October 19


Follow up to The Rihanna Method

Hi everyone,

Thank you to everyone who emailed me a response to example one of The Rihanna Method. That was fun!

The story from which that model or structure was taken was “The Magic Barrel,” by Bernard Malamud. Here’s the structure again:

When the story begins, the protagonist has spent the last few years of her life seeking the professional goal _____ (a). Because (a) has eluded her for so long, in order to finally get (a), she decides to achieve personal goal _______ (b), thinking that (b) will be a useful or necessary step to get (a). 

In the stressful process of seeking (b), however, the character realises that something is missing inside her — something is wrong with who she is. Now aware of this problem, she feels a great need to improve herself, overcome her limitation or failure. In order to do that, she frantically chooses a dubious or scandalous or peculiar version of (b) that she believes will enable her to overcome her self-limitation, improve herself once and for all, but which the reader understands, as the story comes to an end, will also make the future achievement of (a) more or less impossible — at the very least, it will transform everything the character has spent all those years pursuing.

Here’s the first paragraph of Malamud’s story:

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.

You can find copies of the story online, but as I can’t vouch for their accuracy, and found typos in one of them, I won’t link to them here. Google will bring you one for sure, and the story is found in Malamud’s Collected Stories, which is a wonderful book.

Thank you, too, to everyone on Reddit who discussed the post.

I noticed that a lot of the commenters on the Reddit page connected the idea of a formula or a structure with genre fiction: romance, Stephen King, Twilight and so on. The argument a few people made was — this is great if you want to write popular fiction, but serious writing is more free form.

I understand this impulse. We feel like there is something “base” about seeing serious fiction in terms of a model. And I wouldn’t argue that “The Magic Barrel” is a great story simply because it has a nicely laid out plot structure. Rather, I think it’s likely that any story, whether literary or otherwise, which has a great plot, can, if studied, produce a structure or model to be imitated, just like “The Magic Barrel,” above.

If you get to a story’s final sentence and think, “Wow, that was a great story!” then it’s likely the short story or novel has a structure clear enough that you can write it down and study. It was that structure, that system of meaning and surprise, which was giving you the “Wow!” feeling.

More storytelling techniques to come this week.





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