Category Archives: craft

Reasons to Read The Little Friend

I don’t know about you, but nothing inspires me to write more than reading a wonderful novel or story. And after reading Donna Tartt’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about craft.

A good friend, who recommended the book to me, did me the favor of telling me the ending before I ever picked up the book. Her intent wasn’t to “spoil” the book for me, but a warning not to read it like a mystery novel. All of the criticism of the book I’ve read comes from readers who didn’t enter the book with this mindset, so I’ll pass this information on to you: in the end, you won’t know who the murderer was. Yes, the little girl sets out to solve the murder, but what she learns is so much more interesting.

Here would be my top three reasons for reading this book:

1. The language is both precise and gorgeous. The author’s use of modifiers is so perfect, you’ll want to go try on some adverbs when you’re finished, all those writing manuals be damned.

2. If you’ve ever struggled to understand Dramatica concepts, especially the main character’s unique ability, you’ll see a perfect example here. (I don’t know if this was intentional in the author’s part, but when I read it, it was an “ah-ha” moment for me.)

3. She makes the “villain” (one of them, anyway) so human and vulnerable, that the reader wants him to make good choices, understands when he doesn’t, and hopes his punishment isn’t too harsh.

I’m sure you can think of more reasons to read this book. You are welcome to post them!


Understory

Remember Pam Houston’s talk at residency?
Of course you do!

She spoke of understory being the gap in the narrator’s reliability (what the narrator can’t or won’t tell us directly, may not know he’s telling us indirectly) and what we come to understand about the story, and how Pam–the writer–looks for evidence of that gap in her early drafts and develops them.

I’ve thought about that this week while critiquing flash factory stories and have found myself wanting to describe how that “something” under the surface makes a huge difference in a story. Maybe the next step will be to “sneak up on” the understory in my own stories.

Thoughts?

….And there were many thoughts, of course. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

Author: Nancy
Subject: understory

I’m puzzling over understory, especially while critiquing stories this week for FF. Tara L.’s stories are so rich in understory, they’re like an archeological dig.

How do you guys think about it? Was Pam’s way of thinking about it helpful to you?

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Author: Heather
Subject: understory

Pam’s craft talk was tremendously helpful for me. It hit on exactly what I am working on and struggle with in my own work. The same is true for what Mark Spragg said about not allowing his characters to be caricatures, about not letting himself be glib with his character’s actions and in his writing. Loranne can probably attest that John Rember is masterful at modeling how to
discover it on your own, at showing how to filter out the static to see the action or meaning lying beneath. After a week, I FINALLY figured out the understory in my short short “Sweet Caroline,” and geez it was hard. But I feel it’s so much richer now, her motivations so much more real and believable.

What is it you’re puzzling exactly?

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Author: Nancy
Subject: understory

I’m probably making it too hard, or maybe too simple: wanting easy-to-follow rules for recognizing when it’s there. It’s easier to see in other people’s stories.

I think sometimes I don’t know what the understory is, and it ends up feeling muddy or vague: too spread out.

Would you share what Caroline’s understory is? Can you condense it to a statement?

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Author: Heather
Subject: understory

Well, on the surface, Caroline is out for revenge because her sister and former boyfriend are getting married, but she is also trying to let loose, to stop being “sweet,” and to do this in a very public way. To show them all that she’s not nice. That was the story before this week, and I kept feeling like I wasn’t getting what it was trying to show me. Then I realized that the understory lies in Stone’s mother, and Stone recognizing that his mother and he are awful, that it’s not that Caroline’s too nice, it’s that they’re too mean, and he cares for her too much to subject her to that. I added scenes and phrases to highlight Caroline recognizing this as well; I had her recognize the understory with the reader. Then, I let circumstance create a loss of that, but Caroline doesn’t get it. The reader should (I hope), and this adds one more layer of understory as Caroline becomes worse than/conquors them all The new version’s attached. I hope you see it. It’s still a little rough and needs smoothing. It seems simple, but I had smoke coming out my ears trying to figure it out.

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Author: Loranne
Subject: understory

I don’t think there are any easy-to-follow rules for recognizing understory, Nancy, especially in really short pieces. In my experience with short stories, it’s usually been an ah-ha moment after drafts of bumbling around looking for it. I think it’s much easier to know, recognize, and maybe even set up in advance in a novel (although there, too, it may not become evident until p. 300 — then I go back and build it into pages 1-299).

I too don’t want to miss a thing you’re all writing this semester, so just attach when you’re ready for input, tell us your deadline, and if we can’t just then, we’ll let y’all know. (I was speaking for myself so I guess that was a royal “we”.)

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Author: Sue
Subject: understory

I love how we all approach this: Heather and Loranne with clear analysis and understanding, Me (and possibly Nancy) not so much. I’m more of the Huh? It means that? school of understanding just what my understory is, although I always know, for sure, that I have one. And, oddly I always start with an idea or emotion I want under the narrative, but when I’m done, I usually have several, sometimes not the one I started with, and then I can’t pick out exactly what it is. Which is why it feels so “muddy, vague, and spread-out.” I wish I had Heather and Loranne’s clear way of looking at things!

For instance, in that last story, I wanted to write about a suicidal person and how this admission messes with the lives of others. But, I think now, the story is about love, obviously a deeper and much more complicated emotion, especially given the facts of what happens in the story. Or, it may be about anger. Or, maybe, anger and love.

Yes, send all stories you want eyes on, and also, if you want, share edits/reactions from advisors. My packet isn’t due until the 27th, so I have some breathing room, and reading time!

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Author: Nancy
Subject: understory

I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s confused. My mind is spinning with concepts like “aboutness,” “subtext,” “understory,” “theme” or “story argument.” But maybe it is easier with a novel?
For instance, I’ve known for a long time that a recurring theme in my novel is projective identification, and every piece I write, now, that concept seems to magically appear, even if I’m not trying.

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Author: Sue
Subject: Understory

Aren’t all those concept names really, essentially, the same thing? Which would be the meaning of the story, that which is other than the plot.

Also, Nancy, what is “projective Identification?”

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Author: Nancy
Subject: Understory/Projective Identification

Projective identification is when Person A believes X about Person B, or treats person B as if X is true, and Person B begins to act like X.

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Author: Heather
Subject: Understory

I think subtext and theme are separate. That subtext often functions to strengthen or deepen the meaning of theme, even by contradicting itself. Maybe underplot, or undermotivation. But never underpants.

I don’t think we’re so different in how we write our stories. I have an idea on the surface and a sense of tone, and I write to convey that, then step back and see what seems to be speaking or wanting to come out below the surface. That’s the cool discovery part. Where you say, “Now why did I have her do that?” and then I look deeper. I’m reminded, here, of the packets from Bonnie Jo where she writes, “Now I wonder what this means?” or “I wonder why this happens?” I took those to mean she was puzzling/pointing out understory.

Nanc, is this helping at all?

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