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.


Tinkering with Time

Are you confused about writer’s “rules”? As soon as you glean a new rule from a book on writing craft or hear it from a teacher, you find an exception in a novel you’re enjoying?

We’ve all heard the admonition: “Keep flashbacks to a minimum.” Yet, time and again, I find books replete with them. Hmmm. To flashback or not to flashback? What’s a writer to do? I’m no longer confused about that “rule.” It is intended to make writing more manageable and, as with other rules, it was made to be broken.

Case in point: Paul Harding’s Tinkers. It’s mostly a flashback within the consciousness of George, a dying man, and dips even further back to George’s father’s life. The novel won the 2010 Pulitzer not because it follows the “rule,” but because it so imaginatively breaks it.

Lesson: Keep time for the reader

When I first read Tinkers, I was disoriented before I finished page three. George is dying. His house is collapsing around him, plaster falling on his head. Women are in the kitchen, men in the yard, but no one comes to George’s rescue. It made no sense. I began again with page one and realized that the author couldn’t have been more clear. The first sentence reads: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” (That’s a helpful gatekeeper. See the Gatekeepers & Story Seeds category in this blog for others.)

Somehow I’d missed “hallucinate” on the first read, or missed understanding its implications. I’d been in a hurry. I slowed my pace and read the opening again. Hmmm. George is going to die in eight days. He’s in a hospital bed in his own living room. No cliffhangers here. He’s ill and is going to die at home. I like character-driven fiction and don’t need complicated plots, so I kept reading, carried forward by the percussive prose detailing George’s hallucinations. (Harding used to be a drummer in a rock band. He says he writes by ear, by rhythm, and it shows.)

Tinkers is a meditation on life, love, and family. A rich vein of controlled emotion—love and loss—connects the stories of son and father. George’s imagination buries him in wreckage—ceiling, plumbing, old coats from the attic—and his dying days blur his present and past life with that of his father, Howard, an epileptic who abandoned his family when George was a boy. With all the hallucinations and dream-like states of consciousness, the double story line could become a blur, but Harding points the way. Throughout the book, he orients us with clear prose: “Noon found him momentarily alone…” “Nearly seventy years before George died, his father, Howard Aaron Crosby drove a wagon…” “One hundred and sixty-eight hours before he died, he snaked into the basement window…” “One afternoon, in the spring before his death, George…” “George was dehydrated ninety-six hours before he died…” “Eight-four hours before he died…” “George woke for the last time forty-eight hours before he died…

Lesson: Play with time & consciousness

Harding’s time-keeping device ticks down the days, hours, and minutes of George’s life and propels the story forward. The narrative moves easily between George’s hallucinations and his father’s non-linear mind. These opening sentences of three successive paragraphs demonstrate how we’re carried into George’s consciousness, to Howard’s, and back to George’s with direct transitions: “George could dig and pour the concrete basement …” “The stubbornness of some of the country women with whom Howard came into contact…” “George bought a broken clock…”

If the story was more linear and the consciousness of the two men less dreamy and other-worldly, these transitions would feel too structured and obvious. It is by contrast that they work so well to establish the book’s rhythm, the zig-zagging between the men’s lives. As the novel progresses, the identifiers are less specific, yet they are particular to remembered time and place. The story lines weave in and out from page 11 until 66, then Howard’s story takes over. George appears as a boy in Howard’s section. On page 157, adult George comes back in, and his last days are interwoven with Howard’s history until the book’s end. “The last thing George Washington Crosby remembered as he died was Christmas dinner, 1953…” By this time George had the family who will figure in his dying days—the wife and children who at book’s beginning gathered around to care for him. The remembered Christmas was the last time George saw Howard, who made an unexpected visit, kept the car running outside, and didn’t stay for dinner. George’s memory of Howard’s departure merges with his final thought. Their parting, past and present, collides in one word: “Goodbye.”

Lesson: Make all elements serve the story

George repairs clocks, and clocks appear throughout as the days wind down. Howard was a tinker—a seller and repairer of things. His wagon of household and miscellaneous items juxtaposes with the stuff of George’s attic—life’s detritus falling upon him. A clock repair manual and astronomy, man-made (houses, clocks) and natural worlds (woods, weather) characterize the son and father. Because George grew up with an unpredictable father, he sought predictability as an adult. What can be counted on more than a clock, especially if one knows how to keep it ticking?

