Monday, January 25, 2010

UNITY: Geektastic

Hi Allyson and Meg,

Most of the tips we’ve found so far in Geektastic apply to fiction writing in general, whether short stories or novels. Today, I’d like to focus on unity as a craft element that may be more relevant to—or at least more evident in—short stories vs. longer fiction.

In Between the Lines, Jessica Page Morrell says

A unified story unfolds seamlessly without needless digressions, extraneous characters, and unnecessary scenes, and leads to an inevitable conclusion and an enduring sense of reality (p. 11).

Barry Lyga’s story “The Truth About Dino Girl” provides an excellent example of story unity. Katie, the protagonist, is a high school freshman whose passion for dinosaurs and paleontology pervades every aspect of her life, from how she attempts to understand the behavior of boys to the way she views her social status in school.

At its heart, “The Truth About Dino Girl” is a story about an impossible first crush: Katie, our paleontologist-to-be, develops a crush on a boy in advanced biology, Jamie Terravozza, a junior on the baseball team. Jamie, of course, barely notices Katie’s existence; besides, he is dating the captain of the girls’ soccer team, a gorgeous junior named Andi Donnelly.

What makes “The Truth About Dino Girl” different from any other first crush story is the way Lyga uses dinosaurs as a unifying effect. Dinosaurs are Katie’s passion. She spends her free time reading Scientific American, sketching fossils, and hammering rocks. As proof of Katie’s expertise, Lyga incorporates plenty of dinosaur details into the narrative:

I am uncoordinated. If there is a piece of furniture in the room, trust me to stub my toe on it. I’m sort of like an allosaur or a T. rex—they could move somewhat quickly but only straight ahead. The saurischian hip structure isn’t designed to swerve from side to side… (p. 294).

As in the example above, dinosaur details become metaphors. Dino facts also infiltrate the way Katie and her best friend Sooz speak. They even swear in dinosaur:

“Coprolite!” [Sooz] said. “This is just one big piece of coprolite!” (In second grade, I made the mistake of telling Sooze the scientific term for petrified dung.) (p. 289)

These examples, along with the many other dinosaur comparisons, facts, imagery and vocabulary sprinkled throughout the story, reminded me of a talk on voice that Kirby Larson gave several years ago at our local SCBWI. She recommended looking at a character’s “frame of reference” or “world view” to develop unique metaphors and vocabulary. Larson said that a boy who loves insects might compare a ballet teacher to a daddy-long-legs just as in Lyga’s story, Katie and Sooz refer to Andi as an apatasaur. “Apatasaurs had a terrible brain-to-body-mass ratio” (p. 291).

Katie’s passion for dinosaurs extends beyond language alone. The story’s crisis, theme, and climactic action all evolve out of Katie’s dinosaur frame of reference when she realizes that, “In this world, you’re either predator or prey” (p. 309).

Katie takes action against Andi, first ambushing her like a T. rex and then crushing her in a shockingly vicious act of revenge.

Rust Hills, author of Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says “there is a degree of unity in a well-wrought story… that isn’t necessarily found in a good novel, that isn’t perhaps even desirable in a novel” (p. 3)

He then explains:

In a [short] story everything’s bound together tightly. The theme in a successful story is inseparably embedded in the action taken by the characters—and indeed is implicit in all the other aspects, even the language. In density of language, in multiple use of the sound and sense of words, the short story is comparable to lyric poetry. (p. 3)

Lyga uses Katie’s passion as a way to weave together theme, characterization, language, and action for a unique and unified story that leaves a lasting impression.

StorySleuths Tip #42: Look for ways to unify a short story through voice, theme, subject, characterization, action, and language. Use the character’s frame of reference to find fresh metaphors and vocabulary.