May 20


Seven days to get writing again: day seven

The introduction to this series is here. But the idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for seven days. Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at my name at gmail).

Day seven. Thank you to everyone who has tried these exercises. It’s been a lot of fun for me, both to write these posts and see the writing people have created.

As today is the final day of the series, I will try to go out a high note. Today, I would like to show you one way to write the part of a story that comes just after the beginning. The first scene or first plot turning point.

I wanted to end with this exercise because I think that while writing prompts are great for getting you scribbling, they generally aren’t so good at telling you how to actually finish a story. Often, even a whole book of prompts simply gives you one scenario after another (“A woman on a dying space station must seek the help of a hostile computer”), without giving any advice how to write more than the first page or so of the tale. Once you’ve described the woman, and the space station, and the computer, what do you do then?

Here’s one suggestion.

On day two, we used the first paragraph of Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” as a model short story opening. Every reader can see that the paragraph delivers a lot of information quickly. It gets the story started fast.

But if we look at it again, we realise that it’s even more amazing than we first thought. The first scene is already built into the story’s first paragraph: in fact, all the story’s scenes have their roots in that first paragraph.

In other words, the conflict that animates the tale is already present in those first three sentences. Wow.

Here’s the passage again, with two important parts of it coloured in.

Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University. Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.

The first sentence is pure background information. It tells us the journalistic details of the case.

The words I have coloured red describe Finkle’s goal: he needs to get married. Without that goal, there’s no pressing need for action. The blue words, however, are perhaps even more important. They hint that there is something about this goal that Finkle doesn’t like.

The story, at this early stage, is pretty vague about what’s bothering Finkle. We only know that calling on a marriage broker leaves him “tormented.” This is, on the face of it, a little weird, because according to the red sentence, Finkle’s problem is simple: he needs to get married for his career. But the blue words show us that the situation is actually more complex. And Malamud will reveal to us, as the story proceeds, what Finkle’s problem really is.

It’s possible to design a story in terms of alternating sections of red and blue. As Finkle attempts to achieve his goal, his reservations and doubts become clearer and clearer both to himself and the reader. But as his doubts rise to the surface, he doesn’t give up the plan to get married: in fact, he becomes more and more desperate to achieve it. But by the end of the story, his imagined marriage is completely different to the one he started with.

Here’s part of the first scene of the story. Salzman arrives and starts describing a few of his clients to Finkle.

Salzman adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles, gently cleared his throat and read in an eager voice the contents of the top card:

“Sophie P. Twenty-four years. Widow one year. No children. Educated high school and two years college. Father promises eight thousand dollars. Has wonderful wholesale business. Also real estate. On the mother’s side comes teachers, also one actor. Well known on Second Avenue.”

Leo gazed up in surprise. “Did you say a widow?”

“A widow don’t mean spoiled, rabbi. She lived with her husband maybe four months. He was a sick boy, she made a mistake to marry him.”

“Marrying a widow has never entered my mind.”

“This is because you have no experience. A widow, especially if she is young and healthy like this girl, is a wonderful person to marry. She will be thankful to you the rest of her life. Believe me, if I was looking now for a bride, I would marry a widow.”

Leo reflected, then shook his head.

Salzman hunched his shoulders in an almost imperceptible gesture of disappointment. He placed the card down on the wooden table and began to read another:

Finkle ends up rejecting the other two offered women for semi-spurious reasons. But, we discover, the encounter with Salzman has unnerved him. Malamud tells us:

Though he had felt only relief at the marriage broker’s departure, Leo was in low spirits the next day. He explained it as rising from Salzman’s failure to produce a suitable bride for him. He did not care for his type of clientele. But when Leo found himself hesitating whether to seek out another matchmaker, one more polished than Pinye, he wondered if it could be–protestations to the contrary, and although he honored his father and mother–that he did not, in essence, care for the matchmaking institution? This thought he quickly put out of mind yet found himself still upset. All day he ran around the woods–missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry, walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand…

We could see the whole of the passage above as an expansion of that single word in the story’s first paragraph: “tormented.” My belief is that these “blue” sections are crucial for delivering the story’s meaning, and yet they are very hard, for us aspiring writers, to get right.

A lot of workshop-level fiction gives the reader perfectly good “red” scenes. It’s clear that stuff is happening to the protagonist. But the “blue” sections often seem to be left out, or merely hinted at, and so the reader is often left bewildered as the tale progresses, and unmoved by its end. I can see that something is happening to the dude, but why is that important, and why should I care? A sequence of “blue” reflective sections guides the reader through the story and makes clear the rising stakes for the protagonist.

(If you’d like to see another example of this, take a look at the first major scene of Joyce’s “The Dead.” Although Joyce doesn’t use a compressed opening the way Malamud does, the conversation between Lily and Gabriel, and Gabriel’s troubled reaction, serves the same purpose as the Malamud passages quoted above.)

Okay! Now for the actual exercise: write a “blue” section of your story. You can either use the scene of dialogue you wrote on day six, or re-write Malamud’s passage–give your own version of Leo Finkle’s stresses and despairs.

Here’s an example. I’ve been telling the story of Eric Loft. We saw on day two the opening of his story, and on day six we saw him meet a girl who told him something very troubling. Here’s that passage of dialogue again, and the “blue” bit that follows, and then the opening of the next scene after that.

Eric came into the darkened kitchen where the young woman was sewing.

Without looking up, she said, “You’re Fredrick’s son. It’s all over your face.”

“Did you know him? Was he popular?”

“He stole our lands. Took everything from us. Have you come to steal the rest?”

Her words hit Eric like a slap. He wanted to deny them, to say how much he hated his father, how he was glad the old man was dead.

Instead, his voice cracking and infirm, he said, uselessly, “We’re having a small party tonight, in the farmhouse–I’ve ordered in some Thai food–would you, um, like to come?”

The girl did not reply. She did not return to her sewing, but it was as though Eric was no longer standing in the room. She had withdrawn from him, or dismissed him from her mind.

All at once Eric understood the stupidity of coming here. He did not belong among these people. Worse, he had lived his entire adult life trying to get away from his father, and now people were treating him like he and the old man were the same person. These people didn’t understand him, didn’t want to understand him, and he didn’t know how to talk to them. Was something wrong with this girl–was she not fully well? Why wouldn’t she even look him in the face?

Eric retreated, mumbling a goodbye, his stumbling feet carrying him back through the kitchen door.

Later that evening, as his aunt and her gigantic husband were pouring wine for the guests, and the caterers were laying down trays of Thai noodles and curry, Eric watched the door to the kitchen open. The young woman came in. She was wearing a white dress and her dark hair was brushed out. She kept her eyes lowered, and so he couldn’t tell if she saw him. But he was very pleased she had come. Now he could talk to her. Show her he wasn’t like his dad.

His aunt came close, and hissed, “Who invited that little tramp?”

The story can now continue…

Give the “blue” a try!

This has been a wonderful week. Thank you for the comments, emails, and tweets.

Best wishes with your writing.


Bernard Malamud, story structure, writing exercise

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