Tag Archives: Moving through Time

How to Make the Impossible Possible in Stories

2 Sep
Sarah Frisch's story, "Housebreaking," appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of The Paris Review.

If a story is to keep its readers from walking away, it must do something unexpected, something that makes the reader say, “I didn’t see that coming.” These moments of surprise are what almost all stories are about—if we know how it will play out, why keep reading? The writer Richard Ford once put it this way: The job of fiction is to make the impossible possible. That’s fine to say, of course, but how do we do that?

Sarah Frisch offers a kind of textbook model for how to put Ford’s maxim into practice in her story, “Housebreaking.” It was published in The Paris Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about two strangers who move in together after a chance encounter. It’s the sort of story that would cause a listener in real life to say, “Wait—you did what?” Most people don’t move in with perfect strangers for a lot of good reasons. As a result, any story in which this happens must overcome a great deal of skepticism on the reader’s part. Frisch begins to do this in the first paragraph:

Seamus lived in Wheaton, Maryland, in the last house on a quiet street that dead-ended at a county park. He’d bought the entire property, including a rental unit out back, at a decent price. This was after the housing market crashed but before people knew how bad it would get—back when he was still a practicing Christian Scientist, still had a job and a girlfriend he’d assumed he would marry. Now, two years later, he was single, faithless, and unemployed. The money his mother had loaned him for a down payment was starting to look more like a gift, as were the checks she’d been sending for the last year to help him cover the mortgage. His life was in disrepair, but for the first time in months he wasn’t thinking about any of that: he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman. Her name was Charity, and she was a stranger.

Notice how Frisch skips over their initial encounter. By the time we meet the woman, Charity, the story has already begun. The next paragraph fills in some of the details about the encounter but also continues to skip over a great deal:

Earlier that afternoon Seamus had been weeding by the driveway, and she’d stopped to ask him if the cottage in the backyard was available to rent. It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack Charity had been carrying and that she confessed she’d planned on drinking alone.

Both paragraphs use a similar technique, one that’s not unlike the famous yada-yada from Seinfeld: “His life was in disrepair” yada-yada “he was sitting out back on a warm spring day with a woman.” “It was already rented” yada-yada “they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” In both cases, if the story had shown that first encounter in great detail, those details would have needed to explain the thought processes behind both characters’ decisions to continue the encounter. Imagine trying to write dialogue for such a scene. Even in real life, we tend to skip over such details; we sometimes don’t even know exactly how we get into situations. The being-there is more important than the how. Yet in fiction, in early drafts, we tend to write those scenes out, and then we get lost.

Even when Frisch uses dialogue, she works fast, making the scene happen quickly so that we don’t have time to object:

“My ex’s house has the gravitational pull of a black hole,” Charity said. “I can’t believe I’m still here.”

“Congratulations,” Seamus said. Then he asked her to stay for dinner.

Something big happens in that moment, internally for Seamus, but we don’t get any details about it. The story doesn’t show us his thoughts, though the next passage does explain how he was unprepared for this moment: his kitchen is a mess, and he has no food ready except “package of ground beef rotting in the crisper.”

A few lines later, the story gives Charity a similar moment:

“I don’t want to go back to that hellhole,” she said.

“Stay here till you find a place,” Seamus heard himself say.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” She looked embarrassed, as if he had accused her of something.

“Everybody needs help.”

“It seems like a bad idea,” she said, quietly.

Seamus said he was trying to be more open to bad ideas.

When she accepted, it was with such obvious relief that he wished he’d offered the instant they’d met.

Notice how matter-of-factly the story skips over the internal struggle: “Then he asked her to stay” and “When she accepted.” If the story had shown that struggle, it likely could have gotten bogged down, taking longer to get to the real story, which is what happens when these two people move in together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s overcome unlikely plot scenarios using “Housebreaking” by Sarah Frisch as a model:

Before you can use this exercise, you need to Identify the problematic plot point. It could be the scenario itself (two strangers move in together). It could also be a decision that a character makes deeper into the story. The point is to know which points you’re having trouble defending or explaining. Where is the explanation of a character’s thoughts or psychology bogging down the narrative? Once you’ve identified the sticking point, you can figure out how to yada-yada over the parts that don’t matter—in other words, you can skip to the good stuff.

