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How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

13 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of the Freemans, an African-American family that moves into a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach to this problem in the novel’s opening pages.

How the Novel Works

The novel has a bold premise: The Freeman family is moving into a research institute in rural Massachusetts to be part of an experiment. They will live (and raise their daughters) alongside a chimpanzee named Charlie. The novel begins with the Freemans driving to this institute, where they meet some of the staff and then, finally, Charlie. The introduction is prefaced with this line: “Dr. Paulson thinks it’s best we all meet Charlie now.” It’s a dramatic moment, and here’s how Greenidge handles it:

Charlie lived behind a door in the living room. He had a large, oval-shaped space with low ceilings and no windows and no furniture. Instead, there were bundles of pastel-colored blankets heaped up on the scarred wooden floor. Even from where I stood, I could tell the blankets were the scratchy kind, cheap wool. The room was full of plants—house ferns and weak African violets and nodding painted ladies. “They’re here to simulate the natural world,” Dr. Paulson told us, but I thought it was an empty gesture. Charlie had never known any forests and yet Dr. Paulsen assumed some essential part of him pined for them.

Charlie sat beside a fern. A man knelt beside him. “That’s Max, my assistant,” Dr. Paulsen said.

Max was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, his lab coat balled up on the floor. He was pale, with messy red hair. He was trying to grow a beard, probably just graduated from college a couple years earlier.

Charlie has taken Max’s glasses and is licking them, and Max is trying to distract Charlie so that he can get them back. We watch this “very gentle disagreement” for a bit, until Dr. Paulsen calls Max and he carries over Charlie. Finally, we see Charlie directly. It’s a good description, with strong, specific imagery. But it’s also clear that Charlie is just a chimpanzee—no more, no less—and quickly the novel returns to the other characters and their reactions to Charlie, ending with the narrator’s mother holding him with tears in her eyes.

So, what can we learn from this?

In this novel, as with The Great Gatsby, the title character isn’t actually as important as the supporting cast. The most interesting scenes take place around the title character, with other characters reacting to him. So, the introduction reflects this fact. In both novels, we’re first shown the people around the title character before the character himself.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce a character through misdirection, using We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge as a model:

  1. Bring the reader into a place where the character is present. The key is for the reader to know that in this place, somewhere, is the character. Horror stories do this all the time: somewhere in this spooky place is the monster, we’re just not sure where.
  2. Give the reader a reason to want to meet the character. Both Fitzgerald and Greenidge do this by putting the character in the title and making them the ostensible reason for the story to exist. Without rich, mysterious Gatsby living next door, there’s no novel. Without Charlie, there’s no experiment. So, give your reader a sense for what role this character will play in your story.
  3. Introduce the character through place. We see Charlie’s home behind the door before we see Charlie. The home is filled with details (the lack of windows, the blankets, the plants) that tell us a lot—not so much about Charlie but about the people around him at the institute. So, think about the place where your character is found. If people entered that place for the first time, eager to meet the character, what details would they notice? What would they discern from them?
  4. Introduce the character through other characters. Charlie is named, but we don’t see him. Instead, we’re shown Max. As with the details about place, the details about Max and how he interacts with Charlie reveal a lot about him. So, show the character interacting with someone else and then focus on that someone else. Again, what details would people notice, and what would they think about them?
  5. Finally, show the character. The details should be specific. Greenidge mentions Charlie’s smell, “old and sharp, like a bottle of witch hazel.”
  6. Return to the other characters or the place. Remember what is important. In Greenidge’s case, the real focus is the effect that Charlie has on the Freemans. With Fitzgerald, the focus is the effect that Gatsby has one everyone else. Show enough of the main character and then return to the effect that he or she has.

The goal is to introduce a character by revealing the world and characters around him or her.

Good luck.

How to Make Setting Striking to All and Personal to One

7 Jun

Julia Fierro’s novel The Gypsy Moth Summer is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Some stories are blessed with great settings, such as shadowy mansions with secret gardens and skeletons in the closets. This is a description of many great novels and also a brand new one: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. One of the things she does so well in the book is play up this great location. But it’s not enough to make a mansion very very shadowy and its gardens very very secret. A novel must also personalize the setting so that its importance becomes acutely attached to one character in particular. That attachment is often what will drive the story forward, and it’s the case in The Gypsy Moth Summer.

