Tag Archives: Guernica

How to Set Up a Power Imbalance

29 Apr
NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

A common writing tip is to create a power imbalance between characters. There are obvious ways to do this: give one character a gun. Or, create a structural imbalance (teacher/student, coach/player, rich family/servants). But what if these approaches don’t fit comfortably in your story, and you don’t want to shoehorn them in? You need something more nuanced.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names contains many rich, complex portraits of her native Zimbabwe, and one of the many things she does well is reveal imbalances of power. A terrific example can be found in this excerpt, “Blak Power,” published at Guernica, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The novel takes place in Zimbabwe during the land redistribution of the 1980s, after the transition to a government led by black, not white, leaders. The excerpt opens with an encounter between some kids, who are picking guavas from a rich neighborhood, and the guard, who has been hired to watch over the gate to one of the houses. The dialogue is funny and menacing. If you haven’t read the excerpt yet—or the novel—these pages of dialogue are worth the time by themselves.

That great dialogue, though, depends on a power imbalance between the guard and kids. Here is how Bulawayo describes the kids seeing the guard for the first time:

“We can tell from his uniform that he is a guard. We haven’t seen any guards in Budapest before so at first we are not so sure what to do with him. He beckons us with his black baton stick, and because we are too close to turn around and run we just walk towards him.”

Already, even though we know very little about the guard or even the kids, we sense the tone of the encounter. A guard ought to convey a sense of authority and power, but the kids are curious more than anything else. They approach him in the spirit of play (“we’re not sure what to do with him”), almost like he’s a caterpillar or some other amusement they’ve happened upon.

Now, watch how Bulawayo describes the guard through the kids’ eyes:

We’re right there with him but he is busy shouting like we are on Mount Everest. He looks us over with his dirty eyes, and we look him back, not answering, just watching him to see what he is all about.

I can’t figure out if he is frowning or it’s his general ugliness. He is tall and his navy uniform looks like it’s just been slapped on him. On his left arm is a discolored white patch with a picture of a gun and the word Security embossed in red letters, and on his breast is a ZCC church badge.

The trousers barely reach the ankles, and his boots are unpolished. He is wearing a black woolen hat and matching gloves, never mind the heat. Everything about him looks like a joke and we know he is a waste of time—if we weren’t this close we’d probably call him names and laugh and throw stones.

Imagine how differently the guard might have been described by someone impressed by or intimidated by his power. For instance, the badge with the picture of a gun might have seemed frightening rather than shabby. But because the kids are not afraid of the guard—because the power imbalance actually runs the other direction, with the kids possessing more than the guard—details that, from the guard’s point of view, are supposed to seem intimidating, are, instead, comical. By the time the narrator says that they’d “probably call him names and laugh and throw stones,” we already understand the power dynamic.

The great dialogue (“Where is your roger-over, can I see it?”) depends on this description to set the stage. (Incidentally, if you read the entire excerpt, you’ll see how the power imbalance plays an important role later on. The kids merely tease the guard, but others will take a more heavy-handed approach.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a power imbalance with description, using the passage from NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Blak Power” as a model:

  1. Choose two characters from any story or vignette you’ve written (or are writing). It doesn’t matter which characters so long as they have an opportunity to interact with each other.
  2. Figure out the power balance. There isn’t an interaction that happens anywhere on Earth that doesn’t have some sort of power balance. Even conversations between friends are charged: who gets the last word? Who picks up the tab? Who determines where to meet, when to leave, or what to talk about? When a disagreement is broached, who politely keeps their mouth shut? Who doesn’t? If a character says something stupid, does the other one call him/her on it? The important thing is to think of power in terms of agency, not force. It’s not a question of one character forcing another to act but, rather, one character being more able to fully inhabit his or her agency. The character with less power censors him/herself or waits for permission or instructions before acting.
  3. Choose one character as a lens to view the other. It doesn’t matter if you choose the more or less powerful character. The key is to pick one. You’re trying to write a description that is conscious of the power imbalance.
  4. Describe the other character, charging each detail. The easiest way to do this is to use the phrase “looks like.” Bulawayo uses the phrase when she writes that the guard’s “navy uniform looks like it’s just been slapped on him.” The charge can also be more subtle. In the next sentence, Bulawayo writes, “On his left arm is a discolored white patch with a picture of a gun and the word Security embossed in red letters.” She could have focused on the gun, but she leads with the word “discolored.” As a result, everything that follows is less impressive. We make judgments like this every day. Someone will say, “Isn’t he great?” And we’ll respond, “Yes, but did you notice…” You might even look back at descriptions you’ve already written. What adjective (like “discolored”) could you add to convey the attitude of the character doing the describing?

