Tag Archives: character development

How to Introduce Genre Elements into a Literary Story

17 Dec
Daniel José Older's story, "Victory Music" was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction's RePrint series.

Daniel José Older’s story, “Victory Music” was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction‘s RePrint series.

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.

One way to handle this balancing act can be found in Daniel José Older’s story “Victory Music.” It was originally published in PANK 8.06, and was selected as a RePrint by Necessary Fiction Writer-in-Residence Ashley Ford. You can read it now at Necessary Fiction.

How the Story Works

Any story that wants to use genre elements but not genre structure must toe a fine line. If it drops the genre element (in this case, a ghost) into the story out of nowhere, the reader is likely to be confused or thrown for too much of a loop. But if the story introduces the genre element too firmly, the reader is going to expect a genre structure. The trick, then, is to hint at the genre element without settling too firmly into the structure. Let’s look at how Daniel José Older does this in “Victory Music.”

He hints at the genre element (the ghost) by letting the narrator address a dead person named Krys. The opening section ends this way:

I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.

Notice how the statement is vague enough to be read several ways, only one of which requires a ghost. But even that lack of specificity might be too much—which is why the story begins with a paragraph that has nothing to do with ghosts:

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

The first section ends with a hint of a ghost but a lot of non-ghost potential conflict. The next section can go two ways: It can develop the “saved my life…after you died” idea or one of the non-ghost ideas from the first paragraph. Older chooses the latter, reintroducing the narrator’s parents:

[M]y dad sent the twins to bed with a growl and then said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a girl?”

Imagine how different the story would be if it began the first section with something ghostly. In order to continue to increase the suspense further, the story would have no choice but to further develop the ghost—and as the possibilities for development narrowed, that is when the story would likely adopt the usual structure of a genre ghost story.

Instead, because the story introduces the conflict around the narrator’s gender identity, the story is given a new conflict to develop—and, in this story, that conflict climaxes with the appearance of a ghost. To some extent, the difference between a story with ghosts and a ghost story is when the ghost appears. The earlier it appears, the more likely it becomes that the story adopts a genre structure. (I’ll admit that there are exceptions to this rule, as shown by this story about a monster.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a genre element into our stories, experimenting with placement, using “Victory Music” as a model:

  1. Choose the genre element. Pick your favorite genre story and borrow something from it: ghosts, zombies, vampires, monsters, detectives, cowboys, aliens, giant squid, playboy millionaires, heiresses with squandered fortunes, wizards, middle-aged women looking for sex in a city, 20-something actors with entourages of hometown friends.
  2. Hint at the genre element. Write a sentence or two that suggests to the reader which genre element is coming. Don’t be too specific (“There were werewolves somewhere in this city.”) Instead, try to hint at the element in a way that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Remember Older’s line from “Victory Music”: “I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.”
  3. Lead up to your hint with something unrelated to the element. Keep in mind the writer Ron Carlson’s advice that every story contains two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Create a character or world that exists independently of the genre element that you’re introducing. Give that character or world the seeds of a conflict(s) that have nothing to do with the genre element.
  4. Figure out the relationship between conflict and genre element. Your story is necessarily going to move between two elements: the character’s original conflict and the genre element. To make this move, it’s helpful to know where each is located. Do they exist in the same space? In Older’s story, the ghosts are in one place and the conflict with the father is in another place.
  5. Develop one of those conflicts. Keep in mind where you’re going. If the genre elements waits elsewhere, the conflict should develop so that the character is required to leave one place and go to another.
  6. Introduce the genre element. Remember that most transitions are not clean breaks. Make the character preoccupied with the conflict he/she just left. That way, when the genre element appears, it will come as a surprise to both the reader and the character.

Good luck!

How to Find a Story’s Tone

10 Dec
Benjamin Rosenbaum's story XXX appeared at Tor.com

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking” appeared at Tor.com. (Illustraton by Scott Bakal)

Some stories have been told countless times. Yet, as writers, we often feel compelled to take another crack at them. So how do we make our stories different? Sometimes the answer is to find an unexpected tone.

Benjamin Rosenbaum does exactly that in his zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking.” I guarantee that even if you’ve read a thousand zombie stories, you’ve never read one like this. You can read it now at Tor.com.

