Tag: Best American 2012

GWS Video: What We Can Steal From Great Opening Passages? (Best American Short Stories 2012 Edition)

Starting a story can be very difficult, but it’s equally important to craft an opening passage that captures your reader’s attention and gets the narrative humming along.  In this video, I examine how some of the authors whose stories are immortalized in The Best American Short Stories 2012 fulfilled their responsibilities in their opening sentences.


What Can We Steal From George Saunders’s “Tenth of December”?


Title of Work and its Form:  “Tenth of December,” short story
Author: George Saunders
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story premiered in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  You can read the story here.  You can also find the story in the 2012 anthology of Best American Short Stories.  The story headlines Mr. Saunders’s book Tenth of December.  Why not pick it up from an independent bookseller such as Reno, Nevada’s Grassroots Books?  (They seem very cool!)

Bonuses: Here is an interview in which Mr. Saunders discusses “Tenth of December.”  Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought about the story.  (She makes interesting points about the POV and describes her understandable “struggle” with the story.)  Here is Mr. Saunders’s page at This American Life.  (You know you love This American Life.)  Yes, Mr. Saunders is a very influential man.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Robin is a slightly chubby schoolboy.  Don is a middle-aged father who is suffering from cancer and is determined to commit suicide.  How are these two unrelated characters related?  One of those good, old-fashioned twists of fate.  Don leaves his coat on a chair to help the authorities locate his body.  Unfortunately, Robin decides to try and do a good deed and bring it to him.  Robin takes a shortcut across a frozen pond.  What happens when Robin falls into the freezing water?

Mr. Saunders’s story is a very interesting study.  The narrator is a very close third person alternating between Robin and Don.  The narrator absorbs each character’s idiosyncracies; Robin is pretending he is talking to a girl he likes and that he is surrounded by supernatural woodland creatures and Don’s brain is failing because of illness.  I noticed that the story “threw” Ms. Carlson at first; the same thing happened to me, but in a different way.  For a few pages, I was under the impression that the “Nethers” were real.  (You know, short story real.)  Mr. Saunders describes the world of the Nethers and what they look like and how they act and so on, going into a great deal of depth.  Very quickly, however, I was right on track.  Mr. Saunders had to do what he did in order to immerse the reader in Robin’s brain and to establish the close POV that works so well in the story.  What lesson can we take away from this?  A reminder that the first couple pages of your piece establish the unique world in which your characters live.  Readers are willing to follow you ANYWHERE, so long as you make the ride smooth.

Think about Kafka’s Metamorphosis.  Remember the first sentence?

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

Kafka (like Saunders) doesn’t mess around when establishing his conceit.  Guess what, Kafka seems to say.  This is a world in which Gregor Samsa turned into a giant bug.  Deal with it.  Saunders has the same strong kind of declaration: Hey, reader.  You’re in the head of a young boy who likes a girl named Suzanne and has a great imagination.

The choice to craft the story from the separated points of view of two different characters gives Mr. Saunders at least two big bonuses:

  1. Mr. Saunders can offer, very gracefully, two different accounts of the same event.  And why not?  Each POV character is experiencing them on their own terms.
  2. Mr. Saunders can allow the characters the same kind of first-person confessional without allowing the other character to get in the way.  We don’t need Don’s commentary on Robin’s crush on Suzanne and Robin shouldn’t be allowed to give us his commentary as Don does what he can to keep the kid warm.

As we can all attest, coming up with titles is a pain.  How did Mr. Saunders do it?  “Tenth of December” is great because even if it’s not the date on which the story takes place, it evokes a time in which the weather (in the Northeast) is cold, but not cold enough for there to be ten feet of ice on the local lake.  I also get a Tropic of Cancer vibe from the title.  (Ooh, and that’s one of Don’s problems.  Cool.)  So here’s another title formula:

TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think of your first few pages as orientation for your reader.  Before you get in a ride in an amusement park, you spend 45 minutes in the queue, learning about the “world” of the attraction.  (Your stories are attractions too, right?)
  • Employ parallel and severely limited third-person points of view.  You gain contrast and a kind of intimacy. 
  • TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.

What Can We Steal From Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters”?


Title of Work and its Form:  “Beautiful Monsters,” short story
Author: Eric Puchner
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story first appeared in Issue 50 of Tin House.  The story subsequently appeared in the 2012 editions Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

Bonuses: Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  (I love that she brought Asimov, Ellison and Heinlein into the discussion.)  Here is an interview Mr. Puchner did with The RumpusHere is a very good GQ piece Mr. Puchner wrote about his father.  (I even remember reading it in the magazine.  Good for me!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: World Creation

Imagine a world without adults.  A boy and a girl, two Perennials who will never grow up, have made a home together.  Inciting incident: A man, an honest-to-goodness man, shows up outside the kids’ home.  The authorities apprehend these beautiful monsters, these Senescents, but the boy and girl take the man in.  The ticking clock in the story is the man’s injury; gangrene (or something like it) is turning his leg into a festering mess.  The boy and girl have differing attitudes toward the man; the former seems to enjoy having some kind of father (at first), and the girl seems very confused by the attention.  The man teaches the children how to play like, well, real children and shares his memories with the boy and girl.  Sadly, all good things must end.  The boy somewhat changes his opinion of the stand-in father and infection lays the man low as sirens approach.  The last paragraph takes an appropriate turn into the abstract.

Anyone who reads the story will likely notice the speed and deceptive ease with which Mr. Puchner establishes the world of the story.  Readers are willing to follow a writer anywhere, so long as they are guided well and enough.  Look how Mr. Puchner lays in the clues immediately.

  • The character is called “the boy” repeatedly.  No name.  His sister is referred to by title and by pronoun.  Not only can we gather that the boy is a main character (you can’t have twenty characters called “the boy”), but the generic names create a kind of discomfort
  • In the fourth sentence: “The boy has never seen a grown man in real life, only in books…” Mr. Puchner makes his conceit a little clearer.  No grownups in this world.  (Well, not out and about.)
  • The man is described in the title and the first paragraph as a monster.  He is “bearded and tall as a shadow” with hands that are “huge, grotesque, as clumsy as crabs.”  The reader understands what a strange experience this is for the children.
  • Early dialogue: “He must have wandered away from the woods.”  Okay, so the grownups exist outside of mainstream society.

A writer must decide which mysteries he or she will maintain.  And you can’t have too many in your work or your reader will be confused.

I love stories that contain ticking time bombs of some sort.  A bad guy or bad girl breaks into a bank and gives the police an hour to give him or her what she wants.  Something is going to happen after an hour.  There’s a great Dragnet episode in which a bad guy has put a bomb in a school that will detonate at a specific time; Friday and Gannon MUST GET THE LOCATION.  Ticking time bombs, whether literal or not, imbue a story with inherent drama.  The reader has an idea of what might happen, but has no idea about how the specifics will play out.  In “Beautiful Monsters,” the gangrenous leg is getting worse and worse.  The reader is left to wonder: is the man going to die?  Is the man going to try and get help at the hospital?  Will the boy saw the man’s leg off?  We don’t know for sure, but SOMETHING is going to happen.  A ticking time bomb can also reinforce the fact that the writer is in control and knows what he or she is doing.

What Should We Steal?

  • Establish the strangeness of your unique world clearly and early.  One or two mysteries are fine; too many will confuse your reader.
  • Give your story a countdown.  A pregnant woman is going to have that baby nine months or so after conception.  (Hopefully!)  That story has a discernible end, complete with inherent drama.

What Can We Steal From Kate Walbert’s “M&M World”?


Title of Work and its Form:  “M&M World,” short story
Author: Kate Walbert
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published in the May 30, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  As of this writing, you can find the story on their web site.  The story was selected for Best American Short Stories 2012 and can also be found in the anthology.

Bonuses: Here is the NPR archive of their stories about Ms. Walbert.  This review of the story is not entirely favorable, but the writer seems earnest and the motivation for her criticism seems pure.  A very interesting discussion takes place after this review at the excellent blog The Mookse and the Gripes.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Ginny made a promise to her daughters and now Maggie and Olivia are finally getting to go to M&M World in Times Square.  Along the way, Ginny considers life’s ever-present dangers as Ms. Walters alternates between depicting the dramatic present and how Ginny related to “the girls’ father.”  Before long, the inevitable happens: Maggie disappears into the M&M World crowd.  After a moment of terror, Ginny gets the good news: Maggie had found her way to the stock room.  As Ginny prepares her daughters to leave, she considers the experience in the context of an in-joke she and “the girls’ father” shared.

Well, Ms. Walbert uses white space to split the story into twelve sections.  When you are reading the story for fun, you can simply work your way through them and enjoy the story.  When you read analytically—which we should all do from time to time—it’s probably a good idea to jot down what happens in each section.  That way, it’s easier for you to see how each piece contributes to the whole.

  1. Introduces Ginny, Maggie and Olivia and their situation.  They’re going to M&M World.  Danger is introduced in the form of Ginny’s concern over Olivia getting hit by a car.  The girls trip each other.  Danger.  Introduction of “the girls’ father” and a vacation they took in Chile on which she saw a whale.
  2. Ginny considers her flaws.
  3. Arrival at M&M World.  The ladies get ice cream.
  4. Flashback to vacation in Patagonia.  The romantic moment when Ginny decided to have children.
  5. Ginny thinks about society.  Maggie drops her ice cream.
  6. The women walk through M&M World.
  7. The scene in which “the girls’ father” discuss their breakup and how they will tell the girls about it.
  8. Maggie is lost.Fear.
  9. Back to the divorce discussion.
  10. Maggie is located.
  11. Rumination about the whale and what it meant to Ginny and “the girls’ mother.”
  12. The women leave the store; the dramatic present is united with the whale memory.

