Tag Archives: Sean Ennis

An Interview with Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

Originally published August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck and have fun!

How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive

10 Nov

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

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

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

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

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

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

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

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

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

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

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

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

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

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

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

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

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

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

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

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

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

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

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

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

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

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

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

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

6. Create Villains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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

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

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

8. Write Surprising Sentences

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

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

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

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

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

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

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

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

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

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

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

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

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

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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

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

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

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

12. Take a Detour Away from Plot

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

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

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

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

12 Writing Exercises from 2014

30 Dec

It’s often said that when you learn to read as a writer, you’re no longer able to read for enjoyment. I disagree. I find that the pleasure is doubled. Not only do you enjoy the art for art’s sake, but you’ve also gained the ability to appreciate the craft behind the art. Here are 12 moments of exceptional craft from the stories, novels, and essays featured at Read to Write Stories in 2015.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

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

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

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

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

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

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

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

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

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

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

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

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

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

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

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

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

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

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

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

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

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

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

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

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

6. Create Villains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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

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

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

8. Write Surprising Sentences

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

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

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

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

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

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

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

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

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

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

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

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

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

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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

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

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

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

12. How to Write a Story Ending

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. One of the migrants he meets is a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The beginning of the story is pretty simple. He’s beaten by thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and taken to their leader, who, in turns out, is Saúl’s father. Watch how Martínez ends the story:

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane. (From The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trial by Óscar Martínez. Find the entire exercise here.)

An Interview with Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

Michael Noll

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

Sean Ennis

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

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

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

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

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

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

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

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. The novelist Paul Murray actually did this with the title of his book: Skippy Dies. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?

Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase.” It was included in his collection of linked stories Chase Us, and you can read it now at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck and have fun!

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