How the Story Works

Playing with tone in a story is a bit like improvising in music. A simple melody is easier to improvise than one that requires concentration just to play straight. So, when you’re thinking about tone, it’s helpful to make everything else simple. Here’s the opening of “Feature Development for Social Networking.” Notice how simple it is. (If you haven’t read the story yet, it’s written as a series of Facebook posts and comments).

Marsha Shirksy Got bitten . . .

Roland Wu wtf? Are you kidding?

Buster Day that is so not funny

Emily Carter omg Marsha are you serious?

Marsha Shirksy I’m not kidding, you guys! There was a rager at the supermarket. I could tell he was acting weird & I know I was totally stupid not to just drop my stuff and run! I’d just been in line forever & they had this terrific local asparagus on sale. Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus.

The first two words of the story (after the character’s name) provide everything the reader needs to know about the plot (“Got bitten…”). Anyone who’s ever read a zombie story knows how this one will end. So, instead of focusing on the plot, Rosenbaum can play with tone. He finds his tone by doing a couple of simple things:

  • He chooses a place with a particular style of communication. In this case, it’s Facebook, with its users’ tendency to exaggerate the emotion in all statements (omg, wtf, exclamation marks galore) in order to not be misunderstood.
  • He gives himself room to play with tone. The first line introduces the plot, but then that plot is not explained or developed in any way until Marsha Shirksy speaks up again. In that lull, there’s space to play with tone. Notice how Roland, Buster, and Emily all say basically the same thing in slightly different ways—but also in ways that reinforce a kind of philosophy toward communication (or tone): informal, intimate, and performative (wtf, omg).
  • He uses the tone to convey an important piece of story information. After the Facebook tone is set, Rosenbaum uses it to tell the story of the zombie attack. Notice how that paragraph uses all of the traits established in the previous three lines: it’s informal (the ampersand, “totally stupid”), intimate (“you guys”), and performative (“Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus).

Once the tone is set, the story is off and running. If you read the entire piece, you’ll see how Rosenbaum introduces a second set of characters and a slightly different form of communication goes through this process all over again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s play with tone, using “Feature Development for Social Networking” as a model:

  1. Choose the oft-told story that you want to tell. Make it as simple as possible: zombie attack, quest, boy/girl falls in love with boy/girl and has to woo him/her, ghostly apparition, relationship goes sour.
  2. Choose a place with a particular style of communication. Think about the places where characters code switch (adapt to a language that is particular to one group): a bar, a workplace, a church, a classroom, or the hallway or space immediately outside the classroom or church or office or bar, a dinner table, a restaurant.
  3. Introduce the plot immediately. I got bit. I had to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. I had to make him love me. The ghost handed me the shampoo. I used to love her, but now I don’t.
  4. Give yourself room to play with tone. Establish the communication style. You can do this by putting your character into conversation, having him/her tell the story to someone else. Or, you can simply adopt the tone of the place/group and use it in what is essentially a monologue. Think about the language’s phrasings, idioms, approaches to emotion (exaggerated, muted), use or avoidance of literal or figures of speech, directness or roundabout-ness. Think about speed. How fast or slow do the character talk? Play with the voice until you begin to hear it in your head, almost as if the voice is speaking to you.
  5. Use the tone to convey an important piece of information. How I got bit. Why I need to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. Why it’s not easy to make him love me, or why I love him. What the ghost looks like. Why I don’t love her anymore.

Once you find the tone, you may find that the most enjoyable part of writing the story is the tone itself. Keep playing with it. Drop in a plot clue or reference now and then to keep the story moving forward.

Have fun.

How to Make Dialogue Move Faster

26 Nov
X story "Paper Tiger" appeared in Fiddleblack.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” appeared in Fiddleblack.

Most dialogue is written with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. The result is clarity, but the downside is that even a short back-and-forth can fill up half a page. What if you want capture the speed of the conversation?

One way to make dialogue move faster is to write it in chunks that appear in a single paragraph. If you’re writing in first-person, you may find that this technique sends a jolt of electricity into the voice of your narrator.

To see how this works, check out Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger.” It’s so good that you’ll read the first sentence and think, “That was great,” and then the next sentence will be even better. It was published at Fiddleblack, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Almost everyone has told (or heard) this story: “She said, then I said, then he said, then this total stranger jumped in and said, so I told him…” It’s one of the most natural storytelling methods in the world. It probably predates written language. Yet, it can’t be captured within the constraints of normal formatting rules for dialogue (paragraph breaks for every speaker change).

Here is how Liz Warren-Pederson captures that style of speaking in the first sentence of her story:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Imagine if this dialogue had been written in the usual way:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said.

“What the fuck? Where will I eat?” I said.

“I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me.”

“What a fucking misery,” I said.

“That’s not what you said last night.”

“Well, we weren’t under a microscope then.”

“You worry too much,” she said.

That was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

It doesn’t work—at all. In fact, some of the best lines from the original sentence become some of the weakest in the new version. For instance, “What a fucking misery” becomes plodding because it’s just another comeback. And, “You worry too much,” is stripped of all tension, as is the last line. Some things, like punk rocks and tit-for-tats, require speed to operate. Slow them down, and even if all the notes are the same, they fall apart.

The great advantage to chunking this dialogue into one paragraph is that it captures the narrator’s voice. Banter can tell you a lot about both characters and real people:

  • What tone does each person take?
  • What language does each person use?
  • How do they respond to negative (or positive) comments?
  • Who gets the last word?

While these questions can be answered by traditionally-structured dialogue, the compression of Warren-Pederson’s first sentence shoves the characters into a tight space, where they bump into each other. Any time you push characters into each other—in a room, on a street, in a sentence—the tension rises, and you’re bound to learn something about them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s speed up dialogue by chunking part of a conversation into a single sentence or paragraph. We’ll use the first sentence of Liz Warren-Pederson’s “Paper Tiger” as a model. You can write new dialogue or rewrite dialogue that you’ve already written for a story-in-progress.

  1. Choose a speaker. Even though the dialogue will be between two people, it will be filtered through the perspective of a speaker, the person telling the story of what was said and done.
  2. Choose an argument. We almost always tell a story about a conversation because there was tension present, and an argument is the easiest way to find that tension. The argument can be about something simple: to go out or stay in, what to eat, where to sit, how to spend money, or how to spend the holidays (as in this story). It can be about an ongoing dispute: I always take out the trash, you never load the dishwasher, it’s always up to me to get the car fixed.
  3. Let the speaker relate what was said. Think about the knee-jerk ways that we tend to respond when we feel attacked, slighted, or insulted. It’s those sort of comebacks that make for quick conversation. The characters don’t think, just speak. The result will look something like this: “”She said___, then I said___, then she said___, and that was ___, so I said___, and then ____.” As you come to the end of the sentence, think about how the argument ends. Who ends it? Does it end with a white flag or with a devastating assault?

This is Thanksgiving Week, and you may find that you have plenty of inspiration for this exercise after Thursday’s family dinner. If you find yourself telling any stories about who said what, write them down. You can always find a story for the dialogue later.

Good luck!

An Interview with Charles Baxter

21 Nov
Charles Baxter's most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper

Charles Baxter’s most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper.”

Charles Baxter is probably as well known for his essays on craft as he is for his novels and stories, which is impressive given that his short story “Gryphon” is required reading for many students and his novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and adapted as a film starring Morgan Freeman. His essays, though—especially the collection Burning Down the House—are a touchstone for almost everyone who has studied in a MFA program over the past 15 years.

Baxter’s most recent book of fiction is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, which is now out in paperback.

In this interview, Baxter discusses entering the world of a wrongdoer, stumbling toward the write tone, and “rogue longings.”

(To read Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” and an exercise on raising the stakes in a story, click here.)

Michael Noll

The story is about a man who wants to be taken seriously, to be seen as someone with the potential to profoundly affect other people’s lives–essentially, to make his existence known and recognized. So, when he’s accused of being “harmless,” he sets out to prove that he isn’t. Here’s what I find fascinating about this story: The man wants to be recognized, but when he first walks into the police station to report the slip of paper he’s found, he chickens out. He fears that “if he showed what was in his pocket to the police he himself would become a prime suspect and an object of intense scrutiny, all privacy gone.” That’s a pretty serious contradiction. In some ways, it makes what follows seem less like a moral fable. The sequence of events is neatly laid out, but it’s less neat if we believe that the man at the center of it is unpredictable. Was this chickening out always part of the story?

Charles Baxter

Writers can’t always reconstruct what they were thinking while writing a story. Sometimes our thinking is so specific and so contextual and instinctive that we don’t know afterward why we did what we did. Anyway, here goes.

