Tag Archives: how to write a short story

How to Write Ideas into Fiction

16 Aug
Aliette de Bodard's story, "Immersion" appeared in Issue 69 of Clarksworld Magazine.

Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion” appeared in Issue 69 of Clarkesworld and won the Nebula and Locus prizes for Best Short Story.

When I was in an undergraduate fiction workshop, my teacher told us not to worry about what our stories were about. Focus on the characters and plot, he said, and the rest will sort itself out. This is often good advice—but not always. Some stories are about ideas, and the issue becomes not how to momentarily forget those ideas but, instead, how to attach them to the characters and plot so that they read as story rather than apart from it.

One genre that consistently tackles big ideas is science fiction. And one of the most interesting new science fiction writers is Aliette de Bodard, whose story, “Immersion,” appeared in Clarkesworld and won or was nominated for pretty much every award possible: Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story. You can read “Immersion” at Clarkesworld‘s website.

How the Story Works

The story states its ideas outright. It’s about a piece of technology that allows its user to drop into a world and culture that isn’t their own and still communicate. In the story, de Bodard writes that certain people “believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” She also writes that the technology takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

These are strong statements about culture and cultural appropriation, and it’s impossible to not read them as sharp critiques of very real technology in our very real world. The risk that any story runs when stating its ideas in this way is that can begin to feel more like an essay than a narrative. Essays are great, of course, but when readers begin a piece of fiction, they often have little patience for tangents that do not advance the forward momentum of plot and character. So how does de Bodard successfully include these statements in her story?

  1. She applies them directly to a single character. Here’s the story’s first sentence: “In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.” And why is the character not sure? Because she wears a device that produces an avatar that not only produces an external image but also delivers cultural and linguistic cues directly into the character’s brain. Imagine a Fodor’s guidebook mixed with Siri and the information delivery system in The Matrix. In short, de Bodard has created a machine that turns her ideas into tangible objects with consequences for the characters who encounter with them.
  2. She makes the plot hinge on the character’s decision. The story begins by asking the character who she is, and the plot follows an attempt to answer that question. Three of the characters (her husband, Quy, and Quy’s sister) are actively pushing or, at least, tangentially giving her space to answer that question, but the technology (the immerser) is pushing back. It wants to supply its own answer. In a way, the plot is similar to any story about powerful external influence (addiction, cults, relationships with manipulative partners). Because the technology is a character with (almost) a will that it exerts, it makes perfect sense for de Bodard to write that the immerser takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write ideas into a story using Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion,” as a model:

  1. State your ideas. What is your theory about _____? de Bodard is writing about cultural appropriation, and you can write about something equally large. Or, you can focus on something smaller. To get you started, how would you finish this sentence? The thing about (pick your group of people) is ______. For instance, you’ll sometimes hear people claim that certain men suffer from small-man syndrome; i.e. the guy is short and making up for it. Congressman Paul Ryan recently blamed poverty on inner-city people who don’t know how to work. President (at the time, candidate) Obama once said about Midwesterners that “”it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Interestingly, when my Midwestern, religious, gun-owning father heard this, he thought it seemed about right.) All of these statements are basically ideas or theories about human behavior. de Bodard’s ideas are more rigorously academic, but they are still about human behavior. So, what’s your theory about 1) why people act the way they do or 2) the systematic consequences of that behavior?
  2. Create a machine that turns those ideas into things. This can mean a literal machine like the one de Bodard has created. The point of the machine is to put your character into an existential dilemma that is tied to the theory you have developed. So, if you believe in short-man syndrome, you might create a machine that makes tall people short. If you’re a Paul Ryan acolyte, your machine would make people unwilling to work (a city full of unwilling scriveners). Or, if you agree with the president, your machine might make people bitter in order to see what they cling to. But your machine doesn’t need to be an actual machine. I’ve already mentioned that addiction or cult personalities can fulfill many of the same functions. But so can the circumstances you create: if you want to make a character bitter enough to hate foreigners and brandish guns, there are realistic ways to do that. Melville found a way to make Bartleby avoid work. Many stories are filled with characters who suffer illnesses or accidents that change their physical appearance. In short, you can use the world of your story to drive your character into a situation that forces them to act.
  3. Make the plot hinge on the character’s action. How will the physically altered character react, and how will that reaction the ones she loves? If the character refuses to work, even in the face of extreme poverty, will someone eventually step in to help or not? Will the bitter character use the gun you’ve given him against the people he blames for his misfortunes? Turn the plot into a question of the path your character will take? The story can end once the decision has been made. Or, it can proceed from there to show the effects. Either way, you’re turning your initial ideas into a story that may have room for the statement of those ideas.

