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.
Bonuses: Here is what Trevor Berrett thought of the story. Here is what Teddy Mitrosilis thought. Consider checking out Mr. Wink’s first collection: Dog Run Moon: Stories.
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. Continue Reading
Best American 2013, Callan Wink, Narrative Structure, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Bravery,” short story
Author: Charles Baxter
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Winter 2012 issue of Tin House and was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Baxter gave to Bookslut. Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Mr. Baxter is the author of Burning Down the House, a fantastic book about writing craft. (Well, Graywolf only publishes fantastic books.) Mr. Baxter discusses the book in this interview with The Atlantic.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: White Space
This is, in a way, the story of Susan’s coming of age. We meet the young woman as a teenager who, unlike her friends, is attracted to men who are, above all, kind. Susan affirms her interest in college and finally meets Elijah, a pediatrician who devotes his time to caring for others. Before long, the two are married and on honeymoon in Prague. On one eventful day, the pair walks through a chapel whose walls are filled with carved babies. An omen? Then the pair are verbally accosted by a woman who shouts at them in angry Czech. An omen? Then Susan is grazed by a tram. An omen? These must have been omens, as Susan immediately finds herself pregnant. The last scene of the story finds Elijah feeding the baby. Susan insists he stop, whereupon Elijah goes on a walk that results in a thematically relevant experience.
There are a lot of eternal struggles for those who take up the challenge of storytelling. One of them is how to use white space and their asterisky cousin: the section break. When should we use white space? Unfortunately, there’s no absolute right answer. Like any other choice, white space creates an effect and it’s our job to decide if we’re creating the proper effect. Mr. Baxter uses white space in “Bravery” for many of the common reasons:
- To jump ahead in time.
- To emphasize a single image or experience. (Susan’s tree dream.)
- To afford him the chance to get in a cool end-of-section “punch.”
- To allow that “punch” to land and to reverberate in the reader’s mind.
- To control how fast the reader reads the story and the path of his or her eyes.
Mr. Baxter uses two asterisk section breaks in the story:
- After Susan and Elijah have met and Susan reflects upon his kindness.
- After the significant day in Prague; Susan-though she is unaware-is about to be pregnant, and her dream confirms much of what she believes about her “destiny.”
If you’re anything like me, you are wondering why Mr. Baxter put the section breaks where he did. The first section break seems to have the following effect:
- Mr. Baxter spends the first few pages running through a wide swath of Susan’s life. The asterisk lets us know that the narrator is going to slow down and that the next few pages will zoom in on a very brief period of time.
- Mr. Baxter seems to be whispering, “Okay, friend. I’m done shooting tons of exposition at you! Now that you know the basics, let’s go deeper into Susan’s thoughts and experiences!”
- The transition itself mirrors the journey being taken by the characters. Susan and Elijah are on a plane. This is down time. The couple left terra firma in one place and their lives resume in another. The story functions the same way. (The asterisk is an airplane in a way.)
The second section break functions thus:
- Mr. Baxter marks Susan’s transition from childlessness to parenthood.
- Mr. Baxter zooms ahead in time from one significant scene to another.
- Mr. Baxter switches between abstract poeticism and efficient exposition. (“They named their son Raphael…”)
So how should we use white space and section breaks? Sigh…there’s no easy answer. We just need to follow Mr. Baxter’s lead and make sure that our choices have the desired effect in our readers.
Another concept with which we always wrestle is the personality of our narrators. “Bravery” has a pretty straightforward third person limited to Susan’s perspective. There’s nothing wrong with the narrator; it’s your tried-and-true reporter. I did find significance in a sentence that arrives a few pages into the story:
He handed her a monogrammed handkerchief that he had pulled out of some pocket or other, and the first letter on it was E, so he probably was an Elijah, after all. A monogrammed handkerchief! Maybe he had money. “Here,” he said. “Go ahead. Sop it up.”
The bolded sentence is significant to me because it sounded as though the narrator was speaking in a different register. The sentiment seems to suggest a lot about Susan because it’s buried in the middle of “normal” stuff. Think of it this way. Let’s say you ask your significant other how his or her day was and you hear the following:
“Eh, just a normal day. I went to the post office, then I picked up some dog food. I was a couple minutes late to work, but it was okay. I had leftovers for lunch. I ran into my celebrity crush and we went on a long walk alone in the woods. I forgot to get gas on the way home, so I have to do that tomorrow morning. That’s about it.”
I’ll bet I know which part of that list you’ll ask more about! The extraordinary (in this case suspicious) sentence stood out among the rest. “Maybe he had money” stood out for me because it seemed different from the narrator’s other thoughts and shaped how I understood Susan to some small extent.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ white space and section breaks to create the desired effect in your reader. Most readers aren’t going to mark up your stories with a pen and wonder why you did what you did. They are going to absorb these breaks subconsciously.
- Spice up your narrator as carefully as a chef spices a dish. If your narrator is that traditional laid back third person limited, you probably shouldn’t jazz things up TOO much. But a little bit of jazz? That can make your story pop.
2012, Best American 2013, Charles Baxter, Tin House, White Space
Title of Work and its Form: “Magic Man,” short story
Author: Sheila Kohler (on Twitter @sheilakohler)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the April 2012 issue of Yale Review. Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor subsequently chose the piece for Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is the New York Times review of Becoming Jane Eyre, Ms. Kohler’s 2009 novel. Ms. Kohler writes a column for Psychology Today. You can find her essays here. Here is what Karen Carlson thought of “Magic Man.”
