Each spring, at the end of my fiction writing class, I pick a short short story from Flash Fiction Forward, edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard, and we ask a series of review questions. I will share my list here, with brief explanations. At risk of repeating an old saw: if you can identify these elements in a story you admire, you should find them, or their lack, in your own stories.
The story we looked at this spring was, “Initials Etched On A Dining Room Table, Lockeport, Nova Scotia” by Peter Ormer.
Item number one: Protagonist? Antagonist? We identified the old sea captain as our protagonist, which means, the story is about his quest. Some identified the girl, Rachel, who etched her initials on the table, as the antagonist. In the end we agreed that the cod fisherman’s wife was the real antagonist (she opposes his quest).
Item number two: Inciting Incident? This is the disturbing event that causes a protagonist to embark on a quest (to achieve a goal and thereby resolve the disturbance). First choice: Rachel’s act of carving the initials and/or their discovery. What happened one morning between the sea captain and the cleaning girl, Rachel, might have been the real inciting incident, but we decided that until the initials were discovered, there was no required response.
Item number three: Protagonist’s conscious desire and goal? Contradictory desire? His conscious goal seems to have been to chalk up the initials to her social inadequacy, ie blame her, let it drop, forget about it and her, and live life as though it had never happened. His contradictory desire? Perhaps to have what it was he was seeking from the girl in the first place, to at least give presence to this repressed desire.
Item number four: Complicating events that raise levels of risk? Tough one to answer because most of the story is told in summary. Refusing to talk about it is one such act. Allowing her reputation to be sullied in town and doing nothing to defend her is another. Allowing her to leave and never getting in touch, yet another. Later, when life has not given them the family they professed to want, they talk about Rachel, a dangerous proposition because of the unresolved trouble.
Item number five: The Point of No Return? This event or act represents the point of maximum risk and exposure for the main character (and precedes the crisis moment and climax). In this story, at retirement age, having grown restless and apart, they finally ask the most troubling question: what do you suppose the initials, “RGL” actually stand for? Especially the “G”? The “R” and “L” are the girl’s initials. But the “G”? Well. Evidence of the ultimate betrayal?
Item number six: Crisis? Insight? Reversal? You should read the story. Let’s just say the antagonist lets it be known what her theory is. Accepting what this means ushers in the ultimate defeat for the cod fisherman, who seems to remain in denial.
There we have the basic story arc. But we’re not quite finished. Along with this, I like to ask a few narrating questions.
Item number seven: Who is the noticer? Who is listening? This is a question of what consciousness is making most of the observations and to whom the observations are addressed. The answer requires examining more than point of view (who speaks). In our story, the narrator seems to be neither the sea captain nor his wife, but rather a kind of flaneur, a voice that observes and comments but without actually becoming a character. Who’s listening? It is we, dear reader. We are being asked to observe and if we choose, to pass our own judgment.
Item number eight: Psychic distance? Narrative distance? Here it gets complicated. If you are a writer, these might be the two most critical questions. Psychic distance, a John Gardner term, refers roughly to the degree of emotional distance we, the reader, feel from the events and the characters in the story. In this case, we are held off at a neutral distance, at best. We share a degree of intimacy only near the end. Narrative distance? This refers to the complicated relationship between the author, the language used, the events, the characters, and ultimately the reader. This story is told at a great distance. We do not share any sensory events with the characters, and events happened long ago. The closest we come to enjoying a moment near the characters is in a slice of scene just before the end.
Item number nine: Describe the writing style. Again this matters if you are involved in the writing business. Style ranges from clumsily plain (think office memo or a raw informational text or tweet) through transparent (pleasing style that does not call attention to itself) to Mandarin (the opaque writerly style that involves complex sentences and long digressions, often associated with late Henry James). A book on this subject I would recommend is The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda.
That’s the list.
Here is my dare. Apply this list to your own stories.