Tag Archives: Electric Literature

How to Write a One-Sentence Paragraph

22 Apr
Adrian Van Young's story, "The Skin Thing," was featured on Electric Literature's Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Gigantic Worlds.

Adrian Van Young’s story, “The Skin Thing,” was featured on Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds.

In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.

Adrian Van Young demonstrates this punch in his story, “The Skin Thing,” which will appear in the forthcoming science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds. You can read it now at Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog.

How the Story Works

Most writers will, at some point, use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize some point or moment. Van Young’s story is interesting, then, because he uses so many of these constructions, sometimes to conclude a longer paragraph and sometimes as a series of short paragraphs. The sentences can be long, short, and even fragments.

They tend to be used in one of three ways:

Accentuate a change in tone:

This short paragraph concludes a description of the monster’s actions. In terms of subject and style, it’s really part of the paragraph that precedes it, but it’s given its own line because its tone is different (funnier, sort of):

Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.

The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.

Summarize time and events:

These fragments deliver an accounting of the colonists’ battle with the monster:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.

Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.

Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Illuminate important images

This paragraph is actually a series of short, connected sentences that focus on a different part of the monster’s body:

It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.

Here, the sentences adopt a style of repetition common to speeches. The fragments illuminate a character in a moment of time:

There was:

McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.

McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.

McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.

Instead of moments from a long period of time, though, these two paragraphs break a very short amount of time into even shorter flashes of perception:

And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.

And under it: a hand. A knee.

All of these one-sentence paragraphs are designed to manipulate the reader’s perception of the events and characters in the story. They speed up or slow down time and direct the reader’s eye.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write some one-sentence paragraphs, using the passages from Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing” as a model:

  1. Write a sentence that accentuates a change in tone. One way to do this is to create a series: actions, personality traits, qualities, requirements, events, or whatever appears in your story multiple times or has its differences parsed out. The problem with lists is that they can be boring—just a bunch of stuff. In workshops, the writer Tim O’Brien discourages lists for this reason, but of course his famous story, “The Things They Carried,” contains lists in almost every paragraph. So, after a list of ____, he writes, ______. Van Young uses a shift in tone in his story as well, but rather than interpreting the list, the tonal shift adds to the list: literally, one more thing the monster did, but this thing tells us something about the monster’s intentions that the other things did not. So, in your series, search for entries that sound different. Ask yourself, “What does that difference indicate?” Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it seem to cast the other items in a different light? Try putting it at the end and in a separate paragraph.
  2. Write a sentence that summarizes time and events. People who write press releases do this all the time. They use fragments to highlight the impact or actions of a group over time: X number of units sold, X number of services rendered. Fiction writers can do this as well, as Van Young illustrates. In truth, many of us do this naturally, especially when pressed into an argument. We tally up our actions over time: X meals cooked, X hours worked, X kindness delivered or sacrifices made. To do this in a story, figure out what actions your character takes pride in; then, challenge it. How would the character defend him/herself? Try listing the tally in separate lines.
  3. Write a sentence that illuminates important images. There are a few ways to do this. 1) In a static description of a person, thing, or place, instead of using commas to set off attributes (tall, dark, and handsome), develop each adjective into a sentence or phrase of its own (so handsome that I had to look away). Then, connect the sentences with commas or semicolons. 2) In a description of a person, thing, or place in motion, break the motion down into snapshots (as opposed to a running strip of film). What is happening in each snapshot? 3) In a description of an act of perception (I saw…), do not show the entire thing being perceived. Instead, reveal one part at a time. In each of these three methods, you’re focusing on images that writers and readers alike often zoom past. Devoting an entire sentence or phrase to the image can slow readers down, and then you can slow them down further by placing each sentence into a paragraph of its own.

Good luck!

Advertisements

An Interview with Ali Simpson

14 Nov
Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and works for X.

Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and is at work on a collection of speculative fiction.

Ali Simpson received her MFA in creative writing and literature from SUNY Stony Brook Southampton. In addition to The Southampton Review, her work has been published or is forthcoming in The First Line and Carrier Pigeon. She is currently working on a collection of speculative fiction, When Meat is Given a Second Chance. She works as a publishing assistant and lives in the forest.

In this interview, Simpson discusses maintaining the sense of enchantment, the heart in the story machine, and why a monster story can be more truthful than realistic fiction.

(To read Simpson’s story “The Monster” and an exercise about how to create that monster, click here.)

Michael Noll

In the story’s first line, you state that there’s a monster in the closet. In the next line, you write, “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.” The rest of the paragraph lists all the reasons why the monster shouldn’t exist, and then the next paragraph begins, “So the monster came at the right time in her life.” It’s a really masterful piece of writing. You’ve let the readers off the hook, telling them, essentially, that, no, monsters can’t exist, but there’s one in this story, and that’s okay. How long did it take you to get that opening paragraph right?

Ali Simpson

I had to look at the paragraph from my first draft and the final version in order to be able to honestly say this: Up until the last line, the paragraph stayed exactly the same. The last line was the only part that is different—mostly a matter of cutting and smoothing out that first draft clunkiness that makes you write things like “she turned her head at a 90 degree angle in puzzlement…” rather than “Confused, she…”

The beginning was easy. It felt like a perfectly natural thing to write. There are all sorts of things out there that shouldn’t exist—but they do all the same. People accept a loved one has cancer, they accept mass shootings, they accept freak accidents, they accept random acts of cruelty. Telling someone, “This shouldn’t happen, but today, it is happening,” is life-stuff (and the beginning of a lot of great stories).The idea of a monster in the closet isn’t so outlandish.

