The Shape of Story: Trends in the Narrative.
Melinda Palacio -- March 2, 2008
Last week, at Arizona State University's Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference, poet Richard Siken and fiction author Antonya Nelson took on the question of shape, proof that the current trend in narrative is shunning plot and favoring shape.
Richard Siken's first book of poetry, Crush, won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, a Lambda Literary Award, the thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He's spent years perfecting metaphor and meter, making sure his poems scan for music and surprise. Currently, he has an obsession for paragraphs. But can we believe him after he called himself a liar? "I am a poet and a liar, an unreliable narrator," he said by way of introduction to his one-hour, multigenre class on adding tension, texture, surprise to poems, stories, essays. He discussed how to shape writing towards opportunities to explode on the page and surprise the reader.
The idea that we can shape paragraphs to surprise and wow the reader is understandable, considering Siken is a poet, a liar, and an unreliable narrator. For him, shaping writing towards opportunity means "mixing and monkeying with vocabulary." For example, using the language of love to describe cars produces such images as "the cliffs of my grandmother's memory."
The bigger question which Siken did not answer is what is shape in fiction. In another one-hour class on the art of the short story, Antonya Nelson, picked up where Siken left off.
While Siken emphasizes the opportunity to move a reader, Antonya Nelson begins with the writer's primary goal as achieving a moving story through risk. "The writer achieves a moving story when the writer has something at stake in the work." For Nelson, there's a tricky balance. The writer skates between having enough personal expertise and saying too much. Therefore, the conceit of Write What You Know takes precedence to Make It All Up. "If you are really invested," says the 46-year-old writer, it's hard not to like characters." Nelson offers Chekhov as a study for marrying character and fate. Ultimately, characters, whether likable or not, must meet their fate. Here is where shape or plot comes in. Nelson prefers to think of the narrative structure in terms of shape, rather than plot.
An example of shape in lieu of plot is Toby Wolff's short story, "The Bullet." The shape of the story is time. The story is about a wise cracking man's return to innocence, told in backwards sequence." The reader is exposed to the entire life memories of a man in the process of dying. The exposé of a man's thoughts at the point of death is nothing new. Ambrose Bierce takes a similar journey in "An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," which tells of an execution by hanging. The story lives in the final seconds of his life. Within the hanging we move back in time to how Peyton Farquhar became a condemened man and then forward in time to his post-death hallucinations.
Not thinking in traditional, linear terms frees a writer. The writer may move away from building a story to a climax. Instead of a curve, the shape of a story is a bank robbery or a wedding ceremony or two people meeting for the very first time (by the end of the story, they part). These are shapes that give the reader a reference and structure. Nelson is certainly a woman who sets her own schedule and doesn't adhere to the rules. She sometimes forgets about shape and begins with only the title in mind. She gives herself permission not to write everyday and says she doesn't have the stamina to sit and write for 3-5 hours. In fact, she will go for weeks without writing. And yet, she has produced five short story collections and three novels, Talking in Bed, Nobody's Girl, and Living to Tell. The New Yorker named her as one of twenty young fiction writers for the new millennium.
Her current project is in the shape of a funnel. For now, Nelson is calling the piece a short story, but suspects the work will grow into a novel. The funnel shape came about through a technical challenge Nelson gave herself, a story in the We point of view. The first word in the story is We and the last word will be I. The We is a family. As voices and characters separate from the We, only an I is left. Here is a writer who chips away at her comfort zone and gives herself technical, intellectual writing challenges. Both Nelson and Siken move beyond the techniques that have worked for them in the past.