What Can We Steal From James Yu’s “White Rice”?

Title of Work and its Form: “White Rice,” short story
Author: James Yu (on Twitter @jaycmu)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The short story was featured in Ninth Letter‘s second web edition.  You can find the story here.

Bonus:  As a proud member of the Ohio State MFA family, I am partial to my program.  I’m not a crazy person, however, so I am happy to admit that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is another world-class place to hone one’s writing skills.  A few years ago, Tom Grimes put together a very cool book called The Workshop : Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: Forty-Three Stories, Recollections, and Essays on Iowa’s Place in Twentieth-Century American Literature.  I love the book because it contains great stories from the great writers who have been a part of Iowa’s program over the decades in addition to the kinds of personal anecdotes that make the MFA sound so appealing.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: No Mo’ Status Quo

Discussion:
Molly and Kevin were “no longer newlyweds after Molly stopped eating rice.”  Kevin is the first-person protagonist; he seems to believe that his wife’s rejection is something of a rejection of him and his Korean heritage.  The bulk of the story occurs on THE DAY MOLLY’S PARENTS COME FOR DINNER.  Kevin shows off his culinary skills; his father-in-law (a Vietnam veteran) is nice enough, but is still the slightest bit politically incorrect.  The dinner illuminates problems in Kevin and Molly’s marriage (that’s what stories do, after all) and Mr. Yu ends the story with a question.  The petty annoyances with which they afflict each other were small.  “But did knowing make things better, or worse?”

Maybe it’s because I love playwriting so much, but I LOVE it when a writer simply shuffles characters around in a scene.  If you force, for example, the judgmental and nasty matriarch of a family off stage, the other characters get to talk about her!  You can release exposition, advance characterization…anything you want!  Mr. Yu sets “White Rice” on THE DAY MOLLY’S PARENTS COME FOR DINNER.  The dynamic between the married couple is inherently altered.  I’m guessing that Kevin and Molly have gotten into a bit of a rut and the days have run together, rife with passive aggression and silly arguments.  That routine is broken up by the parents’ arrival.  Even though the parents aren’t so bad and everyone in the story is a mature adult (for whatever that means), things are different because the home contains four people instead of two.  As Kevin points out, the presence of her parents “demanded a measure of civility” from his wife.  Once dinner is over, the couple is forced to have a quiet fight; after all, who wants to get into a knockdown-dragout with Mom and Dad in the next room?

What’s the lesson?  Force your characters to enter and exit in such a manner that you maximize conflict or alleviate it in the interest of reflection.  Think of a time you’ve been in a public place and have heard a couple fighting.  Once the combatants leave, the onlookers are allowed to purge their shock and to comment upon what they saw.  As a demonstration, I offer the best story in the history of the galaxy.  All of human evolution was mere preparation for this episode of Cheaters.  Everything after the episode is a slow descent into entropic heat death.

So the woman and her “friends” were…having a good time.  Then the boyfriend entered stage right.  Don’t get me wrong, the initial confrontation is amazing.  Equally dramatic is the quiet discussion that occurred after the construction worker and the…Christian cat left the scene.  And all the while, the Cheaters team and their cameras influence the scene with their mere presence.

Look at how Mr. Yu finishes the climactic bedroom scene of his story.  Molly has been crying.  Kevin is being fairly sympathetic.  But the disrupted status quo has forced them into being a little more emotionally raw than usual.  Mr. Yu seems to pull back from adding “stuff” to the dialogue at the end of the scene.  (The great Lee K. Abbott calls the extra bits after dialogue “stuff.”)

What is the effect of this unadorned dialogue?  I love the way Mr. Yu knows he doesn’t need to shape our understanding of the emotionally burdensome lines.  He’s set up the story in such a way that we know the married couple has problems and we know what many of those problems are.  All we want to know is what the two characters say to each other.

What Should We Steal?

  • Move your characters on and off stage…(even if they only live on a page).  What’s better?  Watching the cuckold confront the cheater?  Or gossiping about it afterward?
  • Ditch the dialogue tags and other extras during crucial emotional moments.  Once we are brought up to speed with the characters and how they’re feeling, we don’t need to know as much about where the characters are walking or what they’re doing with their hands.  Do you narrate the arguments YOU have with your significant other?  (Something tells me that doing so would annoy your partner…but you still shouldn’t do it.)

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