handful of bright images of the natural and human-built worlds. The description of a field where a man lies dead, shot in the back. A shameless love addict’s description of four different men she’s in love with. A numbered list of questions about the sale of a painting. Could these be stories? As described, most of them sound more like parts of stories.
Some writers will assert confidently that a story requires narrative: the unfolding of an action in time. Others will argue vehemently that a story is anything accepted as one—and might cite any of the pieces above: all have been published and widely admired as stories. All of them are short-shorts; none of them rely on narrative. My position in this argument—typically of me—is in the middle: you can make short-shorts without narrative, but the longer the story the more likely that you need narrative to provide that necessary feeling of getting somewhere.
But arguments about how to define genres are mainly just useful for talking about them. For me as a writer and a sometime teacher of fiction writing, what matters is learning to recognize the makings of a story when we discover or generate them.
The non-narrative stories I’m calling “stories-that-don't-look-like-stories” provide an opportunity to do this, by seeing the minimum they can be composed of and how that can make a story. (Maybe I should confess that I’ve learned most of what I know about writing fiction from reading fiction and re-reading it closely.) This up-close look also suggests an exercise below in planning a story that may not look like a story.
The Lyric Framework
“Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings,” Virginia Woolf begins “Monday or Tuesday” (A Haunted House and Other Short Stories):
. . . knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky. White and distant, absorbed in itself, endlessly the sky covers and uncovers, moves and remains. A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect—the sun gold on its slopes. Down that falls. Ferns then, or white feathers, for ever and ever—
Readers of poetry will recognize that this six-paragraph story is built like a lyric poem. When I get to the end of it and try to see what holds it together, I can group its images into the two categories of the natural and the human-built. (I can imagine other groupings, but these work well enough.) To the natural world belong the story’s images of heron and sky, also—still from Woolf's first paragraph—lake, mountain, falls and ferns.
To the human-built world belong images in paragraphs 2-4, beginning with a mysterious construction some of us learned to call a dangling modifier:
Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring—(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring.
Who is desiring? We seem to be interrupted before we find out, but the stage is set for a human character. Big Ben strikes. The city is London between two World Wars. There is work, commerce, discussion, urban noise, implied class and economic difference: “Miss Thingummy drinks tea at her desk, and plate-glass preserves fur coats—”
But even here the natural world, fleeting and persistent, is reasserted, in light that “sheds gold scales” and in leaves that hang on the trees like coins.
Flaunted, leaf-light, drifting at corners, blown across the wheels, silver-splashed, home or not home, gathered, scattered, squandered in separate scales, swept up, down, torn, sunk, assembled—and truth?
All of which is to say that what has carried “Monday or Tuesday” about three-quarters of the way through its length—and ultimately will make it stick together—is a pattern of images. The story has created a kind of low-key dialogue between two categories of image: oblivious nature and desirous humanity. This is a reductive way to talk about a piece of writing, but it leads me to notice that, to end satisfyingly, the piece needs a more direct engagement between those ideas and a resolution somehow involving them.
On the way to providing that, the fifth paragraph gives us a human character, sitting “by the fireside on the white square of marble,” recollecting the search for truth, maybe led to do so by something she’s just read from the book she now lets fall. As John Gardner in The Art of Fiction says about lyric structure, it “lends itself to psychological narrative, imitating the play of the wandering or dreaming” or traumatized mind.
Free-associating from her own marble hearth, Woolf’s character imagines a distant scene of “marble square” and “minarets,” and “the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint”—a set of images combining the human-built and the natural—and she wonders again about truth. But she seems content with her act of imagination, as if—maybe by bringing those images together? —it gets close to truth or to something about it.
For an ending, the story comes almost full circle. “Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.” Repetition, with that addition of stars, isn’t just repetition. As Gardner also says:
What carries the reader forward is not plot . . . but some form of rhythmic repetition: a key image or cluster of images . . . a key event or group of events, to which the writer returns repeatedly, then leaves for material that increasingly deepens and redefines the meaning of the event or events; or some central idea or cluster of ideas.
This seems to me exactly what has happened by the end of Virginia Woolf’s story. The heron-and-sky image gets augmented at the end with those stars, which are sometimes concealed, sometimes revealed, as if the natural world does occasionally, accidentally, give us a glimmer of something true, if we can only recognize it.
What Lyric Structure Might Be Good For
Would you ever—if you’re strictly a prose writer like me—write a story that had so little narrative in it? A number of writers have done so.
The other three stories I mentioned at the beginning are “Murder, Mystery,” by Bruce Holland Rogers; “Symphony,” by Pam Houston; and “A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon,” by Jack Matthews. In each, of them, a lyrical pattern makes, or helps to make, a bit of mostly non-narrative writing into a story. All three have been anthologized, the first two in Sudden Fiction (Continued), and the third in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories.
Much more often, lyrical patterns are combined with narrative(s), though not necessarily the kind of overall narrative that we immediately recognize as a story. The special power of lyric is to express emotion. Nietzsche thought the essence of lyric was the cry of a single voice, but I wouldn't want to exclude the cry of a group.
In Grace Paley’s “Mother” (also anthologized in SFA,), a lyric structure of repeated images binds together several separate anecdotes.
In Denis Hirson’s “Arrest Me” (from Sudden Fiction International) a lyric structures implies the narrator-character's motivations.
In Monifa A. Love’s one-paragraph story, “Mount Olive” (from Microfiction, ed. Jerome Stern), lyric structure allows the reader to participate emotionally in a Sunday service at an African-American country church. This story also creates other structures: the narrative one of an event in time and a dramatic one of rising intensity that peaks when “Mercy rains down. Our tongues capture the tonic and we are saved. ” But, throughout, a lyrical structure of rising and falling (“a calla lily growing, ” “the jade shower of the skylight,” voices like “thickly woven ropes, making ladders“) gives the language loft and releases it from the purely earth-bound. Lyric description creates for readers an experience of elevation (“cross our hearts and touch the sky”), an echo of the characters’ imagined experience.
“The special power of lyric is to express emotion. Nietzsche thought the essence of lyric was the cry of a single voice, but I wouldn't want to exclude the cry of a group.”
If you’re onboard for an experiment with lyric form in short fiction, read on. The idea for this exercise is buried in a much longer one proposed by John Gardner, from which I carve out the following to expand on. “Plot . . . a short-short story [with a] . . . lyrical structure.” What would it even mean to “plot” a story like that?
Since the main structure in it may be lyrical, start by choosing a fairly simple image or type of image that intrigues or has some other emotional energy for you. Maybe best if you don’t know exactly what that is. You will be repeating and varying, maybe augmenting this image or type of image.
For example, Grace Paley’s story “Mother” creates a pattern from images of the narrator’s deceased mother, remembered as she stood in doorways.
But realism isn’t necessary in choosing your image or type of image. Denis Hirson’s “Arrest Me” creates images of pervasive violence and paranoia, which are metaphoric and slightly surreal: “the newspaper lands on the lawn covered in blood. I unfold it and out fall foaming dog-bites and well-sharpened bicycle spokes, hose-taps fixed from gas-taps to lovers’ mouths, black widow spiders, boxing gloves and bars of soap.”
Next, imagine a character in a situation who could be remembering, imagining, or experiencing the images you’ve chosen. The character needn’t be at all elaborated at this point; the situation should probably be emotional or potentially emotional—although the situation of Virginia Woolf’s character is not so much emotional as dreamy or reflective.
For example, Grace Paley’s character is a first-person, probably middle-aged female narrator, who hears and is struck by a song on the radio, “Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.”
Denis Hirson’s character is an apparently white, middle-class, South African adolescent whose father has been arrested during a period of political struggle for a people “staking out a birthright which is not mine.” (Denis Hirson’s father, a physicist, spent nine years in prison for political activity.) The narrator-character wants to be arrested too, so he can read the Bible.
Finally, imagine where your character’s repeatedly remembering, imagining, or seeing the image or type of image you’ve chosen could lead her or him. Use her/his departures from it to bring in material that deepens and refines its meaning for her/him/us as readers. Where will this lead your character apropos the meanings of the images?
Grace Paley’s narrator, after creating a warmly loving impression of her mother’s life, with its satisfactions and limitations, ends by repeating a line from earlier in the story, “Then she died.”
Denis Hirson’s narrator imagines reading the Bible in prison, setting out “across its fine-beaten burning words,” following, “Facet by facet . . . the contours of their questioning. ” At the end, he imagines watching darkness cover the words on the page, “claiming their white territory, “ imagines himself “waiting for daylight to deliver the next sentence.”
Where will your narrator end up? You may have to write the story to discover. Do so, if you like your plot well enough, letting it change as it needs to as you work.
Winner of the 2014 Gival Press Fiction Award for the short novel Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, Elizabeth Harris is a native Texan who grew up in Ft. Worth and in Pittsburgh, PA. She won the John Simmons Prize, awarded by University of Iowa Press, for her first book, The Ant Generator, a collection of stories praised for their “sense of wonder and comedy” and “acid-etched existentialism.” Those and uncollected stories appeared in Antioch Review, Epoch, Chicago Review, North American Review, Shenandoah, and other magazines, and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of Wind, The Iowa Award, and Literary Austin. Mayhem released October 5, 2015, a debut novel. Harris was a runner up in a previous Gival Press contest with “The Look Thief,” a novel still in manuscript; and in a Faulkner Pirate’s Alley competition for an earlier novel. As yet untitled, her current project is also a contemporary novel with a historical setting.
Harris taught fiction writing and modern literature for a number of years at the University of Texas in Austin. She and her husband now divide their time between Austin and the Gulf Coast.
Visit Elizabeth Harris at www.elizabethharriswriter.com/