How to Write Fiction for Close Reading: Pay Attention to Significant Detail

The first sentence of a well-written novel gives clues to its theme and structure. Some great novels begin with a sweeping view of past events or future possibilities, but without significant details in the first sentence.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby); or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice).

Neither of these sentences give details of characters, even whether the protagonist will be male or female, or of setting. Both of these novels, of course, incorporate significant details in the writing as they progress, and they both contain vivid characters and setting.  Because so many great novels contain similar sweeping views toward the past or future, we might think we need to write our opening sentences to show the scope of our ambitions. But there are exceptions.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road begins with two small details of events and an indication that time has passed between these two moments. In this first sentence, two characters are introduced and the setting of the kitchen—the home—which also has a role as character.

“Later, after Hanna made some cheese on toast, her mother came into the kitchen and filled a hot water bottle from the big kettle on the range.”

Being an admirer of well-crafted first sentences, I puzzled at this one. I read it several times. Why begin with “later”? It seemed confusing. Why mention two mundane acts? Neither captured my imagination. I liked Enright’s previous prize-winning novel The Gathering very much, and like its predecessor, The Green Road also won the Man Booker Prize, among others. I trust this writer. I know that details matter to her. So I read on, paying close attention.

Cheese on toast is a simple, common food. Filling the hot water bottle from the kettle is a simple act of comfort and self-care. I already know a lot about these characters, this domestic story. “Later” indicates that time will be an element and that this writer is in control of it.

‘Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you?’ she said. ‘Get me some Solpadeine.’

‘You think?’

‘My head’s  fog,’ she said.

So begins a novel that is all about the small moments of life, about paying attention or not paying attention to these moments, about retaining them in the memory and the heart, and about the time that passes between them and sequences them into a lifetime of moments well lived or not. The story is about what happens over the decades in the lives of the mother (Rosaleen Madigan) and her children Hanna, Emmet, Dan, and Constance.  In this post, I want to explore how and where the theme of paying attention to small moments manifests in Enright’s vivid writing.

Lesson: Loop time and use metaphor to mimic consciousness.

The first chapter, which begins on page 3, (Norton 2016 paperback edition) ends on page 35 with Roseleen again asking Hanna ‘Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you?’ and declaring ‘My head’s a fog.’ In those 32 pages, we travel out of the Madigan’s house and over the humpy bridge into town, out and back again. Through observing select moments that Enright presents, we learn a bit about youngest daughter Hanna and see all four Madigan children in their roles in the family, see indications of the best and worst of Rosaleen—her ‘horizontal solution’ for dealing with things, her giving and withholding of love. We see the father (Pat). We meet the uncle (Bart) and other relatives. We observe some family dynamics between Rosaleen’s Considine relatives and her husband’s Madigan relatives.

With these moments, Enright starts us abruptly in a moment in the past and draws us years forward to where the Green Road may lead. “My head’s a fog” begins and ends the chapter. Readers have come full circle, as most of us often do in our own musings of the past. We’ve begun the story understanding that Rosaleen’s mind isn’t sharp. There are gaps in Rosaleen’s thinking, in her memory. Near the end of the novel, Rosaleen is wandering in the night and lost. We are in her consciousness:…there were gaps between things, and this frightened her. This is where Rosaleen was now. She had fallen into the gap.

This is how we think, how we remember. We  compress time and incident, we stack memories and loop them back on themselves, gathering up as we go random incidents that happened after the earlier memory but now inform that memory through other memories. In her first chapter, Enright has prepared the reader for traveling forward and backward in time, naturally as we do in memory and consciousness, a device she’ll use throughout the book.

Lesson: Show a moment in time to detail characters, emotions and motivations

The sweep of characters is shown, not told, through an omniscient and close-third chronicling of moments of conflicted love and attention.

Rather than tell readers that Hanna has internalized her mother’s inconsistent demonstration of love, Enright shows Hanna moving from lack of attention to what her mother said, thus being not worried, to being concerned about her mother’s health. Rather than say that Rosaleen’s relatives are annoyed because they feel Rosaleen married beneath her, Enright shows Uncle Bart’s [Rosaleen’s brother’s] irritation.  Hanna is at the pharmacy on the errand to pick up medication for her mother. ‘What does she want?’ [Bart said.] ‘Em. I can’t remember,’ said Hanna. ‘Her chest.’ Hanna gets the Solpadeine but lingers at the perfume counter,  “Do you think Mammy’s all right?” Her uncle replies, ‘Oh for God’s sake. What?” 

Rather than tell readers that Hanna’ oldest brother Dan feels a loyalty to his mother, whom he has hurt, and rather than tell us that Hanna feels conflicted by a loyalty to her mother and to Dan, Enright shows us a moment on one Sunday before Easter, shortly after Dan announces he is going to become a priest. Rosaleen has gone upstairs to her room and is not coming down. Dan hangs around, rather than going back to college. Hanna carries food up to his room. Sometimes he only took a bit of the food and Hanna finished it as she took it back to the kitchen, and the stale edge to the bread made her even more fond of her brother, in his confinement.

Rather than tell readers that Dan doesn’t fit into this family, Enright shows us a moment between Dan and Hanna on one Christmas when Dan is back home. Dan passed Hanna in the hall and he took her to him, saying, ‘Save me, Hanna. Save me from these ghastly people.’ He folded her in his arms.

Rather than tell readers that eldest daughter Constance will bear the burden of guilt for Rosaleen and stay close to home to continue trying to prove her love, Enright shows the family dinner table one night. Her mother juddering and sputtering, with the carrots falling from her mouth in little lumps and piles. ‘Oh, Mammy,’ said Constance, leaning in, with her arm around her, to slip the plate neatly away.