  1. Skip over an unlikely initial encounter. Frisch begins the story by explaining Seamus’ situation and then saying, essentially, “but all that went out the window because now he was doing something totally unlike what was just described.” This can serve as a good model for any opening: Here’s a description of a character that suggests he/she is a particular way, but one day he/she found him/herself doing something totally out of character. This opening not only skips over difficult details but also creates tension: how did this unlikely thing happen?
  2. Use a transition to glide across time. Sometimes the right word or phrase can help the story leap over a few minutes to a more interesting moment in a scene. Look at the word soon in this sentence: ” It was already rented, but soon they were on his deck, talking and sharing a six-pack.” That word skips over the conversation about the rental unit, which is not only less interesting but also tricky to write since it involves a conversation about doing things the characters wouldn’t normally do. So, try introducing something that would normally end a scene (“It was already rented”) and then use the word soon to keep the scene going (“but soon they were on his deck.”
  3. State a character’s action or decision outright, with no explanation. There are statements that we consider making or actions that we consider doing for days (or for a few tortured seconds) before we actually make or do them. That mental state is hard to describe and often not particularly interesting. But if you’ve set up a character and the way he/she tends to act, it can be jarring (in a good say) to state that he/she did something totally out of character (“Then he asked her to stay for dinner”). So, if you’ve tried to describe that mental state and crisis, cut it completely and just state the result as quickly as possible. Once you’ve surprised the reader, you can give details (as Frisch does) for how the character is totally unprepared for this decision.
  4. Use a dependent clause to make a decision seem inevitable. Another mental state that we often try to describe is a moment of waiting: I just said this, and now I’m waiting to see how she’ll respond. It’s a really hard thing to describe, and often it’s better to just skip the response entirely and get to the result. You can do this with two basic pieces of grammar: a subjective conjunction (when, after, although) and a dependent clause (the string of words that usually accompanies these words). Like the word soon, these words skip over time (“When she accepted”). You can do something almost identical with many scenes. Skip over the conversation or waiting period and use when or after to get to the thing being discussed or waited for.

Good luck and have fun!

How to Create Speed in Flash Fiction

8 Apr
Juliana Goodman's story, "Hot N' Spicy" appeared as an online feature in Blackberry Magazine, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” appeared as an online feature in BLACKBERRY, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Anyone who’s tried to write flash fiction knows how fast it must move. There’s no time for context or explanation. You’re illuminating a few minutes or seconds of a character’s story, and, if it works, the readers feel as though they’ve peered into Borges’ aleph and seen a much larger world.

But how do you create that dizzying sense of speed? Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” does exactly that. It clocks in at just over 250 words yet reveals an intimate portrait of a relationship. “Hot N’ Spicy” was published at BLACKBERRY, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story captures an intimate portrait of a relationship by showing, not telling. If that sounds suspiciously like the workshop cliché, you’re not crazy. But it’s the key to Goodman’s storytelling. She introduces objects without explanation, allowing the reader to figure out why they’re important. Here is a good example:

He pulls on his dark gray jeans, then a black V-neck. Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.

Notice the difference in the articles: his jeans, a V-neck, the hoodie. In other words, the hoodie is important. There’s obviously an entire history behind that piece of clothing, but it’s never given to us. Instead, Goodman skips directly to the emotional importance of the object:

I watch him grab it off the sofa and drape it over his shoulder. That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.

What matters is not so much the object but what it means: he’s not coming back. Part of the reason this story can be complete with so few words is that it continually skips over context and right to meaning. Here’s another example:

“You’re leaving over tacos?” I ask, and then feel stupid because I sound aggressive and he hates that.

Again, the narrator alludes to past arguments and conflicts but does not tell us anything about them. All that matters is the weight of that history and what it means right now, in this moment: if she acts a certain way, he’ll react in a particular way. Sentences like this provide the flash for this piece of fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move fast, using Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” as a model. This exercise will work as a brainstorming exercise, but it may be most helpful as a tool for revision:

  1.  Refer to, but do not explain, the history of an object. Goodman does this when she writes, “Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.” One way to do something similar is by finding an object that either contains meaning. The most obvious example is a wedding ring, but it’d be better to find something more personal to the characters. Put yourself in the room with the characters; what objects are with you? Do the characters have sentimental or personal attachments to them? Another way to approach this is with routine. Does a character always sit in a particular chair? Watch a particular show or read a particular magazine? What you’re looking for is an object that indicates some change in emotion or intention. In a few sentences, explain the importance or role of the object. Then, write a sentence in which the change in emotion or intention or action is happening. How much of the previous explanation can you cut? Can you simply use the sentence with the change?
  2. Make a claim about the future. If characters have spent a lot of together, then they’ve been through certain arguments or interactions enough to anticipate each other’s actions or words. An easy way to show this (and, thus, to skip showing all of those previous interactions) is to make a quick prediction. Goodman writes, “That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.” You could also write something like this: “Now, he was going to get defensive.” And, then, he gets defensive. Or, “She was going to fill up her water bottle,” and then she does it.
  3. State a change/modification of behavior with little explanation. Your goal is to portray a shift in thinking or action without being forced to spend time explaining why that shift has occurred. Goodman does this by having her narrator state, after some strongly worded dialogue, “I sound aggressive and he hates that.” The key is often to state what a character likes or dislikes (or, to frame in terms of personality, what a character does or does not do), and move on. What matters is not so much why a preference exists as the effect that the preference (like/dislike, do/don’t do) has on another character.

These exercises are designed for flash fiction, but, in truth, all writers are often trying to condense explanation.

Good luck!

How to Use Transitions to Move Through Time

7 Jan
Victor Giannini's essay about his father's struggles with PTSD, "His Room's a Jungle," was published at Narratively.

Victor Giannini’s essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD, “His Room’s a Jungle,” was published at Narratively.

Every writer struggles at some point with transitions: how to move from one moment in time or idea to another moment. If the piece spans many years, these transitions become even more important because the writer is clumping together time: a moment here, a moment there, some context here. The transitions between these clumps can be simple (“And then…”), but how do you make them simple and also keeps the reader hooked?

Victor Giannini demonstrates how to use transitions in this beautiful essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD after serving in Vietnam. “His Room’s a Jungle” was published at Narratively, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

There are hundreds of ways to transition from one moment in time to another, but in almost all of them, the transition works like a chain link: the transitional phrase touches upon a phrase or idea that precedes it and also a phrase or idea that follows it.

In “His Room’s a Jungle,” Victor Giannini uses at least three different kinds of chain link:

  • A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. The essay begins with the writer sitting in his father’s living room, watching a storm through the window. The transition works by directly linking this storm with another storm. Notice how quickly this happens:

I love how the sun showers create black clouds framed in gold, but before I can crack a smile, the rain takes my memory back to another storm. It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us. He was fifty-three; I was thirteen. The power went out. I cursed life, furious that my video game had been interrupted. Then Dad said, “It’s like I’m back.

  • A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. The essay is, in part, a bildungsroman—a story about a young person learning some elemental truth that forever changes his life. The following passage demonstrates how to distill the belief that will change and the event that changes it:

When I was a young child in Brooklyn, for me, war had no veterans. War was scrambling around the public park, shouting “Bang! Bang! I got you, you’re dead!” and then fighting with Seth over whether he actually got shot or not.

War was abstract, perhaps scary, but always fun. Then one day, I was rolling around on the carpet, turning a table and couch into a secret mountain base for my army of plastic men, when Ron, my older half-brother, came to visit. He whispered to me, revealing a cool new secret about the father who had left his family and come to live with mine.

  • A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This link is the opposite of the previous one, and, as a result, the two are often used in tandem, as is the case in “His Room’s a Jungle”:

Ron left smirking. I was left with a weird mix of jealousy, sadness, and awe. My father was never the same again, not in my eyes. From then on, when my friends had sleepovers, watching “G.I. Joe” or a VHS of “Predator” that I stole from Ron, I felt special. I felt better than my friends. My father used to be a soldier. And even better, a special one. A marine!

Transitions become more difficult if you’re not sure what you’re linking: in other words, what is each passage about? The answer should be more than what happened. You’re also developing an idea: this happened, and this is the change that occurred as a result.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some transitions, using “His Room’s a Jungle” by Victor Giannini as a model:

  1. Pick a true story to tell. Choose one that has personal importance, one that you’ve thought about a lot, one that gives you the sense that all was not the same after the events occurred.
  2. A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. In essence, this is the “This reminds me of a time…” link. When do you find yourself thinking about this story? Are there particular triggers? You can choose something timely (something from today’s news) or something routine (walking the dog, watching football, washing dishes). Keep in mind that the thing you remember is more important than the trigger—so just like a real trigger, the mechanics of it should happen quickly. Get the reader into the moment as fast as possible. Giannini does like this: “It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us.”
  3. A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. In short, how did you once feel about the thing you are writing about? Which moment really began to change that belief? This is an old storytelling technique—think about the New Testament’s Saul getting knocked off his horse by lightning and becoming the evangelist Paul. Your moment might be less dramatic than a lightning strike, but it should start a chain of events that will lead to a new way of thinking. To make this work, summarize the belief and then transition quickly to the moment. Giannini uses three words: “Then, one day…”
  4. A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This is your chance to tell the reader how your ideas changed. While this could come at the end of the essay, it’s probably better to put it nearer the beginning. Ideally, the new attitude will complicate matters. Think about it this way: Now that the wool has been pulled away from your eyes, what do you see? It’s probably something a little unsettling. The transitional phrase can be simple. Giannini uses this: “From then on…”

Good luck and have fun!

