Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled, read the original story first. (And subscribe to support the magazine.)
The Love It Bears Fair Maidens
Apex Magazine. December 2016.
Exposition and Pacing
The narrative begins with “Let’s see if we’ve got this right.” It introduces the narrator as its own entity, and invites the reader along in an act of co-creation. The next paragraph follows suit, introducing not a character but a template of a household tale maiden. The reader is given a small suitable range of options for her age: sixteen to no more than a few years past twenty.
As a reader I know I’m not following one specific character, but a stand in for the trope. As the story unwraps the tropes around unicorns and virgins, it encompasses every women’s story around rape.
In practical terms, the narrator breaks up the story right at a tension point and scene breaks away for exposition and commentary. During these moments the narrator addresses the reader directly and refers to themself as a narrator. It is much like William Goldman’s narrator breaking the flow in The Princess Bride to explain Morgenstern’s ramblings or in The Silent Gondoliers the subcultures of early twentieth century Venice. (Or Peter Falk’s Grandpa saying “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”) Douglas Adams also uses this technique in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all the time.
Every writer knows there is a narrative and a backstory. It is common to see this kind of pacing in stories that have multiple POV characters with their own plot lines. Get to one character’s cliffhanger and then swap the narrative. When you only have a single plot line, a single character to follow, there doesn’t appear to be good options for subplots. I struggle with this trying to get my first person narrators through longer pieces. I’ve tried interweaving two mysteries with similar themes, book-ending them, and just leaving them in their own smaller stories hoping to pull one of Chandler’s cannibalism tricks.
This technique allows the exposition and world building to work together. One of my frustrations with writing is trying to sneak in the backstory and world-building. It’s like I don’t give myself permission to just tell the reader something germane to the story. Telling works in fiction when it is used like an accent spice in a meal, and in this case: Intermissions.
Exercise: Pause for a Brief Opinion
Take one of your stories that isn’t clicking yet. Find the pieces of backstory and exposition in each section and move them to their own section, right behind some point of tension in the story. Let some other narrator take over for a bit, and backfill the stuff the reader needs to know. Let this narrator have its own voice and attitude.
“Theme” is a popular topic at writing convention panels. I tend to think of theme as a philosophical argument, and the characters can all have their own takes on that argument. The different responses to the question give rise to the conflicts in the story.
Here the story’s theme is found in the prologue:
The hunt begins as it always does: with quarry, bait, and hunter.
This implies three separate entities in a relationship, right? The Hunter uses Bait to catch the Quarry. That’s “normal”. This story (if you didn’t take the spoiler warning seriously, you’re gonna be upset) combines those three elements into a single person: The Maiden.
The progression of the story is the blending of these three elements, The Maiden recognizing she is all three at once. It is her awakening, and that is the Story.
Along the way, the narrative gets to highlight the absolute bullshit in our current society about rape culture without naming it.
Exercise: Focus on the Theme
Take another story, one that maybe meanders or your first readers have complained is hard to follow, has random scenes or character actions, or doesn’t leave them with an understanding of anything. Find the thematic sentence of the story. Then brainstorm a bit around that theme: What’s the negation of the theme? What’s a consequence of the theme? What does this theme look like in action? How does our current society work with the theme?
Once you have those ideas mapped out in loose relationships go through the manuscript scene by scene and map the scene to something from your brainstorming session. If you can’t find the parallel, maybe the scene needs to be cut, or focused into the theme.
This world is still a generic fantasy world, which is perfectly fine. This isn’t one woman’s dealing with life’s shit here. The familiar world of Grimm’s Household Tales is sufficient to tell every woman’s story of dealing with life’s shit.