Many people in our society suffer from their own anonymity. This response is likely to occur in a culture built on celebrity, as ours is. Harry’s “harmlessness” is another word for a life that seems inconsequential, unimportant. But if you try to enter the world as a wrongdoer, or even someone who brings in the sign of wrongdoing (a slip of paper), you yourself may be judged, exposed. Think of Ted Kacynski. Notoriety is a double-edged sword. Everybody (or most people) carry around these contradictions in themselves. Fiction needs to point up those contradictions, to be honest to itself and its readers.

Michael Noll

After the man bristles at being called harmless, it’s not surprising that he acts out. But his preferred way to act out is unexpected. And then the scene proceeds through a series of unexpected moments: the kid’s guess at the drawing’s rendered location and the subsequent description of the kid as “slinky and warm, like a cat.” It would be so easy to write this scene toward what is expected, toward cliche: of course the societally-suffocated man is into boys. But in this case, the boy is not what we might expect, and the description is unexpectedly cuddly. Do you have, as you write, a kind of internal compass pointing you toward the unexpected, or do you stumble around a story, searching for the right detail?

Charles Baxter

Oh, I stumble. It’s all stumbling, all the time. But what you’re stumbling toward is a tone, an angle, that takes you by surprise. The slightly ‘wrong’ note in a scene is often the note that brings it to life. I keep listening for that note.

Michael Noll

I love this line of dialogue from the man’s wife: “You’re handsome and stable and you’re my sweetie, and I love you, and what else happened today?” The line clearly sets up the world that the man is acting out against. In other words, it’s a line that a literature teacher would pull out and read to students in order to illustrate the story’s theme, a word that probably makes makes most writers cringe. But it doesn’t seem theme-like on a first read because of the speed. Even on subsequent reads, it makes me laugh. I’m curious how you approached the line. Did you think, I need to have someone state the values of the world that the man is rebelling against–and then revise the line to achieve that speed? Or did it arise more accidentally?

Charles Baxter

I wasn’t thinking of the theme at all. I was just trying to imagine what Harry’s wife would say, in an effort to “normalize” everything within that marriage. Also, I like dialogue that changes direction within the same sentence–does a swerve–as that one did. So the line arose out of a combination of accident and calculation.

Michael Noll

As I write this, Tea Party politicians are shutting down the government and threatening to wreck the world’s economy so that the country will pay attention to them. In other words, they’re acting a bit like Harry Edmonds. The difference is that, unlike him, they’ve found a stage whose size is commensurate with the size of their fear of not being seen and heard. In your novels and stories, things generally don’t end well for these types of characters or for the people around them. Care to make any long-term predictions for our current set of characters? When people like Harry Edmonds begin to act out in order to be noticed–and when that need to be noticed stems from some internal deficit that can’t be filled with any amount of attention–are the only outcomes bad ones?

Charles Baxter

Someone, it may have been Christopher Lasch, once said that narcissists can’t negotiate. They suffer from insecurity and grandiosity simultaneously, a terrible combination. The other side of the Tea Party’s belligerence is fear, particularly a fear that the old world they knew is disappearing, and a world they don’t recognize is here. I didn’t think Harry Edmonds was a dangerous character, but just a guy who wanted to be more consequential than he actually was. Kafka would have recognized him. Standard married middle-class life is not enough for him. He has what I’d call “rogue subjectivity” or “rogue longings”–I think the Germans have a word for this: “sehnsucht.” Such people sometimes do free fall parachute jumping, or they do little protests against the settledness of their lives. You want a story to be “telling”–that is, to tell us about how people live now. And that was what I hoped that story would do.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Raise the Stakes by Challenging a Character’s Identity

19 Nov
Charles Baxter's story, "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb" is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

One of the most common suggestions for improving a short story is to “raise the stakes.”  The writer Lee K. Abbot apparently once “dismissed a graduate class in less than five minutes by holding up a story, asking “Is there anything at stake in this?,” and upon hearing silence, said they were done with class.” But how does one make something hang in the balance? One option is to dangle a sword over the character’s head as in the Greek tale of Damocles.

Another option is to give your character something to resist or push back against. Most often, this means impugning your characters’ reputations and watching them push back.

A perfect example of this can be found in Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” It’s included in Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, and you can read it now at The New York Times.