Thought that he was a clock was like a clock was like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits. But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me. But to himself? Who knows? And so it is not he who was like a clock but me.

Tinkers is held together by a sense of chaos and repair, things falling apart and being mended: clocks, pots, and emotions. It is a hymn to the firmament of life and death, the unfathomable dimensions of the heart and the real, intricate workings of daily life. Tick tock.

Where does the singing go?

The title of Lorrie Moore’s poignant, funny, short (148 pages), brilliant novel asks the question: Who will run the frog hospital?  The black and white frontispiece “illustration” by Nancy Mladenoff features two frogs sitting on a rock in the foreground, one with a splinted front leg, the other with a bandaged head. In the background, two preteen girls dressed in pants and shirts stand among trees whispering.

I like Mladenoff’s artwork, and when I first saw the frontispiece I wondered if she created it for the book or if Moore was inspired by an existing Mladenoff piece. According to a New York Times article, Lorrie Moore saw the painting in an exhibit, bought it, and incorporated it into her novel — title and all. 

In the book, the teenage character Sils, best friend of first-person narrator Berie Carr, paints a picture similar to Mladenoff’s, but in Sils’ version the whispering girls are dressed up as Cinderellas. According to Berie, the frogs looked like frogs who’d been kissed and kissed roughly, yet stayed frogs. What young American girl growing up in the 1950s and 60s (pre-MTV) didn’t want to be Cinderella, or be the Princess who turned the frog into a Prince with only a kiss? But this is real life, not a fairy tale.

The narrative travels back and forth between present day Paris circa early 1990s (the book was published in 1994), where 35ish Berie is with her husband, Daniel, and Berie’s girlhood in Horsehearts, New York, the summer of 1972 when she was 15 and worked with Sils at Storyland. In the summer story, Berie steals money to pay for an abortion for Sils, whom she idolizes; in the Paris story, Berie questions what is missing from her marriage. 

Lesson: Layer time like a club sandwich, then let the reader take a bite

Writers of memoir and narrative nonfiction, as well as novelists, can learn from Moore’s skillful handling of fictional time travel. Her opening lines—In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them—establish place and context for the present. The first paragraph’s last line—Me, I’m eating for a flashback—foreshadows the dip into the past that occurs on the third page. Moore handles present time in present tense, flashbacks in past tense. At times the prose roams with Berie’s musings—a woman at early middle age examining her life; at times it functions to orient us to time, place, and event.  

In the first six pages, Moore has Berie make several time shifts in the narrative:

From present: In Paris, we eat brains every night.

Back to childhood: When I was a child, I tried hard to split my voice.

Forward to the summer she was 15: Although no voice was ever plain in our house—not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that.

Back to more childhood: Everything in our house when I was young felt cloaked with foreignness, code, mood.

Forward to adulthood at a time previous to Paris: Later, when I was an adult, someone at a dinner party played me a recording of Asian monks who could indeed split their voices, create a shattered, choral sound that was like being oneself but also so many others.

Further forward to the present: Certainly “safe” is what I am now—or am supposed to be.

And back to the summer: The summer I was fifteen I worked at a place called storyland with my friend Silsby Chaussee, who all this is really about.

Chomp! By now, we’re eager to bite into the story, and we savor this tidbit of information. We hang in there with Berie as she concocts her layered childhood tale, because we assume that she will make sense out of these memories, and that they will have a bearing on the other story—the one in Paris with her husband.  

Lesson: Set a place from which readers can travel through time and to which they can return

Moore now keeps Berie focused on the summer of 1972 story for 41 pages, with several darts forward and backward.

A quick reference forward to another of Berie’s teenage friends: Ten years later Randi would have a nervous breakdown selling Mary kay Cosmetics…

A long view back, a reminder that the narrator is speaking from the present time: I was invaded by Sils, who lives now in my vanished girlhood, a place to return to at night, in a fat sleep, during which she is there, standing long-armed and balanced on stones in the swamp stream, stone in the cemetery, stones in the gravelly road out back.

