What Can We Steal From Antonya Nelson’s “Chapter Two”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Chapter Two,” short story
Author: Antonya Nelson
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The short story was first published in the March 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.  Subscribers can read the story here.  The story was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and can be found in the anthology.

Bonuses:  Here is a Q&A in which Ms. Nelson discusses her story.  Here is an interview Ms. Nelson granted to The Missouri ReviewHere is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Whoa!  Here’s a video of Ms. Nelson reading her story!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Hil is an alcoholic.  Is there any better storyteller than an addict who consumes a substance designed to release inhibitions?Hil is tired of her own life, so she enjoys talking about that of her neighbor, Bergeron Love (great name).  Bergeron is a kind of Blanche DuBois character, a little bit older and quite sure about what the world should be like.  (And how others are falling short of her standards.)  Discussing her neighbor also seems to be a way for Hil to distract from her own issues.  Bergeron is certainly an interesting character; she’s always calling the police on other people in the neighborhood or running around naked.  As you might expect, her son Allistair isn’t very jazzed about the latter.  Sadly, Bergeron Love doesn’t survive the story.  After we learn of the death, the reader is told more about how Hil lies at A.A. meetings; she leads a dual life.  Outside of meetings, she’s a drinker.  In the group, she’s been sober for nearly a year.  The last few paragraphs center upon how Hil has contextualized the Bergeron Love story and what she thinks may become of Allistair.

Do I love the idea of using the storytelling tendencies of an addict to facilitate a story?  Sure.  But what I love most about the opening piece is the way Ms. Nelson slid between the meetings (the dramatic present) and the flashbacks to the events she was describing.  The technique gave me the feeling that I was reading a prose version of a TV clip show.  What’s a clip show?  It’s an episode of a TV program in which the dramatic present is broken up with video taken from earlier episodes of the show.  Doing a clip show is a great way to save money–you only need to write and shoot a few minutes of narrative–but they can also be boring.  Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.  The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the best in television history.  In 2004, the living cast reunited to update all of us as to what the characters have been doing since the show ended.  Look what happens after all of the characters get together.

“Hey, Alan.  Remember that time Laura told everyone you were bald?”

Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo…  We see the footage in which Laura tries to apologize.

“Hey, Rob.  Remember that time you broke your leg skiing after insisting to Laura you’d be fine?”

Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo…  We see the footage in which Rob tries to pretend his body isn’t in massive pain.

Now, I’m not saying that Ms. Nelson is relying upon a creative crutch.  (Many TV programs that do clip shows are doing just that.)  What I am saying is that I love the way Ms. Nelson mimics the structure of a clip show.  Check out the beginning of the story.  Hill is in the middle of telling a story:

Tired of telling her own story at A.A., Hil was trying to tell the story of her neighbor.  It had been a peculiar week.  “So she comes to my house a few nights ago, like around nine, bing-bong, drunk as a skunk, as usual, right in the middle of this show my roommate and I are watching.”

Now look what happens in the next paragraph:

“Looks like somebody’s not getting enough attention,” Hil had murmured as she unlocked the door.

Can you spot it?  How Ms. Nelson transitioned between the dramatic present and the “clips” in the clip show?  Okay, here’s the answer.  Ms. Nelson’s narrator employs a different tense.  She goes from the past tense to the past perfect.

Past: Hil was trying to tell the story.

Past Perfect: Hil had murmured…

Switching between the A.A. meeting and the events for which Bergeron was present may have been very confusing in the hands of a lesser writer.  (Such as myself.)  Instead, Ms. Nelson allows her narrator to switch up the tense, efficiently communicating what was happening and when.

Ms. Nelson is indeed playing with time a lot.  One of her big responsibilities in the story is to make sure we know where the characters are and when.  Look what Ms. Nelson says halfway through the story when she wants to zip around through the space/time continuum:

On that earlier naked night…

Erin McGraw was one of my world-class and extremely generous teachers at Ohio State.  I had already understood the principle subconsciously, but she knocked the point home: fiction is great because you can simply type a phrase such as the one I’ve just spotlighted.

Meanwhile, at the ranch…

Having just set her barn on fire, Alexia arrived at the rock climbing facility with a new sense of purpose…

After eating dinner, Bob and Laura got into their spaceship and parked at Mars (Literally) Bars for dessert.

If a scene is getting boring?  End it and start another.  If you need your character to travel from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon?  Not a problem.  Yes, your choices need to make sense, but all superpowers must be wielded with discretion.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ different tenses to slide between flashbacks and the dramatic present.  Telling people that you’re messing around with the dramatic present doesn’t have to be clunky.  Remember, on clip shows, the characters will often stare into the camera and say, “WOW.  WE HAVEN’T FOUGHT THIS MUCH SINCE THAT TIME WE GOT LOCKED IN THAT WALK-IN COOLER TOGETHER.”   Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo…
  • Assert the fiction writer’s control over space and time.  Prose writers can easily fast-forward past the boring parts or simply plop your characters where you want them to go.

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