Tag Archives: narrative style

How to Write Break the Contract with Your Reader

11 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

In stories and novels, we occasionally write ourselves into corners of inevitability. The story dictates that a particular thing must come next, but we can’t or don’t want to write that ending. Often this is because the ending is going to be unpleasant for everyone involved: characters, readers, and writer. So what do we do? We can scrap or rewrite the story, or we can find a way to write the inevitable ending in a way that honors the narrative momentum that has been built but also changes the way we think about that narrative. Sometimes, this means breaking the contract with the reader—a big no-no in workshop but sometimes a necessary risk to take.

In his story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” Murray Farish writes an ending that radically shifts point of view and tone. You can read it now at FiveChapters. Tomorrow, Farish will talk about the risks of writing this kind of ending.

How the Story Works

Every story makes a contract with the reader—or, as various quotable writers have said, works of fiction teach their readers how to read them. This means that the first paragraph of stories and novels teaches the reader how the narrative will proceed in terms of point of view, style, and tone. Here is the first paragraph of “Inappropriate Behavior”:

George and Miranda Putnam have been called to another meeting at their son’s school. It’s hard for Miranda to get off work, but she’s going to be there. For George, it’s no problem, and there’s a part of him that’s glad for something to do. There’s a part of him that’s glad to have another grievance to nurse deep into the night. For Miranda, in this economy, this is all a real inconvenience.

The terms of the contract have been set. The story will be told in third person, switching between George and Miranda’s points of view, closer to George’s than Miranda’s. The tone is pretty straightforward—some version of realism. Of course, there is room to move within these terms, but if, for instance, the story shifts into extended first-person narration or if Godzilla rumbles onto the page, the reader might drop the story and walk away. Broken contracts don’t normally bode well for a work of fictions’ relationship with its readers.

Now watch how Farish begins the final section of this story:

Once upon a time, there was a man. He lived with his wife and his son in what he’d always been told was the greatest country in the world. God-loved and manifest. A city upon a hill. Commensurate to his capacity for wonder. The last, best hope of Earth. Then when the man reached what should have been his happiest and safest and most productive years, everything went wrong.

Farish has switched from close third person to a much more distant point of view. George is now “a man.” This change is straining against the bounds of the contract, but nothing has been broken yet. Then, Farish switches the focus of the point of view, from George to his son, Archie:

Their son watched all of this, and he was a smart boy. Everyone thought he was stupid, but he wasn’t. He didn’t understand why everyone thought he was stupid, but it didn’t matter, because he knew he wasn’t. The boy watched his parents. He knew they were scared. But the boy was not scared.

Again, this change is pushing against everything the reader has accepted and known thus far, but it’s a discomfort the reader will likely adapt to. It’s not like Godzilla has appeared on the page:

As soon as the father got in his car, a monster picked up his car and threw it all the way to where the boy couldn’t see. The boy got his sword and Mr. Carrots got his laser, and the boy said the spell to go through the door so they could rescue the apartment complex. Then they killed the monster.

Okay, now the contract is broken. How does Farish pull it off? Some readers will say that he doesn’t. Any narrative risk that a writer takes is bound to alienate some readers, and it’s not because those readers lack sophistication. At a certain point, liking a book isn’t about the book’s quality but about the readers’ taste. Some readers will give a story more leeway to break against expectations. That said, this story tries to set up the reader for the extreme change it has in store. First, as I wrote yesterday, the story continually breaks the frame of its own narration, which makes the reader comfortable with a story that will reach beyond its immediate setting. Second, the story eases into the ending, first tweaking the distance in the third-person POV and then changing the person that the POV follows. When the POV shifts from George to Archie, the tone necessarily changes as well, and it’s not unexpected. We’ve gotten to know Archie pretty well over the course of the story. So, Farish has set up the ending as much as possible.

