What Can We Steal From Erin McGraw’s “Punchline”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Punchline,” short story
Author: Erin McGraw
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece is included in the 2013 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology and was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review.  Looky here!  Erin did a short interview about “Punchline!”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Father Phil Castor is having some problems.  His parishioners are driving him a little crazy and he’s not happy with the counsel he is providing.  Worst of all, his mind is wandering during his homilies; he’s improvising, going on a tangent about his long-dead sister and saying things he doesn’t remember when quoted back to him.  Phil, already struggling not to weep at the altar, sees one of his at-risk youth die of a drug overdose.  In short order, Phil’s brother is killed in a hit-and-run.  Phil has been emotionally adrift for a few weeks when two cars collide near his rectory.  Those involved in the crash are perfectly fine.  In fact, they’re annoyed at the police/insurance company hassle they’re going to endure.  Phil returns home, knowing he’s of no use.  He hears a mockingbird sing and is reminded of an appropriate and colorful memory.

All of my writing instructors have discussed narrative structure and each has helped me a great deal.  Erin, however, approached the topic from a different perspective, so we’re going to figure out what we can steal from the structure of her story.

Introductory advice: If possible, get over your bibliophile inclinations and make notes in a story when you are reading it.  Underline, box in the names of characters…whatever will help you gain some insight.

Erin organizes her story thus:

# Number of page inches/pages What the narrative accomplishes:
1 4”/.5 Two expository paragraphs in which McGraw tells the reader about Father Phil and the (minor) sins he has been committing recently.
2 4.75”/.7 No break.  McGraw brings the narrative into the dramatic present, recounting a scene that demonstrates the odd interactions Phil has been having with his parishioners.
3 10”/1.3 No break.  The story is rewound again so the reader can learn about the first time a parishioner repeated to Phil a line he hadn’t remembered saying.  The third-person narrator tells the reader exactly what Phil has been like in the past and how he has changed. Phil laments that he needs to write his sermon.
4 17”/2.5 Section break.  The sermon “wrote itself,” possibly because Father Phil was distracted.  McGraw describes Father Phil’s work week: one of the young people in a church program overdosed and he had to justify the continuance of the program and talk to the police and everything.  There are appointments and rehearsal wedding dinners.  Father Phil buys a “small bottle of Stoli” and is finally able to write; he is overwhelmed by thoughts of the Good Samaritan and the meaning of mercy.  Father Phil finally reflects upon the dead teenager and begins to weep.
5 25.5”/3.75 White space.  Father Phil gets counsel of his own from his brother, Gary, as they watch some Law & Order: SVU.  (A TV show that’s all about judgment and punishment and mercy.  Coincidence?  I think not.)  Father Phil is weary of talk; “that was their job description.”  He talks to the sick and bereaved, emcees a wine auction and understands he’s going to break down.  Another sermon written and performed, Father Phil goes out for a walk and returns to his office only to discover that Gary was struck in a hit-and-run.  Father Phil immediately goes to the hospital and tries to care for his brother, who dies several days later.  Father Phil asks a doctor the kinds of questions that parishioners usually ask him.
6 10.5”/1.1 White space.  Other priests have been covering for Father Phil as he works through his grief.  The bishop has instructed him to go back to work, but Father Phil is not ready.  He has a few drinks and the section break ends on his grief.
7 16”/2.2 White space.  The next day, Father Phil witnesses a traffic accident that occurs very close to the rectory.  The crash looks bad, but both drivers are fine.  (Both of them also seem like jerks.)  In spite of all of the tragedy and sadness and grief, a mockingbird comes by and sings, reminding Father Phil of a joke he shared with his brother and sister.

How can we tell which parts of the story were most important to Erin?  Look at how much page space she devotes to each section.  I found it interesting that Erin doesn’t spend more time in the dramatic present during the scene in which the kid dies in front of Father Phil.  Erin certainly cares about this story beat, but it looks like she cared more about its emotional aftermath.

The longest section by far falls in the middle of the story and describes one of the most critical weeks in Father Phil’s life.  He starts the week wondering about life and how he could best do his job and ends the week mourning the loss of his dear brother and confessor.  The section relentlessly bounces around, mimicking the loss of control that Father Phil is feeling in his life.  Erin allows Father Phil and the reader no break.  (Remember what Gertrude said to Laertes after Ophelia’s death?  “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,/ So fast they follow.”)

A lot of writers wonder how the heck they are going to orient the reader in the world they create.  Erin used the first 2.5 pages to introduce her character, give almost a page of backstory in the narrative past and then fast-forward to depict the kind of experience that is getting harder for Father Phil.  (Giving counsel and maintaining his own psychological balance.) The lapses and accidental honesty that Father Phil doles out are a harbinger of the sadness to come for him.

Maybe it’s just me, but I spend a lot of time thinking about section breaks and white space and the effect they have on readers.  Erin omitted white space in the first few sections for the same reason that rock bands start their concerts by playing three songs without a break: the reader feels a lot of energy and is drawn into the performance.  I think that the white space in the story represents Erin shifting between weeks.  (Give or take.)  Doesn’t this make sense?  Sunday is prime time for priests, right?  I love the idea that Father Phil would measure his life in this way.

What Should We Steal?

  • Measure the effect of white space and section breaks and when you decide to omit them.  A section break (*       *       *) is a SOMETHING.  The reader’s eye trips over it, understanding that it signifies SOMETHING.  In that nanosecond, the reader pauses and prepares for something new.  White space is an ABSENCE; the reader understands it in a different way.
  • Count lines or sentences or pages to allow you to take stock of the way you subconsciously understand your own work.  It’s often hard to see our own work with fresh eyes; why not use the power of cold, hard statistics to offer yourself a look from a different angle?  Perhaps you are including way too much material about a story beat that isn’t very important to you.  Maybe you’re not devoting enough page space to something that is crucial to your work.  Think of an action movie like Terminator 2.  How would you feel if the climactic scene lasted for ten seconds?  You would feel cheated; that’s why James Cameron keeps you in that foundry for quite some time.

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