How to Create Structure with Teasers

1 Sep
Julia Fierro's debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was called "comically energetic" by The New Yorker.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was called “comically energetic” by The New Yorker.

I often argue that, from a craft perspective, there is almost no difference between literary and genre fiction. The novels may be pointing their readers toward different things (character development versus plot, for instance, though that’s mostly a false distinction), but the strategies used to direct the readers are often the same. For example, genre books often use plot spoilers to create structure; if we know someone will end up dangling from a clock tower, we’ll read to find out how it happened. This same strategy is also used by literary writers. The content may be different (domestic strife rather than terrorist plot, though, again, that’s an oversimplification), but the technique is the same.

A good example of this is Julia Fierro’s novel Cutting Teeth. It’s a literary novel that was published last year to much acclaim, and you can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a mommy group (for the non-parents: moms with young children who meet for playdates) who decides to vacation together with their families over Labor Day weekend. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different mom, which includes the one dad in the group. His first chapter begins this way:

It had been over a year since Rip first began calling himself a mommy.

The sentence suggests a question: why does Rip call himself a mommy? There are several possibilities, and even if you can guess his rationale, that knowledge doesn’t give a complete answer to the question. We still want to know how he came to this decision. But the chapter doesn’t give the answer quickly. Instead, it treats the statement as a kind of flag in the sand and then backs up in time. We know where we’re headed (why he calls himself a mommy), and so we’re willing to read backstory.

But the structure of the chapter doesn’t simply come from backstory. Yes, we find out that Rip stays home with his son while his wife works and that, though he pays lip service to the difficulties posed by full-time parenting, in truth, “it is the best life Rip can imagine.” But what’s more important, and what drives the chapter forward, is the consequence of this backstory. This is the life that Rip wants. He does not want to go back to his life pre-child or act like a “dad”:

They didn’t understand he couldn’t befriend just any guy. He wasn’t just any dad. He felt most comfortable with the mommies because, in the last four years, he had become a mommy.

So, the chapter opens with a provocative statement, one that we want to know more about, but before it returns to the statement, the chapter reveals why the statement matters. It shows us the stakes for this question of identity. The rest of the chapter, then, puts Rip in situations that challenge his identity as a mommy, or at least make it uncomfortable for him. We keep reading because we know how much that identity means to him.

In short, the opening statement creates space for not just backstory but an explanation for the characters’ personal stakes in the story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use a teaser to create structure using Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Find something provocative about a character. It can be a question of identity, with the character identifying as something that might surprise others (I’m a guy, but I’m a mommy). It can also be a question of desire (I want this thing that people think I shouldn’t want). Or, it can be a question of intent (I intend to do this thing that people will not expect). If you find that your character doesn’t have a provocative identity, desire, or intent, your story may not have the oompfh to keep going. Fiction needs something amiss.
  2. State the provocative thing in a sentence. Be succinct. You’re intentionally trying to pique the reader’s interest.
  3. Back up. Now that you’ve created suspense and interest, step back and explain how the character arrived at that identity, desire, or intent. This means backstory. A useful way to begin is with a sentence similar to Fierro’s next sentence: “In the beginning, it had been a joke.” Try that opening: In the beginning… Or this: It had not always been this way. In short, bring the reader up to speed about the narrative, the sequence of events, that led to that statement being true.
  4. Explain why the statement matters. Fierro suggests the difficulty that Rip will have if his role as “mommy” disappears. He’ll be adrift. So, he develops a plan to convince his wife to have another baby. This is an effective strategy. Present the possibility that the character won’t get what she wants: the identity will be revoked or taken away, the desire will be unfulfilled, or the intent will not be achieved. If the character is unsatisfied, then what? If we know why it matters to the character, it will matter to us and we’ll keep reading as the story returns to the statement and moves forward into a plot that tests whatever statement you’ve written.

Good luck.

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