“…And The Door Swings Open”: The Style of George Saunders


George Saunders is one of the most stylistically distinct writers out there. His combination of humor and empathy has made him one of the literary writers with the most mass appeal. So, how does he do it? “Everything that I do in fiction is through the language, like the individual sentence,” Saunders clarified at his 2013 Google talk, when asked about dealing with “the flexibility of how we perceive” in his work.

Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Diction, syntax, grammar. Only by trying to replicate his words at the same level can their complexity be fully appreciated–and can we start to understand how the particular arrangement of the words themselves is the source of the reader’s emotional response, as well as the source of the clues that helped Saunders himself discover the story’s natural outcome. Today, we’ll do some word algebra.

This word algebra will help us solve a larger equation–that of character. The writer Steve Almond says “plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced against her deepest fears and desires.” Basically, this means you can generate any plot by asking, what does my character want? (And in nonfiction, you can trace how significant events that have happened are a product of particular individuals’ fears/desires.) So, you start with character. Saunders is a master of representing a character’s thought processes/fantasies, which is a representation of their desires. Desire is the key to character, which then becomes the key to plot. (This goes for any narrative medium, not just fiction.)  Our exercise will be, then, to start with a character’s fantasy and ultimately let that generate the rest of the pieces needed to put together a full story.

So, via the representation of these thought processes/fantasies, a large part of what makes Saunders so distinctive is how close he puts the reader to the character–Saunders is getting intimate. (I do think this is something he does that is much harder to achieve in other narrative media.) He is a master of manipulating psychic distance: where the narrative (and therefore the reader) stands, relative to a character.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner offers the following examples to show levels of psychic distance that get increasingly closer to the character:

  1.     It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2.     Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3.     Henry hated snowstorms.
  4.     God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5.     Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

We go from a man, to a full name, to a first name, to a third-person pronoun, to a second-person pronoun. Then there would be first person, which could technically be number 6. But Saunders has actually created what would then be a seventh layer that gets even closer. He does this by dispensing with pronouns altogether, via use of the imperative.

A trademark of Saunders’ style, then, is how firmly it implants the reader in the character’s head. It may be revealing that the first sentence of the opener of his celebrated collection Tenth of December, “Victory Lap,” was added by The New Yorker’s editor:

Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.

The pause in the first sentence gives the reader a nice kind of held breath that subtly builds suspense and sets up the feeling that we and/or the character are on the threshold of something important–which is provided literally in the form of the fifteenth birthday, and figuratively in the form of the story’s upcoming events. “Three days” could also potentially prefigure the three points of view we’ll be getting. That first sentence is somehow both external and internal at the same time. (I knew I was a writer from the way I narrated everything I was doing/seeing/experiencing in my head.) Alison is the one cognizant of the fact that it’s three days shy of her fifteenth birthday–it’s a sentence that seems like telling, but is actually showing us the grand view she takes of herself.

[Start your writing exercise: Present your character externally in a single sentence. Follow the exact sentence structure Saunders uses: A prepositional phrase (with some expository info about the character, that’s also getting across how the character sees him/herself) leading into the character being introduced with full name, in a specific physical context. Really you’ll need to know/learn two things about your character as these sentences and paragraphs progress: what the character wants (i.e., what they would fantasize about) and something they’re literally supposed to be doing at that moment that the fantasy is distracting them from. How can the verb choice achieve a psychic distance that makes us feel closer than the use of the full name should?] [Read some out loud.]

Compare that firs sentence to the followup sentence(s), set off in a separate paragraph:

Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}?

[What’s the difference between these sentences and the first one?] The difference between these sentences and the opening one are how far removed we are (or aren’t) from the character’s head. In the first sentence we are seeing the character from the outside, in the next we have moved inside the character’s head. What’s telling is that it was apparently Saunders’ impulse to drop you inside the character’s head immediately, with no outside context. The editor thought the context necessary [what do you guys think?], but Saunders rendition is more true to the life of the character’s experience–we only get to experience things from inside our own heads, after all.

As for the next set of sentences, the internal ones, note how the use of the imperative “Say” at the beginning of the first two cues the reader that we’re getting a fantasy sequence. Some might think that an accurate rendition of a character’s internal fantasy should read “The staircase was marble. She descended and all heads turned,” perhaps with the defense that our fantasies are experienced in the moment as real to us. Whether or not that’s entirely true, that rendition would make the reader think that the character was literally descending a marble staircase, when the character is perfectly aware that that is not what she is literally doing. Hence, the cue is necessary. Note that by the fourth sentence of the paragraph, it is necessary no longer:

Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package?

By itself this reads as someone literally approaching her, but in the context of the first three sentences the reader is easily able to tell it’s part of the fantasy. The next sentence pivots off of what might be deemed a hitch in the fantasy, the character playing off herself. In that fourth sentence (just above) Alison provides the dialogue of the fantasized subject, and in these next sentences she plays out her reaction to that dialogue.

Oops. Had he said small package? And just stood there? Broad princelike face totally bland of expression? Poor thing! Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}.

[Continue writing exercise: copy Saunders’ second paragraph, the fantasy sequence that begins with “Say that.” Literally start with the “Say that,” then fill in your own words after that with your character’s fantasy sequence. Try to include a bracketed item–this would be the character’s object of desire. The first three sentences establish the object of the fantasy (which, note, will establish a desire that one of the other POV characters will later be shown to fill). The fourth is the fantasized subject’s dialogue/gesture, which the final sentences, themselves constituting almost half of the paragraph.]

Alison fantasizes through a couple of potential suitors who fail to fit the bill before her inner dialog with them reminds her of what she’s literally supposed to be doing–getting her tights from the dryer for her upcoming recital–and makes her realize she’s still at the top of the stairs. Six paragraphs in and our character hasn’t moved a muscle–except in her brain.

The next paragraph continues the fantasy sequence:

What about this guy, behind Mr. Small Package, standing near the home entertainment center? With a thick neck of farmer integrity yet tender ample lips, who, placing one hand on the small of her back, whispered, Dreadfully sorry you had to endure that bit about the small package just now. Let us go stand on the moon. Or, uh, in the moon. In the moonlight.

[Continue writing exercise: The next step in the rising action of the fantasy sequence. Notice (and imitate/copy) the direct contrast to the subject of the first step in the sequence. Start with a question for the first sentence (mentioning the fantasized subject in relation to a prop/object from the literal location the character is in), which then in the next sentence leads into a description that’s technically a sentence fragment, being just a prepositional phrase–so yours should be an extended prepositional phrase that provides a description of a fantasy subject who then gets lines. Now you have to write the fantasized subject’s dialog. Note (and copy) how this dialog reflects the character-who-is-fantasizing’s voice.]

The next paragraph escalates the rising action in the fantasy sequence still further:

Had he said, Let us go stand on the moon? If so, she would have to be like, {eyebrows up}. And if no wry acknowledgment was forthcoming, be like, Uh, I am not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?

[Continue writing exercise: In the first sentence, the character repeats something from the fantasized subject’s dialog in the previous paragraph. In the second, the character summarizes his/her own reaction–try to use the brackets to encapsulate the reaction description. The third sentence hypothesizes the fantasized subject’s reaction to the character’s reaction and then describes the character’s reaction to that hypothesized reaction–which includes a fantasized line of dialog quoted for the character, which starts with a statement that then tangents into a question. (So your passage should conclude with the character’s reaction-to-reaction line of dialog that turns into a question.)]

The next paragraph concludes the fantasy sequence and returns the character to what they’re supposed to be doing in “the real world”:

Come on, guys, she couldn’t keep treading gracefully on this marble staircase in her mind forever! That dear old white-hair in the tiara was getting all like, Why are those supposed princes making that darling girl march in place ad nausea? Plus she had a recital tonight and had to go fetch her tights from the dryer.