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows Leslie Day Marshall as she returns to her home off the coast of Long Island, bringing her African-American husband, Jules, and their children. Leslie’s the daughter of the most prominent family on an island full of them, and so we’re quickly introduced to their estate, as seen through the eyes of Jules:

He had no language to describe the Castle then. It took a few days for the archaic terms he had studied in required architectural courses at Harvard to return to him. Turrets and finials and gables. But studying glossy photos in a textbook was nothing like the real thing. Of course Leslie’s parents had named it The Castle. It was the stuff of fairy tales, a white marble palace rising out of the trees, built to protect a royal clan from marauding villagers, raping and pillaging hordes. From war. From the undesirables—what his pops had called the kids in their hood who spent their days slinging dope, lounging on stoops like the sun had melted them there.

These are the details that are supposed to impress pretty much any reader. It’s literally a castle, but it’s also something out of a fairy tale. The house is not just big and fancy; it’s the stuff of legend. A couple of paragraphs later, we learn that the doors weigh a ton each and also that the house is a literal copy of a French castle and resort.

But you can also see the novel beginning to personalize it, with the way that Jules connects the word undesirables to his own background. The novel continues on in that direction:

If there had been a chance left for him to hate the island, to refuse Leslie’s and Brooks’s demands that they move, it died when Jules entered the maze that led to the Castle’s gardens. Leslie, not one to keep anything under wraps, had managed to keep it a surprise, and as Jules ran into the maze, ignoring Leslie’s cries, “Wait, you’ll get lose! You need the directions!” there was nothing he wanted more than to lose himself between the tall (at least eight or nine feet, he guessed) fragrant corridors. It was his personal amusement park—the funny mirror glass replaced with living, breathing, CO2-releasing walls.

We later learn that even the word fragrant is personal. The corridors are formed from boxwood, which “smelled like cat piss,” a scent that Jules is unusual in loving.

This personal connection is important because it will give Jules a reason to stay when things go south—as they inevitably will. It’s a bit like the horror movies, where you scream, “Get out of there,” but the characters never leave. In this novel, Fierro has created an intense attachment that will keep Jules in the Castle, even after he should have gotten out of there.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make setting striking to all readers but personal to one character, using The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Name your setting. Fierro names hers “The Castle.” Your name doesn’t actually need to appear in the story or be used by the characters, but it will help define the setting: the town, the farm, the yard, the school. When you’re able to think of the setting as a single entity or place, it’s easier to begin to give it a sensibility—a mood.
  2. Describe the setting in terms from some other story. All books are read in the context of other books that came before them. It’s why we can think in terms of genres and why a castle off the coast of Long Island is more than simply a great big house. Ezra Pound said to make it to new, and that’s all well and good, but you should also take advantage of the literary traditions that have shaped your reader. If you’ve got a castle, make it more than a big house. So, find some counterpart for your setting in another story—not just old ones like fairy tales but anything people might be familiar with. For example, a small house could be described in terms appropriate to the submarine in Das Boot. As soon as you tap into the connotations and memories that readers have retained from that other story, your own setting takes on a life that is, to some extent, larger than the page its written on.
  3. Connect the setting so one particular character. This can be a literal connection (I, too, once lived in a castle). Or it can be primarily in the character’s head, as it is with Jules, who connects what the castle seems to keep out with the undesirables of his own youth. This connection doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s simply a bridge to connect setting and character beyond mere presence (I’m in a castle). Try using this basic phrase: “The place reminded him/her/me of ____.”
  4. Deepen the connection. Jules sees the garden, and even without knowing much about him, we can already sense that the guy’s got a serious thing for nature and landscaping. So, give your character an “Oh my god” moment, as in “Oh, my god, did you see this ___?” The ____ should be something more remarkable to that character than to the others around him or her. Then, keep going. Focus on some particular aspect of the ____ (like the boxwoods) and make the character respond to it differently than the other characters. This might seem forced at first, but play with it. Dig into the idiosyncrasies of your character or the things in his/her background not shared by anyone else—or simply the weird stuff he or she likes. Use those traits to make the connection with the place intensely personal to that character.

The goal is to set up plot points later in the story by strengthening the connection between one particular character and the story’s setting.

Good luck.

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

30 May
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

How to Give Depth to Character Descriptions

23 May

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

Beginning writers tend to approach character descriptions in a pretty straightforward way: what does he look like? Is she tall, short? What is a distinguishing characteristic? A nose? Teeth? The result often resembles a police or personal ad description—and that’s fine. It’s a place to begin. But as a writer’s craft grows, so does the ability to do more with character descriptions.

