Short Stories, II
Fireproof your barn!
So OK, the thing I was going to say when I ran out of time last week is that, during the weeks I spent adapting an Either/Or-themed short story, I started obsessively listening to the New Yorker Fiction podcast—the one where writers read and discuss stories from the archives. This is such a great resource for anyone trying to game short stories! Not every episode is a slam-dunk, thanks to people like me (I remember ultimately feeling defeated by the weird story I chose in the hope of understanding it better), but there are many, many episodes where everything clicks and you really learn something about how a story works. (Etgar Keret’s episodes are always great, btw, as is his Substack.)
Anyway… at some point I was taking a long walk and listened to two terrific episodes back to back—Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning” (a story I already loved), read and discussed by Andrea Lee, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Cafeteria,” read and discussed by Rivka Galchen. Both stories succeed, so seemingly effortlessly, at the spooky-ending trick that I so admire, and that I have always viewed as dauntingly effortful… and I thought, “OK, how does a person actually write a story like that,” so I copy-pasted the text of both stories into Word documents, so I could see word counts of the different sections, and map out what they were doing in what order and in how much space—a bit like the Murakami narrator mapping out his jogging route.
In this way, I discovered that the two stories, which I had mentally classified somewhat disparately, because of the different emotional valences held for me by the authors, were, in formal terms, THE SAME STORY. (An exciting thing about forms and formulas: when used successfully, they become absorbed by the content, so you don’t necessarily feel like you’re having the same experience over and over.)
“Barn-Burning” and “Cafeteria” are both between 5000 - 6500 words (aspirational, for me—I tend longer), and can be broken into three acts. The content is a bit specific, in that both are about Missing Younger Troubled Women—specifically, Missing Younger Troubled Women as a Fascinating Puzzle for Writerly Men. As subjects go, this one is pretty twentieth-century, and probably not what most people are going for right now. But I think the structure is more broadly applicable to any suggestive/ isolated interpersonal encounter, where two people meet a few times (and the whole thing is an elegant understated metonymy for what people mean to each other, our responsibility toward chance acquaintances, etc.). Could also work for an encounter with a mysterious place / milieu.
Act I: Setup (1000 - 1500 words)
1. Establishes time, place, narrator (500 - 1000 words)
2. The first encounter with the Mysterious Character (500 - 1000 words)
Act II: The Main Incident (2000 - 3000 words)
1. Gesture towards the passage of time/ seasons. Some missed connection/s with MC. (500 - 1000 words)
2. The central encounter with MC: a strange conversation. (The barn-burning convo in “Barn-Burning”; the Hitler convo in “Cafeteria”) (1000 - 2000 words)
Act III: Aftermath/ disappearance (1000 - 2000 words)
1. Passage of time (another season). Some further, troubling information is revealed about the encounter. Something seems sinister/ supernatural. (1000 - 2000 words)
2. Coda: MC disappears; failed attempt to find her; rueful self-reflection. (200 words)
The mapping exercise felt really generative for me, in that it made it feel unprecedentedly doable to write a (certain kind of) short story. I hope it will be exciting to some other people, too. The students in my writing class are very polite, so it’s hard to be sure, but I get the feeling they are not super-into word counts and act structures. To me, there’s a big difference between thinking about creating a story from scratch to fit a formula or map (unappealing!), versus already having a story or some characters or an incident in mind that you want to work through, and using the formula to apportion material into different parts (exciting!). Especially lately, since I’ve been thinking about ways to briefly evoke large chunks of autobiographical time. So if that’s you, maybe you’ll find it helpful, too. (Maybe this is more for older people?)
I will stop here for now because I have to pack for BookForum Lviv, where I am honored to be on this high octane panel about postcolonial critiques of Russian literature. (I think Ewa Thompson’s Imperial Knowledge may still be one of the only book-length, Edward-Said-Culture-and-Imperialism-style analyses of Russian literature (as in “Where does Pierre Bezukhov’s estate come from?”). And Oksana Zabuzhko’s observation in the TLS last year about Russian novels tending to be from the perspective of the perpetrator (“murdering people is hard”) has been so thought-provoking for me… about way more than Russian novels, tbh.)
Because of some booking complications, I ended up buying a one-way return flight from Warsaw to NYC, as a result of which I received LOT Polish Airlines’ guide for visitors to New York, and the part about how to “eat like a local” is so special that I am saving it as a (VERY SHORT) thank-you for paid subscribers (below). I’m also planning to share story maps of “Cafeteria” and “Barn-Burning” soon, so stay tuned for that…
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