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Teacher Center: Short Fiction

The Half-Way Through Problem
by Anne Marie Oomen

Background:  I want to preface this lesson by saying that I am not a writing teacher so much as a teaching writer. That means I come at writing short fiction, and indeed all the genres, from a writer’s perspective and my teaching of the short story will come from a deeply personal perspective, not always in alignment with the conventions of the process as we currently teach it. That said, there’s a lot of overlap with current conventions and I’m delighted to be able to share some strategies about teaching short fiction to my students. 

The Situation:  Deanna’s at my office door, a bundle of typed and handwritten pages in her hands. The workshop for her first short story is in two days.  She’s smart, funny, and a good worker. She’s new to short fiction, having spent most of her previous creative writing time experimenting with poetry.  She plops herself in my chair, hands me the sheaf. “I’m soo like stuck,” she says, sighing. “I had this vision of this character in this place, and I wrote all that but now nothing’s happening.” Deanna has the Half Way Through Problem. Half way through the character, story, idea. It’s where a lot of developing writers get stuck. How many of us have read those beautiful beginnings which, for mysterious reasons, even the most gifted young writer can’t seem to bring to fruition. They go nowhere and never get done.  

Deanna’s Process.  Deanna has broken the conventional rules. No pre-writing, not a nod toward plot line, no character sketches, not one idea about why she is writing this story. Is her story doomed?  Not at all. Is her process flawed? It may be better than we think. Is she going to get it done? We’ll see. But I think she has done the right first thing. She wrote toward a vision.

A beautiful example of writing toward a vision can be found in Margaret Ross’s story, a rat’s heart beats six hundred times a minute and a human’s heart beats seventy. The entire story is constructed from short, pithy scenes that create an accumulative arc rather than a sequential or chronological arc.  It’s a good strategy if a student is looking for alternative structures.  Though that story is a strong model for non-linear plot,  Deanna’s not quite there.  She wants a more conventional plot.  She’s got one great scene. But she’s caught halfway. Here’s how I’d help her. 

But First, Notes about Process for Short Story:  My experience tells me that students can learn to write with confidence and trust in themselves. However, I think we do a disservice to developing writers when we deny that writing is also filled with uncertainty. It is not always comfortable.  Indeed, I think uncertainty — that groping, doubtful gesture of the mind toward the order of a narrative — is one of the most important things we can acknowledge about the process. It’s itchy. There are times when we really don’t know what will happen in our stories. When I was writing my second book, under deadline and without the luxury of the quiet years I had for my first book, I began to understand that uncertain hours were necessary for my brain to try out all the different options, that in considering different directions for a story, I was simultaneously working backwards and forwards, considering what I wrote about my characters already while at the same time thinking out into the future of the story. That’s hard for us to live with because it feels uncertain, but it’s good for our stories when we can.  

The Second Thing: Though the process may have distinct stages — prewriting, drafting, reviewing, editing, publishing — it rarely if ever has clean borders. One phase bleeds into another without a sense of “now I will start drafting.” One of the most important things I can teach my writers is a high tolerance for disorder in the process. It is not tidy, in the mind or on the page. It’s something else, where all the edges are blurred. My students and I once painted the entire back wall of my classroom with the writing process. It didn’t look tidy. It looked like a huge map of an island with different topographies, most of them swampy. Nothing followed lines of longitude or latitude. Rather, the borders were like meandering rivers, marred by diagonal lines as pre-writing shifted toward drafting and the drafting region slogged into the publishing territory.

Outside the Lines: Even that map, hard as we tried to make it reflect what we were experiencing, wasn’t quite right.  An extension of the idea that the process is uncertain and disordered is that process is not linear. In fact it is much less linear than we’d like to make it. The stages we assign, though helpful, do not always occur in sequence. In fact, in my experience with young writers, they are rarely sequential. Students commonly come to class with whole drafts of stories which they can’t figure out how to revise — another version of half-way through. I often write drafts, then toss them away and write the same story over from scratch because I believe what I will remember is the core of the story, without the extraneous material.  I think we rely on the “Idea” of a sequential process in order to make a nonlinear process more comfortable.  Maybe we should imagine we’re in a process which feels more like a series of traffic rotaries (roundabouts is a good term) loosely connected by a series of crooked streets.  Sometimes we have to go in circles to find out where we really want to go. Sometimes we have to face dead ends as we search for the real stories we are trying to tell.

All of this, the uncertain, disorderly, nonlinear experience, doesn’t mean that the process should be anxiety ridden (though it sometimes is — ask anyone writing under deadline, especially a Deanna with an assignment due date) but that maybe we should teach that these qualities exist in the process and at best, should be embraced.  I want them to also learn that the brain seems to love the pleasure of discovery, and will give us something if we are patient. We have to try various crazy ideas before the brain, in search of its pleasure in narrative, gives us something we can care about. Writing the favorite scene first may be one of those. That’s what Deanna did.

So how can we make these aberrations work for us when we’re teaching short fiction?  

