Suzanne Collins rocketed onto the bestseller lists in 2008 with The Hunger Games, a post-apocalyptic adventure about a young woman compelled to participate in a life-or-death game show that was created by the government to keep citizens in line. The books are considered works of “Young Adult” literature, but their appeal reaches far beyond that single demographic. If you haven’t read the books, it might be a good idea to pick them up or to borrow them from from a young person in your life. Stephen King, master of the page-turner, called the novel a “violent, jarring speed-rap of a novel that generates nearly constant suspense and may also generate a fair amount of controversy.”
Most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t want the same kind of vast and passionate audience that Ms. Collins enjoys. Here are ten elements of craft that writers should consider stealing from the Hunger Games trilogy:
1. Treat Your Reader Like an Adult…Even When They’re Not.
The Hunger Games, is not exactly what many people would consider “appropriate” for young adults. As Mr. King points out:
And although ”young adult novel” is a dumbbell term I put right up there with ”jumbo shrimp” and ”airline food” in the oxymoron sweepstakes, how many novels so categorized feature one character stung to death by monster wasps and another more or less eaten alive by mutant werewolves?
I had much the same experience as Mr. King as I read the books. There’s a lot of death and destruction in these books. And that’s a great thing! (You know, because the books are fiction. Real life violence is a problem.) It’s hard enough to tell a story; it’s still harder when you forbid yourself from depicting the natural consequences of human failings. It’s tempting to want everything to end in a pleasant fashion and for every character to find happiness, but that’s not how the world really works. In other words…
Rue HAD to die.
2. Be Open to Inspiration From a Wide Range of Sources.
Writers must play an unending game of “what if?” Ms. Collins described her moment of inspiration for Publisher’s Weekly:
Collins says the idea for the brutal nation of Panem came one evening when she was channel-surfing between a reality show competition and war coverage. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.” She also cites the Greek myth of Theseus, in which the city of Athens was forced to send 14 young men and women into the labyrinth in Crete to face the Minotaur. “Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was,” Collins recalled. “Crete was sending a very clear message: ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’ ”
Great things can happen when a writer mashes together her thoughts about increasingly outlandish reality shows, coverage of the war in Iraq and childhood history lessons. Why not flip through Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? The book is packed with steal-worthy stories from history.
3. Seize the Reader with the First Person Present.
One of the first things I noticed about the books was that they are written from Katniss’s perspective in present tense. (It just so happens that I’m working on a book that uses the same POV.) Here’s an excerpt of the book’s prose:
Haymitch has never seen me run. Maybe if he had he’d tell me to go for it. Get the weapon. Since that’s the very weapon that might be my salvation. And I only see one bow in that whole pile. I know the minute must be almost up and will have to decide what my strategy will be and I find myself positioning my feet to run, not away into the surrounding forests but toward the pile, toward the bow. When suddenly I notice Peeta, he’s about five tributes to my right, quite a fair distance, still I can tell he’s looking at me and I think he might be shaking his head. But the sun’s in my eyes, and while I’m puzzling over it the gong rings out.
And I’ve missed it! I’ve missed my chance! Because those extra couple of seconds I’ve lost by not being ready are enough to change my mind about going in. My feet shuffle for a moment, confused at the direction my brain wants to take and then I lunge forward, scoop up the sheet of plastic and a loaf of bread. The pickings are so small and I’m so angry with Peeta for distracting me that I sprint in twenty yards to retrieve a bright orange backpack that could hold anything because I can’t stand leaving with virtually nothing.
What does the first person POV accomplish for Ms. Collins? What does the present tense add? Well, a first-time reader knows nothing about The Hunger Games. Experiencing the spectacle through Katniss’s eyes allows us to understand what is “normal” in the book’s society. Katniss doesn’t think it’s at all strange for children to kill each other as they make a mad dash in the direction of a pile of weapons. A third person narrator would have a lot more explaining to do to bridge the gap between the world of the book and our world. Instead, Katniss just gets to tell you about her life and what she’s thinking and feeling.
The present tense adds a lot of suspense. Katniss doesn’t know how her story will end…it’s still happening to her! A reader may have unspoken assumptions that a third person narrator has access to the future. By keeping everything in the present tense, Ms. Collins gets all the more power out of Katniss’s reactions to her problems.
4. Avoid Overwheming Your Reader with the Minutiae of Your World.
I’m certainly not disputing the influence of the Lord of the Rings books and I acknowledge Tolkien’s great achievement. That said, I found it very hard to truly engage with those Middle Earth stories. It seemed to me as though reading all of those books represented an awful lot of WORK that I wasn’t willing to do. As Lee K. Abbott points out, it’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun. I’ve come across some other works whose authors seem to expect me to get a pad and paper so I can construct the detailed family tree that would allow me to understand the story.
The Hunger Games books, on the other hand, don’t require you to delve into the minutiae of the world of Panem. You don’t NEED to know where District 12 is located in North America. You’re not FORCED to remember how many winners have come from each District. The story is about Katniss and her struggle and Ms. Collins allows you to understand the political intrigue through her eyes, not the other way around. On the other hand, we should…
5. Create a Realistic and Complicated World as Detailed as Our Own.
Ms. Collins may or may not have gone the J.K. Rowling route, compiling a complete history of the Games and of Panem for her own benefit. What matters is that the end result FEELS real. Two very creative folks took to LiveJournal, creating as realistic a map of Panem as they could based upon the details from the books. Ms. Collins put enough love and attention into her novels that you can do this kind of detective work if you really want to.
Look at a site like PanemPropaganda. Ms. Collins created such a realistic dystopia that talented fans are able to recreate the kind of propaganda that is put out by the Capitol. These kinds of efforts are only possible because of the work Ms. Collins did to ensure that everything in the books fit together in a logical fashion and that you could actually live in the world of the book.
Title of Work and its Form: “The Atheist of Dekalb Street,” short story Author:Christopher DeWan (on Twitter @theurbansherpa) Date of Work: 2013 Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story made its debut in Wigleaf, a cool journal of [very] short fiction. You can find the story here.
Bonuses: Mr. DeWan did an awful lot of writing for his now-defunct blog The Urban Sherpa. Here is an interview Mr. DeWan did for LitWrap. “An American Dream” was published in Necessary Fiction.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Description
This short story is told from the first person perspective of a boy who spends time with an old woman who (he believes) is the only atheist in a neighborhood filled with Catholics. There are rumors that the woman has stigmata, and she does indeed have some sort of wounds on her hands. The woman seems to be in failing heath. The boy cares for her and anoints her with tap water (the atheist kind) and comes to the epiphany that something is only holy or special if we believe it is.
Mr. DeWan introduces the atheist’s “stigmata” early in the short story, after making it clear that he lives in a very religious (and very Catholic) community. When a woman-who also apparently happens not to be a member of the faith and is not even a Protestant-develops wounds in her palms and feet, the narrator can’t help but believe that they are stigmata. When Mr. DeWan brings such a concept into the story, we have a decision to make. Is this a piece of magical realism? Are the stigmata fantastic in some way? Or are these regular old wounds that have been given weight by the narrator and his religious background?
It’s my impression that Mr. DeWan is working in straight-up realism and that the holes in the woman’s hands got there by conventional means. The narrator’s description, however, serves as great description. Mr. DeWan doesn’t need to devote much time to bare description of the stigmata because we already know what they look like based upon what the narrator thinks they are. The author is making felicitous use of the different levels of understanding possessed by character and reader. We do this same kind of thing with children. If a child says they heard a “big boom” outside, we make a leap or two and understand that they mean they heard a thunderclap. Mr. DeWan’s use of this technique adds to the efficiency of the piece; he gains both characterization and exposition.
Mythologies have had a strong hold on the human imagination for a very long time, and for good reason. Myths explain the unexplainable and help us orient ourselves with respect to the rest of humanity. The story ends as the narrator “baptizes” the atheist of Dekalb Street with tap water. The boy hopes that this action will wash the woman’s soul clean, ushering her into a state of divine blessing. The baptism means something else in purely secular terms. The woman is near death and her body is breaking down. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that the story should end with a young person anointing an elder who is about to pass into that undiscovered country?
This story is imbued with Catholic mythology by virtue of its narrator. I love the double meaning possessed by the final move in the story. It makes sense that a young boy will think of baptizing a stranger. The narrator is not as likely to think of another Catholic sacrament: the anointing of the sick (the last rites). Mr. DeWan builds power and relatability into the story by aligning it with stories that hold powerful sway over so many.
What Should We Steal?
Make use of the differences between your protagonist and your reader.The man or woman holding your book will likely have deeper understanding of the world than that of some of your characters. Allow your reader to process information on behalf of characters who can’t.
Commemorate the growth of your characters with the same sacraments found in mythology. Fiction is all about characters who reach new levels of understanding and consciousness and who become something new. Aren’t these aims similar to those of religion? A young woman is considered an adult after her bat mitzvah. A Muslim fulfills a lifetime goal by making their way to Mecca for the Hajj.
Title of Work and its Form:The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, creative nonfiction Author:Dinty W. Moore Date of Work: 1997 Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be purchased at fine bookstores everywhere. You can also purchase the e-book version of The Accidental Buddhist. (Also available on the Nook, a device with far less onerous DRM.)
Bonuses: Mr. Moore is the editor of Brevity, a very cool online journal of creative nonfiction. All of the pieces in Brevity are, appropriately, somewhat brief. Here is an interview Mr. Moore did with Bookslut. Here is a brief taste of a Skype-type interview Mr. Moore did for Author Feast:
American lives have sped up a great deal in the past century. Our breathless days seem, as Mr. Moore points out with statistics, more complicated than they did even a few decades ago. How utterly appropriate then, that Buddhism might appeal to an increasing number of Americans. The Accidental Buddhist is…
An account of what happened when Mr. Moore immersed himself in the world of American Buddhism. Mr. Moore visits several monasteries and has conversations with many Buddhists, trying to open his mind to the philosophy.
A work of autobiography that offers great insight into Mr. Moore’s way of thinking. (In 1997, at least.)
Through the course of the book, Mr. Moore creates his own very modern American koan and sees Steven Seagal and the Dalai Lama. He ends up at Comiskey Park and reflects upon the Buddhist inclinations of baseball. Most of all, Mr. Moore undertakes a journey for understanding and enlightenment, which seems very Buddhist indeed.
Speaking of Steven Seagal, doesn’t “point of entry” sound like one of his films? Mr. Moore chooses a powerful point of entry to the story of his exploration of Buddhism. After a brief prelude, Mr. Moore offers “Buddha 101,” a chapter in which he describes his own entry into a Buddhist retreat in the Catskills. Mr. Moore adjusts to sitting on pillows and trying to keep his mind clear, no matter how difficult that sounds. Mr. Moore is learning the Buddhist terms in the narrative, which makes it easy for him to teach the reader, for example, what a koan is. The reader’s point of entry aligns with the author’s in this case.
Instead of presenting himself as an authority at the beginning of the book, Mr. Moore explicitly orients himself as a man who is simply embarking on a journey. The reader feels a sense of comfort and is united with the author because of this positioning. Consider a work of art with the exact opposite arrangement. The point of entry for Full Metal Jacket is the moment when the men are having their heads shaved at the beginning of boot camp. Immediately thereafter, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman shows up:
Sergeant Hartman is EXPRESSLY positioned as an expert and an authority and the men are VERY CLEARLY subordinate to them. In The Accidental Buddhist, we feel as though Mr. Moore has offered us a ride to the monastery just down the road. In Full Metal Jacket, the viewer likely feels the same fear and discomfort that the men feel. (Especially Private Pyle.)
I love the titles that Mr. Moore chose for his chapters. Check out the table of contents:
I think it’s fair to say that Buddhists and writers both try to think about the choices they make and the effect they have on others. What do these chapter titles tell us about the book or about Mr. Moore?
