The Writer’s Desk: Naming Things

My students turn in their assigned short stories. Sitting down to read the first one, I’m ready to open myself to the details and imagery. I want to see the movie playing in my head. But the screen’s mostly blank as the story busies my brain with abstractions and generalities. Still I hobble along, a few vague details keeping me going. Then, suddenly, at the bottom of page two, I find a sentence like this: “Capitan Marimba was the only Gobnabalian on Varnak 5 who knew the strange secrets of his planet’s origins.”

“What?” I say. “We’re NOT on earth? We haven’t been this whole story?”

Gee, I had imagined Capitan Marimba on earth. How silly of me!

“Okay,” I say, “let me erase the slate and try to paint the landscape of Varnak 5.” Unfortunately, the writer isn’t helping me much with that either.

I read through several more stories and find the same problem. “Where am I?” I write on each story at the bottom of the first page. Then I begin to wonder, “Is it just me?”

Since the 2011 Best American Short Stories is at hand, I open it to read the first pages of several stories. The first story, “Ceiling,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, begins with this sentence:

“When Obinze first saw her email, he was sitting in the back of his Land Rover in still Lagos traffic, his jacket slung over the front seat, a rusty-haired child beggar glued to his window, the radio turned on low to the pidgin English news on Wazobia FM.”

On that page we learn that Obinze’s driver is taking him home as Obinze reads messages on his Blackberry. Lagos is in Nigeria, we later learn.

The next story, “Housewifely Arts,” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, tell us these details on page one:

“… a Carolina road that appears infinitely flat.”

“… driving nine hours south on I-90.”

The first page mentions a GPS. The next page mentions Myrtle Beach.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Soldier of Fortune” begins like this:

“Her name was Holly Hensley, and except for the two years when her father was transferred to a naval base in Florida, her family lived across the street from mine. This was on Beechwood Drive, in Corpus Christi, Texas.”

Later in that paragraph we read,

“In 1986, the year everything happened at the Hensley house, Sam was three.”

And another story, about a Russian lecturer, is titled “Gurov in Manhattan.” What more do we need to know?

In each of these stories, we know within the first page that we’re in the Milky Way galaxy, on a planet called Earth, in a particular city or state, at a particular time in history. More than that, we have hints of the socioeconomic context of the story.

I’ve been tempted to make a rule for my students: “On page one of every story that you write for this class, you must name the city, the state or country, and the year.” Of course, I never go that far. But I wonder if it would help.

But wait a minute! Go back! “Socioeconomic context of the story?” This is fiction writing, not social science analysis. Well, I don’t know what else to call it. We might simply say “setting.” And, of course, the reader will never think “socioeconomic context.” But these things are very important to the reader’s understanding of the entire novel or story.

In the first few paragraphs of my novel Vernal Promises, the reader learns that it’s 3:00 a.m. on a winter morning in a trailer park in Vernal, Utah. Even readers who’ve never been to Vernal know a lot about this “socioeconomic context.” They would know, for example, that this isn’t the story of a wealthy young capitalist in Nigeria communicating on his Blackberry with an old lover he met while at Yale.

I have a theory about all this.

In the first few pages of a novel or story, during that exposition phase—no easy task, those first few pages—good writers give us certain necessary details, enmeshed with plot and character. As readers, we pick up these details unconsciously. We don’t focus on them because they’re like bricks in a beautiful building. Ah, but the writer must be aware of them! So I go to class and write this sentence on the board:

“That which the reader unconsciously processes, the writer must consciously provide.”

Picture a woman in a bookstore, taking an unfamiliar book off the shelf. Before she even reads the first sentence, she knows quite a few important things about that book, things she takes in unconsciously. Standing in the Mystery/Suspense section, she expects a certain genre of writing. On the book’s cover, the author’s name is larger than the book title, so it’s probably the work of an established author. On the cover is a picture. A man in a Western-style suit walks toward a country house with a porch. His arms hang at his sides, and in his right hand he holds a rifle, the barrel angled downward.

The woman turns to the first page and reads, “Jim Allen was driving his vintage ’68 Corvette down Texas State Highway 6 when he heard the announcement on the radio. Federal agents had surrounded the compound of the Branch Davidian Church in Waco.”

Conscious of it or not, she already knows several things. The story is set in Texas. That one word—“Texas”—evokes in her mind a host of images and notions from television, movies, books, and conversation. If Jim Allen drives a vintage Corvette, he’s either got some money, or a whole lot of debt. She also knows the novel is set in the past, when the David Koresh standoff occurred.

But someone might say, “I can’t tell the reader that my novel is set in Orem, Utah. Orem is boring. Who would read a novel set in Orem?”

Friends, that concern was thoroughly vanquished by a movie called Napolean Dynamite. Preston, Idaho? Who would care about a movie set there? National and international audiences, that’s who!

This week I had a student who’d written a series of thoughtful creative non-fiction vignettes about herself, four other BYU-Idaho coeds, and their birth control pills. Funny thing was, she didn’t place it at BYU-Idaho. Why not? Could the essay be less effective for doing so? I don’t think so. Fact is, it will be richer for it, simply because BYU-Idaho is one of the few places where that little pill can be problematic in the lives of young women who are feeling pressured to get pregnant.

