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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

August 2008

Momentum, Disruption, and Proof of Deflection: A Story in Three Steps

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

This column is the third in a series by Bruce Holland Rogers. You may also be interested in the previous or first column.

Part of the appeal of short-short fiction is that it conveys a story with a minimal number of words. We enjoy brief stories in part because they are efficient, like those Zen paintings that use a few strokes of the brush to portray a convincing cat, bird in flight, or pine tree. Less is more.

But what is the minimum needed for telling a story? Often, the answer turns out to be three. Three incidents, scenes, or actions, each one doing its job to set up and deliver the sense of movement and change that constitutes the story. One place where you can see this principle of three steps is in jokes. Here’s an example:

The pilot informed the four passengers — an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Texan, and a Mexican — that the plane would crash in the mountains unless they managed to lighten the load. He figured that if three of the four jumped out, the fourth passenger and the pilot could reach safety.

The Englishman was the first to sacrifice himself. He cried, “God save the Queen!” and jumped out of the plane to his certain death.

The Frenchman, not to be outdone, cried, “Vive la France!” and jumped out of the plane.

Then the Texan threw the Mexican out of the plane as he shouted, “Remember the Alamo!”*

* Alternatively, the Mexican throws the Texan out of the plane with a cry of “Yankee go home!”

No doubt you can think of other jokes that use this same basic strategy. The core event of the joke happens three times. The first two occurrences establish a pattern, setting up the expectation that the same thing will happen the third time. The third instance, however, breaks or subverts or alters the pattern in a way that is supposed to surprise us and make us laugh.

What I have just described is the abstract narrative structure of this kind of joke: set up and establish an action, repeat the action, then repeat the action a third time with a twist. Whoever thought up the airplane joke might have done so after noticing that there are two different kinds of nationalistic rallying cries: the kind that appeal to love of your homeland, and the kind that direct aggression at someone else. But the observation isn’t a joke. The three-part structure provides a strategy for turning the raw observation into a set-up and punchline.

Once you start looking for stories that are told in three steps, you are likely to see a lot of them, even where the storyteller wasn’t conscious of using three steps. One of my best-known stories, “The Dead Boy at Your Window,” is written as a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The dead boy doesn’t belong in the world of the living; he is also out of place in the land of the dead; he finally finds that his true calling is to travel back and forth between the two. I say that the story is written as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but I wasn’t aware of this while I was writing. A reader pointed the pattern out to me after the story was published.

Telling stories in three steps is so familiar that stories often just unfold that way without the author ever thinking, “Okay, that’s part one. Now on to part two of three.” For most writers, most of the time, abstract narrative structures are something that can be observed in the finished work, but aren’t the basic building block they started with.

However, it is certainly possible to work from the abstraction up. The writer can first select a three-part structure and then go looking for suitable actions to suit the structure. In case this backwards-sounding approach appeals to you, here is one of my favorite three-part structures for short fiction. I learned this structure from Ben Nyberg’s book, One Great Way to Write Short Stories.

In Nyberg’s formulation of this structure, a story is told in three scenes. The job of the first scene is to establish who the character is and what his general direction in life seems to be. We tend to think of characters as living and behaving consistently, once we know who they are, so if the first scene does its job well, we can imagine the character continuing to live pretty much the same life into the indefinite future.

In the second scene, something happens that could shake the character up. The job of this scene is to portray a potentially life-changing event. Readers of this scene don’t know if the character is going to change as a result of the scene or not. Rather, they need to be convinced that this is the sort of event that could change the character.

The third scene reveals that the character has, indeed, been knocked onto a different path. What the character says and does in the final scene is not what we would have expected from him given what we saw in scene one. The concluding scene proves that the character was changed by scene two.

Step one: establish momentum. Step two: show a possible disruption. Step three: demonstrate that the character has indeed been deflected onto a new path. Momentum, disruption, proof of deflection.

Nyberg envisions these steps as three roughly equal scenes, but for me the essence of this structure is its logic, not its symmetry. It may take more than one scene to demonstrate the character’s momentum or to fully set up the story situation. If there’s a routine that is part of the momentum, the reader at least needs to see the routine first as a scene and then again as a summary in order to establish that, yes, the routine is something that happens again and again. The middle action of disruption needs to be fully realized enough to convince the reader of its possible impact — a sentence or two certainly won’t do. But the third scene can be greatly abbreviated. All it needs to do is show the character doing something that is clearly different from what we were led to expect in scene one, and it doesn’t take much to prove a shift in attitude or behavior.

Nyberg suggests that one good way to get a story out of this structure is to start by writing the middle scene. Think of some event in your own life that could have changed you. Were you present at an armed robbery? Did a sudden loss change your perspective on life? Did a “sure thing” that you were counting on fail to materialize? Were you betrayed? Whatever the event, Nyberg’s suggestion is that you invent a fictional character who is different from you: opposite sex, of a different age from your age when the event took place, and perhaps different in other ways that you think of. Now write the event as it would have happened not to you, but to this invented character.

Once you have written this middle scene, your job is to think about who this character was before the event and how the event changed him or her. Now you write the first and last scenes, and you’ve got a story that conveys the essential ingredient of satisfying narrative: the character changes.

I haven’t actually written stories that use this structure with a scene from my own life as the middle scene. Instead, I have used this structure as a starting point, as with the story “Daddy.” The Nyberg structure is great for showing a change in a character. When I was trying to come up with ideas for stories about pregnancy (for a series of stories that I wrote in collaboration with Ray Vukcevich and Holly Arrow), I brainstormed by combining the different kinds of stories I might tell (different structures) with anything I could think of related to pregnancy. Change plus pregnancy made me think of how some men change when their wives become pregnant, when they feel the reality of becoming fathers. Momentum/Disruption/Deflection was a perfect structure for showing such a change.

Daddy” also shows how far down the Nyberg structure can be scaled. This story unfolds in the space of an hour or so. The incidents are small and ordinary. The momentum that is deflected in the story is really just the character’s mood, even though mood stands for much more in this case. And the entire story is told in just 238 words.

For many writers, starting with an abstract narrative structure and finding a story to tell that way seems exactly backwards. Whether or not this works for you as an invention technique, it is still helpful to understand this and other narrative structures for those times when you have written a story that seems shapeless and disorganized. You can use your knowledge of structure to revise the raw material and bring order to a story that needs it.

For those writers who are intrigued by the idea of starting with structure first, you will find that this three-part structure will support as many different stories as the action-action-punchline structure can be found in hundreds of different jokes. And with that, I can’t resist offering one more:

Three men — a doctor, a lawyer, and a writer — are talking about relationships. “What a man wants is a wife,” says the doctor. “Stability, reliability... that’s what makes me happy.”

“No,” says the lawyer, “the ideal relationship is with a mistress. You have sex or companionship when you want it, and the rest of the time she isn’t in your hair.”

“You’re both wrong,” says the writer. “Happiness lies in having both a wife and a mistress.”

The doctor and the lawyer both stare at the writer. They didn’t think he had it in him!

“You see,” said the writer, “the wife always thinks you’re with your mistress, the mistress always thinks you’re with your wife, and you can go to the library and get a lot of work done.”

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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