The power imbalance doesn’t need to be gaping. Even the slightest imbalance can cause an otherwise uncharged scene to become much more interesting.

Good luck!

Advertisements

An Interview with Nicholas Grider

13 Feb
Nicholas Grider's debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called "vital" by Publisher's Weekly.

Nicholas Grider’s debut story collection, Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange object and called “vital” by Publisher’s Weekly.

Nicholas Grider is a writer and artist living in Milwaukee. He received an interschool MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His photography has been exhibited internationally, and his writing has appeared in Caketrain, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Guernica, and Hobart, among others. His first book, the story collection Misadventure, has just been published by A Strange Object.

In this interview, Grider discusses OuLiPo writing rules, the delight of breaking rules, and his attempt at writing at story without making editorial judgement.

To read “Millions of Americans are Strange” and an exercise on point of view, click here.

To start our conversation, here is how Grider explains the writing process behind “Millions of Americans Are Strange”:

Nicholas Grider

“Millions” is the newest story in the collection and is indicative of where my writing, at least in short fiction, is headed for the next batch of stories. As I was finishing up the manuscript I started getting really interested in the OuLiPo, and still am, with books by Perec and Mathews on my desk as I write this. I made up a simple rule to begin the story, then: Sentence one must be related to sentence two, and sentence two should be related to sentence three, but sentences one and three should be unrelated. That got me off to a start but I realized that I kept inadvertently breaking the rule, so I introduced the stock phrase “Millions of Americans do X or Y” as a bridge, but then decided that wasn’t working well either so I slowly increased their volume until every sentence was a “Millions” sentence and I approached the end of the story more like a prose poem than a narrative.

Michael Noll

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec's novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User's Manual.

The American OuLiPo writer Harry Mathews wrote this essay about Georges Perec’s novel La Vie mode d’emploi after it was translated and published in America as Life A User’s Manual.

My favorite moment from any OuLiPo work is from Georges Perec’s La Dispiration. As you know, the text contains no letter e’s. There’s a scene where a character orders a drink at a bar, and the lack of e’s becomes crucial. This is what Harry Mathews said about the scene: 

“Perec took this absurdly confining idea and made of it a way of creating incident, situation, and plot. Eggs (oeufs) are declared to be taboo because they sound like e. And so a barman drops dead when asked to concoct a porto flip, a cocktail requiring port wine and eggs.” 

As you’ve experimented with OuLiPo-type limitations, have you found that the limits “create incident, situation, and plot?”

Nicholas Grider

This has a bit to do with being reserved and shy person, but in my art and writing I often start with the questions: what boundaries can I push and what can I get away with? Meaning, how many rules can I break, what can I talk my way into, etc. And breaking all the usual rules means making up my own, which applies not just to this story but to most of my art and writing. I’ll make up a set of rules, then follow them or break them as I see fit. The rules in “Millions” were an attempt to write a story that does not move forward in any way—it slides laterally through dozens of characters too briefly for anything to develop and ends up piling into an anaphora of generalities at the end. When it came to writing the story, though, making a good aesthetic choice always outweighed (and outweighs) following my rule or someone else’s. For me, the rules are less about developing content and more a way to do an end-run around a well-told “beginning, middle, end, character develops” kind of story. I’m currently writing a new collection and there are even more self-made rules, and more complex ones, but rule-making is part of the enjoyment of writing for me.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, we studied a few OuLiPo writers—plus, Italo Calvino was pretty popular in the U.S. at the time—and I remember that the few experiments people tried with the methods often failed because the limitations ended up being too inflexible. I’m curious how you handled this problem. I know that you adjusted or added to your rules once you began. Did you ever break your rules in order to let the story do what it needed to do?