How to Help: I’m saying all of this about process because I need to be thinking about it if I am going to help Deanna move past half way through.  Twenty years ago, I might have scolded Deanna for not doing some pre-writing first. I might have said to her that she should have first decided who her characters were and what their situation was. Now I’m more tolerant of process as juice, an individual energy.  In fact, I sometimes encourage students to do what Deanna did first.  Write toward a scene. Write a vision. It doesn’t matter where in the story this scene will be used. Start with a person in a place or situation. Start with something you are excited about. That’s what she did.  Only now, with that done, she may need some guided pre-writing. I suspect it will kick start her story.  

If we look at Sarah B’s story, “The World We Know,” we find Sarah starting as Deanna has, with immediate action. A girl in the rain stares at a poster of a perfect girl, knowing that she is not that girl. We feel sympathy for the character, we learn something about her, we are drawn into the suspense of “what will happen to her.” It all starts with that rainy street scene and the poster — in the middle of a story that’s been going on for a long time.  I think when we ask kids to write stories, it’s a happy experience for them to start “in medias res,” or IN THE MIDDLE, because they get to write something they want to right away. How to keep moving may mean drawing a breath, stepping back for a bit in order to make the story move again. Prewriting after they have begun. 

Character Driven:  In order to write forward, we may have to go back in the process.  Like Sarah’s B’s character in the “The World We Know” there’s some helplessness in the narrator. I ask Deanna to do some listing about her main character, just a dozen or so things she knows about the character. Before she can manipulate the plot, she has to know more about the character. In good writing, whatever it is that happens is not random; it has a reason inherent to the story and usually driven by character. So, after listing some things about her character, I ask Deanna to take another leap, and try a monologue exercise I learned from playwright, Gary Garrison. 

I give Deanna a series of sentences to complete in as much or as little detail as she can.  The series of questions are in the first person point of view, not third, even though her story is written in the third person point of view. This gets inside the character so that whatever point of view the author uses can be more informed.  The questions are as follows: 

I am hopelessly
I remember
Now I know
I want
What I really need is
Once I dreamed

These questions start to get to at the character’s interior motives.  When I ask that question directly, “What does your character want?” I almost always get external motives.  But complex characters have internal motives and this exercise gets at that.  When I read Scholastic winner “A Small Taste of Normalcy” and came to the title line, “Sometimes I ask God for a small taste of normalcy,” I was delighted. After the long descriptions of synesthesia, the disorder the narrator experiences,  the character says directly what she really needs. That informs the entire story but it is the first time she has directly stated her interior need. The sentence makes the character more complete and reduces the danger that the story is riding on a gimmick.  

Action Driven by Character: After Deanna has written and talked about these things she’s more comfortable with what her character wants. She feels like she knows the direction the story won’t go (as important as knowing where it will go) and some of her options are narrowed. But it doesn’t address her second issue, “Nothing’s Happening.”  How does she discover what happens?

Dramatic Roles in Story: To help with that, I turn to a model created by the French Drama Critic Etiene Souriau, which I learned from a reading specialist, Dr. Ruth Nathan, in her book The Beginnings of Writing. In this system of understanding story roles, there’s a lion figure, someone who wants something to happen, who would be the main character. Then there’s the sun, what the main character wants. A third figure is Mars, the rival, or the force that’s creating the obstacles which the central character must encounter, usually a number of times. The moon is the helper. There are others but for our purposes, this will help. (These parallel protagonist, antagonist, and developing conflict in literary language, but I find students identify better with the idea of roles. They also enjoy this more symbolic way of understanding stories.) Not all stories are built around forces like these but when students know these patterns, they can identify them in other stories and often when they are lacking in their own. It also makes it possible for them to break these roles — but they can’t do that until they know them. It’s a deceptively simple strategy to get them past the half way mark.
To use Sarah B’s  “The World We know” again as an example, we can see that the lion figure is the girl who wants to be perfect, and the Mars figures are the Perfects and their Selection Process. The girl has to be prepared, first to live the life they expect, and then to pass the selection process each time it comes around.  The moon figure is the mother who tries to help her pass the selection. The action is created by the cyclical nature of the selections. Each time there is a selection there is another challenge to being perfect that the main character must cope with. 

In another Scholastic winner, “Wildlife” by Shannon Fandler, the family as a whole is the lion figure and the Mars figure, in this case, is a natural one, the Alaskan winter. The sun figure, or desired object is — ironically in this case — light, which they can’t have because it’s winter, but which is overcome momentarily by the presence of  Eagles feeding off the dead fish. 

By projecting the forces on her story in this way, Deanna thinks of three things that might happen to her character that would create the necessary conflict (Mars figure) for action to occur. She’s excited as she makes up those actions because she knows more about the structural roles in her story. She’s past her uncertainty — at least for the time being — and she’s inventing obstacles that seem logical because she knows that character’s interior motives better.  

Two days later, she brings a completed version to class for feedback. 

Conclusion:  I think it’s comforting for us, as teachers, to cling to a process that makes it easier for us to evaluate our students’ writing, but my experience says that because the process doesn’t always follow our rules, we have to be prepared to turn it on its head to help our students.  We may want to develop strategies that will help them get past half way through, those situations they get themselves into when they haven’t followed process but are still flushed with that drive we love in young writers.