How the Story Works

In John Cheever’s story “The Country Husband,” a man almost dies in a plane crash, but when he comes home, no one wants to talk about it. His wife and children essentially refuse to recognize him as a human being whose experiences and responses to those experiences might not fit into the neatly packaged world they’ve created for themselves. As a result, he begins to act in ways that force people to take notice of him–which is  what Harry Edmonds does in Charles Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” Baxter introduces the one personal slight that Harry cannot bear and so must resist, even at the sake of his own security.

The story raises the stakes by having this personal slight delivered by the person closest to the character, his girlfriend:

“You’ve never committed a crime in your life. You’re a banker, for Chrissake. You’re in the trust department. You’re harmless.”

Harry sat back in his chair and looked at her. “I’m not that harmless.”

“Yes, you are.” She laughed. “You’re quite harmless.”

“Lucia,” he said, “I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”

“‘Harmless’? It’s a compliment.”

“Not in this country, it isn’t,” he said.

This conversation has a direct effect on the character and, by extension, the story’s plot. The story began with Harry stepping into the police station to turn in a possible bomb threat but, at the last minute, turning around and leaving. After this conversation, he returns to the police station. From there, the story takes off, with Harry acting out to prove that he’s not harmless. “in this country,” he eventually tells someone, “if you’re harmless, you get killed and eaten.”

For this character, the stakes are his own self-regard, the sense that he’s a potent actor in the world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s raise the stakes in a story by giving a character a personal slight to resist or push back against. We’ll use the dialogue from “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” as a model. (This exercise can be used to create a story from scratch, but it may work best with a set of characters and a story that you’ve been working on for a while.)

  1. Put two characters who are close to one another together in a room. The room should be somewhere intimate, a place where personal things can be said.
  2. Make one character tell the other character everything that he/she is and is not. People do this all the time, often to themselves, saying things like, “I don’t eat muffins. I don’t watch baseball. I don’t do roller coasters.” Or they do it to other people: “He’s such a boy. She’s the kind of person who…” But while people don’t mind labeling themselves, they almost never like being labeled by someone else. So, a great way to create tension in a story (which is a roundabout way of raising the stakes) is by letting one character label another.
  3. Let the other character respond. The character should defend him/herself. “You say I’m X, but I say that I’m not.” Or, “You say that I’m not X, but I am.” If you’ve been in any kind of relationship, then you know that this is how many arguments go. Any time a character’s sense of him/herself is challenged, the stakes are being set.
  4. Make the character prove his point. Once your character’s identity has been challenged, make him or her prove that the challenge is incorrect. The proof could be literal (hitting a home run to show that he’s good at baseball) or more unpredictable (yelling at someone for not returning a grocery cart in order to prove that she’s tough).

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 Write Plot by Answering the “Why” Question

5 Nov
Tiphanie Yanique's story "How to Escape from a Leper Colony" was first published at Boston Review.

Tiphanie Yanique was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and lives in Brooklyn. She was the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Prize in Fiction.

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.

Tiphanie Yanique’s story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” perfectly demonstrates how to build plot by answering the why question. The story was first published at Boston Review, where it won the journal’s annual short story contest. It was eventually included in Tiphanie Yanique’s story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press). It’s as good a story as you’ll ever read. You can find it here at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The title of the story—”How to Escape from a Leper Colony”—makes clear what will happen in the story:  someone, almost certainly the narrator, will try to escape the island. The question is why. The answer, of course, will be some version of Because they must or Because they have no choice. But that is not enough. The driving impulse to escape must be more than a plot mechanism. It must originate from the characters’ sense of themselves and their world—even if the cause is due to external events.

Here is how Yanique introduces the characters’ attitudes toward what will eventually happen:

“What evil thing Lazaro will do later we will forgive him for, because we know his past and because we know he is one of us.”

That sentence sets up two important ideas:

  1. Something has happened in Lazaro’s past that shapes his sense of the present
  2. He (and the narrator and others) are part of a group—which suggests that there is another group with different ideas about what will happen.

So, what is the belief system or attitude of Lazaro’s group? Much of the story is spent developing the particular way the group members view the world, and in this passage, that attitude comes into sharp focus:

“From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy. Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera. But Jesus had touched lepers. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

Because the story so clearly establishes the characters and their attitudes, the events of the story become not simply things that happen but the so-called straw that breaks the camel’s back. In other words, the plot is driven by the characters’ reactions to what happens.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s discover the attitudes of our character(s) using “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” as a model.

