Tag Archives: point of view

An Interview with Steph Post

19 Jan
Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked.

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked.

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked. She is a recipient of the Patricia Cornwell Scholarship for creative writing from Davidson College and the Vereen Bell writing award. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics and many other literary outlets. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for The Big Moose Prize. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

To read an excerpt from Post’s story Lightwood and an exercise on creating villains, click here.

In this interview, Post discusses how story cannot be separated from point of view, the moral center of her crime novel, and its villain based on a Pentecostal preacher Post knew as a child.

Michael Noll

This is a crime novel, and one of the genres that closely associated with crime is the detective novel, which tends to have a single point of view that follows the detective. This novel, however, is told from many points of view, and I wonder how you found that structure. When did you know that the novel wouldn’t have a character that provided the central gravity of the story?

Steph Post

Lightwood was a novel comprised of many points of view from the very beginning. I write straight through, from first word to last on a first draft and so I switched points of view as a I wrote. When I write, I imagine the novel cinematically as if it were a film or a television show and the multiple point of view structure comes naturally. For me anyway, point of view is everything in story. A scene written from Judah’s point of view is going to be very different from one written in Ramey’s, even if they are in the same room, trying to accomplish the same objective. Point of view gives you insight into a character’s thought process, but also provides a lens for which to view the different characters. Sister Tulah is a different character when viewed from Brother Felton’s eyes as opposed to Jack O’ Lantern’s. I think not having one central character who anchors the point of view in Lightwood is a risk, but I believe the style fleshes the story out in a necessary way.

Michael Noll

Almost everyone in this novel is breaking the law. The characters who push back against the criminals (like Felton) are doing so out of an immediate concern for particular people and not some moral code. As the writer of this world, where do you look to find the moral or ethical center that holds it together? 

Steph Post

Steph Post's crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

Steph Post’s crime novel, Lightwood, tells the story of a released convict who, upon his release, must face his powerful family, a vicious Pentecostal con artist, and a biker gang.

I think the moral center comes in the form of the personal responsibility each character feels and how they act on that sense of responsibility. Most of the characters are thrown into situations that immediately force them to make complicated and, yes, usually unlawful decisions. Some of the characters, like Sister Tulah and Sherwood Cannon, are acting out of deliberate malice and this makes them the obvious villains. Others, like Judah and Ramey, are making choices which come with various degrees of consequence. They are guided by an ethical code that extends to their families and those they care about, even if this hurts outsiders to some degree. And I’ve always felt that Ramey is the moral compass of the novel. While she may not always be following the law, she does have her head more on her shoulders than anyone else.

Michael Noll

You’ve written a great villain—Sister Tulah—a con artist and preacher, and what I found so interesting about her is that her sermons are clearly designed to manipulate her followers, but she also seems to believe them in a way, and we get long descriptions of them. What inspired this character? 

Steph Post

Sister Tulah is loosely based off of a real Pentecostal preacher I knew growing up. While I was not raised Pentecostal, my mother was and so I was aware of and fascinated by Pentacostalism. Most followers of charismatic religions believe in their faith to a degree that may be hard for outsiders to fathom. Sister Tulah, while obviously evil and clearly manipulative, believes in the force behind her religion. She is hypocritical, yes, but she also believes very much in the power she holds and that it comes as a divine right to her. Sister Tulah is so much fun to write because of her extremes and in the sequel—due out next year—I really explore where she comes from and what makes her tick.

Michael Noll

In Chapter 10, you change up your chapter structure and begin with a series of paragraphs that tells us what different characters see when they wake. Was this opening created out of a particular narrative need at that point in the novel? What inspired you to change the structure like that?

Steph Post

The opening of chapter 10 serves to give the reader a moment to breathe—Lightwood is a very fast novel—and also to take stock of where all of the characters are, both physical and mentally. I like the idea of all of the characters waking up on the same day, perhaps even at the same moment, but with very different experiences ahead of them. The characters of Lightwood are so tangled up in one another and I wanted to take a pause to see them all individually. Chapter 10 marks an important turning point in the plot that changes the outcome of the story for all the characters as well, and I wanted to make it clear, especially for Judah Cannon, that his life would no longer be the same after.

January 2017

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

An Interview with Keith Lee Morris

2 Apr
Keith Lee Morris' novel Travelers Rest culminates in "an operatic grand finale," according to a reviewer for England's The Independent.

Keith Lee Morris’ novel Travelers Rest culminates in “an operatic grand finale,” according to a reviewer for The Independent.

Keith Lee Morris is the author of three previous novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, a Barnes & Noble Discover pick, and, most recently, Travelers Rest. His short stories have been published in New Stories from the South, Tin House, A Public Space, New England Review, and Southern Review, which awarded him its Eudora Welty Prize in Fiction. Morris lives in South Carolina, where he is a professor of creative writing at Clemson University.

To read an exercise on skipping over implausibility inspired by Travelers Rest, click here.

In this interview, Morris discusses pushing against conventional reality in stories, making predictions about characters, and the tonal difference between allowing characters to react to or ignore unusual details in a story.

Michael Noll

The novel’s first chapter is utterly realistic. The characters seem like “real” people, the situation (pulling off the highway due to snow) is plausible, and it’s certainly true that there are many small, beautiful, forgotten towns just off the Interstate. And yet there’s something about the last line of the chapter—”You’d never even know they were here”—that is full of foreboding. What was your approach to this chapter? It poses a certain challenge: you’re setting up the reader for a world that will gradually get stranger and stranger. Did you have a plan for how to plant the seeds for those changes?

Keith Lee Morris

The truth is, the first chapter wasn’t written until after the first draft of the novel was complete. The book originally began with what is now Chapter 3, Uncle Robbie waking up in the hotel in the middle of the night. But in talking to people who read the first draft, I got the idea that the opening was a little too abrupt and confusing. So the decision to include the first two introductory chapters was initially a practical move. But you’re right—Chapter 1 sets up a number of the elements that will be in play throughout the novel—the constant snowfall, the tensions between family members, the strange but oddly familiar small town. Nothing overtly strange happens, but things feel strange; that’s enough for the time being. In the next several chapters, the boundaries of conventional reality feel like they’re getting pushed up against a little bit, but nothing truly “otherworldly” happens for a while—and yet the reader senses that it’s coming.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from four different characters’ perspectives. It’s a structure that carries risks: you might lose the reader while changing POV, or the reader might feel more attached to one than the others, or the reader might feel that the shifts intrude upon the suspense that’s being built in each chapter. How did you balance the POV and the shifts to maintain a steady amount of suspense and interest in each character?

Keith Lee Morris

One of the key things to me is that readers have to get their hopes up for each character in a way that’s particular to that character. Very early on in a narrative we begin to make predictions, project outcomes—we do it unconsciously. If we like the characters, we begin to form an idea of what we hope will happen and also what we most deeply fear. Each character has to seem at least somewhat equal in that regard—if we don’t know what we want for a certain character, what we’re afraid might befall them, our interest is bound to lag behind in the chapters devoted to that character’s POV. So part of the battle is to make sure the reader can identify what would make each character happiest and what could potentially destroy him/her. And then I think it’s important to end the chapters on a strong note. I’ve always thought the most important sentence in any story or chapter or even entire novel is the last one. It’s what the reader’s left with. If you leave the character in an interesting place, the reader will be eager each time to pick him/her up again.

Michael Noll

When I was studying for a MFA, one of my writing professors said that the surest way to help readers buy into implausible parts of a story was to acknowledge them. So, if there’s a body on the street and everyone’s just carrying on as if nothing is wrong, a character ought to say, “That’s weird.” It seems like you’re doing something similar in the novel, particularly in one of Tonio’s early chapters, when he walks out of the hotel and thinks, “What the hell went on in this town, anyway? Who exactly lived here?” Of course, it’s natural for a character to wonder about things that seem a little off, but did you also feel that you needed to nod to the reader, to say, “Yeah, it’s kind of odd. You’re not crazy. Stick with me?”

Keith Lee Morris

Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

To me it’s a tonal thing. Sure, if you want the reader to take the events of the story at face value, then those events have to seem plausible, and one way to make them seem plausible is to have the characters react in a way that seems to anticipate the way that we ourselves, or at least some other  reasonable person, might react. But maybe that’s not what you want. Authors like Barthelme and Delillo and even Flannery O’Connor get a lot of mileage out of having characters react (or fail to, as is often the case) in a way that we might not normally expect—they ignore the dead bodies in the street, so to speak. And in the case of those authors, the characters’ failure to respond in a “realistic” or predictable way lends the narrative the feeling of absurdity or irony that they’re after; the technique also produces a lot of the funniest passages—think of the Willie Mink scene in White Noise, for instance, in which one character fails to respond at all coherently or logically to the threat of being shot. Or an even better example– the “Misfit” scene in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which O’Connor uses the oddness of the characters’ responses to make the scene both unexpectedly horrifying and uncomfortably amusing—it’s the strangely implausible nature of both the action and the reactions that literally leaves us not knowing whether to laugh or cry. In Travelers Rest, yes, you’re right, it mostly served my purposes to try keep the reader and the characters on the same page in terms of their feelings about the strangeness of the situation—although there are occasions, as in the Julia sections, in which she seems to embrace the bizarre and rather dangerous situation she finds herself in, that it’s not working that way entirely.

Michael Noll

The novel is set in a kind of nowhere place, like the hotel in The Shining or the island in the television show Lost. The rules are different than in the regular world, but I wonder if they’re trying to reveal something about the regular world. For example, late in the novel Dewey thinks that “any time you imagined something, that imagined thing took its place in the world, in the mind of the person who imagined it, which was as real a place as Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Schenectady, New York, or maybe even more real, maybe the only real place.” This is undeniably true, as any artist or imaginative person can attest, but it’s also a bit dangerous, as your novel suggests. What drew you to this idea, the tension between dreaming and being swept away by the dream?

Keith Lee Morris

So much of our experience is internal and subjective. We pretend things that happen entirely in our own heads aren’t “real”—but they are real in the sense that they take their place in our memories and our thoughts in the same way that external events do, events that people other than ourselves can recognize as having taken place. If I dream that my wife is cheating on me with my best friend, it’s likely to change the way I feel about both of them when I wake up, at least until I get a cup of coffee and starting thinking more clearly. Most of us can sort out the differences between our own dreams or superstitions or initial misperceptions and the “facts” of the external world, but not always, and many people have trouble with it a lot of the time—it’s probably as good an explanation as any for why Donald Trump is currently the frontrunner for the nomination of one of our two major parties. We live with examples of mass delusion all the time. In the novel, I’m trying to point out how thin the line is between our perceptible fictions and fact, how susceptible we are to our own self-created illusions, and how the consequences can be very real.

April 2016

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

How to Write a Story Whose Main Character is Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

The DeLillo Model: The Sentient Crowd

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

The Grider Model: The Low-Flying Plane

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

Good luck!

How to Introduce Setting

23 Jul
Marc Watkins story "Two Midnights in a Jug" appeared in Boulevard Magazine.

Marc Watkins story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won the 2008 Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writings from Boulevard Magazine. You can read the story here.

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly?

Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently. “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins won the 2008 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, and you can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on the opening paragraph:

“Follow any hollow in the Ozarks and it’ll come to river or stream where soft clay the color of rust covers jagged limestone along the banks. Mountains cut by water dot the horizon, their peaks smoothed over millennia into knolls and greened with trees. In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred year old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her’s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.”

The passage begins with a wide frame (any hollow in the Ozarks) and gradually zooms in on a particular town (Eminence, MO) and then parts of town (trailer parks, farmhouses, the high school, the mega hog farm). So far, the passage follows the basics of Describing Setting 101. But notice what happens next. The passage moves from physical setting to philosophical setting, i.e. what the people who live in the place think and how they talk. This transition is crucial to the story’s development because it allows the narrative to begin. There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them. It’s the people who walk on the concrete and sit beneath the trees that give those things meaning.

This transition from place to people happens all of the time in fiction. Look for it in the next story or novel you read. I bet you’ll find it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a description of setting that transitions from place to people.

  1. Choose the place.
  2. Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape. (It’s important to sketch these details out before actually writing the paragraph. Your brain doesn’t always give you details in the best order for prose.)
  3. Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.
  4. Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?
  5. At last, let’s write the paragraph.
  6. Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense (i.e. the region/city/neighborhood and not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.)
  7. Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.
  8. Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase “folks call trailer parks…” In the next sentence, he writes, “You’ll need a wife…” And then he moves directly to the people: “People will talk…” He’s transitioning from the Godlike objective view of a satellite looking down on Missouri to the subjective view of the people on the ground.
  9. Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits. Marc Watkins does this with details about finding a wife. When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.

Good luck and have fun.

Amelia Gray On the Origin of Threats

7 Mar
Amelia Gray's novel, Threats, was included in the --- best of year list.

Amelia Gray’s novel, Threats, has been called astonishing, bizarre, poetic, and jaw-slugging.

Amelia Gray‘s debut novel, Threats, has received so many glowing reviews that when it was left off The New York Times’ year-end list of notable books—along with books by Gillian Flynn and Salman Rushdie—people got angry. One website, Flavorwire, could only comprehend the snub this way: “We understand: Amelia Gray is just a little too cool for The New York Times. Or maybe they’re just intimidated by her weird greatness. Otherwise, how did this bizarre little wonder of a novel, which will tickle your spine with icy fingers and then pinch your cheek, not strike their fancy?” The judges of the PEN/Faulkner Award agreed, recently naming Threats as a finalist for the fiction award.

Gray lives in Los Angeles, where you can find her telling stories, teaching, and shouting quotes from her novel from the back of a moped. She slowed down long enough to explain the genesis of her novel.

On the origins of Threats

I remember I was doing the dishes when I had this image pop into my head, of a woman at the bottom of a long set of stairs, holding the rail, wearing a heavy jacket and a long skirt, and under the skirt, blood pooling. And in the course of considering the image, I felt myself as a person at the top of the stairs, holding the top rail, and how the two of us were connected by the rail. So that was very interesting and I decided to write it down. Over the course of writing it down—I chose a close third person point of view, because I didn’t know who the “I” would be—I saw that the other person was a man, the woman’s husband, and then the woman died, and so of course other people had to arrive and witness that. A firefighter arrived and by then I didn’t want to leave my main character, who I had named David, I didn’t want to leave his head, and so I thought about how to do it for a couple days and then realized that in his grief, David would like to leave his body and experience someone else’s life briefly. So I did that, and by then I was a few chapters in and we were off to the races.

On outlining (or not outlining) the novel:

I tried to create an outline, writing down all the plot events that had happened on a big poster board as a way to find patterns or wrap up loose ends, but it was a largely fruitless exercise. I would try outlining again, though. Right now I’m writing a historical fiction thing that kind of has a built-in outline going for it, but next time I’m in the woods with fiction I’m going to give planning a shot.

March 2013

For a writing exercise based on Threats, click here.

Also, if you’re at AWP, you can catch Amelia Gray every day of the conference. For a schedule of events featuring Amelia, click here.

Disorient the Reader

5 Mar
The opening chapters of "Threats" by Amelia Gray can be read at Newfound.

The opening chapters of Threats by Amelia Gray can be read at Newfound. For a listing of AWP events featuring Gray, click here.

Reviewers love a page turner. It’s the highest praise a book can receive, right? The story becomes so tense that you begin flipping pages, moving from highlight to highlight: dead body, mysterious note, late-night phone call, threatened detective, terse cover up. Soon you’re skimming, propelled by the urge to find out what happens. All those words on the page actually get in the way. They slow us down. We might even ask, what are they for? What is the purpose of words in a page turner?

Amelia Gray answers this question in her novel Threats. She takes a genre (murder mystery) that we know so well that the usual stories make an impression only by being more exciting, more page-turning, than the rest. But Threats scrambles the form, shaking us into paying attention. The novel was published by Farrar, Strous, and Giroux (and named a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award), and you can read the opening pages here at Newfound.

How the Novel Works

Many novels will begin with a wide-angle lens, showing us the place where events will occur. Even nonfiction does this; think about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and its description of the rural Kansas landscape. But Gray doesn’t let us see the world of her novel right away. Instead, we’re shown a package. Then string. Then fingernails, styrofoam carton, thick tape, and a receipt. Notice how long it takes to get to the casual mention of a cremation charge. This is a conscious choice by the author. The entire excerpt is designed to confound and disorient the reader. Imagine how different the novel would be if it instead started this way: “The postal carrier walked up the sidewalk of the small, neat house. He was carrying a box from a mortuary, and inside was an urn full of ashes.”

The novel also mixes up the order in which information is revealed. Rather than telling us that Franny is dead at the beginning, the novel first shows us Franny’s magazines, her height, and the backstory of how she met David. Even her death scene is scrambled. When the paramedics arrive, David sees himself (and his wife’s corpse) through the eyes of the fire fighter. As a result, we’re disoriented. We know we’ve seen this premise before, but it’s so unrecognizable that we’re forced to slow down and pay attention.

As a reader, you may hate this. Or, you may love it. If you do—if you want your eyes held to each word , never skimming—then try this exercise to help achieve the effect in your own writing.

The Writing Exercise

Here are two different exercises. In the first exercise, we’ll think about frame:

  1. Pick a scene you’ve already written or begin a new one (Here’s an easy way to begin: two or more people in a specific place, in the midst of a long-simmering argument).
  2. First, introduce the reader to the scene with a wide frame. You’ll not only show the people involved but also the space around them—the room, the building, the surrounding land. The frame will gradually narrow and focus on the individuals involved in the scene.
    1. For example: The park was green and shaded except for three picnic tables where the trees had been cut down. This was where Mark and Grace were setting up for the party. Every other table was taken. The temperature was barely 80 degrees, but they were already drenched in sweat.
  3. Now, take that same scene and introduce the reader to it using a narrow frame (like Gray does in Threats). Squeeze the reader’s view as small as possible, focusing on a single item or even part of an item (such as the package, the tape, the fingernails in Threats). The frame will gradually widen to include the people involved and perhaps even the place.

Neither frame (wide or narrow) is by default better than the other. Each is simply a tool that can be used.

The second exercise focuses on the release of information.

  1. Choose a sequence of events that culminates in an action that cannot be undone.
    1. For example: Eat, wash dishes, break plate.
    2. Here is the sequence in Threats: Franny hurts herself and dies, paramedics arrive, ashes arrive.
  2. Write a paragraph for each part of the sequence. Each paragraph will focus on one part. You can also write a paragraph that sets up the sequence.
  3. Once you’ve written the paragraphs, scramble the order in which they appear in the story.
    1. Here is how Threats scrambles the sequence: box of ashes, backstory (setting up sequence), Franny’s injury, paramedics, Franny’s corpse.

Happy writing. Also, if you’re at AWP, you can catch Amelia Gray every day of the conference. For a schedule of events, click here.

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