The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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anchor-bookClicking the image to the left will take you to NPR’s website for the story “The Old Dictionary” by Lydia Davis, which I read in an anthology called The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus. I highly recommend this collection if you’re interested in literary fiction at all–one reviewer criticized it for trying “too hard” to entertain, generally a sign that it’s from the “light side” of lit fiction. We’re going to be talking today about character change, tightly compressed into flash. Warning, spoilers ahead!

The Challenge: 

In short fiction, finding believable space for character change can be a challenge, yet often a story feels empty without it. So how can you pull this off–how have other people pulled this off? That’s what I aim to find out.

To get as nitty-gritty as possible, let’s look at a really impressive flash fiction story. 


The Story:

Who better than Lydia Davis for this exploration? Her work can get unbelievably short (and sure, some of it might just be poetry) and is also entertaining, believable, and moving. The last bit, the “moving” part, always impresses me, and is one of the things that made “The Old Dictionary” stand out to me. 

It’s the story of a researcher and her realization about how she treats her son. By the end of the story she decides to change. How does Davis pull this off? In ways both complex and simple. 

Give it a read. It’s quick, and beautiful. 

The Solution:

Ultimately, for a character to experience believable change, they must struggle through and survive an Odyssey. Their current status needs to be challenged and questioned, and they must allow their experiences to shift their beliefs or actions toward change. 

In short stories, there often just isn’t time for such a long journey. My copy of The Odyssey stands a solid 560 pages thick. But I’d argue that Lydia Davis pulls off a character change in her 1000 word flash fiction tale. In fact, I’d argue she went into it specifically to test the assumption that character arcs are impossible in flash fiction. All of her decisions, narratively and stylistically, limit her space and push her toward focusing on character change. 

Stylistically, she keeps her sentences short, even clipped at times. This forces her to always push forward, digging deeper into her character. She also chose first person, which allows you to trim significant framing and description, and allows an almost-exclusively internal story to feel much more natural. The “telling” nature of the story allows for an insane amount of compression, and allows the narrator to struggle with her own actions. 

Narratively, almost all of the actual story has happened in the past. The character thinks about her typical treatment of her son, and struggles through the why. And it’s important to note that Davis makes this struggle feel very concrete, very real, by including specific real-world details about the plants, the dog, her son, etc. She tires to explain her (brutish?) actions one way, then corrects herself, then tries another way. She examines other specimens, too, in trying to puzzle through her motivations. The narrator’s struggle with this moral issue is visceral to the point that you can feel the tension building. It’s the details that do that. 

The last 2 elements I’ll mention are perhaps the most important moments in the story: the beginning and the end. 

1. The beginning includes an inciting incident, in lifting the old dictionary carefully from its case. With its detailed description and present-day time, this is easily the largest moment of external conflict in the story, and that’s important. It gives this journey a real-world catalyst and a touchstone to return to so that it never rambles too far. It also really sets the reader in-scene in a compelling way. But also, this beginning ends with a specific intention in mind: the character asks herself WHY (about 225 words in). This gives the story it’s shape and sets up our expectations that, in the end, the narrator will answer this question somehow. 

2. In the end, the question is answered and the narrator has acknowledged, to some level, her failure. She goes on, as a follow through, a third act of sorts, to reaffirm the ways in which she treats the old dictionary with care and, through implication, the ways in which she will treat her son better: “I know its limitations. I do not encourage it to go farther than it can go (for instance to lie open flat on the table). I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” 

This ending drives home the character change and is perhaps the most moving part of the entire tale. 


Finally: 

While I realize these methods might not be useable in every story, there are lessons to be taken from it none the less. For one, maybe in a 5000 word story, a writer could deliberately set aside 1000 words for character change, and that these words would be distinctly internal and focused, but spread out throughout the tale. 

Also, there is a lesson in the directness with which the narrator handles her character change. To save space, it may be necessary to “tell” as much of the change as possible, to forgo “showing” some things you might have in favor of a different goal. It’s important to note, also, that so much of this story works through implication, and that is, to me at least, an interesting form of compression, requiring a deft hand. 

What do you think? Does a short story occur to you that shows a compelling (and complete) change of character? Are there other ways of compressing a character arc to fit into 5000 words or less?

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Tremblay Bourbon carbideToday we’ll be discussing disaster plots in short stories, comparing two stories for answers. Each image to the left links to one of the stories. As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

Ultimately, I want to understand this: how do I write a successful story in which the end implies that we all die? And a couple of restrictions are useful. First, I want it to be short. Second, I want it to be deeply personal and in a close POV. Finally, I want the ending to pack a wallop, rather than feel anticlimactic or unresolved in some way. 

Why this kind of story? Why these restrictions? Because I’ve read not 1 but 2 stories recently that blew me away and did both of these things. 

The Stories:

First, I read Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks” in Bourbon Penn. Then I read “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson, which appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens, although I read it in Best American SFF 2015. These stories both got to me. In some ways, these stories are quite different: “Swim…” works better on a metaphorical level with the natural disasters of the MC’s life and the disaster is introduced almost immediately, although we never fully understand it; “The Blue…” comes to tell us exactly what is going on (in fact our MC is one of only a handful who fully understand it) and so the end is far less open. 

But what strikes me more, looking back, is just how much they have in common.

Both have distant narrators that dominate the voice of the story, one is distant because of drug addiction, the other because of his highly-analytical scientific language and through processes. Both involve a single parent and their one child. Both have 4 scenes. Both end in lyrically-described disaster.

For the first step in the solution, I’ll break down these stories a little further. 

The Solution:

A little outline for “Swim…”: (1–124 words) A micro scene implying past trouble of mom with law (through her daughter); (2–2025 words) A scene of MC at work, where we learn about her troubles and normal life; (3–686 words) A sort of “bridge” scene that becomes progressively more distant, the character at her most high/destructive; (4–2410 words) MC interacts with daughter in a house and soon destruction rains down around them. 

A little outline for “The Blue…”: (1–529 words) A scene of MC with his daughter in which we learn about his problems and normal life; (2–602 words) A flashback scene in which we learn about how things went between MC and his ex-wife; (3–920 words) A scene in which we learn, scientifically, analytically, about the danger occurring, and at the end the mystery of it is finally revealed, all in context with our MC’s research and life; (4–1749 words) MC returns in time to maximize time with his daughter, interact a little, and then the end comes. 

Both of these stories are SO SIMPLE. And they keep it pretty short, for the whole world ending. They each have a single central character, with a young child as a secondary character. “Swim” has a few other, very minor characters. Both have a relate-able conflict: the parents feel in some way distant from their children, one because of drugs and actual no-custody style distance, and the other because his daughter is changing, growing up.

So this must be how the authors are keeping it short. 

1 scene to introduce the character’s problem– Scene 2 in “Swim…” and Scene 1 in “The Blue…”
1 scene to deepen that personal issue– Scene 3 in “Swim” and Scene 2 in “The Blue” 
1 scene to bring personal and universal destruction together– Scene 4 in both stories.

The scenes that are outside of the pattern are also interesting, though. In “Swim…” it’s a micro-scene at the start that seems mostly about setting tone–it has this distant, lyrical tone of the end of the story, which is very different from the mundanity of the first scene. Meanwhile in “The Blue…” the extra scene is scene 3, and this seems mostly a function of genre. It’s hard scifi, thus we need a scene that tells us, scientifically, what is happening–Wilson puts it all here, so that it won’t bog down his ending. 

It also seems, based upon this outline, that the stories remain personal and impactful (while gaining distance) by devoting about half of the space of the story, and most of the scenes, to the character’s workaday world. To their conflicts at home. Only in the final scene do we really get to a novum. 

So on to the final question. What about the ending? This seems, to me, the hardest part to pull off, but to some extent, they are easy to pick apart. Some reasons the endings have such an enormous impact: 

(1) They are endings: endings get automatic emphasis, and that is boosted if the endings come along with conflict resolutions and a uniting of disparate story elements (creating a sudden release of potential energy). 
(2) The principal players of the stories (parent and child) are super secluded in the endings, and so the ends are sooo focused on them. It’s what really allows the disaster to take on a more personal meaning–it HAS to be about them, because they are all we’re seeing. In “The Blue…” the MC and his daughter are chained to a pipe. In “Swim…” the MC and her daughter are in an unfinished mansion. 
(3) The stories grow progressively more distant as they go along (“Swim…” gets more drug-infused, “The Blue…” more science-infused, with every scene that passes) until the tippy-end, the final paragraph, when the destruction and the MC’s struggle come together. 
(4) It’s easy, I think, to underestimate the level of impact made by variations in sentence length and style in these stories. The final few paragraphs of these stories have sentences notably longer than the rest of the story (especially evident in “The Blue…” which has pretty typical hard-scifi short sentences for most of the story) and the styles lean distinctly more lyrical/less practical at the end, which certainly fits with destruction that really is poetic and absurd at its heart. 

Two other things I’d like to note about the ends, specific to each story. 

In “Swim…” the final scene is split into 3 distinct sections, each doing something different–each shows the relationship between the MC and her daughter differently, each has a different level of distance, each ends with a sort of cliff-hangar propelling you into the next scene. This gives the final scene an very deliberate sense of pace, structure, and drive.

In “The Blue…” you can almost argue for a happy ending. This is spoilery, but in the end, the MC basically gets what he wants: he’s frustrated by his daughter growing up, and in they will be frozen in this moment for eternity. She’ll never grow up. Also, unlike in “Swim…” (where the end really seems disastrously pointless for the MC), the MC of “The Blue…” has an epiphany at the end. His conflict gets a positive resolution and he gets a moment of change. It’s particularly striking. 

Finally:

I’ve gotten out of hand with length! But I feel like I’ve barreled through these stories, tearing them up and canning them–they’re tuna now. Go read them, because this post doesn’t do them justice! 

Nevertheless, I find myself amazed by how similar these stories are. In my readings, I don’t think I’ve read any other short, personal disaster narratives, but I wonder if these have some kind of classic-scifi antecedent. It is, relatively, plausible that Wilson’s story was inspired by Tremblay’s but that seems to me too coincidental, and they came out so close that it would have meant an incredibly quick turnaround for Wilson to outline, write, and sell the story. 

Have you read any other disaster narratives like these? What do you think of the uniquely late introduction of the novum?