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How to Use Mystifying Detail to Create Conflict

31 Oct
full_swiftbrutal

“Swift, Brutal Retaliation” by Megan McCarron was published at Tor.com and was nominated for a 2013 Nebula Award.

A few years ago, one of my college-composition students read the Christian inspirational novel, The Shack. In the book, a man receives a letter from God. I asked what seemed like a reasonable question: “Where was the letter from? What city was on the postmark?” The student just shook her head. For her, and for the book apparently, details like that were besides the point. But for a writer, details are exactly the point.

Meghan McCarron embraces this sort of mystifying detail in her story, “Swift, Brutal Retaliation.” You can read the Nebula Award-nominated novelette here at Tor.com.

How the Story Works

McCarron uses a classic ghost-story concept: Look into a mirror and see someone else’s face. It’s an easy way to move a ghost into a story. But once you have a ghost, what do you do with it? The answer depends on the sort of world the ghost has entered. In the novel The Shack, the world is one that God enters easily, where obvious questions such as   “Where did this letter come from?” are never asked. The world of that novel isn’t the world we live in. But what if it was? Part of the beauty of “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” is that it takes one of the oldest sci-fi/fantasy premises and adapts it to a contemporary world. As a result, the fantastical elements almost become realistic. Here are a few examples of the details that McCarron shows us:

  • “Sinead carried a thermometer and a compass, which the internet had told her were useful for detecting paranormal presences.”
  • “Sinead remembered reading somewhere, or maybe seeing in a movie, that you had to ask ghosts what they wanted.”
  • The ghost, when still alive, loved Facebook, and so his sister logged on and typed, “Ian, r u haunting the house?”

The world that McCarron creates—and that the ghost inhabits—becomes almost tangible. We, the readers, believe this place exists because we can see it in such sharp focus. As a result, when the ghost becomes angry, its fury and frustration are manifested in ways that now seem highly plausible—lasagna, hair-removal liquid. We’ve bought into the world, and now we’re scared when it becomes dangerous.

The Writing Exercise

In some ways, this story answers the age-old question, “What would you do if you saw a ghost?” The question has many possible answers, but the sisters’ responses are not limitless because they are shaped both by their personalities and by their world. So, for this exercise, let’s create a premise and a world.

  1. Choose an unusual premise. Ideally, you’ll pick something fun, something you’ve always wanted to write about: zombies, vampires, ghosts, magic, any one of a thousand sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/whatever premises. 
  2. Choose a specific place. It could be your living room. Or whatever is outside your window. Or it could be place in town that you know well. It could even be imagined.
  3. Fill the place with things: silverware, a piano, a fire hydrant, a church pew, a filing cabinet. Give yourself plenty of objects to use later.
  4. Put people in the place—main characters, anonymous faces, it doesn’t matter.
  5. Wind the premise like a toy and watch it run. Imagine a scene: If someone has otherworldly powers, how do those powers affect the things you’ve given yourself? If someone must react to a character with otherworldly powers, how are the things used as protection/weapons or for cover? Play around with the premise and things. In other words, do the ghosts use Facebook?

Happy Halloween!

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How to Write an Ending that Swerves

3 Dec
"Poinsettias" by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

“Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins was published in PANK Magazine.

Sometimes an ending can seem too much like the conclusion of a composition paper. The writer is moved to swerve away from the predictable, to untie the ending from the sense of inevitability that the story has spent its entire existence building. But how?

Myfanwy Collins gives a lesson in excellent endings in her story “Poinsettias.” It was published in PANK, where you can read it now. (Seriously, it’s short and wonderful, and you can read it in three minutes.)

How the Story Works

This kind of last-second-swerve might seem like the famous epiphanies from early Modernist writers. But, it’s actually quite different. To demonstrate, here are two of the most famous epiphany endings:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”

—from “Araby” by James Joyce.

“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

—”Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway

In both of those stories, the shocking thing is how quickly and suddenly the story states the character’s reaction to events—that is, if you find those lines shocking. To some extent, we’ve read so many epiphany endings that we’re immune to them.

So, now, check out the ending to “Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins. Keep in mind that, until this point, the story has been about the weird emotional state that often follows Christmas Day, the question of how long the season should last and when the final vestiges of it, like poinsettias, should be discarded.

