What Can We Steal From Ashley Caveda’s “Burn”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Burn,” short story
Author: Ashley Caveda
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published by the excellent and fun journal Monkeybicycle and can be found right here.  Go read it!  “Burn” will someday be available in one of the many best-sellers Ms. Caveda will publish.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition v. Poetry

Discussion:
“Burn” is a short and powerful story about Felipe and his father.  Felipe is a twenty-six-year-old pharmacy technician in Madrid who just so happens to enjoy wearing stockings.  Felipe’s unnamed father is not very pleased and already made his objections clear twelve years earlier during a fight.  The dramatic present of the piece covers the confrontation between father and son.  Felipe’s father must believe that his son collects stockings to document the women he has conquered.  Will Felipe allow the lie to be forged?  To paraphrase Reading Rainbow: “read the story!”

The reader is immediately struck by Ms. Caveda’s lush, beautiful language and the way she quickly immerses the reader in her story.  The story begins in medias res at its inciting incident:

When his father found the stockings for the second time, Felipe was twenty-six and still living with his parents, no wife of his own.

What is the effect of starting your story “in the middle of things?”  Ms. Caveda draws in her reader and creates some excitement.  With the central conflict of the story already established, Ms. Caveda can address her true interest: the emotional turmoil of the characters.  Whether or not Felipe is a homosexual is up for debate; the stockings he loves to wear remind him  “of all the women he’d imagined being with over the years.”  Then again, Felipe often tells himself he is not gay…which may be an indication of denial.  Felipe’s father clearly loves him, but fears and hates what he believes his son may be.  These characters are complicated!  The story–FATHER FEARS HIS SON IS GAY–has been told numerous times, but the unique story of Felipe and his father only began to exist when Ms. Caveda breathed it to life.

Look at what Ms. Caveda is doing with her sentences themselves.  The expository sentences (the ones in which she’s telling you important information) are fairly straightforward.  Example:

He grabbed Felipe by the throat and shoved him into the bedroom wall.  A picture crashed to the floor.  His father’s fingers gripped Felipe so tightly that his nail beds went white.

Yes, yes, there are some details and some adjectives, but compare these sentences to the poetry Ms. Caveda uses to describe why Felipe enjoys wearing the stockings:

Felipe liked the way they felt when he ran his legs over one another while he lay in bed at night, listening to some distant guitar strumming in the Plaza de Cervantes, the summer heat settling in his room through the open window. Sometimes, as he walked from the Farmacia where he worked in Calle Mayor, past the drunk, middle-aged men outside of La Restauración, who were falling over their tables, flirting with the waitresses, the slick push-pull of his pants across the fabric underneath made him smile.

Not only are these sentences longer, but they contain more clauses and have a much more placid flow.  Isn’t that how it must feel if you’re relaxing out on that plaza, drinking a cerveza and watching the hombres and mujeres go by?  The contrast in the sentences not only puts emphasis on the poetry, but advances the characterization in which Ms. Caveda is most interested.

What Should We Steal?

  • Prioritize the elements of your story that mean the most to you.  Ms. Caveda wanted to explore emotion, so she made the plot clear and did so very quickly.  Perhaps you would rather tell a story with an insanely complicated plot; that’s fine, but you might realize that you’re easing up, for example, on the characterization.
  • Modulate your sentences to fit the need of the moment.  Imagine you are in court, ready for the jury to return its verdict.  The foreman says, “we find the defendant…”  You hold your breath, terrified, when the foreman continues, “a man with great virtues and faults…a human being in the classical sense of the word…someone whose hopes and dreams and future is currently in the balance…”  That is clearly a time when a long, beautiful sentence is a bad idea.

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