Tag Archives: creative writing prompts

How to Use a Light Touch in Heavy Moments

19 Sep

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

One of the most difficult things to learn in prose, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is how much certain passages ought to weigh. There will be moments that feel heavy, and so we write them heavy: longer, more drawn out, with more forceful words and images. These are the sentences, we tell ourselves, that people are going to quote. And yet when we return to those passages in the revision process, they don’t read right. They feel like they’re trying too hard—or not hard enough. We’re often not sure which, only certain that something is not working.

It’s often the case that less is more in prose, and sometimes the most important moments in a story need the lightest touch. A terrific example of this can be found in Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton.” It was published in The Adroit Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay moves back and forth between passages about the cotton fields that dominated the landscape where Jiménez grew up and personal stories that lead up to, and away from, a moment where he realized that his life needed to change. Obviously, those personal stories will be doing a lot of narrative work, and yet they occupy a surprisingly small amount of space in the essay—because Jiménez exercises a light touch in some devastatingly effective ways. Here’s one example:

A story: I fell in love with a man with one ear. I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri. We drove to the coast. We lay on the beach, and we ate green peppers and Roma tomatoes, small sour limes, which we grew in red clay pots in the backyard.  When one of the dogs gave birth, one of the pups died, and we wrapped her in a white cotton towel and buried her beneath a papaya tree. Citlali, we named her. Little star. The papaya tree grew—we liked to believe that little star was growing into a strong tree, into those seeds.  But one winter, that papaya tree froze. It never grew back. Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.

There are a lot of ways this passage could have been written more directly, dealing with the events and the emotions of the relationship head on. But it doesn’t do that. Instead, it states the premise and a noteworthy detail (“I fell in love with a man with one ear”), sums up some noteworthy points on the timeline of the relationship (“I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri…”), and then focuses on two things: what they ate on the beach and what happened to one of their puppies.

In part, the focus on things that are not the thing itself (the relationship) is a perfect example of what John Gardner was talking about in his famous barn exercise (describe a barn from the point of view of a farmer whose son has just died in a war, but don’t state what he feels or what happened to his son). Jiménez is moving tangentially, getting at the emotionally heart of a scene through an unexpected entry.

But Jiménez is also doing something else: he’s juxtaposing a short, tangential-seeming story with a statement of absolute clarity and directness (“Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die”). It’s a statement that would get our attention regardless of where it is placed in the essay. But it’s particularly breathtaking because it comes at us from outside our line of vision. We’ve been looking at food and puppies. It’s all connected, of course, but we’ve been temporarily distracted. To go back to the theoretical giants, it’s an example of what Kenneth Burke wrote about the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is waiting on a platform for his father’s ghost; while he waits he and the audience get distracted by his drunken uncle, and so the thing we suspect is coming arrives out of nowhere.

Jiménez manages this in one short paragraph, and that brevity makes the passage even more effective.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use misdirection and indirectness, using “Cotton” by Joe Jiménez as a model:

  1. State the premise and a noteworthy detail. In general, premises are simple: somebody loves somebody, somebody hates somebody, somebody wants something and can’t quite get it. They’re built on universal experience and emotion. The noteworthy detail is what makes your universal moment less universal. Not everyone has just one ear. It’s a fairly small detail and not the hinge upon which the entire story turns, but it gets our attention so that we’ll read onto the more important details. So, what is your universal premise and what is a detail that can particularize it?
  2. Sum up some noteworthy points on the story’s timeline. In short, write a montage. This happened, this happened, and this. It can move that fast in your passage. Use short sentences. Be direct. You’re setting the stage for the bigger moment.
  3. Focus on one or two details. Jiménez focuses on food and a puppy. The food is not generic. He and his lover grew it themselves, so it had meaning to them. That’s really the best filter to use when figuring out which details to focus on: what has the most meaning to the characters. It’s often small things that they’re most proud of or most moved by in the moment. The puppy is a great detail because it’s personal to the characters but also because there’s a narrative arc attached to it. That arc creates a story within the story. So, what details are meaningful to you or your characters and which details have narratives attached to them? Describe those details and tell their stories as quickly as possible.
  4. Jump back to the premise. Jiménez jumps to “Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.” That sentence is one of the big reasons he tells this story in the first place. It’s the next part of the premise: I fell in love with a guy, and every year he said… Write a sentence or two that states, as directly as possible, a fact that makes the story significant to your or your characters.