“At the supermarket, they told her they would put the rotting turkey carcass in the renderer. They would take care of it, they told her. She felt some responsibility that the flesh of the bird be taken care of, that it be brought gently back to earth, to replenish, to renew. She remembered that when her mother died, hospice had said it was okay to send a personal item with her in the ambulance on the way to the crematory. She chose a fleece, duck-covered blanket that her mother had always snuggled under. That blanket was soft. It was so soft. When she thought of the flames, it was not her mother’s body she saw, but that blanket pushing toward the heat.”

This is an example of an ending that swerves away from predictability. Until this point, the mother has not been mentioned. And yet, we realize now, the entire story has been about her. So, how does the story pull off this ending?

In retrospect, we can see how every significant noun in the story is related to the idea of death.

  • The character, Mandy, constantly sucks on peppermint Altoids because she “didn’t want her mouth to taste like shit. All of these people were walking around with shit-tasting mouths, but not her.”
  • Mandy is upset with her partner about the poinsettias because “Nic would not let the poinsettias die. That was the problem.”
  • The turkey that Mandy bought to cook turns out to be rotten; she “drove the carcass to the market in the way back of her car with the windows cracked, but even now, weeks later, the smell lingered, sulfur twisting up her nostrils.”

So, even though the mother’s death is not introduced until the last paragraph, the story has prepared the reader to learn about it. The ending swerves not because it comes totally out of the blue but because it gives the reader an unexpected way of viewing everything that has come before it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s prepare to write an ending that swerves, using Myfanwy Collins’ “Poinsettias” as a model:

  1. Choose a topic. You might consider a subject that has been bothering you or scratching at the inside of your head for a while—something you’ve wanted to write about but haven’t figured out how to approach yet.
  2. Free write about ideas, images, people, places, or events that are connected to the topic. Stray as far from the topic as you wish. You’re exploring the mental, emotional, and physical terrain of the story. If you’ve failed to write about the topic from one angle, find another. Myfanwy Collins’ story is about the death of the character’s mother, but it begins with the terrain that exists around that death: Christmas, Altoids, Poinsettias, and a turkey.
  3. Begin a story that has seemingly nothing to do with your topic. Sometimes our stories about topics that we really want to write about begin too directly. We rush up to the topic instead of taking our time, creeping up on it. So, choose one of the things you discovered through free writing and begin the story there.
  4. Switch topics after a few paragraphs or sentences. Myfanwy Collins writes two paragraphs about Altoids and then switches to Poinsettias. If you’re not sure how to make the switch, use the same sentence that Collins uses: “The real problem was that_____.”
  5. Feel for the right moment to introduce the “real” topic. You may need to switch topics again or introduce new elements. But, keep writing. Keep putting your character into moments of tension—in other words, write the story, and if it’s truly about the topic that has been bothering you, that topic will push its head onto the page. Trust your subconscious to put the pieces together.

Good luck!

How to Create a Monster

12 Nov
Ali Simpson's story

Ali Simpson’s story, “The Monster,” was first published in The Southampton Review and recommended to Electric Literature by Susan Merrell.

Everyone loves a good horror story. But anyone who tries to write such a story quickly discovers that it’s not enough to simply create a monster. You must also create a reason for the monster to exist. Or, to quote the great Albert Camus, who would have turned 100 this year, “A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.” In all great horror stories, literary or otherwise, the monster is often a manifestation of a character’s inner monstrosity.

Ali Simpson’s story “The Monster” is a terrific example of this kind of character. The story was first published at The Southampton Review and reprinted at Electric Literature, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story introduces the monster in the first line: “Laura was becoming unsure about what to do with the monster in her closet.”

Any reader who finishes that sentence has sentence has two immediate questions:

  1. What kind of world have I entered? (In other words, are there monsters in every closet? Is there some kind of society of closet-monsters?)
  2. What kind of monster is it?

Watch how the story clearly answers this first question in the opening paragraph:

“He shouldn’t have been there—she wasn’t a little girl; she was a grown woman with a full-time job and a roof over her head that she paid for herself with her full-time job. She had food in the fridge, dishes in the drying rack and dress pants pressed. Who had time or inclination to deal with monsters when there was work to be done, friends to have drinks with and love to pursue? Besides, the world was filled with enough scary stories as it was. Robbers, rapists, famines, and wars. Every day on the way to work, she passed people more unfortunate than she, and she knew if she stopped for a second, she would become a part of them, hungry all the time. She suspected she had a few scary stories lurking inside her and spent the better part of some nights guessing what they might be.”