A great example of what is possible can be found at the beginning of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Book Works

The book tells two different kinds of stories. One is about a murder. The other is about the author’s realization that she has a personal connection with the people involved in the crime. To make this double narrative work, we need to pretty quickly feel connected to the crime—to see the murderer and the victim as people who exist independently of those identities. This means, of course, making them appear complex and sympathetic. But it’s more than that. They ought to feel apart of a world. Take any person you know, and I suspect that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to think of them outside of the world they inhabit (or the world they share with you). This is why we’re so often befuddled when we encounter someone outside of their normal context. We can’t place them. In life and in our minds, people exist in relation to everything around them. So, a good description will capture those myriad complex relationships. Marzano-Lesnevich does that in the book’s first chapter:

Louisiana, 1992

The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same deadens street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it.

The paragraph continues, but you can already see so many ways that Jeremy Guillory has been placed in relation to his world:

  • The particular blue of his sweatpants draws a local comparison (Louisiana lake) and also different names from different sets of characters. Even with a minor detail, we’ve glimpsed setting and many different characters.
  • The boots place him not just in muddy woods but in a community of people who interact with those woods in a particular way.
  • We see his size in relation to his gun.
  • We see his care for the gun.
  • We see his mother and their family unit in relation to his mother’s friends and the street where they all live. We see the landlord who charges them all too much.
  • We see the street in relation to the community that doesn’t even know where it is.

When writing teachers talk about synchronicity or simultaneity, this is what they’re talking about: the ability of a single passage to show readers multiple things at once. In this case, it’s a character description that holds all of those things together—and also brings the character to three-dimensional life in our imaginations.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character in relation to his or her surroundings, using The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich as a model:

  1. Choose a detail that cannot be agreed upon. This is how Marzano-Lesnevich begins, though it’s not necessarily the way you must begin. But, we’ll go in the same order that she does. She picks a seemingly innocuous detail (the color of the boy’s sweatpants) and then gives a neutral description (her own) and then two different takes on it (the mother’s and the police’s). This gives the reader a clearer sense of the disputed issue, of course, but it also allows the writer to bring in other characters. In a purely mechanical way, it opens up the narrative to characters beyond the one being described.
  2.  Give the character a trait that many others like him/her possess. She uses his shoes. We do this constantly in narratives, and the way point of view often matters. When done from an outsider’s perspective, these kinds of details can potentially veer into stereotypes. (Think about the way that baggy pants and Carhartt jackets are used by politicians as shorthand for entire communities.) In a story, those stereotypes can reveal a lot about the character who holds them. But when done from an insider perspective, as Marzano-Lesnevich uses here, the detail can reveal a trait (societal, geographic) that is so strong that it bends the behavior of the people who encounter it.
  3. Show the character next to easily identifiable objects. We know how long a BB gun is (or at least readers with a certain background will). So, we don’t need to learn exactly how tall the boy is. Numbers are almost always less interesting and compelling than comparisons.
  4. Show the character interact with some object. Jeremy polishes the barrel of his BB gun. What does your character take great care with–or what does he neglect?
  5. Show the other people in the character’s world. Think about friends, family, coworkers—or just “their people.” What do they have in common?
  6. Investigate the power imbalances. The landlord has power over everyone who lives on the street or needs a house. The community has power over the street, or seems to based on its not caring enough to find out where it is. Or, to flip the perspective, the street has a kind of power over the community because it’s able to remain hidden—or, at least, certain individuals on the street will be able to take advantage of this hidden nature.

The goal is to explore a character in relation to everything around him. It creates a better description and the opportunity to advance the narrative beyond what the character looks like.

Good luck.

How to Turn Emotions into an Existential Threat

16 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, was called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Writing teachers have a lot of ways of saying basically one important thing about story beginnings: set the stakes and break the routine and put a gun on the wall and show your character’s desire. All of these instructions are trying to get you to give your story the sense, from the first lines, that something big is about to happen—the literary equivalent of basketball players setting up for an inbounds play with the game on the line, or sprinters lowering into their stances as the starting gun is raised. The audience knows something is about to happen, something intense and worth pausing everything else to watch. That’s the kind of opening a story needs. You can find plot ways to do this—putting a gun on the wall or starting in medias res during an airplane crash—but there are other methods as well.

