Tag Archives: short stories

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.

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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.

How to Merge Literary and Genre Stories

20 Oct
Lincoln Michel's collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts is a “genre-bending debut” (O Magazine), full of “monstrous surprises and eerie silences” (Vanity Fair).

Perhaps the most significant movement in American fiction is the genre-bending mashup. Karen Russell nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for Swamplandia, a novel whose setting (alligator theme park in the Florida Everglades) would have fit perfectly with the campy premises of 1960s sitcoms like The Munsters and The Addams Family or many of today’s reality shows. In a similar way, George Saunders combines speculative fiction with a literary narrator in his story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” and Kelly Link merges a lush southern landscape with a world of fairies in “The Summer People,” the first story in her latest collection, Get In Trouble. It’s a good bet that almost every writing workshop in the country includes someone writing a monster story or some other genre-inspired piece of literary fiction.

The problem that those beginning writers often encounter, though, is that genres don’t merge easily as you might imagine when reading Link, Saunders, and Russell. As readers, we have expectations for realist fiction, and we have quite different expectations for stories featuring a Weekly World News roster of characters: werewolves, aliens, psychopaths, and alligator wrestlers. A story that begins in one genre tends to begin with a particular tone, a nod to the readers’ expectations, and then when the genre shifts, so must the tone. It’s this shift that gives so many writers fits.

Lincoln Michel demonstrates how to negotiate this shift in his story, “Dark Air,” which is included in his collection Upright Beasts and is almost certainly one of the most genre-bending stories ever to appear in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about an alien that infects other creatures, transforming them physically and giving them the telepathic powers. As you might expect, the story includes a fair amount of gore and a few scenes that would fit neatly into a horror film. But none of this is evident in the story’s opening. Here are the first two sentences:

How we ended up in those backwoods hills was Iris said we needed to ‘get a little air,’ and Dolan added, ‘country air!’ and that was that. Iris was my lover, and Dolan was her roommate I’d never liked.

This opening has a sense of foreboding (backwoods hills), but there’s no sense yet that the story will inevitably become a kind of horror story. At this point, it could just as easily become a version of E. B. White’s super-literary essay “Once More to the Lake,” but with some relationship drama thrown in. But that’s not where the story is going, as the next sentence makes clear:

All of us were alive, at that point.

That line telegraphs the general twist the story will take, which is necessary, but the story is attempting to have a foot in both genre and literary. It’s engaged in a balancing act, and so what follows is a nuanced mix of realism and horror. After this death prediction, the story immediately refocuses on non-genre elements:

I had no problem with city air. I figured it was the same air out there as in here, but the decision had been made in my presence without my participation.

‘You know what we mean, goofus,’ Dolan said. ‘The noise. The lights.’

Iris giggled and put her hand on Dolan’s arm. They had their own private definition of humor.

A few hours later we were rolling through the hills. We’d been in a car the whole time and we had the windows up, AC blasting. We hadn’t yet felt the country air.

Into these realist elements, Michel introduces hints of danger, which are amplified given the prediction of death:

The roads up in these mountains were littered with signs. Caution for this, danger about that. Falling rocks, bobcat crossing, dangerous incline. There must have been a dozen ways for us to be crushed or torn apart.

‘You never see green like this in the city,’ Iris was saying. She clicked away with her phone as we rounded a chunk of mountain that had been blown open with dynamite.

Caution signs are, of course, part of the natural setting of the story, but in this passage they’re clearly establishing a tone and setting the stage for less realistic forms of danger. When that danger arrives, it literally break into the midst of a realist moment:

Dolan had his headphones on and Iris was pretending to sleep.

‘Hey, I said –’

I think that’s around when the creature burst from the bushes on the side of the road.

The realist moments don’t vanish at this point in the story, but the genre elements become increasingly visible. The balance between the two is easier to strike because it’s been introduced on the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s merge literary and genre stories, using “Dark Air” by Lincoln Michel as a model:

  1. Identify the expectations of the genre element. Horror stories are, well, horrific. So, a suggestion of imminent danger and the risk of death or pain is needed. Speculative fiction often has a technical focus—the details of the technology or futuristic detail. Detective fiction, crime fiction, romance, and fantasy (classical and otherwise) all carry with them particular expectations. If you’re not sure about what these are, you can open almost any book that is situated firmly in a genre. The first page almost always tells the reader in both clear and nuanced ways what kind of story it is.
  2. Include a clear marker of genre. Michel does this with the sentence, “All of us were alive, at that point.” Speculative or science fiction might include a direct reference to technology. Detective fiction might allude to a crime or mystery. Blunt is good.
  3. Find ways to hint at those expectations (and marker) within realist prose. I keep saying realist because that is the default mode of contemporary American and English-language fiction. It may be different in other countries, cultures, and languages. But since it’s the starting point of most (though not all) American literary fiction, it’s a good place to begin. So, find ways to drop genre hints into that realistic prose. Michel does this with the caution signs on the side of the road and the dynamited mountain. They carry forward the tone set by the marker without directly referring to it. To do this, think about the tone of the marker you’ve used or the usual language and images of the genre. Is there diction from the genre that overlaps with realist diction? Or, vice versa, is there realist diction that carries the same tone or connotation as the language of the genre? You can play with image in the same way. How can you use the realist aspects of the setting (warning signs, dynamited mountain) to convey the same tone that genre-specific images might convey?

The goal is to use images and word choice to set the stage for the shift from realist fiction to genre fiction in order to create a new hybrid. When done well, the inevitably introduction of the genre element won’t feel out-of-place but, rather, something that is part of the natural fabric of the story.

Good luck.

How to Give a Story’s Plot Enough Fuel to Finish

18 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas, from the burning of Lawrence to the aftershocks still present today.

As writers, we all eventually experience this moment: we’re sitting at the computer, and the story just quits. It won’t move forward, no matter how many guns we hang on the wall or strangers we have knock on the door. So what do we do? Very likely, go back to the beginning, searching for that wrong piece that has fouled everything up. It’s often the case, though, that the problem isn’t a wrong piece but not enough pieces. A story needs multiple plot threads, multiple questions for the reader to wonder about. The solution to writer’s block, then, is often to find ways to introduce more plot threads at the beginning of the story.

A terrific example for how this can be done is Andrew Malan Milward’s story, “I Was a Revolutionary.” It’s the final story in his new collection, I Was a Revolutionary, and was first published in Virginia Quarterly Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story has three primary plot lines, and each one is introduced right away. Here’s the first:

On the first day I tell them: “When searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado was so disappointed by what he found in the land that would one day become Kansas that he strangled the guide who’d brought him here and turned around.”

No one laughs. Their blank stares communicate only this: It’s the first day of class. Don’t get cute.

The narrator is an adjunct instructor of Kansas history at the University of Kansas. He’s developed a passion for the subject, but his students are less than enthusiastic. Will he be able to get their attention, and, if so, what will happen? The first plot line is established.

Here’s the second line:

I check e-mail and find my wife has written. We used to speak openly and directly. Now we e-mail, and hers arrive with all the formality of a communiqué. Paul, I would like to get some more of my things this evening. Please leave the house from 7-8. —Linda. Strange to think of her across campus, over in Sociology, composing this terse missive. Stranger still to think that when the divorce papers arrive, we could, if so inclined, settle the whole matter via intracampus mail.

The narrator’s wife is divorcing him, and, as with all good divorce stories, being separated just mean they’re physical parted. They still work in the same place, which leads to the final plot line:

I’m debating whether to reply when Brad, the chair of the history department, pops in to say hello.

“Welcome back, partner. How was break?”

“Cold,” I say.

He laughs and asks if my eleven thirty went okay.

Brad toes a fine line between administrator and concerned colleague, a fact that seems to color any conversation I have with him. I shouldn’t complain; he’s always been pretty good to me. When the university hired Linda almost twenty-five years ago, he took me on as an instructor.

Not only does the narrator work in the same place as his soon-to-be ex-wife, but he is also, to some extent, dependent on her for his job, which his boss makes clear through awkward concern.

The story introduces these plots lines succinctly but clearly. This is important to remember because it would easy to read this story and several of the others in the collection and focus on the innovative way that Milward combines history with present action. This story in particular includes long lists of historical facts and events, and it might be tempting to view it as idiosyncratic or experimental—which it is, in a way. But it’s also quite deliberate about the way it introduces plot, which helps get the reader to buy in to its more unconventional qualities.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce multiple plot lines, using “I Was a Revolutionary” by Andrew Malan Milward as a model:

  1. Identify a primary plot line. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” this is probably the narrator’s divorce and deteriorating relationship with his wife. Because he’s getting divorced, his job is in jeopardy and he gets involved with two students in a way that he might previously have avoided. This also happens to be the most usual of the plot lines; marriage/divorce stories are a standard of pretty much every genre. So, consider which of your potential plot lines most resembles a standard plot line, one that would drive a popular film. Sum it up in a line.
  2. Build a plot line from the world of the plot. What is happening around this primary plot. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” the characters work at a university. This may have been deliberately chosen by Milward, or it might have just been a job he stumbled upon when writing the story—it doesn’t matter. Whatever exists around the plot, make it matter. Find a way to make its very existence hinge on the outcome of the primary plot. For example, if the divorce goes badly, we know the narrator’s job could be at risk. So, find a way to put the foundation of your characters’ lives at stake: jobs, home, children, whatever makes them happy or secure. Connect it to the primary plot.
  3. Build a plot line from the characters’ interests. This may be the most idiosyncratic plot line. As with the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects an obsession with Kansas history. Yet there it is, figuring dramatically in the story. Milward accomplishes this by making it relevant to the narrator: he was once part of the Weather Underground, and so when he discovers the revolutionary past of Kansas, he’s naturally drawn to it and feels compelled to share it with other revolutionary-minded individuals—in this case, his students. Of course, revolutionary is a hazardous career path, as is working with people whose fervor dwarfs your own. The important thing is that the narrator’s interest in Kansas history ties in with his job and, thus, his divorce. This may seem inevitable, but it’s not. Lots of people who are not college instructors visit war sites and re-enact battles. But Milward found a way to channel this interest into the world he’d created for the story. So, identify an interest or obsession in your character and a way to connect it to the world of your story.
  4. Play with the connections. If you build these plot lines from the same basic materials (the world of the story), then they will eventually collide, which is what you want.

Good luck.

How to Dig Deeper into a Scene

4 Aug
Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that I tend to create a potentially interesting scene and then exit it too quickly. I don’t think I’m alone. Because stories value compression, it’s natural to compress everything, all of the time. But the best moments in a scene don’t always arrive immediately. To reach them, you must dig deeper into the scene to discover what’s inside.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” starts with a long scene that ends with a great, tense, plot-driving moment. It was published in The New Yorker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story’s opening lines set the scene:

It’s one of those airlines where you get your seat assignment at the gate, and they’re late to Logan and slow to get through security, so the lady at the counter can’t seat Charity and her mom together. Which means five-plus hours of freedom—hallelujah!

Charity is fifteen years old, and so, of course, the story makes her sit next to this guy:

When the guy appears, he’s older, way older—like thirty, maybe. He wears leather sandals and a powder-blue slim-cut dress shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled. When he lifts his black backpack up into the overhead compartment, Charity finds herself staring straight into his exposed navel, a bulging outie like a blind gold eye in his belly, which was waxed at some point and is now stubbled, like a face. The top of his boxers peeks up above the waist of what Charity just so happens to recognize as three-hundred-dollar True Religion jeans.

This is the point where it would be tempting to dive directly into conflict and, then, end the scene. But that’s not what Taylor does. He’s got a potentially tense situation, and he milks it.

First, he flirts with her a bit, mildly, but the flirtation ends quickly when he becomes absorbed in a newspaper. Next, Charity falls asleep and wakes to find that she’s been resting her head on the man’s shoulder. Then, they stand up at the same time to use the restroom, and when they return, talk a bit until this moment:

“I’m Mark,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“Charity.”

“Charity. That’s pretty.”

She can feel her cheeks warming. “I don’t know.”

“No, really. It is. You are.”

“O.K. I mean, thank you. Thanks.”

He gives her his number, and then this happens:

He palms her inner thigh and squeezes it, two pumps, the second one a hard one, his wrist digging against the crotch of her jeans.

“Call me when you get bored, Charity,” he says.

To arrive at this moment has taken almost a third of the story. We’re not stunned at this turn of events because it was suggested by their proximity to each other. But, we are creeped out. Taylor has slowly led us to the man’s hand on Charity’s thigh, giving the scene space to steadily make us more uncomfortable. So, how did he do it?

The situation (young girl, older man) presents an obvious narrative arc. Rather than rushing to that ending, Taylor picks a series of moments to depict along the way, inching us closer and closer to the inevitable end. They’re small moments: minor flirtations and incidental physical contact, but because we suspect where this is headed, each moment is charged. That charge is the reason we savor the scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dig into a scene using “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor as a model:

  1. Identify the situation and a natural narrative arc. This is something you may do after you’ve written a rough draft of the scene, simply because we don’t often know what’s going on until we’re in the thick of it. So, state the situation as clearly and succinctly as possible (teenage girl sat next to pervy man on plane). Then, consider in what direction the scene could naturally move (man hits on girl). The genius of many scenes is not that they do the unexpected but, rather, that the expected thing is so dramatic and tense. In a horror movie, when a character walks into the dark alone, we know what’s going to happen. It’s the wait that thrills us. So, figure out where you’re going with the scene.
  2. Brainstorm points along the arc. What large or small moments might occur before the scene’s end? Taylor’s moments are both large (she falls asleep on the man) and small (he lets her by to use the restroom). What matters is that each encounter builds on the previous one. Richard Ford once said that stories make impossible things possible. In this story, Taylor allows the characters to become comfortable enough with each other that the man’s hand can move to the girl’s thigh. The man wouldn’t do this immediately. Seduction (or at least familiarity) is needed. How can you show the steps required to allow your ending to occur?
  3. Build mini-scenes around each point. Each moment in Taylor’s scene is not long. The moment when Charity awake with her head on the man’s shoulder is only a few paragraphs. Each moment has its own small arc—its own increasing tension. So, in each of your mini-scenes, think about how you can ratchet up the tension, even a little. How can each mini-scene end with more tension than it began?

Good luck.

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