So what kind of world is it? It’s a realistic world full of dirty dishes and jobs and wrinkled clothes. It’s a world with characters who have lives that do not involve monsters. This last part is important because it’s not true of all monster stories. Take the vampires out of Twilight, and the world evaporates. Take Voldemort out of Harry Potter or the gremlins out of Gremlins and you also remove the central conflict—and, to some extent, only conflict—facing the characters. But in this world, the narrator has a life and problems (and so does the rest of the world) that existed before the monster arrives.

Now, watch how the story answers the second question in the next two paragraphs:

So the monster came at the right time in her life. She had just put her dog to sleep because of his eye tumors. She had also recently kicked out her boyfriend because he thought she was his mother. She told him he was mistaken, that she was not his mother, and then she helped him pack his things, fed him lunch and kissed him good-bye. After Bumblebee went to sleep and the boyfriend was sent on his way, her apartment smelled empty and her sheets were cold. She lay around on the couch when she didn’t have to be at work and kept telling herself not to feel sad—she had a lot going for her.

The loneliness made her sick and pale. Nothing made her feel better and she wondered if the loneliness had been there all along but that she had somehow avoided looking it in the face until now.

So, what kind of monster is it? It’s a manifestation of the narrator’s deepest fears. In fact, we’re not yet sure if there really is a monster or if the narrator has simply conjured it out of her fear and doubt. As you read the rest of the story, though, you’ll see how that uncertainty is quickly put to rest.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a monster (real or imagined) using Ali Simpson’s “The Monster” as a model. To do so, we’ll answer the questions, “What kind of world is it?” and “What kind of monster is it?”

  1. Introduce the monster. To do this, you’ll need to state the following: Where is the monster? Who sees it? How does that person feel about the monster? (This last part is perhaps the most important. If the character is terrified for her life in the first sentence, the story will proceed much differently than if the character is amused or irritated.)
  2. What kind of world is it? Do monsters appear all the time? Is the world under siege by monsters? Or is this a regular world with a very personal monster. To answer this question, you’ll also need to figure out your character’s place in the world. If the world is a stage full of roles that people must play, which roles are being played by your character?
  3. What kind of monster is it? Why has the monster appeared to this character at this time? Even less-literary stories, monsters and victims are well matched. So, even in a novel like Twilight, the monster is a manifestation of Bella’s developing sense of her own sexuality. To answer this question, figure out the character’s life, problems, and conflicts that existed before the monster arrived. In a way, you’re adjusting the telescopic lens through which the story views the monster. If you begin by focusing on Conflict A, then Conflict A will always be present in the story (unless you stumble upon a better conflict; in that case, throw out Conflict A and switch to Conflict B). Regardless, if you make the character’s personal conflict part of the story from the beginning, the monster will naturally be viewed as part of that conflict.

Good luck and have fun! You’re writing a monster story. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, if that isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.

How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

Raising the Stakes in a Fragmented Narrative

7 May
In the Middle of Many Mountains by Nahal Suzanne Jamir

Suzanne Jamir’s story “In the Middle of Many Mountains” was first published in Meridian and is the title story of a new collection, now out from Press 53, that has been called “a magic that is real.”

Stories are not true to life. Memoir writers quickly understand that they’re recreating moments from half-blind memory. They leave out as much as they put in. But even stories that make no claim for historical truth, that simply attempt to portray a life as it might be lived, tell a kind of lie. They offer a coherent storyline, a definite beginning and end, and a consistent narrative voice when life offers no such thing. As the writer Nahal Suzanne Jamir will say in Thursday’s interview, “We can’t expect the main character to have an inner conflict and insist that the form or approach of every story be neat or rigid.”

The problem is that readers want coherence. The  magic of stories is that they offer a clarity that is rarely present in life. Jamir’s story “In the Middle of Many Mountains,” finds a way to face this paradox. The story shares a title with Jamir’s new collection out from Press 53. An excerpt is available online at Meridian.

Or you can download their entire story here: “In the Middle of Many Mountains”

How the Story Works

The narrator is trying to understand how she has come to this present situation: her is dying, her father is living with another woman, and her sister is wasting away from an eating disorder. A once-tight family has unraveled for reasons that are not and may never be clear. As a result, the story is structured as a collection of fragments. Any other structure would force coherence upon the naturally incoherent.