Good luck!


An Interview with Sean Ennis

9 Jun
Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which "expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia" according to a review by Largehearted Boy.

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Sean Ennis is the author of the story collection Chase Us, a finalist for the 2016 Saroyan Prize. Ennis is a Philadelphia native now living in Water Valley, Mississippi. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Mississippi and with the Gotham Writers Workshop. His work has appeared in Tin House, Crazyhorse, The Good Men Project, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, Hot Metal Bridge, LitNImage, Filter, and The Best New American Voices anthology.

In this interview, Ennis discusses staged and real violence, how the real story can be found in repercussions to dramatic events, and why game theory helps explain adolescence.

To read Ennis’ story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase,” and an exercise on plot spoilers, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the fact that the story puts the characters into two fights. The obvious thing to have done would be for the narrator to have learned a lesson from the first fight and responded differently in the second. But that’s not what happens. In fact, the second fight sort of sneaks up on him. He doesn’t even see it clearly. Did you always handle these fights in this way, or were there other versions of them in early drafts?

Sean Ennis

The structure for this story was a bit of a happy accident.  I had just finished reading a group of great, super-short novels (Ray by Barry Hannah, So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustaffson), so I thought I might try my hand at something longer than my typical 15 page piece, and see what happens if I took my foot off the gas a bit.  My own experience playing soccer for ten years seemed like good enough fodder, and so I thought I’d tell every soccer story I had and see what fell out.  If I had originally approached the subject matter without thinking of it as a longer project, I probably just would have written the one long scene of the boy’s death.

A lot fell out though. Lengthy descriptions of indoor soccer, which is a bizarre game played with tiny goals and enormous tennis balls on basketball courts.  Errant coaches with hard drug problems who couldn’t keep their genitals from falling out of their shorts.  Feral sideline mothers who preyed on teenage referees.  The taste of yellow oranges in November at halftime.  All fine details, I guess, but eventually they felt irrelevant to the piece, and got cut. I didn’t want it to be turned into my lame soccer memoir.

The heart of the piece really seemed to be violence—the somewhat staged violence of the sport, and the real violence of the neighborhood.  On the field, there was, theoretically, some adult who would stop things from going too far.  Off the field there was not, even when their help was requested.

To the point of the narrator learning something, I guess my thought is that there is nothing to be learned.  He’s a coward in the best sense—he doesn’t believe that violence solves problems, or at least that he can use violence to solve problems—but might be surrounded by people who do.  I guess if he’s learned anything is that from now on, there is no one blowing a whistle to stop bad behavior.  He’ll have to manage it himself.

Michael Noll

I also really love the soccer field that you create in Fishtown. It’s not just a poor version of other fields—it’s not really even a field. What I love is how the absurdity of the field seems to change the tone of the story. We start out in familiar territory, familiar descriptions of poor neighborhoods, but then the field alters the scope of what is possible. It’s so beyond the bounds of what we think we know. I wonder if that second fight would have been believable in the story without that gravel soccer field. What do you think? Did any of this occur to you as you worked on the story?

Sean Ennis

This may diminish me as a story-teller, but that field was a real place. I played on it. This probably isn’t a shocker, but is it a bummer when writers say their best details are real?

Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

And in real life, I think the field was a metaphor. That neighborhood was very serious about soccer. They always kicked ass. They could have come up with money for grass. But it was a rite of passage in Philadelphia to play on that cinder field. We were shocked by it and had no idea how to negotiate it, so we complained and were totally intimidated and then lost. I distinctly remember my dad telling me it was a “cinder” field while we were driving there, and I had no idea what he meant. Had it been on fire?