A great example of one of them can be found in Joseph Scapellato’s story “One of the Days I Nearly Died.” It appears in his new collection Big Lonesome, and was first published in Green Mountains Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

As the title indicates, the story is using the same sort of plot hook as, say, the television show Lost. Something really is about to happen. But that’s not really what draws us in—or, it’s not the only thing. Here is how the story begin:

When it was happening I was alone. I didn’t think of my wife, of how her and I suspected she was pregnant (she wasn’t, but by the time the period came we’d both said a brace of big ugly honest things that had made the other think, These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are, when really the big ugly honest things were only who we’d clubbed each other into becoming for a one-month spell inside a six-year spell that up until then had us living on Logan Boulevard in Logan Square thinking we’d be local, organic, and happy right up until we died blissful simultaneous deaths in the final scene of the epic film of our active old age, or at least that’s how I remember it out loud when I apologize, and when I see my ring on my finger in a mirror, and when I slam dishwasher drawers and shout, Listen! You aren’t listening!), and I didn’t think of…

What the story really begins with is an argument, a bad one full of “big ugly honest things” and the word clubbed and slamming drawers. It’s an argument that gives its participants the sense that “These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are,” which suggests that this newly discovered reality isn’t desirable. Maybe they’d be better off somewhere else, with someone else. In short, it’s an existential argument. The way that it’s resolved will determine basic, essential details about the characters’ lives. These emotions matter. This isn’t to say that some emotions don’t matter; of course they do—in life. But in stories (in narratives, no matter the genre), everything, whether it’s setting or plot or character, must be geared toward wrenching the story forward. This is why we immediately suspect happy characters of being like chickens who don’t see the farmer walking up with is axe. It’s why Tolstoy wrote his famous line about happy and unhappy families. One makes for a better story.

If you read all of “One of the Days I Nearly Died,” you’ll find that the entire story isn’t about that opening argument, at least not directly. It’s about a series of potentially life-changing moments. The opening argument sets the stage for them, telling the reader, “This is the mental space this story will inhabit.” Once that space is created, the story moves forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create existential emotions using “One of the Days I Nearly Died” by Joseph Scapellato as a model:

  1.  Set up a particular moment. Scapellato’s a sophisticated writer, and so he actually does this in multiple ways. There’s the literal moment of the story (the day the character nearly died) and also the general frame of the thing he remembers (the potential pregnancy) and then the immediate moment of the argument. If that seems overwhelming to attempt, don’t. Instead, shoot for one moment. Start with a basic phrase like “It was the day that…” Or start general and move to the specific, like this: “It was those days when…and it all came to a head when…”
  2. Give the moment a particular conflict. Scapellato gives his character a potential pregnancy. It’s the reason they’re arguing. But the pregnancy isn’t actually the key issue; it’s simply the key that unlocks the door where they’ve been keeping all their troubles. So, give your characters a conflict, but the resolution of this conflict shouldn’t necessarily resolve the troubles they’re having.
  3. Move from the conflict into the bigger issue. This is what the characters are actually feeling emotional about. Notice that we don’t actually know what the characters say in this story. We only know that they say terrible things. You can keep it vague, as Scapellato does, or you can dig into the details. Either way, you’re aiming for a moment when a character is so wound up that he or she slams a drawer and says, “You know what?” and what follows is the sort of statement that is very difficult to take back, a statement that can change the course of a life. Of course, we all make these sorts of statements at some point or another and manage to recover, but there’s always a split second where you think, maybe this is it. Find the emotion—the stress, the trouble, the inner conflict—that would push your character into saying something that might be a deal breaker, whatever the deal is.

The goal is to hook your readers by showing them something that might be broken by the characters holding it.

Good luck.

How to Defy Readers’ Expectations with Paragraph Structure

9 May

Samuel Peterson’s memoir, Trunky (Transgender Junky) tells the story of the author’s stay in an all-male drug and alcohol rehab facility in the South.

There are probably more personal essays published today than at any other point in history—in part because we’re hungry for authenticity, which we believe we find in “real” stories, as opposed to “reality” programming, but also because it’s easier than ever to publish them. Seneca and Montaigne, the great inventors of the personal essay, didn’t have the luxury of a thousand websites seeking essays or social media opportunities to simply publish whatever you want. It’s difficult to separate the modern personal essay from the medium where we most often find it: online. We read essays the way that we read anything online—with short attention spans and itchy mouse pointers poised over the back button. As always, writers are consciously or unconsciously shaping their essays for their readers, which means that successful essayists are building a kind of constant surprise into their form. Move in any one direction for too long, and readers are likely to get bored. This might seem frustrating (can’t people just pay attention longer?), but there is actually a way to seem to change subjects while also making a larger point.

Samuel Peterson does exactly that in his memoir Trunky (Transgender Junky).

How the Memoir Works

In a personal essay and memoir, there inevitably comes a moment when the writer is called to be smart—to say something wise, spot-on, and on point. You might think that readers would be hooked during these moments, that nothing could distract them. But I think we all understand that’s not true. (How many times have you been talking to someone you love and, while listening, felt your phone n and checked the text or email or notification? Distraction comes naturally to us, even when we ought to, or even want to, be paying attention.)