Lesson: Prepare the readers for what you want them to notice.

Writers notice details. Through our writing, we pay attention to what we notice and want our readers to notice.  By showing and telling, we decide what matters and what is important to our stories. The masterful handling of significant details can make good fiction more vivid and memorable. You can guide your readers into the story by starting with the sweeping view or starting with small, but meaningful, details. Enright could have begun with a view of the green road, which is an important element in the story. She could have given us a bird’s-eye view of the road curing through the landscape and shown the houses, the village, the cliffs. She could have begun high on the road, overlooking the sea, and brought us swooping down into the Madigan’s home, into their kitchen, to the boiling kettle. A cinematic beginning. But this book doesn’t have a cinematic feel. It feels close to the body, held within the family, within traditions even as characters strain against them. When Dan and Emmet venture far beyond Ireland, their conflicted emotions of family, of Rosaleen, her neediness—her inability to give unconditional love or to graciously accept the love they give—tethers them to her and to their home.

In the end, Rosaleen says, “I have paid too little attention. I think that’s the problem. I should have paid more attention to things.” But readers have paid attention. Enright has made sure that we noticed all those things that Rosaleen missed.


A Man Called Ove and What Love’s Got to Do with It

“Ove is fifty-nine.” That opening line, which is the complete first paragraph of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Called Ove, contains a world of inference about the curmudgeonly character. He exists, he’s of an age, and he’s called “Ove.” On first glance at the book’s cover, I read “Love.” My brain wanted to insert the missing “L.” Hmm. My mind corrects —no, not “love.” It’s Ove—an unusual name. However, the author is Swedish, so maybe not so unusual. (Later checking online there are many famous Scandanavian men called Ove.) But I’m English speaking, and I can’t help but hear the refrain from one of my favorite Tina Turner songs—“What’s love got to do with it?”

Backman spends the rest of the book answering this question, even as Ove protests. As it turns out, love has everything to do with it. We’re told in the third sentence that this man called Ove “is the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” I admit to not liking Ove here on page one, even if he does drive a Saab—a sturdy car which once saved a friend of mine’s life. So why did I read on?

Lesson: Make the reader want to spend time with the character.

This is a fiction writer’s great challenge, especially if the main character, for the sake of the narrative arc, is not a likeable guy or anticipated hero. On page one, Ove is trying to buy an iPad or laptop. He counters his feelings of being diminished by this experience—the confusing technology, the skinny young assistant who offers more arrogance than assurance (a common sales practice that in the nonfictional world often signals how much the clerk doesn’t know him or herself)—with demands. “I want a computer!” When the clerk tells him that a laptop is a computer, Ove explodes. “You think I don’t know that!”

With this, Ove steps into the reader’s heart. Whether you’re young or old, tech literate or not, shop at Apple, Best Buy, or big box, no doubt you’ve felt as Ove does—like a complete idiot (which you know you are not), extremely frustrated (which you have been for reasons having nothing to do with buying a computer and which exist in your life outside of the store), and shamed by someone whose help you need but who makes you feel (1. too old) (2.too young) (3. too dumb) (4. t00 desperate). You choose.

In the next chapter, we meet Ove’s wife through his eyes. She doesn’t speak when he talks to her, but we believe she loves him in a way no one has ever loved him—unconditionally. We see their routines, the way she tolerates his difficult personality, perhaps even loves him all the more for it. On his daily perambulation, we meet a cat and a few of his neighbors. Ove has grievances with everyone we meet, except for his wife. And then we discover that she had died, but continues to be very much alive in his imagination. Sonja is easy to love, and soon we join Ove in grieving her loss. Misery needs company.

Lesson: Craft a pitch-perfect narrative point of view.

Backman brings us close to Ove and leaves room for surprises. It’s Ove’s world and becomes ours too. Through a close-enough but not-all-the-way close third-person, Backman draws us into Ove’s head and heart, even though Ove would push us out, as he tries to do with everyone else. We see Ove as he sees himself, but we don’t see everything or make sense of everything until the right time in the narrative. We’re close enough to feel empathy for him and, at times, affinity with him. We often see or learn something that Ove doesn’t yet understand or never will. We are at once within Ove and outside of him, growing to care for him as his neighbors do, cheering him on to fail at each attempt he makes to end his life and to win happiness in the end.

With admirable skill, the author crafts a pitch-perfect, humorous, and deeply empathic narrative that keeps the reader wondering what’s next for Ove and hoping for the best. We feel the fist of his heart opening to accept the love of a family that move in next door, of people he meets and tries to avoid, of neighbors who have lived on his street for decades.

The last chapter could be called “A Man Called Ove and a Reader Who Laughs and Cries because She’s Going to Miss Him When She Closes the Book.”


Provocative Short Shorts

“Short Shorts: Sudden Fiction” by Nancy Margulies brings to mind in the very best way those colorful foam Magic Grow bathtub toys that begin as little gel capsules. When my son was small, we’d drop a capsule into the warm water and watch it miraculously birth a lion or giraffe, elephant or dinosaur within minutes. Even knowing the science—a dry sponge squeezed tightly into a small space will expand exponentially when wet—didn’t make it less amazing and fun. What Nancy Margulies brings forth in stories quickly inspired by one-word, emailed prompts is similarly marvelous. Her “Short Shorts” expand vividly and unpredictably on the page.

