One of my favorite short stories of all time is “A Little Burst” by Elizabeth Strout. Published in The New Yorker in 1998, the story is a pitch-perfect example of the so-called “sitting and thinking story.”
The plot of such a story, you ask? Over the course of 5 pages, our POV character, Olive Kitteridge, does the following: walks into a room, lies down on a bed, talks with a random child who comes into the room, talks to her husband who comes into the room, gets up from the bed, rummages around in a closet, and leaves the room.
Although I’m not generally a fan of such stories, Strout is so masterful with her craft that the story doesn’t feel confined despite the fact that it involves so little action and such a small space. The story feels massive, in fact, ranging backwards in time and even flashing briefly forward at the end via prolepsis.
Strout is deploying a lot of craft tricks, and I wanted to blog about the ones which tie directly into what Jesse Kercheval has to say about developing conflict in her book Building Fiction.
In Building Fiction, Kercheval identifies two main categories for deepening character and developing internal conflict—(1) thoughts and feelings; and (2) the even deeper realm of flashbacks, visions, and dreams. She points out that writers can portray these spaces in their stories to develop internal (as opposed to external) conflict.
Thoughts and Feelings
This might seem obvious, but—at least for some inexperienced writers—it’s not. The workshop criticism is typically: “we need more interiority here.” Failing to report on a central character’s thoughts and feelings means that readers won’t know how events in the story affect them. As Kercheval points out, external conflict is only meaningful when it provokes an internal reaction from a character.
I see this all the time in slush-pile fiction, with inexperienced authors hoping that readers will understand what a character is thinking or feeling based on the situation the writer has provided. It rarely happens that external conflict is so self-explanatory that the reader automatically “gets” the importance of events, and even so, the whole reason many people read fiction is to inhabit the minds of characters who think and feel differently from them.
In “A Little Burst,” each overheard comment, each sensation that Olive experiences, immediately sets off a chain reaction of thoughts and feelings. Olive isn’t experiencing anything so dramatic as car chases or bar fights, and yet Strout makes certain that every detail and moment will carry a weighty significance.
For example, when Olive overhears someone beneath the window say that her son, Chris, has “had a hard time,” it causes her thoughts to spin off in a new direction that explores her feelings of resentment against Chris’ new wife, Suzanne:
He’s hard a hard time, you know.
Almost crouching, Olive creeps slowly back to the bed, where she sits down cautiously. What did he tell Suzanne? A hard time… What had Christopher said? What had he remembered? A person could only move forward, she thinks. A person should only move forward.
In the hands of an inexperienced writer, there might not be a whole lot of causality between the events that Olive experiences and the thoughts that she has. An inexperienced writer—sometimes that’s me, although I’m getting better!—might just let the overheard comment sit with the reader instead of providing interpretation through Olive.
Always remember, whenever you’re causing some external force to bear down on your POV character, it’s important to interpret the meaning of this force via character thoughts and feelings! Otherwise you risk leaving the reader bored or confused.
Flashbacks, Dreams, Visions
A second approach of developing internal conflict also seems self-evident, but again, I’m surprised at the number of mediocre slush-pile pieces that do not take advantage of these consciousness-building tools.
Flashbacks? Yes please. Inexperienced writers too often forget they have this tool at their disposal, or else they will not get the most out of the opportunity to flashback. I read a lot of slush-pile stories that begin in the present moment and then plod forward, stopping to explain information either in dialogue or with snatches of exposition that seem like data dumps.
But look at how Strout uses a flashback in this passage:
She took him to the doctor this past Christmas, leaving Henry at home, and sat in the waiting room while her heart pumped, until he emerged—this grown man, her son—with a lightened countenance and a prescription for pills. All the way home he talked to her about serotonin levels and genetic tendencies; it might have been the most she had ever heard him say at any one time.
Here, the flashback creates a miniature scene in and of itself. Strout isn’t just providing the reader with information—(“Last Christmas, Chris was diagnosed with depression. Olive took him to the doctor and he came back with pills to increase his serotonin levels. He was pleased with this development.”)—but with visual images and sensations to deepen Olive’s sense of internal conflict. Writing like this expands the space of the story and helps contribute to the feeling of largess that I mentioned above.
Second, the use of “visions” seems self-evident, and yet I’m always surprised at how rarely inexperienced writers leverage the potential here. A vision is, quite simply, an image that springs to a character’s mind based on something they experience. For example, as Olive lies on her bed in “A Little Burst,” she overhears men outside of the window:
She pictures heavy shoes stepping through the gladiola bed, and then, hearing a toilet flush down the hall, she has a momentary image of the house collapsing: pipes breaking, floorboards snapping, walls falling over.
Strout is pushing beyond a simple reportage of Olive’s thoughts here and going vertically into consciousness, providing miniature scenes or visions that move beyond simple narration. As with flashbacks, these visions help deepen the richness and texture of the story. An inexperienced writer might meanwhile keep a scene like this at the surface level (“Olive worried that the men would step in her flowerbed. As she heard the sound of a toilet flush, she was reminded of the fragility of the house.”)
Finally, although “A Little Burst” doesn’t engage with Olive’s dream-life, Strout could have certainly included information on this level—the set-up seems natural, even, with Olive so ready to take a nap on the bed. Dreams are perfect for communicating vivid details, expanding the consciousness of a character, and deepening conflict, but they do risk coming across as less organic—a creaky old tool in which the writer risks accusations of symbol-mongering. Perhaps Strout understood this and chose not to feature any of Olive’s dreams in the story.
George Saunders, on the other hand (and perhaps this has a bit to do with the off-the-wall stories he tends to write), loves him a good dream sequence, as in this ending to the fantastic story “Sea Oak” in which the narrator recalls his dead grandmother:
Sometimes she comes to me in dreams. She never looks good.
Sometimes she’s wearing a dirty smock. Once she had on handcuffs.
Once she was naked and dirty and this mean cat was clawing its way up her front. But every time it’s the same thing.
“Some people get everything and I got nothing,” she says. “Why? Why did that happen?”
Every time I say I don’t know.
And I don’t.
Here’s a link to the New Yorker page with “A Little Burst.” You’ll have to be a member to log on and read it, but the page should help you locate a copy with your local library or network if you’re interested in reading the story:
You can also buy Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Olive Kitteridge, which contains the story. Highly recommended.