The goal is to juxtapose that direct statement with the less direct details that precede it, and perhaps you can plan that juxtaposition, but it’s more likely that you’ll come at it from a couple of angles before one feels right. Give yourself the space to keep trying until it all clicks into place.

Good luck.

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How to Bridge Between Scenes in a Novel

5 Sep

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

When you move from writing short stories to writing a novel, you quickly realize that the novel’s length means that one or two hard-hitting scenes can’t carry it. More is needed. Each scene must immediately suggest another scene, again and again, until the end. In a way, it’s the opposite of the famous epiphany ending we all learned when reading Joyce’s “Araby”—the concluding sentence to a scene that makes us all grab our hair and sigh. In a novel, a scene must resist epiphany, even if it’s tone and momentum seem to be taking it toward that sort of ending.

A great example of how to create a bridge to the next scene in a novel can be found in William Jensen’s novel Cities of Men. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel’s opening chapter begins, “I saw my father get into only two fights” and then proceeds to tell us about one of them, a fight in a grocery store parking lot. The father and his wife have bought their son, the novel’s narrator, ice cream, and their father is walking back to the car when he hears an argument between a man and woman in another car. He steps in, and a fight ensues. The scene is well written and clearly memorably for the narrator, who observes not just the fight but the ways it could have played out but did not—and also his mother’s reaction and the weather. He’s beginning to place himself in the universe, the sort of coming-of-age moment that naturally builds to an Araby-like concluding line: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” But that’s not what Jensen does because Cities of Men is a novel, not a short story.

Instead, the scene ends like this:

I ran to my room. Seeing Dad cry scared me more than the night’s violence. But I couldn’t tell you why. I pulled the sheets up to my collar. I dug my face into my pillow, closed my eyes, and tried not to think.

I saw Dad fight only one other time. And that wouldn’t happen until four years later, shortly after my mother disappeared.

The ending line echoes the first line of the novel, which is no coincidence. I don’t know which one was written first, and it doesn’t matter. At some point, Jensen knew that there would be a second fight and that the mother, who is so present in this opening scene, would leave, and so the scene is written to introduce both of those elements. Naturally, we want to know more. It’s the last two sentences that do the important work, veering away from epiphany to what-happens-next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a bridge between scenes in a novel, using Cities of Men by William Jensen as a model:

  1.  Write the scene you want to write. It’s the thing that likely drew you to this story, and so don’t give it short shrift. Jensen’s opening chapter, minus the first and last lines, could be a quick short story, almost flash fiction. It has its own narrative arc and emotional impact—which is good. If you have a scene like this in mind, one that you’ve been writing in your head for years or one that you’ve written and don’t know what to do with, let it be itself. Don’t run away from the story you want to tell.
  2. Take away or add something. Play a simple what-if exercise with your scene. What if something essential to the scene was taken away? Or, what if something new and burdensome was added? You’re not subtracting or adding to the scene itself but to what comes next. Jensen takes the mother away at the end, after the scene has wrapped up. It’s a simple move that provides the foundation for the entire novel: establish the emotional relationships in the novel and then mess them up. What can you subtract from or add to your scene in the scene that follows?
  3. Be explicit about the addition or subtraction. I may have said this so many times that I’m beating a dead horse, but there’s nothing wrong with coming out and being direct with your readers—especially if being direct forces you to be direct with yourself about your characters’ motivations. Jensen could not be any more explicit unless he wrote, “Then my mother disappeared.” Actually, that’s basically what he writes, only more artfully. And it’s great. Save your nuance and subtlety for the moments in between big, plot-changing sentences. Make those sentences hard-hitting. Tell the reader what you’ve added or subtracted.

The goal is to turn any scene in a novel into a bridge to the next scene.

Good luck.

How to Introduce and Name a Cast of Characters

9 Aug

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the questions that will drive writers—and not just beginners—crazy is whether to name a character right away. You’ll hear and read different takes on this. Some journal editors say that they’ll put down a story that begins with he or she and not a name. But naming a character right away can feel odd. The reader doesn’t know this person. Who cares what his name is? The right answer (there isn’t one) is actually part of a larger problem of introducing characters. Do it well, and nobody cares if you start with he. Do it poorly, and that’s an easy way to write off your work.

