So last week I tried this wacky writing exercise I came up with. Wacky, because it’s time consuming. (If you’re feeling wacky, too, you can check it out on the Fiction Workshop syllabus under Week 4). Basically, I took a short story that wasn’t working. Well, okay, fine. It sucked. It really, really sucked. But something interesting was there under all the crud.
So I thought hey, maybe if I cut and paste its paragraphs in a different order, it might make it easier to glimpse the diamond buried in there somewhere.
I started off with the story structures defined by Joan Silber in her book The Art of Time in Fiction (Bookshop.org). Just for reference, here’s how she lays it out (with little parentheticals from yours truly):
- Classic Time (aka Linear Time)
- Long Time (aka Your Story Follows Your Character’s Whole Life)
- Switchback Time (past and present, present and future, back and forth we go)
- Slowed Time (aka Marcel Proust and his madeleines, aka sensory details slow things way down)
- Fabulous Time (magic!)
- Time As Subject (metafiction, experimental fiction, you get the picture)
All us clever readers can think of stories in each of these categories. And plenty of stories fall into at least two. Still, it’s helpful when I’m revising to think how is this story laid out right now? And how else might it be laid out?
It turned out that my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad story was written in linear fashion. Boring. Hey, if you like everything in chronological order, go for it! We all have different tastes. But that just isn’t (usually) for me. I need a little give in my timelines, a little bounce. More trampoline than yardstick.
So I broke my story into brief sections that felt natural. No rules here. I used my gut. Then, I copied and pasted each section onto a PowerPoint slide (hey, I’m super comfortable doing creative work in PowerPoint thanks to years working with curriculum teams in Beijing—they taught me well).
Once it was all laid out like that, it was even easier to see I’d written it chronologically. Maybe I have to. Maybe that’s just how my brain works when it’s coming up with ideas. I don’t know. But there it was.
And it didn’t work.
So next, I tried a frame structure. It seemed like an easy way to introduce a little suspense: Will these two women still be friends at the end of this wedding reception? But it was forced and felt fake. Like I was trying too hard. Which, hey, I was.
So then I tried Silber’s long time. What if I went back all the way to the main character’s childhood and shared the real inciting incident, the even that gave her this monstrous insecurity that drives her to both see her friend as perfect and try to control her? And what if I end it with her as an old woman who—Nope. Can you feel it, too? It’s even worse than before.
So switchback time then. I decided to try that next because I wanted to. Why did I want to? I had no idea. I just did. The way as a kid on the playground you’d watch other kids scream gleefully all the way down the slide, and you felt this tug in your belly: you wanted to do that. Why? Because it looked fun.
Switchback time, zigzag time, fluid time, whatever you want to call it always looks fun to me. It’s one of the many, many reasons I love Toni Morrison and Olga Tokarczuk and Brit Bennett. They are some of the best at switchback time. Team Switchback’s finest. They make it look fun.
So I tried that, and surprise, surprise, the story was better. Not good. After all, it’s still only a couple drafts later. But better.
So back to the MFA assignment. After trying out a few story structures, I was supposed to write 250 words about what I’d learned about my writing preferences, my story, and structure in general. Not only had I learned that I can’t say no to a good switchback structure, but I’d learned that all my preferences as both reader and writer lean in this direction. Why?
For a start, I believe in causation—not only in the effects of our own actions but in how profoundly other people’s choices impact us. As a 14-year-old with a sadistic father, I started writing in my journals about this big web of life that connected us altogether, that was inescapable, and that offered us the opportunity to ensure that love and light and truth might never be lost—it just traveled somewhere else for a little while.
This conception of human existence and our interdependence has never left me. With age, it has in fact grown closer to a conviction, something close to certainty. Our actions always impact others, and theirs unavoidably impact us. This worldview seems closer to George Saunders’s description of a story as a “transfer of energy,” and he describes this transfer as possible through variation, escalation, and specification. Even the more experimental pieces I read last week by Jamaica Kincaid (“Girl”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Heat”) still contain these elements. Patterns, events, and people vary and escalate until, by the end, we are left with characters who are irrevocably changed and who, perhaps, have left us a little changed, too.
Switchback time reflects my belief that everything is connected, across time and space. Events that happened decades ago may seem to lay dormant inside us until one day that connection happens, and its effect comes into full bloom, for better or for worse. I think this is one possible reason why many stories about trauma and memory use this structure. It feels true to our lived experience and as Joyce Carol Oates said in her Masterclass, true to how memory works.
As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And no story structure better illustrates this experience of time than switchback structure, allowing us to set the present beside the past so they may enter into a dialogue with each other. Or perhaps, more truthfully, so that we may better hear the conversation between them.
So next time a story isn’t working, it might be worth a try. Think about your perception of time. What story structures do you like best? And how does your character experience time? Then revise until the structure feels closer to that character’s truth. It’s unlikely to make a bad story great. But it just might make it better.