A short jump forward from 1972: Once, when I was nineteen, I gave my father a Father’s Day card meant for uncles and neighbors.

A bigger jump forward, referring to her father: Years later, however, I grew angry; taking inventory of all he’d said and done, I came to think of him, bitterly, as a kind of Nazi.

Back to 1972: Sils was not really in love with her boyfriend, Mike, I was sure of it.

A long jump forward: Later, as an adult, when I was wonderfully used to long, important conversations in restaurants or bars—books, love, politics, science—talk that licked about like a flame…

Back to 1972 and Sils: Almost sixteen, she was the sort of fifteen-year-old who looked twenty.

Further back: Years before, when we were eleven, we’d already begun our myriad personal rituals of assertion and disguise.

A leap forward: Decades later, in my one lone year of Housewife’s Bathrobe Disease, my husband at work but not me…

Back to 1972: I knew that morning, my mother dropping me off in front of Storyland, and me glimpsing Sils arriving at the same time with Mike…

A shift to present, where Berie stays for two pages: Sometimes with Daniel I argue about the sixties.

A jump back to 1972 for 21 pages: It was on a Tuesday, my day off, that I planned to show Sils the money.

A chapter break to the present: There is a joke about a middle-aged woman who happens upon a frog in the woods.

Lesson: When readers have devoured half the main narrative, dish out the other story line.

Moore’s book is not formula fiction of any kind that I know of, yet it is a perfectly balanced story. Just as we’re getting nervous that Berie’s theft will be discovered, Moore clears away Horsehearts ’72 and serves a big helping of Berie in Paris.
It’s the halfway point in the novel—from page 69 to 85. Berie is paired with Daniel, and with her friend Marguerite, a half-American, half-French painter. Berie has a crush on Marguerite, who reminds her of what perhaps Sils would be, could have been.

Within this section, Berie bridges the two places in her mind: From Horsehearts to Paris, I think, staring at the ceiling. Has anyone even put those two places in the same thought before? She has, of course. She’s the same person who’s experienced both places, but she feels the disconnect between the child Berie and the adult, and that’s also what this story is really all about.

Lesson: Finish the first story and bring the past up to present

In the next 57 pages, Berie returns in her memory to the summer story and recounts getting busted at Storyland, being shipped off to camp and boarding school, and losing contact with Sils. Ten years after graduating from college, she attends a class reunion in Horsehearts and sees Sils, but chemistry they had, the closeness, the magic of their girlhood has disappeared.

In the last chapter, Berie is in Paris with Daniel, who is wrestling with his heart. He’s asked for her patience. She tells herself: I will wait until I just can’t wait anymore.

Lesson: Capture a moment in time that readers can take with them in their own hearts far beyond the story

Long ago Berie and Sils had tweezed BBs out of frogs that the neighborhood boys shot in the swamps of Horsehearts, nursing and bandaging them, but rescuing few. When they became teenagers and turned their attention the boys, the girls stopped trying to save the frogs. 

Long ago, Berie had tried to split her voice. She and Sils loved to sing, wherever and whenever. At story’s end, Berie relives a moment during an April afternoon in the 10th grade, rehearsing with the Girls’ Choir and Sils in the gymnasium. It is one of the most beautiful paragraphs that I’ve ever read, and one that exemplifies why we read fiction and memoir—for the writer’s ability to capture in words something as grand as life’s meaning in all its glory, love, and loss. Good writing holds in time moments that speak universally to the human spirit and would otherwise escape us. I won’t quote the long paragraph here; you can read the book (I hope you do!). Here is the last sentence: Though sometimes in my brain I go back to that afternoon, to relive it, sail up there again toward the acoustic panels, the basketball hoops, and the old oak clock, the careful harmonies set loose from our voices so pure and exact and light we wondered later, packing up to leave, how high and fast and far they had gone.

The question of who will run the frog hospital remains unanswered.

Traveling through Time & Minds

William Styron’s novel Lie Down in Darkness begins and ends the day of a funeral. Between those pages, readers travel back and forth in time, in and out of the consciousness of many characters. All this shifting is done with few chapter breaks: only seven divide the book. Styron handles time and consciousness masterfully. His techniques compress flashbacks from many years into a day’s time frame and expand his characters’ emotional investigations during this one day to 382 pages. 

