Story: “Crossing” by Mark Slouka, published at Paris Review
Any hack with the smallest facility for plot can walk a character into a situation that cannot be escaped. But it takes skill and craft to make the reader feel the character’s desperation. This is exactly what Mark Slouka does in his story. By the last paragraph, the tension is nearly unbearable. The ending is powerful: “There was nowhere to go. It didn’t matter. They had to go.”
Story: “Windeye” by Brian Evenson, published by PEN America
In a classic reversal, such as the one used by M. Night Shyamalon in The Sixth Sense, the viewer or reader’s sense of what is true is completely reversed. In other words, we realize that Bruce Willis is, in fact, not alive but dead. “Windeye” operates differently. The twist is incomplete.
Story: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses, published at Fictionaut
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 based on a couple of basic questions.
Story: “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” by Tiphanie Yanique, published at Boston Review
When we talk about plot, the focus is often on what happens–setting it up, teasing the reader with what will happen next, creating suspense. Sometimes, though, plot is built upon the question of why things happen.
Novel: Long Division by Kiese Laymon, excerpted at Gawker
I was talking to a writer the other day who said that, if it was up to her, she’d write nothing but character development. Her characters would talk to each other and occasionally wind up in interesting circumstances, but not much would happen. Her solution was to create a detailed outline—the kind that takes several weeks to create. This is a terrific idea, even if many writers are initially opposed to it. But what if you can’t find the right plot for the outline?
Story: “Victory Music” by Daniel José Older, published in PANK and Necessary Fiction
How do you introduce genre elements into a literary story without also feeling beholden to the genre’s usual structure? For instance, not every story with ghosts is a ghost story. Anyone reading the first lines of a ghost story has certain expectations for what will happen. But if that same person begins a story about a young woman who tells her parents that she’s no longer a girl, the expectations are different. It’s the old genre vs literary divide.
Story: “Poinsettias” by Myfanwy Collins, published at PANK
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?
Book: The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez, published by Verso
The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?
Novel: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, excerpted in Guernica
A common writing tip is to create a power imbalance between characters. There are obvious ways to do this: give one character a gun. Or, create a structural imbalance (teacher/student, coach/player, rich family/servants). But what if these approaches don’t fit comfortably in your story, and you don’t want to shoehorn them in? You need something more nuanced.
Story: “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis, published by New Harvest
Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. The novelist Paul Murray actually did this with the title of his book: Skippy Dies. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?
Story: “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Monica McFawn, published The Georgia Review
Everyone is familiar with Chekhov’s gun: If the story puts a gun on the wall in the first act, the gun needs to be fired by the third act. If a story presents something as dangerous, then it must face that thing directly, not avoid it. Of course, not every story needs a gun. The danger can be located in anything—even things that aren’t necessarily dangerous in every circumstance. All you need is for a character to say, “Don’t do that” or “That’s off-limits” or “Be careful” and you’ve got your dangerous element.
Essay: “Jesus Never Gave Christmas Porn” by Owen Egerton, published in Salon
The best essay about Christmas that I’ve ever read is by Owen Egerton. I don’t make this claim lightly, given that there is no shortage of holiday-themed writing this time of year. The essay is notable for its perspective (Egerton grew up a humanist, became a fundamentalist Christian, and now writes searching novels about faith) but also its content: as a kid, the Egerton children rushed downstairs to find their stockings stuffed with pornographic magazines. After Egerton experienced a religious epiphany as a teenager, these gifts still appeared, and the essay explores the inevitable tension with his parents.
Novel: An American in Scotland by Karen Ranney, published by Avon
When I was a kid, my dad liked to joke that the devil came out after midnight, which is actually good advice for writers. In stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, we need to find those windows of opportunity when the devil can show his face, when characters can act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.
Novel: Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam, published by William Morrow
When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks.
Story: “I Was a Revolutionary” by Andrew Malan Milward, published by Harper
As writers, we all eventually experience this moment: we’re sitting at the computer, and the story just quits. It won’t move forward, no matter how many guns we hang on the wall or strangers we have knock on the door. So what do we do? Very likely, go back to the beginning, searching for that wrong piece that has fouled everything up. It’s often the case, though, that the problem isn’t a wrong piece but not enoughpieces. A story needs multiple plot threads, multiple questions for the reader to wonder about. The solution to writer’s block, then, is often to find ways to introduce more plot threads at the beginning of the story.