An Interview with Erin Pringle-Toungate

3 Oct
Erin Pringle's story "The Midwife" appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle's next collection How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle’s first collection The Floating Order was called “poetic, lush, gripping” and “rather disturbing.” She recently finished her new collection, How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle-Tuongate’s first collection of stories, The Floating Order,  has been called “dense, experimental, thick with dread and the dead.” The stories are full of inventive language and powerfully weird images.  They’re also gripping reads, similar to the work of cross-genre horror writers like Brian Evenson and John Burnside.

Pringle-Toungate currently lives and teaches in Washington, where she was awarded an Artist Trust fellowship. One of her stories was a finalist in the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award (2012). Her work has been twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, and shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship. She recently completed her second story collection, How the Sun Burns.

In this interview, Pringle-Toungate discusses the challenge of moving through time in fiction, the structural requirements of writing in present tense, and the difference between the sentences “A man walks into a bar” and “A man walks into Hooters.”

(To read Pringle-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” and an exercise based on the story’s movement between the main character’s past and present, click here.)

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” switches between the past and present, a structure that can pose difficult questions: How often do you switch? How long do you stay in one time period? Your answer is to switch as often as every sentence. The result is that you sort of avoid those questions about block structure. Because past and present are so closely intertwined you can decide to stick with one thread for as long or briefly as you want. Did you experiment with different ways of mixing past and present, or did you know how you’d handle it even in early drafts?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

It took me about two years to get to this draft of the story. I wrote multiple versions, and many of those were attempts to deal with time and to avoid the problems caused by a previous version, such as staying in the past for so long that the present conflict seemed to lack energy, or staying so long in the present that the past began to belong to one character instead of all of them. The midwife’s age changed several times before I realized she needed to be expert now—the younger she was, the more the delivery became about sex and all sorts of junk that got in the way of the story I wanted to tell. Maybe as soon as a character has a history that is important to the present, time becomes an issue to be dealt with.

Michael Noll

I’ve read quite a few stories lately that explain the entire premise in the first paragraph(s) and then explore the consequences of the premise. But “The Midwife” withholds a basic piece of information about the premise until the end. It makes for an effective story–I wanted to know the secret. I wonder if you always structure stories this way (it’s not unlike the structure of a detective novel, except we’re the detectives). How do you know what to withhold and what to disclose?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

My stories are typically structured like this, or something like this—in which a key bit of information that is guiding the story is withheld. For example, in “The Only Child,” the main character is with her imaginary friend in a morgue, but I let these two facts remain unstated and what drive the suspense aspect of the story. This sort of structure is mainly due to my tendency to write in present tense. Because of that, it would seem contrived to begin with a recounting of a story that hasn’t occurred yet—and suspense can’t work quite in the same way. So, withholding is how I attempt to create suspense.

What I withhold is based on what is most obvious and familiar to the character because what is most obvious and familiar to the character is what he or she wouldn’t think to say to anyone. In “The Floating Order,” a woman has drowned her children, but she uses the terminology of floating her children and thinks she has saved them so that’s the language she uses, so it takes a while for readers to realize what she has done. This gives me time to make them learn about her. I think to make readers allow themselves to think about difficult issues, the writer has to figure out how to strip those issues of any familiarity so that they can be thought about. In my story “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble,” a girl is struggling to understand why anyone could let her sister disappear and die, but never does she say that or talk about it—until the end, when she’s begging a carnival worker to pretend to have seen the sister disappear. In “The Midwife,” she knows where she is going, so I let her walk—just like you know why you’re going to the grocery so you don’t bother to tell anyone why. But if someone saw you walking down the street at night, they may think they you’re going to do something else entirely. Whatever is most on the character’s mind, I delay revealing. It may help that I’m not sure what leads to the man’s death myself—it’s not only the woman, it’s not only the illness, it’s not only the whole decaying town, it’s not only. . . and so this also helps me, as there’s never any one thing in any story that has caused, or led from, any one event.

