He found himself pouring it clumsily onto the table like a kid with grape juice, while she watched inquisitively, embarrassed for him. She wasn’t trying to be irreverent, but she had no frame of reference for his pain. Without a frame his pain was an amateur, half-finished painting. This red line indicated something, and the abstract gray box was another thing altogether. She put her hand on his face and moved her fingers consolingly. He realized, then, that his pain was as real as his nose, and she was a blind woman feeling around. That was all. It didn’t improve his past, this realization, but he felt momentarily happy.
The text above used to be a poem. It was published as one, and even earned a Pushcart nomination as one, but it’s been demoted. Now, it’s a short story’s understudy—just a paragraph, standing in as an example of narrative so that this essay doesn’t get too long.
Sex, death, love, pain, power; the makings of stories surround us. Content is elementary, as we live it every day. Less easy is construction: the measuring, scaffolding and hammering. To build something that readers will step eagerly into and inhabit for awhile, try starting with a basic frame. There are myriad ways to frame a story. Here’s one.
1. (verb) To conceive as an idea. 2. (noun) A border or structure for supporting or enclosing something. 3. (verb) To form or construct, as by fitting parts together.
Frame Game Instructions:
- Conceive an observation as a story idea. It needn’t be genius; only interesting. E.g.: A confidante who lacks a frame of reference may react in an unintended way.
- Create a situation, and some characters, for the sole purpose of supporting and containing your observation. E.g.: A man has just recalled, and is struggling with, repressed memories of having been sodomized as a boy. He goes out on a great first date, and ends up disclosing. His date reacts by reaching across the table and stroking his face—as a grandmother might caress a child with a skinned knee.
- Write a story, including only what’s absolutely needed to convey your observation.
- That’s it! Thank you for playing.
Framing stories in this manner leads to some odd decisions. As I cobbled my poem together, years ago, I omitted facts that might (had I been playing a different game) have served as crucial joists or braces. Sodomy is never mentioned. Nor is the fact that the couple is on a date; much less, a first date that had been going well.
Instead, I chose to repeat one observation multiple times in a very short piece—both straightforwardly, and metaphorically. Research reveals that most people need to read something three times in order to absorb it. Repetition grounds readers in your thinking, just as spotting focuses dancers.
To avoid getting dizzy when spinning, dancers pick a single spot. With each revolution they refocus on it repeatedly, staring at it as long as they can before whipping their heads away. Return to one thing again and again, in ways that may at first appear disconnected but are actually strategically linked, and your reader won’t be disoriented by the mad dance you’ve choreographed.
nstead, she’ll end up in the intended position (often, in dance, an evolved version of the starting position). She’ll step into the sturdy house you’ve built, walk from room to room, and decide to buy it. She’ll listen to everything you have to tell her over coffee, sitting in respectful silence until you’re through and maintaining appropriate eye contact—and certainly not stroking your face.