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.
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.