Tag Archives: The Good Men Project

How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck and have fun!

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How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

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

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Good luck and have fun!

How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

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