Tag Archives: story structure

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

Advertisements

An Interview with Robert Boswell

30 Jun
Robert Boswell has published 12 books, 2 plays, and more than 70 stories and essays and won more awards than can fit beneath a headshot.

Robert Boswell has published 12 books and more than 70 stories and essays and won some of the most prestigious literary awards in America.

Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had two plays produced. His work has earned him two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, a Lila Wallace/Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. His novels include The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Award in Fiction; Mystery Ride, named by the Chicago Tribune and Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year; The Geography of Desire, picked by The London Independent as one of the best books of the year; and Virtual Death, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and named by the Science Fiction Chronicle as one of the best novels of the year. A New York Times review said that his most recent novel, Tumbledown, contains a “deft twining of irony and insight on nearly every page.”

Boswell has published more than 70 stories and essays, which have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Esquire, Colorado Review, Epoch, Ploughshares, and many other magazines and anthologies. He holds the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston. He lives in Houston, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Telluride, Colorado. He also spends time in a ghost town high in the Rockies.

To read an exercise on dialogue based on Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” click here.

In this interview, Boswell discusses the early drafts of “The House on Bony Lake” and his approach to withholding and revealing key information in the story.

Michael Noll

The story moves back and forth between the main character’s present and his family’s past. Did the idea for the story begin in the present—and then you added the family history? Or did the family history come first?

Robert Boswell

The story began with the idea of the house, built by a distant ancestor and improved upon by each generation until Paul inherits it; Paul’s carelessness causes the house to burn to the ground. This idea told me enough about Paul that I could begin to imagine him, and it also demanded that I picture the house and conceive the manner of its construction and the types of improvements that followed. The two threads were linked from the start.

Why I found this idea interesting or where the idea came from, I can’t say.

But I can guess.

Some years ago my wife and I bought a big hunk of a ghost town, and we’ve been fixing up the old post office, turning it into a cabin—a writing retreat, supposedly. I would guess that my subjecting that old building to my fiercely lousy carpentry had something to do with the origin of the story. (I have not burned the post office to the ground, but there’s time yet.)

Sidebar—it was actually a combination post office and tavern. Why didn’t that idea catch on?

Michael Noll

What was your approach to that back and forth between the story’s present and past? Both parts move chronologically, but I’m curious about your strategy for how to juxtapose the different sections.

Robert Boswell

Early drafts of the story opened with the grandfather building the house, and the narrative moved forward chronologically, generation by generation, until Paul finally took possession of the place. This strategy did not work. Characters were introduced, their lives were summarized, and then they died. By the time the narrative reached Paul, the reader (assuming she was still awake) would have been exhausted.

I decided to start with Paul and weave the history of the house into his narrative. My first draft after making this decision was purely mechanical. I scissored up the history and shuffled it into Paul’s story. With each subsequent draft, I experimented, eventually cutting roughly a third of Paul’s story and maybe half of the family history. I looked for logical points at which to break from the history, I rearranged the segments of Paul’s narrative, and I kept tinkering until things clicked into place. (Chris Cox at Harper’s made a number of good suggestions, as well.)

All of these decisions were matters of craft, meaning that I worked to apply to the decision-making all that I’ve studied over the years, and then I compared the result with my own intuitive sense of story. (This is something like choosing a mate by making lists of positive and negative traits; no matter how much you employ logic to solve the problem it will never trump irrational emotional attraction.) Craft permits me to align story elements, but it’s ultimately my own instincts about narrative that decide. I work a story until a mysterious something sends a spark along the narrative circuits in my mind. That’s about as close as I can come to honestly answering this question.

And, yes, even now, after working at it for decades, I find writing fiction as mysterious as falling in love. Fortunately, I also find it every bit as compelling. Ultimately, my fidelity is not to the craft of writing but to the mystery of living that literature relentlessly explores. I am not a fan of well-made stories that merely advertise the inventiveness of their architecture. The stories I love reek of life.

I am drawn to stories with multiple timeframes, but writing them exhausts me. The key, I believe, is that every movement between frames, regardless of chronology, has to feel like an acceleration of the narrative.

Easier said than done.

Michael Noll

There’s a big reveal in the story, and you keep it to hidden for a long time—in fact, we don’t really even know that it’s there to be found. We only know that his house burned down and that this was a significant event. Did you always know that you would wait to reveal what happened?

Robert Boswell

How a writer manages the release of information is crucial to any story’s success. As you point out, the reader of “Bony Lake” has no idea that a reveal is coming. To my way of thinking, this is the key to withholding information.

If a narrator alludes to a dramatic event without giving the reader enough information to feel settled, it will likely come off as coy. Imagine that you notice someone at a party and you ask the host about him. The host says, “He’s my new colleague, and he has a dark secret in his past. Catch you later.” You’ll no doubt find yourself annoyed with the host. But imagine that the host says, “He’s my new colleague. When he was a kid, he lost his parents in a hurricane.” While you may wonder if there’s more to the story, this information is not a tease. You now possess one solid tidbit about the person.

Time passes. You encounter the man, and the information about him that you possess colors your understanding of him. One evening in a bar, he tells you about the hurricane, and you discover that he was responsible for his mother going out in the storm to fetch something for him. His father then went out to retrieve her. The real secret is that he’s responsible for the deaths of his parents. Revealed in stages, the secret is not a tease and the writer is able to insert the information wherever it best serves the narrative.

Moreover, when a reader feels that she understands a situation and then realizes that the terms are larger or stranger than she conceived, the discovery is stimulating. It forces the reader to rethink all she thought she knew.

That’s more or less the effect that I’m striving for in “The House on Bony Lake.”

Michael Noll

This is a story where things end but not a door-slamming way—with an emotional resolution rather than a plot conclusion. I think this is something that story writers struggle with. When a character’s struggle is primarily interior, how do you dramatize the resolution (at least in terms of the story) of that struggle? When did you know how the story would end?

Robert Boswell

Robert Boswell's story, "The House on Bony Lake," appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

I knew early on how the story would end, but I did not know why or how the narrative would get there. I had to discover all that while revising. Paul’s final act in the story is meant to, as you say, provide an emotional resolution; however, the ending is also meant to complete the narrative shape by suggesting that the there is another way of interpreting the family’s history.

Having avoided talking about the reveal in the reply above, I don’t think I should give away the end of the story with this response. So I’ll try to talk about it by referring to other stories—great stories—that make analogous narrative moves.

In Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” the end of the story reframes Ivan Ilych’s deathbed question from “Why me?” to “How should I have lived?” And then the question is answered in an astonishing manner. Until the very end, the character and the reader are engaged with the wrong mystery.

In Peter Taylor’s “A Wife of Nashville,” Helen’s behavior at the end can only be understood when the reader lets go of the terms by which he’s interpreted events (the racial divide among Southerners in the middle of the 20th century) and adopts a new set of terms (the gender divide in that same population).

NoViolet Bulawayo deftly orchestrates a similar narrative maneuver in the first story (“Hitting Budapest”) of her novel-in-stories We Need New Names. The final moments of the story complicates the reader’s natural desire to side with hungry children. Such a desire tends to sentimentalize characters, and Bulawayo refuses to let this happen. By denying the reader a romanticized vision of the children, Bulawayo insists on the characters’ full share of humanity.

I do not mean to suggest that my story belongs in the same category as these great stories; rather, that the ending, if it works, comes from an understanding of an elusive narrative strategy that I did not so much mimic as discover—a startling discovery made during the writing of the story. And it’s only later, of course, that I realized my discovery is a merely variation on the work of some writer on whose shoulders I have been for some time attempting to stand.

June 2016

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

An Interview with Tom Hart

21 Jan
Tom Hart is a cartoonist best known for the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is creator of the comic strip Hutch Owen. His new book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

Tom Hart is a cartoonist and the Executive Director of The Sequential Artists Workshop, a school and arts organization in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of the Hutch Owen series of graphic novels and books and has been called “One of the great underrated cartoonists of our time” by Eddie Campbell and “One of my favorite cartoonists of the decade” by Scott McCloud. His strip, Ali’s House, co-created with Margo Dabaie, was picked up by King Features Syndicate. His newest book is the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning, about his daughter Rosalie who died just before turning two years old.

To read an exercise about giving characters a frame of reference and an excerpt from Rosalie Lightning, click here.

In this interview, Hart discusses loosening structure to escape strict chronology, editing out details to create an intended effect, and finding an ending buried in the middle of a book.

Michael Noll

The book contains several storylines: your grieving, the sale of your apartment in Brooklyn, your move to Florida, moments with Rosalie. But it also contains moments that stand alone from these narratives—events or thoughts or images that exert a gravitational force on your memory beyond their place in the sequence of events. For example, there is a single frame with this text: “Before we leave for New Mexico, I will pay for my daughter’s cremation with an ATM card like I’m buying a bag of bananas.”

You mention in the book and on your blog that you wrote and drew constantly after Rosalie’s death and the you had to piece those disconnected writings and drawings into a book. Was it difficult to find the right spot for moments like the one above? How did you find a structure that could contain both narrative and individual moments that stood out from whatever story they were apart of?

Tom Hart

At some point (when I drew a panel of me saying “This would be the only thing in my head when I entered the funeral home”) it occurred to me I could jump forward in time and never worry about revisiting the moment again. Previously I thought I was on a straight ahead chronology and that if I foreshadowed or even detailed something, I would revisit it when it’s time in the story had come (to some grand effect). Then I realized I didn’t have to do this. It was a loosening of the structure that I thought I needed, one which already was unraveling as I was working.

So in answer to the question, the structure is incredibly organic, and really I just followed my natural slow-moving thoughts. Since I’m telling a story, chronological became a sort of default, but I always welcomed digressions from the main story for thought. So, in the case you mentioned, I thought, “How am I going to get this atm/banana incident in there so it reacts against this moment I just drew out?” and then the answer was, “Put it in now.”

Michael Noll

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Throughout the book, you quote or paraphrase books, comic strips, songs, and films. Some, like the Beatles songs, are things that you encountered unexpectedly, and others are encountered intentionally, like the Herzog film. And then there are others, like the book about Louis, that are important from the beginning but whose emotional resonance changes over time. In these moments, your touch is so light. With the Beatles, for example, you give no explanation, only saying that you heard the song on the plane and didn’t recognize it. Then you give a snippet of the lyrics. But with the Louis book, you show Rosalie engaging with it. In other words, sometimes you let these other narratives and pieces of art speak for themselves, without explanation, and other times you engage with them. Did you have an approach in mind for each, or did you have to figure out for each one how much or little to explain?

Tom Hart

Thank you.

Each one was handled singly except for the ones that were stories that informed Rosalie’s imagination. I wanted to draw those out more fully, in time and faithfulness but also visually: most of the redrawn cartoons have a consistent, clean greyscale under the lines. Elsewhere in the book there is a larger attempt at visual expressionism—come what may.

But in the other instances, again, I just followed the thoughts and edited out anything that was too much.

(Side note—the Beatles line needed a light touch partially for legality sake! I think in my original draft I had a line or two more of the first song. The Tim Buckley song near the end was intentionally elided for the same reason, but I think it worked best this way.)

There were times when I had to edit down my real-time impressions and go for a literary rendition. For instance, the Titian painting is a painting of St. Christopher (I think) carrying the Baby Jesus. It’s all about Jesus, but I wanted to focus on the thought I had, which was about the heaviness. Removing some of the words from the myth. So I purposely never mention Jesus, which is quite a fib since it is very clearly a painting about Jesus.

Michael Noll

Because you’re writing about grief and shock, you’re inherently writing about things that defy an easy, simple portrayal. I really admire the way you capture this, especially how abruptly feelings can change or appear. For example, you spend several pages describing your trip to New Mexico to stay at a retreat for people who’ve experienced sudden loss. The weather is terrible, you’re filled with despair, the logistics seem overwhelmingly complicated. In one panel, there is only one word—“Malfunctioning”—and an image of a steering wheel within what appears to be a brick wall. And then, at the end, you and your wife Leela rush into the motel “and try to make a baby.” It’s a stunning, devastating switch. How do you carry the reader with you as you make decisions when the logic of them is so intensely personal and, perhaps, not fully understood even by you and your wife?

Tom Hart

Thanks for being such a rigorous reader.

That switch was just descriptive, I just described it exactly as it occurred. Or at least it felt that fast. Again, I edited out what was unnecessary (presumably we took our winter clothes off).

Like most writers, I thought only what would be the most effective language to me and assumed there would be readers like me to follow it.

It’s certainly true that scene was set up by the previous mention of a baby—as it was in life.

In this instance, though there also may be more specific answers. For instance, I think I wrote that minimalistic “malfunctioning” line in there much later, not really knowing what to do with the text in that panel. And the image in the final panel was increasingly abstracted over iterations as I realized no representation was needed. So, there was some intention there—the text becomes more short and abbreviated, and a wildly unreadable drawing is the climax of that whole scene.

Michael Noll

Since the book begins with the death of your daughter, it’s natural for the reader to assume that it will end with some kind of emotional resolution. Yet the resolutions that we often expect in books don’t always exist in life. So, I was interested in how you end on two difference scenes, one (the kiss) that is, in a way, more emotionally satisfying and one (the call from your friend) that resists resolution. How did you find these endings? Was it a matter of writing until you found them, or did you know, at some point in the process of writing the book, where you were headed?

Tom Hart

That kiss came in real life, exactly when I detailed, and at that moment I knew it was time to stop “collecting material”—to stop writing. I knew that was the end of the book. After that, I tried to put my more meditative, less shocked brain onto the larger problem of the book, which itself was a method of deepening my understanding of the event and events. So, presented with some short-term revelations and intellectual understandings, I took to the longer, slower task of internalizing them.

The second part of the ending—the phone call—was edited out of the darker (visually so), chapter early on (Chapter 5). It was too long, too different in tone and didn’t say anything about our state of mind. But it was a powerful moment I thought should be in the book. Eventually, far into the writing, I realized that the connection to the outside world it brought, the contrast to another way of grieving—and just the use of her name—made it the right springboard into the final pages.

January 2016

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

Why Paragraphs Matter in a Story

25 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: