Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reverse Storyboards

by Cathy Day

In order to get my students to think about moving from writing small, disparate, individual things toward big, unified, linked things, I've been having them use a technique I call "reverse storyboarding." 

Basically, they take the book we're studying and--in any way that makes sense to them--thumbnail the chapters or stories, then display and talk us through their reverse storyboard. I told them: It can be on paper (post its, index cards, posterboard, drawn on blackboard) or digital (via Scrivener,,, a website, Prezi, etc.), but it must be visual and there must be some logic to how you arrange it so that we can “see” the entire structure of the book. 

These are my students, and these are the questions I wanted them to consider as they engaged this activity: 

Aubrie Cox used a mobile to create a three-dimensional grid
in order to talk about the structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad. 
What can I learn about how to write my own book from reading this book? What did I learn from the activity of storyboarding the book in reverse? (I'm going to let them answer that question in their own posts.) 

John Bahler used butcher paper to chart
the character subplots in Mrs. Bridge.
What is its formula? It’s map or blueprint or logic or “scaffolding” (a wonderful term used by Sean Lovelace). 

Tyler Petty created a website to create a chronological timeline for each character in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Find it at 
How did the author sustain both long and short story arc? How did she move the project from short story collection toward novel?

Sarah Grubb tracked change in Dean Bakopoulos's Please Don't Come Back from the Moon, dividing her list into categories (concrete vs. abstract change, potential or desire for change vs. unrealized dreams, etc.) and displaying those categories as phases of the moon. 
What principle determines the book’s structure or chaptering? What is a chapter? What is a story? What makes a chapter feel like a chapter and not a scene?
Heather Gemmen Wilson used to keep track of every time Mrs. Bridge
said she'd do something--but didn't do it. Obviously, this happened a lot. 

How does the book juggle the different subplots within the structure it’s chosen? How do you make sure that each subplot has its own arc—beginning, middle, end? Imagining that a novel is like a season of a TV series, does the book develop all the subplots each episode (like Friday Night Lights or Mad Men or Glee, for example) or does the book tend to focus on one subplot or character each episode (like LOST, for example).

In this book, how does the arc of each story compare to the arc of the whole book?

Kat Greene used Prezi to re-shuffle the stories in Winesburg, Ohio.
How does the book keep the reader turning pages? What major dramatic questions are in my mind as I read? What keeps me in suspense, and how did the author create that suspense?

For Linda Taylor, the tornado scene in Mrs. Bridge
became a way to organize the different vignettes in the book--tornadic-ally!
Why this way and not another way? Or how would different narrative decisions, different orders, produce different effects?

Stacye Cline used CDs that looked like albums to talk about
the circular structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Can I find out from author interviews how the book was written? Did the author write the stories/chapters in the order in which they appear in the book, or did she write them as they came to her and assemble them later? Which method will work for me so that I can avoid getting stuck, confused, overwhelmed by a big project? 

(My apologies to Josh Flynn and Katie Iniech, who presented on Please Don't Come Back from the Moon the night that my camera/phone was on the fritz. I'll get their reverse storyboards up later!)

I found these presentations fascinating, and I think my students learned a lot about linking from this process of unlinking, relinking, reshuffling, rebuilding, straightening, unstraightening, charting, color coding, encapsulating--which forced them to notice things they might have missed otherwise. 

Now, they are getting ready to workshop their own linked stories, and they're not reverse storyboarding anymore. They're charting their own course now. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lessons in Structure from Mrs. Bridge

Evan S. Connell takes an uncommon approach to structuring his “novel” Mrs. Bridge, and, in doing so, he gives his readers an opportunity to consider a fundamental craft question: What does (or can) the structure of a story accomplish? Or, what is the function of the form?

Mrs. Bridge is a composite novel told as a series of 117 very short stories in the life of the title main character, each story giving a glimpse into her character, the lives of her friends and family members, and the distant and fragmented nature of her relationships with those people in her life. Any reader will make strong connections between these stories, and will eventually piece together a storyline for Mrs. Bridge’s husband, her son, her two daughters, and several of her society friends.

Connell could have easily structured this book differently and included all of the same content. For example, instead of a composite novel, he could have written a linked short story collection. One story would be about Mrs. Bridge’s husband, one about her son, and one about each of the other major characters in her life. In a sense, this is the way the reader approaches the book anyway, tracing these storylines separately from one another—at least that was the natural way for me to read it.

If it had been written as a linked story collection, the pervading themes of loneliness, isolation and social decorum would have eventually emerged. In each story Mrs. Bridge would be unable to connect with those around her in a meaningful way, and we would get the sense that she is immersed in a world of loneliness even among friends and family.

But Connell’s chosen structure, the composite novel in 117 story-like chapters, adds or rather emphasizes another theme or another layer in those themes already present. This is a theme of fragmentation and a type of detachment that is more stunning than mere loneliness and isolation. The constant ending of a chapter and beginning of a new one removes the sense of immersion in a world of loneliness and replaces it with a sense that Mrs. Bridge is not immersed in anything or anyone. She has a brief interaction with someone, and her actions are determined neither by the desires of her own heart nor the emotional life of the person with whom she is interacting, but are based instead on a set of social mores that is blind to humanity and true human relationships.

The structure of Connell’s book dips into an interaction and then withdraws. It returns to a similar interaction with the same characters later in the book, but in a manner that is detached, oblivious to the meaning of the previous encounter. For Mrs. Bridge, interactions happen in isolation, in a fragmented world of unrelated experiences. As a result, it is a total mystery to her that other characters can even have genuine relationships with one another.

The fragmented structure—the structure that disallows immersion in any person or storyline—adds a profound shallowness to Mrs. Bridge’s character and her experiences, a shallowness that stems from her failure to touch the reality of human life around her, from investing in it and immersing herself in it.

Could Mrs. Bridge have been a successful book if written in a different form? Quite possibly so. But it would have failed to capture something of her experience of time and reality that is present in the fragmented structure that Connell chooses. Connell’s form walks us through the themes of Mrs. Bridge’s life, and through the way in which she experiences life. It is every bit as meaningful and as functional as Connell’s best irony, his saddest tale, and his truest image.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Give characters life a few words at a time

Evan S. Connell’s 1959 novel, Mrs. Bridge, is a characterization textbook for writers of all experience levels. Throughout the book, Connell focuses on the title character’s relationships with family and friends as well as her reluctance to achieve personal growth. The reader witnesses Mrs. Bridge attempt to present a public image that doesn’t draw attention towards herself and her family. At times, the reader glimpses her genuine emotion and concern.

What makes Connell’s character study so impressive is that he explores the Mrs. Bridge character using short vignettes. Many of the book’s chapters could be what we call today flash fiction. But in the late 1950’s Connell showed a mastery of the form, proving less could sometimes be more.

There are several things writer’s can learn from reading this book:

-how to give evidence to support character traits

-how to show and not tell

-how to effectively build a character in a small amount of space

-how to set up subplots as consequences of character behavior

-how to plant seeds using character traits that ultimately reveal a major truth about the character

Below is a brief analysis of the first five vignettes—or chapters—and the structure of Mrs. Bridge:

1. The first sentence in the book reveals the desire for a normalcy so extreme that the attention of others is never drawn—“Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it.” India is a name people might ask about. “Where did it come from? What does it mean?” It’s not a name like Jane or Susan, so common nobody bats an eye. And in Mrs. Bridge’s world you should never draw attention to yourself. Connell shows the reader s this in the very first sentence. And for the remainder of the book when the narrator refers to her it is by Mrs. Bridge.

Mrs. Bridge considered not getting married, a thought that concerned her parents. This key fact is quickly told in the vignette’s second paragraph—“Now and then while she was growing up the idea came to her that she could get along very nicely without a husband, and, to the distress of her mother and father, this idea prevailed for a number of years after her education had been completed.” This sentence suggests the role her parents played in shaping Mrs. Bridge’s attitude. It also foreshadows her own attempts at shaping her children and her frustrations when they prove to be individuals.

2. When Mrs. Bridge gives birth to her first child her first thought is “Is she normal?” The second vignette strengthens the character’s desire for a homogenized existence. A plan to have no more than three children is revealed at section two’s end because “there would be no sense in continuing what would soon become amusing to other people.” This anecdote reinforces the character’s fear of becoming fodder for gossip.

3. The third vignette begins with “She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others.” Here we get what amounts to Mrs. Bridge’s mission statement—what she believes she is working towards, or perhaps justifications for her repressed lifestyle. But what’s important in this section is the anecdote at the end. While at the neighborhood pool, Ruth, the oldest child, strips out of her bathing suit. When Mrs. Bridge notices her daughter’s nudity she begins chasing the child, trying to catch her and rectify the situation. At first Ruth thinks this is a game but by the end she is “screaming hysterically.” This is a moment that echoes throughout the book. We see a similar situation with Douglas when he decides to build a tower in an empty lot—that desire not to be seen in the public eye in any fashion other than normal. We also get our first glimpse at Mrs. Bridge’s uncomfortable and prudish nature when it comes to issues of sex. And finally, we can trace Ruth’s story arc to this moment as being the point where Mrs. Bridge loses her daughter’s love.

4. The next two vignette’s focus on the issue of the haves and the have-nots. The first moment centers around a breakfast discussion where Bridge tells her second child, who announces she is tired of marmalade, that some children aren’t fortunate enough to have marmalade. In the next chapter, Bridge adopts a poor family at Christmas time, buying gifts for them. These are seeds that pay off in chapter 51. In the early vignettes, Mrs. Bridge’s desire to help the needy could be seen as false, her actions an attempt to raise her standing in the community. But remember, Mrs. Bridge is a character who doesn’t want attention directed towards her, and helping the needy to showcase her goodwill could get people thinking, talking, and questioning the her agenda in a manner she doesn’t want. But in chapter 51, when a man she knows shows up trying to sell magazine subscriptions—and showing an ineptness in his salesmanship—Bridge suspects he hasn’t sold a single subscription. When he confirms this, she becomes his first paying customer. It’s perhaps the first real moment we as readers see enacted by Bridge. We see that underneath her insecurities she is very caring. She really does want the best for people. She just can’t fight through the many protective barriers she has built—or others have built for her—throughout her life.

5. Finally, why vignettes? Think of each vignette as a moment of Bridge’s life she wouldn’t want others to know about. In each section we see her fa├žade breached. If we were only privy to the performances Mrs. Bridge presents, this would be a very boring book. But we see her with her guard down. We see her at her fakest. We see her when she is a real person. We see what she spends her life trying to hide. It’s a strong strategy to build a complex character trying so hard to be one-dimensional and an example of form playing to characterization.

A writing exercise: Write five 750 word-vignettes that reveal a different character trait in each one. In the fifth vignette, try to take one of the traits and turn reader expectations in an attempt to reveal a truth about the character.

Mrs. Bridge, Too Much Like Real Life?

I can’t help it. When I read a book, I long to see characters grow and change. I long to see them overcome. Become better. Resolve a problem. Come out at the end (of the book or of their lives—maybe both) as better people.

I wanted that for Mrs. Bridge. In the novel by that name, by Evan S. Connell, I am invited to step into the life of this character and, through 117 vignettes, follow her for more than two decades. I watch her start out as a feisty young woman who “could get along very nicely without a husband” (1) to a woman who, on the last page, is stuck in her car, halfway out of her garage, alone, with no one hearing her call out for help—“until she could attract someone’s attention, she was trapped” (240).

She disappointed me. I had such high hopes for her.

For Cathy Day’s class, I began my reverse storyboard. Instead of separating each of the 117 vignettes, I used my index cards to combine sets of stories. As I read, I discovered that many of the stories seemed to come in sets of two or three, with a tell-tale segue, such as “not long after” (96) or “the next night” (184), or the continuation of a theme or person from the previous vignette. I pulled these together on my cards, reaching for a new card when a story arc very obviously changed. The flow of characters coming and going from the story still allowed for sections on average of about two or three vignettes per card.

I began to notice what happened to Mrs. Bridge as a result of each set of vignettes. She often tried to do something, to change, to better herself, only to slide back into a life that seemed to circle and circle instead of moving forward.

Why? I asked myself.

That’s when I hit vignette 68, “Tornado at the Club.” As we watched Mrs. Bridge stay at the table with her husband as the rest of the diners run for safety to the basement, we read, “It did not occur to Mrs. Bridge to leave her husband and run to the basement. She had been brought up to believe without question that when a woman married she was married for the rest of her life and was meant to remain with her husband wherever he was, and under all circumstances, unless he directed her otherwise” (145). Even in a tornado?

Apparently so.

Suddenly I understood her. Why couldn’t she move forward in her life? Her husband, who did not figure prominently in the story up to this point, was always like that stormy weather on the horizon. He was the tornado that pulled her into an endless circle and she spun around him for her entire life. (I don’t think he’s a bad guy—I need to read Mr. Bridge to find out. But he was, by virtue of being a man in this time period, very much in charge of all that occurred in his family’s life.) Her lifestyle and friendships were determined by his standing. They gave a party, “not because they wanted to, but because it was time” (79), she had guest towels that no one ever used because “that was what everyone did” (26). Each person she met made her feel like she needed to do a little something more to better herself, to fit in: Grace Barron had traveled and talked about art and politics, causing Mrs. Bridge to feel “inadequate and confused” (36). Result? In the very next vignette she was trying to learn Spanish. We discover later that these records found their way into a closet. In vignettes 31–33, we segue from Mrs. Porter trying to hire Harriet away, to the Porters being fellow church attenders, to Dr. Foster, the pastor of that church, to Mrs. Bridge deciding she needed to better her vocabulary and so purchasing a book to do just that. When it didn’t seem to work, away it went to the shelf. She tried painting. She quit after a few lessons.

Mrs. Bridge, who are you? She didn’t know that herself. Instead, she kept up appearances. She tore down her son’s glorious tower because “people were beginning to wonder” (68), thereby changing her relationship with her son Douglas forever.

Thus, when I created my storyboard, I couldn’t bear to put the vignettes in a row moving across a line, which means moving forward. I chose instead to create a “tornado” of sorts, with the center story being vignette 68. All of Mrs. Bridge’s relationships with her friends (highlighted yellow) and children (highlighted green) swirl around but she never seems to move forward. The children do get away in some ways, so their cards start to move off the bulletin board. The random expectations of her life in her community (highlighted pink) result in boredom and lack of purpose. These highlight for me what happens when a person circles and circles and circles and goes nowhere.

And what happens when the vortex is gone? When Mr. Bridge dies? Mrs. Bridge is in a car, stuck in her garage, calling out to the world, “Hello?”

Perhaps that’s why the book resonates with so many readers still today. Maybe it’s too much like real life. Many of us are stuck in our own loops—our own tornadoes—circling, swirling. It may not be around a domineering person. Maybe it’s around a regret, a grudge, a sorrow, a habit. Can we break free? Can we get away? Can we, by the end, be better people?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing Techniques in Mrs. Bridge

If novels are akin to movies, then linked stories (story cycles and/or composite novels) are like television series. One of my first reactions to Mrs. Bridge  was that while it feels more like a novel than Winesburg, Ohio, it also feels rather episodic.

Reading as a writer, I noticed several major techniques within Connell's writing of Mrs. Bridge.

Use of Time Jumps/Gaps

Stories do not have to fall in direct succession. While this can happen in the traditional novel, it can be particularly successful in linked stories. Less is more. In Mrs. Bridge, as well as Midwestern life, not much happens quickly. Thus, it's easy to make leaps and bounds. This accomplishes several things: (1) It avoids boring the reader with the mundane details that are repeated throughout everyday life. Common knowledge about the era or what happens in a traditional household can be glossed over in certain instances. (2) It creates tension and keeps the reader turning the pages. Because things build up slowly and over time, the writer can jump forward so that the event has already happened or is in the progress of happening. The reader is intrigued and keeps reading in order to gain insight into what brought about the change, what happened during the time gap (one moment Corky is in high school, the next, she's in university), or what effect this will have on the future (Ruth and Douglas are two prime examples). (3) The changes become more noticeable when the author fast forwards to it. Rather than picking up the tiny moments through the muck of everyday life, the reader gets them in clusters within each story.

Limited Perspective in Combination with Semi-Omniscient Narrator

As the reader, we view the majority of the story through Mrs. Bridge herself. Oftentimes, she and the narrator can appear to be one and the same. Additionally, most of the events and thoughts the reader is privy to are based upon what is significant to Mrs. Bridge. And why not? She is the title character of the story. However, the reader sometimes will be given access to another character's perspective for a brief period. Perhaps this is Connell's way of acknowledging gaps Mrs. Bridge's point of view can't fulfill. Key examples would be instances where her children reveal their view on their parents' relationship and cases where her husband does something without her knowledge (like buying the painting in France). The juxtaposition of these points of view add depth to the characters and the reader's understanding of Mrs. Bridge and her position within the family. If the reader was given access to all these perspectives all the time, however, the story would not have near the interest it does when just through Mrs. Bridge's eyes—the reader can be left to guess what the reality is versus the perception, but sometimes the reader also needs access to what the reality might be in order to make educated guesses.

Additionally, perhaps because of the usually limited perspective, the reader is told a lot of details (Mrs. Bridge's feelings, events that have happened in the past, etc). But through the act of telling, Connell often will also show the reader what he wants him or her to take away from the train of thought. Mrs. Bridge's thoughts are often accompanied by strong imagery, such as her son's worn clothes or a retelling of what one of her children had done (particularly the strange things Douglas used to do when he was younger). Although Mrs. Bridge is clearly worried, the narrator, who has the power to step in and further influence the reader's perspective of Mrs. Bridge and her thoughts (or the reader's view of the children), often refrains from doing so.

Chapters, stories, or microfiction?

This last point is both a question and takeaway for me. A part of me wants to call each part of Mrs. Bridge a chapter, because of the continued narrative throughout the story, but given the type of book that it is, I'm compelled to call them "sections" or "stories." Do all the stories need to stand completely on their own in a book such as Mrs. Bridge? When reading the book within three days, I had a difficult time imagining one of sections standing alone in a literary magazine, but this is because I knew the backstories, the characters, and that there was more to the story than that individual incident. But every now and then, I would try to isolate a single story (particularly during the vacation episodes). It completely altered my perspective of Mrs. Bridge as a character. In some instances, she seemed more oblivious than I had previously taken her, or perhaps more prejudice (when otherwise I might be more forgiving, knowing her background). Most episodes (a decidedly better term for each section of this book) have at least one or two sentences at the beginning to orient the reader with time, place, and what the story is concerning (not unlike a TV series first thirty seconds of "Previously on X"). As aforementioned, what is often skipped in time jumps is common, everyday topics. Summarizing them within those first few sentences easily places the reader into a situation he or she can relate to--When Mrs. Bridge and her husband go to visit Ruth in her new apartment for the first time, I could already imagine the excitement and anxiety that the characters must be feeling, just recently having had both my mother and grandmother in my first apartment for the weekend. Essentially, within each episode, Connell not only begins with what he knows, but what the majority of his readers know as well, and can easily move into meat of that individual incident.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Gravity of George Willard

By Kat Greene

While reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, I realized the town and its stories revolve around George Willard. He is the character which most other characters gravitate toward, confide in, and engage with. He is the personification of the town. An ironic twist, because he decides to leave in the final story, “Departure.” Regardless, the gravity he creates in Winesburg holds the stories together, and thus, the journalist became the center of my reverse storyboard.

As I read the stories (in order), I took detailed notes of the events and the people presented in each story. Once I had finished, I cut my notes into the individual stories and arranged each story according to its relationship to George Willard. I found that there were three types of people who directly touched Mr. Willard: friends (“The Thinker” – “Loneliness”), family (“Mother”), love interests (“An Awakening” – “Sophistication”). The stories in their respective categories encircle “Departure.” Additionally, three characters have shared a secret or back story with George that they have not shared with anyone else. These stories are noted with a star.

Next, I looked at the stories that split off from the main circle, such as “Mother,” “Death,” and “Paper Pills.”

This left a handful of stories where George was mentioned directly, stories where George was mentioned in passing, and stories where he was not mentioned at all. I arranged these stories on the perimeter to the main cluster.

I found that my completed storyboard highlighted three important things. 
  1. First, the arrangement further emphasizes Anderson’s theme of isolation. Stories such as “Tandy” and “Adventure” are deeply entrenched with isolation and are visually isolated in the storyboard. The same can be said for the “Godliness” stories, as well as “Man of Ideas,” “The Untold Lie,” and “Queer.” 
  2. Second, the arrangement highlighted for me the paradox that despite the fact that the majority of the characters felt alone, they were all very similar. 
  3. Finally, the storyboard as a whole is held together by the narrator’s storytelling. Sherwood’s rhetorical choice to include an all-knowing narrator, who I suspect could the voice of the old writer in the book he never published, as mentioned in “The Book of the Grotesques,” unifies the collection.