Nicholas Grider

I got ahead of myself and explained this already, but yes: I delight in breaking other peoples’ rules and will break my own as I see fit. A compelling story is always more important than strict adherence to any rules.

Michael Noll

The story never settles into a single plot line or character’s point of view. If anything, the character of the story is those millions of Americans in the title.  Were you temped to follow Gary or George and Allen or Hannah and make the story about them? Was it difficult to maintain a forward momentum without an individual to use as the focus of tension and suspense?

Nicholas Grider

There are snippets in the story that I think would make for interesting stories, and some of those incidents are real things that people have told me about being involved in, but I was more invested in trying to keep the story moving laterally very quickly to want to linger over any individual character. What I can say, though, is that a lot of the obsessions, indecision, illness and weirdness in “Millions” had been explored earlier in a different form in the other stories that comprise Misadventure, so if anything, the incidents in the story serve as a very weird kind of precis for what later happens with other characters in other situations.

Michael Noll

The story’s tone at times seems to mimic the language of certain kinds of news sources, or even Wikipedia. Here’s one example:

“Millions of Americans are suffering due to the current economic climate. Sometimes persons without jobs receive unemployment insurance while they look for new jobs. Jason receives unemployment insurance because he was laid off when the plant closed.”

In this passage, especially the first two sentences, there’s an intentional vagueness that seems common to cable news segments (those 15 second headline readings that anchors do). Generally, as writers, we try to avoid that kind of language, but you really embrace it, and throughout the story, the language develops a sharp edge. How did you approach the tone and language? Did it appear through luck and experiment, or did you have something in mind when you began the story?

Nicholas Grider

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

Drunken Boat interviewed Nicholas Grider about his art and art projects, which are weird, thoughtful, and amazing. You can read the interview here.

The generality and bluntness of the style was something I had in mind at the start, for two reasons: first, I wanted the story to seem to have a veneer of scientific or academic detachment, where the story is simply a collection of facts presented in a particular order—an effort to try to decrease narratorial presence, and second because so much of what gets referenced is so bizarre or extreme that I wanted to deliberately underplay people having themselves kidnapped or firing shotguns in malls—trying to avoid sensationalizing anything in an effort to let the incidents do the sensationalizing themselves, so to speak. In other words, I didn’t want to make it seem as if I had any editorial opinion over what I was recounting, but emphasize instead that one character firing a shotgun in a mall and another character being described as three years old bear an equivalent amount of narrative weight.

February 2014

Michael NollMichael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a Story Whose Main Character is Everyone

11 Feb
Nicholas Grider's story, "Millions of Americans are Strange," was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure.

Nicholas Grider’s story, “Millions of Americans are Strange,” was published by Guernica and is included in his new collection, Misadventure, now available from A Strange Object.

The traditional novel and story are biased toward individual experience. This claim may sound odd, but it’s true. In most stories, the world and everything in it is filtered through the point of view of one character at a time. Even if the POV is omniscient, it doesn’t convey all that it knows on every page. Instead, the voice comes down from the skies to narrate what is happening to this character or that one. But what if you wanted to write a story from a larger perspective? Is it possible to write a story whose main character is everyone in the world? In America?

Nicholas Grider has done exactly that in his story, “Millions of Americans are Strange.” It’s included in his debut collection, Misadventure, which is the second book from the independent Austin publisher A Strange Object. You can read it now at Guernica.

(If you’re in Austin: The book release party for Misadventure is happening tonight at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Rd, Bldg 2, Suite 101.)

How the Story Works

If you want to portray an entire civilization at once, there are a couple of ways to go about it. One is to depict people as a single mass, which is Don DeLillo did in his novella Pafko at the Wall, which was also the first chapter of Underworld. This early passage shows how such a perspective works:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts going to a game.

A few paragraphs later, DeLillo describes a group of boys rushing all at once into Ebbets Field, and from then on the novella moves back and forth among the perspectives of the boy and a few other characters and the crowd as a whole.