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” is quite long, about 8500 words. You’ve also written some stories (like this one) that fit within a paragraph. This ability, to write both long and short stories, is unusual. Many writers have a particular length that they’re comfortable with. What’s your mindset when you first begin a story? Have you written it already in your head? Or is there some process of discovery that happens on the page that tells you how long the story will be?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

The stories in The Floating Order are short mainly because I was teaching myself how to write. I was teaching myself how to use language—what its limits were, what its possibilities were, besides that the perspectives and ideas allowed a shorter form where the language had to work much harder than it has to work in long form. So the stories were somewhat like unbuilding houses in order to build the smallest, habitable house possible in order to understand what a house didn’t need in order to stand—and to understand whether or not a house had to stand in order to work.

All the stories in my next collection, How the Sun Burns, are longer stories. My characters are older and so the causes of their behaviors, or the background of their lives, or their thoughts, are more complicated. I think children’s lives are equally complicated, but typically most adults wouldn’t agree with me, so my characters are somewhat older (at least in this story) so as to avoid issues of verisimilitude. And I have to explain the complications so as to avoid readers assuming they know why the characters do what they do. The recent cultural tradition of leaving comments on newspaper articles has terrified me about what readers can think, and so the stories are longer in some ways probably so as to avoid myself imagining the comments readers might leave. I hope that tradition ends soon.

Michael Noll

Erin Pringle-Toungate's debut collection The Floating Order has been called.

Erin Pringle-Toungate’s debut collection The Floating Order tells stories that resemble the nightmares of children.

The Short Review called your first collection, The Floating Order, “a contemporary Brothers Grimm for adults.” Like fairy tales, many of your stories are set in a kind of everyworld. This seems true of the “The Midwife” even though it mentions strip malls, the 1980s, and a “heavy-hipped Midwestern woman in beige pants and a striped pastel shirt.” Maybe it’s because it’s about a barber performing deliveries, an activity that seems from another time. I’m curious how you think about place in your writing. Are you, in fact, writing fairy tales?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

I’ve found that if you don’t use names and don’t use advertising, every story sounds like a folktale. It’s a sort of sad situation that one of the ways our time is marked is by having characters sit at Starbucks instead of at a coffee shop. What’s the difference? Well, the focus, for one. Readers will probably always feel, these days, that they understand something more if they recognize a brand; this is not to say that readers are stupid but that all of us have been trained to feel that we understand someone more if he or she shops at the same store that we do—it’s knee-jerk. But if I’m writing a story, I don’t want readers to feel like they understand something about my characters just because they’re at Starbucks. Plenty of books demonstrate the depravity of living in a world of brand names. I don’t have anything to say about it, I’m not interested in it, so I’m not going to bring up details that make the conversation change its focus. A man walks into a bar. Good. A man walks into Hooters. What a stupid difference it makes. Now the man is no longer the focus. His life, his movement, his death—gone, erased. Now it’s all glaring orange and white T-shirts and opposing arguments about breasts and chicken wings and coupons and kitsch problems. Bring up that detail, and a writer has to work five times as hard to convince the reader that the man isn’t a chauvinist, that the man is—well, whatever he actually is.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Move Between Past and Present

1 Oct
Erin Pringle's story "The Midwife" appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle's next collection How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle-Toungate’s next collection How the Sun Burns.

In some stories, the events of the present gain meaning when viewed alongside the character’s past. The writer of a story like that, however, quickly discovers a problem that must be solved: How do you switch between the time periods? Do you block the periods into paragraphs or sections? Or is there a way to make the switch more fluid?

One writer who succeeds in finding a fluid movement through past and present is Erin Pringle-Toungate in her story, “The Midwife.” The story was published at Glint Literary Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The trouble with blocking the past and present into separate chunks, set off by space breaks, is that the structure can begin to feel unwieldy. To avoid that problem, Pringle-Toungate does two things:

  1. Switches between past and present on a sentence-by-sentence level
  2. Does not announce that the switches are occurring.

To illustrate how this works, look at the story’s opening:

“Along the block of mostly abandoned storefronts, the barber turns the sign to Sorry we’re CLOSED Please come back tomorrow, and moves the red plastic arrow to 7 AM. No customers came in today, yesterday, or the day before. But no matter, you keep the same hours every day, said her father when, after her mother’s hysterectomy, he began officially training her for her inheritance.”