The book will explore a number of religions in comparison with one another.
“Sitting,” “obsessed,” “distracted,” “lousy;” the author is self-deprecating and honest.
The use of a few Buddhist terms indicates that Mr. Moore will offer definitions and has a sincere interest in exploring the issues.
The titles are as fun as they are verbose. The author is, no doubt, a compelling conversation partner. (I love that the title of Chapter 5 is literally a joke.)
Compare this table of contents to that of a recent edition of 1001 Nights, one of the most entertaining books EVER.
The book’s frame story itself grabs your attention. The King is angry at a woman who betrayed him, so he’s bedding and beheading a woman a night to get revenge. Scheherazade volunteers; she has a plan. She begins telling a story on the first night and the tale is so compelling that the King lets her live. SPOILER ALERT: there are 1000 more nights. See how the conceit alone lets you know how cool and fun and brutal and primal these stories are? Do the chapter titles communicate any of that fun? “The Ebony Horse.” “Ali the Persian.” These are descriptive, but offer little else to the reader. Mr. Moore, on the other hand, allows the table of contents to reflect the tone of the work as a whole.
What Should We Steal?
Consider how the point of entry into your story will affect your reader.Does the start of your piece alienate people or invite them to join you? Which do you intend?
Craft chapter and section titles that reflect the tone of your work. Yes, it means more work for us, but it’s our job as writers to create the best “work” we can, no matter the form.
Title of Work and its Form: “A Bridge Under Water,” short story Author:Tom Bissell Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 71 of Agni, an excellent lit journal. Feel free to order a back issue from those fine folks. You may also access the story through EBSCO; feel free to ask your local librarian how to do so. They love helping people with this kind of stuff.
Bonuses: Here is a New Yorker article about Mr. Bissell’s involvement with video game writing. Here is Karen Carlson’s interesting analysis. (There is indeed a big difference between “liking” a piece and “admiring” it. Here are Ann Graham’s thoughts. Here is the Carol’s Notebook review of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
“He” and “She” are celebrating their recent marriage in Rome. A hearty congratulations to them. He is slightly older than his wife of three days, but may be a little more immature than she. The narrator makes it VERY clear that there is conflict in this union, not the least of which is their religious difference. She wants the child in her belly to be raised Jewish (even though she’s not very faithful) and he is not at all religious. He and she make the Roman rounds, ending up in the city’s biggest synagogue. He isn’t very pleased that the synagogue segregates men and women during services, so he causes a mild scene in protest. She just wants to go with the flow, but he doesn’t allow it; they are escorted out. Hand in hand, this “one story” ends and the characters proceed into the rest of their lives.
This story is particularly notable for its third person narrator. It seemed to me that he or she or it is clearly on the side of the woman. What makes me think so?
In the first paragraph, He is described as a bit of a glutton, “vacuuming up” a plate of pasta, gulping a glass of wine in three swallows and “single-handedly” consuming half a basket of breadsticks. (That last one doesn’t seem so bad. If two people are eating, isn’t it polite for one person to limit himself to half of the table’s supply of breadsticks?)
In the second paragraph, She is described as eating in a very civilized manner and He “put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old.”
In the fourth paragraph, He accidentally clears crumbs from his lips and has shaggy “tinder-dry” brown hair.
So He is immature and has difficulty avoiding gluttony (my favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins). Why does it matter that the narrator seems to be against Him? It’s not a problem, really. I think that the narrator is “sticking up” for Her. There’s a bit of an imbalance of power between the two. He is thirty-four and she twenty-six: two very different ages. She is pregnant and must deal with the impending change in a physical manner that simply escapes Him because of human biology. He’s a lot more outspoken with his disdain for religion; she seems to be working through her own conflicts in a much quieter manner.
When you write in the third person, you must decide how close this voice will be to the characters. Will the narrator have access to everyone’s thoughts or only those of one character? Will the narrator be impartial or take an extremely active role in shaping the reader’s understanding of events? It seemed to me that Bissell (whether consciously or subconsciously) put the narrator in Her corner.
