When I was teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, I offered a class on narrative structure that used Stuart Dybek’s short-short story, “Sunday at the Zoo,” as an example. If you’re interested, you can find the story in the first edition of Sudden Fiction, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. I’ve long admired this story for how quickly and gracefully it moves from an initial premise to complications that resolve themselves with a resonance grounded in irony. I admire what this story has to show us about constructing narratives.
We decided to stop drinking and spend Sunday at the zoo. That’s the opening line of the story, a line that shows us how a variation of the habitual can be enough to set a narrative in motion.
Everything was going nicely until she worked herself up over the observation that it was a horrible thing to cage the animals. This second sentence introduces an immediate tension. “Everything was going nicely UNTIL. . .” Notice, again, how important variation and contrast are to the forward momentum of a narrative.
“That’s not very profound,” I said, “everybody who goes to the zoo feels that sometimes.” This third sentence allows the narrator to express his (although the gender of the narrator is never identified, a reference in the fourth sentence makes it likely that the narrator is male) displeasure with the woman’s observation. She responds with anger: “Oh, you cruel bastard,” she screamed. “I’m not everybody.”
It’s interesting to note the use of subtext in this dialogue. Clearly, there’s a history in the relationship that allows for this explosive exchange. As we know, arguments in any relationship are often not really about the subject of the argument, in the case of Dybek’s characters, the observation about how horrible it is to cage the animals at the zoo. Something more personal and deep-seated is at the heart of this heated exchange.
The woman then acts in response to what the narrator has said: She bellied over the guardrail and flung herself against the bars of the wolves’ cage.
It’s a dramatic action, an over-the-top action. a crazy action, the action of a woman desperate to make the narrator see her and appreciate her. She’s not everybody, and she’s capable of this theatrical action to bring that to the man’s attention. This is the action that propels the characters down a path that can’t be retraced. Events are now in motion that can’t be undone. The wolves in the cage stop their circling, freezing as soon as the woman flings herself against the bars of their cage. The fur along their spines bristles. The woman yells to the wolves, “Eat me! Eat me! Needless to say, we’re at a moment of high tension, and this is where Dybek, knowing the readers are desperate to know what will happen next, delays the delivery of that resolution.
Instead, he inserts a quick piece of exposition. He gives us information at exactly the moment when we want the narrative to move forward, and that piece of back story helps us understand these two characters and their situation a bit better.
Just that week, the newspapers had carried an account of how a small girl had an arm gnawed off–she’d reached in to pet them and one wolf held it while the other ate. It was, in fact, what led us, along with the crowd, relentlessly to the wolves’ cage.
Not only does this fact enhance the pacing of the story, it also reveals a new aspect of the characters’ relationship. They’re drawn to tragedy.
From this point, the story speeds to its end. a lunatic zoo attendant wrestles the woman away from the cage. He slaps her face with a slab of meat he was about to feed to the animals. He makes a lewd comment and gesture to her. In short, he demeans her. The wolves rush against the bars, their teeth breaking on the metal. All that’s left is the final line of the story, the final words from the narrator:
“Stop abusing that woman,” I shouted from the crowd.
First, notice how the introduction of the third character, the attendant, complicates the sequence of events (he saves the woman’s life, but at what cost to his and her and our humanity?). He also becomes the catalyst for the final surge of the story, the movement that ends with the narrator defending the woman albeit from a safe remove and in a very impersonal manner. That woman, he calls her. He presents an image of himself to the crowd that says he’s a swell guy, quick to come to a poor woman’s defense. We know, however, that the facade is ironic. We know that the first thing he said in the story about her comment not being profound began this whole sequence of events. We know he’s much more guilty than he prefers those around him to know. So there’s a resonant tension between what we know about the character and the story he’s trying to tell himself at the very end.
Not only does this compressed form make Dybek’s choices vivid to us, it’s almost as if we’re seeing the x-ray, the bare bones, of one kind of narrative structure:
1. An opening that involves the variation of the habitual
2. A quick exchange of dialogue to establish the tension and the problem to be dealt with in the dramatic present.
3. A specific action from one of the characters that creates uncertainty at a moment of high tension.
4. A well-placed bit of exposition that paces the scene and reveals other aspects of the characters.
5. A third character who provides the final catalyst for the narrative.
6. An ironic close in which a character tries to hide behind a facade while the readers know an opposite truth.
So, want to write a story (or a piece of creative nonfiction, or a poem) in imitation of Dybek’s? Start by thinking of a habit, hobby, or obsession that you wish you or someone else could give up. Then think of an activity that most would consider wholesome or “normal.” Write an opening sentence that provides a variation of the habitual. Then follow the pattern Dybek has set out for you. Feel free to post what you come up with. I’d love to read your imitations.