29 July 2018

The Modular Story

by R.T. Lawton

So far, all of my 100+ published short stories have been what is known as straight line stories, those told in chronological order. But then in the May/June 2018 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I read "Suspect Zero" by Benjamin Percy. His story is called a modular story, one which is told out of sequence, but the modules are related by thematic meaning. It's not that the author can just rearrange the segments in the telling of the story and call it good. If the author has done his job correctly, then the reader can find the connection from one story module to the other.

And yes, I did have to read the story twice to pick up some of the elements, however, I will chalk that up to the slowing of my brain function due to advancing age rather than upon Percy's abilities. Frankly, I found his story to be very well written. Intrigued by the concept, I researched what goes into the making of a modular story. Then, I dissected "Suspect Zero" to see the details of how this particular story worked. Below are my short notes. Of course, you as a different reader may find other items of interest in your own reading and dissection of this story.

The story modules in my dissection are presented here in the same consecutive order that the story reads from the first module to the last one. The numbers in bold (#4, #2, etc.) are the way that the story segments would read if they were put in chronological order if it had been written as a straight line story. Thus, the note labeled #4 5:32 am is the first module in the story, but would be the 4th set of events in chronological order.The times, dates and locations in bold are the same ones the author used as headings for each module. The subsequent notes are my condensing of the action or events happening in that module.

#4  5:32 am 11/20 Chip County, WI
     Train moving through the early morning, stops, conductor checks cars and finds a foot sticking out (from a dead man) in a coal car.         Conductor's POV

#2  1:00 am 11/20 Steele County, MN
     Man watches train go by, remembers laying pennies on the track as a kid, remembers hints of him getting in trouble when a girl disappeared, no proof against him, but his mother knew and threw him out of the house. Train passes, he parks the truck out in the country. He's dressed as a shadow, gloves, sneaks up on a house, tries the windows, then breaks out sliding glass back door as train noise covers his sounds. Reader feels he's going to kill/rape someone.
        Man's POV (reader sees as potential killer)

#1  3:01 pm 11/19 Steele County, MN
     Laura in house thinks she's far enough out in country that no one would bother her, but she has four visitors come to door: deliveryman, Girl Scout, Mormon boys, and meat truck driver/seller with Pete's Meat Truck. Truck driver/seller comes in house w/o permission, asks questions about her living way out here. As she pushes him out, train goes by like a banshee cry.
         Laura's POV (NOTE: she ends up being the criminal protag)

#5  10:30 am 11/20 New Auburn, WI
     Funeral director Mildred is also the coroner of a dying town. Sheriff asks her to look at dead man found on top of RR car. She says dead about 12 hours. Corpse has no teeth and no hands. Mildred says that was because the killer was looking for time to get away without being discovered.   
         Mildred's POV (NOTE: sex of corpse is not disclosed)

#6  4:16 pm 11/24 Steele County, MN
     Templetons return home from Europe to find that someone has been in their house. Call deputies. Talk about what has been disturbed. Deputies ask if they have dogs or cats. Why? They found blood by back door, but no bodies.             Homeowner's POV

#3  2:00 am 11/20 St. Paul, MN
     Jimmy, a fence with a room below his pawn shop, meets with a female maybe named Laura. He shows a pistol in his belt. They dicker on price for stolen merchandise, then go to the truck (Pete's Meat Truck) to show Jimmy the stolen goods. She gives him the truck keys. He wants sex with her before he pays, tries to force her. She pulls a knife, stabs his wrist to the table and takes his gun. She also takes the security footage and all his money. "Already, Jimmy understood that she was in fact the blade and not the meat to be butchered."                   Jimmy's POV

It is only in the final module that the readers, if they have followed the clues, realize that the body on the train was the man/truck driver/seller in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th modules of the story and that the house in the 2nd, 3rd and 5th modules is the same house. The final module also reveals that Laura is the real killer and not some innocent housewife as the reader is led to believe she is based on information in the 3rd module (chronological segment #1).

So now, assuming you've read this far, you have probably figured out why I had to read the story twice. In any case, I enjoyed the story so much that I laid out a plan to write my own modular story, "The Band Played On." It is now almost ready to submit. Unfortunately, we won't know for about eleven months whether or not my modular story gets accepted for publication. Regardless of the outcome, I had fun with the modular story structure and fleshing out the details.

As long as we're talking about different story structures, did you know there is also the Rashomon method for telling stories?


  1. Now this is interesting. Too early in the morning for me to get into it. I subscribe to EQMM and AHMM and others and I'm such a slow reader I haven't gotten to the issue yet to read "Suspect Zero." I will pull the issue out of my reading stack and read it and come back to this post. I didn't read your detailed breakdown yet so it'll be fresh. Thanks for alerting me to this.

  2. I haven't read this story yet, but will soon! I teach modular storytelling in my creative writing classes at Mason--each student has to write one linear story and one modular story--and it's fascinating to see the way the students approach the assignment: some with more simple structures, and some with more ambitious ones, but even the ones that don't hit their mark are good learning experiences, good opportunities to broaden perspectives on how storytelling works.
    Good luck with your own story. Looking forward to it!

  3. Really interesting. I wrote a modular story without knowing that that's what it's called. It's "The Seven Day Itch", and Linda Landrigan at AHMM bought it a couple of months ago. I have no idea when it's coming out, of course.

    And I love Roshomon. What a classic!

  4. Really interesting dissection, R.T. I haven't read the story yet, but I also subscribe to EQ and am really looking forward to checking it out.

    For a while, I was teaching some screenwriting classes. And I would tell the students that Pulp Fiction basically breaks down into a modular story and that if you put it together in chrono order it really followed the basic 3 act structure, etc. Most of them never realized that.

  5. No, I did not know about a Rashomon method for telling stories and yes, I want to learn about it. Fascinating column, RT. I hope we hear more, especially after your story's published.

  6. One of the best of these stories I've seen is the Kuttner/Moore story "Happy Ending."

  7. O'Neil, definitely read the story first so there's no spoiler. Then take a look at my dissection and see if that explains it all.

  8. Eve, good for you and the sale. It will be about August 2019 before Linda reads mine. Hopefully that will be long enough that she won't be concerned about having too many modular stories on hand at one time.

  9. Leigh, in short, the Rashomon method of storytelling is where the same incident is told from the POV of several different individuals, each telling it as he sees it and/or puts his own spin on the happening. Some tellers may have a personal interest in adding or deleting or slanting their story information.

  10. Art & Paul, I assumed you guys would probably teach this methos in your classes, and was therefore waiting to see what you might have to say about it. Thanks.

  11. Jeff, now I have to go find "Happy Ending" and see how they did it. Thanks.

  12. I've read several modular stories but never knew there was a term for that type of storytelling.

  13. Michael, I was researching something on Google and accidentally found the term (modular) after having read the story. That then led to finding the Rashomon form of storytelling, which I may try next. Not sure if or how many other methods or formats are out there for story telling. A screenwriting friend tells me that the modular form is used in a lot of movies. He, I and Paul Marks all come up with Pulp Fiction as our first thought.


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