And yet a story needs coherence in order to be read. Jamir manages this paradox with a simple strategy: Even though the narrative is fractured, the stakes are clear. Nowhere are they laid out more clearly than on page 5, when the sister, Marjan, says, “I need you to help me…but you’re not going to like it. You won’t want to hear.”

Though the form is fragmented, the characters retain a certain amount of wholeness. It’s possible to say what they want and do not want. These desires drive the plot. The narrator will be forced to do what seems impossible: to hear what she doesn’t want to hear and see what she does not want to see. Thus, the story uses the strategy used by all great stories. It pushes a character until the only option available is the one she never thought she’d choose.

The Writing Exercise

No matter how your story is structured—using some traditional plot or a shape invented on the spot—it’s important to make the stakes clear. It’s even more important when the story asks its readers to learn a new kind of storytelling.

So, let’s set the stakes. We’ll come at the problem from a couple of angles:

  1. Brainstorm the following: What do your main characters want more than anything? What do they avoid at all costs? What is the guiding principle of their lives? In your story, the characters’ desires will likely be tested. How badly do they want X? Will they be willing to do what they normally avoid? Will they even sacrifice their principles? It might help if you finish this sentence: X wants to…, and so he/she will be forced to… 
  2. Make the impossible possible. List the things in your story that seem permanent: relationships, geography, jobs, situations, existences, lives, etc. Now pick one or two and describe what it would take to make them impermanent; in other words, what force would be required to break an unbreakable thing? You can also flip this around and ask what force would be required to make permanent something that is either impermanent or not currently in existence.

Once you’re able to clearly answer any of these questions, you may find that your story comes into focus, both in shape and about-ness.

Good luck.

Narrating a Crime Scene Investigation

23 Apr
Steve by Marcus Pactor can be found online at this journal and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

“The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor can be read online at Timber and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

Literary fiction could learn a lot from the TV show CSI. If that claim sounds absurd, consider this: The show does not follow a traditional plot structure. No episode can be summed up with the old saws “Stranger Comes to Town” and “Character Goes on a Trip.” Those plot lines are present in the show, but they occur quickly—usually, within the first two minutes—and serve only to introduce the true story: the investigation, which consists almost exclusively of people standing around, talking to one another. Sounds pretty cerebral, right?

The problem with most detective shows is that their investigations have the same emotional impact as piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. The detectives remain untouched by their work. In a literary investigation, however, the characters are forever changed by the information they uncover.

A recent story that illustrates the dramatic potential of an investigation is “The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor. It appears in his new collection vs. Death Noises, and you can read it online at Timber.

How the Story Works

Here is the story: Steve is dead, and the narrator is searching through the items left in his apartment. With each discovered item, the narrator begins to piece together the story of Steve’s death. A show like CSI would maintain its focus on this search and puzzle solving. But the focus of “The Archived Steve” shifts away from the corpse and onto the man searching the apartment, a man who will learn that he is partly culpable in Steve’s death. The story, then, becomes about the emotional consequences of his investigation.

So how does the story work? While its premise may seem disconcerting at first—some readers may be thrown off by the matter-of-fact listing of evidence—the story does not plunge into the evidence without purpose. The first paragraph makes clear that the narrator’s goal is to “correct that fool doctor” and his autopsy report.

Aside: I’ve mentioned this idea several times on the blog, and it bears repeating. It’s important to give readers a sense of where the story is going. There are many ways to do this. For more examples, check out these exercise based on Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” Owen Egerton’s chapter “Nativity,” and Stacey Swann’s story “Pull.”

Once Marcus Pactor establishes the direction of the story’s investigation, he quickly sets it into motion, offering and explaining evidence. Notice how the type of evidence changes, moving from the concrete (“technological equipment and books”) to the more abstract (“Steve’s Inverted Pyramid of Suffering”). As this shift occurs, the reader requires more explanation from the narrator, which leads the narrator to insert himself more fully into the story. As a result, the pronouns begin to change halfway through the story. The words “we” and “I” appear more frequently as the story becomes the narrator’s, rather than the corpse’s.

What begins as the search through items left in an apartment becomes the story of a man’s growing sense of guilt and failure.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use “The Archived Steve” as a model. Just as Marcus Pactor’s story focuses on items rather than the dead man who left them behind, let’s create a story from the things that our characters pull in their wakes.

