Tag Archives: short stories

How to Intimately Connect Character and Setting

10 Oct

The stories in Erin Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once, reveal “how many strange shapes grief can take and how universal a human experience it is,” according to a Kirkus review.

Sometimes you’re reading along and hit a line that makes you stop. You can see in your mind the thing the words are describing, not just an image or a person but the whole thing: the world, the characters in it, the way they’re all connected. Setting isn’t simply a green screen behind the characters. It shapes every moment of their lives, big and small. Anyone who’s read the high-school literary classic “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is familiar with the big ways that setting shapes character, but the smaller ways are just as important.

A great example of how setting and character become a single entity can be found in Erin Pringle’s story, “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble.” It was originally published in The Minnesota Review and then as a stand-alone chapbook by The Head & The Hand Press. It’s now included in Pringle’s new collection, The Whole World At Once. You can read the beginning of the story here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in a small Midwestern town, the sort of place where the annual Agricultural Fair is an anticipated calendar event. Already, the reader is developing expectations for how setting will affect character. It’s a relationship that’s a staple of probably hundreds of movies: the young person who can’t wait to get in a car and go screaming past the city limit sign. But, just as Erika T. Wurth did in her story Mark Wishewas, Pringle moves beyond this familiar setup in a small but effective way. Here’s an early paragraph describing some girls in the town:

The girls’ new hips pull at the seams of their cutoffs. They walk in the most middle of summer, which, after the fair packs up and disappears down the interstate, will tip toward autumn and school doors and Friday night football fields. The girls carry bottles of water and soda cans like boredom. They roll the bits of string from their cutoff shorts against their thighs, balls of lint under their fingernails. Now and then one of their prepaid cell phones rings, but if it’s not that boy, they don’t answer since their mothers won’t buy another refill card from the dollar store until next month.

It’s that last sentence that made me stop, hit with a flash of recognition. It wasn’t that I recognized the moment from my own past. I did grow up in a small, Midwestern town, but it was before people cell phones. Instead, I recognized the moment because it made a kind of crystal clear sense to me: the idea that your cell phone minutes, doled out by your mother, were so precious that you’d answer only if the right boy called you. In a single sentence, Pringle has managed to show us the place, its economics, its family ties, what different members of those families value (mothers/money and daughters/talking with the right boy), and the scale of those values (the small amount of money required to purchase a refill card and literally minutes of phone time). I was hooked.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a small moment that reveals how setting and character are connected, using “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble” by Erin Pringle as a model:

  1.  Set up the general relationship between character and setting. Pringle uses a pretty simple device: an event (Agricultural Fair) that suggests a usual behavior that is common in the place but wouldn’t be elsewhere. If her story was set in New York City or Atlanta or Los Angeles or Austin or even any of a hundred medium-sized cities in America, nobody would care about an Agricultural Fair. What is an event or situation that quickly characterizes the general population of your setting?
  2. Show the characters in the midst of a usual behavior that suggests their attitude toward the setting. After the fair leaves, there’s nothing to do. The girls carry their water bottles and soda cans, bored and listless. If the fair represents a high point for the population of this place, the days afterward represent the return to regular life. What does regular, everyday life look for your characters? How can you dramatize it with an action (like walking with bottles and rolling lint)?
  3. Introduce one element of that usual behavior. Again, Pringle uses a simple device: something the girls are carrying as they walk and roll lint. A cell phone rings. As you’ll see in the next step, this is a key moment in their day. Look around your scene. What objects or implied actions are present? Introduce them until something strikes you as interesting.
  4. Let the characters react to it with a sudden shift in attitude. Earlier, the girls were bored, but when the phone rings, they’re paying close attention to the caller’s number. (Note that Pringle doesn’t actually show the girls looking at their phones or even what they see. She skips to their conclusions based on what they see. It’s a great example of how to describe a scene without showing every literal part of it, which is crucial to pacing.) In Pringle’s story, as far as the narrative is concerned, it doesn’t really matter who’s calling. What’s important is that the girls care who’s calling, and it breaks them out of their bored walking. Their level of interest and engagement has dramatically changed. So, what is an element that is part of your scene that will cause the characters to suddenly change their level of interest and engagement. That’s the element you want to describe.

The goal is to reveal the way that character and setting are connected and bring a story to life.

Good luck.

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How to Help Readers Intimately Connect with Characters

26 Sep

Buckskin Cocaine, the new story collection by Erika T. Wurth, tells the complex, gritty stories of eight characters working in the Native American film industry.

When I teach characterization, I often tell people to begin with statements like, “She’s the kind of person who…” as a way to move beyond basic description to attitude, routine, and potential action. But, of course, it’s still a strategy that tends toward generalization, and the characters that stick with us as readers don’t feel generic. They feel fully realized and complex, and, as we read about them, we forget that we’re reading.

That’s the Holy Grail for writers—to create characters who no longer feel created. The difficulty is that they are created and that the creation often starts with generalizations. So how can writers move beyond them? How can characters begin to take on a life of their own?

Erika T. Wurth’s new collection, Buckskin Cocaine, is full of characters that do this. You can find one of them in the story “Mark Wishewas,” first published as “Mason Snap” at Literary Orphans, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Each of the stories in the collection focuses on a different character who is involved in some way in the Native American film industry. The voice of each character is vastly different from the others, but they do share one commonality in that they tend to begin with a trait or statement that makes them immediately recognizable to the reader. For example, the story “Lucy Bigboca” features a narrator who uses LOL, LMAO, sooooooo, and WHATEV. It’s a voice we recognize as a kind of type. Sometimes the characters also see others as types. In the story “Robert Two Stories,” the narrator starts off talking about Oklahoma and how “the homeless there, the Natives, they were so real.” He’s casting them into types. The story “Mark Wishewas” does something similar in its opening paragraph:

I know I’m smart. And a great filmmaker. Just because I haven’t filmed anything doesn’t mean anything. I know what I’d film would be ten, no one-hundred times better than what those other Indians have done. They don’t even deserve all the attention they’ve gotten. I mean, I’m going to be working with George Bull, and though he acts like he can barely stand me, I know he thinks I’m a genius.

Right away, our unreliable narrator alarm goes off. The narrator is not as great a filmmaker as he thinks he is, and pretty soon we see the disdain that George Bull has for him. It’s a characterization that will feel familiar to anyone who has read Catcher in the Rye or watched the show Eastbound & Down. We have a good idea for where this story is going: the character’s sense of his own worth will run into some immovable object and be thwarted in its quest for greatness. Wurth is terrific at creating voice, and she does a ruthlessly effective job of setting this guy up to fail. But that’s not why I think this character and the others in the collection are great.

Instead, it’s the small details that Wurth introduces that makes these characters feel intimately human. We fall into the character and momentarily forget the direction we’re pretty sure the story will take. In “Mark Wishewas,” for me, that moment comes when the narrator, Mark, encounters George Bull at a bar and buys him and another man shots:

I stand at the long, wooden bar fuming, trying not to face punch the drunk white guy next to me who keeps elbowing my ribs when. the bartender finally pays attention to me. I get myself a beer and order shots of Patrón cause that’s the only thing George will drink. He thinks he’s some kind of Navajo G I guess. I walk back over to them, my heart pounding in my chest the whole way, and hand them their tequila.

The detail that gets me isn’t that he gives serious thought to the best drink to buy but that his heart is pounding in his chest as he carries the shots back to them. So much of this story is built on big talk and humiliation, and both are present in this moment, literally and potentially, but what I love is the brief moment of vulnerability. The narrator is a big talker, and we have a good idea what’s going to happen to him, but for a moment, we see that he’s nervous, and it’s endearing. This is what a great characterization can do: make the premise of a story intimately human.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s build a character with a small, intimate detail, using “Mark Wishewas” by Erika T. Wurth as a model:

  1. Set up the character’s attitude. Try finishing the sentence, “He/she is the kind of person who…” In this case, Mark Wishewas is the kind of person who has an inflated sense of his own self, an attitude that is perhaps a defense mechanism. He anticipates rejection, and so he both builds himself up and tears others down. What does your character anticipate? What attitude does the character bring to that anticipated moment?
  2. Give the character a clear desire. Mark Wishewas wants to make a film and wants to be recognized for it the same as others have been. He wants this so bad that it’s the most prominent thought in his head. What does your character want more than anything else?
  3. The desired object is put within reach. The story is set in a bar where Mark can approach the man who might satisfy his desire. What sort of place offers that potential to your character?
  4. Show the reader how that moment really feels. For most of the story, we’re getting the story that Mark tells himself and the broader audience of the people he imagines want to hear his story. When he carries the shots to the filmmakers, though, that story and his rehearsed way of telling it (“face punch the drunk white guy next to me,” “the bartender finally pays attention to me”) gets dropped and we see into the narrator with his facade removed. We see his heart pounding because he’s nervous. So, think about how your character feels when faced with the opportunity to get whatever is desired—not how the character says he/she feels but some detail that slips out, unfiltered and unvarnished. That is the detail that can fully humanize your character.

The goal is to make readers buy in to your characters by unexpectedly revealing something intimate about them. It can be a small detail, glimpsed briefly, but the results can be huge.

Good luck.

How to Turn Emotions into an Existential Threat

16 May

Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection, Big Lonesome, was called “gobsmackingly original prophecy” by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Writing teachers have a lot of ways of saying basically one important thing about story beginnings: set the stakes and break the routine and put a gun on the wall and show your character’s desire. All of these instructions are trying to get you to give your story the sense, from the first lines, that something big is about to happen—the literary equivalent of basketball players setting up for an inbounds play with the game on the line, or sprinters lowering into their stances as the starting gun is raised. The audience knows something is about to happen, something intense and worth pausing everything else to watch. That’s the kind of opening a story needs. You can find plot ways to do this—putting a gun on the wall or starting in medias res during an airplane crash—but there are other methods as well.

A great example of one of them can be found in Joseph Scapellato’s story “One of the Days I Nearly Died.” It appears in his new collection Big Lonesome, and was first published in Green Mountains Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

As the title indicates, the story is using the same sort of plot hook as, say, the television show Lost. Something really is about to happen. But that’s not really what draws us in—or, it’s not the only thing. Here is how the story begin:

When it was happening I was alone. I didn’t think of my wife, of how her and I suspected she was pregnant (she wasn’t, but by the time the period came we’d both said a brace of big ugly honest things that had made the other think, These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are, when really the big ugly honest things were only who we’d clubbed each other into becoming for a one-month spell inside a six-year spell that up until then had us living on Logan Boulevard in Logan Square thinking we’d be local, organic, and happy right up until we died blissful simultaneous deaths in the final scene of the epic film of our active old age, or at least that’s how I remember it out loud when I apologize, and when I see my ring on my finger in a mirror, and when I slam dishwasher drawers and shout, Listen! You aren’t listening!), and I didn’t think of…

What the story really begins with is an argument, a bad one full of “big ugly honest things” and the word clubbed and slamming drawers. It’s an argument that gives its participants the sense that “These big ugly honest things you’ve said are who you Really Are,” which suggests that this newly discovered reality isn’t desirable. Maybe they’d be better off somewhere else, with someone else. In short, it’s an existential argument. The way that it’s resolved will determine basic, essential details about the characters’ lives. These emotions matter. This isn’t to say that some emotions don’t matter; of course they do—in life. But in stories (in narratives, no matter the genre), everything, whether it’s setting or plot or character, must be geared toward wrenching the story forward. This is why we immediately suspect happy characters of being like chickens who don’t see the farmer walking up with is axe. It’s why Tolstoy wrote his famous line about happy and unhappy families. One makes for a better story.

If you read all of “One of the Days I Nearly Died,” you’ll find that the entire story isn’t about that opening argument, at least not directly. It’s about a series of potentially life-changing moments. The opening argument sets the stage for them, telling the reader, “This is the mental space this story will inhabit.” Once that space is created, the story moves forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create existential emotions using “One of the Days I Nearly Died” by Joseph Scapellato as a model:

  1.  Set up a particular moment. Scapellato’s a sophisticated writer, and so he actually does this in multiple ways. There’s the literal moment of the story (the day the character nearly died) and also the general frame of the thing he remembers (the potential pregnancy) and then the immediate moment of the argument. If that seems overwhelming to attempt, don’t. Instead, shoot for one moment. Start with a basic phrase like “It was the day that…” Or start general and move to the specific, like this: “It was those days when…and it all came to a head when…”
  2. Give the moment a particular conflict. Scapellato gives his character a potential pregnancy. It’s the reason they’re arguing. But the pregnancy isn’t actually the key issue; it’s simply the key that unlocks the door where they’ve been keeping all their troubles. So, give your characters a conflict, but the resolution of this conflict shouldn’t necessarily resolve the troubles they’re having.
  3. Move from the conflict into the bigger issue. This is what the characters are actually feeling emotional about. Notice that we don’t actually know what the characters say in this story. We only know that they say terrible things. You can keep it vague, as Scapellato does, or you can dig into the details. Either way, you’re aiming for a moment when a character is so wound up that he or she slams a drawer and says, “You know what?” and what follows is the sort of statement that is very difficult to take back, a statement that can change the course of a life. Of course, we all make these sorts of statements at some point or another and manage to recover, but there’s always a split second where you think, maybe this is it. Find the emotion—the stress, the trouble, the inner conflict—that would push your character into saying something that might be a deal breaker, whatever the deal is.

The goal is to hook your readers by showing them something that might be broken by the characters holding it.

Good luck.

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

28 Feb
"The Key Bearer's Parents" by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

“The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

A great example of a story that places its hook firmly in a story and world is “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths. It was published online at American Short Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here is how Griffiths’ story opens:

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

The hook is obvious: the shock of encountering “honking red noses” in a story that starts off seeming like a realistic story about two parents. It’s sometimes useful to imagine how else a story could have been written, and so here is another version of these opening lines:

When people saw our honking red noses, they thought we weren’t good parents, but we were.

The basic elements haven’t changed: parenting, red noses, and the expectations people have based on those noses. But the effect isn’t the same. This new version is trying too hard, in my view, like a teacher who tries to be cool and uses five-year-old slang. It’s focused entirely on how people will see it and, as a result, doesn’t come off as natural. Griffiths’ actual opening, on the other hand, starts inside the narrators’ heads, focusing on what they believe about themselves: We were good parents. This grounds us. No matter how many unexpected details the story throws at us, we know who these characters are because we know what they worry about.

As the paragraph continues, we get more clown stuff: makeup, over-sized shoes, flowers. These details are humorous and interesting, but we see through them to what matters: the parents’ conflicted feelings as they watch their kid be embarrassed of them.

As with all “rules” for writing, this one won’t hold true all of the time. Sometimes a story will need to start, from the first word, with how a character is viewed. That said, it’s probably a good idea to start a draft inside a character’s head, feelings, and desires. Establish the kernel of humanity—the conflict or desire that readers will intuitively recognize—and then add a honking red nose or turd in a bucket.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a story’s hook using “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths as a model:

  1.  Start with the hook. Know what it is. If you’re not sure, tell the first part of the story to someone—anyone, someone you trust or a complete stranger. What detail makes their eyes open wider? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, do it in your head. Which detail surprises? To quote the wisdom of Sesame Street, which of your details is not like the other?
  2. Figure out your character’s self-affirmation. If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, you know what I’m talking about. Smalley would repeat to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” It didn’t matter if this was true or not. What mattered was that Smalley needed it to be true, the same as Griffiths’ narrators need to feel that they’re good parents. So, what does your character need to be true? How does your character need to be viewed?
  3. Place the self-affirmation before the hook. It doesn’t need to be as over the top as Stuart Smaller’s. Griffith’s first line seems like a basic statement of fact—but, of course, it’s not. It’s a matter of opinion, but it’s stated to plainly that it doesn’t jump out at us—until we read “honking red noses.” Ordering the sentence in this way can make the hook stand out more and also make the essential human need of the character stand out.
  4. Add action. When I was in college, I’d go to the rec center’s weight room, and there’d be enormous guys who’d grunt when they lifted and then drop the weights to the rack or the floor with a bang. They wanted to make sure that everyone saw them because they needed to be seen as strong. Desire always leads to action. Either the character acts, like the guys in the weight room, or the character becomes intensely aware of other people’s actions, like the narrators in “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” who notice every small thing their kid does when they show up. What action (acted or noticed) follows naturally from your character’s desire and self-affirmation?
  5. Don’t forget the hook. Keep it present in the reader’s mind. If you don’t, then it’s a gimmick. But if you commit to it, referencing it whenever possible, in the context of the action and desire, then you’ll create something readers haven’t seen before and they’ll keep reading.

The goal is to hook readers with something surprising and with an essential element of every story: character desire.

Good luck.

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.

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