Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Through Fiction's Fourth Wall: Part 2


Yesterday I shared some of the inspiration behind the second-person narration in "Aberrations," the lead story in Visions: Short Fantasy and SF.

Second-person, present-tense narration is underused in fiction for some practical reasons that we can get into later, but it does lend a certain immediacy to a narrative, and it has made for some interesting results when I've asked my students to give it a try.

When introducing students to the second-person, I start by sharing a conventional piece of first- or third-person fiction. I prefer short-short stories for this activity, since they allow the class to focus on a complete work rather than an excerpt.

In the past I've had success using flash fiction from 365 Scary Stories and 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories. (Naturally, you can also use some of the short-short stories in Visions, two of which also appear in those aforementioned anthologies). Your local librarian or bookseller will help you find plenty of other sources. Don’t have quick access to either? Then try the digital archives of the flash-fiction magazine The Vestal Review, which has just published its 36th issue. Your students will get a real kick out of the stories there.

Once you have found a workable story, you should contact the author and get permission to use the work in your classroom or workshop. Making contact shouldn't be hard in this day of author websites and email, and most writers are flattered to get such requests. Beyond that, they are likely to welcome the opportunity to reach a new group of readers. Trust me on this. Try it, and let me know if I'm wrong.

I also make a point of letting the students know that the author has granted permission to use the story in the activity. It makes for a sense of connection with the literary world.

Although I prefer to share such models by projecting them onto my classroom's SmartBoard, photocopied handouts can work, too. (Just be sure to get those handouts back at the end of the lesson, unless your arrangement with the author has included letting everyone keep a copy.) After reading and discussing the story, you and the class can begin going through it line by line, adjusting nouns, pronouns, and verbs as needed. With advanced classes, this process leads to discussions about the ways in which the narrative quickly changes tone. With beginning writers, it also opens discussions on the connections between pronouns and verbs.

Here's an example of what you'll notice. The text is from the opening of my short-short story "Echoes," (Twilight Zone, Feb. 1983, reprinted in Visions: Short Fantasy and SF):

Marie stood in the kitchen, staring at the magnetic birds on the refrigerator door, and after a while Billy yelled in from the living room to tell her that Paul wanted some milk.

She didn’t answer.

Paul had been dead for three months.

Now here it is again in present tense, second person:

You stand in the kitchen, staring at the magnetic birds on the refrigerator door, and after a while Billy yells in from the living room to tell you that Paul wants some milk.

You don’t answer.

Paul has been dead for three months.

See the difference? The original strikes me as quiet and haunting. The second version seems more immediate, almost desperate. It's certainly the beginning of a very different kind of story.

The activity has been a good way to help students explore a seldom used narrative voice. Your mileage may very, but if you take this one for a spin, let me know how it goes. Oh yes, and if you want to use "Echoes," just ask.

I'll be back next week with some thoughts on multimedia storytelling.

Until then, share the vision!

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