Whether or not you realize it, the white space at the end of your story has meaning. That, after all, is the place where your characters will continue to live their lives. Mr. Bissell has given us a newly wed couple suffering from friction and possible incompatibility as well as a gestating baby. The final sentence of the story is not the end for He and She. So what happens in the future?
Mr. Bissell lays in some clues. Early on, we’re told that She plays Rock, Paper, Scissors a little differently than the rest of us. You can throw Fire, capable of destroying the other three, but you can only throw it once in a lifetime. A page later, He uses his Fire and reminds her, “you’ve still got yours.” Indeed. This is a little bit like Chekhov’s Gun. Her Fire. She’s going to throw it at SOME point in the white space at the end of the story.
With a page to go in the story, Mr. Bissell’s narrator says the following as He and She are being escorted from the synagogue:
At this her husband turned to her in something close to lip-licking panic. Not that he was being forcefully removed from a place of worship-she knew he would tell this story, with certain redactions, for years-but rather at the thought of everything else that had been set in motion here.
So Mr. Bissell isn’t writing a novel here. We don’t know EXACTLY what will happen. But we do know that He will tell this story for a long time and that something has been “set in motion.” What’s the effect of these hints? There’s a lot more weight to the events of “A Bridge Under Water” and the reader brings a lot more to the last sentence of the story.
What Should We Steal?
Empower your narrator to be a character in the story.When you’re gathered around a campfire, the storyteller can’t help but become part of the tale. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the narrator of a short story?
Sprinkle in hints as to what will happen after the story is over. There may be no more typing after the final sentence, but your characters are still walking around and living their lives.
Title of Work and its Form: “Abandon,” poem Author: Darrell Dela Cruz Date of Work: 2013 Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was published in the 2013 issue of Two Thirds North, an online journal produced by the Department of English at Stockholm University.
Bonuses: Darren has an awesome blog called A Retail Life After the MFAin which he does insightful poetry analyses. I love how he includes an image of the way he marks up each poem. This is the way we should all be reading, with pen in hand. Here are two of his poems from Foliate Oak.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Juxtaposition
The two sections of this poem take place in a church and a doctor’s waiting room, respectively. The narrator seems somewhat young; he’s certainly not a mature adult. Singing the hymns in chorus with others takes a lot out of the first-person narrator, so he’s excused. In the waiting room, the narrator (who could be either male or female, I suppose) sits near a man who is calling out for his son. The narrator is called into the office, so he (or she) never learns the outcome for the father.
One of the things I love about the poem is the way that Darrell juxtaposes the settings. Waiting rooms and churches are very different places…but they can also be very similar. When one is in a waiting room, one is hoping that they or their loved one will be restored to health. When one is in a church, one expects a deity to restore themselves or others to a very different state of wellness. Darrell makes the connection even more explicit. In the first section, the narrator is holding onto a pew for balance, his knuckles white. In the second section, the father reclines across an entire row of chairs. Why would a man do such a selfish thing in a packed waiting room? He’s clearly anxious about his son. We can surely forgive him his faux pas.
What is the effect of juxtaposing the two settings? The narrator, stressed out for whatever reasons, seems to realize that there are bigger problems than his when confronted with the father’s display of fear. Anxiety in one setting means something different in another.
Think of it this way: Imagine you’re walking around at midnight and you hear a sound that resembles a woman’s frightened scream. What do you do? I think most of us would turn our heads and take a look to make sure everything is okay. (I hope we would do the same thing for a man’s frightened scream, of course.) The high-pitched expression of fear carries a meaning and attracts our attention.
Now imagine you hear the EXACT SAME SOUND while you’re walking around an amusement park. You might not even notice because people often scream while on scary rides. You know that no one in the park is in serious danger and that people often purge their fear by screaming. The same sound carries a different meaning. In his poem, Darrell extracts meaning by transporting some of the same ideas to a different setting.
Mythological stories have meant a lot to people for millennia. Why? They offer explanations for difficult questions in life and offer guidance to people who need guidelines by which to live their lives. Darrell mines a number of mythological concepts. (Christian mythology in this case.)
