What Can We Steal From Neil Gaiman’s “Orange”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Orange,” short story
Author: Neil Gaiman (on Twitter @neilhimself)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece debuted in the October 2010 issue of Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine.  The piece was subsequently included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011.  (“Orange” can be found in a number of other anthologies, too.)  Mr. Gaiman is an absolutely charming storyteller; you can watch him read the story on video:

Bonuses:  Here is what StoryADay’s Julie Duffy thought of the story.  Here’s a beautiful commentary from Mr. Gaiman in which he reminds us what is truly important: libraries.  Here is Mr. Gaiman’s official bookstore.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure

Discussion:
Jemma Glorfindel Petula Ramsey is a sixteen-year-old woman in a bit of a strange situation. Her younger sister Lilias seems to have received a jar of dye.  Before long, Jemma discovers that Lilias, a curious teenager, has smeared the liquid on her skin.  Then Lilias started to glow a “pulsating orange” and telling people “she was going to be worshipped like a god.”  What happens next?  Why don’t you read the story and find out?

One of the reasons that Mr. Gaiman is one of the most successful English-language writers in the world is that his work is at once imaginative and accessible.  Yes, this story’s main character is a teenager who literally becomes orange, but the piece is not at all “strange” to a reader who is at all open-minded.  How does Mr. Gaiman simultaneously ground the reader while taking him or her on an unexpected ride?  To me, the biggest reason is the felicitous structure that Mr. Gaiman chose.

The first lines of the story point out that we’re reading a

CONFIDENTIAL POLICE FILE

and the officer points out that Jemma’s testimony is the

(Third subject’s responses to investigator’s written questionnaire).

Mr. Gaiman appropriated the structure of a police interrogation.  How does this help him?

  1. First person testimony is very easy for all of us to understand.  We hear and create first person narratives every single day.
  2. Police records are, by definition, extremely reliant upon the elucidation of facts and the use of clear prose.  The reader is less likely to be confused by any complex or beautiful sentences because these are, by definition, the crisp sentences of a teenager hoping to put facts into the public record.
  3. Exposition is comparatively easy to release in a police report.  Mr. Gaiman doesn’ t  have to worry about how he’s going to slip his character names into the story in a graceful fashion.  Why?  That’s the first question Jemma is asked.  Instead of trying to figure out an organic way to communicate Jemma’s age, Mr. Gaiman simply makes it the second question and plops in her age and birthday.
  4. The form eliminates a lot of the “connecting tissue” that is present in a “traditional” story.  “Orange” is a brisk read and the time Mr. Gaiman saves in simply TELLING you, for example, where Jemma has lived can be devoted to the many clever and charming jokes in the story.

With all of that said, I think we can also learn a lot from the inherent ambiguity in the story.  The reader doesn’t receive the questions that Jemma is answering.  The effect resembles that of an overheard phone conversation.  We’ve all been somewhere when a person answers the phone and we hear what the person is saying, but we don’ t know what’s coming through on the other end of the line.  So even though Mr. Gaiman ensures that the Lilias narrative is very clear, he allows us to dream by throwing in a little bit of ambiguity:

8.

No.

70.

Until the day I die.

Do we know exactly what the questions are?  No.  But because the Lilias narrative is so firm, Mr. Gaiman can indulge himself and his reader in a little daydreaming.  I have my own idea as to the questions that Jemma is answering and they mean something to me.  You may have a completely different interpretation…and that’s wonderful.

I can’t help but point out that Mr. Gaiman and I have had the same little idea.  One of my crummy grad school stories centers upon a woman whose adolescence was made more difficult by her father’s silly devotion to his stupid business idea.  The father loses his savings and his wife because of his Hot Salad™ restaurant.  Mr. Gaiman is similarly playful in “Orange.”  Jemma’s mother “invented the Stuffed Muffin™, and started the Stuffed Muffin chain.”  If you watch the videos of Mr. Gaiman reading the story, the ™ gets a delightful laugh.  What can we steal from this coincidence?  I am willing to bet that this kind of coincidence happens all of the time.  Why shouldn’t we feel slightly heartened by the fact that we may have the same kinds of ideas that pop into the heads of world-class writers?

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ a form that allows you to be both imaginative and accessible.  A story about an orange teenager may be a little confusing to some…unless it’s told in a clear and forceful manner.
  • Contrive your work in such a manner that your reader wonders about the proper things.  Don’t make your reader wonder what is going on.  Force your reader to wonder what it all means to them.
  • Take heart when you notice similarities between your work and that of very successful writers.  Maybe, just maybe, folks like me are on the right track!

ANOTHER BONUS:

Mr. Gaiman happens to be married to Amanda Palmer, a great musician and artist.  We should all see Ms. Palmer’s TED talk.  In “The Art of Asking,” she glorifies art and beauty in an unexpected manner and describes the kind of world in which we should all have the pleasure of living.  At the very least, we should all try to be the kind of audience that Ms. Palmer describes.

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