What’s needed is a way to avoid falling into any kind of rut—of moving in the same direction or making the same point—for too long, leaving readers susceptible to distraction. Of course, good narrative requires that we make larger points and tell longer stories. Something’s got to give, right?

In this passage from later in the book, Samuel Peterson manages to do both. (The book is about his time spent in an all-men’s wing of a drug and alcohol rehab facility. One of the workers is named Jordan.)

The institution was full of remarkable people; he couldn’t imagine himself in any one job maintaining any sort of cool. He had seen Jordan post-cry; if he worked here his eyes would be red all the time too from being a piñata for the men’s suffering, or he would be arrested for actually piñata-ing someone else. the men often were abusive, and it took a special personality (combined with rigorous training, he reflected) to be able to constantly deflect, and then use that moment to condition the men in socially appropriate response.

The masculine ego took poorly to discipline—which made him consider the number of institutions geared towards “breaking a man down to build him up.” He marveled at the way the world treated men, from his father, whose drunken flirtations and general boundary-pushing had been stonily sanctioned, and his brother, who had never been told his endless commentary was less than fascinating. He was both revolted and envious of the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.

He understood men would resist this diagnosis, and he appreciated the intense scrutiny masculinity was subjected to, but he knew firsthand that men could never understand what it was like to always be a paler version of yourself because of the assumption of your opinion’s lesser value.

The passage uses topic sentences: “The institution was full of remarkable people…” and “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” But only one of the paragraphs actually follows its topic sentence in a straightforward way. “The institution was full of remarkable people” is followed by an example of one of those people—Jordan—and a reflection on his actions. This straightforwardness is important. If writing never moves in a straight line, readers will have a difficult time following it.

The second paragraph breaks this rule. Its first sentence (“The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…the number of institutions geared toward ‘breaking a man down to build him up'”) sets up the expectation that what will follow is examples of one of these points: the ego not responding to discipline or breaking a man down. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the rest of the paragraph gives examples of men’s ego not being disciplined or broken down. It ends with an observation that is both brilliant and obvious (and brilliant because it’s so obvious): “the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.”

The paragraph is great because it’s smart but also because it doesn’t give us what we expect. It breaks the logical structure set up by the previous paragraph (point, illustration, explanation—the infamous PIE from college composition classes). As a result, readers are more apt to pay attention. We can’t fall into a lull as we read. We’re jolted into reading more carefully. Peterson’s observation about men’s confidence would is great no matter where it’s placed, but if we read over it without really seeing it, then we’ve missed his point.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s surprise a reader into paying attention, using Trunky (Transgender Junky) by Samuel Peterson as a model:

  1. Find a moment in your essay where you’re talking about something, not what happened. In other words, the narrative of the essay has paused momentarily for you to make a point. You often know this has happened when you start writing sentences that begin, “The thing is…” or “What’s really important…” or “What people don’t realize…”
  2. Give yourself a topic sentence. You might use any of these sentences that start with phrases like “The thing is…” Or you might start with a basic statement, as Peterson does: “The institution was full of remarkable people.” In short, write something that leads to examples.
  3. Give those examples—in a logical way. If you’ve ever written a five-paragraph essay, you know how to do this. If you write, “The food was terrible,” then you’re going to give examples of how terrible it was.
  4. Keep the flow going with another, related topic sentence. I use the word flow grudgingly here. When I taught college composition, my students used it all the time to describe their vague feeling that an essay had gotten off track. “You know,” they’d say, “it just doesn’t flow.” From a craft standpoint, this was not helpful to them. And yet we all know what flow means: a piece of writing continues moving in one direction. So, keep making the same point in the same way. Peterson does this with the sentence that begins “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” He just finished talking about people whose job it was to shape men’s responses, so this makes sense. He keeps the flow going.
  5. Break the structure. Instead of giving examples of men’s egos resisting discipline, he instead gives examples of the opposite—of egos unrestrained, subject to no discipline at all. A college comp instructor might advise changing the topic sentence. But that would be boring (and, thus, appropriate for a college comp essay; but this is a personal essay, meant to be interesting). Everything Peterson writes in this paragraph is smart and sharply observed; it just don’t quite flow in the way we expect. The paragraph isn’t completely scattered, though. The word discipline holds together. So, in your paragraph, pick one word from your topic sentence and riff on it in any way that comes to mind. Don’t worry about following logically—about flow. As long as you’re in the ballpark, readers will stay with you. But by moving away from the logical flow, you’ll hold their attention.

The goal is to create and break structure within paragraphs and passages in order to keep readers paying attention.

Good luck.

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