The other approach to portraying a large group of people is to fly overhead like those military jets that used to buzz my house when I was a kid. From the ground, the roar of the engines would rush over you out of nowhere, and you’d jerk your head up, see the face of the pilot looking down at you, and then the plane would be gone. This is the method used by Grider, though told from the pilot’s perspective. He zooms along, low enough to identify individuals but high enough to leave them quickly behind. Here’s the result:

Frank is a heating and cooling sales rep with an unknowing wife and daughter. Frank pays John to meet him at a hotel when Frank is in town so John can tie him up and leave him alone like that for eight to ten hours. Frank knows John from bumping into him a few times at sales strategies seminars and then talking a little bit over drinks. John lives with his boyfriend, Frederick. Frederick is strikingly handsome.

The story continues to move like this, swiftly jumping from character to character, none of whom are seen again after the continues on its way. The effect is not unlike watching Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. But while Grider’s story establishes this pattern of moving from one character to another, it also sees them as a mass and makes sociological statements about that mass. Here’s a good example that follows immediately after the previous passage:

Men who are strikingly handsome have been found to be more financially successful at work than plain or ugly men. Harold is a plain man who invests a lot of money in clothing, including tailored suits, shirts, ties, pocket squares, tie bars and cuff links, as well as shoes and socks. After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.

The story switches between snapshots of individuals and statements about Americans as a whole until the end, when it finishes with a series of statements about Americans. It’s a powerful conclusion, and, if you haven’t read it yet, you should check it out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about a large group of people, using both “Millions of Americans are Strange” by Nicholas Grider and Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo as models:

The DeLillo Model: The Sentient Crowd

  1. Choose a place where people gather in large numbers. DeLillo chose a baseball game, but you might consider any type of event (wedding, funeral) or venue (school, church, parade, protest, battleground). You could even choose an act that is repeated so many times that the act itself takes on a meaning larger than the individuals involved (migrants crossing borders, war refugees fleeing their homes, Congressional leaders voting or holding press conferences). The goal is to find an opportunity to see both individuals and groups.
  2. Write a sentence that begins with an individual but transitions to the group. DeLillo writes, “This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd…” You can make the transition, as Delillo does, between individual to crowd, or, in the case of an act, you can transition from individual to the act/movement that the individual is part of.
  3. Write a series of sentences that describe the group, act, or movement as an entity to itself. Taken as a whole, how does the group behave? How does the recurring act come to seem like an intelligent being or a computer program that has begun to act independently of its creator? This strategy is often used in journalism and novels about war (The Things They Carried, the opening pages of The Yellow Birds), but it can be used for any situation or group.

The Grider Model: The Low-Flying Plane

  1. Choose a grow of people and a way to characterize them. Grider begins his story with this sentence: “Millions of Americans do strange or extreme things without quite being able to articulate why.” If you wanted to bite off a smaller chunk than America, you might choose a city or town, a school or church. At some point, everyone has made a statement like “Those people are such _____.” This sentence is simply a variation on that common judgment. So, you could write something like this: “In Hiawatha, Kansas, most people _____.”
  2. Write flyover sentences. Grider makes one-sentence summaries of individuals’ behavior or situation, always moving to some new person in the next sentence. You can do the same thing. Pick a handful of people in the group you’ve chosen and describe them in terms of the characterization you made. Don’t think too hard about the descriptions. Let them go where they will, even if it’s away from your original idea.
  3. Write a sentence that describes the group as a whole. Now that you’ve showed the reader a few individuals, zoom out and show those same individuals as a group. What statement can be made about them? Are there trends or changes in behavior? Grider writes, “After a period during which formal business wear was on the wane, millions of Americans are returning to suits and ties in an effort to look more polished and confident.” If you can write a sentence that interesting and weird about a group, then you consider yourself pleased.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jamie Quatro

19 Sep

Jamie Quatro’s collection I Want to Show You More was called the “most engaging literary treatment of Christianity since [Flannery] O’Connor,” by J. Robert Lennon in The New York Times Book Review

When you read Jamie Quatro‘s biography, it becomes clear that talent is not divvied up equally. She is the daughter of a physician father and classical pianist mother, and was herself trained as a classical pianist until the time that she left for college. She graduated from Pepperdine at age 20, knocked out a MA in English at William and Mary, and was then awarded a Presidential Fellowship from Princeton for doctoral studies in British Romantic Poetry.

