Subverting plot in a Micro
If every story has already been told (a maxim I don’t quite agree with), then how do we create stories that feel fresh? One way to create new stories is to create specific and unique characters and put them in situations that put them through the narrative wringer, revealing their innate character-ness. Characters who are given a chance or forced to change or shift usually come alive on the page because they are forced to act, react, and make choices. Not all flash or micro stories function along this narrative line, but this type of story tends to be my favorite. The reader has a role in the story, making the story more intimate and the characters more unique and specific. Let’s put this idea to the test by looking at “Initiation” by Stuart Dybek.
The doors snap open on Addison, and the kid in dirty hightops and a sleeveless denim jacket that shows off a blue pitchfork tattooed on his bicep jogs forward beneath a backward baseball cap and grabs the purse off a babushka’s lap. She’s been sitting with an arm through the purse strap, and lets out a plea to a God with a foreign name, and hangs on. The kid gives it another yank, one that ought to break the strap. It jerks the old lady out of her seat.
Usually, I prefer being grounded in the point of view in the beginning of a story, so I can acclimate to who or what is doing the filtering. Knowing who is in control of the camera helps me orientate to time and place and start the process of understanding the story occasion. But Dybek uses the lack of declared point of view to his and the story’s advantage here.
Notice that the story is already moving as the camera gives us these images of this “kid” as he enters the subway car and continues toward his robbery. The present verbs start the roller coaster of this story. We have snap, shows, grabs in this long sentence. I love the way this narrator intrudes the flow of action to give us the important visual of the antagonist, this kid. How this is really a recollection, a retelling that the narrator, our main character, refuses to think of in this past. This story is still happening to him even as he is telling it. This is part of the subtle tension that keeps us reading even though we haven’t been given out point of view yet. We’re curious to see who is pointing the camera and to what effect this story event will create on the person behind the filter.
“Hey!” I yell from a window seat, and a guy in a suit seated beside me fingering his cell flinches like I’ve elbowed him in the ribs.
Now we get our main character! I love how he enters the story with this choice, this action or reaction to the attempted robbery. Now, we see a character who has something to gain or lose from this story event. This isn’t just any purse-snatching now. This means something to our narrator. I love the way that Dybek creates tension and movement by giving us an action (main character), reaction (secondary character), and a feeling of doing something wrong (main character) in one sentence. A great way to create story movement and depth at the same time. We learn more about his character due to the reaction by the other character in this moment. Counter-pointing characters in even small actions can create deep characterization.
I stand and yell “Hey”—I’ll have that feeble “Hey” to remember—and someone else shouts, “Help, police!” and someone else, “Stop!” and the kid punches the old woman in the face, sending her glasses flying. She lets go then, flung backward as the doors bang shut and the train slides off along the station.
The heart of this story, the moment that makes this character more unique and specific comes in this repeated moment. Repeated moments are the engine of fiction because they allow us to see how or if a character will shift or change. We don’t get our power of 3 here, because this character doesn’t have it in him to do more than yell “hey” twice. This is one way that Dybek goes against the traditional narrative form here. We’ll see another way he subverts form when we look at the ending.
"Hey”—I’ll have that feeble “Hey” to remember—” Here’s why this story is in first person point of view, here’s why this story exists for this specific character. And I love how we get this in the middle of this present tense retelling. There’s an obsession by this narrator to understand, to examine this event, but since this is a micro, a story told in the minimum, we have to assume that this isn’t the first or last retelling, and that this remembrance will both this character for the rest of his life. That’s why this is his story, and not the victim’s. I love how Dybek refrains from telling us how the character feels. The story keeps moving so we don’t have time for these abstract feelings.
All of us in the car, except for the old woman pressing her babushka to her mouth and spitting out bloody pieces of what we’ll later realize are dentures, can see the kid racing down the platform toward the exit with a wild grin on his face as he dodges commuters, and his pack of buddies, who’ve been riding other cars join in running, high-fiving as they go, pounding congratulations on each other’s backs, each one swinging a purse.
Here, Dybek takes a risk, because traditionally, we’re used to the character change or shift to come at the end of the story. We expect this narrator to become a hero of sorts, but this is a story of shame, not of acclaim. If there is a shift, it comes in the middle of the story when the narrator interrupts his telling to comment on his feebleness, and how he can’t forget it. By showing the kids celebrating their robberies, Dybeck reinforces just how weakly the narrator/main character has acted/reacted. And here is where we hopefully connect with this narrator, this sense of shared shame at not doing enough for someone in need. This small scene fights the urge for epiphany and asks us to consider shame and how that creates and reveals character in a micro story.
Find a story event where the main character is an observer with a chance to intervene. Do they intervene? How forcefully or weakly do they try to act in the moment? Try Dybek’s version of present tense telling of a recollection, his zooming in and out of present story and asides to get the facts straight. How does the character deal or dwell in their sense of shame? Try to refrain from making the main character a hero, but rather someone grappling with a lack of action, a lack of saving. How has this shifted their lives?
What I’m Reading:
Try At Home:
Think about a place you love. Now write about it from the point of view of someone that hates that place, that wants to destroy that place. Filter these feelings through the five senses of the point of view character!
I’m super excited to
NEXT SALON: OCTOBER 12 – online format continues – join us on the second Tuesday of each month!
THEME: Searching for Safety
Tommy Dean* Maya Lang*
MODERATED BY co-hosts M. M. De Voe & Christina Chiu