A great example of introducing characters well (and handling their names) can be found in Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas. You can read read an excerpt from it at Tor.com. 

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a United States that, like the dystopia in the television show The Handmaid’s Tale, feels like a version of our current state of affairs if everything we fear might happen actually did. A big chunk of the novel is set in the American Midwest after some natural apocalypse has rendered the land mostly barren and a political apocalypse has made it run by militias who take their orders from a tyrant leader in Washington, D.C. In this scene, a low-level government bureaucrat has been sent to the area to hunt for an escaped prisoner, and we meet the militia men that she must deal with:

The militia were mostly white, generally stupid, and all scary. The kind of men you would avoid if you saw them on the street, especially if you were black and a woman. The midwestern ones were extra dangerous, because most of them seemed kind of nice when you first talked to them. Nice like the guy at church who smiles at you and offers you a brownie before he tells you how he is going to regulate your life.

Notice that we don’t have any names yet, nor any individuals. Instead, Brown shows us the militia as a generalized whole. The details come a few lines later:

The welcome party were a big ruddy guy in bulletproof brown overalls with built-in ammo pouches and the smell of cigarettes, and a little red-bearded guy dressed more like a run-down pastor than a militiaman, complete with a wooden cross hanging from his neck—and a big pistol on his belt. Turned out he was the doctor, Dr. Craven, and the big guy was the commander. Patrol Leader Koenig was the way the commander introduced himself, but then he said just call me Bob.

Before telling us the names of these guys, Brown shows us them: their complexions and clothing, how they smell, and what they resemble. Then we get their names. While this isn’t the only approach toward names and character introductions, it is a useful one to keep in mind. We’re more likely to remember these guys’ names because we’ve seen them and they’re memorable. Brown also makes their names easy to remember: Craven and just-call-me-Bob. Again, any name can be given to a character, but you want to set readers up to remember who they belong to. As a reader, it can be frustrating to stop in the middle of a scene and ask, “Who is that again?”

Brown follows this introduction with a paragraph about the militia compound:

The house was huge, on a big acreage, a suburban home converted to paramilitary command center. The walls were covered with big maps of the area, annoyed in black grease pencil and red marker. Tania saw photos of targets, some of them mug shots, others surveillance photos. Radios and computers and all manner of gear. Styrofoam cups and a big pile of beer cans in a corner. More guys who looked like Bob, other guys who were leaner and harder looking, and one Asian woman who looked toughest of all, even though she couldn’t have been much taller than five feet.

We’re back to seeing the militia as a single entity, not a group of individuals. All the guys look like Bob. Some are a little tougher looking, and one is a really tough Asian woman. She gets the extra distinguishing detail because she stands out in the crowd.

Very quickly, Brown has introduced a large cast of characters and shown us, through his descriptions, which ones we ought to pay close attention to and which ones should fade into the background—literally, since in the last paragraph the men are given the same status as radios and Styrofoam cups.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce characters and their names, using Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown as a model:

  1. Start with your characters as a group. Obviously, this means you’re writing a scene with more than two characters. Place them in one of the crowded places they’re likely to go. Who do they spend their time with? How might an insider describe that crowd? How might an outsider? Either way can work; it just depends on the circumstances of the scene and who is present. Don’t be afraid of generalizations. Use them to sketch out the broad outlines of who we’re about to meet.
  2. Narrow the group to a few individuals. Who is memorable? Or in charge? Or important? Use the natural progression of real-life introductions. We almost always see someone before we know their name, and we tend to notice a few details about them (but only a few; our minds have a limited ability to take in everything that’s going on in a given moment). What stands out about these particular characters, and what conclusions or comparisons might your insider or outsider draw about them. Brown uses the “run-down pastor” image, which is great because, like the group description, gives the reader a general idea of who this person is or how he appears to be.
  3. Name the characters. Do it quickly and as memorably as possible. Brown actually doubles down on Bob by having his outsider character immediately refer to him by name: “Where’s my prisoner, Bob?”
  4. Place the characters in their surroundings. There’s no rule that says we need to see place before characters. Sometimes that makes sense; other times it doesn’t. What’s important is that one set up the other. Brown’s description of the home focuses on the details that remind us who is staying there. Then, we see those characters as inhabitants of that place.
  5. Introduce the rest of the cast in terms of who we’ve met already. We’ve met Bob, and so Brown can say that the rest of the men are a bunch of Bob’s—and a few of them are tougher. Bob gives him a point of comparison. He also focuses on the character who stands out—the Asian woman in a sea of white men. So, when you’re rounding out your cast, introduce the characters the way we’d see them in real life: as similar to the first characters we met or different. 

The goal is to quickly and memorably introduce a cast of characters so that the story can move on to the scene they are apart of.

Good luck.

How to Play “This I Believe” with Your Characters

25 Jul

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

A few years ago, National Public Radio ran a series called “This I Believe.” People, some famous and some not, wrote short essays about their beliefs. It was fascinating because of the weight that we give to those three words. To go public and say “I believe ____” is much different from saying, “I think ___.” We associate the word beliefs with something deeply held and essential to the decisions we make every day. Beliefs are not easily changed, and when they challenged, the internal crisis we feel can leave us distraught.

As writers, we can use our characters’ beliefs against them for gripping results. Owen Egerton offers a perfect demonstration of this in his new novel Hollow. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a crisis of faith experienced by Oliver Bonds, a beloved religious studies professor at the University of Texas. After his son dies, his life unravels until he is nearly homeless, his only friend a man who wants to join an expedition to the North Pole to discover an entrance to the Hollow Earth. In this passage, Bonds describes his belief system before his son died:

I believed I believed nothing.

It wasn’t true.

I believed, without ever saying it, that the world was basically good. I believed moral behavior was rewarded by the world. I believed cruelty to be its own kind of punishment. And though I never would have admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, I believed that the most horrible things don’t really happen.

I saw the photos of typhoons drowning entire villages or genocidal wars. Monthly I tithed to charities aiming to end modern slavery or encourage basic health care in poorer nations. But in some deep secret way, I didn’t believe in these tragedies. They were distant, unreal, fantastic. Or, worse, I believed I simply didn’t see the bigger picture, the vague grander scheme that explained these tragedies.

I had one over-arching belief, so basic to my life that I never felt the need to distinguish it as a belief any more than a person would count the sun’s heat as an article of faith. I believed the world made sense.

Clearly, the passage lays out his beliefs, but what makes it really interesting is the phrase “I believed, without ever saying it…” We probably all hold beliefs that are both too important and too fragile to articulate to others or ourselves. We’re afraid to speak them aloud because we know there are arguments against them, and we worry not just that someone might make us look foolish but that we might not hold the belief as firmly as we thought.

Those are the soft points that, as writers, we must press hard upon. And Egerton does, to devastating and thrilling effect.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s clearly state a character’s beliefs, using Hollow by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Start with the easy beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to immediately jump into something as sensitive as our most deeply held beliefs. You’re not likely to share your own with a random person, and neither are our characters. So, don’t make them. Instead, let your characters talk about their beliefs about basic elements of their lives: their partners, kids, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies, etc. Get them talking. This is a brainstorming exercise, and so let your characters say whatever they want—whether it’s in first person or if you’re saying it for them in third person.
  2. Push on those beliefs a little. Try using this sentence starter: “I don’t usually tell people this, but I sometimes wonder if…” You can also change the pronouns to the third person. You’re searching for a belief that is the equivalent of a friends-only Facebook post, something that might require a personal connection to fully understand or that the speaker might not want perfect strangers to know. You can try something embarrassing or funny or whatever. You’re playing, so don’t overthink it.
  3. Keep going until you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Your character is most likely not you, nor even some version of you. But you should still pay attention to your own comfort level. We’re often made uncomfortable by people revealing things that we, personally, are fine with, but we sense that they are not and so we begin to cringe. If something you write makes you cringe, even a little, follow it.
  4. Use the belief against your character. Oliver Bonds believes that the world is basically good and sensible, and so Egerton challenges him with something awful and senseless. How will he respond? What will he do? This is the basis of the entire novel.

The goal is to discover your story’s plot by finding out what your characters believe and introducing elements that make those beliefs seem untenable.

Good luck.

How to Make and Thwart Plans

11 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

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

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

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

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

Have fun.

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

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

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

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

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

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

How the Novel Works

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

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

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

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

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

So, what can we learn from this?

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

The Writing Exercise 

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

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

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

Good luck.

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