She left Princeton when she found out that she and her husband were expecting the first of their four children. Since then, she has earned her MFA in Fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, published fiction in numerous journals, published the story collection I Want to Show You More to wide acclaim, and most recently had a story chosen for the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.

In this interview, Quatro discusses her revision process, her approach to writing backstory, and the moment in her story “The Anointing” that took her by surprise.

(To read “The Anointing” and an exercise based on its use of detail, click here.)

Michael Noll

One difficulty in writing about religious experience is translating the immediacy and intimacy of the experience to readers who do not share the character’s beliefs. You solve this problem in a single sentence. You write, “Anointings were eleventh-hour efforts—what you asked for after you’d asked for everything else.” In the story, Diane knows that the anointing is a long shot, and yet she’s desperate for a positive signs, any change for the good. It’s almost as if the story is saying to the reader, “Look, this anointing probably isn’t going to work, but it sure would be great it it did.” The religious element is understood through universal human feelings of hope, desire, love, and desperation. I’m curious if this sentence was always present in the story. Did you worry in early drafts that readers would not be sympathetic to Diane?

Jamie Quatro

Funny you should ask about that line — it was indeed a late addition to the piece. In fact, I rewrote the entire opening, right up to that line, almost five years after I finished the story. Originally I’d written “last-ditch efforts,” but when my editor and I began working together, she wondered if we might come up with a less cliche, more immediate phrase. “Eleventh-hour” felt like something Diane herself would think, as the term is used, of course, in the gospel of Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. And no, I didn’t worry about readers being unsympathetic. I don’t think about readers, or publication in general, when I’m drafting. For personal reasons, this story stayed in the proverbial drawer for a long time. I didn’t think I’d ever publish it. It was the last piece accepted by a magazine before the book went to press. Cathy Chung — Guernica’s brilliant fiction editor — bought it.

Michael Noll

The first part of the story is spent with backstory—how a successful marriage and life got the point that a last-ditch effort was made to rescue it from ruin. The rest of the story is spent, essentially, in scene–in the moments prior to and following the anointing. One of the cliches of workshop is that writers should avoid clumps of backstory–always integrate it into the fabric of the scene, students are told. And yet you do precisely the opposite, and it works beautifully. The backstory held me to the page as much as the in-scene portions. What was your approach to the backstory?

Jamie Quatro

It’s difficult to talk about “approach” to backstory — as I mentioned, I don’t think about such things when I draft. I think each story comes to an artist with its own structure, its own cadence and music, and that the artist’s first responsibility is to listen. For me, drafting is very much like listening to a piece of music or watching a film. You simply let the work rush on and do what it wants to do, take the shape it wants to take. That might involve “clumps” of backstory, as you say; or it might involve interspersing the backstory throughout the piece; or it might involve using no backstory at all. To be honest, I’ve never heard the workshop rule you mention above. I’m always skeptical of rules. An upfront “tell” at the opening of a story — here’s what’s happened in the past to get us where we are — can be used to great effect. Look at some of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners: “A Little Cloud” begins with “Eight years before he had seen his friend off at the North Wall and wished him godspeed.” Or “Araby,” which begins with the backstory of the priest’s death: “The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing room.” Even if you end up cutting the backstory, it can be a useful exercise, to spell out precisely what has happened in the past before entering the first scene.

Michael Noll

The story begins with the characters at the edge of a precipice–perhaps Mitch will kill himself, perhaps Diane no longer believes in God—and immediately offers a solution to both of these problems: the anointing. As a result, I expected a conclusion that resolved one or both of those problems. Mitch would be saved or become worse. Diane would be strengthened in her faith, or she’d give it up completely. But neither really happens. The situation remains mostly the same. The primary change is that Diane despairs, whereas at the beginning she was hopeful. I’ll admit that I was taken aback by the ending. But as I thought about it, the ending seemed truthful in a way that a neat ending wouldn’t have. In life, there are very few dramatic shifts. Was this ending always present? Did you consider ending the story differently?

