Monday, June 6, 2011

Monsters, and Story Structure

I've always said that I write contemporary realism, and I write in traditional forms, and here I have to provide a bit of a caveat. That is true of my novels, and for a long time it was also true of my short stories--until the past few years. After having written hundreds of short pieces, I started to stretch the boundaries a little. By no means do I feel that I've exhausted the possibilities of realism or traditional narrative forms, but it was fun to try something new. I started modestly: I wrote stories in the form of letters; I wrote in the second person; I wrote in verse; I wrote a story in the form of entries in an imaginary anthropologist's notebook; I wrote very short stories that required the reader to supply some of the details. 

One of those less realistic, more experimental stories has found a home. I'm honored to have it appear on the Hunger Mountain site right now. It's called "Monsters," and it actually started its life with a structure I borrowed from poetry. I was trying to write pantoums (which I will not inflict upon you), which are a form of poetry in which certain lines repeat in a prescribed pattern. That gave me the idea to try a short story with repeating sentences. Here's the first pattern I used:

1st paragraph.  Sentence A, Sentence B, followed by more sentences
2nd paragraph. Sentence B, Sentence C, followed by more sentences
3rd paragraph. Sentence C, Sentence D, ...

... and so on, until the last paragraph's second sentence was Sentence A again. Then I tried this pattern:

1st three paragraphs all begin with Sentence A.
2nd three paragraphs all begin with Sentence B.
Next three paragraphs all begin with Sentence C.
Final three paragraphs all begin with Sentence D.

Even though the sets of three paragraphs all used the same introductory sentence, each paragraph took that sentence someplace different. Often the second paragraph in the set would contradict what was said in the first paragraph. Using this form, I got the bulk of the material that appears in the final version of "Monsters."

But for the final version, I realized the repeating sentences no longer served their purpose--in fact, they had begun to confine the story. And so each of them now appears only once (and one got axed completely), and I no longer needed to keep the number of paragraphs so rigid. I edited for flow and sense.

And the only reason I'm going into so much detail about this process is in case you want to try playing with form or borrowing from poetry yourself, and maybe this will give you some ideas. For anyone who's curious, the sentences that originally repeated in "Monsters" were:
I was born a monster.
I put an ad on the internet, looking for other monsters.
I lived as a monster.
There are other monsters.

If you wonder what kind of monster I'm talking about in this story: that is one of the things I would love readers to think about. I can think of many possibilities, and I wanted to leave those multiple interpretations open.

Also appearing in the June 3 issue, on the theme of "The Varying Shades of Shadows:" Janet Gurtler's discussion of sisterhood in "Embracing Shadows;" Joe Lunievicz's essay "In the Half-Light," about the various resources he drew upon for his novel Open Wounds (also excerpted at the site), and an interview with Elena Mechlin and Joan Slattery about the latest at their literary agency, Pippin Properties. I hope you'll check it out!

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