Lesson: Compress and expand time by giving readers time “touchpoints” 

The narrative begins in the morning through a second-person point-of-view which pulls readers intimately into the journey on a southbound train destined for Port Warwick, Virginia. Then you settle back in your set, your face feeling unwashed and swollen from the intermittent sleep you got sitting up the night before and your gums sore from too many cigarettes…

A train heading north (perhaps the same one returning?) carries the reader away that night at the end of the book.

The book’s sixth paragraph gives the first time touchpoint — At precisely eleven o’clock on a weekday morning in August of 1945″—to establish the time frame for the day. This and only a few other dates mentioned throughout serve as references for the constant shifting, which takes readers again and again into the past and returns them again and again to the present moment — the impending funeral and the coming together of the characters and their fate.

Lesson: Give present time constancy through one character

On the third page of text, right before that first time touchpoint is given, the reader is deposited at the station platform …you climb off the train onto the station dock to a welcoming “Oh, there he is!”, but neither that greeter, nor you the passenger, plays a role in this story. Immediately, the point-of-view shifts to omniscient — we see Milton Loftis arrive with Dolly Bonner and a Negro named Ella Swan.

Ella turns out to be the one character most in charge of herself: she knows how to find happiness through her faith. She is caretaker of the Loftis family and a witness to their demise. Styron uses her to good effect at the end, delivering the reader from the tragic story to her perceived hopefulness. Her rapture may be due to the theatrics of a baptizing evangelist, but at least she’s able to keep from drowning in the sorrows around her. Other characters — Milton, his daughters Peyton and the disabled Maudie (both dead in the present day, though we meet them in flashbacks), his wife Helen, his long-time mistress Dolly, and Peyton’s husband, Harry — don’t fare so well.

Ella’s presence bookends the novel — she’s at the platform when the train arrives carrying Peyton’s coffin, and we find ourselves in her consciousness at the end of the day, when she attends a baptism given by Daddy Faith. Her need for redemption is great and, as opposed to her employers, her acceptance of a power greater than herself readily given.

Lesson: Use a sensory reference to weave past & present 

The train whistling through this Southern town provides another reference point. You hear a whistle while you’re on the train: …you look out once more at the late summer landscape and the low, sorrowful beauty of tideland streams winding through marshes full of small, darting, frightened noises and glistening and dead silent at noon, except for a whistle, far off, and a distant rumble on the rails.

We hear a shipyard whistle through Helen’s consciousness: Now, gently drowsing, she remembers the whistle blowing. It surrounds space, time, sleepy summer evenings many years ago: a remote sad wail involving sleep and memory and somehow love. They’d fight on summer nights because it was hot and Maudie cried and the ice-box made a dripping noise, and because the whistle blew. But they loved each other, and the whistle—now it’s a part of sleep and darkness, things that happened long ago: a wild, lost wail, like the voice of love, passing through the darkened room and softly wailing, passing out of the sphere of sound itself and hearing.

We hear a whistle at the baptism, when the train roar intrudes into Ella’s consciousness and passes into omniscience: Another blast from the whistle, a roar, a gigantic sound; and it seemed to soar into the dusk beyond and above them forever, with a noise, perhaps, like the clatter of the opening of everlasting gates and doors — passed swiftly on — toward Richmond, the North, the oncoming night.

Lesson: Choose a reference that serves the story thematically

When the train rumbles into view, it could be a sign of Jesus himself, proving the unrelenting forward motion of time, leaving in its clatter and roar memories of lives wasted. La Ruth, Ella’s unsophisticated, unschooled daughter sums it up: “I don’t know, comin’ around to think’ about all dat time an’ ev’ything, po’ Peyton, po’ little Peyton. Gone! Gone!” When readers exit with the train going north into “the oncoming night,” it’s implied, at some moment in life’s journey, that we too will lie down in darkness.

Lesson: Use sensory information to spark or bridge consciousness

As implied by the title, this is not a light-hearted novel. The first dark recess entered is within Milton. From the bustling platform and its surroundings, the reader is drawn into a conversation between Milton, Ella, and Dolly, where we learn that Helen has not come with  him today although he’s begged her saying: “It’s our daughter, our daughter, not just mine. How can you expect me to endure…” The self-serving Dolly entreats him to provide reassurance of her role in the drama, but he hadn’t heard her and, furthermore, his mind was too occupied with his own bewildering sorrow.

We’re brought slowly out of Milton’s innermost thoughts through a description of his face —become slack with grief —to a flourish of gray in his hair and the fact that he had rarely worn a hat.

When we surface, Ella is waiting on the platform with a hint of information–Peyton’s on the train—and though we don’t know yet that the train carries her coffin, from the weeping we know it doesn’t bode well for Peyton. Dolly tries to silence Ella and, during that silence as Milton watches two redcaps hauling, we’re taken again into Milton’s agony — because he loved his daughter more than anything — and the thought which suddenly struck him—that of meeting her this morning, silent, invisible within a coffin — filled him with  horror. (So now we know.)

Lesson: Trigger flashbacks through thought trains that link to present events

We see the train approaching through Milton’s consciousness—he’s imagining the train is on the outskirts of the town passing the Negro shacks—and his plaintive “Ah, my God” is answered by Ella, still weeping and asking for Jesus’ blessing. Milton turns away and we tunnel into another deep place within him, a memory of a conversation with his father thirty years previous. We glimpse Milton’s bleek childhood — his ghost of  a mother and a father who told him: “Your first duty remember, son, is always to yourself.” (Poor man. Milton seems doomed to self-indulgence from the start.)

Lesson: Introduce one character through another’s consciousness

By the middle of page fifteen we have learned of Milton’s marriage to Helen (even that joyous occasion was stained by news of his childhood friend’s death) and we’ve heard the ominous sound of his bride Helen’s laughter shattering the air like falling glass.

That introduction to Helen is through Milton’s consciousness via flashback, but our first journey into her consciousness begins with the funeral director’s visit to her home. Mr. Casper overhears the conversation between Milton and Helen, the one we’ve already been partially appraised of — Helen refusing to go to the station. Milton and Helen’s exchange ends in argument and a closed door. Casper remains downstairs waiting as we go with Helen behind the door to her room. The house is an important element to her character and within the marriage conflict.

Lesson: Create an environment full of memory triggers to develop and connect characters

Helen’s room is a sensory-rich world of sun, soft breeze, and holly leaves rustling, but suddenly the house is filled with wicked heat, like that which escapes from an oven door. A screen door slams, the hearse pullls away. Noises and the noise of silence menace her; the unmade bed betrays her sense of propriety (Ella has fallen short on the job today). In Helen’s muddled mind, we jump from her realization — I was a mother for twentythree years. This is the first day that I have awakened knowing that I am a mother no longer— to newspaper events (the bombing of Japan) to her mirror image to memories of Milton telling her of Peyton’s death to his grieving to Helen’s awareness of her own sickness to a memory of Peyton as a child — the happy life, a hundred years ago.

Within that remembered scene—with the shipyard whistle, mentioned above—Helen remembers attending to her disabled daughter, Maudie, and the whistle’s lost wail, like the voice of love brings her consciousness back to the recent scene of Milton’s sorrow and his drunken request the previous evening to stay the night even if it’s your [Helen’s] house. We’ve learned a lot about Helen, her abilities as a mother, her marriage to Milton, and his financial dependence on her, all in flashback.

Helen is fragile, despairing, almost ephemeral, yet two mentions of Ella serve to ground Helen’s unstable world in the time and space of domestic reality: the bed escaped Ella’s notice, but the previous evening after being told of Peyton’s death, Ella finds time amid lamentations and wails to gather up the kitchen debris and take the garbage for her pigs. This woman, as opposed to Helen, does not have the luxury of spending too much time wallowing in grief.

Lesson: Know when enough is enough: offer relief, a time out, a way out

Other characters are dipped into: the do-good minister, the conniving Dolly, Peyton’s suffering husband. They each provide other glimpses of the main trio of Milton, Helen, and Peyton and offer segues into and out of them. Beautiful Peyton’s dark recesses, perhaps the blackest of them all, are not revealed until near book’s end when we travel with her into memories of her courtships, marriage, and infidelities and join her on her suicidal day.

Styron’s beautiful, intricate prose keeps us engaged even as the main characters repel one another. The minor characters do offer a bit of relief in this dark tale, however the Loftis’ self-indulgence and self-destruction is relentless.

After the funeral where Milton has tried to strangle Helen, seeming to obliterate (do you think?) any slight hope there might have been that the couple could reunite through mutual grief, we drop into Ella’s consciousness at the baptism and hear the train whistling north. By now, this reader was ready to hop it and leave the Loftis family behind.

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.

The Days of Abandonment: Back Story in Bed

Pain on page one

In Ferrante’s second paragraph, she puts our protagonist in bed—a double bed—desolate. Most craft books warn beginning writers: don’t start your story with a character in bed. However, so much has happened to this poor woman by the book’s seventh sentence that she deserves a rest. She can’t sleep, but only obsesses about her husband. She can’t figure out why he’s left. “I knew him well, I was aware the he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him.We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.” She’s baffled: “It seemed to me impossible that he should truly want to leave.” She’s sympathetic: “When I recalled that he hadn’t taken any of the things that were important to him, and had even neglected to say goodbye to the children, I felt certain it wasn’t serious. He was going through one of those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living.” Hmm. Does she really know him as well as she thinks she does? She sees him as a character, just as we do. She’s a character too, after all, but by naming him as such, she (the protagonist guided by Ferrante) adds another layer of detachment to her crisis and moves closer to the reader. We feel her physically.

Transition to back story

Then in paragraph three, she confides: “After all, it had  happened before: the time and the details came to mind as I tossed and turned in the bed.” This is a masterful transition to back story for many reasons. Ferrante moves from the present to the past keeping the woman in place—in bed— for four pages. During this time the protagonist remembers what happened that other time her husband left, then muses over their relationship with a realtor, Gina, that they’d engaged to buy their house and her teenage daughter, Carla. With the back story, the protagonist can leave the bed in her mind and take us with her: she gives us a taste of Turin, the city to which they’d moved five years ago—metallic, green, yellow, red, leaves, stripped by the wind, foggy air, fresh sparkling breeze. She paints a picture of Mario (her husband is named on page three) with Carla, realizing “it wasn’t the mother I had to worry about but the daughter.” The girl has a “swaying body, restless eyes.” Though this is still back story, it’s sensuous, fully fleshed in our protagonist’s mind as if in the present. We’re told that the marital crisis of the past was resolved and that her husband “returned to being the man he had always been.” By now we’re not sure that is such a good recommendation, if, in fact, he was a man who, as she’s revealed, broke off relations with her for no apparent reason only six months after they had been together, because “there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense,” and then used that same excuse when he became infatuated with the the realtor and her daughter.

Transition to present story

The protagonist breaks her reverie, gets out of bed for a cup of chamomile tea. From her window, she sees the musician Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, “coming up the path,his head bowed, carrying over his shoulders the giant case…” He “disappeared beneath the trees in the little square.” She goes back to bed, believing everything will return to normal. We’re at the end of page six, all the major characters have been introduced, we have a sense of place and time, sensuous detail we can touch, taste, and see, full-bodied characters, an informative and vivid back story—just enough. We’d like to get in bed, too, and believe in normal, but we know that can’t be—or why would this story exist? The tension is palpable. We’re not sleeping tonight. We have to turn the page.

Lesson for writers

Create a “vivid, continuous dream”

Use sensory language to create scenes in the present, past and future. Bring your reader into the character’s consciousness and create the vivid, continuous dream that John Gardner talks about in his artful book The Art of Fiction. He’s not referring to a dream in the character’s mind, though the character may be dreaming. He says that “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”  The pull of place—in the above example the bed, a comfortable setting we all know and understand—and sensory language—casts a spell. Olga’s husband’s sudden “absence of sense” is replaced in our minds and its opposite heightened by familiar and vivid sensations. Even when she breaks her reverie, Olga’s desire for camomile tea steeps the transition from back story to present story in sensory detail.