  1. Choose a mysterious premise: someone has disappeared, someone has died from undetermined causes, something has been stolen, something has gone missing.
  2. Put yourself into a room where the person was last seen or where he/she spent a great deal of time—or the room where the item went missing from. What is in the room? Make a list. Be exhaustive.
  3. Now that you’ve created the items, give yourself an investigative goal: to sift through the items in order to find/figure out X.
  4. Begin explaining the relevance of each item to the missing person or the connection to the missing thing. Keep in mind your goal. What clue does each item offer you in your effort to reach the goal?
  5. If you find that explanations of certain items tend to veer unexpectedly or slide into unexpected tangents, that’s great. Follow those tangents. Just as a true crime investigator leaves no stone unturned and follows every tip, you should follow every trail that your subconscious provides. Keep in mind: you’re uncovering a story just as your narrator or character is uncovering a crime. Give yourself permission to explore.

Have fun and good luck.

The Inscrutable Stranger Comes to Town

16 Apr
Kirstin Valdez Quade's story "Nemecia" won first place in Narrative Magazine's Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia” won first place in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

The writer Charles Baxter once wrote in an interview that he liked “to throw characters together into situations that create stress so that as the story goes forward, something in the situation or the characters is forced to reveal itself.” And yet Baxter has also written, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.”

This contradiction is faced by all writers. We must seek to understand the motives and meanings of our characters’ actions, but if we understand them too well, the story loses any sense of mystery. As a result, some of the greatest stories—such as “Bartleby the Scrivener”—are those about the search for understanding. In Melville’s story, the narrator nearly drives himself  mad trying to figure out why his employee, and then former employee, Bartleby, responds to all requests with “I would prefer not to.” In the end, though, Bartleby resists explanation. He remains a cypher.

That same inscrutability can be found in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia.” The story won the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Short Story Contest, and you can read it here.

(Note: Registration is required–but it’s free and definitely worth the few seconds required to do so.)

How the Story Works

The story is about Nemecia, an unsettling character who has joined, under chilling circumstances, the narrator’s family. The narrator’s attempt to understand Nemecia’s odd behavior shapes the story. The first section acts as an introduction.  Here are some select lines:

  1. Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated…At night she stole food from the pantry, handfuls of prunes, beef jerky, pieces of ham…The quick efficient bites, the movement of her jaw, the way the food slid down her throat—it made me sick to think of her body permitting such quantities.
  2. I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.

The next section operates in the same way as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The narrator’s new knowledge affects her view of the entire community. Here are some select lines:

  1. The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.
  2. I wondered if they were afraid of what she might do to them. Perhaps the whole town was terrified of my cousin.
  3. At night I stayed awake as long as I could, waiting for Nemecia to come after me in the dark.

A great story can put goosebumps on its readers’ arms, and following that last line, the story leaps into action. With each new awful attack by Nemecia, the narrator tries to understand her nemesis, to comprehend what has made her so cruel. But she repeatedly fails and, by the end, she can only watch as “Nemecia held a wineglass up to the window and turned it. “See how clear?” Shards of light moved across her face.”

Nemecia remains inscrutable.

The Writing Exercise

This story is a fresh version of the age-old tale “Stranger Comes to Town.” Let’s try our own version. As you brainstorm for each step, write quickly. Don’t think too hard. Let your subconscious spit out material. You can edit it later.

1. Pick a town/neighborhood. Describe the main street, the stores, the residential streets, a house. Who lives there? What objects are important in the street, the stores, etc. Be specific.

2. Pick a stranger. Keep in mind that the best strangers have poker faces; they do not give away their thoughts. Some people will consider them sweet, and others will find them menacing. Give the stranger behavior that suggests both views—but that also suggests something isn’t quite right.

3. Pick one of the objects described earlier in Step 1. Make it go missing. Or make it malfunction. Or make it suddenly turn up in the stranger’s possession. In other words, disrupt the world that you created. Regardless of what disruption you choose, the stranger should be implicated.

4. Provide the stranger with a logical excuse—or simply allow the stranger to remain quiet so that others will make the excuse for him/her.

Your goal is to slowly increase the pressure on the town to discover why the stranger has behaved in this way, to understand what is happening. Yet you must also allow the stranger to resist this understanding. When done well, this can produce an incredible tension in your story.

Good luck.

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