Stuart Dybek’s “Sunday at the Zoo”: A Class in Narrative Structure

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.


  1. Gail Weiland on August 25, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    OK, Lee, I’ll take a stab at it. Wasn’t sure how many words, but tried to keep it short:

    The last place I expected to find Mom was in the liquor aisle, staring at bottles of gin. She usually roamed the grocery store independent of me, returning to my basket with boxes of Fiddle Faddle or an occasional Wordsearch magazine. Today, first time ever, a box of raisins. She hated raisins.
    She jumped when I spoke, spinning away from the rows of blue-green bottles like a teenaged boy caught peeking at girlie magazines.
    “What are you a-doin’?” I asked, the peculiar turn of phrase she’d used on me all my life.
    She stepped in close and cupped a hand between her mouth and my ear. “Well,” she began, her eyes darting up and down the aisle, “Paralee told me if you took raisins and soaked ‘em in gin, then ate one ever’ day, it’d help with your arthritis.”
    “Huh.” I studied her hopeful expression, wondering if gullibility was a sign of dementia. “Well, get you a bottle.”
    “Which one do you think would be best?” She stood behind me now, looking over my shoulder at the selection of gins.
    “Well if you’re just going to dunk raisins in it, get the cheapest one. It’s not like you’re a gin connoisseur.”
    She nudged me toward the gin.
    Mom, devout Methodist and complete teetotaler, stayed with the basket then, intercepting passers-by intent on their own carts to explain the gin in ours.
    “Mom—stop, for the love of Pete!” I finally said. “No one cares what we have in our cart.”
    She sniffed, and I returned to my shopping in earnest, dashing ahead of the cart and scooping up cans of tuna, catsup, paper towels.
    Store security descended on us as we rounded the end cap of aisle nine, right next to the Ty-D-Bowl display. Mom, it seems, had slipped the bottle of gin into the gaping mouth of my handbag.
    Sitting in the small security office between a bank of cameras and a dinged up metal desk, Mom stared up at me with watery eyes. “You know I was going to pay for that.”
    “I know Mom. But these folks don’t. You conceal, you steal, that’s what they think.”
    “I didn’t want anyone to think I would drink it.”
    “Wait here,” I said, as if she had an option.
    I caught the store manager just before he entered the security office, introduced myself, recounted the amount of money I spent in his store each week.
    “Please,” I finished, “she can’t help herself. Eighty-seven years old, and a lifelong alcoholic.”

  2. Lee Martin on August 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Hi, Gail. Thanks for playing the game! I love the turns that your story makes, particularly the ironic one at the end. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Gail Weiland on August 27, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    I knocked that out pretty fast, and realized after rereading that while I nailed the irony, I totally whiffed the tension. Told instead of showed the arrest. Oh well – write and learn! I enjoyed trying, anyway! Thanks, Lee!

  4. Sharen Sandoval on July 9, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Hello Mr. Martin,
    My name is Sharen and I will be taking your class on “Fiction: The Art of Flash Fiction” in Muncie, Indiana. I found your website and have learned many things. I don’t know if my story is any good…I haven’t been writing long, but I tried to incorporate some of the things I learned in this lesson.

    Wishes and Thoughts
    They blamed him for their teacher’s death. Mrs. Comer’s students sat in the middle of the church, some with their faces buried in their hands— weeping at her funeral. Her pupil, Tate, sat in the second of the four rows of students and received evil looks from his fellow classmates.
    It was the last day of school and Tate had decided to ignore his teacher’s lesson for the day, and instead, gazed outside through the classroom’s window and watched the trees as their leaves danced freely with the wind. Engrossed with the peaceful image, everything was going fine until he didn’t hear when Mrs. Comer asked him a question. Whack! Her ruler smacked his hand. Snatched back into reality by the fiery pain that radiated from his knuckles and up his arm, Tate jerked his throbbing hand up to his chest and soothed it with his other as he bit his lip in hopes of holding back any noise that would label him a baby by his classmates.
    “Pay attention!” Mrs. Comer said.
    While his classmates chuckled at his expense, Tate blinked and dried the water forming at the bottom of his eyes as he watched his teacher travel between the desks and head back to the blackboard. Tate had a thought. He had a thought that calmed him— like the dancing leaves had calmed him only seconds earlier. I hope she trips, he thought.
    Upon Mrs. Comer’s walk back to the head of the class, she turned her body sideways to make it down the narrow aisle, not paying attention to the strap on little Eva’s bookbag obstructing the path, her feet became entangled with it—and down she went! Crashing to the floor! Thuck! The wooden ruler tore through the flesh of her neck and exposed its muscles before puncturing old Mrs. Comer’s jugular. Her eyes widened as she gasped for air and listened to the bloodcurdling screams of her students while lying on the tile.
    The lunch bell rang and married the children’s screams: drowning out the students cries for help. Mrs. Comer felt the warm liquid gushing out of her neck and watched as it painted the floor beside her. “Why didn’t you just pay attention and answer the question,” yelled Tate’s best friend, Eva, as Tate wandered closer to Mrs. Comer’s body, pushed the desk from around her, and opened up the aisle. There was no more blood spewing out of her neck; her eyes were fixed upon Tate’s face: Mrs. Comer, his teacher, was dead.
    Now, Eva sat in the row in front of him at the late Mrs. Comer’s homegoing, turned around in her seat, and stared daggers into him that pierced his soul. He wished she knew how he felt, as he watched the pallbearers lift his teachers casket up on to their shoulders and carry her out of the church. A scene that caused Mrs. Comer’s family and friends to breakdown in tears: Especially, Eva.
    Eva stood, motionless, and watched as the pallbearers walked slowly past her, carrying the casket that contained her teacher’s corpse. Overcome with grief, her eyes filled with water and she began to wail. She shook her head in disbelief as sorrow punched her in the gut and tied a knot in her stomach … so, she stooped over and held it. She held her stomach as if she was protecting it from another surprising blow. “It was just a trip” she cried out as she closed her eyes and pushed the tears down her cheeks. She set back down in the seat and wept an uncontrollable cry while Tate watched her and thought… that’s exactly how I feel.

  5. Lee Martin on July 9, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Hi, Sharen,

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m looking forward to meeting you in Muncie in a few weeks. Your story does a good job of taking the Dybek story and using it as a way of creating a story that’s very much your own. Guilt and regret is often fertile ground for stories, and you’ve hit upon a single incident here that will affect Tate forever. I like the ironic turn you’re going for at the end when Eva’s grief connects in a way she’ll never know with Tate’s own grief. I wonder whether the story could be told solely from his point of view without dipping into the consciousness of Eva or Mrs. Comer. That is to say, I wonder whether the story could have its same effect while staying completely in Tate’s consciousness and using him as our camera lens. I also wonder whether Mrs. Comer’s death needs to be so graphic. Could the fall, perhaps, just happen to occur at the same time that Mrs. Comer suffers a heart attack, so even though the trip didn’t cause the death, it seems like it did to these children. The story has a nice compression and a resonant outcome. Thanks again for sharing, and I’ll see you soon in Muncie.

    Take Care,

  6. Sharen Sandoval on July 9, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Thank you. I will try it again with changes. I made it graphic because I wanted to see if I could write a horror story. 🙂 It was out of the norm for me. I’m excited and also nervous about the workshop. See you soon.
    Can’t wait to learn,

    • Lee Martin on July 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      Sharen, we’ll have a lot of fun. . .promise!

  7. Caught Flashing | TweetSpeak Poetry on August 10, 2012 at 8:00 am

    […] Using Stuart Dybek’s story, “Sunday at the Zoo” as a model, Martin presented us with a sample narrative structure for a piece of short-short fiction.  In fact, he writes about it on his blog. […]

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