[Continue writing exercise: In his/her head the character addresses the fantasized subjects as a group, refers to self in third person and reminds subjects (and readers) of what the character is physically literally doing at that moment. That first sentence should be an exclamation! Which should reference the character’s actual location. The second sentence should reference another fantasized entity, previously unseen, who then gets a line of pseudo-dialog: a question about the addressed subjects. The third and final line of the paragraph provides the real-world physical context, the character reminding him/herself of what they’re actually supposed to be doing that this fantasy sequence has been distracting them from.]

I’d like to pause here to point out that this close-third-person stair-pausing bears a resemblance to a story from Saunders’ second story collection Pastoralia called “Winky,” in which the titular character frequently gets distracted from what she’s supposed to be doing by her own thoughts:

For crying out loud! What was she doing? Was she crazy? It was time to get going! Why was she standing in the kitchen thinking?

She dashed up the stairs with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.

Halfway up she paused at a little octagonal window and looked dreamily out, thinking, In a way, we own those trees. Beyond the Thieus’ was the same old gap in the leaning elms showing the same old meadow that would soon be ToyTowne. But for now it still reminded her of the kind of field where Christ with his lap full of flowers had suffered with the little children, which was a scene she wanted them to put on the cover of the singing album about God, which would have a watercolor cover like Shoulder My Burden, which was a book though but anyways it had this patient donkey piled high with crates and behind it this mountain, and the point of that book was that if you take on the worries and cares of others, Lord Jesus will take on your cares and worries, so that was why the patient donkey and why the crates, and why she prided herself on keeping house for Neil-Neil and never asked him for help.

Holy cow, what was she doing standing on the landing! Was she crazy? Today she was rushing!

In Alison’s “Victory Lap” sequence, Saunders breaks through to a new degree of closeness to the character with the use of the imperative. Whereas in the above passage, Winky remains a “she” to the reader, a pronoun that keeps the reader at a sort of arm’s length (“she” is not “me”), the imperative gets rid of pronouns altogether, allowing the reader to feel like they’re actually thinking the character’s thoughts. Picking up where we left off with Alison:

Egads! One found oneself still standing at the top of the stairs.

[Continue writing exercise: An exclamation followed by the character referring to him/herself as “one” and reminding him/herself of where they literally physically are.]

(In both Alison’s and Winky’s thought processes, it’s an external impetus that cues the train of thought–in Alison’s, case the staircase itself, in Winky’s, the meadow she can see out the window from the stairs.)

In “Victory Lap”’s next paragraph, the character finally moves from the stationary position she’s technically been in since the story started. The use of the more encompassing pronoun “one” as opposed to “she” eases us into this paragraph, which switches into the imperative (Alison giving orders to herself) at first, but then backs out a layer to “you” and then “someone” before switching back to the non-pronoun imperative.   

Do the thing where, facing upstairs, hand on railing, you hop down the stairs one at a time, which was getting a lot harder lately, due to, someone’s feet were getting longer every day, seemed like.

[Continue writing exercise: start with an imperative, the character giving an order to him/herself, which conveys the character’s physical action not just via direct order (which would read something much more boring like “Go downstairs”), but by labeling a two-step interaction with a specific physical item in the character’s surroundings–the description should get complex enough to warrant the character referring to him/herself as “you.” The description of the action then needs to transition to some interference with that action that encompasses a physical trait of the character that the character dislikes and thus distances him/herself from by referring to him/herself as “someone.” This “someone” part of the sentence is an opportunity to slip in both expository info about the character and to show how the character feels about him/herself.]

The passage continues from there in the pronoun-less mode:

Pas de chat, pas de chat.

Changement, changement.

Hop over thin metal thingie separating hallway tile from living-room rug.

Curtsy to self in entryway mirror.

[Continue writing exercise: Write four single-sentence paragraphs in a row. The first two may or may not be in a different language, but should be imperatives (orders the character is giving him/herself. The paragraphs, particularly the final two, should convey an evolution in the character’s physical movement–each paragraph, or at least the last two, should identify a change in the character’s immediate location by labeling an object in that immediate location that clearly identifies it.]

Next, the character addresses an offstage character in her head. Then in the following sentence the character refers to herself with the pronoun “we,” as in the royal “we,” as in she’s thinking of herself grandly again, but she’s also in mind of current real-life circumstances–her upcoming recital. She also misuses a word.

Come on, Mom, get here. We do not wish to be castrigated by Ms. Callow again in the wings.

[Continue writing exercise: First sentence a directive to a previously unreferenced third party. The next sentence has the character referring to self as “we” and referencing the thing the character’s supposed to be doing (or something related to it) that the fantasy has been a distraction from–note that this reference must itself be a reference and introduction to a new character.]

Next, the thought of that newly introduced character that the main character has thought of in relation to thinking of the pressing immediate event that would naturally be on her mind leads the main character to think more about that new character outside the context of the pressing event, which then leads into a rapidly expanding train of thought:

Although actually she loved Ms. C. So strict! Also loved the other girls in class. And the girls from school. Loved them. Everyone was so nice. Plus the boys at her school. Plus the teachers at her school. All of them were doing their best. Actually, she loved her whole town. That adorable grocer, spraying his lettuce! Pastor Carol, with her large comfortable butt! The chubby postman, gesticulating with his padded envelopes! It had once been a mill town. Wasn’t that crazy? What did that even mean?

[Continue writing exercise: The first thought, about the newly introduced character outside of the immediately pressing event’s context, should pivot on an “Although”–the character has one thought about that character, but one comes on its heels that contradicts/undermines that thought. The second sentence (not a complete one, note) is a brief exclamation about a particular quality of this new character. The third sentence transitions the thought process outward to something naturally related to this new context for that character that’s been introduced, the context that doesn’t have anything to do with the immediately pressing event. The fourth sentence expands the train of thought to something else peripherally connected. Next sentence emphasizes the feeling and has no subject, which means no pronoun. The next sentence is a complete one offering an explanation for the emphasized feeling. The next sentence is incomplete, shoving something else under the umbrella of the emphasized feeling. The next sentence is still incomplete and shoves still something else under that emphasized-feeling umbrella. The followup to that one is another full-sentence explanation of why the emphasized feeling. The next sentence is a complete one in which the character is referred to with third-person pronoun and expands the emphasized feeling still further. The three sentences following this are all fragments, all exclamations, all presenting new characters (again under the umbrella of explaining the emphasized feeling), all present the characters with either indirect label or proper name; note that the clauses that follow these introductions have a subtle difference: for the first character it’s an action commonly performed, for the second it’s a physical trait, and the third goes back to the commonly performed action. That is, the clause in the second half of the first sentences in this trio should be a [gerund], while the clause in the second half of the second should be a prepositional phrase, while the clause in the second half of the third should return to a [gerund]. Then a statement about the collective community the characters mentioned in the prior sentence trio are a part of, then a question about that statement, and finally, a question about that question.]

The next paragraph subtly introduces a reference to something that will soon become relevant to the plot:

Also she loved her house. Across the creek was the Russian church. So ethnic! That onion dome had loomed in her window since her Pooh footie days. Also loved Gladsong Drive. Every house on Gladsong was a Corona del Mar. That was amazing! If you had a friend on Gladsong, you already knew where everything was in his or her home.

Someone going to that Russian church has seen her around her house and, attracted to her, will soon be knocking on her door with some malevolent intentions.

[Continue writing exercise: The first sentence, a complete one with third-person pronoun, shoves something else under that emphasized feeling umbrella from the previous paragraph. The second sentence describes a physical object/entity in physical relation to that new thing introduced in the first sentence. The object/entity introduced in this sentence will prove to have some significant plot relevance. The third sentence is an exclamation about the entity in the second sentence, the fourth sentence a physical trait of this entity that also invokes a specific memory for the character, manifest in a specifically named object. Next sentence we’re back to an incomplete one shoving something else under the emphasized feeling umbrella. Then an explanation for why it gets under that umbrella. Then an exclamation about that explanation. Then, the last second uses second person in a further explanation for umbrella placement that is also itself an unusual/unexpected sentiment.]

Before the important plot event that this section is all leading to (her receiving the malevolent knock on the door), we pretty much go through a whole nother version of the sequence we’ve already been through, in which the reader apprehends Alison’s movement through the house by the way she orders herself to interact with objects around the house, her happy feeling inducing a new fantasy sequence in which she has an extended dialog with a baby deer and then with the hunter who’s killed the deer’s mother. She then returns to considerations of “{special one}” and of her own specialness, while continuing to interact with her immediate physical environment via making a snack and observing the next-door neighbor boy through the window. Since this is actually the introduction of one of the story’s other POV characters, it would be good to potentially copy this passage:

Egads. Who was this wan figure, visible through the living-room window, trotting up Gladsong Drive? Kyle Boot, palest kid in all the land? Still dressed in his weird cross-country-running toggles?

The passage conveys her feeling about him with the objective correlative: by describing his toggles as “weird” Saunders conveys that Alison really thinks Kyle himself is weird.

[Continue writing exercise: introduce a new character into the POV character’s immediate physical environment–one observed from a distance. The passage, after the first one-word sentence, should pose a question that gets in a physical description of the new character. The next sentence, incomplete, names the new character and offers another snippet of physical description, still in the form of a question. The final sentence is also an incomplete-sentence question that provides a physical prop and conveys the POV character’s feeling about that character via by describing his/her feeling about the aforementioned prop.]

We get two more paragraphs after this that convey more of Alison’s feelings about Kyle and the shared history from which these feelings derive. She continues with making her snack, inducing a dialog with some poor people in her head, which leads her to considering some philosophical issues raised in a recent class discussion of hers, further underscoring Alison’s excessively optimistic worldview and characterization. Finally she’s interrupted by the knock on the door, cueing our first POV switch to the neighbor boy Kyle Boot. (Saunders’ predominant comfort zone is so deep in the character’s head as to almost almost suffocating (which some of us might find the environment of our own heads), which has often led him to incorporate multiple points of view into one story.)

Kyle Boot dashed through the garage, into the living area, where the big clocklike wooden indicator was set at All Out. Other choices included: Mom & Dad Out; Mom Out; Dad Out; Kyle Out; Mom & Kyle Out; Dad & Kyle Out; and All In.

[Continue writing exercise: POV switch time. Start with the character you had your previous POV character observe from a distance, performing the same physical action that POV character was observing. The first sentence should follow the new POV character into a location in which a physical prop is and some trait about that prop is identified. The next sentence explains more about that particular trait of that prop.]

The next paragraph consists entirely of questions:

Why did they even need All In? Wouldn’t they know it when they were All In? Would he like to ask Dad that? Who, in his excellent, totally silent downstairs woodshop, had designed and built the Family Status Indicator?

[Continue writing exercise: the questions pertain to something explained about the prop’s trait in the final sentence of the previous paragraph. The second sentence-question compounds/emphasizes that same question. The third sentence-question invokes a new character. The final sentence-question, incomplete, explicates the new character’s relationship to the trait being interrogated, thereby conveying the POV-character’s feelings toward that new character.]

This POV character sees the next POV character, the man who will try to kidnap Alison:

Holy crap. It was happening. She was marching along all meek like the trooper he’d known she’d be. He’d had her in mind since the baptism of what’s-his-name. Sergei’s kid. At the Russian church. She’d been standing in her yard, her dad or some such taking her picture.

[Continue writing exercise: Switch POVs again, introducing the new character via a concise mental declaration in the character’s voice. The next sentence should intimate that whatever’s going on currently has been long-awaited. The next sentence should show that this character is in fact currently interacting with your initial POV character (can be up to you whether this interaction is threatening or not). The next sentences reveal how and where this POV character first encountered that initial POV character–from a distance.]

At this point you’ve hopefully created three distinct characters whose mental landscapes and desires you’ve started to get a clearer picture of, characters that have interacted, whether directly or indirectly. Follow the trajectories Saunders has helped you start and see where they take you. Copy more of his paragraphs directly, if stuck.


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