Something that I think the whole collection is interested in is the idea of real objects out of place in a way that causes anxiety. Expanses of gravel and glass are not strange territory in an urban setting.  But when a hundred yards of them are contained by white lines and called a “field,” there’s something not right. To me, it’s the first clue for the narrator that something universal is off. The adults just shrug about the field.  Just say, sorry if you don’t like the rules, but you must play. For me, this is an idea running through most of the stories in the collection. For a while the whole manuscript was called “Deep Play,” an idea taken from Jeremy Bentham, a British political philosopher. He was talking about instances where players get involved in a game where it is impossible to win, but they play anyway. A lot of young adulthood feels like this, I think. I’m no expert in game theory, and “Deep Play” isn’t the sexiest of titles for a collection, but that superficial version of Bentham’s idea struck a chord with me in terms of the types of stories I was writing.

This relates to the second fight, I think. The natural progression of violence among these kids is that someone is going to be killed; it’s already in motion. Also, the narrator’s team’s manicured field is the place of real danger. Even the brutes from Fishtown understood when a fight was over and won. But the swarming idiots from the suburbs were less equipped to understand the repercussions of their actions.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a spoiler (“The night Roger was beaten to death…”). That’s a move that can really work and can also backfire (in this case, of course, it works really well). What went into your decision to start the story that way? And, how did foregrounding that line affect the way you structured the story?

Sean Ennis

My thought there was to just get that bit of drama out of the way. I think we all know stories about kids who died too early, and, of course, they are tragic, but I was interested in figuring out a way where that death wasn’t the climax of the piece. If the reader knows it first thing, then hopefully something else is going on to keep people reading. In general, I’m much more interested in the repercussions of dramatic events than the dramatic events themselves. Things that seem bad can have positive outcomes and vice versa. So, my hope is that what happens after the death is where the real heart of the story is.

Michael Noll

This is not the only story I’ve read that combines sex and death. First to mind is Stuart Dybek’s story, “We Didn’t.” But the novel Skippy Dies also came to mind. To that end, I guess even the movie Dead Poet’s Society fits the description. What is it, do you think, about sex and/or death that makes it natural to bring them together?

Sean Ennis

This question is probably above my pay grade, but I’ll speculate that there’s something evolutionary about an animal’s interest in these topics.  The ultimate conflict—have sex or die. The echoes of that impulse remain, right?  Freud?  Darwin? Help me out.

I also think for young people these are both concepts becoming real at about the same time.  By the age of twelve or so, most young boys are waging their virginity against their potential death in some stunt.  Before that age, neither sex nor death seem like possible outcomes, or even knowable outcomes. When they both come crashing in: chaos.

In terms of story-telling, a piece needs stake, and sex and death impart this pretty quickly. I’ll be the first to admit that maybe they do it cheaply.  Still, they’ve been staples in story-telling for thousands of years, which suggests readers are usually compelled by it.  All of which to say, I think this story, if it succeeds, is retreading very familiar thematic territory, if only because it is the story-telling I was trained in.

That said, I’m working to figure out how sex and death are no longer the backbone of my stories without becoming a bad version of Carver or Salinger (heroes of mine).  Surely there is a drama in between.

Originally published August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

7 Jun
Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows two boys through skateboarding, drugs, crime, and stolen school busses on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story by giving away a major plot point. Paul Murray even did this with his novel’s title: Skippy Dies. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? It’s not so different from film titles like Snakes on a Plane or The Empire Strikes Back. Both reveal the general direction of the story and make viewers want to know the specifics. This strategy might sound easy, but it can also be a surprisingly difficult to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?

Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using a plot spoiler in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase.” It was included in his collection Chase Us, which is a finalist for the 2016 Saroyan Prize. You can read it now at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

The first seven words of the story give away the ending: “The night Roger was beaten to death.” That’s the plot spoiler. A lesser story might depend on that spoiler alone to generate suspense. After all, it’s a powerful statement: Roger wasn’t killed but beaten to death. It’s natural for the reader to want to know what happened. Who was Roger? How did he arrive at such an awful ending?

