kills king; prince must kill man. These summaries barely touch the true nature of these classics, and that is the point. When the story is simple, it doesn’t need to spend a lot of time explaining and clarifying. As a writer, you want to spend your words doing interesting things, pondering interesting thoughts, being funny or poignant. You don’t want the reader asking, “Tell me again, why is Huck on the raft?”
  • Every story exists in a world. Thus, you must create a story (man murders king) and also a world for it to inhabit. This world will have rules, and its characters will have personalities, obsessions, and lives that exist outside of the story. It is these personalities, obsessions, and lives that will inform the story and give it depth. That depth is why Hamlet asks “To be or not to be” rather than “Should I stab my uncle or bash in his head?”

“Tenth of December” exemplifies this advice. Here’s the story: Man tries to freeze himself to death, and boy tries to give him a coat; but boy falls through ice on pond, so man must save boy. It’s a story rocket-bound for chicken-soup sentimentality. The reason it doesn’t get there is because of the world Saunders creates.

Let’s focus on the opening section, the voice of the boy, Robin. Though we’re dropped into his head without explanation or preface, we’re quickly given clear markers of what will happen:

  • “Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam.”
  • “Whoa, cold, dang. Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill.”
  • “Judging by the single set of tracks, the Nether appeared to be carrying her.”

Even though most of the narration is about Robin’s fantasy world, we already know by the end of the first page (online version) that the weather is bitterly cold, that’s he’s going to a pond, and that he’s following someone’s tracks. The clarity of the story allows Saunders to play with the boy’s voice, to allow the reader to indulge with Robin in tangents about torture at the hands of fantasy beings—and it is these indulgences which make the story great.

The Writing Exercise

It’s an easy one.

  1. Write a simple plot summary (dog bites man; man shoots dog). Try to limit the summary to less than ten words. We’re aiming for clarity.
  2. Create two characters. Give them each one trait and one desire that is related to the trait. (Dog owner: accountant who eats chocolate even though he is allergic to it; he’s having an allergy attack and needs to get to the emergency room. Man who gets bitten: stay-at-home dad whose baby cries all the time; the man is trying not to resent the baby.)
  3. Give the characters a point of connection. (In this case, it’s the dog. In the Saunders story, it’s the pond.) The connection should have a trait of its own. (Pond isn’t quite frozen; dog has three legs and boldly goes about it’s business anyway.)

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is writing the first line. If you can do these three things, you can begin a story. If you keep these three things in mind as you write, you can play with the prose and characters and have fun, which is the point. It’s why we write.

So have fun. Happy writing.

8 Responses to “Simple Stories, Complex Worlds”

  1. wee1one February 4, 2013 at 8:02 p02 #

    This is a beautiful story, I’m so glad to have found it. And the exercises are helping me figure out where I am going with a short story that I have started but couldn’t finish. I now realize I didn’t really know what it was about, and the exercises have helped me identify that, especially as I have just two characters in it. So, thanks!

    • michaelnoll1 February 5, 2013 at 8:02 p02 #

      Thanks wee1one. I’m glad the exercise helped. Good luck with your story.

  2. Erin Pringle-Toungate February 4, 2013 at 8:02 p02 #

    A fun, easy way to expand on the summary portion of Step 1:
    One exercise to creating a summary is to choose a boy, girl, woman, or man; then, a verb; then a boy, girl, woman, or man.

    So, you might have Girl Man
    And then you write the story to figure out what that means in the context of these people. The verb signals the conflict that connects the characters. So what happened? And your story is the answer.

    For teachers, it’s also a fun exercise for quick freewrites in class. For writers, it’s a great way to remind oneself what the elemental conflict is.


    Looking forward to more posts like these. Great blog!

    • michaelnoll1 February 5, 2013 at 8:02 p02 #

      Thanks for the exercise idea, Erin. This could be an especially useful exercise to use after working on a story for a while. You might feel lost and in search of the story’s “elemental conflict.”

  3. Cynthia February 6, 2013 at 8:02 p02 #

    The Saunders story is so satisfying, all heart and no schmaltz. I think I will get a story from the exercise. I have another story concerning a dying woman who has left her husband, but it doesn’t have this kind of heart. I’m looking at the Saunders piece to see how he developed the heart side. Also, how he pays such close attention to the necessity for justifying his characters behaviors. Though a lot of the back story comes in surprisingly late. it all comes together so impressively. I’m learning. Thank you Michael.

  4. Neena Husid February 7, 2013 at 8:02 p02 #

    Many thumbs up, Michael. This is an excellent idea for a blog. No one exposes the inner workings of a story like you. We’re in good hands. Neena


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