But why make these changes at all? Why not stick with the terms of the contract? (Spoiler Alert) The story begins with Archie causing trouble at school, George out of work, and the stress taking a toll on George’s relationship with his wife Miranda. By the end, Archie has been removed from the school and placed in an alternative school for children with behavioral problems. George is still unemployed, his relationship with his wife has deteriorated, and they’ve lost their home. They’ve living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. Things are bad. Here is the scene that ends the story: George gets a call for an immediate job interview, but he has nowhere to go with Archie, who is at home. So George puts on Mario and tells the boy not to open the door; then he leaves for the interview. In this scene, nothing good can happen. Given the Job-like string of misfortune that has befallen the family, only a misfortune of the very worst kind can happen now. The way that the story must end is clear. And yet, as a reader, I don’t think I could bear it; it’s possible I might not finish the story. I’m not sure Farish, as the writer, could stand the ending, either.

So what is to be done with the story? Farish’s solution is to keep the scene but tell it from a POV that permits the reader to finish the story. It gives the reader enough emotional distance to keep going. In a way, by breaking the contract with the reader, the story works in partnership with the reader to create the ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an ending that breaks the contract with the reader, using the ending from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Choose a story that you can’t finish. Every writer has unfinished stories stashed in a folder. Read through the story again and ask yourself this question: Given what has occurred in the story, what must happen at the end? Now, ask yourself a second question: Do you want to write that ending? If the answer is yes, then go ahead and write it. Sometimes you just need to look at the ending logically. But if the answer is no, then you need to figure out why. Does the ending feel wrong? In other words, does it not fit your sense of the characters and place and tone? If so, you’ll need to adjust the way you’ve handled the characters, place, and tone (and what happens to them) so that you can get to the ending that is right for the story. You likely took a wrong turn somewhere; you’ll need to go back and find it. But perhaps the ending is right, and the problem is you don’t want to do that to your characters. In that case, you need to find a way to do what needs to be done.
  2. Try out different ways to break the contract with the reader. The most likely way to break the contract is to change the POV. Can you change the amount of distance in the point of view (close to distant third person)? You probably can’t switch from third to first. You might be able to switch from first to third. You can also switch the character at the focus of the POV. If you do this, you will also likely change the tone of the story since the character will have a different sense of the world. Another way to break the contract is to jump forward in time. Or go back in time. This type of break is more common but carries the same level of risk. Whatever type of break you choose, you should choose it intentionally. You can’t sneak a change past the reader.
  3. Ease into the break. What smaller changes can you make to prepare the reader for the big change? Farish first changes the distance of the point of view. Then he changes the focus (man to boy). Finally, he drastically changes the tone. Think about the break that you’ve chosen. What are small ways that you can begin to push against the limits of the contract before finally breaking it? Doing so can prepare the reader for what you’ve got in store.

One final thing to keep in mind. Farish breaks the contract at the very end of a long story. If he had broken it halfway through, all readers probably would have quit. Keep in mind the readers’ psychology. If they see that there is only paragraph or so left in the story, they’re likely to keep reading. Every workshop teacher in the world will preach not breaking contracts with readers, but if you must do so (and sometimes you must), then try to do it in a way that makes it easier on the reader.

Good luck!

How to Break the Narrative Frame

10 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

As writers, we often find ourselves frustrated at the difference between the story in our heads and what appears on the page. As we often imagine it, the story and its many parts exist all at once, smashed together in our minds. Connections between ideas are immediate. But on the page, these parts are broken into discrete paragraphs that put space and distance between the ideas and images. The best writers are able to eliminate that distance. We recognize such writing when we see it, but how can we create such prose ourselves?

Murray Farish’s story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” contains entire worlds in single paragraphs. The story is the part of the new collection, Inappropriate Behavior, from Milkweed Editions. Read it now at FiveChapters.

How the Story Works

Great narration often breaks the frame that is has set for itself. A paragraph that begins in a particular room, in a particular moment of time, will slide out of that room and moment of time. In this paragraph from “Inappropriate Behavior,” watch how Farish breaks out of the frame that he sets in the first sentence:

Once they finally get Archie to sleep, Miranda goes to bed because she has to work in the morning, and she’s liable to be up with Archie’s nightmares in an hour or two. George checks the ads on Monster, even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says no one ever gets a job off of Monster. The only way to get a job in this economy is to meet people, LaShonda says. Network, network, network. George looks at Monster. He looks at hockey scores. He jerks off to porn. He e-mails résumés. The Internet costs $24.99 a month. He nurses his grievances. He reads the news. In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown. The deal includes another six months of unemployment benefits. Six more months? He can’t imagine what will happen if it’s six more months. Don’t let feelings of worthlessness ever enter your mind, LaShonda says. You are not worthless because you’ve been laid off. There is no stigma attached to losing a job in this economy.

The paragraph begins in George and Miranda’s house in St. Louis, in the moment after their son has fallen asleep. Yet very quickly it starts quoting someone, LaShonda, who is not present. It also reports political news from Washington D.C. When reading this paragraph, it’s possible that you don’t notice these shifts out of the initial frame. They seem like a natural part of the narrative voice. But almost every writer has experienced the frustration of feeling trapped in place and time, as their story’s narration is yoked to whatever is happening immediately in front of its gaze. So, how does Farish move away from the present moment?

He connects the present moment with another moment. Perhaps the most important phrase in the paragraph is “even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says.” The phrase creates a bridge from the present moment to something that happened earlier and in another place. The next two sentences take place on the other side of that bridge, in the outplacement agency. This bridge is essential to the shifts that take place in the rest of the paragraph. Because the readers have been shown one bridge, they won’t be surprised when others are built—and built more quickly. For instance, the next bridge out of the initial frame contains no transition such as “even though.” Instead, the paragraph leaps from “He reads the news” to “In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown.” The shift happens much faster than the first one.

He shifts between moments again and again. A bridge is no good unless you use it. So, Farish stays in the political news for another sentence and then shifts back into George’s head in the present moment and then immediately into LaShonda’s advice from the outplacement agency.

Once the bridge out of the narrative frame has been built, you can jump out of the frame again and again, as many times as you want. It’s this kind of dynamic sense of place and time that makes great narration so wonderful to read. As readers, we’re constantly surprised (pleasantly) by where the prose takes us, by what unexpected bridges have been built.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s shift out of the narrative frame of a paragraph, using the passage from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Create a frame. Take any paragraph you’ve already written. Or write a new one. It can be about anything. The important thing is to give yourself a defined place and time: your characters are in this place at this moment. Farish’s paragraph is about what two parents do after their son falls asleep. The place is a house, and the time, we know from an earlier paragraph, is about eleven at night.
  2. Create a bridge out of the frame. The easiest way to do this is to connect something about the present place and time with something that is not within that frame. Farish uses a simple transitional phrase: “even though.” It works like this: Character does _____, even though So-and-So says not to. So, to create a bridge, you can make a character do something and then explain what someone else says about that particular behavior. That said, the bridge doesn’t require an action. You can do the same thing with an object: Character picks up a coffee cup, which So-and-So always hated/loved.
  3. Cross the bridge. Once you’ve got the bridge, go over it. Farish leaves George’s house at 11 p.m. and shifts into a placement agency on some previous day. Readers are savvy enough that if you directly mention someone or someone in a paragraph (and I’ve that something or someone an attitude or weight of being), then if you, in the next sentence, write from a POV that is close to that person or thing, the readers will figure out what’s going on. That said, the weight of being is important. It’s more difficult to build a bridge out of a weightless reference. Here’s an example: She listens to Bon Jovi and wonders what she’s going to do about Carl. If the writer suddenly crossed a bridge into Bon Jovi world, the reader would likely figure it out but might also wonder why Bon Jovi matters. The reference is weightless. So, give your reference weight by providing it with an attitude about what is happening or by letting it reflect, like a mirror, the attitudes of others (she always hated the coffee cup).
  4. Cross back to the other side. Very little transitional work is required. If you clearly set up the two sides of the bridge, the reader will understand what side they’re on.

Once you’ve built one bridge and crossed over it and crossed back, you can easily build more bridges. In his short paragraph, Farish creates and crosses over two. The story as a whole has dozens of bridges. As a result, it has set up the reader to perhaps accept an even greater break at the end, which I’ll look at tomorrow.

Good luck!

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