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How the Handmaid’s Threads Are Braided

Techniques tracked:
-braided plot threads
-using objects in world-building
-using flashbacks in world-building

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic of dystopian fiction in the vein of and very much inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. The novel is told in fifteen parts, seven of which are called “Night” and are comprised of a single chapter. (It is also being adapted into a 10-episode series for Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss, that will be out next year.) 

We begin with a group of women living in a gymnasium, monitored by other women referred to as “Aunts” who are armed with cattle prods. Next thing we know, the narrator is dressing in her Handmaid’s garb (a red habit with white wings around the head obscuring the face) in the Commander’s house, where she’s been, in her third posting, for five weeks. The Commander’s Wife, formerly a television personality known as Serena Joy, seems threatened by her (“I am a reproach to her; and a necessity”). The household has a staff comprised of Guardians, Angels, and Marthas, in addition to the narrator, the Handmaid. The narrator wonders about Nick, the Commander’s driver, whom she suspects of being an Eye due to a lack of servility. As she walks into the city for groceries with her Handmaid shopping partner Ofglen, we learn that they live in what is now known as the republic of Gilead, and that the narrator used to walk there with her husband Luke before the regime change. They run into a pregnant and glowing Handmaid who makes them jealous; it turns out to be someone the narrator knew from the Red Centre, Janine (now known as Ofwarren). Then they are accosted by some Japanese tourists who ask if they are happy; the narrator, feeling she can say nothing else, replies in the affirmative. They also walk by the church to affirm their belief in it, and by the Wall, from which casually hang a few corpses, likely former doctors who performed abortions.

That night, the narrator’s memories range from her old friend Moira, to a book-burning of pornographic materials her mother took her to when she was a child, to a vague period she “lost time” and during which it seems her daughter was taken from her.

On their next walk, Ofglen comments that “It’s a beautiful May day,” causing the narrator to remember when Luke taught her about the term “mayday.” Later, she sees the Commander loitering outside her bedroom, where he’s not supposed to be. We learn that the narrator began her relationship with Luke when he was still married to someone else, and that they would rendezvous in hotels, which she compares with her current room at the Commander’s. She’s discovered writing on the baseboard in the latter that says: “Nolite te bastardes carborun-dorum”; when she tries to find out more about the woman who preceded her in her post, the cook, Rita, won’t tell. She goes to the doctor, who offers to “help her” get pregnant as he’s helped others; though his offer is tempting (the narrator’s life will be in danger if she’s unable to conceive a child), the narrator concludes it’s too dangerous. She is given her routine bath by Cora, which induces memories of bathing her daughter, who would be eight now. The narrator remembers when her old friend Moira appeared at the Red Centre; after a while they were able to communicate covertly in the washroom. The narrator then dreams of running for her life with her daughter, hearing gunshots behind them.

Everyone in the household is convened in the sitting room, but the Commander is late, so they get to watch some of the news, of vague “wars,” and only “victories.” There’s also a tidbit that the Eyes have busted a ring responsible for smuggling many “national resources” (code for Handmaids) over the border into Canada. She remembers driving in the car trying to escape the country, having lied to their daughter so she wouldn’t give them away. The Commander reads to them from the Bible, and the narrator remembers when Moira tried to fake illness to escape from the Centre and they injured her feet as punishment.

The narrator endures the Ceremony: the Commander has sex with her while Serena Joy sits at her head. Feeling the need for self-affirmation afterward, she sneaks out to steal something from the house and runs into Nick, who tells her the Commander wants to see her the next day. That night, the narrator thinks about her need to believe Luke is alive somewhere and that he’ll come for her.

The next day, a Birthmobile comes for the Handmaids to join in Ofwarren’s labor. The narrator considers the one in four chance the baby will be born a “shredder”–deformed, and therefore unfit to live, due to fallout from accidents at nuclear plants. She thinks of all the bad videos about the past they had to watch at the Centre to convince them the current way is better (she saw her mother in one of these as a demonstrator for abortion rights). The Handmaids perform their trained chant during Janine’s labor, and the baby appears to be healthy.

The narrator remembers when Moira escaped from the Centre, a tale she heard secondhand from Janine, who heard it from Aunt Lydia: Moira made the toilet overflow then threatened Aunt Elizabeth with a pointed lever from inside the toilet, chaining her behind a furnace and trading clothes with her, then walking out the front door as an Aunt. 

After dinner that night, the narrator goes to the Commander’s room at his illicit summons, where she’s more than amused that he wants to play a contraband game of Scrabble. Then he wants her to kiss him, “As if you meant it.” They start an arrangement where she visits him to play a couple of nights a week, signalled through Nick, and he gives her small gifts like contraband magazines from his collection. During the next Ceremony, the narrator finds her emotions complicated.

On one of their shopping walks, Ofglen and the narrator pass by a Soul Scrolls franchise, with machines that print out prayers people can order to look good politically. Ofglen asks the narrator if she thinks God listens to the machines, a heretical question, and the narrator admits she doesn’t, a heretical response.

The narrator considers how Moira would likely disapprove of her arrangement with the Commander, since she’d disapproved of her affair with Luke, and recalls their debates over gender roles (Moira is gay). She remembers the job at a library she had while waiting for Luke to extricate himself from his marriage. She thinks about how the abolition of paper money paved the way for the government takeover, and the slow transition that followed it:

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.     

The Constitution is suspended, and following a period of “suspended animation,” the library employees are let go and a law is passed that all women’s property is to be passed over to their husband or male next-of-kin. The narrator wonders how Luke really felt about this policy, since they never actually discussed it–thanks to her new forced dependency, she couldn’t risk alienating him.

Trying to leverage whatever power their arrangement has afforded her, the narrator asks the Commander what the Latin phrase she found written on her baseboard means. He says it’s a schoolboy’s joke (“don’t let the bastards grind you down”), and shows her that it’s doodled in the margins of his old textbook. The narrator infers that the previous Handmaid must have had a similar arrangement with the Commander, who tells her the former Handmaid hanged herself.

The narrator recalls how Luke had to kill their cat before they tried to flee; noting how Luke referred to the cat as “it” before he did so gives her some insight into the regime now. Ofglen tells her the password for the secret network of them is “Mayday,” though it’s not good for them to know about too many of the others. Serena Joy offers to set her up with another man to get pregnant and the narrator agrees, knowing she has no better options. The Commander, whom Ofglen has told her is up at the very top of the regime, has started trying to justify some of the rationale behind the regime’s policies to her.

At the Prayvaganza, Ofglen tells the narrator Janine’s baby turned out to be a shredder after all. The narrator remembers a time at the Centre when Janine seemed to think she was still working as a waitress and Moira forced her out of it.

The narrator remembers when they tried to cross a checkpoint with fake passports and Luke fled when a guard seemed to be phoning them in. She considers the nature of love. The Commander surprises her by taking her “out”; Nick drives them to a hotel where she used to rendezvous with Luke, where all manner people are congregating, and the narrator sees Moira amid the women dressed in scrounged sexy clothing that’s since been banned. She meets her in the washroom and gets her story: after leaving the Centre, she made contact with the underground and was transported several legs until she was picked up by authorities right before crossing the border. After some implied torture, they gave her the choice of going to the Colonies to shovel toxic waste, or to essentially become a prostitute. The narrator never sees her again. Back at the house later that night, Serena Joy sends for her to rendezvous with Nick.

The narrator begins an affair with Nick and gets reckless. Ofglen stops pressuring her to try to find stuff out about the Commander. They go to a Salvaging, where a Wife and two Handmaids are to be hanged for unnamed transgressions (naming the crimes has caused too many copycat crimes). Then, for the Particicution, a Guardian is dragged out and accused of rape and the Handmaids set on him, Ofglen first, to the narrator’s horror until Ofglen explains the man is not really a rapist, but a “political”–part of their network who’d been caught and whom she was sparing further pain. The next time Ofglen approaches for their shopping trip, it’s a different woman; when the narrator can’t resist testing the “May Day” password, the woman gives her an implied warning and tells her Ofglen hanged herself when “[s]he saw the van coming for her.” Serena Joy confronts the narrator with the cloak the Commander gave her to wear during their night out.

