Posted by: Melany | October 23, 2009

Short Stories

Today in class we looked at a short story and considered the narrative techniques used and how we could possibly use similar techniques in our own stories.
This exercise was particularly helpful because it reminded me of those stylistic elements of narrative writing that you usually don’t notice. They usually just enable you to progress through the story in an enjoyable way.

The short story we read was called Trapline. written by Alexi Zentner (what a cool name). This is a very well-crafted short story and captures the reader’s attention from the beginning.

Alexi Zentner Photo: Narrative Magazine

Alexi Zentner Photo: Narrative Magazine

HE HAD NOT been thinking of death that morning when he came out of the woods and into the higher meadow, stopping to rest on a rough boulder. Out of the trees, the snow and the light were set to bake him, so he had stowed his parka and mittens in his pack and then stripped down to his shirtsleeves, wrapping his woolen sweater around his waist. Already two hours from home, he was making good time. He had kept the pack light. Two new wolf traps, some files and tools, a knife, a length of chain, cord, a bottle of whiskey.

There was enough snow that he could have run the dogs, but he was not sure he would have the opportunity to do the line on foot again before spring; more snow was coming soon, and Patrick was glad for it. He was in love with the snow, even on a day like this, when the weather was not fully ready to give in to winter, when the branches hung heavy with a steady drip, drip, drip of melt. The wind had started to turn, though, and he knew that by nightfall the temperature would drop.

From the very first sentence, the author cuts through into the mind of the main character. He sets the scene: it is snowy, chilly and isolated. It is as though his only company is his own thoughts. To do this he ‘shows’, rather than ‘tells’ through his description of the environment, clothing, activities etc.

His sentences vary. Some are punchy and straight to the point. Whereas others are longer, taking you on a winding journey which ultimately concludes with a strong point. This variation adds weight to each part of the sentence and encourages the reader to really pay attention, rather than coasting along absent mindedly.

The example Marcus gave is the following sentence:
There was enough snow that he could have run the dogs, but he was not sure he would have the opportunity to do the line on foot again before spring; more snow was coming soon, and Patrick was glad for it.

Another technique used by Zentner is contrast and change. Initially the story reads slightly like a nice walk in the forest and then it changes quite suddenly with the introduction of the main character as a murderer. It throws a curve ball in the plot, but the tone and the overall feel of the story remains consistent.

Overcast

I have had a look around the Narrative Magazine website and have attempted to isolate various narrative techniques that I might be able to use in my own article. This article is called Overcast, written by Richard Bausch.

Richard Bausch Photo: Narrative Magazine

Richard Bausch Photo: Narrative Magazine

HERE IS HOW Elaine Woodson attempted to describe things to herself one predawn:

It’s like those times when the whole sky is one smooth whitish dome and you’re not aware of it as cloud cover until the thing glides off in the wind and gives you blue sky. It’s like that. A form of walking pneumonia of the spirit? I’m not even quite aware of the thing until it has lifted.

She did not speak of it. Not to her mother or her father—who lived alone in Santa Monica now—or her two married sisters or her younger brother; not to friends. It was bad manners to make yourself and your troubles the subject of conversation, even with family. More than 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce.
She had never wanted to be defined by marriage anyhow.

Bausch has structured an interesting opening paragraph. He uses the direct words of his first character to immediately allow the reader to dive into the world of this woman.
He has included additional information using dashes, for example:

“Not to her mother or her father—who lived alone in Santa Monica now—or her two married sisters”

Furthermore, he has used a combination of short punches sentences with longer, loade sentences. For example, in this paragraph it starts with a short sentence, a longer sentence, a medium length sentence and a final punchy sentence:

She did not speak of it. Not to her mother or her father—who lived alone in Santa Monica now—or her two married sisters or her younger brother; not to friends. It was bad manners to make yourself and your troubles the subject of conversation, even with family. More than 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce.

Also, the following sentence includes multiple elements which alternatively could have taken numerous sentences to convey this information.

Since the divorce—from Sean, who was pretty but unfaithful and lazy, and had a drug habit, and doubtless everyone wondered what she had seen in him to begin with—she had been working behind the counter in the Memphis Belle Diner, which was close enough to Beale Street and the Peabody Hotel to remain fairly busy most of the time.

Interestingly, this sentence has been constructed to keep the reader going and to convey a sense of urgency and frenzy. This is then followed by this sentence which says this very thing.

She would say that her life was too hectic for her to feel sorry for herself, though this wasn’t really the case.

Another technique is that of description. Bausch has written the following information in narrative style, rather than a collection of made up quotes. This reads seamlessly and smoothly and is a reminder of the power of paraphrasing, particularly with literary journalism. It reminded me that spoken language is often difficult to read on a page. Here is an example:

The divorce was final almost a year ago, and aside from a dinner here and there, or a movie, she hadn’t been seeing anybody. She had been surprised to learn that Sean was getting married again, but that was something she thought was rather entertaining. She joked about it with her sisters, her mother. The poor sad girl, whoever she was, who had gotten stuck with Sean.
Elaine remarked with a kind of serious mirth that for herself, she wanted some time to rest up. And that was true.

Finally, Bausch has also used the technique of longer dialogue. Although this is fiction, it is a style similar to that of literary journalism.

She had thought fondly that she would have a child one day. For a time, that was an area of serious tension between them. She hoped for it, longed for it. He said the idea gave him the willies. “You have a child, and in a week you’re old and getting ready to die. It just makes it all go so much faster. Bang. Like that, you’re a grandfather and it’s all basically over.”
“No,” she told him. “It goes exactly as fast as it goes. And you look up and it’s gone, bang, all right, and you’re alone in a room with a urine smell coming from you because you haven’t had a shower for a week and there’s nothing but the TV. And you still die.”
He resorted to the old ersatz morality: “I don’t want to bring an innocent child into such a terrible world.” He said this in company, and one evening she called him out on it:
“Don’t lie about it, Sean. You’re afraid. Admit that you’re afraid.”
“All right. I’m afraid. You bet I’m afraid. I’m so scared I can’t take in a full breath. I can’t sigh. It’s all stuck right here in the middle of my chest, the place they usually point out as the seat of emotion. And my number one emotion just now is fear.”
Well, and she had been afraid too.

Reading this article and other short stories has been very helpful. I had previously forgotten the importance of learning using narrative techniques in literary journalism.

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