Tag Archives: writing plot

How to Build a Story around a Fairy Tale

13 Jan
Kseniya Melnik's story, "The Witch," was included in Granta's New Voices series.

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” was included in Granta‘s New Voices series.

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May and published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:

I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a  cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.

The challenge facing Melnik is how to craft a modern story around this well-known character. This doesn’t mean simply rewriting the fairy tale. Angela Carter once put the problem this way: “My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”

In short, the writer must create a world that feels modern (which often means realistic, though not always) and somehow adapt the fairy tale to this world. To that end, Melnik follows her description of Baba Yaga with details from the trip deep into the woods:

The car smelled of gasoline, and a cauldron of nausea was already brewing in my stomach. I didn’t need the migraine diary to predict another cursed day.”

These details are entirely realistic and contemporary: gasoline, migraines, medical diary, and they also nod to the fairy tale with words like cauldronbrewing, and cursed. But if the story only nodded to the fairy tale in that simple way, we might feel cheated. And so Melnik further commits to the fairy tale in the next lines:

Soon the world would be ruined by blobs of emptiness, like rain on a fresh watercolor. Everything familiar would shed its skin to reveal a secret monstrous core. And, after a tug-of-war between blackness and fire, an invisible UFO would land on my head. The tiny aliens would drill holes on the sides of my skull, dig painful tunnels inside my brain, and perform their terrible electric experiments. I’d rather get eaten by Baba Yaga.

This description is contemporary since it describes the way a migraine feels (and also because it references UFOs). But it also introduces a surreal element that will continue through the story. As the narrator’s migraine sets in, the world around her begins to resemble something more at-home in a fairy tale than a story of modern-day Russia.

So, when the narrator arrives at the witch’s house, her mother appears as a rabbit, her grandmother becomes a bear, and the witch is transformed into a fox. These transformations have an utterly realistic cause, but they also fit the fairy tale at the story’s foundation. To some extent the way the story resolves this tension between realism and fairy tale sensibility determines the outcome of the story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s begin to write a story based on a fairy tale, using “The Witch” by Kseniya Melnik as a model:

  1. Choose the fairy tale. It doesn’t really matter what story you choose. You can even move beyond the realm of fairy tales: folk tales, religious stories, Greek myths, etc. Steven Millhauser has a great story—”A Voice in the Night”—that is based on the Old Testament story of Samuel and Eli and was selected for the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology.
  2. Choose a modern setting. This doesn’t necessarily mean contemporary or realistic. Instead, it simply means the story is written as if its readers are familiar with the literature and stories that have been created since your fairy tale was first told or written down. It’s not enough to simply rewrite the tale.
  3. Establish the language of the fairy tale. This is what Melnik does by telling us about Baba Yaga and her fence of bones and flying mortar. You’re telling the reader, in the original version of this tale, here are the language and images that were used.
  4. Establish the language of the modern setting. This is what Melnik does with the descriptions of gasoline odor. If your story is set in some historical time, give us details that put us in that time. If it’s set in some science fiction/fantasy world, create the nitty-gritty of the world so that we’re there. The important thing is to create a world that exists independently of the fairy tale.
  5. Connect the fairy tale and modern setting with plot. Melnik’s story is about a young girl going to see a witch in hopes of a migraine cure. The plot is drawn from the fairy tale (seeking a cure from a witch) but is also set firmly in the modern world (the problem is a migraine and the witch is a local healer). In most cases, fairy tale plots are relatively simple. In “Hansel and Gretel,” two kids are lost in the woods. The plot of “Sleeping Beauty” is not so different from the plot of “Rip Van Winkle.” Someone falls asleep or leaves, and when they awake/return, everything is weirdly the same or different. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” an evil character dresses up like someone familiar to the main character. When you think about plot, think about it in these simplified terms, not in all the nuances and trappings of the original tale.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Use Danger to Create Plot

6 Jan

“Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Monica McFawn appeared in The Georgia Review‘s Summer 2012 issue, along with an interview with Salman Rushdie and an essay by Scott Russell Sanders.

Everyone is familiar with Chekhov’s gun: If the story puts a gun on the wall in the first act, the gun needs to be fired by the third act. If a story presents something as dangerous, then it must face that thing directly, not avoid it. Of course, not every story needs a gun. The danger can be located in anything—even things that aren’t necessarily dangerous in every circumstance. All you need is for a character to say, “Don’t do that” or “That’s off-limits” or “Be careful” and you’ve got your dangerous element.

A really great example of creating plot around something forbidden can be found in Monica McFawn’s story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes.” It’s the first story in her collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, which won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. You can read “Out of the Mouths of Babes” at the Georgia Review.

How the Story Works

The story is about Grace, a woman who is babysitting Andy Henderson, a precocious nine-year-old boy. By the end of the first page, the story introduces something forbidden, through the instructions of Andy’s mother: “I said, keep him off the phone. He doesn’t need to be on the phone today.”

This doesn’t seem particularly dangerous, and it doesn’t need to be. If, as a writer, you rely on danger that is recognizably dangerous in every situation, then may end up needing dangers of greater and greater magnitude and end up writing terrorism/spy novels—which is fine, unless you’re not trying to write them. The important thing is that the act is forbidden. Next, the story must break the rule. The question is how. One option is to delay the breaking for as long as possible, perhaps ending the story with the forbidden act. Another option is to break it immediately and make the story about what happens next.

This story chooses the latter option. Grace wanders around the house, and Andy takes advantage of her absence to call an exterminator and bargain for the best extermination deal possible. Then, rather than punish the boy, as he expects, Grace instead says, “How would you like to make an even tougher call?” She challenges Andy to call her cell phone company and bargain the manager out of some overage charges. Andy pulls it off. Now what?

What this story does so well is escalate the danger. Grace asks Andy to make three more calls, each more personal and more important than the last: to a casino’s credit card company to reduce her payments, to her boyfriend to dump him, and to her sister to arrange a truce meeting. The stakes are higher with each call, and each call presents greater challenges to Andy, the nine-year-old trying to fake his way through them.

But what really makes this structure work is the effect it has on Grace. While wandering around the house at the beginning of the story, she discovers the liquor cabinet and pours herself a drink. With each call, she pours another until, by the final call, she’s close to passing out. Without these drinks—if the calls and the pressure to pull off the trick didn’t have any effect on Grace—then the story would feel flat. Suspense can be created by the knowledge that, even if something goes according to plan or succeeds against all odds, the character will still pay for it somehow.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a plot structure with an element of danger, using “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Monica McFawn as a model:

  1. Forbid or warn a character. The dangerous thing can be, literally, anything. Every situation has no-no’s built in. Don’t leave the house without doing the laundry. Don’t step in a puddle. Don’t fall asleep while driving. Don’t go out with him/her. Be careful with that knife. Don’t run with scissors. Pay attention to what you’re doing while ______. Don’t take medication while operating heavy machinery. Don’t shake the baby.
  2. Break the rule a first time. There are varying degrees of brokenness. For the first breaking, keep the stakes low–so what if it’s broken? As you probably know from breaking any rule or taboo, the lack of consequences of the first breaking makes it easier to break the rule again, with higher stakes.
  3. Break the rule again, but raise the stakes. McFawn does this by making the challenges more personal, moving from financial bills to personal relationships. Another way to raise the stakes is to move the breaking from a private setting to a public setting.
  4. Make the breaking take a toll on the character. If the rule exists for a good reason (or if the consequences for getting caught are severe enough), then there is likely some stress involved. How does that stress impact the character? Does it lead to nail biting? drinking? eating? spending? cheating? lying? How is the character’s life and person affected by these decisions that she makes? The key is to give the story layers. Even if the plot succeeds on one layer (the rule breaking has a positive outcome), there should be a different result on another level.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Write Plot by Answering the “Why” Question

5 Nov
Tiphanie Yanique's story "How to Escape from a Leper Colony" was first published at Boston Review.

Tiphanie Yanique was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and lives in Brooklyn. She was the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Prize in Fiction.

When we talk about plot, the focus is often on what happens–setting it up, teasing the reader with what will happen next, creating suspense. Sometimes, though, plot is built upon the question of why things happen.

Tiphanie Yanique’s story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” perfectly demonstrates how to build plot by answering the why question. The story was first published at Boston Review, where it won the journal’s annual short story contest. It was eventually included in Tiphanie Yanique’s story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press). It’s as good a story as you’ll ever read. You can find it here at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The title of the story—”How to Escape from a Leper Colony”—makes clear what will happen in the story:  someone, almost certainly the narrator, will try to escape the island. The question is why. The answer, of course, will be some version of Because they must or Because they have no choice. But that is not enough. The driving impulse to escape must be more than a plot mechanism. It must originate from the characters’ sense of themselves and their world—even if the cause is due to external events.

Here is how Yanique introduces the characters’ attitudes toward what will eventually happen:

“What evil thing Lazaro will do later we will forgive him for, because we know his past and because we know he is one of us.”

That sentence sets up two important ideas:

  1. Something has happened in Lazaro’s past that shapes his sense of the present
  2. He (and the narrator and others) are part of a group—which suggests that there is another group with different ideas about what will happen.

So, what is the belief system or attitude of Lazaro’s group? Much of the story is spent developing the particular way the group members view the world, and in this passage, that attitude comes into sharp focus:

“From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy. Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera. But Jesus had touched lepers. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

Because the story so clearly establishes the characters and their attitudes, the events of the story become not simply things that happen but the so-called straw that breaks the camel’s back. In other words, the plot is driven by the characters’ reactions to what happens.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s discover the attitudes of our character(s) using “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” as a model.

  1. Identity the source of the character’s trouble. In high school, many of us learned about literary conflicts: man vs. man, man vs nature, man vs self, man vs. society. While these aren’t particular useful outside of a classroom, they can point us in the right direction. Who or what is your character at odds with?
  2. Identity when the trouble began. You might create a timeline. At the least, you should know if the conflict is old or relatively new. All conflicts warp (or, to put it more positively, conflicts shape) a character’s sense of him/herself in the world. The older the conflict, the stronger the resentment or attitude is likely to be.
  3. Identify the character’s group. All people tend to classify themselves into groups, and those groups often take “an us vs. them” philosophy. The groups can be based on large ideas like class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or politics, or they can be based on behaviors. Try defining the group with a phrase such as “The kind of people who…” or “The kind of person who…” For example, there are the kind of the people who love Neil Diamond and those who do not. There are the kind of people who are kind to everyone and those who are not—the kind of people who like to try new food and those who do not.
  4. Introduce the conflict and let the character comment on it both as a member of the group and as someone with a history with the conflict. Think of the story’s conflict as being like herpes. The root problem–the virus–never goes away, and so the conflict occurs when the symptoms reappear. In many stories and novels, the characters’ problem is chronic, a reoccurrence or new manifestation of something he/she has been dealing with for a long time. Try reintroducing the problem–a new occurrence or manifestation of it–and let the character talk about it as someone experienced with dealing with it. Then, let the character view the conflict through the prism of the group beliefs. If it’s herpes, and the group is defined by people who complain and those who do not complain, you might write this: “There wasn’t any point in whining or moaning about it. You just had to get on with things, and people who couldn’t do that–well, he wasn’t going to hang out with those kind of people.”

Play around with these different steps. Try commenting on the conflict in a variety of ways. Once you find a comment that resonates with your character, you may find that the plot (and the way forward into the story) becomes clearer.

Good luck and have fun.

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