But those seven words are just the beginning of passage that build suspense in a variety of ways. Here are the first two paragraphs in their entirety:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time.

The initial pulse of suspense comes from “beaten to death,” but that suspense is heightened by the incongruity and mystery of what comes next: “I was out there running, too.” What does this mean? Running away? But what about that word too? He was running with Roger? The sentence makes perfect grammatical sense but leaves a great deal unclear in terms of the scene and what was happening. So, now the reader not only wants to know how and why Roger died but also what was going on in the background. Then, the next sentence introduces the word playground, which we don’t normally associate with beaten to death or beer and wild nudity. Again, it’s important to note that there is nothing literally  confusing about the paragraph. The sentences are not purposefully obscuring the facts. The confusion or mystery comes from not seeing only a glimpse of the entire picture. The narrator cannot explain everything in a few words, in part because it is first-person and therefore imperfect in the ways that all people are imperfect, rather than third-person and capable of omniscience.

The second paragraph continues the incongruity of playground/beaten to death by stringing together kids who “got in fights, smoked” with soccer and the idea that “Seventh grade is a tenuous time.” These are just kids, we realize. They’re playing at being adults but still stuck with the trappings of childhood—playgrounds and soccer.

So, even though the first sentence contains an enormous plot spoiler, the rest of the opening two paragraphs introduce a complexity and confusion that the reader wants to unravel and understand. If you read the entire story (which you most definitely should), you’ll likely find that the plot point of Roger’s death is less important than everything that was going on around it. In other words, the spoiler isn’t really a spoiler at all but a way of directing the reader’s attention toward what is truly important.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a plot spoiler into the beginning of a story using “Saint Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis as a model:

  1. Identify the most important thing that happens in your story. There are, of course, likely several important points, and the biggest of them might be internal—but internal plot points don’t really work as spoilers. Part of the problem is that even the deepest moments of realization for a character can sound, when distilled to a sentence, like the sentiments of a Hallmark card (“The Things They Carried”: Don’t let grief get you down.). To make a spoiler work, you need plot, which almost always means action and often means the external consequence of some internal turning point. So, identify the biggest plot point in the story.
  2. Write a sentence that states the spoiler plainly. You can’t get much plainer than “The night Roger was beaten to death.” But notice what else that sentence does: it suggest that other things are happening. It’s even a good idea to use Ennis’ first sentence as a template: On the _____ that ____ happened… You want to hint to the reader that though you’re revealing some parts of the story, there are others yet to be found out.
  3. Surround the plot spoiler with incongruities. Some spoilers aren’t really spoiler (A man went to war and died. A couple met in Vegas and got married and a year later they were divorced.) No one is going to wonder how those things happened because of course they happened. You want to provide details that make the spoiler not quite make sense. Ennis pairs “beaten to death” with a playground and wild parties and, eventually, seventh grade. These are things that don’t usually appear alongside a brutal murder. So, fill your first paragraph with details that one wouldn’t normally expect to find alongside the plot point that you’ve revealed. Keep in mind, though, that you’re not searching for opposites. Don’t be blatantly thematic (He died in a maternity ward). Be weird. Be unexpected. Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of Stuart Dybek’s famous story “We Didn’t”: “We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you’d slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father’s rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent’s meat market.” Nobody expects to find smoked chubs in a sentence about sex. Allow your imagination to roam. What detail would make the reader sit up and say, “Huh?”
  4. Run with those details. Once you’ve got the plot spoiler in the story (and if it’s a good one), then there’s no doubt that you’ll return to it eventually. It’s also almost inevitable that it will press its face against the pane of your story over and over again. You won’t be able to get rid of it. So don’t feel the need to remind your readers that it’s there. Instead, elaborate on the incongruous details you’ve discovered. Ennis puts a playground and soccer in a paragraph with murder, and it’s the playground and the soccer that the story focuses on for a very long time—except that they’re not just soccer and a playground. They’re soccer and a playground that are accessories to murder. As a result, we pay attention. We want to know how the incongruous details will be brought together.

Good luck and have fun!

12 Exercises Inspired by the Best Writing from 2015

22 Dec

The time of resolutions is upon us, and for writers, this usually means re-committing ourselves to projects that have stalled and gathered dust. We sit down at our computers, excited, and then realize that we’re still stuck. We need help. Like kids on swings, we need a push to get started; after that, we can take care of ourselves.

For the past 51 weeks, this blog has shared exercises based on some of the best writing from the most interesting, best-written stories, novels, and essays of the year. Here are twelve of those exercises to give your writing momentum as we enter 2016.

1. Withhold Crucial Plot Information


Sarah Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires.

When I was a kid, I devoured Agatha Christie novels, despite knowing that Christie was not showing me everything I needed to solve the mystery. But instead of getting frustrated, my inability to outwit her detective actually made me love the books more. I was in the hands of someone smarter than me, and I knew that not only would all would become clear by the final page, but it would also be shocking.

As writers, we sometimes want to withhold information, but it’s not easy to do. The readers know we’re messing with them and can see the strings being pulled. In Sarah Layden’s, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” she sets up the surprise with lines like this:

Blushing, I delete the history from my browser but forget to delete it from my secret backup location, in case I want to remember the things we’ve deleted. My husband throws something away and thinks it disappears. Images I can never erase.

Find the entire exercise here.

2. Write from Multiple Points of View


Scott Blackwood is the author of the novel See How Small.

The challenge in writing from multiple points of view is to make each POV sound different. In Scott Blackwood’s See How Small, he follows a lot of different characters, and each POV sounds and feels slightly different. However, Blackwood doesn’t accomplish this by trying to mimic the character’s natural voice. Instead, he plays with different storytelling styles. For instance, the novel begins with a chapter that mixes third-person and first-person plural POVs (they and we), but what’s more important is how it focuses on some details and not others:

Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

Find the entire exercise here.

3. Make the Most of a High Concept


Dina Guidubaldi is the author of the story collection How Gone We Got.

The term high concept simply means any story whose premise can distilled to a tagline that often serves as a title, as in George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Kelly Link’s The Faery Handbag, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The challenge with high concept stories is make the story as interesting as its title, to advance the conceit in surprising ways. This means that the story may repeat itself or follow a predictable path but that it should have moments of surprise built into that path.

This is exactly what Dina Guidubaldi does in her story “What I Wouldn’t Do.”

I wanted to love you better so I bought a city. It was small but shaped like your fingerprint, with a mansion for you in the middle of the whorl. It was hard to find, your mansion, but since I’d mapped it, troweled cement for the foundation, chopped logs for the beams, hammered and nailed and sanded until my hands fell off, lugged stones in a canvas sling with my teeth when they did, hung tapestries and draped velvet, since I did all of that, I had a pretty good idea where it was. I landscaped your rose garden and made your maze. I scissorhanded some topiaries for you in the shape of hearts and souls and kept up with their maintenance too; I was on a tight schedule and you were my hours and my half-pasts.

Find the entire exercise here.

4. Use Scenes to Show the Passage of Time


Rene S. Perez II is the author of the YA novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Some famous writer once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. It’s a true statement that makes you wonder, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the Johns.

In one scene, the novel uses a dinner as a touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama:

The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.

Find the entire exercise here.

5. Show Things Twice

Nicole Haroutunian

Nicole Haroutunian is the author of the story collection Speed Dreaming.

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

A great example of showing a scene twice can be found in Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse.” It is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming. In the story, a man catcalls two young women from his car:

“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”

Of course, this means we’re expecting the man to drive by again, and, of course, he does (it’d be a tremendous missed opportunity if he didn’t). That scene begins in the same way:

Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them. They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.

Find the entire exercise here.

6. Write a Fast-Starting First Paragraph

Bess Winter

Bess Winter is a Ph.D. student at the fiction program at the University of Cincinnati.

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by busy volunteers, making their way through stacks of stories at night and on weekends. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your work easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention? One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph. Watch how fast this first paragraph from Bess Winter’s “Are You Running Away?” gets the story moving:

Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.

Find the entire exercise here.

7. Create Moments of Intense Emotion


Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is the author of the story collection Barefoot Dogs.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time. A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter with the narrator’s father:

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless.

Find the entire exercise here.

8. Use Forbidden Acts to Create Plot


Monica McFawn is the author of the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

Chekhov famously wrote that if a story puts a gun on the wall in the first act, the gun needs to be fired by the third act. In other words, if a story presents something as dangerous, then it must face that thing directly, not avoid it. Of course, not every story needs a gun. The danger can be located in anything—even things that aren’t necessarily dangerous in every circumstance. All you need is for a character to say, “Don’t do that” or “That’s off-limits” or “Be careful” and you’ve got your dangerous element. A good example of using something forbidden to create plot is Monica McFawn’s story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes.” It’s included in her collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, which won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

The story is about Grace, a woman who is babysitting Andy Henderson, a precocious nine-year-old boy. By the end of the first page, the story introduces something forbidden, through the instructions of Andy’s mother:

“I said, keep him off the phone. He doesn’t need to be on the phone today.”

By the story’s end, this rule will have been broken multiple times, with increasingly high stakes.

Find the entire exercise here.

9. Structure a Story around a Fairy Tale

Kseniya Melnik

Kseniya Melnik is the author of the story collection Snow in May.

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May. The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:

I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a  cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.

Find the entire exercise here.

10. Write Dialogue that Creates Conflict


Laila Lalami is the author of the novel The Moor’s Account.

In real life, we strive for understanding, but in stories, conflict often works best when characters speak as if they don’t hear one another. A great example of dialogue without understanding can be found in Laila Lalami’s novel The Moor’s Account. The novel re-imagines the expedition of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who shipwrecked in Galveston and traveled across Texas, the American Southwest, and Mexico. Lalami tells this story from the perspective of a Moroccan slave who was one of four people to survive the journey

Early in the novel, de Vaca’s expedition claims the land of La Florida for Spain. The expedition is alone on a beach, in the middle of an empty indigenous village. In other words, the only people present are the conquistadors, and yet the notary unrolls a scroll and reads a long declaration claiming the land. The narrator listens and thinks this:

Until Señor Albaniz had arrived at the promises and threats, I had not known that this speech was meant for the Indians. Nor could I understand why it was given here, on this beach, if its intended recipients had already fled their village. How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.

Find the entire exercise here.

11. Use an Omniscient Narrator

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman is the author of the novel On Sal Mal Lane and the editor of the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. The literary critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even). A novel that both requires and uses an omniscient POV is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane.

This omniscient voices takes different forms, sometimes becoming embodied in a kind of we:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

Find the entire exercise here.

12. Defamiliarize the Familiar

Sequoia 2

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the forthcoming story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone.

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” In short, stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. For example, the film The Shining transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. All writing can do this, not just genre fiction. A creepy example of a straight realism that does this is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy.” By the end of its first line, the familiar has been totally upended:

My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.

Find the entire exercise here.

How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive

10 Nov

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you’ve taken the challenge, that means you’ve written approximately one-third of a novel. Since novels tend to follow a three-act structure, this also means you’re entering the second act—otherwise known the place novel manuscripts go to die. Why? First acts are relatively easy: you’ve got a burning idea, and you begin in a rush. At some point, though, that idea is going to run into the mechanical reality of the second act. The story often becomes larger, expanding beyond the original frame of the opening pages. Multiple narrative lines are more important than ever to sustain the tension. If you’re writing a first draft, you may be discovering that you don’t know where to go or what happens next. You’re writing aimless passages.

There is no easy solution to this problem; just ask any novelist. However, there are a few strategies that can give your prose direction until the overall structure of the novel reveals itself.

Here are twelve exercises to help push your novel forward, based on twelve great pieces of published writing.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story


Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces


Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 9.27.10 PM

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. Take a Detour Away from Plot

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky.

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky. He recently published a prequel to that book, the novel, Carrying Albert Home.

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks. Homer Hickam offers a good example for how to temporarily derail a plot in his novel Carrying Albert Home:

Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track. (From Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam. Find the entire exercise here.)

How to Structure Plot around Lack of Change

1 Jul
Christine Grimes' story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Christine Grimes’ story, “The Window,” appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Most stories are about change. A character goes about her business, and then an asteroid, dead body, love interest, child, or zombie shows up and everything changes. As a basic narrative structure, the change story is hard to escape. Politics revolves around game changers. At the coffee shop where I write this, KT Tunstall is singing “Suddenly I See,” which suggests that she didn’t see it before, meaning something has changed.

But what about those people who never really change? The wonderful poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.” If this is true, and if we want to write stories about people trapped in that one damn thing over and over, then we need a new structure.

A story that demonstrates how that structure might look is Christine Grimes’ “The Window.” It was published at 2 Bridges Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins in a bar, where the narrator is at a bar, celebrating a birthday:

I flirted with this beer drinking, pool playing, divorced guy, Eddie, who made eyes at me while I played darts. His shaggy brown hair hung in his eyes and when he laughed, his shoulders shook. I maneuvered over to the bar, where he asked my name, then said Gloria sounded pretty. By the end of my darts game, his buddies showed up. I went over to his table to buy him a beer and one of his friends snickered and elbowed him. Couldn’t appreciate the lovin’ a big woman can offer. Eddie just shook his head and said no thanks. I left the beer there anyway. I took a couple shots with Judy, slept on her scratchy old couch, and overslept. So this morning, I borrowed her largest pair of sweat pants and threw on my dirt shirt before driving like an idiot to get to work.

If this was a story about change, then something would happen at work to push the narrator onto a different storyline than she was previously on. And, in fact, this is what happens. Gloria works at a chip factory as a taste tester, assessing chip quality, and on this day her supervisor announces that the factory will begin hosting public tours and Gloria will be featured. In a story about change, this would be an opportunity for something new to happen. Instead, though, the story essentially repeats the structure of the opening scene over and over, with the same result: Gloria gets her hopes up or tries to make the best of a bad situation but eventually gets humiliated. This is how the story ends. So, why isn’t this boring? After all, it’s the same thing over and over. Why does it work?

The answer in how the story makes us buy into the narrator’s point of view. She keeps believing things will be different, and so do we, even at the story’s end. Three boys take the tour and watch Gloria eat chips. Two of the boys make fun of her weight and then walk away. The third boy, one with a crooked nose, doesn’t make fun of her, and we suspect that perhaps he’s different:

His face has a little smile. We make eye contact. He gets me. Maybe he’s interested, maybe impressed, maybe he likes Gornitos. I showboat a little and chew slowly, rubbing the grains against my palate and swallow. The chip’s a little stale, too oily. When I open my mouth for another taste, Crooked Nose unzips his pants and pulls out his limp dick, waving it at me. He sticks out his tongue and licks the glass before he walks out.

The story isn’t about change but, instead, about believing change can happen when it almost certainly will not. This is a key concept to remember. Plot is about confounding a reader’s expectations, not about change.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure a story around lack of change, using “The Window” by Christine Grimes as a model:

  1. Write a scene that sums up a character. You’re looking for a moment that makes a character (either the person involved or someone who knows him or her) say “That’s me/him/her in a nutshell.” To write the scene, try thinking about the character in terms of winner or loser. Does the character always succeed? Or not? What is a small moment when the character either gets what she wants or does not get it?
  2. Find new ways to repeat the scene. The key is to think about your character’s motivations. What does he or she want? Don’t worry about what they want most. Instead, just list all of the things they want. Either item on your list offers an opportunity for a scene in which the character will or will not get that desired thing.
  3. Create the expectation that this time is different. The character needs to believe this, of course, but so do the readers. We need to see evidence that something is about to change. Someone is going to give the character the benefit of the doubt or, conversely, not give him what he wants. If you make us believe this time is different, then we’ll be surprised when the scene goes exactly as every other scene has gone.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Direct the Reader’s Attention

