Here are some questions I was asked about “Feast,” one of my stories, as part of a class called Writing for Social Change.

  • What inspired you to write this short story? Was there an event that led to it?

No specific event led to the story. I’ve been giving homeless people cash for years and wondered, usually in the act of trying to be helpful, if I was doing a good thing. At least once, my son and I have been together and been asked for help or decided to be helpful. A friend from New York, while visiting Salt Lake City, commented on the number of homeless men here. Members of my immediate and extended family have debated the issue. I have relatives who are working, in their way, to alleviate extreme poverty in developing nations. The question of how to best be helpful, it seems, ought to be a more important one. Rather than an event, the collection of influences listed above led me to the story.

  • What did you hope to understand about social class by writing “Feast?”

I was less interested in understanding social class than in presenting the experience of a character. Social class is undoubtedly one of the forces active in that character’s life, an extremely important one, one more influential than he knows, but it’s not the only force acting on him. He needs to make decisions about what kind of person to be, what kind of relationships to have, with a range of forces seeking to influence him. Part of what I wanted to do was capture his experience within this web of forces. This seemed worth doing because most readers will probably be living within a similar set of forces or influences. The character’s hypothetical experience can be something readers consider in light of their own lived experiences.

  • Was this piece meant to be about social change? Or, how do you think it fits the category of writing for social change?

I remember, as I wrote it (in 1989), not being sure how it would end. I remember asking myself why the sorts of events I was trying to describe didn’t happen more often in the real world and then what would happen if they did. Those questions led me toward an ending. Sometimes the ending seems like a literal cop out.  I remember not wanting the story to be didactic. Didacticism is counterproductive. Years ago, I reread the story and felt it was. This morning, it didn’t seem so, or at least not in terms of homelessness.

The story is about social change in that it poses a question about a problem. Fictional characters model a hypothetical solution, rather than proscribing one.

  • Do you think that fiction is more effective than academic writing/argument? Why or why not?

There are several ways of thinking about this question. One is that fiction is argument by another means. It appeals more directly to ethos and pathos, for example, than academic writing and argument. The difference between fiction and argument is one of degree, of which appeals are emphasized and which strategies are used. Fiction brings about social change, perhaps, using a different set of tools than more overt arguments.

Another way of thinking about this question is that fiction generally encourages empathy, shapes group identities and reinforces cultural norms. While they are revisable, these identities and norms are also foundational, glacial. They suggest who gets to be human and who gets to be, among other things, fed. Who is treated how, in other words. These narratives need to be questioned, revised, and shaped, but such changes happen extraordinarily slowly. The stories we tell each other, in tiny but persistent ways, influence larger cultural norms. Whether parables or fairy tales, part of the reason stories are persistent is that they are memorable and that they are repeated and recycled often.

Academic writing and arguments also influence these larger norms, but not at the glacial level. Academic writing and arguments happen within a context shaped in part by cultural norms and those norms have in turn been shaped by stories, some of them extremely old and some in dire need of revision.

  • In your own words, what is the message you hoped to convey to your readers?

These aren’t my own words, exactly, but I like them: “Be excellent to each other,” especially, I’d add, when doing so is difficult.



A ticket to escape

Alexander Chee:

To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth but into it. My job is to make something happen in a space barely larger than the span of your hand, behind your eyes, distilled out of all that I have carried, from friends, teachers, people met on planes, people I have seen only in my mind, all my mother and father ever did, every favorite book, until it meets and distills from you, the reader, something out of the everything it finds in you. All of this meets along the edge of a sentence like this one, as if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other.

If you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is this: When I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of my dead friends and poetry, you may remember your own dead friends, or if none of your friends are dead, you may imagine how it might feel to have them die. You may think of your poems or poems you’ve seen or heard. You may remember you don’t like poetry.

Something new is made from my memories and yours as you read this. It is not my memory, not yours, and it is born and walks the bridges and roads of your mind, as long as it can.

Quick, quick, quick, slow

Here are some steps toward a quick rough draft. Pick one or two from the quick beginning section, several from the quick middles section, and any option from the quick endings section.

Quick beginnings:

  • Start with an interesting bit of language
    1. Something you overheard eavesdropping or
    2. A phrase that is stuck in your head
  • Start with a character’s name and with that character doing something
  • Put something you like in the story
  • Put a thing or situation that makes you nervous in the story
  • Start with an accusation or an interdiction

Quick middles:

  • Make things
    1. Complicated for the main character
    2. Worse for the main character
  • Show power shift as a result of a character’s action
  • Let characters think about
    1. Their actions
    2. The events of the story
    3. Another character
  • Show power shift again as a result of an action
  • Show power shifting once more
  • Coincidences and dreams
    1. Can get characters into trouble
    2. But never out of it

Quick endings:

  • Show power shifting irrevocably
    1. Always with the main character as a primary witness
    2. As a result of the character’s action
  • Show at least one of the following
    1. A process begun earlier in the story is completed
    2. A restatement/return/echo of language from earlier in the story
  • Clearly show a change in the character or a reversal of roles
  • Resolve the question of “what’s going to happen” in a brief summary


Include many, many images. Be willing to revise extensively and repeatedly.


Points of view are flexible

The main point of any point of view has to be not confusing readers; that’s so central it often goes without saying. In my efforts not to be confusing, however, I sometimes don’t allow myself to see some of the possible flexibility points of view provide. Crossing to Safety, for example, is clearly in first person, but consider these sentences:

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?”

Suppose they are sitting on Aunt Emily’s porch, looking down across waist-high ferns and raspberry bushes to the lake. It is a day of traveling clouds. The porch is a sheltered pocket, though the wind is strong enough to scrape limbs across the roof.

Almost without exception, the next thirty-four pages are the first-person narrator providing readers with details of the inner lives of other characters. The narrator does remind readers periodically that he is imagining these inner lives. Contrasts between the narrator’s suppositions and the actual inner lives of characters (as they might have been revealed by dialogue) aren’t obvious.

The next time I write in first person, I’ll use this sort of narrator.

(What’s a good name for it, by the way? Not omniscient, because the narrator doesn’t really claim to know those inner lives. Unreliable doesn’t seem quiet right, either.)

The shrunken draft

I’m not sure where I first heard of it, but creating a “shrunken draft” can be a way to get to know a long draft.

  1. Ask yourself what specific element of fiction writing would you like the next draft of your narrative to focus on.
  2. Highlight that specific element of fiction writing in an electronic copy of your rough draft. For example, highlight scenes in green. Points of view, descriptions, different “times,” foreshadowing, even specific words could be highlighted. However, highlighting more than one or two elements at a time can be confusing.
  3. Reduce the font to the smallest size you’re comfortable with.
  4. Reduce the margins.
  5. Find and click on the View Multiple Pages feature of your word processing program. Continue making these and similar adjustments until you can see as much of your document as possible.
  6. Consider the ratio of highlighted to not-highlighted text. Perhaps contrasting colors reveal long sections of description and few scenes, for example. Or, a narrative you thought shared points of view evenly between two characters does not.
  7. Do the ratios your shrunken draft reveals please you? Do they fit into your expectations for the draft? What do you need to do to address differences between what you’ve got and what you’d like to have?


Toward a conclusion

Here is an excerpt from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. The excerpt is from late in the book, in the last few pages of the edition I have. I like the way it models a conclusion, and I’ll try and do something similar with the project I’m working on.

Fourteen months had passed, but Margaret still stopped at Howards End. No better plan had occurred to her. The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden. July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat, August with the cutting of the wheat. These little events would become part of her year after year. Every summer she would fear lest the well should give out, every winter lest the pipes should freeze; every westerly gale might blow the wych-elm down and bring the end of all things, and so she could not read or talk during a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now. She and her sister were sitting on the remains of Evie’s rockery, where the lawn merged into the field.

So, here are some obvious fiction writing strategies, just in this excerpt, that bring readers toward the conclusion. The passage of time is stated directly and connected to a specific place and character in the first sentence. The second sentence restates that connection to the character. The third sentence suggests the past and present in an ongoing natural process associated with the environment: “The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden.” The fourth sentence strengthens these connections, repeating them with minor and more specific differences. The fifth sentence is shorter than those around it, more general, but also connects the natural repeating processes with the character. The sixth sentence is one of the longest, is specific about the place and how it influences the character. A short seventh sentence contrasts with the previous one both in terms of length and its content: “. . .  a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now.” The last sentence focuses readers back on the characters’ present moment, using setting, and prepares for, creates an expectation of, one of the final scenes.

Below is a rough attempt to use some of the same strategies. I’m not moving toward another scene, and though I’ve got a smaller cast of characters, more of them are present as I try to wrap things up.

Eighteen months later, after Reynolds remarried, just the three of them still lived in the townhouse. Asking Elizabeth to move out was as strange an idea as asking her to stop using her feet and walk on her hands all day instead. The tiny garden they shared still needed replanting; the compost pile needed turning, little as it was. October would arrive and they would have to clean the gutters and downspouts. In December, they had to keep the walk and deck free of snow and ice. Billy would post photos of them working. The routines they set for themselves were part of how they stayed together. Every summer they would consider new air conditioning, every winter a new furnace. As Billy lost more hair he wore one cap to keep him warm and another to stop sunburn. As Cassandra got older she wrapped blankets tight to stay warm and drank ice water to stay cool, all within the same five minutes.

When Elizabeth finally moved in with one of her boyfriends, the townhouse became too tranquil, too quiet. Together they finally discovered the peace of an empty nest, but without ever having had children.




Storytelling sustains

[T]he very act of writing assumes, to begin with, that someone cares to hear what you have to say. It assumes that people share, that people can be reached, that people can be touched and even in some cases changed. . . . So many of the things in our world tend to lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts. . . . A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.

–Tobias Wolff

Asking why

Remember that a story is always trying to get at the business of human nature, to tell us that this is what it’s like to be a human being and this is how it feels. To do that we have to get below the surface. Below the action and down to the values and motivation. The important question that the story must ask is: Why? Not: What? Why does N. do what she does? One thing she does is fall in love with X. Why? How did that happen?

–John Dufresne

Planning characters

One way to characterize is for your character to make a plan. The kind of plan the character makes, the level of formality with which it is made, how the character responds when things go according to their plan, how they respond when things do not, what they do when their plan is criticized, who they share their plan with, how their setting influences their plan, how they think about and enact it, and how they revise it, all these things characterize. They also provide a plot.

The plan does not have to be to destroy or save the world. It could be to cross a room for a drink of water, but it ought to be important to your character for reasons your reader can understand.

Try drafting one.