On first reading the book, I assumed that these crisp, visual, and emotionally charged stories had evolved through revision for publication from the author’s initial “free writes” sent as replies to her writing group’s prompts. When I learned that these published versions were drafted in twelve minutes or less and not reworked, I was impressed and mystified. How does she do it?

Lesson: Choose precise details 

This author is gifted in making us see. From the opening in “Preparing to Meet My Birth Mother”—”…as cherry blossom explode off their branches, wrapping around houses like so many pink scarves”—to the final entry “Not Here” on page 53 (yes, it’s a short book) —“As people paint Hitler mustaches on the image of our President…”—Margulies uses images to establish emotional tone, define character, create scenes, and extend meaning beyond the poetic prose. The prompt for the first story is “mother.” The character tells us she “should be packing instead of watching” the cherry blossoms out the window. She then steps through the imagined packing, telescoping the twenty-nine years missing from life with her birth mother through bursts of autobiography and could-have-beens. She sums up her first short marriage to LeRoy Pratt in these eight one-syllable words: “He won races. I wore a pit pass.”

Throughout the book, there are these “magic grow” details that encapsulate a relationship or era of a character’s life. These gems could be dropped into the warm bath of imagination and expanded into longer works of fiction, but they serve this short form beautifully and economically.

Lesson: Deliver meaning through form

“Strip Poker,” a scant page of story prompted by the word “layers,” is a confession by a girl that she’s been raped. Margulies devotes four brief paragraphs to layering her character from childhood through teenage years with skirts, shorts, slips tucked into shorts, and a bra stuffed with toilet paper, only to strip her bare in one final sentence. “Turns out she was wrong” is the narrator’s response to her mother’s belief that no one would have the patience to rape a girl so layered by clothes. We don’t know when the rape happened or any hint of the perpetrator, but the horror lingers in those final five words which ravish the girl’s modesty and innocence, along with the belief in a wise mother who could keep her safe.

The story “Backwards” (prompt “backwards”) is a witty and pithy unraveling from the narrator’s gentle present time through past generations spiked by family tragedy, dislocation, and finally to a pre-literate time when the ancestors “told stories that were passed down then forgotten” leaving the rest of this story “anybody’s guess.” The remaining inches of blank page loom large with possibilities.

Lesson: Try it!

Prompts can inspire writing at any stage of mastery. Whether working alone or in a supportive group, writers can discover more about their characters, their stories, and themselves through random prompts and timed exercises. The prompts used by Margulies in this book are Mother, Dream, Time, Mask, Adventure, Photo, Short, Imagine, Missed, Morning, Layers, High School, Backwards, Secrets, Clutter, Regret, Goals, New Job, Sun, News, Wanting a Child, Sacred, Boyfriend, Yellow, Last Words, Crush, Committed, Late Night, Candy, Wanting, Who I Was, Photo, Assertive, Pause, Independence, Ocean, Songs, Fitting In, Memory, and Garden.

Choose a word. Allow twelve minutes or less to write. Dig deep. Have fun. Risk revealing what you have never before revealed. Surprise yourself. Intrigue your readers. Email the story to your own address or to fellow writers. If you’re like me you’ll end up with a notebook full of promising free writes, any of which might produce a publishable story upon considered revision. If you’ve mastered the short form as Margulies has, then you’ll soon be working on your new collection. Watch for “Sudden Friction: Stories That Rub You the Wrong Way” to see what emerges next from this author.

The Awakening: One Man’s Viewpoint

By Guest Blogger: Lee Stein

This post is from Lee Stein, a writer and participant in the Read to Write Workshop Sebastopol, 2010. Lee missed the first session where we discussed The Awakening by Kate Chopin. His viewpoint adds a valuable dimension to our otherwise all female class discussion. Thanks, Lee!

I just finished reading The Awakening. The pace of the book (apropos of New Orleans, of course) posed a bit of a reading hurdle and the writing style of late 19th or early 20th century writing, as well. However, once I got into it, I actually couldn’t wait to pick it up again. As a reader, Kate Chopin (ironic that she also makes several references to the musical Chopin) builds us up as we empathize with Edna as she in fact awakens from her routine world to a richer life, one filled with love, sensuality, her own choices, her apparent real development as an artist, her independence from what was the ball and chain of societal and marital expectations. 

 Of course as the reader, I could (almost) see the end coming, especially when Robert, who represents, even more than her husband, the “straight and narrow” of society. God forbid, Robert would say, that I involve myself with a married woman, no less than the wife of one of the scions of New Orleans business and society. I could never take the step to live with her without the proper social blessings, or run away with her. I would rather sacrifice my position (witness the note he leaves) than to actually live a life based on the life of the heart. This in fact seals Edna’s fate. 

I went back and looked at the first line, and Chopin cleverly introduces the theme of the book, in French, via the character of the parrot (who does in fact make another appearance). “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

The footnotes inform us: Go away, go away! For God’s sake, go away! That’s all right.”

At first this seems a bit silly for an introduction. But we see several elements where Edna strips her life in one way or another of the confining rules and expectations of society, even as she gives her heart to Robert. First, Robert leaves for Mexico. Then she leaves this idyllic summer getaway where she and Robert idle their time with one another as she falls in love to return to the city with the change of season with her children and unfullfilling, unloving husband. About the same time, she sends the children to their grandmother’s home in the country and her husband leaves for NY on an extended business trip. Somewhere in there, we have other leavings: She becomes involved (quasi-romantically) with Alcee in Robert’s absence, but she also leaves Alcee, or directs Alcee to leave her on several different occasions. She leaves her own family in a sense, refusing to attend her sister’s wedding and in a sense, leaves her father, who despite his visit to New Orleans, fails to persuade her to attend and in a sense leaves her family. She strips her self symbolically of all the trappings of life expected of a “gentile woman of New Orleans” to lead her own life as an artist, make her choices. Even her dearest friend Madame Ratignolle, who seems to have a borderline love affair with Edna (see the scene at the beach with the two of them), represents the exact opposite direction of Edna’s life. Her life is directed to caring for husband and children, minimal physical activity on her own behalf, and certainly, other than the more or less required music lessons, and apparently only a fair player at best, Madame, interestingly is always referred to formally, as Madame R… as though the author wants us to see her in this formal, structured way.