The third-person narrator allows Ms. Walbert to alternate somewhat between the dramatic present and flashback in order to build the significance of previous events.  I don’t have any children, but I do believe that every parent is going to lose a child in the store at some point.  Right?  The little buggers are built to slip away and hide.  On its own, that narrative may be a little thin.  Ms. Walbert makes this common experience something far more special by including those flashbacks and making the story about Ginny losing her children, as opposed to some generic mother losing her children.

Ms. Walbert also uses her narrator in an unexpected way.  I noticed early on that the narrator is very strongly aligned with Ginny.  Look at the way the narrator characterizes the little girls: “They are gorgeous, bright-eyed, brilliant girls: one tall, one short, pant legs dragging, torn leggings, sneakers that glow in the dark or light up with each step, boom boom boom.”  The statement seems to come from a person who cares about the girls more than an impartial narrator might.  I’m particularly interested in the way that Ms. Walbert’s narrator refers to the ex-husband.  He’s always called “the girls’ father.”  The narrator withholds a name and seems to have something against the guy.  The reader wonders why, all because of the way in which the narrator refers to him.

What Should We Steal?

  • Contrast the dramatic present with significant moments from the past.  Past is prologue; instead of TELLING the reader what an important moment means, you can SHOW them.
  • Decide your narrator’s allegiances and exploit them.  Your third person narrator could be standing beside your protagonist or could be sitting across a table from the protagonist with arms folded.  The story will be influenced by the choice you make.

What Can We Steal From Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls”?


Title of Work and its Form:  “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” short story
Author: Taiye Selasi (on Twitter @taiyeselasi)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the Summer 2011 issue of Granta.  It was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2012 by Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta.

Bonuses: Ms. Selasi is on quite a roll!  Here is the Montreal Quarterly review of her first novel, Ghana Must GoHere is what The Rumpus thought of the book.  Here is an essay Ms. Selasi wrote about contextualizing her heritage.  Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  (She really liked it!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Pace

In this second person story, you are an eleven-year-old girl who is living with her extended family.  Edem longs for her mother, but is surrounded by a colorful cast of relatives and servants.  The story is split into nine sections, through the course of which we learn a great deal about the role that women of all ages play in Ghanian society.  Edem is a fascinating age; young enough to be surprised when she walks in on her uncle…receiving…pleasure, but old enough to feel a stirring for Iago, a good-looking houseboy who changed his name out of love for Shakespeare.  (I wonder why he chose Iago.)  The story begins and ends as the citizens of Accra celebrate.  By contrast, “you” are the subject of attempted abuse, unpleasantness that is thankfully interrupted by Auntie.  The experience inspires a sad epiphany that will likely color the rest of “your” life.

It’s no surprise that Ms. Selasi’s debut novel has garnered extreme praise from reviewers; her writing is crying out for a vast canvas and her characters are deep and complicated.  “The Sex Lives of African Girls” is most certainly a short story, and a very good one, but its structure is fairly different from those of the other stories in this edition of Best American.  Through the course of nine numbered sections, Ms. Selasi tells Edem’s story and introduces her extended family and gets into a big discussion about gender roles in places like Ghana.

Ms. Selasi is using the second person to reduce emotional distance between Edem and the reader, which could have made it harder for her to address the culture at large.  After all, a third person narrator would have had the freedom to say anything it wanted, regardless of time or location or character focus.  Ms. Selasi began and ended the story at a big party, which eliminated some concerns.  The reader grows to understand eleven-year-old Edem’s surroundings because they are all laid out in front of Edem, too.  The non-Ghanian reader gets a taste of the culture as they meet people like Comfort and (of course) Uncle.  I was reminded in some way of the wedding scene at the beginning of The Godfather.  Are Italian, American or Ghanian parties really substantially different?  Nah; people are the same all over.  Ms. Selasi’s structure allows us to experience the little differences between cultures.

The story teaches the reader how to understand it.  Ghanian culture may be a little bit obscure for some readers, so Ms. Selasi begins with a basic primer.  Thinking about eleven-year-olds as anything but little baby children is certainly not normal for most people, so Ms. Selasi gives Edem a dress that is too long, resulting in a wardrobe malfunction.  The hierarchy in Edem’s family (and in their servants) is unfamiliar, so Ms. Selasi employs flashbacks to teach us.  Once we get the lay of the land in Edem’s life, we can properly empathize.  (And boy, do we empathize!)