Waiting for deliverance/arrival of son
These Christian concepts serve as a kind of shorthand for the writer. Darrell mentions the father who is waiting for the son to make the world feel “right” again, and the poem has that much more meaning to people who happen to be Christian. Does the poem only appeal to people of that persuasion? Of course not. We can all relate to the ideas of reverent song and waiting for joy to balance sadness.
What Should We Steal?
Recontextualize characters and settings to explore their meanings.A scream in a water park means something different than a scream in an apartment complex in the middle of the night.
Appropriate mythological conventions for your own purposes. It’s no accident that mythological ideas hold a lot of sway inside people.
Title of Work and its Form: “Summer Contours,” poem Author: Allison Davis Date of Work: 2009 Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was published in the December 2009 issue of Prick of the Spindle and can be found here.
Bonuses: The VERY cool poetry analysis blog A Retail Life After the MFAtook a look at Ms. Davis’s poem, “Beautiful, The Dead End.” The poem can be found here. Kent State University Press released her chapbook Poppy Seeds.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Motifs
Ms. Davis’s poem is told from the perspective of a man immersed in a rural area as summer weighs heavy on the land and its people. The poem leaves a great deal to the interpretation of the reader. It seems to me that the solitude is getting to be a bit much for the man who may be putting his own state of mind onto the crickets, who chirp: “come to me,/ stay, fuck me, fuck off.”
One of the things I like most about the poem is the way Ms. Davis made use of a recurring motif. Language and its elements play an important role in the piece:
“a wet-ink alphabet”
the man reads the paper on the patio
there are “subtitles” in the grass
shadows “shake like insects across the headlines”
Language and reading are complicated cognitive concepts that kick up different feelings for us all. Whether we read voraciously or not at all, we have a relationship with the printed word and we all understand the underlying concepts. (The alphabet, an older person reading one of those giant paper things with news on them…) By repeatedly evoking the idea of communication and news, Ms. Davis trains the reader to understand that she’s including important messages in the poem’s images. Readers are invited to divine the meaning of headlines-What does this mean for the price of gas? How will people recover from the latest trauma?-and they are invited to figure out why the man is looking at his wife’s angles and what it means that the neckties are handing still. (And why the ties are “blacker than a killer’s shoes.”)
Using a motif in a work such as this also aids in comprehension. The poem is a little bit abstract; it requires a little bit of effort on the part of the reader. (What are the subtitles? Why that one-sentence stanza about the yellow blood? What’s the yellow blood?) The repetition of the language and reading concepts offers the reader a point of entry into the poem.
Ms. Davis also plays with sounds in an interesting manner. Remember-poetry is meant to be spoken and heard! Read that second stanza aloud. Look at the first two lines of that stanza:
at eye-level. A man reads
the paper on the patio. He goes to close the windows
If you didn’t read it aloud, you might not have noticed those four long O sounds in a row. Isn’t this how a long summer day feels? It flows as though it will never end. Interestingly, Ms. Davis uses the word “stops” in the next line, breaking the streak by employing a short O sound.
I’m guessing that most people encounter poetry in written form, but making additional use of the sense of hearing doubles your opportunities to “play” and to pack your work with fun possibilities for the reader.
What Should We Steal?
Employ a motif to offer your reader a way into more abstract works.Feel free to bring your reader to the summit of a mountain of your creation…just make sure you provide them with a base camp.
Remember that poetry is an aural medium as well as a visual one. Why not appeal to as many parts of the reader’s brain as possible?
As you may be aware, Google employs powerful algorithms to determine what they THINK you might be searching for. The suggestions provided by Google Instant reflect the searches that other people have done. Millions of people have searched for celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, so when you do a search for “Ashton Kutcher is,” you get the following:
What does the aggregated wisdom reveal about some great writers? Sometimes wondering what a writer IS leads to biographical details and a hint of detail about their work:
It’s a real song, apparently. Picture a garage band from 1996 whose members were inspired by Silverchair mixed with a garage band from 1997 whose members were inspired by Everclear.
Title of Work and its Form: “The Hare’s Mask,” short story Author:Mark Slouka Date of Work: 2011 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was published in the January 2011 issue of Harper’s. If you are a subscriber, you can read the story here. Heidi Pitlor and Geraldine Brooks later selected the story for Best American Short Stories 2011 and included it in the anthology. (A book we should all have anyway. =) )
Bonuses: Mr. Slouka published a great essay about the university in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s that describes the state of the humanities in higher education. The Paris Review has been kind enough to publish a Slouka story online. Here is “Crossing.” Here is an interview Mr. Slouka did with Powell’s.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Opening a Story
This powerful first person story is told by a grown man who misses his father terribly. The first couple pages is devoted to a sweet description of the narrator’s father tying a fishing fly.
Mr. Slouka then slides into the primary narrative of the piece. During his Czechoslovakian childhood (future band name?) he narrator’s father was responsible for tending to the rabbits in the hutch. The father’s family hid a fleeing Jew in the rabbit hutch for nine days as the Nazis made their way through the area. The father was responsible for bringing the man food and a bucket for bodily waste. Speaking of food, the number of rabbits in the hutch dwindled very fast. Before long, the narrator’s father had to make a choice between two of his favorites: not an easy thing to do for a young child. Between description of the events of wartime Czechoslovakia are parts of the narrator’s own childhood. His sister wanted a rabbit desperately, not knowing the rabbit-related sadness her father had known. In response, the narrator calls the rabbit “Blank” and tries to work, in a childlike manner, through the kind of sadness his father successfully prevented him from feeling.
One of the big lessons that I learned from Lee K. Abbott is to be vigilant in considering where your story really starts. Like all writers, Mr. Slouka had a choice to make. The first four sections of “The Hare’s Mask” could each serve as the opening of the story:
“Odd how I miss his voice…” - Establishes the POV and the son’s desire to protect the father and the hint that the father might have had some childhood trauma.
“He used to tie his own trout flies…” - Establishes the POV and the kindness of the father and the fishing fly thing and hints toward the father’s childhood trauma.
“I don’t know how old I was…” - Establishes the POV and the importance of the father and the man’s possible childhood trauma.
“It began with the hare’s mask…” Establishes the POV and the fishing fly thing before rolling right into the “full story” of what happened in Czechoslovakia.
What is the effect of the choice Mr. Slouka made? I think that including #1 first was wise because a great deal of story takes place during the narrator’s childhood anti-rabbit campaign. #1 takes place in the dramatic present , relates a story from the narrator’s past and establishes that a great deal of “The Hare’s Mask” will likely relate events that happened “during the war.”
The important thing to remember is that each beginning would offer a slightly different shape to the story. Not necessarily better or worse, I suppose, but just different. When you dive back into a manuscript to do your second draft, try to figure out if the first paragraph should really be the opening of your tale.
So “The Hare’s Mask” centers upon a boy who has an emotional connection to rabbits. Guess what happens when he has his own children…one of them wants a rabbit! Drama and comedy often come out of our personal peccadilloes. In a way, this is a variation on Chekhov’s gun. (The writing concept that implies that if there’s a gun on stage in Act I, that gun better be fired by the end of the play.)
Mr. Slouka very wisely made all of the conflicts in the story streamlined and natural. The narrator has a conflict with his sister: she wants a rabbit and he wants to protect his father. The father had an internal conflict (and an external one with his hungry family): He didn’t want to kill the rabbits, but other people wanted to eat. What kicked off all of these conflicts? Nazis being unpleasant (to say the least). The conflict in the story can all be traced back to the Nazis’ desire for Lebensraum. All of the drama is related and all of it subsequently makes sense.
What Should We Steal?
Decide when your story REALLY starts.Every narrative has numerous possible points of entry. Which is best for the story you want to tell?
