NGCW-Chapter 9

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All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

1. What effect is created by telling certain aspects of the story ‘out of sequence’? How would this be a different story if the events were simply told in chronological order?

The basic story is different from the basic plot in that the story is told out of sequence, in order to have the greatest impact on the reader. The flashbacks in the end add depth to the story, forcing the readers to ask questions like ‘why’ and ‘how’ instead of ‘and then.’

2. Is there an epiphany in this story? Do any of the characters change in any way? If yes, explain how.

The characters do not necessarily change but come alive. The main character starts the story with one perspective of his brother and ends with another. As a result, Sonny as a person comes alive and becomes fully dimensional through the narrator’s epiphany of who he is.

NGCW-Chapter 8

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All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

Hills like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

1. Point out places where word choice, syntax, and gestures help us understand how something is said.

“I don’t care about me.”
“Well, I care about you.”
“Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.”
“I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”
The girl stood up and talked to the end of the station…

2. Point out places where the adage “dialogue is what characters do to one another” rings true.

“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
“Oh cut it out.”
“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”
“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”
“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”
“That was bright.”

3. Point out places where the dialogue is deliberately non-grammatical in order to make it sound spontaneous and reveal emotion.

“Would you do something for me now?”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

Inside the Bunker by John Sack

1. How does dialogue add to the essay? Would the essay have the same impact if there were no dialogue in it? Why or why not?

The dialogue illustrates the narrative of the story adding to the story considerably. The essay would not be the same without it and will likely be less believable as a result.

2. How does the author make the dialogue sound spontaneous? What techniques does he use?

By interspersing the dialogue and the narrative, the author makes the spoken words sound spontaneous and not forced.

3. How is the dialogue used to characterize the various speakers, as well as move the essay forward?

The dialogue illustrates the opinions of various speakers, directly from them. Instead of paraphrasing, the words and opinions are more realistic than they would be in narrative form.

NGCW-Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Part III

All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

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The Swimmer by John Cheever

1. When do you first realize that this story might be told completely in a realistic mode?

As Neddy begins his journey to swim home, the readers slowly gets glimpses that the story is not entirely realistic. Some people are not home when he expects them to be, his mistress doesn’t want him anymore, and his friend has been sick for awhile. Neddy is not aware of these things and he starts to question his memory.

2. How does Cheever gradually draw us into the fantastical nature of the events of the story?

Neddy’s friends grow up and deal with adult issues while he does not. He continues to deny reality to the point that his ex-mistress even asks him, “Will you ever grow up?” Time passes without Neddy realizing it and the reader is gradually drawn into his slightly fantastical world.

3. There are two possible explanations for the aspects of the story that don’t make sense (from a view of “reality” as we know it). What are they? What do you believe?

The possibilities are that Neddy is either crazy or dreaming or the entire story is a fictional metaphor. I tend to see it as a metaphor, similar to Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

NGCW-Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Part III

All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

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The Lady with the Little Dog by Anton Chekhov

1. What kind of narrator does this story have? How much does he/she know? What is his/her distance from the events of the story?

This is a third person who follows the main character, Gurov, intimately, both his thoughts and feelings. The narrator is not entirely omniscient because he is mainly focused on Gurov and not on the thoughts/feelings of Anna Sergeevna. The narrator is also not particularly distant but close to Gurov, since, as a character, he is fairly aware of himself.

2. What are the pivotal moments of the story? Is there an epiphany? Or multiple epiphanies? Point out those places where the character Gurov is enlightened or realizes some truth about his situation.

The story has multiple epiphanies but not one main ending or conclusion. Here is an example: “He had two lives: and apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filed with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret.”

3. What is the resolution of the story? What do you make of resolutions like this (where nothing is really resolved)?

There is no resolution since the story is more of a slice of life. It is merely a peek into the lives of these two people and I personally really enjoy these kind of tales.

Moorise by Penny Wolfson

1. What kind of narrator does this essay have?
The essay is written in first person and very close. The narrator is the mother of a son with muscular dystrophy. His whole life is a slow descent into death and he will be dead before he’s thirty. The story is that of a mother dealing with this fact. 

2. In what ways does the essay reflect the narrator’s story?
The narrator and the author seem as one but they might not be.