The narrative begins somewhat slowly as Ms. Selasi builds her world.  Once that has been accomplished, she speeds up the events a little.  There’s an honest-to-goodness action sequence in section VII that is a lot of fun to read.  Edem runs through the homestead, making brief mention of everything that is happening along the way.  “Sex Lives” isn’t a story about characters in isolation, but ones who populate a much larger world.  The sequence allows you to see servants preparing for a party, “your” crush kissing your cousin and a muscular naked man before “you” change into new clothes.  (The sequence even relates to the theme!)   The first half of the story is a little bit slower before it speeds to a conclusion.  Ms. Selasi creates suspense and tension by varying the pace.

What Should We Steal?

  • Teach your reader how to understand your work.  The reader is willing to believe anything you tell them, so long as they are properly prepared.
  • Speed up the pace of your narrative once the background has been established.  Think of exposition like a set of training wheels; once the reader can stay upright in the world you’ve constructed, go ahead and vary the pace of your story.

What Can We Steal From Jess Walter’s “Anything Helps”?


Title of Work and its Form:  “Anything Helps,” short story
Author: Jess Walter (on Twitter @1JessWalter)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in December 2011’s Issue 39 of McSweeney’s, one of the top journals around.  You can purchase a back issue of the journal if you like; they will appreciate it.  “Anything Helps” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2012 by Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta; you can find the story in the anthology.

Bonuses: Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought of the story.  I love that she points out a slight similarity to “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.”  Here is a Daily Beast interview with Mr. Walter.  Charles E. May offers some interesting thoughts about the story, as well.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Fundamentals

So…Bit has some problems.  He’s a homeless alcoholic who lost the mother of his child to an overdose.  He was kicked out of a shelter for breaking the rules against drinking, blaspheming and fighting.  His son is in foster care and Bit really isn’t allowed to visit much.  Bit likes to panhandle on the side of the road and the story gets going when a rich guy gives him a twenty-dollar bill.  Bit buys a copy of the last Harry Potter book, hoping to give it to his son, but the foster mother doesn’t approve of magical, mythological stories on a religious basis.  In the climax, Bit sees his son; the kid loves him, but there is so much sadness and tension in their relationship.  Bit resumes his offramp panhandling and begins reading the book as a way of somehow being close to his son.

Okay, so this story made me think of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon.

As he might say, “This story has EVERYTHING.”  Seriously, look at how many traditional elements this story contains:

  • Clear protagonist: Bit
  • Clear antagonist: Bit (the foster mother?).
  • Big stakes: Bit wants to give his son the book.
  • Inciting incident: Bit gets the twenty dollars that allows him to buy the Harry Potter book.
  • Climax that reflects upon the themes of the story: Bit meets with his son Nate.
  • Adherence to the Unity of Time, pretty much: Everything is in present tense, following him through a VERY IMPORTANT DAY™.
  • Internal conflict: Alcoholism, lack of ability to get it together.
  • External conflict: Strangers will or won’t give him money.  Cater kicks him out of the shelter.
  • Interesting setting: a homeless shelter, highway offramps.
  • Recurrence of title at important points in the story: “Anything helps.”
  • Adherence to Freytag’s pyramid: events of increasing importance culminating with a meaningful climax related to theme and a denouement that offers some clue as to how the protagonist has changed as a result of the story’s events.

There’s no official checklist to tell you what should be in your story.  And even if there were, I don’t think you can assemble a story in the way you would assemble an engine.  But perhaps it will benefit you to look back at your work and do a mental double-check to see if you’ve equipped your piece with enough of the elements that make writing great.  (I’m thinking that “Speckle Trout” is another story that is put together incredibly well.)

Mr. Walter also happens to employ a technique that stands out.  The dialogue is not in quotation marks.  So he’s “broken a rule” there.  What he has really done is employ a stylistic choice.  Leaving out the quote marks makes it a little “harder” for the reader to understand when a character is talking and what they were saying.  After all, those marks are there as a quick prompt to your brain, right?  They separate dialogue from everything else.  Perhaps Mr. Walter forces the reader to think about and examine the story more carefully.

Perhaps Mr. Walter is thinking of the page in the same way that a painter considers a canvas.  Maybe he just liked the way the story would look without all of the quotation marks.  Writers have lots of options open to them and a toolbox that overflows.  You can move words around on the page, use italics, change fonts, change text color, write in different languages, add graphics…the list is exhausting.  You can leave out the quotation marks in order to lend the piece a different feel, but do so judiciously; isn’t your first duty to helping the reader understand your intent?  I have seen some cases of quote mark-less writing that is not as clear as “Anything Helps.”  Be sure that the reader doesn’t need to wonder what is dialogue and what is not.

Here; I’ll make up an example from a pretend story influenced by the fact that I saw my first episode of Bridezillas the other day.

Johanne led Ed into the tattoo shop and told him to take his shirt off sit down.  She said, we’re getting matching tattoos, but you have to be blindfolded.

Ed sat down as Johanne put the handkerchief over his eyes.  He asked, what are we getting?  I don’t mind another tattoo, but I’m curious.  The first one wasn’t so bad, but it was still painful.  The artist shaved a spot on his chest.

Don’t you worry, Johanne said, reclining into the other chair as Jim the tattoo artist put the stencil on her inside thigh.  You’ll love it.

Jim looked at Johanne, kissing her as he said, We’re going out next week, right?  It won’t bother Ed at all.

Fifteen minutes later, Johanne revealed her tattoo: 100% Certifiable.  Ed was terrified as Johanne pulled up his shirt, saying I don’t want people to think I’m certifiable.

No, you have something else, she said.  Property of Johanne.

Ed saw the brand on his chest and somehow didn’t run screaming and do whatever it took to get away from Johanne.

There are a few places where you could be confused as to whether or not the character is speaking or the narrator.  (And you should be confused that the guy really did marry that woman.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Look back at your story to see if you’ve hit enough of the marks that make a piece of writing great.  When you write an e-mail, don’t you sometimes read it over to make sure that you’ve been clear as to what you want?  This is the same principle.
  • Diverge from the standard conventions of prose, but do so judiciously.  You are an artist, dear writer.  Instead of covering a canvas with paint, you do so with words.

What Can We Steal From Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Miracle Polish,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story premiered in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  As of this writing, you can read “Miracle Polish” right here.  Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta chose the story for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Bonuses: Here is what Short A Day thought about “Miracle Polish.”  Here is a lengthy and interesting interview with Mr. Millhauser over at BOMBHere‘s “A Voice in the Night,” another Millhauser story from The New Yorker.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Momentum

Inciting incident: A peddler shows up at the first person narrator’s home.  The old man is selling Miracle Polish, a product that will put a special shine on any mirror in your home.  The narrator watches as the peddler leaves; there’s a perfectly appropriate moment of oddness as the salesman locks eyes with the narrator before leaving.  The narrator cleans a mirror with the polish…he looks younger and fresher.  His girlfriend Monica is tired, too.  She doesn’t seem to like the happier-looking Monica she sees in the mirror.  The narrator soon puts mirrors on every wall in his home, causing tension in his relationship with Monica.  She believes that he prefers the more youthful version of her that he sees in the mirror.  There’s a perfectly inevitable conclusion in which Chekhov’s mirrors are dealt with in proper fashion.

The story reminded me a bit of an episode of The Twilight Zone, which is a massive compliment.  Mr. Millhauser creates a through-a-mirror-darkly magical realism world in the same way that Rod Serling did in many of the Twilight Zone scripts.  Everything in the narrator’s world is perfectly normal…except for the Miracle Polish.  There’s the sense of impending danger; we’re led to wonder why the peddler locked eyes with the narrator in such a strange way.  There’s a “hook” in the beginning that looms over the entire story.  That second bottle of Miracle Polish…the peddler advised the narrator to buy one, but he didn’t.  This hook is paid off in the final paragraph of the story.  As in the best Twilight Zone scripts, the “strange” things, the magical fantasy, all relate to the rest of the story and its theme.  That unpurchased second bottle also creates a kind of countdown…will the narrator run out of Miracle Polish?  What will happen when he does?

Mr. Millhauser also creates characters that truly belong in this story.  The middle-aged man feels run-down and doesn’t seem to like what he has become.  He’s just the kind of guy who could use a look in the mirror.  So Mr. Millhauser offers him a particularly clear look into one.  His girlfriend Monica has a habit of “assessing her looks mercilessly.”  As she is first described, I thought Monica was a teenage young woman.  Instead, she merely has a few of those qualities.  It’s been quite some time since I was around a teenage young woman, but I’m guessing mirrors still play an important role in their lives.  These two characters are confronted by mirrors; one likes the reflection and the other doesn’t.  That means tension!  Whoo hoo!

Another tactic Mr. Millhauser employs is apparent when you look at the left margin of the story.  One of the problems I have is deciding which parts of the story to render in scene.  Mr. Millhauser creates an around-the-campfire feeling by offering long paragraphs and sliding through time a great deal.  Which scenes are absolutely necessary?  We need to see the narrator and Monica looking into the mirrors.  And arguing about the mirrors.  And what happens during the climax, when the conflict comes to a head.

What Should We Steal?

  • Relate the ending of your story to its beginning.  Your story should make some kind of unified comment about humanity or the world or whatever, right?  The theme should be as consistent as the characters and setting.
  • Give your characters what they deserve.  Four horny teenage boys want to have sex?  Make them forge a pact with each other to get laid.  Your character is a liar and manipulator?  Put him or her in a political drama.
  • Flatten out the left margin.  You can create narrative momentum by focusing less on describing scenes and more on describing story.

What Can We Steal From Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Volcano,” short story
Author: Lawrence Osborne
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story premiered in Issue 47 (Spring 2011) of Tin House, one of the best journals around.  “Volcano” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2012.

Bonuses: Karen Carlson shares her thoughts on the story; I love that she both appreciates and dislikes the story.  That’s the mark of complicated criticism!  Charles E. May, as always, has some important ideas about the story.  Here is the NYT review of Mr. Osborne’s latest book, The Forgiven.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Use of Dreams

Martha Fink, a forty-six-year-old attorney, is going through a rough time in her life.  She divorced her cheating husband six months ago and is still working through her understandable anger and confusion.  She packs up and heads off to Hawaii on her own.  As luck would have it, Martha books a room at a resort, “run by two gay dancers” that is “next to an active volcano.”  Martha doesn’t much like the resort’s regular programming; the people aren’t quite her style and she doesn’t like the lucid dreaming seminar she signed up for.  The Dream Express group is intended to allow her to remember and change her dreams.  She’s given drugs and a set of magic goggles to help her in that respect.  They don’t exactly work.  Martha decides to ditch the regular programming and rides her bike around the beautiful island.  She finds a hotel and a hotel bar that is tucked away in a remote location.  There’s a man at the bar, a retired geologist, who appreciates her as a woman-something that has been a challenge for her because of the whole husband thing.  After having one drink (and introducing herself as “Martha Prickhater”), she heads out on a bike ride.  Now it’s too late for her to go back to her resort.  She returns to the hotel/bar and has drinks with the geologist and decides to take a room in the hotel.  After going into her room and closing the door, Martha changes her mind and finds the geologist.  They have sex in the dark.  In the last paragraph, we get a carefully detailed description of the act and Martha’s real-time thoughts about it.  Dreams and the ability to control dreams play a big role.

What sets this story apart?  It’s a stellar example of the third person limited point of view.  Mr. Osborne offers us deep access to Martha’s thought and this access is crucial to the ending of the story.  The reader may have been jarred had Mr. Osborne started out with a wider third person before zooming in on Martha’s consciousness.  This is Martha’s story, so the author takes her hand and remains with her throughout.  This is also fitting because of the themes of solitude and disconnection from society.  Preventing the reader from accessing the thoughts of others allows him or her to understand Martha’s point of view.  She’s in her own head all the time and we share the experience with her.

Choosing the right point of view can be problematic.  I’m thinking of one of my current story ideas and I’m not sure which way to go.  Perhaps the solution can be found in thinking of the ending of the story and working backwards.  Mr. Osborne’s ending requires a blending of firmly grasping reality and slipping slightly into dream consciousness.  In the first person, this may be difficult because a first-person narrator could not offer objective commentary.  In the second person, the narrator would have to contend with the consciousness of the “you” and that of the reader.  The third-person limited is just right because it allows Mr. Osborne the best of both worlds: he can tell you what is really happening and tell you what is happening in Martha’s head.

Mr. Osborne also offers a master class in how to write dreams.  We’ve all been warned to avoid the cliche it-was-all-a-dream ending.  Why?  Because it’s a cheat.  Mr. Osborne warps reality in a meaningful manner.  Martha has dreams in the first half of the story and these do indeed illuminate her psychology for the reader.  Martha is forced to confront her trouble relating to others (a central character facet that leads to the conclusion).  The dreams are also not terribly abstract.  Mr. Osborne isn’t putting you into the role of a psychiatrist by offering some way-out-there descriptions of things.  A lesser writer (such as myself) would make the dreams so strange that the reader would be forced to take out pad and pencil and figure out what is going on.  Further, Mr. Osborne us careful to let us know when Martha is dreaming and when she is not.  Some writers would not be as vigilant in using the key words and phrases: “began to dream,” “awoke,” “got up,” “wrote down her dream straightaway.”

Mr. Osborne is also very careful to establish the “rules” of the lucid dreaming workshop.  When Martha reaches for the wall in the end of the story, it means something to us.  Why?  Because the lucid dreaming expert person told us that rubbing a rough surface will change the dream immediately, and then Mr. Osborne has Martha do just that during one of her less-than-satisfying dreams in the resort.  The reader will follow you wherever you want to go, but you need to establish the specific rules of the world you’re creating.  Mr. Osborne follows his own rules, which is important when he gets to the ending of the story.  He gets a TINY bit abstract and that’s okay.  It’s the end of the story and Martha is undergoing a…very important experience.  The reader understands the significance of rubbing a rough surface, so it means an awful lot.

What Should We Steal?

  • Choose your point of view by working backwards.  If you’re not sure which POV to use, consider which would facilitate the ending you have in mind.
  • Employ dreams as a tool, not a story element unto themselves.  If you’re listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” okay, fine; the “dream” is the point.  In a narrative, the dream must simply be another facet of the world and characters you create.
  • Establish the unique rules of your world very quickly and adhere to them.  Think of something like Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (I do this all the time.)  Does it make sense that the Enterprise can go faster than the speed of light?  Sure.  The writers established the “how” of the warp drive and adhere to the rules of the technology very closely.

What Can We Steal From Alice Munro’s “Axis”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Axis,” short story
Author: Alice Munro
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the January 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  You can read the story here if you have subscriber access to the publication.  The story was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2012 by Heidi Pitlor and the incomparable Tom Perrotta.

Bonuses: The awesome web site The Millions put together “A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro.”  Here is the Alice Munro coverage NPR has done.  The New Yorker loves Ms. Munro.  Can you tell?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Guidance

Grace and Avie were friends fifty years ago.  Both were farm girls and somewhat isolated during their college years.  Ms. Munro uses flashback to describe the stress Avie experienced in the run-up to her marriage and the story of the way Grace lost her virginity to Royce, a young man whose patience had limits in this arena.  There’s a great scene in which Royce and Grace have finally arranged for some alone time.  Unfortunately, the episode is interrupted in the most unpleasant and expected manner.  Royce takes off and never looks back.  Ms. Munro fast-forwards to the present, depicting Royce and Avie’s coincidental reunion on a passenger train.  Their lives didn’t end up the way they had expected, but whose does?

I love the way that Ms. Munro so successfully imbued the story with youthful passion.  The author has many decades on me and has accumulated more literary accolades than I’ll ever even hear about, but she is still able to inhabit the mind of a horny young man through her hummingbird-like third person narrator.  About halfway through the story, Ms. Munro turns a very impressive magic trick.  After months of denying him the gift of her virginity, Grace has made a plan to have sex with Royce.  Grace’s mother has given Royce a day’s reprieve from doing farm chores and believes he will be alone.  Instead, Grace will ride her bike away from home…then immediately return to enjoy a couple hours of solitude with her boyfriend.

Put yourself in the place of the characters.  It’s going to happen!  You’re going to get what you’ve been waiting for!  Only you have to wait until the day after tomorrow to get it.  The reader and the characters are in the same position; they both want to see what happens when the love is made.  The characters must wait a day in “character time,” and Ms. Munro makes you wait a page as she briefly describes what happens on the penultimate day of Grace’s life as a maiden.  Sharing the anticipation with the characters puts you on the edge of your seat during the climactic scene (no pun intended).  Even better, Ms. Munro uses that day to add characterization and depth to the looming sexual encounter.  When Grace’s mother points out that “Royce here is the type to spoil a woman,” she means that Royce will be very generous with his eventual wife.  The reader, of course, knows what Royce is planning to do and thinks of the word “spoil” in a decidedly different sense.

“Tense confusion.”  Many beginning writers…and some intermediate writers…and even some advanced writers have occasional trouble keeping using the proper tense in a sentence.  The real reason why it’s so important to use the proper tense is because goofing up can make our stories unclear.  Ms. Munro’s story is bookended by sections that take place in the dramatic present; the middle of the story jumps around between different times in the past.  As the reader works his or her way through the story for the first time, they probably have an idea that the end of the story will return to the present.  There’s no way of knowing exactly when this will be on the first read!  Just before Ms. Munro returns to the dramatic present, she notes the following about Avie:

In the summer, when he was working at Labatt, they’d had one of their pregnancy scares, but it had turned out to be all right.  So they’d gone camping on Civic Holiday weekend, to celebrate, and for the first time it had seemed that they were truly in love.  It was also the first time that they had really gotten pregnant, and they had announced that they would be getting married in Kenora very soon, before she began to show.

They were not unhappy about it.

You’ll notice that Ms. Munro used a number of “was”es and “had”s and “were”s.  Look at what happens after a line of white space:

In what was once called the club car, on the train from Toronto to Montreal, Avie is on her way to visit one of her daughters.

Ms. Munro specifically points out that the previous events are in the past.  (The club car is not even called that anymore, apparently!)  Then she very quickly uses the present tense.  (Avie IS on her way.)  You are your reader’s tour guide through the world you have created; make sure you drop enough bread crumbs to ensure they can follow you!