Want to see Sheila Kohler and Edmund White discuss fiction? Say, “Thanks The Center For Fiction!”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Classic Forms
The story is not very long, but it is powerful. Sandra and her children live in Europe, but they are on vacation in South Africa. She has three daughters; S.P. is the oldest, but Jessamyn, the youngest, is Sandra’s favorite. Ms. Kohler releases the story in an interesting fashion. While the whole story is told in the third person, each section alternates between a third person narrator limited first to Sandra’s perspective and then to S.P.’s. Sadly, the story is a kind of cautionary fairy tale. Eight-year-old S.P. wanders off for a bathroom break and some alone time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. (I’m being vague because you should just read the darn story!)
Ms. Kohler notes that the story was inspired by “Der Erlkönig,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the folk tales that inspired it. It just so happens that I have a history with that poem. In fact, it’s one of the few that I have committed to memory. (That list is pretty much limited to “Der Erlkönig,” “To Be or Not to Be” and “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.”) Frau Coulter (rest in peace!) had us memorize the poem in first-year German. She was right; my interactions with German have all related to “Der Erlkönig” in some way.
Goethe composed the poem in 1782 and Franz Schubert famously used the text in one of his lieder. Many a young person has sung this song in school voice lessons and competitions.
Frau Coulter led us in numerous group readings of each stanza and tested us on solo recitations. I guess “Der Erlkönig” was primarily a homework assignment at the time, but I loved pronouncing the strange words that were made up of such exotic sounds. I loved the rhyme and the meter. And I loved the story. The poem begins “in medias res:”
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
What does that all mean? Goethe’s work is in the public domain. Many translations are not. I therefore present my terrible, awful translation of the first stanza:
Who is that riding through the inclement weather so late at night?
It is the father with his child.
He has the little boy wrapped safely in his arm,
He holds the boy tightly, he keeps the boy warm.
The existential threat is out there in Goethe’s work, nipping at the heels of father and son. The same is true in “Magic Man.” Little S.P. tells her siblings stories about this supernatural, fantastic creature, a man who can turn you into a toad if he likes. (Perhaps a reference to Der Froschkönig?) S.P. is being pursued as much as the boy in “Der Erlkönig” was. We meet the “magic man” through her perspective; he’s as charming and persuasive as the titular villain of Goethe’s poem. The Magic Man tempts S.P. with the prospect of playing with his lonely son, just as Der Erlkönig tempts the boy with his daughters:
“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”
My terrible translation that is so bad that it’s better termed an “approximation:”
Will you come with me, you fine little boy?
My daughters will take care of you.
My daughters lead the dances at night,
And they will cradle, dance and sing with you.
In “Magic Man,” Ms. Kohler appropriates the form of the fairy tale. See how close “Magic Man” is to a Grimm Brothers story? To a Hans Christian Andersen story? (And to “Der Erlkönig”?) Now, the Magic Man is the only “conceivably supernatural” element of the piece, but many other fairy tale conventions are present:
- A child who is old enough to be a little independent
- That child leaves the safety of parents/home
- The child goes on a journey through nature all alone
- The child encounters some kind of danger while on his or her own
- The antagonist demands something of great value from the protagonist
What’s the overall lesson here? “Steal” these classic forms and bring them into the current day. Where would you put a contemporary Hansel and Gretel? I’ve always wanted to write some story inspired by “Unter der linden.” (Although I’m guessing it would be more of a romance. One hopes.) The specifics of any form may change, I suppose, but many thematic concepts will remain constant. Think about horror movies; the big baddies change depending on society’s great fears at the time.
Most of the story is told in the present tense. This is a wonderful choice for the kind of story that Ms. Kohler is telling; it’s a young girl going out into the woods to meet a kind of monster. Ms. Kohler ends the story with an interesting move, violating the structure she established. In the last section told from the third person narrator limited to Sandra’s perspective, Ms. Kohler makes a leap from the present to the future simple tense:
Years later, she will remember that moment of rage…and she will feel the rage again…she will feel…
Ordinarily, switching tense or perspective is a mistake. It’s up to the writer to make the switch “okay.” Ms. Kohler makes the POV switching okay by adding white space between sections, thereby informing the reader of what she’s doing. I like Ms. Kohler’s tense change because it comes near the end of the story and it doesn’t contain a great deal of action. It makes sense because the emotion of “rage” certainly fits with the emotion the reader has when thinking about S.P.’s situation at the time. Perhaps most importantly from a writing perspective, this tense change makes the next one okay.
The last paragraph, according to the rules Ms. Kohler established, is told from Sandra’s perspective:
Years later, when her sister is dead, killed by her husband driving the car off the road, her child will tell her the whole story…
Now THAT is much more of a quantum leap than the last tense shift, right? Stuff happened! The characters do more than just feel emotions. Ms. Kohler prepared us for this leap, making it feel perfectly natural.
Tense and time shifts are perfectly valid storytelling techniques; they just need to be employed properly. Think of one of the finest films in cinema history:
Demolition Man begins as John Spartan is trying to rescue hostages that are being held by Simon Phoenix. Spartan fails and he is blamed for the dead civilians. Both Spartan and Phoenix are cryogenically frozen for their crimes. The narrative of the film simply jumps ahead 36 years. Are we mad? Nope. The director gives us a million clues to let us know that things have changed. (Just as Ms. Kohler eased us into the possibility that she would zip into the future in the last paragraph.)
What Should We Steal?
- Create modern examples of classic forms. Contemporary folks may be a little less likely to believe in witches, but we’ll always have equivalent figures.
- Prepare your reader for the judicious changes in tense and time frame that you make. Your narrator can take us anywhere and anytime…so long as your changes make sense.
Best American 2013, Classic Forms, Sheila Kohler, Yale Review
Title of Work and its Form: “Malaria,” short story
Author: Michael Byers (on Twitter @The MichaelByers)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Fall 2012 issue of Bellevue Literary Review. The kind folks at the journal have made the story available online. “Malaria” was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and is included in the anthology.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Byers gave to Hot Metal Bridge. Here is where you can find the books Mr. Byers has published. (In addition to works published by people who have similar names.) Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Here is the book trailer for Percival’s Planet:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Opening Passages
Several years ago, Orlando was in the blush of first love with a woman named Nora. But this is not a love story. Instead, Orlando is working out his understanding of George, Nora’s brother. George is an adult, but has some mental health concerns. The man was getting by, but had a bit of an incident that exacerbated Nora’s worries about herself and her future.
Yes, I’m being a bit vague in the summary. Why? Mr. Byers has given us a story that is not about a bang-bang narrative. Instead, the gentleman seems to want to explore the effect of mental health issues on the people who love the afflicted. Mr. Byers makes the very wise choice of keeping the story comparatively short; the slack narrative feels just fine in a story of this length.
The first thing I would like to point out is the skillful way in which Mr. Byers begins his story. Unfortunately, I read this piece just a little too late to include it in my video about the topic.
Let’s look at the first two sentences:
When I was in college in Eugene I had a girlfriend named Nora Vardon. We had fallen together sort of accidentally, I talked to her first at a vending machine where we were both buying coffee, and things progressed in the usual slow ways, we went out one cold night to look at the blurry stars, and that led to some kissing, and from there we started the customary excavation of our families, revealing, not quite competitively, how crazy they both were, she with a raft of depressives and schizophrenics and me with a bunch of drunks, mainly the men on my father’s side.
What has Mr. Byers packed into the opening passage?
- POV. We know it’s a first person story.
- Time frame. We know that the story took place some time ago, when the narrator “was in college.” The narrator also describes the love affair with the kind of wistful regret that is only granted with distance and earned wisdom.
- Diction. Mr. Byers gives us a beautiful second sentence that is enjoyable on its own.
- Subject matter. Romance takes a backseat to the real theme, which relates to mental illness.
- Internal narrative logic. Mr. Byers begins at the beginning of Orlando’s relationship with the Vardons, the central conflict/issue in the story.
Take a look at the first few sentences of one of your own stories. Are you packing in as much as Mr. Byers does?
A line or two later, Mr. Byers did something that seemed quite significant to me. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) I loved the sad suggestion of the tense Mr. Byers used in this sentence:
She had an open, genial, feline face, with big cheeks and dark eyes, and a big soft body that was round in parts…
Nora “had” an open face. We’ve only just begun our journey with Orlando, but that “had” is extremely suggestive. What is going on with Nora now? Is she okay? Are they just not together? Did they have a meaningful relationship? We may not have these questions had Mr. Byers cast the sentence differently:
- My old girlfriend had…
- Nora, my college girlfriend…
- I loved her open, genial, feline face…
- Nora, bless her heart, was a beautiful woman with a…
Instead, Mr. Byers has Orlando tell us that Nora “had” that face. (“Gee…I hope nothing happened to it.”) I guess I’m urging us to think deeply about how we use tense in our work. Think back to your first real breakup. The one that wrenched your heart and made you wear all black to school the next day. What should you say if you’re trying to convince others that the long-ago heartbreak isn’t a problem for you now?
- Sally broke up with me before graduation. (past simple)
- Sally was breaking up with me before graduation. (past continuous)
- Sally had broken up with me before graduation. (past perfect)
- Sally had been breaking up with me before graduation. (past perfect continuous)
Each sentence means pretty much the same thing, but the tense employed in the sentences carries a different meaning.
What Should We Steal?
- Pack your opening passage full of everything your reader needs to understand your story. The longer you take to introduce important elements, the greater the chance you lose your reader.
- Choose the tense that carries the subtextual meaning appropriate to your work. “The divorce meant nothing to Sally” or “The divorce HAD meant nothing to Sally”?
2012, Bellevue Literary Review, Best American 2013, Michael Byers, Opening Passages
Title of Work and its Form: “The Wilderness,” short story
Author: Elizabeth Tallent
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published in Spring 2012’s Issue 129 of Threepenny Review one of the top journals out there. Elizabeth Strout (and Heidi Pitlor) chose the story for the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories and it can be found in the anthology.
Bonus: Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Here is “Little X,” a piece of memoir that Ms. Tallent published in Threepenny Review. Here is Ms. Tallent’s page at Powell’s Books.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Compensation
The third-person protagonist of the story is an English professor who is endlessly fascinated by her students’ preoccupation with machines. The young people are seemingly addicted to the bleeps and bloops that make it clear that the devices are alive. The professor was enthralled by a different object as a child: a mummy that helped her understand death and the meaning of history. The strongest bit of narrative relates to this struggle between history and inanimate objects: Wal-Mart wants to plow over the woods of The Wilderness to build a new story. The narrator’s great-great-grandfather nearly became a casualty of war on that ground. The story ends as the narrator reconsiders what it means to elude death and to live life. (It was also my impression that Ms. Tallent makes the case for literature in the story; Shakespeare’s body was not immortal, but he’s still with us and will be until the final human breathes his or her last.)
We can all certainly agree that “The Wilderness” is not a white-knuckle barnburner with a complicated plot. We’ll also agree that plot is an important part of a story. So why aren’t we upset with Ms. Tallent? It’s easy: she makes more potent use of the other tools in the writer’s toolbox in order to compensate. We all love the eerie inevitability of the plot of “The Lottery,” for example. Stuff is always happening in that story; people file into the town square, slips are drawn from the box, and men, women and children pick up stones. The narrative thread of “The Wilderness” is not as strong as that of “The Lottery” and that’s perfectly fine because Ms. Tallent offers extremely potent characterization to help us understand the professor. Ms. Jackson’s sentences in “The Lottery” have a beauty about them, but the sentences must, by necessity, take a backseat to the plot. Unbound by a similar obligation, Ms. Tallent offers us sentences that are a joy unto themselves.
Here’s a chart I made for a previous essay that illustrates my point. (I would love to believe that every GWS reader has gone through every essay, but I know it’s not the case.) A story is like a spider web or a net. A web or a net can have odd dimensions and it can even have holes, so long as the other parts of the structure are strong enough to hold it together. The plot of “The Wilderness” may not, as Nigel Tufnel might say, go to eleven. Other facets of the story, however, DO go to eleven (which is one louder), ensuring that the story is coherent and enjoyable.
Let’s think of it another way. Spring Training is going on as I write this. (My beloved Tigers are trying to figure out what they are going to do at short.) Until 1999, the Tigers played baseball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, filling the stands of the most beautiful ballpark ever. Look at the dimensions of Tiger Stadium:
See how even? See how beautiful? Now THAT’S an outfield. Baseball is a rare sport whose playing field isn’t completely regulated by the rules. Yes, the bases must be ninety feet apart, but the shape and dimensions of the outfield vary wildly between ballparks. Think about Fenway Park. The builders had a bit of a problem: the street running along left field was very close to home plate. See:
How did the builders compensate? Why, they made the left field fence extremely high. (It’s that “Green Monster” you’ve heard so much about.) If that fence were five feet high, each Red Sox home game would have a score of 23-22.
Check out the dimensions of the Polo Grounds, the former home of the New York Giants (and briefly the Yankees and Mets).
No, you’re not seeing things. You’re seeing why they called it the “polo grounds.” Each foul pole was really close to home plate, so the fences were higher. The Giants also compensated for those generous porches in right and left by making center field a vast wasteland where home runs go to die. (Or to turn into doubles.)
Wasn’t that a fun and unexpected way to consider my point? When one facet of our work is, by design, a little weak, we must compensate by adjusting the prominence of the other facets. Would Alfred Hitchcock have chosen “The Wilderness” as the basis for his next suspense film? Probably not. He would, however, have admired the story’s depth of characterization and its philosophical underpinnings.
Another facet of “The Wilderness” that I admire is the way that Ms. Tallent encouraged me to think about BIG ISSUES in a graceful manner. She made her character think about them first. “She” doesn’t seem to have liked her former colleague very much, but his flirtatious question has had her thinking ever since he asked what she would want on her tombstone. Now, Ms. Tallent is not forcing us to think too much. That would be a violation of the writer’s First Duty. (It’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.) Ms. Tallent is, however, inviting us to think big thoughts. Invitations are fine; dictates are not.
Have you ever been asked, for example, which three books you would take with you to a desert island? Which family member would be the first you rescue from a burning building? These are difficult questions to answer when you’re put on the spot. Instead, Ms. Tallent simply offers up the question for her character; we can choose whether or not we want to address it.
What Should We Steal?
- Boost the power of other parts of your work when another part is a little weak. Okay, so you’re writing Transformers 8: The Planet of the Machines. Each of the characters are named “Guy” and “Girl” because the characters in the Transformers movies are irrelevant. There better be some pulse-pounding action scenes in the script to make up for it.
- Ensure that any deep thought on the part of the reader is voluntary and earned. I think about the nature of humanity and our responsibilities to each other when I read Les Miserables. I probably wouldn’t do so if Victor Hugo did something like this:
2012, Best American 2013, Elizabeth Tallent, Narrative Compensation, Threepenny Review
Title of Work and its Form: “Nemecia,” short story
Author: Kirstin Valdez Quade
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published by Narrative Magazine. You can find the piece here. “Nemecia” was subsequently chosen for the 2013 volume of Best American Short Stories.
Bonus: Here is “The Five Wounds,” a story Ms. Quade published in The New Yorker. Here is another story Ms. Quade published in Guernica. Here is what cool writer Karen Carlson thought of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Objects
Maria looks back on the time she spent with her cousin Nemecia with a kind of bittersweet love. The title character suffered a terrible family tragedy, necessitating a move to Maria’s home. Many years have passed since the two young women lived together; Maria (the first person narrator) wasn’t always happy that her cousin was around. And why would she be? Nemecia got all of the attention because of the misfortune she experienced. Nemecia is older and eats ravenously. Ms. Quade includes a beautifully written example of another of Nemecia’s crimes: she would dig her thumbnail into Maria’s cheek each night, creating a scar. Maria can only take so much; after her cousin ruins one of her rites of passage, she says something she can’t take back and is sent away for a little while. In the present day, Maria remembers Nemecia with the understanding she couldn’t muster in her younger years.
Ms. Quade knows she has a lot of exposition to dole out. In addition to the expected basics, she needs to let us know when Maria is telling the story. She needs to place the dramatic present of the flashbacks. She needs to set up the “mystery” of Nemecia’s tragedy. Perhaps her most difficult move: Ms. Quade needs to establish the different attitudes Maria holds as a grownup and as a child. What is Ms. Quade’s first move? How does she streamline some of the exposition? What device does she use that allows her to explain a lot in a felicitous manner? A photograph. The story begins,
There is a picture of me standing with my cousin Nemecia in the bean field. On the back is penciled in my mother’s hand. Nemecia and Maria, Tajique, 1929.
The photograph is a very logical entry point for the story. Not only is it a firm piece of documentary evidence-it’s a picture, after all-but it nudges the reader into something of a visual mindset, mimicking the response he or she might have if they were actually looking at a picture. Another reason that the photograph works is that these objects are (by definition) representations of the past. After absorbing the mental image, we’re primed to enjoy a short story that takes place primarily in flashback.
So, a spoiler alert would be inappropriate when I tell you that Nemecia is dead at the time when Maria is recalling the story. Here’s why it’s not a problem. This kind of rote statistic really isn’t important for Ms. Quade’s purposes. It seems that the author’s intent was to tell us a meaningful story about Nemecia and the relationship between the cousins. It really doesn’t matter what jobs Nemecia may have had in her working life or how old Nemecia was when she passed. All that matters is what happened between the women when they were teens and how the two (especially Maria) learned to understand the other on a deeper level. I don’t believe Ms. Quade tells us the name of Nemecia’s husband…but that doesn’t matter. We DO care that Nemecia has apparently changed her name as part of the process of leaving her past behind.
Think about the Star Wars prequels. (But just for a moment. Then you can go back to pretending they don’t exist.) When The Phantom Menace was released, we all knew quite well how Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader met his end. All of that suspense was already gone as we went into the theater to see that film, our hopes about to be crushed like an empty soda can rolling onto a busy freeway. Why wasn’t this a problem? We were going to find out WHY Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side. WHERE he began. HOW he learned to use his Jedi powers. WHO taught him how to sound more like a robot than R2-D2 when talking to a woman. The Star Wars prequels and “Nemecia” have at least one thing in common: both are stories that emphasize the journeys undertaken by the characters, not their ultimate destinations.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ an object as the entry point of your story. While it’s possible to do so in a clunky manner, it’s perfectly natural, for example, for a first-person narrator to tell a story about the grandfather who owned the fountain pen he’s holding.
- Maintain focus on the truth of your character, not the boring details. Whatever. Jean Valjean dies at the end of Les Miserables. The death itself doesn’t matter; We (and Hugo) care about what Valjean accomplished with his life.
2012, Best American 2013, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Narrative Magazine, Objects
Title of Work and its Form: “A Voice in the Night,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in the December 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, the story is available online without a subscription. “A Voice in the Night” was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and is featured in the anthology.
Bonuses: Very cool! Electric Literature has published Mr. Millhauser’s “Cathay” online for your enjoyment. (Presumably with the consent of the author.) Here is an interview Mr. Millhauser gave to Jim Shepard that was published in BOMB. Here is Mr. Milhauser’s Amazon page.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythological Retellings
This is a story about the fleeting nature of faith. (To me, at least.) It’s crucial to break down the structure. The story makes four trips through this series of perspectives:
I: Samuel. As in Samuel and Eli from the Bible. Each “I” section recounts a little more of the tale.
II: A seven-year-old boy who is growing up in Stratford, Connecticut. He is going through an interesting time in his life; the Sunday school teachers at the Jewish Community Center have told him the story of Samuel and Eli and he wants desperately to hear his own calling.
III: “The Author” is the seven-year-old boy at the age of sixty-eight. He seems to be preoccupied with memories of his youth. His mind and heart are not filled with the stories of the Bible, but with his own. The story ends as “The Author” reflects upon the Muse and the way in which stories can keep us up at night and dominate our lives while giving us something to live for.
Mr. Millhauser engages in an obvious (and perfectly wonderful) form of literary theft. The gentleman appropriated the story of Samuel and Eli from the Old Testament book of Samuel. There is, of course, no problem in retelling a story that has literally been rewritten for thousands of years. In doing so, Mr. Millhauser taps into the feelings the reader has for Judeo-Christian mythology, whatever they may be.
Mr. Millhauser certainly isn’t just stealing from those who conceived and passed down the stories from the Old Testament. The structure of “A Voice in the Night” mimics the relationship that people have with stories. (And mimics even more strongly the relationship religious folks have with their scriptural documents.) Without being too obvious about it, Mr. Millhauser is chronicling “the author’s” lifelong search for truth and his desire to understand what he is “meant” to do and to be.
How can we borrow from Mr. Millhauser’s borrowing of the Bible story? We can pinch a different timeless story. What about the story of the Prodigal Son? (Even though that one always drove me nuts.) Honestly, you can just go right to your copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, open the book at random and plant your index finger onto a story ripe for adaptation or stealing. And if you don’t have a copy for some reason, you can read the book online.
- What if you blend a contemporary story with the star-crossed love of Pyramus and Thisbe? (Well, Shakespeare already did that, but you can, too.)
- What about crafting a father-son story that is influenced by that of Daedalus and Icarus?
- What could the Elysian Fields be like? (Aside from a great place to play baseball?)
Mr. Millhauser knows that he’s breaking a lot of rules and that his structure could alienate some of his readers. Why doesn’t he lose anyone? Why, because he makes the important parts as obvious as he can. Look at how Mr. Millhauser begins each of the first three sections:
- “The boy Samuel wakes in the dark. Something’s not right. Most commentators agree…” We learn that this section is about Samuel. After we read about “most commentators,” it’s clear that Mr. Millhauser’s narrator is referring to a mythological story of some sort. Even if you don’t know the specific Bible story, you still get the idea.
- “It’s a summer night in Stratford, Connecticut, 1950. The boy, seven years old, lies awake in his bed…” Mr. Millhauser doesn’t mess around. We know he’s jumped around in time and that the main character of the sections labeled “II” will be this boy. We’re not worried about what happened to Samuel; we know we’ll see him again if there’s another “I” section.
- “The Author is sixty-eight years old, in good health, most of his teeth, half his hair, not dead yet, though lately he hasn’t been sleeping well.” Great. It’s clear we’re onto a new protagonist for the “III” sections.
If Mr. Millhauser hadn’t held our hands a little bit, we may have found it difficult to understand the story’s dramatic present. (Such as it is.) When we deviate from the “standard conventions” of storytelling, we risk losing the reader. The more complicated the experiment, the greater the potential for confusion. It’s our responsibility as writers, therefore, to follow Mr. Millhauser’s lead and to provide sizable bread crumbs.
What Should We Steal?
- Make a conscious effort to turn an old story into one that is brand new. Oh, hey, check it out. Here are some more incredible stories just waiting to be stolen.
- Feel free to mess with your reader, so long as you keep the basics clear. The reader should only be disoriented in proper measure.
2012, Best American 2013, Mythological Retellings, Steven Millhauser, The Bible, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Chapter Two,” short story
Author: Antonya Nelson
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story was first published in the March 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Subscribers can read the story here. The story was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and can be found in the anthology.
Bonuses: Here is a Q&A in which Ms. Nelson discusses her story. Here is an interview Ms. Nelson granted to The Missouri Review. Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Whoa! Here’s a video of Ms. Nelson reading her story!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Hil is an alcoholic. Is there any better storyteller than an addict who consumes a substance designed to release inhibitions?Hil is tired of her own life, so she enjoys talking about that of her neighbor, Bergeron Love (great name). Bergeron is a kind of Blanche DuBois character, a little bit older and quite sure about what the world should be like. (And how others are falling short of her standards.) Discussing her neighbor also seems to be a way for Hil to distract from her own issues. Bergeron is certainly an interesting character; she’s always calling the police on other people in the neighborhood or running around naked. As you might expect, her son Allistair isn’t very jazzed about the latter. Sadly, Bergeron Love doesn’t survive the story. After we learn of the death, the reader is told more about how Hil lies at A.A. meetings; she leads a dual life. Outside of meetings, she’s a drinker. In the group, she’s been sober for nearly a year. The last few paragraphs center upon how Hil has contextualized the Bergeron Love story and what she thinks may become of Allistair.
Do I love the idea of using the storytelling tendencies of an addict to facilitate a story? Sure. But what I love most about the opening piece is the way Ms. Nelson slid between the meetings (the dramatic present) and the flashbacks to the events she was describing. The technique gave me the feeling that I was reading a prose version of a TV clip show. What’s a clip show? It’s an episode of a TV program in which the dramatic present is broken up with video taken from earlier episodes of the show. Doing a clip show is a great way to save money-you only need to write and shoot a few minutes of narrative-but they can also be boring. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the best in television history. In 2004, the living cast reunited to update all of us as to what the characters have been doing since the show ended. Look what happens after all of the characters get together.
“Hey, Alan. Remember that time Laura told everyone you were bald?”
Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo… We see the footage in which Laura tries to apologize.
“Hey, Rob. Remember that time you broke your leg skiing after insisting to Laura you’d be fine?”
Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo… We see the footage in which Rob tries to pretend his body isn’t in massive pain.
Now, I’m not saying that Ms. Nelson is relying upon a creative crutch. (Many TV programs that do clip shows are doing just that.) What I am saying is that I love the way Ms. Nelson mimics the structure of a clip show. Check out the beginning of the story. Hill is in the middle of telling a story:
Tired of telling her own story at A.A., Hil was trying to tell the story of her neighbor. It had been a peculiar week. “So she comes to my house a few nights ago, like around nine, bing-bong, drunk as a skunk, as usual, right in the middle of this show my roommate and I are watching.”
Now look what happens in the next paragraph:
“Looks like somebody’s not getting enough attention,” Hil had murmured as she unlocked the door.
Can you spot it? How Ms. Nelson transitioned between the dramatic present and the “clips” in the clip show? Okay, here’s the answer. Ms. Nelson’s narrator employs a different tense. She goes from the past tense to the past perfect.
Past: Hil was trying to tell the story.
Past Perfect: Hil had murmured…
Switching between the A.A. meeting and the events for which Bergeron was present may have been very confusing in the hands of a lesser writer. (Such as myself.) Instead, Ms. Nelson allows her narrator to switch up the tense, efficiently communicating what was happening and when.
Ms. Nelson is indeed playing with time a lot. One of her big responsibilities in the story is to make sure we know where the characters are and when. Look what Ms. Nelson says halfway through the story when she wants to zip around through the space/time continuum:
On that earlier naked night…
Erin McGraw was one of my world-class and extremely generous teachers at Ohio State. I had already understood the principle subconsciously, but she knocked the point home: fiction is great because you can simply type a phrase such as the one I’ve just spotlighted.
Meanwhile, at the ranch…
Having just set her barn on fire, Alexia arrived at the rock climbing facility with a new sense of purpose…
After eating dinner, Bob and Laura got into their spaceship and parked at Mars (Literally) Bars for dessert.
If a scene is getting boring? End it and start another. If you need your character to travel from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon? Not a problem. Yes, your choices need to make sense, but all superpowers must be wielded with discretion.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ different tenses to slide between flashbacks and the dramatic present. Telling people that you’re messing around with the dramatic present doesn’t have to be clunky. Remember, on clip shows, the characters will often stare into the camera and say, “WOW. WE HAVEN’T FOUGHT THIS MUCH SINCE THAT TIME WE GOT LOCKED IN THAT WALK-IN COOLER TOGETHER.” Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo…
- Assert the fiction writer’s control over space and time. Prose writers can easily fast-forward past the boring parts or simply plop your characters where you want them to go.
2012, Antonya Nelson, Best American 2013, Chapter Two, Narrative Structure, The New Yorker, Time Travel
Title of Work and its Form: “Encounters with Unexpected Animals,” short story
Author: Bret Anthony Johnston
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story debuted in Esquire in March 2012. The editors have been kind enough to post the story here. Mr. Johnston’s work was subsequently chosen for Best American 2013.
Bonuses: Here is Mr. Johnston’s perceptive review of Tony Hawk’s book, How Did I Get Here?: The Ascent Of An Unlikely CEO. (The piece is also an interesting look at Mr. Hawk’s cultural significance. The man has even done a skateboard trick in the White House!) Here is an excerpt from a craft essay Mr. Johnston wrote for Tin House‘s The Writer’s Notebook II. Here is Mr. Johnston’s Amazon page.
Whoa. This is a cool first for GWS. The story I’m writing about was made into a short film. (Seemingly with Mr. Johnston’s consent, of course.) Take a look here:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Status Shifts
“Lambright had surprised everyone by offering to drive his son’s girlfriend home.” Bad idea, friend! Lambright and his wife aren’t sure they like Lisa. The girl is two years older than their fifteen-year-old son and has been around the block several more times than he has. Lambright feels that Robbie is not ready for a green-haired girl with tattoos and piercings. (Mom and Dad are also pretty bummed that she stole their jewelry and alcohol.) After laying down the exposition, Mr. Johnston puts Lambright and Lisa in a car all alone. The loving father stops the car on an isolated road and tells Lisa to cut his son loose. Unfazed, Lisa asks Lambright what will happen when she, a poor little seventeen-year-old girl, arrives home dirty and crying after running away from the mean man who drove her into the wilderness to take advantage of her. She jumps out of the car and starts putting her plan into action as Lambright wonders what the future will hold for him.
I love this story; it’s short and sweet and dramatic and simple and effective. What else do you want in a piece of fiction? The biggest reason the story is successful relates to a storytelling device that is as tried-and-true as it is powerful. Mr. Johnston establishes a power balance in the story and then reverses it. Lambright is a respectable grownup and has all of the privileges and rights assigned to that group of people. Here’s what their relative positions look like when filtered through my awesome Paint.NET skillz:
The status quo persists in the story until the climax (of course), which is when we should be upending the normal relationships of our characters. What does the change look like when Lisa makes use of one of her only real trump cards? The balance looks like this:
The story is compelling because Lambright’s life is never going to be the same after the events that transpire in these few moments. The third-person narrator has made it clear that Lambright’s sins are mild at best. Maybe he’s going a tiny bit overboard in trying to protect Robbie, but the reader is 100% sure that he hasn’t done anything terrible. (And we can all agree it would be terrible for a grownup to drive a seventeen-year-old out to the middle of nowhere and to proposition/force themselves upon the youngster.) The massive power shift is also the move that allows Mr. Johnston to accomplish such a big wallop of emotion in only five or so pages.
What about the ending of the piece? Here’s the last sentence:
He was disoriented, short of breath. He knew he was at the beginning of something, though just then he couldn’t say exactly what.
Does Mr. Johnston tell us exactly what happened to the poor guy? Nope. Lisa’s running home through the woods. Is she really going to go through with her threatened course of action? That’s up to you. Is Lambright’s life really going to be ruined? That’s up to you, too. Is Lisa really going to mess with Robbie? Stop asking these questions! You get to decide for yourself. Some folks may not enjoy such ambiguity, but I like it. In a way, it doesn’t matter. The court hearings and the arrest and the newspaper stories…these are not the most compelling parts of such a story. What is the most compelling part? The story represents the split second in which (to my thinking) Lambright realizes that his life as he knows it is over.
