Another thing we might think about is the way that one thing that helps shape a piece of short fiction is the reader's knowledge of...its brevity. That white space at the end rushing up. And here. as I was reading your exercises, my internalized knowledge that it was only going to be 200 words. That creates a nice sort of pressure - like someone saying goodbye to a lover as the train pulls away. But this is true even for a novel - we know it is going to end, and is, therefore, shaped.
Also: the idea that "rising action" might have something to do with "returning to those things we have already set in motion" - and here, that's enforced by the constraint. So if we use the word "river" and are forced to come back to it - that feels like a focusing of effect, maybe?
Sometimes the "rising action" just occurs naturally, because, somehow, of the forced repetition. Words start taking on "extra" meaning and so on. Also, I think, the reader senses the constraint there behind the writing, and sort of starts playing along.
But it is a bit of a mystery to me, why this works (when it does).
I found a few things in the process of doing the exercise. I had to throw away the idea it has to be good to even really try it. It wasn't fun until I did. I think when I sit to write I'm usually telling myself this has to be beautiful before I even start. Funnily, I didn't write something beautiful whatsoever. I went wild and sinister. It was so liberating. I'm not fantastic at plot usually, probably because I'm the sort of person who spends a long time looking out the window staring at snails and watering cans, but plot was right there somewhere amongst the madness. The pace was way better. It kind of reminded me of that feeling you have writing a story as a kid, before you realise it will get graded or that grades matter, the sheer joy of diving into a crazy idea without thinking. I loved that feeling. I want to find it again.
This makes me think about my beloved mentor Grace Paley, and the workshop she did so many times in so many venues, "How to Tell What." And she would ask people to talk about a story they wanted to write but hadn't written. They'd get some powerful feedback. Almost always.
I've just now found the time to sit down and do the 45-minute exercise myself, so I'm a bit late to the party. That being said, my experience with it bears repeating here, I think.
For months and months now, I've had a single sentence bumping around in my head, thinking to myself, "That would a wonderful sentence to start a novel with." Needless to say, six months later, I have not yet got past that sentence, because I've been trying so hard not to let down that eureka moment that provided me with it.
So I decided I would throw my beautiful sentence to the wolves, so to speak, and use it to begin this 200/50 exercise. I won't tell you what the sentence was though, because guess what? It wasn't actually very good at all, and it didn't make it into my final piece for this exercise.
All that being said, here's 200/50 my piece, a week late:
My name is Hope, and I was also born here, in Forgotton, U.S.A.
My father has not let the light in since mother left; and he has not led a sermon since the religion here dried up and slipped away.
Father leaves for food, he leaves the door ajar, and the light comes in, at first a slice, and then a pie. Suddenly, the light is also born here, in Forgotton, U.S.A, and suddenly, the religion comes home. Like my father, like a Father, I lead this sermon, preach to the light, shepherd the light into every Forgotton corner.
Then the sermon is a pie, the pie is a slice, and the slice is a darkness. Father is home, and he is leading a sermon of darkness. The food he leaves is dry and dark and the light and mother have slipped away again.
But now I have religion.
Father leaves for food. The door is not ajar. The home is dark, but the light has not slipped away. My name is Hope, and I have the light, and I lead my light in a sermon in the dark, and now it slips into every corner here in Forgotton, U.S.A.
Mostly the constraint that was going through my mind during the exercise was "OMG, George fucking Saunders might read this." I am going to try and channel more of the 'just for fun' attitude' in all my writing.
"On what basis were you making your decisions? Was this different from your usual method?"
My best attempt at understanding what was different this time was so mundane I almost missed it. But upon reflection...
Because I knew that the 50 words would be "shared" between the characters, I was passively considering, each time I added one to the bank, how both characters would be "using" it. In doing so, I think I subconsciously developed a relationship between them -- their personalities, their motivations, their way of being in the world -- in a far more intuitive, natural way than I would have in a more deliberate & unconstrained piece of "real work."
Similarly, the escalation occurred because both characters were, quite literally, both reaching their end. It wasn't the author driving toward a conclusion or the plot demanding its next act, but the characters arriving at a final moment, in a shared "world" of words, together. And because I knew this was happening, I gave them what I could -- from what their world had to offer -- and left it at that.
There's something freeing about all of this.
I’m not sure I noticed much of a difference in my mindset setting out to write. But I did notice a difference in what my mind was doing while I was writing. Typically, I spend a lot of time staring off into the middle distance when I write, trying to think up what’s going to happen next. During this exercise, I found myself spending much more time attending to what was already there on the page.
One thing I’ll take away from the exercise is to look harder for meaning in and between the existing elements of a story, especially when things feel stuck. There’s a tendency in those moments to introduce a new element or set off in a new direction. I think that forcing yourself to find new ways of combining the elements you already have can often lead to more creative, interesting, and stranger story lines.
A lot of the exercises which I liked best seemed to be doing that. They were like little Rubik’s cubes, playing around with the same handful of elements until the meaning of the story seemed to click into place.
I don't know about anyone else here, but George's exercise allowed me to write myself into a plot twist I wouldn't have discovered otherwise. There's something about the time constraint and word limit that allowed for that surprise. When I'm pretending to be Karl Ove Knausgaard, not so much.
Coming away from this exercise, I want to know how to approach each sentence with that playfulness and sense of possibility, even without the word limit and time constraint.
A bit late, but here is my attempt at the 200/50 excercise. I started writing it in Dutch, but then I thought: I'll give it a go in English. For a non native speaker like me this is the perfect excercise, because I don't have to worry about grammar and pretty vocabulary as much (not worrying, see George, I'm learning :-)). I'm new to short story writing and I thought this was a very helpful and fun excercise.
My story (love to hear what you think):
Oak street is a row of houses between an old factory and an empty lot.
The people in Oak street didn’t mind the empty lot and the old factory. They sat in their front yard and drank beer.
A new couple moved to Oak street. They didn’t sit in their front yard.
They grew kale and radishes in their yard.
Oak street is no place for kale, said the people in Oak street.
The new couple had a baby. The people in Oak street put a wooden stork in their front yard, between the kale and radishes.
The front yard is no place for a wooden stork, said the new couple.
The new couple started a cocktail bar in the old factory.
Oak street is no place for a cocktail bar, said the people in Oak street.
A new new couple moved to Oak street. They didn’t sit in their front yard. They opened a gym on the empty lot.
The new new couple had a baby. The gym had a cocktail bar.
The new couple sat in a front yard with the people in Oak street and drank beer. Oak street is no place for a gym, they said.
"Most writers tend to write stories that are long on exposition but never ascend into the rising action (that is, they don’t escalate)." This is the bit that struck home for me. I can exposit for hours, even days - but how to escalate? That has always escaped me.
P.S. Speaking of rising action, people here might want to read Hemingway's "Indian Camp."
I just re-read it, and I noticed that almost every sentence has a character doing something -- "Nick lay on his back," or "The young Indian stopped," etc. etc.
I tried writing a story like this and it was difficult. But maybe this could be another exercise? Write a story in which every sentence has your character doing something?
After reading George's thoughts about the exercise and going back to re-read my attempt, I have two takeaways:
- I did feel the pressure to create a sense or rising action. I'm not sure if that translated into the piece - when I re-read it I wasn't sure if the rise was actually there in the text or if I was just hearing the rhythm I heard in my head as I wrote it. But still, for whatever reason, the pressure for rising action seemed to be inherent to the exercise.
- I tend to get stuck on the meaning of what I write, over-explaining myself at the expense of the writing, not allowing implication and suggestion to do their work, etc. This exercise freed me to let go of meaning - or even a clear sense of direction - and focus at the smallest level: the words themselves. This even allowed a few surprises. One example: in my story I wrote "The mother catalogs the tools." She's walking through a forest with her daughters, thinking about the tools at her disposal. Later, without much thinking, I wrote "the forest catalogs the dark." I have no clue what that means but it's super interesting. It might not make any sense, I might not ever use it, but I find it such an evocative phrase. I need to remind myself that I always have that same freedom in all my writing. The freedom to put together any words and create sentences that are surprising and evocation, even if they're a mess and need revision. It's a powerful freedom and I'm going to work to keep chasing it.
I've found a variation on this exercise can be particularly helpful with revisions. Simply put, I'll produce a numbered sheet like George has us do, with numbers of 1-500 lined in several vertical columns, and then I'll restart a story that I've already written, from scratch, not looking at it, using none of the written-down language from previous drafts. I've found that, in rewriting stories from scratch like this, I'm able to almost write in a mode of "recollection," which lends authority to the voice (as opposed to the more meandering, set-out-to-discover voice of the first or previous drafts), and that the details that are significant will inevitably rework their way into the beginning story.
Using the numbered lines, and having a "constraint" in the back of my head, I find that I'm able to integrate the earlier and middle parts of stories, including the heart of the story, to those very first paragraphs. It helps me orient all the absolute vital information of the story in the earlier draft, to the beginning, getting me into the story's escalation so much faster. I've also found that the "dilemmas" and situation of the story tends to come to the very forefront, helpful also, and that doing so has helped established "packed" beginnings which tend to serve as strong foundations for the story going onwards.
Wanted to share some success with this method in case anyone's been as lost and frustrated at times in the revision process as I've been :)
Also: is anyone else doing Wordle in the morning and then taking your semi-random 5-letter guesses and turning them into some micro fiction?