The narrator is waiting in her room, considering her limited options, when a van pulls up. Nick comes in ahead of the Eyes and tells her to go with them, that they’re Mayday. The narrator isn’t sure she can trust him, but chooses to, and gets in the van with them.

Then we get “Historical Notes,” a guy at a conference about the Gileadean period giving a talk about validating the authenticity of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” found on some cassette tapes discovered in a foot locker. He provides some historical context on who the “Fred” that “Offred” the narrator must have been a Handmaid for could have been; there are two possibilities, both men responsible for the regime’s major Handmaid-related policies. The narrator was unable to be traced and her fate is unknown–she could have been smuggled over the border, or she could have been recaptured. THE END.

The structure Atwood is working with here resembles a French braid, in which two smaller threads are interwoven around one main thread. The main thread here being the acute tension of what’s going on in the present at the Commander’s house, while the smaller threads are 1) her past before the Gilead regime, which largely revolves around Luke (and to a lesser extent her daughter) and 2) her past at the Red Centre, training to be a Handmaid after the regime started; this thread largely revolves around Moira, though Moira also appears in her pre-Gilead thread. The main acute thread is told chronologically, but the other two are told piecemeal, out of order, via snippets of memories triggered by stimuli in the acute thread.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way it conveys the sweeping changes brought in by a new regime through the narrow focus of one of the subjects of that regime. No bird’s-eye-view explanations as to how we got here; we are instead, simply, here. It’s also impressive how understated our tale is–our narrator is not a hero of the resistance. She’s a reasonably intelligent individual who can process the horror of the regime without being gifted enough to resist it. Also no sappy reunions with her old family. All the references to Luke and her hope that he’s alive might seem like it’s setting up something of direct plot relevance, but Luke’s influence is ultimately indirect, his real plot relevance stemming from the psychological vulnerability recollections of him induce.

The clock on the present timeline is the narrator’s stint as Handmaid at the Commander’s house, but interestingly, this isn’t where Atwood chooses to start. She doesn’t begin with the acute thread, but with something from the middle-distant Red Centre past, starting the novel thus with a point in limbo between the narrator’s past and present. The Red Centre is a figurative and literal holding cell. The limbo state turns out to be a fairly ideal starting point to convey the particularities of this strange new world through a compare-and-contrast strategy, as a setting for which the Red Centre gymnasium works well. A gymnasium will be instantly familiar to most readers, and we know something is off when we read in the first line that it’s not a gymnasium anymore, and then further that the nets on the basketball hoops are gone. The opening establishes a yearning for the way things used to be, while at the same time teasing us with the question of what exactly is going on now, as well as what happened to get us wherever we are now. The oddness of the world is further underscored, and our curiosity further piqued, when we go to the Commander’s house in the next chapter and encounter Guardians and Eyes. (Capitalization is an important tool in world-building.) Still, we don’t know the official nature of the narrator’s role in the household. It’s when she flashes back to her encounter with the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, upon first coming to the house that a more clear (although still somewhat fuzzy) picture of what she’s doing there starts to emerge. The narrator seems to have little official power, and yet Serena Joy seems highly threatened by her. Immediately following the recounting of that exchange, we get this passage:

I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips.

This description, drawing several likenesses between the physical environment and a living human body–first the ground is given hair, then, the soil is fertile, a common adjective applied to soil but that in the context of the comparisons before and after it (worms as lips) becomes more human. The comparison provides the reader with further subtle evidence as to the nature of the Handmaid’s official duty, and how related to the human body and fertility it is.

The only exposition that we will get about the state of this world or how it came to be has to come from concrete triggers encountered in scene. Atwood is a master of alternating between action and information, baiting us with just enough information to both start to satisfy our curiosity while also teasing it further. For instance, when Offred and Ofglen go on their first shopping trip that we see:

There’s a line, and we wait our turn, two by two. I see they have oranges today. Ever since Central America was lost to the Libertheos, oranges have been hard to get: sometimes they are there, sometimes not. The war interferes with the oranges from California, and even Florida isn’t dependable, when there are roadblocks or when the train tracks have been blown up. I look at the oranges, longing for one. But I haven’t brought any tokens for oranges. I’ll go back and tell Rita about them, I think. She’ll be pleased. It will be something, a small achievement, to have made oranges happen.

Objects convey much, and are also a critical touchstone to start to familiarize this unfamiliar world to the reader. Instead of introducing all-new unfamiliar objects to go with the all-new unfamiliar world, familiar objects are either used in unfamiliar capacities, or characters’ unfamiliar reactions to them, as in the above case of oranges now being such a big deal, further enlighten us as to what life in this world is like, and more importantly, feels like. The Handmaids’ red dress with white wings comes to symbolize the oppressive nature of the regime, as does the shift in attitude towards clothing and what’s acceptable to show or not. The way the little things we take for granted come to carry such weight conveys the extremity of the regime’s oppression: when Offred compares the game of Scrabble the Commander offers her to drugs, or saves pats of butter to use as hand lotion.

If the exposition about the larger world can only come through concrete in-scene triggers, the same goes for the transitions into the other two sub-threads, the past and the more distant past. A common and clever tactic Atwood uses to transition into the Red Centre past is for the narrator to think about what Aunt Lydia would say about whatever the narrator is doing or encountering in the present; this also works especially seamlessly because the Aunt Lydia commentary can but does not always segue into a more involved memory from the Centre. (Boldface mine.)

Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.

Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from their point of view, she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile. It isn’t easy for them.

They also serve who only stand and wait, said Aunt Lydia. She made us memorize it. She also said, Not all of you will make it through. Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted. She had a mole on her chin that went up and down while she talked. She said, Think of yourselves as seeds, and right then her voice was wheedling, conspiratorial, like the voices of those women who used to teach ballet classes to children, and who would say, Arms up in the air now; let’s pretend we’re trees.

The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.

Some day, when times improve, says Aunt Lydia, no one will have to be an Econowife.

It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives.

It’s a risk you’re taking, said Aunt Lydia, but you are the shock troops, you will march out in advance, into dangerous territory.

Aunt Lydia becomes the voice of the regime itself.

It’s on the shopping trip with Ofglen when the pregnant Handmaid Janine comes in, eliciting a jealous reaction from the other Handmaids, that we really start to understand what’s going on fully.

The narrator’s distant past is important both for compare-contrast purposes, but also so we can see why the narrator has landed where she has in this new social order: according to the new regime, her marriage wasn’t valid, because it wasn’t Luke’s first marriage. Which is why she has to be an adulteress, which leads to the nice use of that hotel in the then and now for further compare/contrast purposes. The narrator’s going with the Commander to that same hotel she used to with Luke is the novel’s pre-climax, if when the Eyes come for her in the house is the official climax.

It’s interesting to compare the world Atwood has created here to the one she creates later in Oryx and Crake–in the latter she actually creates two worlds. In Handmaid, the world that existed before the new strange world is intimated to have been our regular world, except for a few accelerants that are logical extensions of what could happen in our world, particularly the one major element that enabled the new world to come into being:

You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards. Not for the groceries though, that came later. It seems so primitive, totemistic even, like cowrie shells. I must have used that kind of money myself, a little, before everything went on the Compubank.

I guess that’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.

(The one thing that’s off in the pre-new-world world is something that could conceivably very easily come to pass in our world, though over twenty years later we’ve still managed to resist full conversion…hopefully we will continue to heed the Handmaid’s warning.)

In Oryx and Crake, the pre-new-world world is a lot more different from the world we know. In both books, Atwood establishes the nature of that pre-new-world world with an interestingly similar device: a bonfire scene. Early in both books we get a flashback to a childhood memory of a bonfire.

Handmaid:

There were some men, too, among the women, and the books were magazines. They must have poured gasoline, because the flames shot high, and then they began dumping the magazines, from boxes, not too many at a time. Some of them were chanting; onlookers gathered.

Their faces were happy, ecstatic almost. Fire can do that. Even my mother’s face, usually pale, thinnish, looked ruddy and cheerful, like a Christmas card; and there was another woman, large, with a soot smear down her cheek and an orange knitted cap, I remember her.

You want to throw one on, honey? she said. How old was I?

Good riddance to bad rubbish, she said, chuckling. It okay? she said to my mother.

If she wants to, my mother said; she had a way of talking about me to others as if I couldn’t hear.

The woman handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn’t frighten me. I thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine, on the TV.

Don’t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in, quick.

I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.

The world as presented in this scene resembles history as we’re familiar with, a feminist book-burning of pornographic materials in the seventies. This foreshadows the mass burnings of reading materials that the new regime will execute once in power, as well as the symbolic burning of women’s bodies under the oppression of that new regime. These foreshadowings are byproducts of this passage, whose predominant purpose seems to be establishing that the world that led to the new world strongly resembles our own.

Compare that to the implications about that immediate pre-new-world world in the bonfire flashback in Oryx and Crake:

Jimmy’s earliest complete memory was of a huge bonfire. He must have been five, maybe six. He was wearing red rubber boots with a smiling duck’s face on each toe; he remembers that, because after seeing the bonfire he had to walk through a pan of disinfectant in those boots. They’d said the disinfectant was poisonous and he shouldn’t splash, and then he was worried that the poison would get into the eyes of the ducks and hurt them. He’d been told the ducks were only like pictures, they weren’t real and had no feelings, but he didn’t quite believe it.

So let’s say five and a half, thinks Snowman. That’s about right.

The month could have been October, or else November; the leaves still turned colour then, and they were orange and red. It was muddy underfoot – he must have been standing in a field – and it was drizzling. The bonfire was an enormous pile of cows and sheep and pigs. Their legs stuck out stiff and straight; gasoline had been poured onto them; the flames shot up and out, yellow and white and red and orange, and a smell of charred flesh filled the air. It was like the barbecue in the backyard when his father cooked things but a lot stronger, and mixed in with it was a gas-station smell, and the odour of burning hair.

 

“This is where it ends up,” said Jimmy’s father, not to Jimmy but to a man standing with them. “Once things get going.” Jimmy’s father sounded angry; so did the man when he answered.

“They say it was brought in on purpose.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Jimmy’s father.

“Can I have one of the cow horns?” said Jimmy. He didn’t see why they should be wasted. He wanted to ask for two but that might be pushing it.

“No,” said his father. “Not this time, old buddy.” He patted Jimmy’s leg.

“Drive up the prices,” said the man. “Make a killing on their own stuff, that way.”

“It’s a killing all right,” said Jimmy’s father in a disgusted tone. “But it could’ve been just a nutbar. Some cult thing, you never know.”

“Why not?” said Jimmy. Nobody else wanted the horns. But this time his father ignored him.

“The question is, how did they do it?” he said. “I thought our people had us sealed up tight as a drum.”

“I thought they did too. We fork out enough. What were the guys doing? They’re not paid to sleep.”

“It could’ve been bribery,” said Jimmy’s father. “They’ll check out the bank transfers, though you’d have to be pretty dumb to stick that kind of money into a bank. Anyway, heads will roll.”

“Fine-tooth comb, and I wouldn’t want to be them,” said the man. “Who comes in from outside?”

“Guys who repair things. Delivery vans.”

“They should bring all that in-house.”

“I hear that’s the plan,” said his father. “This bug is something new though. We’ve got the bioprint.”

“Two can play at that game,” said the man.

“Any number can play,” said Jimmy’s father.

This passage is our immediate introduction to the pre-new-world world, and we can see several differences from the one we’re familiar with: the “bringing everything in-house” and “comes in from outside” remarks let us know that the residential structures in this world are different. The biological vandalism that has necessitated this fire itself seems a response to something questionable going on in the community. In Handmaid we aren’t in Kansas anymore; in Oryx and Crake we were never in Kansas at all.

(It’s also interesting to note that in Oryx and Crake Atwood doesn’t shy away from including detailed dialog exchanges in what are ostensibly supposed to be memory flashbacks.)

When Atwood makes the conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale academic commentary from the distant future on the period during which the novel takes place, she is directly stealing from Orwell’s 1984 (as did Justin Cronin with his academic-conference conclusion to The Passage trilogy at the end of The City of Mirrors). Atwood notes in her SF and the Human Imagination that many people read 1984 as overly bleak, but that the academic commentary at the end proves that the oppressive regime was eventually toppled, thus offering us a version of a happy ending, for society at least, if not for the characters we’ve come to care about. What’s interesting is that Atwood’s conference speaker character surmises that the narrator told her tale retroactively, perhaps when she was in hiding somewhere after her escape, as she wouldn’t have had access to tapes under the regime, and not pen or paper either (the time the Commander lets her write something down noted for the novelty of her getting to hold a pen). And yet there are many lines in the text that seem to indicate the Handmaid is narrating the events not from a point after everything recounted in the book has already happened, but rather as she is experiencing it:

This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here –

Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever.

It seems like the version that discovered on the tapes can’t really be verbatim what was recounted in the text we read in the book itself…

-SCR

Because You Missed Reading Old Dead White Men: An Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” by Melissa Alter

So, what is “The Nightingale and the Rose” even about?

(Note: if your answer is “It’s about a nightingale and a rose”, congratulations! You successfully managed to read all five words of the title. Now go back and read the rest of the story, because spoilers are ahead.)

“The Nightingale and the Rose” tells the story of a boy in love with the daughter of the Professor. He desires a red rose to present to his love, hoping that it will make her want to dance with him; however, his garden is freshly out of stock in red roses. Miserable, the boy laments this tragedy and starts weeping.

However, unbeknownst to him, a nightingale is listening to his tale of woe and takes it upon herself to get him the red rose, believing that love is the ultimate source of meaning, more important than even life. Determined to find the red rose even at the cost of her own life, the nightingale discovers a tree that will produce red roses but requires her heart-blood in return.

The nightingale returns to her own garden for a final time, conveying her desire for the boy to be a true lover, for she believes that love is the wisest and most powerful thing in the world. She sings her Oak Tree a farewell song; the boy, listening in, admits that she has a nice voice but ultimately determines that art is useless and not as practical as math or science.

That night, the nightingale goes back to the rose tree and, pressing her chest against a thorn, starts singing. The Tree constantly reminds her to press harder against the thorn, as the song must be completed before daybreak. Finally, the thorn pierces her heart, and the red rose is crafted at the cost of the nightingale’s life.

Come morning, the boy discovers the red rose. He brings it to his lover’s house, only for her to reject him in favor of the Chamberlain’s nephew, who gave her jewels. Disgusted, the boy throws the rose onto the street, where it is run over by a cart. Deciding on the inherent uselessness of love, the boy decides to go back to his studies, focusing on science instead of love.

Wait, why am I so emotionally invested in these characters? And how can I play with other people’s emotions like this?

Option 1: Become Oscar Wilde.

Option 2: Use elements of his craft in your own work. For example, look at Wilde’s use of dramatic irony. The nightingale initially says that love is more important than life! (Foreshadowing: to warn or indicate a particular event.) After the nightingale’s sacrifice, the red rose the boy’s been longing for just so happens to pop up outside his window? Yeah, real coincidence right there! And then you just throw the rose under the wheel of a cart? I’m sorry, did the nightingale’s sacrifice mean nothing to you?

Um, are you okay?

No, I most certainly am not! Oh, and another reason we’re emotionally invested: Wilde brings up modern-day issues and debates: is love more important than life? What are you willing to die for? Which is more important — science or love?

Alright, alright, moving on: When I Google “symbolism of a nightingale”, the first result that pops up says that “the nightingale sings of love, but it is also a symbol of the connection between love and death[1]”. And I know that a rose symbolizes love as well. Do these things have any connection to Wilde’s message?

…I thought you said that you read the story.

It’s not plagiarism if you cite your sources: What we can “steal” from Oscar Wilde.

The things from above are totally applicable. Dramatic irony. Posing timeless questions. But we can also look at some of his other craft elements. First, let’s check out his use of image by tracking the rose’s purpose throughout the story.

Initially, it’s the “goal” of the main character. He desires it because it’s a tool used to achieve his greater purpose – dancing with the Professor’s daughter. Thus, it becomes the goal of the nightingale to get the rose for the boy, which she achieves but, in doing so, she ultimately loses her life. Now it’s the cause of a character’s death as well. Then the boy takes the rose to the Professor’s daughter, but she rejects him; dismayed, the boy throws the rose into the street, where it is crushed by a wagon’s wheel. The use of the rose as a controlling image a) took a relatively common symbol for love and used it in these unique ways, and b) emotionally distressed the reader by essentially rendering the nightingale’s sacrifice useless. By making a character’s sacrifice irrelevant, and amplifying it by another character (the boy) not even realizing her sacrifice evokes emotion in the reader.

Now, let’s check out the point of view in this story. As readers, we get to see the entire spectrum of thoughts – the boy’s, the nightingale’s, and the trees. We understand all of these elements (which is good, because otherwise we’d be wondering why the heck a bird committed suicide and how a single flower bloomed in winter). But then we stop for a moment to examine the language barriers within the story itself. On page six-ish[2], the nightingale sings a song to her Oak Tree, and the boy is listening in. He admits that she has a good tune, but doesn’t understand the words she’s saying. Of course, this serves to further emphasize the science vs art argument, but it also builds tension, because we know that she is planning to sacrifice herself for him as he critiques her singing. We should also note the fact that the nightingale can understand the boy (as he complains about his love life), but he can’t understand her. Which leads to the third point: nature’s role in the story.

So, how does nature drive the story? We could analyze it on a symbolic level and determine the meanings of the rose and the nightingale (See section “Alright, alright, moving on” above). But it also plays a role in terms of plot. It’s chilly outside, and Winter Is Coming (you’re welcome, Game of Thrones fans). Because of this, the rose is physically unable to bloom. This part is necessary in the story – if it were springtime, he’d just go outside and pick one off his tree, and we’d be left with a story about a boy being rejected and turned into a beast and the petals of the rose are tied to his life force until a French girl named Belle comes along – oh, wait. Wrong story. Sorry. Anyways, though, winter is vital to the central conflict in the story. But, lo and behold, it also provides a resolution! The boy does get his rose, thanks to the nightingale and the tree, which are both naturally parts of nature – and that makes me wonder if nature is being exploited to preserve man. I mean, the nightingale literally questions, “what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”. So I’m reading some environmentalism themes in here, too. (By the way, if I were to read too deeply into this, I could argue that the cart’s rolling over the rose at the end also suggested man’s conquest of nature as shown through an industrializing world. But I’m not going to do that to you guys. Although the girl’s notion of jewels as superior to roses seem to lead towards materialism… as well as the whole belief in “science over natural beauty”… hmmm….)

Your turn! Questions for you:

  1. We discussed Wilde’s message about nature and environmentalism. Looking through the lens of social classes and gender roles, what does Wilde attempt to convey about humanity in this story?
  2. Was the red rose tree wrong to tell the nightingale how to grow the rose (i.e. sacrificing herself)?
  3. What is Wilde’s argument about the relative importance of science versus art? How is your perception impacted by the fact that the boy, the scientist, loses his love, while the bird, the artist, loses her life?

[1] http://www.octarium.org/programs/nature-notes.html

[2] This is the technical term.

“A Pair of Silk Stockings” Write Up by Marin Hart

The story “A Pair of Silk Stockings” begins with Mrs. Sommers coming to possess fifteen dollars. She carefully considers how to spend the money and decides to buy her children new clothes. The author reveals to us shortly after that she used to have money to spare, but has never looked back or regretted her decision to marry. Mrs. Sommers goes to the store tired and hungry and discovers some soft stockings. She decides to buy a pair but does not stop there. She travels upstairs to buy new shoes and have gloves fitted, ignoring or forgetting completely her children’s clothes. She then decides to buy magazines, eat at an up-scale restaurant, and watch a show at the theatre. Her last desire is presented to readers in the cable car where she wishes to continue on riding forever.

I think Ms. Chopin executes many techniques well, but two that are most interesting are the pattern or escalation in Mrs. Sommer’s spending and- what I will call- the “Rooting for her” technique. The pattern in this story, like that in “The School” starts small with Mrs. Sommers temptation to buy the stockings. She gives in and spends the $1.98. This surprises the reader but is not ridiculous. Though she just said she was going to buy clothes for her children, she indulges herself. The reader supposes that she will move on to spend the rest of her money the way she originally intended. But, without a moments hesitation, Mrs. Sommers heads upstairs to be fitted with new shoes and gloves. These purchases slowly escalate from the stockings in price. She continues to buy more expensive or bigger objects or experiences, from the gloves to luxury magazines to the restaurant to the show. What I think is special about the use of this pattern, is that it does not break by wildly changing directions the way it does in “The School” and other stories. Instead, the author tells us in the very last line that Mrs. Sommer’s next impulse is to never come back to her responsibilities and leaves us wondering whether the pattern continues or ends in her going home to her family. This keeps the brains of readers churning long after they read the last line.

Secondly, Ms. Chopin does a great job of making us sympathize with her character. Subtly, she mentions that Mrs. Sommers has never before given in to wishing for nice things for herself since marrying Mr. Sommers or bought anything but bargains. Doing this, we do not believe that she pampers herself often if ever. She is not spoiled nor embarrassed of her social position. On the day of the shopping trip, poor Mrs. Sommers is exhausted from taking care of her children and cleaning and has failed even to have time to eat, herself. Readers immediately pity her and can recognize the hardship in being a mother, and especially, a woman in that time. This passage in particular reveals the author’s purpose in writing this story. In order to show us the hardship in having these responsibilities, we have to first understand the character’s life and respect her. Then, even after she begins buying extravagant items, we continue to like her. With lines like “her stockings and boots had worked marvels in her bearing-had given her a feeling of assurance, a sense of belonging to the well-dressed multitude” we understand her yearning to just fit in sometimes. Even after eating richly at the fancy restaurant, she tips the waiter, showing the audience that even in indulgence she is not greedy. This tiny detail works wonders for our perception of the character. Towards the end of the story, when Mrs. Sommers goes to see the play, she takes in all of her surroundings and does not take any of it for granted, unlike some other women in the theatre described as “gone there to kill time and eat candy and display their gaudy attire.” If Kate had not wanted us to see the struggle that is trying to prove your value as a woman in society, even through money if intelligence got you no where as a woman in the 1890s, these details would have been radically different. It would not have been difficult to make a woman purchasing extravagant, unnecessary items seem selfish.

Implementing this method into your own writing is a valuable skill to have. By choosing these concrete details carefully, you can leave an imprint of what you want the reader to pick up on. If you can make the reader understand your character, you can take them anywhere. And, if you can keep them interested, by letting them speculate about what happens in the end, like Kate Chopin does by letting the reader decide if the pattern continues at the end of this story, you can leave them remembering and pondering your message overall after they finish reading.

“Red Meat, Cigarettes” Write Up by Audrey Germany

Techniques tracked:
Interior monologue the narrator has that changes the reader’s perspective
Irony that is shown through the narrator’s actions and thoughts

In the short story “Red Meat, Cigarettes” by Josh Capps, a young man and his girlfriend go to a peace protest opposing George Bush’s doctrine on shipping over eight hundred U.S. troops, as the narrator says, “to die.” While they are at the protest, the man is aggravated by the protesters for being “synonymous with pussy.” He believes that the more reliable way to stop the war would be utilizing weapons and violence. His girlfriend sees a group of veterans who “looked ragged in their beaten green jackets.” He watches them and tries to decipher their mood on the protest. After the protest is over, his girlfriend offers to get some “cheeseburgers and cigarettes”, even though he earlier mentions in the story that he protested smoking. The story ends with him and his girlfriend driving in their car, listening to Eminem, and discussing the protest. He realizes that he was being too hard on the protest-goers, and that they were fighting the same war he was, in their own special way.

This story intrigued me because of how the narrator’s actions almost completely contrasted with his thoughts. It seemed like every little thing that took place at the protest aggravated the narrator. He complains about how the peace movement was too soft and did nothing to drive its ideologues onto others. The frustrated narrator articulates,

We needed to change minds, dammit! We needed to beat our chests until the blind saw light! Then, we probably needed to take back Washington, piling this administration into a naked pyramid and hooking electrodes into their genitals!

He believes his forcefulness can be justified by his build:

I played college sports, I’m tall, and I’m still very active at the gym. I often feel a bit out of place and identity-less at these rallies, like a steroid-munching Gulliver.

This quote also confirms that he sticks out as a more masculine-looking man in an emotionally-charged setting. However, he clearly believes that the protest and its causes are important, that

mousy pockets of cliques, well-represented, a litany of left-wing causes, most of which I’d fight for, to the grave, or in a heated room, on another day.

He may be irritated with the people at the protest, but he definitely is fighting for the same cause, as seen in this quote:

I felt much more forgiving to our fellow protesters. They were good people, in the end. They hated the war, too, just in their own way.

His perceptive girlfriend, Nadine, spots a group of veterans at the rally. The narrator describes the veterans as “ragged” and “numb to the shivers.” We cannot infer much about the veterans as the narrator does not describe them as much as he does the other protesters. For example, when the narrator was unfolding the couple that made an original composition, he affirmed that they:

Delivered all six verses of “This World Needs A Lot More Caring, Sharing, and Love” (couldn’t they have, at least, swapped ‘Soul-Bearing’ for ‘love,’ if only for the sake of rhyme), and though the duo suggested we sing along to keep warm, the chorus was far too lame to pass by the lips, even for those with no sense of self-respect. The repetitions lingered in our brains.

He then looks back at the veterans to deduce their outlook on the duo, and only recites:

The veterans continued to look ragged in their beaten green jackets. Their breathing was still labored and sad. They didn’t shiver.

Their flag was still there.

The author leaves us with little context of the veterans, but we can assume that they play an important role in this story. Even towards the end, when the man and Nadine were reflecting on the protest, Nadine mentions the veterans, and his outlook on them is not described. He just shakes his head and grips the steering wheel tighter. This demonstrates that the veterans did have an effect on the man’s position, but what? Perhaps seeing real veterans standing against the war made the man see the Bush doctrine situation in a much more serious light. Perhaps they just frightened him. The emotion invoked in the man from the veterans is up to the reader’s perspective.

Instead of analyzing the text for now, let’s discuss the techniques Josh Capps uses in his writing. First of all, most of the story is told with interior monologue. Interior monologue is simply a piece of writing that expresses a character’s inner thoughts, but from this perspective we are able to see a lot more happening in a story instead of from a 3rd person’s, or outsider’s, perspective. For example, in this piece the author uses interior monologue as a way to show the reader the protest from the narrator’s aggravated angle. This brings a certain emotional aspect to the story we may have not had if it was in 3rd person. We are able to read his thoughts and past experiences, and we can tell a lot more about his character than if we just saw him as a burly man sticking out at a peace protest. Interior monologue works well with this story, as well as in most social situations, because it brings much more compassion and feeling into the story.

Another technique the author uses really well is irony. This story is practically overloaded with irony, especially from the narrator’s interior monologue, which is where most of the irony comes from. An example in this story includes

…even though it was a peace rally, it was mostly aggravation that kept me warm.

This line sets off the whole experience for the narrator for he sees something traditionally passive as something irritating that needs more action. Another line similar to this is when he adds that

This circus was braving the cold to stop a war, dammit, not to end Hate Speech or Take Guns Out of Every Home in America! We were trying to stop a war! Hell, we might even need Hate Speech and Guns.

It sounds like he’s proposing a war to stop another war from happening. The story even includes smaller bouts of irony, like when he was “suddenly wishing to retract” his ass-kicking boast he earlier declared in the story once he saw the veterans. He also mentions being against smoking that is quickly countered by Nadine offering cheeseburgers and cigarettes. Perhaps it was a metaphor?

As established before, Josh Capps uses interior monologue and irony as great techniques in this story. Both of these elements would be very helpful to use in my writing. The irony could be used as humor in my stories and could greatly improve my writing in a sarcastic way. Also, interior monologue would be a good way to display emotion in an overwhelming setting. I could use this technique to help readers better understand my characters. I believe George Saunders uses this technique a lot in his stories, what with his following the character’s train of thought so well. This really aids people to know the characters closer than anything else. On the other hand, irony was used in Donald Barthelme’s story “The School” and ended up making it very humorous and easy to follow, despite the strange things going on in the school. Both of these techniques are very useful to me as a young creative writer, and I was lucky to find a story such as “Red Meat, Cigarettes” that displays them beautifully.

Questions:

  1. What are some other examples of interior monologue and irony you guys can find in the story?
  2. If you had to guess, what would you say the theme of “Red Meat, Cigarettes” is?
  3. What is something you noticed in the story that you liked that wasn’t interior monologue or irony?

“The Lottery” Write Up by Emma Bennett

Summary

“The Lottery” opens on an early summer morning in a small, unnamed town, and the idea of a lottery is introduced almost immediately. At ten o’clock in the morning, the townspeople start to gather in the town square for the lottery: first the children, who begin stacking stones in a corner, then the men, and then the women. Mr. Summers, the conductor of the lottery, arrives with “the black wooden box,” accompanied by Mr. Graves, the postmaster. He asks for some help in setting up the box on a stool, and after some hesitation a man and his son volunteer. Mr. Summers eventually declares the lottery open, is sworn in by the postmaster, and begins to speak to the crowd; as he finishes talking, Mrs. Hutchinson arrives late to the gathering and remarks to her friend, Mrs. Delacroix, that she forgot the date. She joins her husband and children just before the lottery officially starts.

There are only two abnormalities: a wife is drawing for her husband, who has broken his leg, and a son is drawing for his mother and family for the first time. After these abnormalities are cleared up, the drawing begins. One by one, in alphabetical order, the men of the village (with a few exceptions) come up and draw a piece of paper from the black wooden box. At the same time, they all open their papers; one of them—in this case Mr. Hutchinson’s—has a black circle, indicating that the chooser has been selected. Mrs. Hutchinson protests that her husband wasn’t given enough time to choose a paper, but they continue anyway. Each member of the Hutchinson family selects a second piece of paper, and this time Mrs. Hutchinson selects the black circle. The crowd begins picking up stones. As Mrs. Hutchinson protests, they stone her to death.

What makes it interesting?

  • Contrast of plot and setting

“The Lottery” is set in a village that is, in many way, normal. It is small and old-fashioned, all of the characters seem to know each other (even minor characters are named for the reader), and they treat the whole situation as very normal, which obviously contrasts with the reader’s view of it. Space villages in general have a friendly feel, which furthers the contrast.

  • Themes of tradition/conformity

Throughout the story there are clear signs that the lottery is a long-standing tradition. From the beginning, the story treats the lottery like a common occurrence and reads almost like the reader, too, should know what the lottery is. The element of tradition becomes most apparent with the arrival of the black wooden box, which is “no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained”— but no-one wants to replace it, because “no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.” Also revealing is the exchange between Mr. Adams, Old Man Warner, and Mrs. Adams about villages that have stopped the lottery: Old Man Warner becomes the voice of tradition, condemning those who end the lottery practice as “crazy fools,” arguing that “there’s always been a lottery,” and even hinting at the lottery’s original purpose: “’Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’” He also associates the lottery with human advancement and civilization: “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves.”

The elements of conformity are most clear in the townspeople’s ignorance of some aspects of the lottery: its “original paraphernalia” had been lost long ago; “so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded”; but “although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.” The lottery is tradition for tradition’s sake, rather than any real purpose. This concept could be part of Jackson’s purpose in writing the short story: she could be warning of the dangers of tradition for tradition’s sake, and/or reasonless/extreme violence.

  • Themes of violence

The responses of the children and the adults to the lottery provide two different, but connected, views on violence. The children gathering stones at the beginning of the story become especially chilling one the reader knows the context; so does “little Dave” selected a paper of his own and laughing as he does so. The younger children seem unaware of the serious nature of the lottery, instead treating it like a game (as children would), which is paralleled in their exclusion from the lottery until their family is selected. In contrast, we have older children like Jack Watson who seem more aware and/or knowledge about what is taking place and thus treat it with more fear.

One of the most chilling and most important parts of “The Lottery” is how easily the villagers turn to violence. The children are a part of this, but we spend more time with the adults, and it’s therefore easier to see it with them. Even while the lottery is taking place, the villagers are talking and laughing and generally being friendly with each other. Mrs. Hutchinson and Mrs. Delacroix speak at friends when Mrs. Hutchinson comes in late; the crowd parts for her; Mr. Summers even jokes good-naturedly about her late arrival. This all contrasts sharply with their attitudes towards Mrs. Hutchinson (and her family in general) once they are selected.

  • Historical context

“The Lottery” was written in 1948, a year after the beginning of the Cold War, three years after the end of WWII, and a year into the second Red Scare. Any of these historic events could have prompted her to write the story, or shed some light on the context.

What can we imitate/steal?

  • Foreshadowing

The main object of foreshadowing in “The Lottery” is the pile of stones that the children collect in the second paragraph. During a first read of the story, the boys’ action of gathering stones is odd but not entirely out of place, as children are strange and have a large variety of games that don’t make sense. But by the time the reader reaches the final few paragraphs, the purpose of the stones becomes clear, and the tone of the boys’ action shifts— threatening rather than childish.

In contrast to the children, the adults are more aware of the severity of what is to come, but their actions too provide some foreshadowing: “their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed.” Mrs. Hutchinson in particular provides some foreshadowing when “she tapped Mrs. Delacroix on the arm as a farewell,” despite not knowing of her eventual fate. Old Man Warner’s mention of a “pack of crazy fools,” though not directed at the villagers, parallels what the town looks like to an outside source during the lottery.

  • Tension

There are elements of tension snuck in throughout the story, and most double as foreshadowing. “The villagers kept their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool”; characters speak “soberly,” “regretfully,” and “gravely”; they move “nervously” and “hastily”; and there are “sudden hushes” and “breathless pauses.” The reader is not aware of the exact nature of the lottery until the village is actually attacking Mrs. Hutchinson, but all of the villagers do, so their apprehension makes the reader much more tense than if we had known what was going on.

  • Names

This is a little more obvious: Jackson uses surnames like Summers (aka the season), Delacroix (of the cross), Martin (from Mars, the Roman god of war), and Graves (self-explanatory) for her characters. These names can provide characterization, contrast, and foreshadowing all at once: Summers’ sunny surname fits his initially genial personality, but contrasts with his duty; Mrs. Graves is at the front of the crowd when they stone Mrs. Hutchinson; and Mrs. Delacroix, despite being friendly with Mrs. Hutchinson, “selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands.”

“Not A Monster”/”A Formal Handshake”: Rules and Tools for World-Building

handshake

When I say “world-building,” what do you think of? Most likely creating a world that doesn’t exist. But any world that you create on the page doesn’t exist in a technical sense. Whenever you write, you are world-building. World-building is the creation of a convincing setting. Though the term does have the connotations of creating worlds that could not exist in the “real” world as we know it: “world-building” = otherworldly. It’s arguably more difficult to convince the reader a world exists that couldn’t in the real world, but actually not that much. It all depends on the use of physical detail.

The next question is, then, why do we write about other worlds, ostensibly not our own? George Saunders says:

The goal of a work of fiction is, in my view, to say something, about how life is for us, not at any particular historical moment (past or present or future) but at every single moment.

This is important to remember when you’re writing aliens–you’re really writing about what it means to be human. You’re trying to capture human realities via the compare/contrast of non-human entities.

A passage from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale aptly captures this idea:

She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.

Seeing the humanity in your monsters is possibly the main difference between literary world-building and genre world-building.

There are different types of otherworldly worlds that one can create, which will affect the decisions you make when you’re building one. Two major categories to consider: Did your otherworldly world originate due to something that occurred in what is ostensibly our “real” world (whether this origination is actually dramatized in the course of the narrative or not), or is it a completely different world that’s always been otherworldly, always existed on its own terms? Or, as HP Lovecraft puts it in his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” the worlds will either be:

…those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.

Did the otherworldly conditions always exist? Or did we, people, create them? This also relates to Margaret Atwood’s distinction between “science fiction” and “speculative fiction” from her book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination:

What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters—things that could not possibly happen—whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such—things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.

Writing about the enduring influence of the show Star Trek, New Yorker writer Manu Saadia observes this distinction under the umbrella of the term “science fiction” itself:

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of science fiction. The first uses the trappings of the future to explore the present, suggesting to its audience that the existence of starships, aliens, and (to stray into that other sci-fi franchise) lightsabres doesn’t meaningfully change the experience of the human condition. The second uses the same sorts of artifice for the opposite purpose—to imagine foreign, even utopian, futures.

There are also degrees of “otherworldliness” to consider–for either of the above options, the “marvel” can either be something that is within the realm of possibility of literally/physically occurring (think 1984), or something that could never happen, at least according to our current understanding of the universe (think Lord of the Rings), or somewhere in between (Margaret Atwood notes that anything she’s written in her fiction has some basis in reality–speculative). But for any of these variations, you need to provide the reader with particular physical cues/clues to let them know which type of variation we’re actually dealing with.

Picking any random line from some of the most successfully executed worlds-that-aren’t-(quite)-our-world can help one start to get an idea of the tricks of the trade. You can also start to see how any random line with some world-specific cues could have ostensibly been the entry point into the world, the first line. (What ultimately dictates the first line is what needs to happen for the plot.) Take this line from Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”:

A formal handshake between your new host and your Designated Mate implies that this is their first meeting.

What can we tell about the world from this line? The indirectness of the language raises questions about the narrator’s need to be so indirect and seemingly formal herself. There’s the weirdness of the capitalized “Designated Mate,” which almost singlehandedly lets us know this isn’t a world that we’re familiar with. Such a cue, whenever it’s initially encountered, whether in the very first line or not, serves as a “formal handshake” for the reader, officially introducing them to this potentially unfamiliar world.

Although much is owed to H.G. Wells’ 1897 War of the Worlds, in some respects, it seems antiquated now. Take the opening:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

There are obviously many interesting things going on here–which is the problem: there are too many. This opening is a tad exposition-heavy. Which was the style then, when people took the time to sit down and write out letters in longhand, and then mail them. Nowadays, starting in scene is a better impulse. Our brains have changed a bit since 1897. Our attention spans our shorter; we have less patience. We need something to look forward to to keep us reading. So don’t give away the whole ball of wax up front.

There are obviously exceptions/variations to this rule; the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale is not technically in scene, but it piques our curiosity, describing a general situation (women sleeping on cots in a gym) that seems strange and makes us wonder what exactly is going on here, how did this come to pass?

And so, the rules:

Justin Cronin:

I always work from a very strict plan, and I adhere to the plan. I wouldn’t be able to finish my books unless I did. But at the end of the day, to be an organic living thing, it has to breathe, it has to have a life of its own. You have to let it make some of the rules.

George Saunders:

There’s a heavy element of world-building — figuring out the internal rules of the place and so on.

Basically there’s one main rule for world-building: your world must adhere to the logic of its own internal rules. So in following the one main rule, you follow many rules…

And, as HP Lovecraft lays them out:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

Even though he’s speaking “particularly” of horror, these are good ground rules for anything that might qualify as otherworldly/supernatural: 1) Abnormality, 2) General Effects of Abnormality, 3) Manifestation of Abnormality (Object), 4) Reactions to (Effects of) Abnormality, 5) Specific Effects of Abnormality on Character.

But you need your tools to create the world that will follow these rules…

Names. In this clip George R.R. Martin discusses how he comes up with his, which convey clues to the reader about the larger world in a few different, subtle ways. Margaret Atwood uses names-as-world-building in both The Handmaid’s Tale, where characters are forced to adopt new names (like Offred and Ofglen) and in Oryx and Crake, in which the two titular characters are named for extinct animals.

Withholding/Integration of Detail. This is probably the most complex and the most critical–knowing what not to say. You cannot firehose your reader with expositional info about the novel mechanics of how your world works. These details have to emerge organically in scene (thus we get not only the details but reactions to them). The weirdness of your weird thing can be highlighted/emphasized by the realism of those things surrounding it, to heighten the contrast, as per Lovecraft:

Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.

Atwood proves in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake that the slow reveal of a world can be part of what keeps the reader in suspense. Don’t spend all your details up front.

Objects. These provide the concrete manifestation of whatever otherworldly weird thing you’re trying to build into your world. If your narrative is about a new world that came out of our “real” world, it’s even better if the object is originally a “real-world” object that’s now being used differently in the otherworldly world–it’s defamiliarized, making us consider its function anew in the present, the latent possibilities for its uses we haven’t considered…yet…. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaids have to wear a particular garb, a habit-like red dress with wing-like extensions that blocks most of their faces, so that the narrator frequently only sees the tip of a nose or a chin. The dress comes to be a powerful symbol of how the regime that put the handmaid’s in place obscures individuality and humanity. 

Contrast/Metaphor. This is again especially effective for those otherworldly worlds that emerged from our real world, though can also be used for those that were always otherworldly: how do the otherworldly elements resemble elements we’re more familiar with, so we can understand them via a basis of comparison? How do the way things are now contrast with the way things used to be? What do the characters miss? How are their human longings exacerbated by the otherworldly conditions in which they find themselves?   

So those are the tools, but where/how do you actually start? As per Saunders, an inveterate otherworldly world-builder himself (worlds deemed “futuristic” in their otherworldliness), one way to start is with the language. He expounds on the process of language leading into worlds in his conversation with Jennifer Egan over, ostensibly, how to “envision the future”:

I’ve always had, since I was a little kid first starting to read, an aversion to language that felt flat, or too “normal.” I remember having that response to some of our reading books: “David, a kindly stout boy, walked up his street, past trees and houses.” And I just felt like, first, “Kill me,” and second, “That is a lie.” That flat language is not doing justice to reality. I just have no interest in writing in a style that complies too closely with what I’ve heard called “consensus reality.” This is maybe a bit of a neurosis of mine. So as you try through revision to depart from that flatness, what you’re really doing, ritually, is destabilizing your lazy habitual perceptions.

If you write (God forbid): “Jim, a successful insurance executive, walked into the Holiday Inn lobby in a happy, cheerful spirit,” and read what you’ve written, and almost throw up, well, what you’ll want to do in revision is purge the prose of whatever it was that sickened you: “Jim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged himself into the freaking Holiday Inn.” So now Jim’s happy cheerfulness reads as something he’s tired of, and faking. Which is, to my ear, at least, a little better. And if you feel, as I would, an aversion to now having to laboriously try to describe a Holiday Inn, you might shake things up by invention: As in: “Jim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged his tired, divorced ass into the freaking Macomb, Ill., Holiday Inn, MindGetting (out of sheer boredom) ‘April 1, 1865/this geog/pretty girl,’ and then, thankfully (for the 10-second window allowed by his ‘Premier TimeTravel’ pass), was transformed into Maggie O’Doole, who stood looking down at her hoop skirt, then up at the lobby, which now was a Midwestern meadow, one lone hawk circling overhead.”

What the hell does all of that (which just now came out in a spontaneous language lurch, away from banality) even mean? Well, it would appear that Jim has a computer in his head, and that he “MindGets” (a verb, seems like) a subroutine designed to transform him into a PRETTY GIRL, on APRIL 1, 1865, in THIS GEOGRAPHY (i.e., the meadow in which the Holiday Inn now stands). This is what I heard a young writer recently describe as “revising via contempt.” My unhappiness with what I’d written led to that lurch, which led to: the future, or something that sounds as if it’s meant to be the future.

Let’s try it ourselves then: Write the most boring sentence you can think of. Or just, write a boring sentence, in the vein of the Sanders’ two aforementioned examples:  

David, a kindly stout boy, walked up his street, past trees and houses.

Jim, a successful insurance executive, walked into the Holiday Inn lobby in a happy, cheerful spirit.

My example:

Ashby, a board member of OCX, strolled into the Houston Galleria, whistling as the doors slid open.

Now, take what makes you “almost throw up” about the sentence you’ve written and revise to make it more interesting:

Ashby jerked to a stop in his Board-reserved parking spot, which spit his booze-sluggish ass out thankfully close to the Galleria’s doors. He pressed the end piece of his optic enhancers, aiming at the card reader until his red laser beam turned green and the doors parted with a welcoming, “Good evening, Mr. Highrise.”

Now, revise again, trying to amp up the energy in the language even more, aiming for maximum non-boringness…make something happen that’s of interest to you:

Ashby dragged his booze-sluggish ass from his Z2830. Halfway to the Galleria’s doors he turned back for the optic enhancers he’d left in the cupholder, then, remembering, turned back again, pausing to dry heave over the polished concrete in which he could see the pinkish smear of his reflection. His nausea crested again as he was forced to molest the black plastic barnacle of the card reader with his tongue. The glass doors sighed open. As he crossed the threshold into an entryway tiered with erect curling irons, a minty lozenge materialized in his mouth. It took all of Ashby’s strength not to launch it out onto the ice of the adjacent rink.  

What can I tell about the world from this passage? The physical cues/clues in the first sentence indicates our world. The second sentence is still our world, except for the “optic enhancers,” which I originally changed from “sunglasses”; this isn’t necessarily a concrete weirdness cue; it could just be that Ashby is the type who would refer to his sunglasses as “optic enhancers…”. In the context of the first revised passage, what it really means is that they (whoever the larger group Ashby’s apparently a part of) recently went from using “optic enhancers” technology to a different type–one less easily accessible/stealable, as it seems to be DNA-based, or something (the licking); the optic enhancers are removable and can be stolen (as indicated by their being left behind in a cupholder), but in the second revised version, it seems like you’d have to steal the whole person (or at least their tongue…) to be able to gain access to what is apparently something secret, if such high-tech means is required to get in. And yet, it’s the galleria, something that shouldn’t require special access, as it is usually publicly available, so this must be after hours? Also perhaps strange the concrete is “polished,” which seems to be a difference from the “normal” galleria parking garage (what does this difference stem from?). The card reader is a device from our world, though it might be unusual that the galleria has one, as again, it’s usually public access. We’re also getting that Ashby doesn’t seem particularly appreciative of his special-access status at this particular point (“forced to molest”; “doors sighed open”; plus, he’s been drunk (is he stressed out about something, perhaps related to his special access?)). Then things start to get a bit more interesting: there’s the entryway “tiered with erect curling irons,” almost like these curling irons are filling bleachers, spectators to whoever’s passing through this entryway–that is, we have a likening of inanimate objects to animate ones (i.e., people), hinting that perhaps, in this world, objects could be more than what they seem (note that this weird detail about the curling irons was generated from my trying to make the description of the generic galleria more interesting, as with Saunders and the Holiday Inn). Then, there’s the lozenge that materializes…this is the first overtly non-possible thing that’s happened, as opposed to things that seemed a little weird but perhaps within the realm of possibility, like accessing the galleria after hours via licking something, or entering the mall to find curling irons lined up watching you like a creepy valley of dolls–it’s literally possible, although certainly with some strange implications, for curling irons to exist in that particular physical arrangement. But it’s not possible for something to just physically materialize out of nowhere. This is freaky, but even freakier is that it does so inside the character’s body. The character himself seems freaked out by this as well (he wants to spit out the lozenge), though it would seem not to the extent that this is the very first time he’s experienced something like it (he does not spit out the lozenge). Why does he restrain himself? It’s as if he does think he’s being watched, likely by more than just the curling irons. It seems he’s under the impression that he should not spit out the lozenge, or else someone will know, and someone will get an impression of his feelings from his having done so that he does not want them to get–he is afraid of them, the “them” being, likely, whoever has granted him this special access that’s no longer seeming so desirable. In that fear is tension. There’s also attention called once again to saliva (spitting), which perhaps, in this world, is some sort of tool, possibly even a DNA-related weapon…(I’m foreseeing cloning possibilities). And finally we’re left with the ice rink, seeming to indicate our Ashby is on a slippery slope with whatever he is actually involved in here at this after-hours galleria rendezvous.   

It seems like I’ve given myself plenty to work with. Now I have to consider what the “internal rules of logic” are for what I’ve set up. The most interesting logic-bender will be that ability for things to materialize out of nowhere. If this is possible, it opens the door to a few, if not many, other possibilities. It seems some entity has gained control of the ability to rearrange molecules. No wonder Ashby seems so afraid of them–if he doesn’t stay in line, then they could use this ability against him. Where does this extreme ability originate? One possible answer to this question could be: aliens. What is the board going to do with this extreme ability? Likely, whatever Ashby’s come to the galleria for has something to do with plans they have related to it. So maybe I’m working with a rule that in this world things can’t actually materialize out of nothing, but are being transported into that space of seemingly nothing from somewhere else.

Saunders says he never starts to generate his worlds from a “diagnostic” impulse (i.e., trying to write a cautionary tale), but instead he does it through the language. That’s not the only way to do it. Jennifer Egan does it instead through “form” and “atmosphere.” Describing the genesis of her celebrated sci-fi story “Black Box,” she explains that she had wanted to write a story in tweets, leading her to wonder what story had to be told that way. The answer: discrete dispatches sent from a spy that would necessarily have to be brief. The scenario that arose from the atmosphere Egan was pulled to work with (the Mediterranean) led her to the future:

I had this female spy posing as a beauty. And I wanted her to be able to record things by camera and audio. And I knew that there was no way she could carry equipment because she was mostly just in a bikini or whatever, that just wasn’t feasible. And because I was writing about a character from “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” who could only be in her 30s if the story was happening in the 2030s, I knew I was in the future. That turned out to be very convenient, but I didn’t actually think of inserting any “futuristic” innovations until the moment I’m wondering, Oh, my God, how can she spy if she can’t carry any equipment? Oh wait, I get it, the equipment is inside her!

And it’s inside you as well…

The important element that Egan’s and Saunders’ world-building methods seem to have in common is starting with questions instead of answers.

SCR

“Sea Oak” Write Up by Evan Sherer

What happened?

The narrator is a male stripper in an airplane-themed strip club called Joysticks. When he heads home to his apartment in the Sea Oak apartment complex, we meet the family: Min, his sister, and her baby Troy, as well as Jade, his cousin, and her baby Mac, and Aunt Bernie. The next day, there is a shooting in the Sea Oak courtyard as the narrator returns home. Sea Oak is obviously an unsafe place, but they don’t have the money to move.

The next day, the narrator comes home to find Aunt Bernie dead and the apartment robbed. The funeral is quiet not from silent mourning exactly, but from the lack of anything to say about Bernie, who never did much else besides work and end up with nothing to show for it. Later that evening they get a call that the grave has been defaced and Aunt Bernie’s body is missing.

The next day, when he gets home from work, Aunt Bernie is alive again, dirty and mangled. She tells the family that they are gonna get out of Sea Oak with her plan that will generate more money for the family. She realized that she wasted her whole life and this is her chance to start over.

The next day, the narrator goes back to work, coming across Angela, a girl he dated throughout senior year. Queue flashback. His dad died, Ma had to work more, Min stooped to drugs, and the family was in such shambles that a drunk relative peed in the dishwasher as the narrator and Angela were making out, which was the last straw in their relationship. The narrator went home. Aunt Bernie, not only a household dictator, but her body parts were gradually falling off her body. The next morning, Aunt Bernie is a pile of body parts. She questions why she ended up with nothing and dies again.

What makes it interesting?

One of the things that kept me interested was that the narrator seemed like the only member of the family that wasn’t crazy or deluded, and is in a potentially degrading line of work, but does it because he knows his dysfunctional family needs the money, so I root for him because of that I think.

When things take a turn for the worse when Aunt Bernie dies, the story turns into sci-fi in the middle of the plot. This added a completely new element to the story. It might be difficult to accept this supernatural addition to what seemed to be (possibly futuristic) realistic fiction, but it worked because Aunt Bernie’s character shifted greatly from being alive to dead, and also because George Saunders describes dead Aunt Bernie with having zombie-like features, and Saunders just sort of makes you accept this shift, because the story continues at full speed.

What can we imitate?

One of the things I focused on that I thought Saunders did really well was how Saunders made it very easy to identify inner conflict in the narrator when he was asked to perform and do certain things at Joysticks. The narrator thinks by presenting what is asked of him and if he does it or not. It is his job to do what is asked of him, just like anyone else’s job, but sometimes what is asked of the main character is too much for him. His job is to get bossed around, and he’s good at it, but at times when he is struggling with himself, he won’t be bossed around. For example, he is asked in the beginning of the story to show a picture of the hottest stripper’s butt to a client, and he does. But when he is asked to bend over a certain way to pick up a dollar, he can’t bring himself to do it, as he’s thinking about his late aunt. The specific technique of asking a question in the conscience of a character, and how the character responds is a great way tool for characterization, as well as showing concrete change in the character.

The other thing that I focused on while going through the story was the feelings toward Aunt Bernie, before death as well as after death, portrayed by the other characters. Before she dies, the narrator feels she is a loving woman, but is simply so positive that it is annoying when she refuses to look at the many downsides of living in Sea Oak. They seem to pity her for the uneventful life she is stuck in. After she dies for the first time and comes back to life, Min, Jade and the narrator are characterized by the progression of attitudes toward Aunt Bernie. First they are scared of zombie Bernie. Then, they resent her for what she is putting them through. Finally, they think fondly of how she used to be and the narrator pities her once more when she asks why she ended up with nothing. George Saunders completes the arc of the feelings toward Bernie by returning the narrator to a sense of pity for Bernie. So, we can use attitudes toward a certain character to characterize other characters, generate sympathy for the characters (I sure do feel sorry for Bernie) and also show that the characters changed.

Questions:

How important was the flashback about Angela Silveri to your understanding of the story? Was it important?

What importance do the babies Troy and Mac hold in the story?

What literary device does George Saunders use to keep the story grounded?