Oh, and here’s a quick observation. The story begins with the protagonist’s name. LAMBRIGHT. He’s as docile as a lamb around the seventeen-year-old woman and isn’t really straying from doing what is right. Cool name choice.
What Should We Steal?
- Upend the relative power levels between your characters. Think of some of Martin Scorsese’s movies. (This is something you should do quite often!) Goodfellas wouldn’t be as amazing if we saw Henry Hill’s rise to the top…and never saw the reversal that occurred in his life. What about The Departed? The Matt Damon character is on top and Leo is on the bottom. (In terms of status, of course.) Through the course of the movie, those roles reverse completely and we’re rapt.
- Embrace ambiguity in the denouement when advisable. What gets more attention on a reality show? The wedding or the marriage?
2012, Best American 2013, Bret Anthony Johnston, Esquire Magazine, Gummi Venus de Milo, Status Shifts
Title of Work and its Form: “Referential,” short story
Author: Lorrie Moore
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor selected the story to appear in Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Moore did with The Paris Review. Here‘s a brief New Yorker interview in which Ms. Moore discusses “Referential.” Here is what Karen Carlson thought about the story. Here is another interesting discussion about the piece.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration
The female protagonist is a widower whose sixteen-year-old son has some mental health problems. He cuts himself and has been institutionalized. Her boyfriend Pete has been around for a decade, but he’s now as far away from the narrator as the son is. She and Pete visit the son, whose problems only seem worse when added to customary teenage rebellion. During a quiet scene in her home, she and Pete talk around their problems until she fibs: “Someone is phoning here from your apartment.” Pete hightails it, confirming that his affection is alienated. The story ends with another phone call; “she” answers the phone, but no one answers her.
This might be a fairly short story because of its genesis. Ms. Moore borrowed some of the tone and ideas from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Both pieces are brief and both deal with a couple whose relationship is under stress and with mental illness. Mr. Nabokov and Ms. Moore both end their stories with ringing phones. Ms. Moore certainly didn’t “steal” in an improper manner, of course. She simply thought of “Signs and Symbols” and allowed her muse to dictate a new story while Mr. Nabokov’s work was rattling around in her head.
When Henry Ford built his first cars, he had the automobiles of others in mind as he scribbled down designs. The makers of the first automobiles thought about horse-drawn carriages. The makers of horse-drawn carriages thought about more primitive wheeled vehicles. The point is that we’re all influence by those who came before us. Why follow Ms. Moore’s example with a public domain story that may have slipped out of regular readership?
We’ve all read “Young Goodman Brown.” Mr. Hawthorne wrote a lot of other short stories that were popular in his time. Why not make a cup of tea, curl up with one of his lesser-known works and see what comes to mind?
I love the 1001 Nights. (You should, too.) These stories are very much in the public domain; what would happen if you adapt one of the tales into a modern setting? What does your muse say about the very different ways in which contemporary people solve their romantic problems?
You probably know who Vladimir Nabokov was. What about the writers whose work is no longer given a great deal of critical attention. Read the stories and poems in an ancient issue of The Atlantic Monthly and see what you come up with. If nothing else, you’ll likely be the only person in the world who has interacted with T.R. Sullivan’s “The Whirligig of Fortune.” And check it out! Sullivan stole his ending from one of our favorite writers! (Do you know which one?)
Ms. Moore has a LOT of exposition that she needs to dump in the first couple pages of the story. If we don’t understand the protagonist’s relationship with Pete, we won’t care about the end of the story. If we don’t understand the struggles she has had with her son, we won’t feel the full weight of her situation. What are some of the techniques Ms. Moore employs?
- A provocative first sentence:
For the third time in three years,
Uh oh…that’s a problem unless we’re talking about winning the lottery.
Okay, there are multiple characters in this undesirable situation.
talked about what would be a suitable birthday present
The characters must be fairly close; how often have you asked a cabbie what kind of present you should get your significant other?
Okay, exclusion by pronoun. I’ll point out more about this in a moment.
Aaaaand there we go. The son has some kind of serious mental health problem.
- Efficient use of pronouns. Ms. Moore indicates the boy’s parentage with the simple use of an unlikely pronoun. It’s “her” deranged son, not “theirs.” A lesser writer (such as myself) may have wasted a whole sentence on this bit of exposition.
- Condensing the basics into description. We need to know how old the kid is. An eighteen-year-old in a mental institution carries far different connotations from a five-year-old in the same place. We also want to know how long Pete (the “not the father”) has been around. In the second paragraph, Ms. Moore gives us all of this information in one sentence.
- A pushy narrator. Instead of beating around the bush, Ms. Moore simply has her narrator tell you why Pete hasn’t committed to the protagonist:
(He did not blame her son - or did he?)
Employing these and other techniques is particularly important when you’re writing a story as short as “Referential.” Very short stories are harder to write because EVERY LITTLE ELEMENT MUST BE PERFECT. On the other hand, this efficiency makes the story that much more beautiful.
What Should We Steal?
- Make a conscious effort to gain inspiration from a classic or forgotten work. Reach outside your comfort zone or familiar bookshelves for new literary soil to till.
- Condense your exposition bombs in as many ways as you can manage. We want to spend more time watching your characters interact and less time learning the basics about them.
2012, Best American 2013, Inspiration, Lorrie Moore, Nabokov, Referential, The New Yorker