“There is power in naming things,” poet Greg Pape said. Take advantage of that power.

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11 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Naming Things

  1. Wm says:

    I think writers should be careful not to overcorrect based on this advice (for some authors infodumping is the problem — not a paucity of grounding detail), but on the whole, yes, it’s good when authors artfully signal the socioeconomic and historical and geographical setting.

    • Jack Harrell says:

      That’s interesting that you say that. For some reason those info-dumpers never make it up to Rexburg, Idaho, where I hang around. And you’re right about the “artfully” placed part.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    How is it, teaching creative writing at that level? Mostly suffering? Does the occasional sublime make up for it?

    • Jack Harrell says:

      Yes, very occasionally. The thing is to encourage and help them see it’s a long road, but that’s okay. I tell them that while the career of an Olympic gymnast can be over at 18, the writer’s career may not really begin until 30.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    So how about this one: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    I suspect Tolkien does okay on your first-page criterion, given that the next entire paragraph is all about describing Bilbo’s hobbit hole. But it does make me wonder: how are expectations different for different genres? You mentioned the case of standing in the mystery/suspense section. Someone standing in the sf&f section obviously is likely to have different expectations.

    I don’t particularly want to defend your student, because frankly it sounds like your student *didn’t* give the necessary details for the reader the start of his story. My point, however, is that your expectation of starting on Planet Earth isn’t necessarily a reasonable projection of what your student’s readers might expect.

    Just as an experiment, I went looking at some widely celebrated sf&f short fiction: “Ender’s Game” and “Kingsmeat” by Orson Scott Card, “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, and “He Who Shapes” and “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny. I was frankly surprised at the uniformity of results. In every case, significant elements of the setting are rather deliberately held back at the beginning. Instead, most of them start with a close-up shot of the main character and his situation, and only later expand to give a larger sense of context. (The single semi-exception is “For a Breath I Tarry,” where we know that the main character is a computer, set on an Earth of some kind, which we learn about 2 pages in is a post-human Earth — but there’s still much about the setting that unfolds only as we progress through the story.)

    My request is this. If you’re going to teach students who are hoping to write science fiction and fantasy stories, inform yourself about that genre. Don’t generalize based on the standards of mainstream literary realism.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    I should add that I completely agree with you about the value of specificity, and particularly Mormon specificity among Mormon writers. A cause of dismay for me in reading the Whitney finalists has been how few of them choose to evoke a specifically Mormon setting. It seems to me that in doing so, they neglect what could in some cases be a strength of their writing.

    I also agree that the beginning of a story requires a kind of necessary grounding. The question is: What allowable forms can that grounding take? What is the essence, as opposed to the specific of a particular genre or introductory strategy? I suggest the following as a starting-point:
    - The beginning of the story should include something specific and vivid enough to create a picture that draws in the reader.
    - Nothing in the beginning should cause (unintended) whiplash as the reader goes along and finds out more about what’s going on.

    • Jack Harrell says:

      Yes, I like that phrase “(unintended) whiplash.” For me, the metaphor is a canvas. My canvas is blank at the beginning. The writer’s cues cause me to begin painting a picture. The problem arises when I have to erase things and start over.

      And you’re right about genre. If I told all my students, “We’re writing sci-fi in here,” I’d react differently. Instead, I tell them in advance, “My default setting is literary fiction set on planet Earth in 2012. As a reader, that’s who I am.”

      • James Goldberg says:

        Jonathan’s example of starting small and then zooming out probably works in either Sci Fi or literary fiction. The take-home lesson is not actually that you must establish the whole world in the first sentence, it’s that you need to spare readers the mental whiplash of radically revising their visual creations.

        If you start in an apartment, we don’t necessarily need to know where on earth it is the POV character walks out the door…or maybe until someone else walks in. But if the carpet color is going to matter later, we need to know right now or we’ll create a mental image before it’s supplied.

        If you start with a close-up of a man carving a horse, and have to wait until page 2 to find out that the horse is part of the creation myth of Varnak 5 (which was, everyone knows, first terraformed for settlement by a wandering race of hyper-intelligent star-faring horses who hold the secret to utopia…[or was it???]), that’s fine. But if you start with a guy driving down the street and don’t tell us he’s in a sleek new hovercraft watching the kyrills go by…well, we’re gonna feel a bit dizzy when we have to morph depression-era rural Kansas (which is my default frame of reference for everything) into a Varnakian commercial district.

  5. Amen, amen, amen, to the need for the reader to be able to visualize things in the story as quickly as possible.

    Something else to watch for as you write: poetic language that fails to produce any kind of clear image in the reader’s mind.

    I’d like to offer a possible list of what it would be helpful to have at the beginning of every story (the shorter the story, the sooner):

    A character in a setting with a hint of the problem/situation.

    I submit that if you can get the name of the character and where he/she is, and that hint about the situation in the very first sentence, that’s even better. (aka: “the hook”)

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