What Can We Steal From Callan Wink’s “Breatharians”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Breatharians,” short story
Author: Callan Wink
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted the October 22, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. At the time of this writing, the story was available in full on the New Yorker web site. “Breatharians” was subsequently selected for The Best American Short Stories 2013.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
August is a young man who is living between two worlds. To paraphrase Britney, he’s not a boy, not yet a man. His mother and father live in separate homes on the same property. His body is strong enough to allow him to kill cats without remorse, but he mourns the loss of his “birth dog.”
The inciting incident of the story is the moment when August’s father tells his son to “get rid of the damn” wild cats in his barn. August is happy to take on the work; he wants pocket money. The story covers the next couple days as the cat slaughter looms in the distance and the reader learns about the protagonist’s situation. It seemed to me as though Mr. Wink was most interested in painting the portrait of his interesting character. There’s an uneasy peace in August’s life: a peace that will be shattered when he finally figures out more about life.
Mr. Wink’s story succeeds so fabulously because he illuminates character so well by forcing August to negotiate an unending series of contrasts:
- He’s torn between an old home and a new home (on the same property, even!)
- His mother lives in the old house, previously owned by her family. His father lives in the new house, one he had built using his wife’s family money.
- August’s father’s spending an awful lot of time with Lisa…an eighteen-year-old woman…August is getting to the age where he starts to think about eighteen-year-old women a lot…
- Dogs: treasured companions. Cats: unwanted vermin.
The choice of placing August “in between” is helpful because of the inherent tension created by his position. His parents are fighting. He probably has feelings for Lisa that he doesn’t understand, and his father has feelings for Lisa that adults understand immediately. He knows the definitions of life and death, but hasn’t started to feel what they mean until recently. Mr. Wink has made a shrewd choice that makes drama inevitable.
The structure of the story is extremely solid. Mr. Wink begins the story with a problem: there are too many feral cats in the barn. Mr. Wink ends the story with a solution: there are no feral cats in the barn. This choice results in a natural progression from beginning, to middle and to end. Such stories are also clear. For example:
- Bob is hungry (problem)
- So Bob goes to Wendy’s to get a Baconator (possible solution)
- Bob sees his ex-girlfriend at Wendy’s (complication/climax)
- Bob slinks out of Wendy’s before his ex-girlfriend sees and goes to Subway instead even though he hates Subway (ultimate solution)
No, that’s not the best story ever written, but there is a solid plot on which the reader can hang his or her interest and there’s a climax on which the writer can say goodbye.
Mr. Wink exceeds the rule of threes by one, but I loved the way he made Paul Harvey a motif in the story. The young whippersnappers reading this may not know who Paul Harvey was. A broadcasting legend, Mr. Harvey was famous for his incredibly homespun delivery and was the epitome of “middle America.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with it!) I am most familiar with “The Rest of the Story,” a daily series in which Mr. Harvey would take four whole minutes to tell a relaxing story about a man or woman who faced and overcame some kind of adversity. After dropping a clue or two, Mr. Harvey would reveal that the person who faced adversity turned out to be…Stephen King! Or Gerald Ford! Or Oprah Winfrey! And now you know…the rest of the story.
Mr. Wink was wise to include Paul Harvey’s broadcasts in the story because they influence how we see the characters. These are farm-type people who get up early and work hard and like a nice story told in a calm, slow manner.
What Should We Steal?
- Plant your character in a series of contrasts. There is so much drama to be mined in the in-betweens of our lives, the moments in which everything is in flux.
- Begin your story with a problem, end with its solution. Such a structure creates an effortless beginning, middle and end.
- Employ a motif in your story. Not only does a motif add detail, but it shapes the characters and offers readers tangible handholds with regard to the setting.
Just for fun…I don’t remember this “The Rest of the Story” about Jack the Ripper!