The first two sentences are set in the story’s present. They’re also written in present tense, which will serve as a reliable indicator of time. The switch comes with the third sentence, when the story adds the father’s voice, spoken from the past. Notice how we don’t learn that the words, “But no matter, you keep the same hours every day,” are 1) her father’s and 2) from the past until the attribution (“said her father”). In effect, we’ve slid from present to past without knowing it. In a way, this switch is the same used by our minds, which move back and forth in time—between present observation and memory—constantly, often blurring the two.

By introducing this switching strategy immediately, Pringle-Toungate makes it possible for the story to dip into the past at any moment, for as long or briefly as it wants—an unimaginable freedom to someone who has played with a block structure of time. For instance, Pringle-Toungate actually marks the next switch between past and present with a paragraph break, but because of how she introduces time in the first paragraph, this more formal switch seems just as natural:

“She sweeps the floor, cleans the mirror, wipes the counter, changes the disinfectant, ties up the laundry bag of towels, and lets down the blinds. She didn’t have a customer all morning, but she didn’t really expect to.

Work ethic, her father said. Dependability, he insisted. Same hours every day. Reliability is trustworthiness. Trustworthiness earns respect. Respect runs a business and fills our stomachs.”

If this seems impossible to pull off, you can take comfort in the fact that Pringle-Toungate didn’t arrive at this structure immediately, as you’ll learn in her Q&A on Thursday.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s switch between past and present using the first paragraph of “The Midwife” as a model. First, you’ll need to create the two time periods:

  1. Create a character engaged in an ongoing action. In “The Midwife” that action is the deliveries. The action could be anything that is an everyday routine: going to work, picking up kids from school, sitting in church or class, or pulling weeds in the garden. Or, the routine could be something more sinister. Keep in mind Hannah Arendt’s idea of “the banality of evil.” Even awful things can be become routine if you do them enough.
  2. Give the character a voice to listen to. The voice should be from someone in the past. In “The Midwife” the voice belongs to the character’s father. George Saunders uses a similar strategy in “Tenth of December”:

“He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.

Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.”

Saunders introduces the voice, and soon after the story goes into the character’s past. In other words, the voice creates the doorway to that past.

Now, let’s put your character and the voice into conversation, which is essentially the way that Pringle-Toungate and Saunders both move back and forth in time.

  1. Begin with your character in the midst of the everyday routine. Don’t explain the routine, just describe the actions that the character performs with the thoughtless confidence that comes with having done a thing countless times. This robotic movement sets up the next step.
  2. Let the character think about the voice from his/her past. Don’t use a filter (She thought about So-and-so, who used to say…). Instead, drop the dialogue or voice into the sentence without introduction. The idea is that you’re letting the reader listen to the character’s thoughts as he/she performs the routine.
  3. Now, move back and forth between these two time periods whenever seems most natural. Play with it. Try staying in each period for longer and shorter amounts of sentences. While you’re using the voice as a portal to the past, you can move beyond the voice into more detailed memories

Good luck and have fun.

The Read to Write Craft Seminar

8 Sep
Michael Noll

Join Michael Noll for the Read to Write Craft Seminar: Sept. 21, 2-6 p.m. at The Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. To register, click here.

Do these writing problems sound familiar?

  • You start a story but quit after three pages. Or quit a novel after 70 pages.
  • Your characters never seem to find themselves in a conflict. They seem flat, no matter how much you write about them.
  • Your dialogue goes nowhere. Your characters all sound the same and agree agree with each other too much.
  • Your stories or chapters all begin in the morning, with the character waking up. Your narratives are chained to the minute-by-minute progression of time.

Even great writers work at these challenges every day–the difference is that have learned strategies to deal with them. In this class, you can find out how they do it. We’ll look at excerpts from stories and novels from four different writers, with an eye toward discovering how they solve these problems.

The class is on Saturday, September 21, from 2-6 pm at the idyllic Writing Barn in South Austin.

To read a recap of a previous class, click here.

I hope you can join us for this practical, fun class.

Click here to sign up for the Read to Write Craft Seminar: September 21, 2-6 p.m. at the Writing Barn in South Austin. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Or for more information, email Michael Noll at michaelnoll1@gmail.com.

Click here to sign up for the Read to Write Craft Seminar. Priced at a sliding scale of $85-150. Choose the price that fits your budget. Or for more information, email Michael Noll at michaelnoll1@gmail.com.

Why Paragraphs Matter in a Story

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

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

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

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

Good luck.

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