What Can We Steal From Teresa Milbrodt’s “Larissa Shoots the Moon”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Larissa Shoots the Moon,” short story
Author: Teresa Milbrodt (on Twitter @teresa_milbrodt)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: “Larissa Shoots the Moon” was first published in Issue 41 of SmokeLong Quarterly, a very cool journal of very short fiction.  You can find the story here.

Bonuses:  Here is a short story Ms. Milbrodt published in [PANK].  Here is an interview in which Ms. Milbrodt discusses her collection, Bearded Women.  Here is a video from Ms. Milbrodt’s YouTube page in which she reads part of another story about Larissa, her outspoken alter ego:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Economy

Discussion:
Seventh-grader Larissa is going to the space museum in Wapakoneta and hopes to meet Neil Armstrong.  She also has a crush on a guy named Neil.  Unfortunately, Neil gets sick in the bus on the way to the museum.  She wants to comfort Neil, but is forced to head into the museum.  More disappointment: Neil Armstrong isn’t going to show.  The story ends as Larissa compares the journeys of the two Neils.  One got sick on a relatively short bus ride and the other was crammed into a capsule smaller than a bus on a trip to the Moon.  Larissa is struck by the awe and grandeur of Armstrong’s lunar experience.

Look at Ms. Milbrodt’s first sentence:

In seventh grade my science teacher promised the class we’d go to the space museum in Wapakoneta and meet Neil Armstrong because Armstrong had shared a backyard with our science teacher when he was a little kid and they were still friends.

Phew!  Ms. Milbrodt is not messing around!  Look at what she establishes in the first sentence:

  1. The first person point of view.
  2. The narrator’s age (seventh grade).
  3. Where the story takes place (somewhere in or near Ohio) and when (at some point after Armstrong took his steps and before the gentleman died).
  4. Hints toward a possible climax (meeting Neil Armstrong).

The sentence may be a little long, but that’s a good thing in this case!  The story is so short that Ms. Milbrodt needs to get the exposition out of the way as quickly as possible. This is a piece about a milestone of Larissa’s adolescence, so the author quickly puts the focus on the elements that will allow her to reach that epiphany.  In a far longer work, Ms. Milbrodt may have chosen to tell us more about the science teacher or what Larissa thought about Neil, but she only had a few hundred words and had to prioritize.  (You’ll also notice that the protagonist’s name itself is released in an efficient manner…it’s in the title!)

I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to do a lot of “scene work” in my stuff.  You know, to construct scenes that contain all of the possible elements: dialogue, narration, indication of character movements…all that stuff.  If you’ll notice, Ms. Milbrodt doesn’t have a single line of real dialogue in the piece.  What is the effect of this choice?  Well, it may be harder for the reader to imagine the actual mechanics of the scenes in the piece.  On the other hand, the piece benefits greatly because every single bit of the story comes from the protagonist’s perspective.  We’re much closer to Larissa because there’s no scrim at all separating her from us.

In the third paragraph of the story, the science teacher “dragged” the kids “away so the bus driver could clean.”  Had this bit been cast in a “real” scene, it would have been a drag on the flow of the story:

Mr. Jackson snapped his fingers and pointed to the bus door.  “That’s it,” he said.  “Out.”

“But Neil doesn’t feel well.  Can I take care of him for a while?”

“Sorry,” Mr. Jackson said, leading us out of the bus by the shoulders.  “Mr. Allan needs some time to clean up.”  The driver passed us as he climbed up the bus stairs, a mop in one hand and a bucket of bleach water in the other.

Even if you write a really cool scene (not that my example was cool), the benefits may not outweigh the costs.  Sliding through the narrative in the manner Ms. Milbrodt did also allows you to put emphasis on the most important details and words.

What Should We Steal?

  • Hit the ground running…and run even faster when you compose short works.  The sooner you establish the characters and setting, the sooner you can push toward the climax of your piece.
  • Allow yourself to write scenes without “scene work.”  Scenes should be as lean as possible, particularly in flash fiction.

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