Story: “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins, published by Boulevard
A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly? Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently.
Novel: The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle by Jedah Mayberry, excerpted at Amazon
Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that the best writing omitted far more detail than it included–meaning that a story or novel resembles an iceberg, ninety percent of which is underwater. Critics have turned this idea into a theory for art, but, in truth, it merely describes an inevitable problem faced by all writers: if you’re writing what you know, then you know more than can fit into the story. But you can’t simply include and leave out details randomly. You need a method.
Story: “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins, published in Boston Review
One of the most famous first sentences of all time—’It was a dark and stormy night’—sets the stage for a particular kind of tale. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more.
Story: “Makedonija” by Miroslav Penkov, published at FiveChapters
In any work of fiction, it’s useful to ask what experience most haunts a character or narrator. That experience will likely shape, in subtle or obvious ways, the character’s decisions and reactions for the rest of his or her life. Here is a paragraph from Penkov’s story that does exactly that.
Story: “Eggs” by Alex Perez, published in Subtropics
It’s not actually enough to create a world for the story to enter. That world must lean on the story, shaping it so that the story isn’t generic but specific to that place.
Story: “Darryl Strawberry” by Justin Carroll, published at Gulf Coast
The smartest thing I ever heard in a writing workshop was Tim O’Brien’s exhortation to avoid unintentional repetition: never repeat a word on a page unless you mean to do it. This sounds obvious but can, in fact, be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to find good synonyms. The solution often involves the complete rethinking of sentences and passages. That may sound intimidating, but it can sometimes be as simple as finding the right place for a character to stand.
Novel: Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston, published by Random House
Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. The opening shots of any given episode of Breaking Bad, for instance, are pretty different from the opening of any episode of Parks and Recreation. One is almost always foreboding and dark, and the other is light, fast, and witty. Even if you were to encounter these shows with no knowledge of them, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered.
Memoir: Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson, published by Gotham
One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves.
Novel-in-Poems: In the Circus of You by Nicelle Davis, published by Rose Metal Press
In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story, “The Aleph,” a character goes into a cellar and looks at a particular part of it, a mere point, and through it he sees the entire universe. It’s a dizzying concept that makes graduate students go, “Ooh,” when they read it, but it’s also a metaphor for how writing often works, especially descriptive passages. A single detail can provide a glimpse of something much larger—the universe or a relationship or the internal self. The problem is finding that detail and, when you do, knowing how to look through it.