What Should We Steal?

  • Structure your work in such a manner that your characters share experiences with your audience.  If your protagonist is waiting for Christmas morning, allow your reader to share that heightened sense of anticipation.
  • Escort your reader through your manipulation of the time/space continuum.  Your reader will follow you anywhere; you just need to hold their hand a little!

What Can We Steal From Jennifer Haigh’s “Paramour”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Paramour,” short story
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Ploughshares, a top-notch lit mag.  (That issue was guest-edited by Alice Hoffman.)  You can order a back issue from the kind folks at Ploughshares or you can find the story through Project Muse.  Editors Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor selected the story for the 2012 edition of the Best American Short Stories anthology.

Bonuses: Karen Carlson trained her critical eye on the story.  Here is an interview Ms. Haigh did about her book, Faith.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Sentence Structure

Christine is a college teacher who began her academic life as a writer.  Ivan Borysenko, an attractive older teacher, awakened her interest in playwriting.  At nineteen, Christine spent a lot of time with Ivan and loved thinking about what other people were thinking about her, even though the two never had a “real” affair.  She sat in the nude for him as he made his art.  Fifteen years later, Christine is in New York City to attend a ceremony in tribute to Ivan.  The experience is a bit shocking to her; she’s remembering herself as she was so long ago.  She meets Martin, an assertive man who pursues her rapaciously.  There is, of course, a nice discussion between Christine and Ivan.  His seventeen-year-old daughter Pia intrudes, allowing Christine (and Ms. Haigh) to solidify the parallel between the two characters.  Christine tries to understand herself and her experience with Ivan; how convenient that she can compare her own immaturity to that of Pia.  Is there a Christine/Ivan hookup?  Nope.  She has a passionate evening with Martin.  The next day, Christine learns that Pia’s assumed maturity has brought consequences: the young woman drunk-drove her car into a concrete barrier.  Thanks to seat belts and air bags, she survived.

The structure that Ms. Haigh chose for “Paramour” is very interesting and very solid, but I want to zoom in and look at the way the author constructed her sentences.  As you are no doubt aware, there are countless ways for you to construct your sentences.  Here’s an example from the story of what I call a “backward” sentence:

With her best friend, a boy named Tommy, she had suffered two attempts—one failed, one nominally successful; both awkward and crushingly sad.

Christine is the protagonist of the story; why did Ms. Haigh give Tommy top billing in the sentence?  I think that casting the sentence in this way helps the reader identify that he or she is meeting a new character.  Tommy is indeed important to Christine, so he is important to us, too.  Would the sentence as effectively communicate Christine’s backstory were it cast like this?

Christine had suffered two attempts—one failed, one nominally successful—at lovemaking with her best friend Tommy; both attempts were awkward and crushingly sad.

In the above representation of the sentence, Christine is the star and Tommy may be overlooked.

Here’s a paragraph that is crucial to the story.  Look at the second sentence:

Later she understood how gravely she’d miscalculated.  That with every lover for the rest of her life, Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room.

How is the meaning changed if the sentence were cast this way:

Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room with each lover for the rest of her life.

Or this way:

Ivan Borysenko haunted Christine each time she shared time with another lover.

Or this way:

Every future lover of Christine’s would exist in the shadow of Ivan Borysenko.

Each version of the sentence emphasizes different characters and ideas.  Each is perfectly valid, but you should remain open as to which construction of a sentence best serves your story.

I love the strange, dark turn that the story takes at its end.  In a way, the denouement breaks a rule: the car accident doesn’t happen to the protagonist.  All of the important events crammed into that last paragraph take place while Christine is in bed with her new gentleman friend.  Why is the ending so successful?  I think it’s because it is so jarring.  For nine pages, Ms. Haigh invited the reader to consider the differences between young and old Christine (not the TV show, of course) and invited the reader to join Christine in wondering what her life might be like if things had happened differently.  Pia is a parallel character to Christine, implicitly and explicitly.  The excesses of Pia’s life causes grave consequences; the realization is as sharp for the reader as it is for Christine.  The protagonist has wondered for fifteen years what her life would be like had she fully become “Ivan’s girl.”  And now she knows.

Ms. Haigh is reminding us that action takes place within characters in addition to outside of them.  It’s much easier for folks to tell when one character in engaged in a fistfight with another than it is to describe inner turmoil.  Ending the story with what happened to Pia solidifies the parallel nature of the characters and implies, in a way, Christina really was in the car.

What Should We Steal?

  • Treat your sentences like collections of Lego blocks.  Switch around the elements of your sentences to decide what you want to emphasize.
  • Allow action to take place “offstage” if the effects are meaningful for your characters.  Emotional impact counts as action, too!