From the Fiction Workshop: Week 9

Friends, we’re almost to the end of our workshop time together. The final post will come next week. Tonight’s post comes a tad earlier than usual, and will perhaps be a bit shorter, since I’m traveling to Chicago tomorrow for the Associated Writing Programs annual conference. So. . .let’s get at it.

Part of our conversation in workshop today focused on the fact that a story sets its parameters with the writer’s first step onto the page. The opening line starts to frame the material that the story will take on. Consider, for example, the opening of Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation”:

At dusk the big Englishman, Belcher, would shift his long legs our of the ashes and say, “Well, chums, what about it?” and Noble or me would say “All right, chum” (for we had picked up some of their curious expressions), and the little Englishman, Hawkins, would light the lamp and bring out the cards. Sometimes Jeremiah Donovan would come up and supervise the game and get excited over Hawkins’s cards, which he always played badly, and shout at him as if he was one of our own. “Ah, you divil, you, why didn’t you play the tray?”

The story has begun to frame itself as it presents its major players, the Irishmen, Noble and Donovan and the narrator, and their English prisoners, Belcher and Hawkins, captured during the Irish battle for independence in 1922. Not only does the story present the main characters, it also announces the premise and poses the question of what will happen when the Irishmen, who have become fond of the English prisoners, are ordered to take them out and execute them. The story is already moving toward the last line of the story in which the narrator, recalling the execution, says, “And anything that happened me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” By this point, everything within the parameters of the story and its premise has been tested and put to use. The story never veers away from its focus, never strays from the parameters firmly announced in its opening.

At some point in the draft of a story, a writer usually becomes aware of these dramatic boundaries, or, in other words, the frame of action that focuses the material. At yet another point in the composing process (and this may not come until many drafts later), the writer understands what the story is about within that frame of action, which is to say that the writer begins to sense what he or she has come to the material to explore. The writer becomes aware of what Poe called the unity of effect of the good short story, every element contributing to its overall intent. Working within the parameters set in motion by the opening, the writer views the characters and their situations from as many different angles as possible so that by the end the reader feels that there’s nothing left to be examined. The writer has gotten everything out of the framed material that he or she possibly can.

The lesson, then, is one of establishing the parameters and then staying within the framed area through a sequence of events that chips away at the material until something clearly defined and irrevocable emerges. Take your time. Let the material and the characters create the action of the story, action that will become increasingly complicated as it creates unexpected effects that then require further action, until, finally no other action can be taken. Write to the point within the material beyond which your main character will never feel the same again.

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