  1. Identity the source of the character’s trouble. In high school, many of us learned about literary conflicts: man vs. man, man vs nature, man vs self, man vs. society. While these aren’t particular useful outside of a classroom, they can point us in the right direction. Who or what is your character at odds with?
  2. Identity when the trouble began. You might create a timeline. At the least, you should know if the conflict is old or relatively new. All conflicts warp (or, to put it more positively, conflicts shape) a character’s sense of him/herself in the world. The older the conflict, the stronger the resentment or attitude is likely to be.
  3. Identify the character’s group. All people tend to classify themselves into groups, and those groups often take “an us vs. them” philosophy. The groups can be based on large ideas like class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or politics, or they can be based on behaviors. Try defining the group with a phrase such as “The kind of people who…” or “The kind of person who…” For example, there are the kind of the people who love Neil Diamond and those who do not. There are the kind of people who are kind to everyone and those who are not—the kind of people who like to try new food and those who do not.
  4. Introduce the conflict and let the character comment on it both as a member of the group and as someone with a history with the conflict. Think of the story’s conflict as being like herpes. The root problem–the virus–never goes away, and so the conflict occurs when the symptoms reappear. In many stories and novels, the characters’ problem is chronic, a reoccurrence or new manifestation of something he/she has been dealing with for a long time. Try reintroducing the problem–a new occurrence or manifestation of it–and let the character talk about it as someone experienced with dealing with it. Then, let the character view the conflict through the prism of the group beliefs. If it’s herpes, and the group is defined by people who complain and those who do not complain, you might write this: “There wasn’t any point in whining or moaning about it. You just had to get on with things, and people who couldn’t do that–well, he wasn’t going to hang out with those kind of people.”

Play around with these different steps. Try commenting on the conflict in a variety of ways. Once you find a comment that resonates with your character, you may find that the plot (and the way forward into the story) becomes clearer.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Create the World of the Story

29 Oct
Alex Perez's story "Eggs" was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

Alex Perez’s story “Eggs” was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

The writer Ron Carlson says that every story has two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Another way of saying this is that the characters involved have concerns and obsessions that existed before the story came into their lives.

Alex Perez has created this fictional world beautifully in his story “Eggs.” It was published in Subtropics, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

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. Perez does this by giving his narrator an attitude about certain aspects of his world: poverty and ethnicity.

Notice how the narrator immediately compares his mom to the woman his father is sleeping with:

“My mother, always working in the kitchen, never wore anything that called attention to her. This woman, this white lady, must have dipped her entire wardrobe in glaze or something.”

This class difference gets picked up in every section of the story. Even when the the narrator’s father moves out and the narrator and his brother drive to his new house to egg it, they’re thinking not just about their plan but the class distinctions that inform it:

It’s a testament to the craziness of a city like Miami, how all the hoods, rich and poor, are connected by the highway, but people only get off where they’re supposed to. But here we were, on the side of town all the immigrants wanted to get to. Ten minutes from our place, and this was the first time Ricky had seen driveways littered with the finest in German engineering.

“All the backboards are made of glass. Like the NBA,” he said.

“You haven’t played basketball until you bounce it off the glass,” I said.

One problem that many beginning writers have is a tendency to write only about plot. In their stories, once the plot gets rolling, nothing else appears on the page. But good stories move in and out of plot. They advance it for a while and then step out for a few moments to talk about something else. Such moments allow readers to catch their breath, to absorb what is happening. Giving the characters in a story something to talk about besides the immediate plot also allows the story to gain meaning. It allows the story to have a paragraph like this one in which the narrator peers through the windows of his father’s mistress’ house and sees him rubbing her feet:

He was in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen, and he’d become a certifiable bitch. I didn’t know why, but as I looked around the house, at the massive staircase and the leather couches, for one second, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Right then, I knew that I’d never make it to such a house. I wasn’t good enough for Harvard, and I certainly wasn’t about to massage feet for women who weren’t my wife. Maybe all those other women had been preparation for this moment, for the day that he’d finally make it to a house that justified his exodus all those years ago. I didn’t know, probably would never know, but I had to tell myself a story.