Jamie Quatro

Yes, this has always been the story’s ending. In a way, that hand pressing on Diane’s head is an anointing of a very different kind, a more radical and truthful version of the oiled thumbprint on the woman’s forehead at the beginning of the piece. To me a it’s a redemptive moment: Diane has been deceiving Ellie about Mitch’s true condition, even as she’s been deceived by Ellie and Mitch. Neither of those deceptions will be possible from this point forward. The only path open to any of them will be one of honesty. What took me by surprise, as I drafted, wasn’t the ending, but the moment Diane discovers that her daughter has been hiding the pills in her little purse. That was a devastating realization. I didn’t want it to be true, but there it was.

Michael Noll

What are you working on now? Many short story writers are also working on a novel. Is that the case for you as well? Quite a few of the stories in your collection are very short, a few pages or so, and they’re so masterfully written that I wonder if a novel is even something you’re interested in.

Jamie Quatro

Ah, the novel question. You know, I love the story form, and I’m at work on a second collection right now, but I will say this: one of the pieces I thought was a short story is threatening to become something bigger. For now I’m pitching it to myself as a novella. Time will tell. I do write poetry and essays, and lately have been doing some longer book reviews. I also just wrote a film treatment. So who knows? Maybe a play is next.

September 2013

Profile pic

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Write about an Unearthly Experience

17 Sep
Jamie Quatro's story collection I Want to Show You More made New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner "laugh and gasp at the same time."

Jamie Quatro’s story collection I Want to Show You More made New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner “laugh and gasp at the same time.” You can read “The Anointing,” a story from the collection, at Guernica.

When writing about religion, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to find language or images that match the intensity of the believer’s experience. The problem is that this language almost always requires comparison and metaphor: “it felt like a strong wind” or “it was like there was a fire in my chest”. Such writing is fine for an audience inclined to believe, but it almost always fails with skeptics.

One writer who succeeds in finding a language to describe religious experience is Jamie Quatro. Her story, “The Anointing,” from her debut collection I Want to Show You More, is a perfect example of a successful description of what can seem like an indescribable miracle. It was published at Guernica, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

In the Bible, most of Jesus’ miracles are described simply. The focus is almost always on the physical items involved, not on the experience. The apostles passed out the handful of loaves and fish, and the food never ran out. The water-from-wine at the wedding in Cannae tasted better than the wine from the original casks.

This is the same strategy used by Quatro in “The Anointing.” In the story, Diane’s husband is so depressed that he refuses to get out of bed. She has begun to fear for his life, and so she requests an anointing from the church elders. Here is how Quatro describes the kind of miracle that Diane has in mind:

“During evening worship—held in a makeshift auditorium beneath a stained canvas tarp—a boy with braces on his legs was brought forward by his mother, his wheelchair leaving tracks in the sawdust. The camp’s pastor removed the braces, knelt in front of the chair, and rubbed oil all over the boy’s white calves as if he were applying sunscreen. The following summer the boy came back to camp still wearing the braces, though now he used crutches with metal cuffs around the wrists.”

Notice the details that Quatro provides: the stained canvas tarp, tracks in the sawdust, oil applied like sunscreen. These are the mundane details of the physical world, not the language of spirituality. The result is that readers are more likely to set aside their natural skepticism.

Here is how Quatro describes the arrival of the church elders, the source of the miracle she hopes for:

“She thought they’d have a small phial, like a test tube—maybe something crystal—but Pastor Murray stepped in carrying a family-sized bottle of Wesson Oil. Diane was startled, not just by the oil (would something from Sam’s Club work?), but by the image of Florence Henderson that popped into her head, wearing padded mittens and frying up a mess of chicken.”

Because of the specific plainness of that description, we are engaged in the scene. We want to see the unearthly miracle that will (or will not) begin with that practical bottle of oil.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write about an unearthly experience using “The Anointing” as a model:

  1. Think of an experience that is either unearthly (a miracle or encounter with something unearthly like God, a ghost, or an alien). Or think of any experience that has a hard-to-explain effect on a character.
  2. List the items involved: the room, the furnishings, the personal items. Be specific in your list: not just oil but “a family-sized bottle of Wesson Oil.”
  3. Now, set the stage for the experience. Assume that your audience is skeptical and ready to dismiss the first inklings of something unearthly. (This is always the assumption made by magicians, and the next few steps you will follow are the same steps they follow as well.)
  4. State what is about to happen (the miracle or unearthly experience).
  5. Show the items that will be involved, both directly and indirectly. (In Quatro’s miracle with the boy in the wheelchair, oil is used directly but the tracks in the sawdust are indirectly involved.) Make the reader believe in the physical reality of the scene. (This is why everyone knows the passage in the Bible where Jesus asks Thomas to probe his wounds with his fingers. We’re struck by the physical reality of the physically impossible.)
  6. State and show someone’s skepticism: the narrator or another character. (In Quatro’s story, Diane sees the oil and wonders if “something from Sam’s Club” will work.)
  7. Draw the curtain. Remove the object of the experience from sight, either literally (the narrator or main character leaves the room) or briefly (the narrator or main character looks away for a moment or becomes distracted). Make the audience forget for even a few seconds what is anticipated.
  8. Show the miracle or unearthly experience. State it simply. If the experience is truly remarkable, no loaded language is necessary.

Good luck and have fun.

Make the Reader Want to Know

19 Feb
images-1

“Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales was published in Guernica. You can read the story online here. Or, you can check out the story collection The Miniature Wife.

The writer Ron Carlson once began a story workshop by listing the things that we, as writers, would love to be told—but would never hear—in a workshop. Number one was, “If you stop writing, I’ll die.” The truth is that we’ll never receive the praise we truly want. No one’s life hinges on our work. Our readers won’t die if we hang up our writing shoes.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t make them curious—maybe even make them sweat.

Manuel Gonzales’s new story, “Farewell, Africa,” rivals any potboiler for its ability to create suspense. By the end of the first sentence, we want to know something very badly, and we’ll read until we find it out. “Farewell, Africa” is included in the new story collection The Miniature Wife and was also recently published by Guernica. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

Kenneth Burke, in his essay “Psychology and Form,” explains the relationship between writer and audience. To create suspense in the reader’s mind, Burke claims, requires “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” To create the appetite, the writer first dangles a prize in front of the reader—saying, in effect, “You know you want this, reader.” Once the appetite is created, the writer delays handing over the prize as long as possible, introducing, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.”

Let’s look at how “Farewell, Africa” creates and then delays the satisfaction of an appetite.

The story begins this way: “No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked.” Immediately the reader wonders what went wrong. Or even, more basically, how can a pool not work? The statement is so unexpected and odd that we naturally want to know more.

But the story withholds the answer for several paragraphs. It shifts gears, explaining the pool’s size and architect and the fact that it “had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost.” Now we’re really intrigued. What continents were lost? What is this world we’ve entered? In effect, the story has pulled a bit of sleight of hand, replacing the initial prize that we wanted with something else that we also want. We want to know why the pool didn’t work, but we’re distracted with the sheer strangeness of a world with disappearing continents. When, at the end of Part I, the story finally returns to the pool, it’s with a savage, understated rush that catches us by surprise: “’The damn thing’s not working.’ Then he took a sip of champagne and said, ‘Too bad this didn’t happen with the real Africa.'”

As readers, once we’re hooked so firmly, we’ll follow the story wherever it goes.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Begin a scene by selecting a place (i.e. kitchen) and at least two characters (man, woman).
  2. In the first sentence of the paragraph, tell the reader what will happen in the scene (man will propose, woman will reveal she’s pregnant). There are many different ways to approach this first sentence, but, for now, simply tell the reader the information, either in third person (The man practiced his marriage proposal as he walked into the kitchen) or in first person (I didn’t want to tell him I was pregnant right away, so when he came into the kitchen, I asked if he’d picked up take-out).
  3. In the second sentence, introduce a diversion—or, as Burke calls it, a frustration. The diversion can be anything (take-out or the lack of). The idea is to get the reader interested and distracted by this new piece of information.
  4. Follow the diversion for as long as you can (argument about take-out).
  5. Then, surprise the reader by coming back to the info promised by the first sentence (Oh, by the way, Honey, we’re having a baby).

In short, promise the reader something, delay delivering on the promise for as long as possible, and then deliver. That’s one way to create suspense.

To learn more, look for an interview with Manuel Gonzales on Thursday.

Happy writing.

%d bloggers like this: