What Can We Steal From Will Allison’s “Niernsee’s Tower”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Niernsee’s Tower,” short story
Author: Will Allison
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of the Kenyon Review.  Feel free to buy a back issue from those good people.  The kind folks at EBSCO offer the Kenyon Review archive in databases such as Academic Search Complete.  Your librarian will be more than happy to help you negotiate the database if you don’t already know how.  Perhaps the best way to get the story is to purchase Mr. Allison’s book What You Have Left.  “Niernsee’s Tower” is a part of the book.  (One whose creative structure merits a GWS essay of its own at some point!)

Bonuses: Check out Mr. Allison’s web site to read about his two very interesting novels.  Here’s “Atlas Towing,” a story Mr. Allison placed in Zoetrope: All-Story.  Columbus, Ohio’s WOSU did a great interview with Mr. Allison, a graduate of the Buckeye MFA program.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Section Breaks

Discussion:
Lyle and Holly have some problems in their marriage.  Lyle is getting increasingly frustrated about South Carolina politics and some elements of the state’s culture.  Holly, the daughter of a man who owns a video poker machine company, is addicted to video poker.  Lyle begins to protest during the course of renovating the South Carolina state house, stealing some old liquor bottles that would otherwise have gone to the museum.  One day, Lyle takes his protest up a notch, climbing up a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag so he can burn it.  Holly is there and fears for her husband…until the men take up a collection to congratulate Kyle for his bravery.  There are some fun turns in the story that I don’t want to ruin too much; suffice to say that Lyle and Holly are tested and their relationship changes a little bit by the end of the story.

So.  As I read the story, one element of craft jumped right out at me.  Mr. Allison uses section breaks in a way that is worth thinking about.  What do section breaks do?  The easy answer is “anything we want them to.”  The more complicated answer is that they break up the narrative in order to:

  • Indicate the passage of time
  • Indicate a point of view switch between narrators or characters
  • Emphasize scenes precede or succeed the section break

Mr. Allison employs nine section breaks in the story.  Here’s what each of them does:

  1. Cuts from Holly in the poker hall to Holly in the parking lot before she heads to the state house (leads to some introspection/exposition)
  2. Retreats to significant Confederate flag flashback
  3. Return to dramatic present, Lyle destroys flag as she and everyone watches.  The workers give Holly the money they collected
  4. Lyle emerges from the work site a few moments later
  5. Retreats to discussion of the statehouse; it turns out that Lyle and Holly are at a café.
  6. Dramatic present zooms to “the next day.”
  7. Same day “just after one o’clock.” Husband and wife discuss their plans.
  8. Extreme fast-forward into future in which the narrator tells the reader how everything works out for all of the characters after…
  9. Husband and wife are at the poker parlor a few minutes after the events of section seven.  Interesting conclusion I won’t spoil.

One of the most powerful tools a fiction writer has in his or her toolbox is the narrator’s ability to traverse space and time in an instant. For example:

“Sally entered the store for her first day on the job.  Ten years later, she left it for the last time with a bag of money under her arm.”

Mr. Allison made the choice to insert the section breaks, even though several of the transitions didn’t require them.  So why did he make those choices?  What is their effect?

If you look at the transition between “scenes” three and four, the pause offers the reader a chance to absorb the characters and their situation.  The reader would not have this opportunity if Mr. Allison had made the transition with a quick sentence instead of eye-stalling white space.

When Mr. Allison inserts a section break that is not entirely necessary, he seems to indicate to us that the preceding section should be considered on its own as a miniature narrative.  I think the idea is appropriate for this story because Mr. Allison’s third person omniscient narrator alternates fairly strongly between the perspectives of Lyle and Holly.  There is, of course, no right answer with regard to how a writer should transition between scenes or use section breaks.  It’s up to us to determine which techniques will best serve the story.

I certainly wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out the obvious and wonderful act of literary theft Mr. Allison committed.  The story is preceded by an epigraph, one sentence from Columbia, South Carolina’s The State newspaper: “A statehouse construction worker has been fired for climbing the scaffold-shrouded dome, ripping off a corner of the Confederate battle flag, carrying it to the ground and burning it.”  I have no idea what Mr. Allison really did, but he could very easily have read that sentence in the newspaper and started hearing Lyle and Holly talking to him.  And who knows?  Maybe there was no article and Mr. Allison simply made it up.  Either way, the epigraph lends a kind of credibility, hinting at the complicated social issues that are worked through in the story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Insert section breaks when they will facilitate graceful or appropriate transitions.  Determine when your narrator wants to add a hard break to your narrative or a soft one.
  • Steal story ideas from the newspaper.  Remember this the next time you’re reading the paper or a magazine: those great stories are waiting to be stolen.

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