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?