It is interesting that as a reader, I am falling in love or at least deeply admiring Edna’s steps out of convention into a true soul direction. And finally, after stripping herself of everything with which she starts the story, she literally strips naked on the beach and consciously swims out into the Gulf, ending her life because no male energy could meet her and fulfill her. Robert failed, despite her heart and soul being committed to him, Alcee never had a chance. Her husband’s idea was to simply keep plying her with bribes in the form of bonbons, crystal, wine or other gifts as versus truly loving her or making space for her. And so, really, she had no other avenue, in her world, so that ultimately, she wasn’t truly independent, but rather still crushed by her dependence on a deep and meaningful relationship.

More Story Seeds

As a fiction writer, I’ve been intrigued by how something of apparently little consequence, whether overheard, experienced, or imagined, can generate an overwhelming desire in me to start a novel, becoming an “essential,” as Alice Munro puts it. The American Heritage dictionary defines essential as “Constituting or being part of the essence of something; inherent.” In my own work, I’ve been surprised at how that seed or essence implants and then grows a story within which the seminal force may be buried, perhaps forgotten as I write, but still traceable.

Begin with Overheard Conversation

For instance, once I was in a cluster of conversation at the California Historical Society where the director, standing near me, said, “The Pomos had a name for everything.” This comment describing how the Native Americans would name features of their landscape—rocks, trees, hills—struck me as incredibly beautiful and powerful, and served as inspiration for what several years later became a contemporary novel set in Northern California. In the manuscript, a character speaks the incidental line of dialogue—I wanted to retain the novel’s seed within—but it’s the reverence in the context of the statement that guided the making of the story, which became not at all about Pomos, but much about people loving one another and living with a sense of place. 

Munro’s “Essentials”

In the Introduction to her Selected Stories, Alice Munro reveals the seeds that germinated several of the selections. The revelations are brief, suggesting only an image, conversation, person, or situation that sparked the stories, and they’re fascinating. Munro’s clues to her stories’ beginnings tease me to want more, to follow her from where the sprouting began to the full bloom, to guess how the seed spawned the story. Perhaps this guesswork is risky or misguided, but it’s also instructive.

Begin with a Gesture

“Simon’s Luck,” Munro says, began with “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens.”

Begin with an Image from Another Person’s Memory

Two pages later in the Introduction she says the story “came from a story told me at a party by a man who had been hidden in a railway car, as a Jewish child in France during the Second World War.”

Begin with a Hybrid: One + One = Much More Than Two

Here we have a hybrid, a common occurrence in writing. Putting two or more essences together sparks a more complexly layered story. In Simon’s Luck, Munro gives her character Simon the railway car story for his own. Simon meets Rose, the story’s protagonist, at a party for faculty of a community college where she teaches drama. Before meeting Simon, Rose had been in the bedroom of the party’s hostess and observed the hostess, the girlfriend of the host, kneeling by a basket containing a tortoiseshell cat suckling four tiny, blind kittens. “’That’s Tasha,“ the girl said. “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.” 

Simon and Rose strike up a conversation and, through subsequent narration that includes the railway car story, we’re taken to a scene in Rose’s house, where she is in bed with Simon after the party, and she is telling Simon he is lucky to have survived. Simon is a sexy, attentive man, ready to fix her furnace as The Humble Workman, or make “triumphant smacking noises against her navel” as The Mad Satyr. Rose allows herself to fall for him. He cooks “a remarkable supper from the resources provided, while Rose did nothing much but stand around watching, and change the sheets.” He offers to plant her a garden, digs up the yard, and works the soil. She is delighted with him and cries out, “Oh, Simon, you idiot, you’re the man for my life!” She expects him to call her and return the next weekend, but she doesn’t hear from him.

Hurt and unable to face what she perceives as abandonment by him, she leaves her rented house and drives, abandoning her life and the phantom of love. In Vancouver, “Luck was with her,” and she lands a part in a TV series. A year later, she discovers that Simon died of pancreatic cancer, something he’d had for a long time. 

Where does a seed go? How does it grow into the story?

The railway car story seed is easy to trace, but what happened to the girl bending over the kitten basket? Where did that essential image go?  An essence is hard to put into words, which is why people write thousands of words trying to get at just what is there in a gesture seen, felt, and remembered.

The dialogue line could be a clue: “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.” Or there could be a clue in the lines of narrative: “She knelt down by the basket, crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected…” and “Rose knew by now that when she found people affected, as she did this girl…it was usually because she, Rose, hadn’t received and was afraid she wouldn’t receive the attention she wanted…she might be doomed to hang around on the fringes of things, making judgments.” Here, perhaps, is a build on the essential image, a way of understanding Rose’s character. She needs attention: Has she been poorly mothered? Abandoned? We learn Rose has a seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, who has a paternal grandmother. No maternal grandmother? And where is Anna living? With her father, Patrick? Not with Rose. Has Rose neglected her? We learn Anna is “so silent, so fastidious, so unforthcoming” with her Rose. 