28 Apr
Stefanie Freele's story, "Davenports and Ottomans" was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans” was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

In his epic story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Adam Johnson uses a strategy for writing descriptions that has fundamentally influenced how I write my own. It’s also a strategy that I see everywhere, in books of all kinds, and I recently came across it once again in Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans.” It was published in a relatively new journal that is already developing a reputation for quality work, Tahoma Literary Review. At the TLR website, you can read the story, and the entire issue of the journal, as a pdf.

How the Story Works

In some ways, Johnson’s story, one of the longest (maybe the longest) story ever published in Tin House, has little in common with Freele’s story, which clocks in at just three pages. Yet both stories use the same approach to description.

Here is a passage from the beginning of Johnson’s story:

The boarded-up Outback Steakhouse next door is swamped with FEMA campers, and a darkened AMC 16 is a Lollapalooza of urban camping. It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware. How do you tell your thin bed sheets from your neighbor’s? Can you separate your yellowed, mismatched Tupperware from the world’s? And there are mountains of all-new crap. Outside the campers are bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills, which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.

In this passage, a pattern develops: give details and then tell the reader how to understand those details. So, we see the parking lots full of campers and then get the line, “It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of.” The same thing happens at the end of the passage. We see the laundry bins, porch chairs, and grills, and then we get this line: “which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.”

Of course, Johnson reverses the pattern as well: “it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware.” In that line, he tells us how to understand the list that follows. Mostly, though, throughout the story, a list of details is summed up with a line that indicates how to understand those details. It’s an incredibly effective strategy, as the paragraph from “Hurricanes Anonymous” makes clear.

Now, here is a passage from Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans”:

The crotch in Maribel’s white tights scoots even lower, half-way down her thighs as she enters the hot holiday-decorated living room. The insides of her legs itch and are already chafing from the short walk across the icy parking lot and up the green carpeted stairs that smell like mold and rain, a confining smell she will forever associate with Great Aunt Agnes. She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.

The description is no longer about setting, as it was in Johnson’s story. Instead, it’s become personal, a description of a character’s clothes and the way they make her feel. Still, the strategy is the same: details and interpretation. We see the tights and her thighs, the itching and chafing, and the claustrophobia of these details is connected to setting with the moldy carpet. Then, we get that last line, which adds the character’s thoughts: “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

The details probably made you feel a certain way, but the words hates and nonsense point us in a clear direction for understanding this feeling and these details. There are, in fact, many ways to feel about ill-fitting tights, and the story, in a line, dispatches with all but one, which allows the story to move forward with a clear sense of purpose.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description using “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele as a model:

  1. Decide what to describe. Johnson describes setting: a place. Freele mostly describes a person, though that description eventually brings in some details about place. It doesn’t really matter what you want to describe, only that it (place, person) should be connected to some feeling. That feeling may be vague, but it should be there. When you think about the place/person, you should feel excited or uneasy or something. In stories, neutral is almost never good. We want characters and places that are charged with emotion or sensation.
  2. Describe it with specific details. Eventually, you’ll want details that cohere into a whole that is larger than the parts, but, first, you just need to get some details onto the page. Be as specific as possible. Use the sort of nouns that have adjectives attached to them (“white tights…half-way down her thighs” or “bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills”). You’re giving the reader something to see, an image that may be familiar or surreal. Either way, it’s specific.
  3. Interpret the details. Try using the phrasing from either of Johnson’s sentences as models: “People seem…” or “which is what happens when…” Or, use Freele’s phrasing: “She (emotion verb) (things we just saw). The goal is to not only tell the readers what we just saw/read but also how to think about it.
  4. Revise the passage for coherence. Once you have a line of interpretation, you may find that some details fit better than others. So, cut the ones that don’t fit, add more that do fit, and tweak the interpretive line so that the entire passage makes as much sense as possible.

Good luck.

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