3. How would this be different if the author had chosen to tell this using a third person narrator?
From the third person perspective, the essay would appear more like fiction. It depends on the type of third person that the author chose (either omniscient or direct observer) and that would as a result also affect how much the readers would know from the son’s point of view. As it stands now, the entire essay is all about the mother.

NGCW-Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Part III

All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

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Brownies by ZZ Packer

       1. How is dialogue used in this story? How important are the scenes (as opposed to the narration)?

The scenes provide the background information while the dialogue shows action in real time, as seen from the perspective of the child. The narration is marvelous but the scenes are extremely effective in illustrating exactly what is happening to the main character.

       2. How does the dialogue characterize the narrator-both in what she says herself and how she responds to what other people say?

The story is about a Brownie troop of fourth-grade African American girls at summer camp. Laurel, the narrator, believes that one of the white girls racially insulted them. At the end of the story, she tells a similar story involving a white Mennonite family and comes to a realization that not everything is so cut and dry, “suddenly knew that there was something mean in the world that I could not stop.” She tells the story in dialogue but realizes the hypocrisy of her words in narration. 

3.What do you think of the colloquialism of the dialogue? Does it work for you? Does it seem realistic?

The colloquialism are realistic. It is easy to understand and childlike, given that the characters speaking are children.


1. What is the mix of scene vs. narration in this piece? How well does this balance work?

The story, narrated by the author in first person, provides the reader with his thoughts as well as the ‘objective’ scenes between him and his father. The narration gives the reader his reactions to his father’s disapproval and appears to be fairly well balanced.

2. The piece spans a great deal of time. How does the author start and stop the clock of the essay?

The first part of the story takes place around the same time that the author won the Hemingway award. Then there is a space and the new paragraph begins, “In the year that followed…” This section lasts about a page and is followed by another space and the next paragraph “After months of elusiveness…” Even though spacing and indications of time passing are the only things that author uses to stop and start the clock, these techniques are quite effective.

3. Can you point to some sections of narration that are convincing because of their specificity?

“Daily I relieved the particulars: the shirt taut across my chest, the heat of his breath on the back of my neck, the flood of light as the door swung wide…” Almost all of the narration is full of specific details that enrich the story as a whole.

NGCW-Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Part III

All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

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The Making of a Story by Francine Prose

1. Do you agree with Francine Prose’s conclusions about the best way to define a short story? Why or why not?

According to Prose, “unlike most novels, great short stories make us marvel at their integrity, their economy.” She describes rules or rather conventions and then debunks them, illustrating that “we know what a short story is, just as we know what it is to be afraid, or to fall in love.” In terms of the definition of a short story I agree with her, “we know what a short story is: a work of fiction of a certain length, a length with apparently no minimum.” Short stories follow certain conventions but that’s about all.

2. Can you think of any short stories that you love (or even like) that transgress all the so-called ‘rules’ of what makes for a short story?

I enjoy Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty but their short stories are to a large degree responsible for establishing the conventions of the short story. The convention that their stories typically transgress is the epiphany at the end. One of the stories I really enjoyed from this book is Denis Johnson’s Emergency which also lacks an epiphany.

3. Is there any more specific way to define the ‘sense of artistic whole’ that Prose talks about? Why or why not?

No I don’t think there’s really a way to define the ‘sense of artistic whole.’ I agree that as far as a short story goes there are only conventions but no clear definitions or rules. One day someone might break every rule in the book and create something marvelous and exciting in the process. The sense of the artistic whole is for the readers and critics to debate and decide after the story is written.

1. How do the opening paragraphs set the tone for the story? What is that tone?

Elliot’s drinking problem is mentioned within the first paragraph of the rather long story. “Old hopes tormented him like phantom limbs, but he did not drink.” The other paragraphs mention gray November day, childless Christmas and January blizzards. “In his mind’s eye he could see dead leaves rattling along brick gutters and savor that day’s desperation.” The tone is somber and sober, just like he is.

2. What purpose does Blankenship serve in the story? How would that story be different if he were not in it?

Elliot is a social worker and Blankenship is a client: “every time he got arrested the court sent him to the psychiatrists and the psychiatrists, who spoke little English, sent him to Elliot.” He is a person for whom Elliot feels more contempt for than even himself. If he were not in it than the reader might perceive Elliot as just a Debbie-Downer type of character, someone who likes to wallow in his own misery. But his work with Blankenship depicts Elliot as someone whose boredom and apathy about life is justified. 

3. What are some of the ‘mysteries’ rendered powerfully in this story? (What things do you continue to wonder about after the story has ended.)

The reader is left wondering what will happen between Elliot and his wife, between Elliot and the skiing neighbor Anderson, and between Elliot and the man who threatened his wife on the phone. The story began and ended without much resolution and is written in a slice of life manner. Nevertheless, while the story leaves us with many mysteries they are not unfinished cliffhangers which make the author appear lazy about his writing.

4. What aspects about the relationship between the main character and his wife are surprising yet convincing?

She is angry about his drinking but not very angry since she doesn’t threaten to leave. She is resigned to Elliot as he is, probably because her own job as a child abuse attorney is so overwhelming and disconcerting. While both seem to love and care about one another they also appear resigned to the lives they lead. Everything is just the way it always was and will continue to be and that is a very convincing element in the story.  

NGCW-Chapter 3

All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

Chapter 3: Part III features two short fiction pieces, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Nebraska by Ron Hansen.


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Chapter 3: Part III

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

1. How do the concrete details affect the story? At what point does O’Brien slip in some abstractions to good effect?

The concrete details of all five senses ground the seemingly commonplace Vietnam War story and create exciting fiction. O’Brien does exactly what Alice Plante suggests in the beginning of the chapter, “choosing your trees-and rendering them precisely-is at the heart of all good writing” (pg. 107). Details transform a generic war story into something concrete, memorable, and unique. The abstraction comes later in the story but the abstraction is also always bookended by details, bringing the reader back to the specifics of things that the characters are carrying and the specifics of the characters themselves.

2. Why tell us that Lavender is dead so early in the story? How does that impact the suspense? Why do you want to read on if you know that Lavender is dead, i.e. you know the whole story?

 The details of the story make the plot less important. The reader no longer wants to discover what happened but rather what Lieutenant Cross and essential the reader is going to learn from what happened. Lavender dies early so that Cross can reflect on his death and war in general. The suspense isn’t gone because the story isn’t about him but about Cross growing as a soldier, an individual and a man.

3. Notice that the full story has been told by the end of the third page. Then O’Brien goes back and tells it again, in more detail. Why structure the story this way?

It is the details in life that illustrate people’s true character and life’s true significance. The story is told over again to illustrate what Cross has learned and to make Lavender’s death mean something. Even the title of the story, The Things They Carried, is focused on the details of war and not the big picture. People say that there are only six real stories in the world and the purpose of a writer’s job is to illustrate the details that make them fresh and new so that the reader can think about them in a different way.

4. What is the story ultimately about? What happens at the end when Jimmy Cross burns the letters and decides to be a stricter leader? Is he merely facing reality, or is he substituting one fantasy (about Martha) with another (that he can control what happens to his unit by stricter behavior)?

The story is ultimately about choices and Cross burns the letters to make different choices than he did in the past. In a way, he stops living in his daydreams of Martha and tries to do his best for his soldiers. Perhaps he is substituting one reality for another but he is also trying to live without regrets. Years later, when he is an old man, he might realize that men under him would have died with or without the stricter rules but right now he wants to live knowing he did everything he could to save their lives. The army taught him rules and regulations and he wants to follow them in hopes that they will prevent unnecessary bloodshed.

Nebraska by Ron Hansen

1. How does Hansen manage to capture the entire region in just a few pages of text?

Hansen provides the reader with details about the land, the town, and the people who live there. There are no main characters or few characters at all but there are people who are citizens of the town. His details make them part of the landscape and important contributors to the image of Nebraska.

2. What are some images that spring to mind after you’ve read the piece?

I want to know more about the inhabitants that are mentioned on the last page. I want to know more about the “sixty year old man named Adolf Schooley” that is “a boy again in bed” and I want to know more about Mrs. Antoinette Heft who is “at the Home Restaurant…looking up at the stars the Pawnee Indians looked at.”

3. What techniques does Hansen use that you could ‘steal’ to make your own work more vivid and emotionally satisfying?

The technique of describing what the town not only has but also doesn’t have. Hansen points out that “an outsider is only aware of what isn’t” and then lists details that that the town does not have, like a bookshop, a pharmacy, and a picture show. The details of what isn’t there is just as important to capturing the essence of Nebraska as the details of what is.