Allow conflict to emerge from your characters and what happens to them. Your character is sad because he had to kill rabbits as a kid? Guess what…that character’s kid is going to want a rabbit. Your character doesn’t like people in a certain demographic? Guess what…they’re going to end up in a job interview facing a person of that demographic.
Title of Work and its Form: “The Cage,” short short story Author:Blake Butler Date of Work: 2013 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published by Necessary Fiction and can be found here.
Bonuses: Here is a profile of Mr. Butler that was published in Access Atlanta. Here are just some of Mr. Butler’s contributions to HTML Giant. Here is Mr. Butler’s page at HarperCollins.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Anomalies
Mr. Butler’s first person story is told by a…person who is in a very strange situation. There’s a caged boy in a sand field behind the burial place of the narrator’s cousin. The cage is made of plastic, but won’t burn or bend enough for the boy to escape. The narrator considers the boy a brother and hopes to be able to bury him…if he or she can remove the body from the cage, of course.
I first learned about “anomalies” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Geordi and Jean-Luc and Data would always mention an “anomaly” they saw in the sensor readouts.
What did I do? I looked up the word. The crew of the Enterprise was so concerned about anomalies because they are irregularities, deviations from the norm. A potential threat or at least something that gets your attention that you may wish to investigate. Stories come from anomalies, of course. Who wants to read about characters and situations that are completely and utterly normal?
After establishing the narrator’s “strange” situation-an anomaly in itself-Mr. Butler sprinkles in anomalies that jar the reader a little bit. This kind of technique is effective (and a bit of a necessity) in suspense and mystery stories. Seemingly without explanation, the narrator of “The Cage” wonders if the boy loves him. The narrator says in a non sequitur that he’s seen the boy’s naughty parts. What has Mr. Butler done with these revelations?
He’s added characterization. Is the narrator trapped in some early Freudian state? Why does he or she mention genitalia? Is the narrator extremely lonely? Why?
He’s dispensed exposition. The boy is injured in some way. What the heck happened and why is the boy in the cage?
I also want to consider the introduction to the story. A kind editor at Necessary Fiction introduces “The Cage” by telling us that Mr. Butler has been likened to William Burroughs and that the story offers “nightmarish” imagery and that the story features a “weird hairless and silent kid cooped up behind a burial plot.”
How does this introduction shape our understanding of the story. Instead of being hit with Mr. Butler’s very clear first sentence, the reader re-reads the premise of the story in the first line. This is not necessarily bad or good, of course. “Strange” stories can be confusing. One could argue that the introduction alleviates some of the “weirdness” and makes the story accessible. On the other hand, some of the punch of the conceit may be lost. Here’s one way to think of it. Imagine you’re talking to someone who-GASP- has never seen The Twilight Zone.
What would you tell this person?
“Hey! You gotta see The Twilight Zone. It’s one of the best shows ever. Just watch it! Right now! Here’s a DVD! Cue up ‘Time Enough At Last’! Seriously…go!”
“You’ll love The Twilight Zone, an anthology program in which Rod Serling and other writers present suspenseful science fiction and horror stories that offer substantial societal commentary. In particular, you should begin with an episode such as ‘Time Enough At Last,’ in which the Burgess Meredith character plays a henpecked bank teller who simply wants to read all day. After a nuclear holocaust, he gets his wish…except there’s a sad twist at the end.”
Both descriptions are accurate, but the latter deprives the viewer of some of the delicious tragedy of the ending of the episode. When you write a query letter for a novel, for example, should you reveal the ending of your book in the first line? What are the most important elements to describe to the editor or agent? Of course, an editor or agent has different “needs” than a run-of-the-mill reader. What’s the solution? Unfortunately, it’s one of those complicated questions that has no simple answer. As always, we must do whatever will best serve the story.
What Should We Steal?
Sprinkle anomalies into your works to keep your reader on his or her toes. Things that don’t fit grab a person’s attention; take advantage of this psychological tendency.
Consider the effect of how you (or others) introduce your work. Are you in a telling-a-story-by-a-campfire situation that requires complete suspense? Should you offer your reader additional handholds to help them get a grip on your piece?