What took a couple of months to get right was the middle and the end. Those were brutal. Maintaining the sense of enchantment even when the reader knows how the trick works is incredibly difficult, I can only think of a few people who have mastered it (Marquez, Atwood).

Michael Noll

In that same paragraph, the story suggests that the monster is, in part, a manifestation of certain monstrous qualities possessed by the character: “She suspected she had a few scary stories lurking inside her and spent the better part of some nights guessing what they might be.” I’m curious if this parallel between the character’s personal issues and the real existence of the monster was always present. In other words, did you begin the story with the monster and discover the character’s issues, or did you have a sense of the character from the start and then discover the monster? As readers, we only get to see the final draft, in which all details seem serendipitously inevitable. But, of course, that’s not how a story begins. What was your process for developing the story?

Ali Simpson

By the way, the line in the question was the one that changed. It was originally this mess of three lines: “Those stories were just the ones outside of herself. Lauren told herself awful stories every night, some sad, some angry, some fretful and some far more humiliating than they should have been. The stories were her past and what she thought her future might be.” Awful, right?

As for the actual questions—I started with wanting to write about a monster in the closet. I like monsters, robots, mutants, apocalypses, utopias, and outer space. These things are fun, and they offer a candy store full of possibility. Unfortunately, the fun is a lie. You can’t get far writing about a monster in the closet without asking questions. Why is it there? Why isn’t the main character afraid of it? Why is she taking it in and caring for it? What sort of person is attracted to repellent things? Monsters, machines, extreme conditions—these are all vehicles for exploring what makes human beings tick. Inevitably, the ride turns scary. I developed the story through reflecting on the above sorts of questions. The monster showed up in this particular woman’s closet for a reason. In hashing out the first draft, I worked to discover that reason. Whenever Laura did something, the monster would have to react and vice versa—until the monster and Laura at last become “inseparable.”

Michael Noll

Your former writing teacher, Susan Merrell, recommended this story at Electric Literature. In explaining why, she wrote that, in this story, you figured out that “a story has to have a reason for being. And if a story’s why is understood by its author, then its how—the means, the mode, the POV, the structure, the characters—will fall into place.” What, would you say, is this story’s reason for being? How did you find out what its reason for being was?

Ali Simpson

Susie was very kind to me in that introduction. She is also a genius.

This story’s reason for being started out as something personal. Someone was very cruel to me a long time ago, and I felt as if I couldn’t do anything about it because, despite everything I had been told, I was a depressed ghost of a person. As I wrote, I understood that the events in the story did not happen to me, but to a woman named Laura, and, in reality, to millions of other people. The story is for other people who feel the same way I felt. Part of growing up and being human is recognizing that your feelings are not necessarily unique to you. Everyone has their monsters. And we all feed our gremlins after midnight.

I like to think of a story’s reason for being as “the heart in the machine.” The machine is all of the cold, moveable, sometimes interchangeable parts. The POV, the structure, the characters. The heart is whatever compelled you to sit down and stare at the blank page, to craft imaginary people who live in made up worlds, to construct emotion, desire, and conflict out of a few scraps of black and white.

You have to have a reason to attempt to do something so stupid. Generally, the reason is love.

Michael Noll

This story falls into a genre of story that is sometimes called “fabulist.” Its practitioners include writers like Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell, and Kelly Luce. When I featured Kelly’s story “Rooey” on this site, I asked her why this type of story–one in which certain conventions of genre fiction are integrated into the worlds and language of realism–has become not only popular but esteemed. After all, Karen Russell just won a MacArthur, and she nearly won the Pulitzer. Here is what Kelly Luce said: “We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so.” (The entire interview can be found here.) How would you explain the prominence of these kinds of stories? What inspired you to write about a literal monster and not a figurative one?

Ali Simpson

I don’t agree with what Luce said above (although I find her complete answer to the question quite interesting!) The whole concept of extended adolescence always seemed a bit silly. I’ve been in the adult world long enough to know that most people are still scared, confused, jealous and a little bit petty. Also, no one buys that “be yourself” crap. Even little kids know that being yourself earns immediate approbation from the group. I don’t think people write fantastical stories based on whimsy or because they enjoy being weird.

If I had to offer a guess, I would say the prominence of these stories dates to the post-modern movement that began in the 60s. Along with the subversion of traditional narratives, writers also worked at reclaiming folklore and fairytale for the purposes of new kinds of storytelling. For the past few decades, I think many writers have felt that that fantasy and fairytales are true because these stories “know” that they are stories, whereas mediocre realism can feel like an illusion that is denying it is an illusion.

For me, writing about fantastical things such as monsters helps me get at the truth of what I’m trying to say. I’ve never been able to manage writing realistic fiction because I find myself slipping into the dishonesty of everyday life. For me, I have to look a monster—something not of this world—in the face in order to understand the world I’m living in.

November 2013

Profile pic

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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.

%d bloggers like this: