Tag Archives: short stories

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

14 Feb
The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped. Read essays by writers responding to the book at Books Are Not a Luxury.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white-hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Barefoot Dogs,” originally published as “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can read the story here or in the collection.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white-hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white-hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white-hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white-hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white-hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

How to Not Over-Explain a Character’s Behavior

20 Dec
Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

When you sit through enough writing workshops, you begin to recognize certain patterns to how students respond to stories. For example, in almost every workshop, someone will say about a story, “I want more.” A good instructor will push back: “More what?” And that’s usually where the critique begins to break down. “I don’t know, just more,” the student might say. For the person whose story it is, this can be incredibly frustrating. But it’s also a necessary part of learning to diagnose what isn’t working in a piece of fiction. The person saying, “I want more,” senses that there’s a problem but doesn’t know what it is. The problem could be almost anything, but the solution is almost never simply writing more. In fact, more can often ruin whatever is most compelling about the story.

A good example of how less-is-more can drive a story forward can be found in Sam Allingham’s story, “Stockholm Syndrome.” It was originally published in Epoch and is included in his debut collection The Great American Songbook.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman, Betty, who has come out of an abusive relationship with a man named Will. Most of the story takes place after the relationship has ended, when she works in a coffee shop with a magnetic, mysterious barista, Thomas, that she has a crush on. The foundation for how she interacts with this new guy and what happens next is that early relationship. Here’s one scene from that backstory:

But then there was the rest stop, just after they crossed into Idaho. When they passed through the double doors and passed the crane machine to Roy Rogers, he grabbed her arm and held her close, as if he was afraid of losing her—as if she might disappear into the crowd and leave him behind. She remembers wanting to whisper, You don’t need to hold so tight. He looked so sad in those days, pale and skinny in his Smiths T-shirt. You could see in his eyes this overwhelming need for love.

When she went to pay, she found that her wallet was missing.

“You dropped it on the floor of the car,” he spoke from behind her shoulder. “Lucky I picked it up.”

He took out her money and paid for them both.

It’s good I have Will around to remember things, she often told people. I’m so absent-minded.

The end of this scene packs a punch because we, the readers, understand the flaw in her thinking. We know she’s being manipulated. We’re worried about his “overwhelming need for love” and pick up on the gross detail about him paying for them both with her money. Naturally, we wonder why she doesn’t pick up on these things, too. After all, it’s her story. We get inside her head. We trust her perspective. If this story was being workshopped, someone might ask, “Why doesn’t she see what he’s doing?” and then trot out that dreaded statement: “I want to see more of this relationship.”

The problem is that showing more of the relationship won’t explain why Betty didn’t recognize what Will was doing (or didn’t admit to herself that she recognized it). It’s like when I’m searching the refrigerator for something and can’t find it. Then, my wife comes over and finds it immediately. “How did you not see it?” she’ll ask. I don’t know. I just didn’t. There’s no explaining it.

In “Stockholm Syndrome,” explaining why Betty doesn’t see through Will would ruin the story. So, Allingham doesn’t try. Instead, he does something much more interesting. Here’s the beginning of the next scene (after a space break):

Betty doesn’t really know Thomas’ girlfriend, Leigh Anne. Nobody at the shop does. She never comes in; when she does come to meet Thomas, she calls in advance and has him meet her in a health food store a few blocks away, where Thomas says she buys her tinctures and herbal supplements. Leigh Anne has a number of health problems that Thomas can never quite explain, problems that make it difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning.

Taken on its own, without context, this description of Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship might sound a little off, but coming as it does after Will’s manipulation of Betty, this passage rings some pretty clear warning bells. Allingham drives this home with a bit of dialogue from another coffee shop worker:

It’s sweet of Thomas to take care of Leigh Anne like that,” Valerie says. “A lot of people would have let somebody like that drop.”

Instead of explaining Betty’s own relationship, Allingham drops her into a situation where something similar seems to be happening. The question becomes, “What will she do?” In short, the important question to answer is not “Why did she do that?” but “What will she do next?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the reader ask “What will she do next?” using “Stockholm Syndrome” by Sam Allingham as a model:

  1.  Give your character a blind spot. What does the character not see that others recognize? Betty doesn’t see (or doesn’t admit) that she’s being manipulated by Will. Shakespeare did this constantly: Othello and Macbeth don’t see some pretty significant things. For them, this blindness is a so-called fatal flaw, but the blind spot doesn’t necessarily need to lead to a bad ending. Most romantic comedies are also built around blind spots: everyone knows the two characters are meant to be—except the two characters. What does your character not recognize?
  2. Juxtapose the thing and the blindness. Allingham does this with the wallet scene, following Will’s manipulative actions immediately with Betty’s thoughts: It’s good I have Will around to remember things…I’m so absent-minded. Putting these so closely together highlights the blind spot. So, find a clear scene that contains both the thing that is not seen and the character not seeing it.
  3. Don’t belabor this juxtaposition. Drop it on the reader and then get out. Allingham literally gets out of the scene with a space break.
  4. Put the blind character in a situation with someone else who is blind in the same way. Betty sees a similar situation in Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship, but she’s not blind to it because it’s not happening to her. The trick to making this work is laying out the situation clearly so that everyone understands the connections. Don’t be subtle or sly. In fact, don’t be afraid to drive home the connection, as Allingham does with Valerie’s dialogue. He makes Valerie blind in the same way that Betty was blind in the earlier scene—or so it seems.

The goal is to create an opportunity for a character to act. It’s like the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If a character has been fooled or blinded in the past, he or she will naturally want to get it right the next time around. The question becomes, what will the character do this time—and is the character actually seeing things more clearly now?

Good luck.

How to Make a Character Represent a Place or Group

11 Oct
Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones.  The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?

Leona Theis offers a great example of such a character and story in “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” which won the American Short Fiction contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) and appears in the latest issue of the magazine.

How the Story Works

The story takes place in 1974 in a Canadian university town. Sylvie is sharing an apartment with a woman she met at a bus stop. The women “each ran with a different crowd, and they agreed this would make for a good relationship, each of them minding her own business.” As anyone who’s ever shared an apartment might guess, it’s not long before the different crowds collide:

Lisa had moved into the suite a week earlier than Sylvie, claimed the larger bedroom, and stacked three twelve-packs of empty Labatt’s Blue bottles on the floor at the end of the kitchen cupboard. Sylvie associated Blue with truck drivers and guys who went out to Alberta to work the rigs. As if to confirm, Lisa’s fiancé Dave, a house framer, came by one night with three of his friends who were home from Alberta for the weekend. Not one of them wore his hair long; their fun appeared to come from drinking and its related games. Sylvie knelt and put Led Zeppelin on the turntable.

In this passage, Theis uses objects and places as emblems of a particular culture and class. On one hand, there’s the sort of men who drink Labatt’s Blue, drive trucks for Alberta oil rigs, and frame houses. On the other hand, there are men with long hair who listen to Led Zeppelin. Each of these details could be a throw-away detail, but because the passage has a point (showing how Lisa and Sylvie inhabit different worlds), each one is given a purpose.

The result is a short interaction with a minor character that acts as a kind of mic drop for the passage. It picks up after Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Anybody mind?”

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

The minor character (un-named, like a henchman) is given a line of dialogue that puts his quilted vest and Labatt Blue into action: it lets him try to bridge the divide between the Lisa and Sylvie worlds.

When we talk about setting, we often refer to descriptions of place, but setting, like most writing terms, can be built in many different ways, as talented writers like Theis demonstrate.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character represent a place or group, using “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis as a model:

  1. Figure out what worlds or groups exist in the story. Literature is full of examples: the cliques in high school stories, the many version of “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” the rookies and pros from sports stories, insiders and outsiders, and worlds of gender, race, sexuality, politics, religion, and probably a hundred other ways that we divvy ourselves (or are divvied) into groups. Which ones are present in your story?
  2. Place your major characters into those worlds or groups. Which groups do your main characters belong to? As you can tell from the examples above, group identity can become a significant part of a story’s plot. In “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” the groups aren’t as essential to the story as in, say, a sports or high school story, but they certainly affect the characters and plot. So, don’t worry yet about what you’ll do with these groups. Just find which groups your characters are part of.
  3. Choose an acquaintance or someone close to one major character. In Theis’ story, we meet the roommate’s fiancé’s friend—so, someone who one of the major character (Lisa) knows but not someone she’s particularly close to, which makes him easy to discard after he’s done his job in the story. Because he’s not important, he can simply walk onto the page, do his thing, and leave. You can make a list of all of the possible acquaintances for your major characters, or you can try this:
  4. Decide what effect you’re going for. In Theis’ story, the passage accentuates the cultural difference between Sylvie (long hair, Led Zeppelin) and Lisa (Labatt’s Blue, truckers). Of course, this affect could be created by the great details she chooses, but it’s reinforced and made dramatic (and, therefore, interesting) by having it personified. So, in walks “the burly guy in the quilted vest.” He’s called forth by the situation. If Theis hadn’t needed to show the cultural difference between Sylvie and Lisa, the burly guy never would have been invented. What effect are you going for? What is the point of this particular passage in your story?
  5. Let the character react to something from another world. The burly guy is interesting only because he tries to engage with Sylvie on her terms (the terms of her world), which means responding to Led Zeppelin. Because he’s not from that long-haired world, his attempt to fit in isn’t smooth—which is what makes the moment interesting. What detail or person can your minor character interact with? How can the character try to engage with that person or detail on that person/detail’s terms? (In other words, what is the Led Zeppelin that your minor character must try to deal with?)

The goal is to create character, setting, and drama by letting a minor character represent his or her larger group and engage with some other group. If this sounds like science fiction and fantasy, that’s because this is what those genres do over and over again, but with aliens/dwarves/space travelers/vampires instead of truckers and hippies.

Good luck.

How to Swim in the Narrative Stream

13 Sep
Tim Horvath's story, "Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf," was published in Green Mountains Review.

Tim Horvath’s story, “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” was published in Green Mountains Review.

If you spend any time in writing classes, you’ll eventually encounter the term “fictive dream.” It was coined by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and means, basically, the zone that writers sometimes hit when the world they’re writing seems more real to them than the room they’re actually sitting in. Rather than seeing words on a page, the writers are dreaming their characters to a life that gets translated on the page. It’s a great feeling, but talking about it has always struck as a bit like talking about “runner’s high.” It’s good to know it exists; when it happens, you think, “Oh, this is what everyone was talking about.” But knowing that a fictive dream is within our reach doesn’t help us find it.

So, let me suggest another term. Narrative stream: The swiftly moving current of a story, as opposed to the still water in stagnant pools along the shore. When you find the narrative stream, your story seems to really move. Writing it feels easy, and so finding it is an important part of the writing process—the process for getting into the fictive dream.

A good place to see the narrative stream at work is in Tim Horvath’s story “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf,” a brilliant piece of not-quite-flash fiction you can read now at Green Mountains Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man and his daughter. On its surface, the story is structurally complex, spanning years and using a hypnotic style in which almost every sentence begins with “How…” This style and the montage-like movement through time give it a naturally dreaming effect but also presents clear challenges, for instance, how to keep the story moving when every sentence begins the same way. It’s a story that, by its nature, could easily get stuck in the still pools along the shore. The fact that it doesn’t—and that it ends with an emotional punch to the gut—makes the story worth paying close attention to. How does Horvath find and stay in the narrative stream?

Here is a passage from early in the story:

How he brought her to museums during the days, tilting the carriage up on its rear wheels till she pointed. How even when he was working, he’d taken days off. How he kept calling them days off, though he was home for months on end. How they grew apart even before he’d moved out. How he watched her increasingly from afar, marveling at her growing aptitude for making pictures, as if he could see manual dexterity insinuating itself into her wrists like a creature moving through the ocean in a time-lapse film, fingers as fluid as anemone tendrils but also hypodermic-exact. How he encouraged her!

The movement through time is evident here: the daughter starts the passage in a carriage and ends with her old enough to have grown apart from her father. That’s the dreaminess of the story—its ability to drastically compress time in a way that makes sense in a dream but is impossible in real, waking life. But that dreaminess is secondary to the story itself:

  • We see the man’s connection with his daughter in the way he tilts her carriage at the museum and the fact that he takes days off to be with her.
  • We see the change in the man’s work status (change almost always being essential to story).
  • As a result, we see the connection with his daughter begin to change until, in the next-to-last sentence, it seems to be severed in all ways except a lingering emotional one for him.

The sentences span years and, thus, could focus on anything, but what they actually focus on is emotion and change: the foundation for basically every memorable plot going back to Homer. The man feels something, and then his circumstances change, which leads to a change in the way he’s able to feel the original emotion. As readers, we naturally want to know what happens. As writers, we feel compelled to keep writing in order to find out.

The passage continues:

Brought her brushes and joked that she herself was his little paintbrush, gripping her hair and tugging it ever-so-gently to the top of her head till it all pointed upward, how then he hoisted her aloft and angled her till it tumbled over like horsehair as if she was the world’s largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush and he working up a masterpiece on the canvas that was their wall. How her mother worried because it was late and he was getting her riled up. How he ignored her and lifted her still higher. How often he did this, how heavy his brush got! How once he dropped her but she was okay. She hadn’t blacked out, she promised, and she hadn’t started crying until she woke up at 3:18, hyperventilating and clawing the air. How years later on the field hockey team she started getting dizzy spells. How he learned that she wasn’t going to practice any more and hadn’t for over a month.

Again, we’re shown emotion (“joked that she herself was his little paintbrush” and “largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush“) and from more than his point of view (“How her mother worried because…”). Again, time moves with astonishing swiftness (“How years later…”), and yet the focus remains sharply on change (“How once he dropped her” and the results of that drop).

When a story stalls out, it’s often (though not always, of course) for a couple of reasons:

  • We’ve lost track of what’s going on. Our characters are simply emoting in place, feeling strong feelings and thinking big thoughts with nothing else going on. In short, we’ve got emotion without change.
  • We’ve lost track of how things feel. A lot is happening, reversal after reversal, but it makes no impact on the character. Or, the impact is cursory. We write sentences like “She was sad” but don’t make the emotion visceral, which means it’s not really felt. After all, what significant emotion have we ever felt theoretically?

Horvath stays in the narrative stream because he’s able to continually focus on change and emotion. Even amid some pretty spectacular craft fireworks, the story remains devastatingly clear and compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s swim in the narrative stream, using “Fuchsia Maroon Timberwolf” by Tim Horvath as a model:

  1. Find an emotion. In any moment, what is the strongest emotional state felt by someone? It doesn’t need to be felt by everyone or returned (I love/hate you, and you love/hate me). It doesn’t even need to be directly tied to the moment at hand. A character could be reminded of something and feel strongly about whatever is in his/her head. What you don’t want is blankness. You don’t want the answer that all kids give when their parents ask, “How was school?” Fine is not interesting for anyone involved. So, if a moment is fine for everyone, go in search of a moment where it’s not, where it’s good or bad or happy or sad or whatever. The emotion doesn’t necessarily need to be clear. Often, we don’t know what we’re feeling, only that we’re feeling it. When does your character experience a moment like that? There will almost certainly be more than one.
  2. Change the circumstances. In Horvath’s story, the man’s work status changes. It’s not clear what exactly has happened, only that something has. There’s an element of mystery. This is important to keep in mind. You don’t need to fully explain everything that happens in a story. Instead, the change should impact what is important (the emotion). The change can have an external cause (getting laid off) or be self-caused (dropping a kid on her head). It could be big or small, connected to the emotion or simply in the same place at the same time. What changes occur in your character’s world?
  3. Let the change impact the emotion. Once the man’s work status changes, his connection with his daughter deteriorates—not necessarily on his end, it seems, but on her end or her mother’s. The emotional connection isn’t the same as it was at the beginning. This shift matters because that’s the nature of emotional changes. We want to fall in love and feel loved, and we dread and fear falling out of love or losing love. Emotions are difficult, maybe impossible, to separate from desire. If you find a moment when a character feels strong emotion, it’s probably also a moment when the character desires something—which is what clues readers into the story. As with all emotions, characters will naturally resist or embrace change (I want things to change so I don’t feel this way, or I don’t ever want this feeling to end). What impact does your story’s change have on the character’s emotion or the way that emotion is felt?
  4. Repeat. Don’t stop with one emotion and one change. Or, stay with an emotion but complicate it by introducing change after change. Those changes and the impact each one has on the emotion is the story’s narrative stream.

The goal is to find the current that carries a story forward by focusing on the emotion and changes within the story.

Good luck.

How to Use a Character’s Emotions to Hook the Reader

26 Jul
Adam Soto's story, "The Box," appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

Adam Soto’s story, “The Box,” appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

As a short story writer, one of the realities that you must accept is that your story is one of hundreds or thousands that a journal editor will read. Those editors are almost always unpaid, reading slush pile manuscripts out of a sincere devotion to short fiction—but also at night, after work, when they’re tired. When they turn to your story, they don’t rub their hands together and say, “Ah, finally, I’ve been longing to read this one.” In fact, just the opposite happens. Editors and their first readers begin to look for reasons to say no, to reject the story before finishing it because that will create time to read the many other stories in the pile.

As a writer, this is the world your story enters, and so it’s a good idea to craft your opening so that it will catch a reader’s attention—so that it will make the reader forget about all the other stories that must be read. Perhaps the best way to do this is to immediately introduce conflict. But, not all conflict is created equal. The first line, “The vampires attacked,” works only if the editor’s never read a vampire story before. The sentence contains conflict but is generic. So what if the vampires attack? Big deal, a vampire-weary editor might think. The conflict needs to become personal, and the best way to make something personal is to attach emotion to it.

This is exactly what Adam Soto does in his story, “The Box.” It appears in the most recent issue of Glimmer Train.

How the Story Works

The story is set in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and it follows a handcrafted box as it moves from owner to owner. As a result, each part (at least in the first half) focuses on a different character. This means that the story must hook the reader not just once but several times, each time a new character is introduced.

Here is how Soto introduces the character in the second section of the story:

The box becomes a half-Liberian, half-Belgian doctor’s laundry basket. It sits beneath her desk all winter. At night she turns on a soft paper lamp to write observational notes and letters. At some point she writes: I am sorry I came this time. I will be back before the spring. The work has always been challenging and meaningful. But now it was also selfish, she has realized. The hiccups, she writes, they will haunt me forever. In early March, she leaves. She goes to Brussels, where her husband and son are. It was not like before, she explains to a colleague over coffee, when it was only her, the work, and the long solitude of memory.

“Of course not,” he agrees, tearing open a strip of sugar, staring at the plinths of rain outside the restaurant window. “The oath to your son should be greater than the one to your patients.”

She feels put off.

Notice how many emotional indicators are in this passage: sorrychallengingmeaningfulselfishhauntfeels put off. At this point in the story, we’re not yet clear about the nature of her work and why she finds it challenging and meaningful. But because we know how she feels about the work—about how leaving it—we’re curious to know more about it, which is the entire purpose of an opening paragraph, whether it’s at the beginning of a story or the beginning of a new section.

The character’s emotional connection to her work becomes more complex when it gets reflected back at her by the colleague she meets for coffee. He says, “The oath to your son should be greater than the one to your patients,” a statement that puts words, accurate or not, to the way the doctor is feeling. The doctor could have said, “Yes, that’s right.” But she doesn’t. She resists and “feels put off.” Now we’re curious why her emotions are mixed, why she doesn’t have a clear feeling about her actions. Again, this is a great way to hook the reader. We want to know more.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s hook the reader with a character’s emotions, using “The Box” by Adam Soto as a model:

  1. Find something that your character feels strongly about. Strong, of course, is a relative term. In this case, I mean that the emotion should be worth telling someone about, which is why the passage begins with the doctor writing, “I am sorry.” This doesn’t mean that your character needs to tell someone how they feel—only that the feeling needs to be close to the skin and not buried. So, look around your character’s life. What are the big things that evoke an emotional response? Think about jobs and relationships and pivotal choices the character has made. And, what are the small things that evoke a response, arguments or dilemmas that might be forgotten in a month but which are pressing in the moment?
  2. Put your character into that moment. Show the readers your character in the midst of the conflicting emotion. Such scenes have an inherent interest to them. Think about the times you’ve seen people in coffee shops or stores or anywhere in public having an argument or clearly feeling some emotion. You can’t help but watch them. But if they’re simply telling someone, “Yesterday, I felt…” we’re less inclined to eavesdrop because the emotional state has passed. It’s more interesting to have someone actively feeling rather than having already felt.
  3. Let the character attempt to grapple with the emotion. As a rule (and you’re free to disagree), I believe it’s important to make characters as smart and self-aware as possible. Of course, some characters will be less aware than others, but when we make characters who act stupidly and blindly all of the time, the reader is tempted to feel that the story is unrealistic. If fiction partly works through readers identifying with characters, it’s good for the readers to feel that the character is as smart and self-aware as them. So, let your character try to manage or cope with the emotion he or she is feeling. Give the character mechanisms for doing so, strategies to fall back upon or the ability to consider why he or she is feeling this way. Soto does this in “The Box” with the line, “But now it is also selfish, she has realized.” This shows the character being thoughtful and giving consideration to her own feelings. As a result, the readers are more likely to buy into the story and her actions.
  4. Let the character act on the emotion. As you well know, anytime you get the feels strongly enough, you act on them. If you can forget your feelings or act as if they aren’t present, they probably aren’t that strong to begin with. Think about the small irritations that happen every day. You get wound up—but only a little. Then you move on. Don’t let your character move on. Let the character respond to the emotion. Because Soto’s doctor feels the way she does about her work, she returns home to  Brussels.
  5. Reflect the character’s feelings back at her. To do this, you can, like Soto, let the character discuss her feelings with someone else. That person then uses the good conversational strategy of repeating back what he hears. Or, you can use the “But you said,” strategy. If the action from the previous step impacts the actions and choices of others, you can have them report the results of their actions. If they’re unsatisfactory to your character, this other character can say, “But you said ____.” In short, you’re creating a real, tangible consequence for the character’s emotion: She feels ____, and so she does ___, which  means someone else does ___, which isn’t what she expected or wanted to happen.

The goal is to quickly engage the reader by showing the emotional attachment a character has the world and conflict around her.

Good luck.

An Interview with Caille Millner

29 Oct
Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification and an editorial writer and weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has had essays in The Los Angeles Review of Books and A New Literary History of America. Her awards include the Barnes and Noble Emerging Writers Award and the undergraduate Rona Jaffe award for fiction.

To read her story “The Surrogate” and an exercise on subtext, click here.

In this interview, Millner discusses first lines, writing about class, and moments of attempted—and failed—communication.

Michael Noll

Something I’ve found myself stressing lately in writing classes is the need for directness, rather than subtlety, when it comes to plot and situation. So, I was immediately drawn to the opening lines of this story:

“Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.”

Did the story always begin with this line, with this directness, or was it something that you discovered through revision?

Caille Millner

It wasn’t part of the first draft, but it came fairly early on. I knew from the beginning that the action of the story would be driven by a simple question—will she choose to have her own baby?—and that all of the tension would arise out of the complexity of her family dynamics and the stark limitations of her opportunities. But since it takes time and detail to create the tension, there’s nothing lost by stating the plot upfront. It’s a way to keep the reader interested enough to stay with me while I unwind the rest of the skein.

Michael Noll

Of course, there’s a great deal of subtlety in the story. For example, huge class distinctions lie in plain sight but are never directly remarked upon. For example, Rebecca can take maternity leave while Cecily’s job is maternity, and Rebecca can afford doctors that Cecily can’t. Did you ever comment directly on these disparities in earlier drafts? Or did you always know that the reader would intuitively see and understand them?

Caille Millner

No, I never made direct comment on these things, for two reasons. The first was that I built tension by building details. This is an unspoken experience in public life, so the emotional toll takes on weight as you, the reader, learn what goes into it.

The second reason I never commented directly was that it felt more realistic to me. In situations where the class aspect underlies the very existence of the transaction, it makes the participants very uncomfortable to talk about it and to think about it.

Rebecca doesn’t want to think about all of the dominoes that had to fall for this moment to be possible for her – she just wants her baby. Cecily’s day to day existence is fraught enough—she just wants her money. Why would either of them rock the boat? The reader is the one who’s granted the right to consideration, to judgment, as the outside observer.

Caille Millner's story,

Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate,” appeared in Joyland Magazine.

Michael Noll

My favorite moment in the story is the conversation between Cecily and Rebecca about what it means to know you’re ready for a baby. The characters are talking to each other, but they’re not really talking about the same thing. The subtext for each character is different. Is a scene like this the magical result of writing into a situation? Or was it a scene that you knew, from the beginning, that you would eventually write?

Caille Millner

How interesting that this scene is your favorite moment. It came from the situation. Two women, thrown into intimacy with each other, but an intimacy with strained circumstances and painful limits. They know nothing about each others’ lives. They’re having an idle, tedious moment. It seemed like a chance for one of them to risk an intrusive question.

And of course those moments of trying and failing to communicate with someone, to try and fail to find common ground—those moments are so frequent and frustrating and human.

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Matthew Salesses, and we talked about something he’s written about: how, in his words, “We need more books where people of color do things white Americans have done in fiction for ages.” I thought of this need as I read “The Surrogate.” We don’t learn that Franco is from Mexico or that Cecily’s mom had returned to Mexico until deep into the story. And, both characters have names that don’t carry regional or ethnic assumptions with them, unlike the name of Franco’s daughter, Marisol. Did you begin the story like this on purpose—focusing on the story (surrogate’s husband wants a baby of their own) first and on the characters’ backgrounds second?

Caille Millner

Franco’s name would’ve been a tip-off to me, but I understand your point. Again, I was conscious of lived experience. Their backgrounds are secondary to the action because they aren’t thinking about their race or their experience as immigrants all the time. On the other hand, it certainly has played a role in their current situation.

October 2015

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

How to Create Moments of Clashing Subtext

27 Oct
Caille Millner's story,

Since Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate,” appeared in Joyland Magazine, it has been the subject of several admiring essays, including in The Rumpus.

In high school English classes, students are sometimes introduced to the terms round character and flat character. These same terms occasionally pop up during writing workshops, often accompanied by the statement, “I want to know more about So-and-so.” But as a piece of advice, “I want to know more about…” isn’t very helpful. Let’s assume the writer does as suggested and brainstorms pages and pages of backstory and character description—then what? Knowing more about a character doesn’t automatically result in a better story or even in a rounder character. The more needs something to do. It needs a purpose.

One possibility is to use this information as subtext for a scene. A great example of how this works can be found in Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate.” It was published in Joyland Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The premise of “The Surrogate” is pretty neatly summed up by its title and opening paragraph:

Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.

The first thing we’re introduced to is Cecily and her husband’s home:

They live on the dusty edge of a desert city. The neighborhood is small, bleached-out, and quiet. Their house is a bright one-story with a chain-link fence in front and a little patch of yard out back. An arm’s length of space separates the houses on either side.

We’re also introduced to the woman whose baby Cecily is carrying:

Cecily is carrying this baby for Rebecca, a woman who has the most incredible smell. Whenever she sees her, Cecily closes her eyes and inhales deeply, trying to guess what’s in her perfume — is it cedar?

It must be cedar. Franco sometimes smells of it when he comes home after work. On Franco it’s mixed with the smells of sweat and tar, and on Rebecca it’s mixed with smells that are too nice for her to recognize, but she knows cedar when she sniffs it.

The difference in class between Rebecca and Cecily is clear—and the difference matters. Rebekah can take maternity leave from her job, but for Cecily surrogacy is a necessary source of income. Her husband often experiences year-long stretches of unemployment. This class difference is the context for the story—what is happening in the background.

It becomes subtext when it is put into action. This occurs throughout the story, but here is one particularly clear example:

“How’d you know you were ready for a baby?” Cecily blurts out. She’s surprised as soon as the words appear, and stares ahead at them, as if they were cigarette smoke.

Cecily senses Rebecca’s back straightening in the chair beside her.

“That’s a good question, Cecily,” she says, and it sounds to Cecily like she’s never thought about it before.

On the surface, Cecily’s question is pretty simple. If the story was stripped of its context and this bit of dialogue was all that we saw, the scene wouldn’t be very compelling. It’s interesting because of what lies behind the question—what Cecily is thinking about as she asks it. In Rebecca’s response, it’s clear that although she understands at least a little of Cecily’s life and context, she’s thinking about them in a different way—and she’s also thinking about other things, her own context. In the dialogue that follows, you can see the moments where the subtexts collide:

“I guess…it was always something I wanted?” Rebecca says. “Something Derek always wanted? We’d better want it, with everything we’re going through.” She chuckles.

They sit there for a moment.

“But I guess you’re always sort of ready, right?” Rebecca says. “Once you have your life together.”

“Hmm,” Cecily says.

Cecily is thinking about the obstacles that she’ll face to getting pregnant: giving up the income of surrogacy, providing for a child, the effect on her body, and the emotional consequences of a child. Rebecca is thinking about the fact that she’s using a surrogate and her own obstacles that have led her to this moment.

In some ways, the subtexts for each character overlap, and the characters are aware of this. But there isn’t so much overlap (they aren’t thinking about the same thing in the same way) that the tension dies. Conflict often arises out of moments in which character interact with different subtexts (different intentions or thoughts). These characters’ awareness of this difference in subtext–and inability to completely smooth over the resulting awkwardness, despite trying—is partly what makes the scene so compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an opportunity for a collision of subtext, using “The Surrogate” by Caille Millner as a model:

  1. Identify the different contexts for each character. Choose a scene to create between two or more characters. What is going on in the background for each of them? Think about context like a green screen in a film. What is going on behind the actors affects how they act and how we understand what their actions. So, what is going on in your characters’ lives? What is their situation and backstory?
  2. Turn that context into action. As anyone who’s gone through workshop knows, backstory isn’t the same thing as drama. It needs to be put to work. In “The Surrogate,” Cecily needs money, and so she turns to surrogacy. Rebecca has money but can’t have a child, so she turns to surrogacy. Think about the context you’ve created for the characters. How do they act on it? What does it force them to do?
  3. Create complications from that action. What are the limitations that the action places on a character. For example, Cecily can’t have a child of her own when she’s carrying someone else’s baby. Or, what are the mental effects of the action. For example, Rebecca must accept a weird sort of enlargement of the self: it’s her baby, and so the womb it resides within is, from a particular point of view, also her womb. It’s a potentially uncomfortable relationship dynamic.
  4. Bring the different contexts together. Context becomes subtext when it informs how the character behaves and how we, the readers, understand that behavior. When two characters with different context experience the same moment, the way that subtext informs their reactions will often lead to different responses. So, two characters might see a child carrying a balloon and respond quite differently. Or, if two characters are talking about something, their different subtexts for the conversation can cause them to, essentially, be having two very different experiences. The key is to put two characters with different contexts together.
  5. Give the characters some awareness of what has happened. When the characters interact, and when their different subtexts are revealed, it can be useful to have at least one of the characters aware of this revelation that their contexts/subtexts are quite different. This is what “The Surrogate” does with both Rebecca and Cecily. There’s a sense that each is aware (if only vaguely) of why the other responds the way she does, and it makes the conversation awkward. They try to smooth it over, but the effort is not entirely successful. What happens when one of your characters tries to smooth over the awkwardness from realizing that she has a different context/subtext than the person she’s talking to?

The goal is to create suspense and drama from an encounter between two characters with different subtexts for the moment.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: