15 June 2018

Story & Structure: "English 398: Fiction Workshop" in EQMM

By Art Taylor

Writers often get questions about the weight of character and plot in their works, the balance between them—which they start with when sitting down to write or which ultimately drives the story as it unfolds.

For me, another element seems both inseparable from a story's success and the key, for me, in figuring out how to write it in the first place: structure.

My fiction workshops at George Mason University focus on narrative structure first and foremost. While we obviously discuss character and plot and dialogue and setting and... well, everything that goes into making a story, the semester itself is divided into two assignments: first, write a linear story (chronologically driven start to finish, rising action leading scene by scene to a climax, Aristotelian really), and then write a modular story... which may require some explanation. In class, I assign Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design, which likens modular design to the mosaic—bits and pieces of narrative adding up to a more complex whole—and then analyzes modular stories by breaking them down into various vectors, looking at how those vectors interweave and interact.

At its most basic level, there are several ways to understand vectors as they contribute to modular design. Imagine a story that shuttles section by section between two different time frames—exploring how past events impact the present. Or a story with several different narrators, interweaving various contrasting/conflict points of view to reach a clearer truth (I did this myself in my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants," navigating the points of view of all three characters in a love triangle.) Or perhaps two seemingly unrelated tales which dovetail on some thematic point. Bell's Narrative Design is also an anthology, and one of my favorite stories is Gilmore Tamny's "Little Red," with one of the vectors narrator the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the other providing commentary from the narrator herself, analyzing the fairy tale, fretting over the themes and implications, even arguing with Little Red herself at various points.

I'll admit that I thrilled by experimental structures. Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" is one of my favorite stories, whose short sections swoop through various perspectives, fears, fantasies, and possibilities all centered on the title character. And then there's Joyce Carol Oates' "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again: Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; A Revelation of the Meaning of Life; A Happy Ending..." which plays with chronology and perspective so magically. It's a story I teach and reread regularly, I just find it so endlessly fascinating.

Both of these stories were among the inspirations for my new story in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and its full title shows a clear nod toward Oates' story: "English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More."

As the title promises, the story is an amalgam of bits and pieces—with those "note from class" providing the overall framework, punctuating the story with the kinds of advice and guidance that are common to creative writing courses: show, don't tell; use sensory detail; escalate the conflict in as many ways as possible; that sort of thing. A draft from one of the workshop's students is submitted, along with her own notes about other characters, other potential plots twists. Students comment on the draft. And then comes a discussion with the professor—that conference being a required part of the whole process. The "& More" is basically an article from the student newspaper (and I anticipate that last element is part of what prompted Kristopher Zgorski at BOLO Books to comment on the kinds of "contemporary social issues" I'm weaving into the story; thanks again, Kris, for the kind words).

The structure here may not be to everyone's tastes, I recognize that, but I hope that the plot itself will prove interesting and those characters at the core of it—basically, as one of the workshop participants comments, "James M. Cain relocated to a college campus," charting a dalliance between a college professor and one of his top students and then the fallout from that relationship.

(Though I actually teach "English 398: Fiction Workshop" at George Mason University, the story is, um, not autobiographical. Just feel the need to point that out (again and again (and again)).)

Finally on this story, I want to say how pleased I am that EQMM not only gave me a shout-out on the cover but also top billing there—even above recent MWA Grand Master Peter Lovesey, which kind of astounds me. I've already been sampling other stories in the issue—including "The Mercy of Thaddeus Burke," a terrific tale by former SleuthSayer David Dean—and look forward to reading more, with another SleuthSayer in the mix as well, Janice Law with "The Professor," another academic mystery! Looks like a great issue, and I'm honored to be part of it.


  1. I think structure does sometimes get overlooked, Art. Glad to see you talking about it.

    And congratulations on your cover Top Billing! My issue hasn't come yet, but I look forward to reading your story, as well as David's and Janice's.

  2. Congratulations on your story- i am looking forward to getting that issue.

  3. Thanks for chiming in, Paul and Janice! And Janice, I read your story this morning--such a great one, start to finish! Loved it. :-)

  4. An amazing story with a unique, interesting structure that advances the story line. I've always enjoyed non-linear stories because they make you think and wonder and assemble the pieces to reach that "Aha" moment. As a side benefit, "English 398" also offers a great refresher course in creative writing! Thank you, professor! My review of this and other stories from the current issue of EQMM will be going up on my blog soon.

  5. Hi, Vija -- Thanks for the comment here, and the kind words on the story! So much appreciate, and looking forward to your own blog post and review! :-)

  6. My copy of EQMM arrived yesterday, and I saw some familiar names on the cover. Congratulations, I look forward to reading the stories.

    Art, this is a great discussion of something most readers (non-writers) never think about, but it's vital. If you don't know where the rooms and stairs will be, how can you build the house? A lot of my revision isn't so much changing details as changing where I put them. And it's hard to explain without doing it, kind of like explaining perfect pitch.

  7. Hey, Steve -- Hope you'll enjoy the issue! I've read David and Janice's stories already, and both are winners. Just started reading Gemma Clarke's too, in the Department of First Stories, and it's fine and tense and uncomfortable already--a great debut, seems like.

    Thanks too for the contributions to that discussion of structure. I like the metaphor here about architecture--a good one!

    Hope your own writing is going well!

  8. This reminds me of Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase", Art. I was blown away when I first read it back in 1964. It amazed me how she told a complete story with bits and pieces of notes, memos, and conversations.

  9. Oh, I've not read that, Sandra! Know the book, of course, but just never actualy read it. I'll look it up--and give it a closer look!

  10. I always learn something from your pieces, Art! I'm glad you liked "Mercy" and thanks for the mention. Robin and I are helping with the grandsons while their pop is in Ireland, so haven't had any reading time yet (except such durables as "Green Eggs and Ham, etc...). I'm looking forward to reading "English 398".

  11. Thanks, David! Hope you enjoy the story when you read it, and have fun with the grandsons in the meantime! (I have friends visiting Ireland right now too!)

  12. Thank you for this - I just ordered a copy of Narrative Design and am looking forward to reading your latest in EQMM

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