That passage that isn’t possible if the story doesn’t create its world and its characters’ attitude toward that world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a world and a character’s attitude toward that world, using “Eggs” as a model:

  • Describe two characters from the viewpoint of a third character. When Perez compares his mother to his father’s mistress, he notices the difference in their clothes, and it bothers him. You’re looking for those kind of distinctions that bother the third character. So, you may want to describe characters who are not equally close to the third character: a family member and a stranger, a close friend and an acquaintance, a spouse and a co-worker. We tend to associate ourselves with people from “our world” and who have similar attitudes toward that world—and we often judge harshly the people from other worlds. Here are some ideas for distinctions you can make: class, ethnicity, geography, education, intelligence, athletic ability, attractiveness, sexuality, or even just likability.
  • Put your third character into the world that isn’t his/her own. When Perez’s characters egg their father’s mistress’s house, they leave one neighborhood and enter another. Because class distinctions weigh so heavily on them, everything they see is seen through that prism: the basketball backboards, the bases on the baseball fields. What details does your third character notice as he/she enters the world that isn’t his own? The key is to find a plot mechanism that will force your character into a world to which he/she doesn’t belong.
  • Filter everything through the difference between the worlds. We judge others most harshly—or become most conscious of distinctions between us and others—when we’re upset. So, as you write the story and approach the dramatic high points, find ways to return to the distinctions you’ve created. In Perez’s story, the narrator looks into his father’s new house, aware of how much bigger and fancier it is than his own. But his feelings toward those differences have changed. Very often, the reversal in plot or the epiphany will be accompanied by a similar reversal or change in the way a character views the world you’ve created.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Convey Emotion Indirectly

22 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie's story "What We Lost" appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Sometimes the best way to approach important moments in a story is indirectly. To that end, the writer John Gardner gave his students this exercise: Write a paragraph about a farmer grieving after his son’s death. But you can’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, you must describe the barn and, in the details you choose, convey the farmer’s sense of loss.

This can be a difficult exercise because we realize how dependent we are on direct treatment of everything in a story. If you try to describe the barn, though, and if you continue to find indirect approaches to key information in fiction, you might be surprised at the effect on your writing. You’ll also begin to see the strategy everywhere in stories.

A great example is in the opening paragraph of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind.” It was a finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest from Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now. (Note: Sign-in is required, but it’s free.)

How the Story Works

The premise of the story is very simple. A Kenyan village is attacked by armed men, and the survivors flee. Notice how long the story waits to state the premise—not until the fourth paragraph. What precedes that paragraph is, in part, an indirect description that conveys the survivors’ depth of loss:

“In the beginning, the sandy ground was littered with the things that those who went before us had abandoned: sisal sleeping mats, many with the threads that bound the fibers together loosening as they flopped in the wind; suitcases; water troughs; beaded jewelry; tin cooking utensils; thin cotton dresses, skirts, shirts, and trousers; woven baskets, the kind that carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day; rubber-soled sandals, ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned. But as the days went by and we continued to walk, there were fewer and fewer of these things, and instead we began to see a scattering of carcasses from animals left to die in the dry desert heat.”

At first, the description merely lists the objects that litter the ground. But as the list proceeds, it begins to offer greater detail. For instance, it distinguishes between baskets that “carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day.” And between types of sandals: “ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned.”

The passage ends by upending the list: the items are gradually replaced with animal carcasses.

Though the paragraph never shows the people fleeing the village, we get a strong sense of their presence (and of the narrator’s emotions) through the attention given to the objects on the ground.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to convey important emotional information without approaching it directly. We’ll use Mũthoni Kiarie’s story as a model:

  1. Choose an event that produces strong emotion. Ideally, the emotion should last for a while, as opposed to a flash of anger or frustration that is quickly forgotten. Examples of events include these: death, marriage, divorce, birth, moving to another house or city, losing a job, changing jobs, professional disappointment, professional success, winning the lottery, or your team winning a big game.
  2. Try the John-Gardner exercise. Describe the contents of a room or place that is significant to your character. Don’t state the emotion or anything related to the event. (And no cheating with synonyms or giving animals or inanimate objects human dimensions—ducks skipping, walls smiling, that sort of thing.
  3. Add an element of time. How does the room or place change as the minutes/hours/days pass? This may be easier since it makes the description active rather than static.
  4. Optional: End the passage with a single line that states the emotion or something related to the event. Sometimes a line that bluntly states what has become obvious after an indirect description can shake the reader a little. For an example of this effect, read the last paragraph and sentence of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story.

Remember, the idea is to get inside the character’s head. Bad fiction tends to state what it cannot show. It tells the reader that a character is excited or sad or angry, and it’s no accident that the prose in such fiction is mechanical. But when you read good fiction, you’ll notice passages that are not directly related to plot or character development—they’re simply the book/narrator telling us about things in the character’s world. It’s the ability to write passages like these, without falling into dull description, that opens up the range and possibility of a prose voice.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Use a Single Detail to Create a Character

8 Oct
Anthony Abboreno's story "Filler" was published at American Short Fiction.

Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” was published at American Short Fiction.

When creating a character, we tend to think about the entirety of the character—asking questions like, who is this person, really—but sometimes all we need is one good detail.

Anthony Abboreno demonstrates how a single detail can be used to create a complex character in his story, “Filler.” You can read it now at American Short Fiction.

How the Story Works

The story is about a father and his daughter, who likes food. It’s a minor detail (and not, at first glance, a terrifically unusual one), but watch how Abboreno uses that detail to create not only a fine-lined portrait of the daughter but also a dynamic picture of the hopes and dreams of the father as well.

In this first paragraph, the detail is introduced:

“One of the many things that I love about my daughter is that she loves food. When she was three, when most children are at their pickiest, my wife and I were amazed by what she enjoyed. Soup with kale in it, breaded veal, snails covered in butter that we would pry from their shells with a hat pin, then arrange on a plate for her to eat with her pudgy hands. And most of all she loved lobster—which is an easy food to like, but still outré for a three-year-old. On nights when my wife and I would hire a babysitter to go out with friends, we would brag about our daughter’s eating habits.”

In the next paragraph, the detail gains an added dimension:

“She is a foodie, we would say: maybe she’ll be a chef. But the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied. She was going to be cultured and smart. She would never have to stand at the edges of a crowd and feel uncomfortable. She would always have something witty to say, and she would never be lonely, and neither would we.”

This passage does two things:

  1. It places the daughter (and the one key detail about her) in context. Lines like “she was three, when most children are at their pickiest” and “still outré for a three-year-old” essentially tell the reader why the detail is noteworthy: she’s not like other kids her age.
  2. It lets the father talk about what this detail about his daughter means to him. A line like “the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied” clues the reader into the father’s attitude toward his daughter but also toward life and the world in general. The reader learns that his greatest fear is that one day he’ll be lonely.

At some point, every story must set a stake in the ground: the characters are moving toward the stake or they’re moving away from it. In “Filler” the regret and love that the father expresses at the end only make sense if we know that his greatest fear is that he’ll end up an outcast from society. And we learn that about that fear through a discussion of the daughter’s love for food. That is how a single detail can create a character.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create two characters using the food paragraphs from “Filler” as a model:

  1. Choose two characters who know each other. They could be family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or people who regularly run into each other at restaurants or bars or cafes or any of the social places in the world.
  2. Choose something for one of the characters to like. Or choose a behavior for that character to exhibit often. The behavior or preference can be something mundane like smiling a lot, tapping a foot, clicking a pen, clearing a throat, or liking movies or avocados or sunny days. In “Filler,” the daughter likes food.
  3. Place the character’s preference or behavior in context. Is the preference or behavior unusual or taken to an unusual degree?  In “Filler,” the daughter likes foods that other three-year-olds wouldn’t touch. Perhaps your character smiles more than most people or at unusual times. Perhaps the character adds avocado to every dish or only goes outside on sunny days or simply talks an unusual about her love of these things.
  4. Give examples of the preference or behavior. Let the reader “see” the character expressing the preference or behavior, In the first excerpted paragraph from “Filler,” we learn all the things that the daughter eats. So, in other words, flesh out the preference or behavior that you’ve created.
  5. Let the second character comment on the first character’s preference or behavior. This part is important: the comment shouldn’t be neutral. The comment should be judgmental (either positive or negative). So, in “Filler,” the father brags about his daughter’s love of food.
  6. Finally, let the second character explain or suggest what the first character’s preference or behavior means. In the real world, we do this all the time, making claims about other people’s personality or value system based on minor details about them. These claims often tell us more about ourselves than the other people. Good fiction achieves this same effect. So, let the second character talk in a judgmental and “knowing” way about the first character. See what comes out. It may surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

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