Lesson: Write & Read to Discover Psychological Underpinnings

Do the potentially abandoned kittens resonant in Simon’s character? We know he was separated from his mother at an early age. Is it his sense of abandonment as well as Rose’s that keeps each of them from allowing their feelings of a weekend to flourish into a real relationship, no matter how short or long term?

Waiting for Simon’s call, Rose tells herself, “Better lose him now.” She’s fantasized that he’s gone to Europe, camping, or to get married. As she drives, she imagines that maybe he’s turning into her driveway at that very moment. But she argues with herself: “Even so, even if that were true, what would happen some day, some morning? Some morning she could wake up and she would know by his breathing that he was awake beside her and not touching her, and that she was not supposed to touch him.”

Now we learn more about poor Rose. “Never since Patrick had she been the free person, the one with that power; maybe she had used it all up…” She imagines that if she were with Simon, she’d hear him one day at a party telling his railway story, saying, “And then I knew I’d be all right, I knew it was a lucky sign.” She imagines Simon having power over her to hurt her. In leaving, she avoids giving him that power. 

Lesson: Enrich Meaning through Narrative and Action

We’re told from the start of the story that Rose “gets lonely in new places.” She easily abandons home, easily gives up her own power. She’s done it before. Will she do it again? Munro puts us in the car with Rose as she drives away from the pain of what she perceives as Simon’s abandonment of her. She finds her own luck in the TV show, the new start, but it appears she’s repeating her patterns. In the end, when she learns of Simon’s dying, she thinks it unfair, preposterous, that “even at this late date [she] could have thought herself the only person who could seriously lack power.”

The story’s essence comes from that basket of kittens, vulnerable and completely helpless to prevent being abandoned, and the mother cat, powerless to overcome an instinct that if her kittens are touched, she will abandon them. Rose’s fears—of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of truly giving and receiving love—make her powerless and helpless. She is the cat and the kitten.

See “Gatekeepers & Story Seeds” for more Munro.

Master Craft Juggling

Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery


 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.

Gatekeepers & Story Seeds

Gatekeepers & Story Seeds ~ Session 1 (2010) Followup

Watercolor of peapod by Christine Walker

In the Read to Write Books course in fiction craft, “Gatekeepers” is my term for the role that first and last sentences play. “Story Seeds” are the tangible or ineffable things without which a book would have a different essential reason for being or not exist at all.

Employ a Masterful Gatekeeper 

Mastery is knowing when and how to bring a reader into the story. At the reader’s point of entrance—the first sentence—the author can swing the gate wide—“Come on in!” —or tap it slightly to invite the reader to step in, then push the gate wider, step, push wider. Some books have layered gatekeepers—one narrator  kicks open the gate and eventually leads the reader to another narrator. Life of Pi and Heart of Darkness, which we’ll cover in Session 2, are examples of layered narrative.

Mastery is also knowing when and how to end the story, whether to close the back gate, leave it ajar, or swing it out to extend the story beyond the book.

Lesson: Choose a noun to do the work of several adjectives

Isak Dinesen’s first sentence from Out of Africa, examined in depth in an earlier post, contains the remarkable phrase “at the foot” (“of the Ngong Hills.”) It’s an instructive example of the heavy lifting a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word can do for a writer. “Foot” opened up vistas of discussion in the workshop sessions. It animates Dinesen’s landscape and lends a human quality. It evokes elevations. It’s a body part, but not a particularly lovely one. It’s serviceable. It connects us to the earth, as Dinesen felt connected herself and wanted her readers to feel connected. It grounds us, implies reverence and a glance up to the Ngong Hills, which echo throughout the story.

Close the gate firmly

In the last sentence, the glance is a long look back from her departing train—the hills are “levelled out by the hand of distance.” The back gatekeeper closes her story for us softly, yet firmly, on a time and place (her farm, colonial Kenya, Africa) that will never be the same again for her, or for us, other than in her memoir.

Lesson: Choose language and punctuation to entice readers

J.M. Coetzee’s first sentence from Disgrace doesn’t draw us in with its beauty. In fact, it does just the opposite. The first half threatens to shut the reader out: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has…” The commas constrain, the information doesn’t tantalize. We already may know more than we care to about this guy. Then Coetzee kicks open the gate: “,to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” To his mind? We snap to attention. Is the narrator giving us insight to more than this man knows about himself? Does the man just think he’s solved the problem of sex, and the narrator is telling us he hasn’t. Or is this smug commentary coming from our protagonist? It’s suddenly compelling. And in what way is sex a “problem”? And only “a” problem? With “problems” of sex, might we lend our sympathy? And why the equivocation in “rather” well?

Coetzee infuses his intimate and difficult human dramas with encompassing concerns of the human condition. In Disgrace, sexual power, domination, vulnerability, and disgrace, as experienced by the characters whether male/female, black/white, stand for political and cultural power and control in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa. The story contains the larger themes, but its intimacy isn’t diminished by them. There is no polemic in sight.

The first sentence sets the pace and the constraints the man faces. By the sixth word, he’s boxed in by his age and gender; his life is faltering just as the series of commas sets a faltering pace. Due to having sex with a student, protagonist David is cut off from his university career, diminished by his choices to play by the rules or not, partitioned off from his daughter during and after her brutal rape by a trio of men. The rape leaves her determined to stay on her farm in spite of mounting racial tension and hatred directed toward her, a vulnerable white woman.

Leave the gate open

In the end, Coetzee lets us out the back gate and leaves it gaping. David speaks the last sentence: “Yes, I am giving him up.” He’s referring to the lame dog he’s brought to the kennel to euthanize, but he is also referring to his wounded self and to his damaged country. The gate opens onto hope that damaged people, damaged countries, with histories of despair and violence, can heal their souls.

Story Seeds

I call them “story seeds.” Alice Munro calls them “essentials.” Marsha Arnold, a participant in the Sebastopol 2010 course, uses the term “story seeds” differently in her teaching, so she suggested “heart of” for our discussion. That works. Story seeds may have a tangible or ineffable quality but, in my definition, they aren’t “ideas.”

To me, a story seed is sensory. It may come from an image, memory, gesture, overheard conversation—any number of sources. I may have an idea when I start a project, but it’s the story seed nudging something in my heart and mind that provides the guiding essence. I may not have an idea, and yet that seed planted whenever begins to grow into words and images. If I can’t disengage, if I trust the writing process, I eventually have a book—hopefully a good one!

Touching the Seed

In the Introduction to Alice Munro’s Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries, 1997), she reveals several “essentials.” She says, “I don’t talk about these beginnings or essentials very much, because they are hard to explain and tend to fade anyway after the story has been put out in the world and become a stranger to me…But I can tell you that in Walker Brothers Cowboy, it’s the father speaking to the tramp.” 

In the story, a little girl, on an outing with her father, is frightened of the tramp. She doesn’t understand what he says to her father and can only witness her father’s response and gesture:
“I’ll roll you a cigarette if it’s any use to you,” he says, and he shakes tobacco out carefully on one of the thin butterfly papers, flicks it with his tongue, seals it and hands it to the tramp, who takes it and walks away.”

Within this short scene, the essence of the story is established. There is dialogue—adult to adult—that we can’t overhear or understand because we are within the girl’s point-of-view. The offhand camaraderie between the father and the tramp excludes the girl; it shows her, and us, that there is a world in which her father moves where he is not fully known to her. 

Growing the Story 

The gesture foreshadows the pivotal scene in which the father, a traveling salesman, is feeling frustration and failure at his demeaning job. Accompanied by his daughter and son, he stops (outside his sales territory) to visit a former girlfriend, whom the daughter doesn’t know. The woman clearly has had a relationship of some kind with the father. Again, we see the scene through the girl’s consciousness; she intuits the sexual tension between the woman and her father. The girl is in the bud of her own sexuality, not fully aware, yet cognizant that the drinking and dancing and other things she witnesses are not to be mentioned to her mother. She does understand that the woman “digs with the wrong foot,” meaning the woman is Catholic, and thus different, not acceptable to the girl’s mother. Yet her father had befriended the woman, as he had the tramp. 

(Side note: Here’s “foot” again with another entirely different meaning. What a hard-working word!)

On the car ride home, the girl’s world has changed, opened, darkened—“like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” She has glimpsed past her own tight childhood boundaries into an adult world—secret, forbidden, mysterious—and though she returns to her safe haven of home, we know this day has been a defining one, begun with that simple intimate gesture of her father rolling a cigarette for a homeless man.

A Masterful Lesson

How Munro went from the rolling of the cigarette to this powerfully imagined and deep story is her mastery. Kelly Shaw in the Petaluma Workshop commented on the craft involved in rolling a cigarette and the charity in the gesture. The father makes light of his gift —”if it’s any use to you” —creating an atmosphere of intimacy that infuses Munro’s writing.

Lesson: Mimic the Gesture

Try rolling the cigarette paper, thumbs sliding back and forth over fingertips, the tip of the tongue on the paper, the lightness of the cigarette between your fingertips as you hand it to the tramp. This sensation of touch and offering is something “kindly, ordinary and familiar” from which grows the extraordinary story—”something you will never know” but will keep trying to understand and imagine.  

See “More Story Seeds” from Munro.

Out of Africa: A Love Story

Out of Africa, a memoir by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is a love story. Reading her descriptive passages, I too fall head over heels with the Africa that exists in her memory. The first sentence is a simple declaration that sets up her longing: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

13 words with comma

I could go on an on about this sentence and what we can learn from it for our own writing. It has stayed in my mind since first reading it years ago—the gentle, sure voice, solid grounding, and ring “Ngong” that echos throughout the book. The sentence gives just enough information and makes us want to read on. It’s a master teacher, whether for writing memoir or fiction, so perfectly crafted that seeing the 13 words with comma again, years after finishing the book, catapults me into Dinesen’s feelings for the landscape, animals, people—even the air—as if I’d glimpsed the face of my own long-ago lover.

Let’s examine it:


Simple. Standing alone. Tells us we will hear the story from the person who experienced it.


Establishes the distance where we  join her in remembering and from where she will draw us into her love affair with her beautiful and haunting Africa. If she’d written “owned a farm,” the sentence would not have resonated with such personal loss.

a farm

Pages later, we learn that she “had six thousand acres of land, and had thus got much spare land besides the coffee-plantation [600 acres]. We learn it’s not the dairy farm she’d thought her husband was buying. It’s a lot of work. But as an opener, “a farm” sets a warm, intimate tone. We all have seen farms and know something about them. Her story is exotic in its depiction of place and people, but she begins with the familiar. It’s comforting.

in Africa

She drops a hint at the vast and exotic scope of her story. Africa is huge. Here’s her little farm, and now it’s overwhelmed by Africa. She takes us from the intimate to the vast and then with the comma, next, places us.


The sentence would work grammatically without this punctuation, but she needs it for her sake and for ours. The comma acts as a fence would, marking her territory.

at the foot

Elevations play an important part in the story—the altitudes of weather and social hierachy. Her farm may be at “the foot,” but still it’s at 6000 feet. The mountain above her is at 8000. The town of Nairobi is at 5000. “The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere.” This contrasts to the privileged European life she’d known. In Africa, she lives at high elevation but doesn’t flaunt her privilege.

of the Ngong Hills.

This literal “gong” sounds the exotic vocabulary and culture of her spiritual home. We can nestle here, inside the reverberation, and then roam over the hills to the next sentence—”The Equator runs across these highlands…” feeling again the vastness.

Declarative to descriptive detail

For the first 14 pages, she begins her paragraphs with simple declaratives about geography, landscape, and the farm, and then layers detail upon detail, each prose section depicted in words that want reading aloud.

Declarative: “The geographical position…” Detail: “and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle…”

Declarative:  “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.” Detail: “In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”

Declarative: “From the Ngong Hills you have a unique view…” Detail: “The brown desert is irregularly dotted with the little marks of the thornbushes, the winding riverbeds are drawn up with crooked dark-green trails; those are the woods of the mighty wide-branching Mimosa-trees, with thorns like spikes; the cactus grows here, and here is the home of the giraffe and the Rhino.”

Declarative: “Coffee-growing is a long job.” Detail: “the black-jack, which has long scabrous seed-vessels that hang on to your clothes and stockings.”

Declarative: “There are times of great beauty on a coffee-farm.” Detail: “with many hurricane lamps in the huge dark room of the factory, that was hung everywhere with cobwebs and coffee-husks, and with eager glowing dark faces, in the light of the lamps, round the dryer; the factory, you felt, hung in the great African night like a bright jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.”

Declarative: “Whenever you walk amidst the Kikuyu shambas…” (as if this was the most natural thing in the world that we all do!) Detail: “I used to shoot spurfowl in the sweet-potato fields round the squatters’ houses in the blue late afternoons, and the stock-pigeons cooed out a loud song in the high-stemmed, fringy trees, which were left over, here and there in the shambas, from the forest that had once covered all the farm.” (Whoa! Read that last sentence aloud a few times, take a spurfowl and two fringy trees, and call me in the morning. Whatever ails your writing will be much better.)

Lessons for writers

Love is in the details

How could we not love Dinesen’s Africa? Her Ngong Hills? And how could we not feel bereft in leaving, as she does at the end, and as we do when we close the book? The lesson here for writing our love stories is in the details and in her delivery of them. She gives them to us slowly—sensation by sensation. We see, hear, touch, taste, smell, using our whole bodies, becoming intimate with the ultimately incomparable, immeasurable love of our life.

There is also a romance in the memoir. You may be familiar with the characters played in the film by Meryl Streep (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) and Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton). I’m a fan, especially of Streep, but the movie is a different animal than the book. I don’t think an actor can say “fringy trees” and get away with it. But a writer can. And that’s one of the reasons we write and read—to walk amidst the shambas in our minds.

Have fun with language

And how about this one: Declarative: “Out on the Safaris…” Detail: “I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers advancing.”

Break the rules

Dinesen breaks “rules” you read about in writing craft books regarding using too many adjectives. It’s a caution to abide in most cases and to consider in all, but in her abundant stringing together of words, she brings to life her lover—the marvelous, incongruent, often absurd, demanding and memorable Africa, which I’ve never known but feel that I have through her writing.

Imagination Unleashed

My friend Padi Selwyn (coauthor of Living Your Life Out Loud) plans on taking the Read to Write workshop I’m giving at Copperfield’s Books. She’s picking up the fiction trail after having followed a career path from journalism training to marketing professional. She says, “My biggest challenge is prying open my imagination after years of being in the non fiction groove.”

Are you picturing a can opener to the head? A crowbar? I know how she feels. It’s not a matter of having no ideas. They’re in there somewhere. It’s a matter of getting them out and knowing what to do with them.

Prompts & triggers

Books and articles on writing craft are full of prompts, our lives are full of triggers. In my writing group, we’ve often flipped open a novel, pointed at a passage, and used it as a story starter or free write. I have stacks of free writes. You probably do too.

Circumstances and characters to suggest compelling stories are everywhere—in photographs of familiar or unfamiliar people, events, and places; overheard conversations on a bus; the face of the grocery clerk. We can take the classes, devour the craft books, get published, and still we come up against it: What next?

Starting a story is fairly easy. Taking it somewhere worth our time to write and a reader’s time to read is always a challenge. Here again, we do well to learn from masterful authors who craft a memorable tale inspired by a gesture, pairing of unlikely elements, or simple question: “What if?”

Story seeds

Alice Munro

In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro talks about story seeds, how from “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens” she began Simon’s Luck. Munro gives this gesture to the hostess of a party that the central character, Rose, attends, where she observes the moment. “‘That’s Tasha,’ the hostess said. ‘We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.'” Rose observes the woman “crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected. The shawl around her shoulders was black, rimmed with jet beads. Some beads were crooked. Some were missing.” Details, when noted by a character, have significance. Rose, we discover eventually, has her own fears of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of giving and receiving love. She is the cat and the kitten.

Yann Martel

In Life of Pi, Yann Martel assembles zoo animals, shipwreck, lifeboat, and—bingo!—a talking tiger! Pi tells a fantastic story, unbelievable but for the details of his survival. “In my case, to protect myself from Richard Parker while I trained him, I made a shield with a turtle shell. I cut a notch on each side of the shell and connected them with a length of rope. The shield was heavier than I would have liked, but do soldiers ever get to choose their ordnance?”

Italo Calvino

When Italo Calvino wrote Baron in the Trees, I wonder if he asked, “What if a disobedient boy named Cosimo, dressed up in his tricorne hat and green tunic, climbs a tree and never comes down?” Or did he just start writing, as if reporting: “It was on  15 June 1767 that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time. And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly. We were in the diningroom of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.” We might doubt the narrator’s memory, except that we get reliable details bit by bit—”a breeze was blowing from the sea” as Cosimo “pushed away his plateful of snails.” 

Lesson for writers

Asking “What if?” can start a story. Asking “What now? What next?” can unleash imagination for vivid writing.

Take your story for a walk 

Let a dog teach you a few tricks. Our beloved black Lab, Sparky, who died last summer, took me on walks for twelve good years. He’d sniff the grass, pee, pull at the leash, stop, sniff, pee, pull. He’d gnaw fallen apples, try to chase cats, yanking me along with him. He’d be excited in the moment, eager for the next. At the dog park, he’d run free, sniffing furry behinds, chasing balls, and eagerly come running when time to leave. He’d pant at the gate—”What now? What next?”

If you feel you’re forcing your idea, just take your story for a walk—literally and metaphorically. Stop and sniff. Look and listen. Touch and taste. What’s there? What might be? Follow the trail. Build detail upon meaningful detail. If you think you know the destination, keep it in mind, but allow for detours and surprises. If you don’t know the destination, look into the distance every now and then. Stop along the way, read a good book. Pay close attention. Accompany the author as he or she asks, “What if? What now? What next.” Learn how his or her story becomes.

In future posts, I’ll discuss techniques for making imaginative leaps. But it always comes back to feet on the ground, step, step, walk the story or let it walk you, detail by detail. And daily, also, let imagination run free.

The Days of Abandonment: First Paragraph

Entering the story of “The Days of Abandonment,” author Elena Ferrante drops us right into the protagonist’s pain, and does so with a detachment that sets up the woman’s emotional state. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.”

Masterful control of narrative

Let’s examine this first sentence from the hand of an author who is in complete control of her narrative and kind to her readers, even though she is about to take us into the depths of the narrator’s despair. With calm clarity, Ferrante places us in time in this domestic drama: “One April afternoon, right after lunch…” Nothing could be more ordinary. The repeated “after” propels us forward. This is a story about what’s coming next. We can’t hold onto the past any more than the narrator can, though she tries in vain to do so. She gives us the reason for what will be the narrator’s unraveling: “my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Already we sense narrator’s out-of-body response to the news: “He did it while we were clearing the table”—as if the crisis were just another dish to wash. We learn later how much she has given up to be wife and mother and how little self-identity she still claimed, even before her husband abandoned her.

Punctuation matters

Punctuation plays a role. The semicolon separates her husband from the children and the dog, just as his leaving splits their family life. The children and dog remain in her care, though the children’s “quarreling” anticipates it won’t be easy to be the single parent and the dog’s “growling” suggests he may play an role other than silent pet, and he does.

Lessons for writers

Point the way in the first sentence

When I read masterful opening sentences such as these, I wonder how they evolved. Did the author write them first? Did she know where she was going and how well they’d lead her there? Did she go back to the beginning with each draft, honing these sentences to direct the final manuscript? In the novels I’ve written, there are many attempts at first paragraphs which set up the same story from radically different entry points. Rewriting the first sentence helps me understand the story—a pointer showing where the story wants to go.

Drop details bit by bit

In Ferrante’s first two sentences, the major characters are introduced, except for the “other woman” and the narrator’s new love interest, both of whom will be mentioned by page five. But this novel is mainly about the dissolution of a family, the abandonment of a marriage covenant. Why does the dog appear here? Because he will play a major role in the narrator’s descent into hell and her redemption. Do we need to know this as readers starting out? No. But novel writing is a bit like Hansel and Gretel’s dropping of bread crumbs to mark the trail. Ferrante’s crumbs keep us turning pages, yes, but also introduce bit by bit the ordinary and terribly extraordinary daily details of abandonment.

Make characters complex: Give flaws to protagonists, redeem antagonists

Read Ferrante’s next two lines: “He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier for the abandoned wife if she could hate her husband with better reason than that he left her? How much simpler it would be if he was cruel to the children or beat her. How more likely we could hate him if he just walked out, didn’t “talk for a long time” and reproached her unfairly. How much easier for us and for the narrator to despise a bully than a coward.

Use vivid detail, vivid metaphor

The first paragraph consists of six sentences. Here are the final two: “He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were uging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

How could we not read on? She’s turned to stone and we don’t even know her name. In fact, she’s so lacking in her own personal sense of identity that we don’t find out her name—Olga—until pages into the story, long after the name of the “other woman” is mentioned. But the “turned to stone” tells us that Olga isn’t taking this calmly in the course of her day, as the narrative tone suggests.

Thread tension: create friction between opposites, against expectations

The tension established between what seems to be and the true depths of emotion keeps tension on the page.  The dropping in, little by little, of information tucked among sensory language—”dog growling, radiator (the heat will be echoed later in Olga’s August entrapment in the apartment), extravagant gesture of his right hand, childish frown, sort of whispering”—keeps us reading. We can see, hear, and feel the scene. The “turned to stone” anticipates how bad it will be for our protagonist, who is left not in a romantic upheaval—on the bed! under the train!—but “beside the sink.” For this women, there are dishes to do, even though her marriage has fallen apart. Ferrante shows us well that when things go wrong it’s harder to bear real life if there is no escaping from it.

In my next post, I’ll examine how Ferrante masterfully brings in the necessary back story—never an easy task, always a pitfall for a writer.