Write a chapter about a character yearning passionately/desperately for something – some kind of yearning that’s a “big, wild thing”
Write a chapter in which a narrative event is prefigured in a night-time dream
In this story the main character Sylpha has a baby. Write a chapter in which a character makes something else/brings something else into the world, or wants to do so.
This story refers to twins (three sets of twins in fact!) Write a chapter featuring two of something – a pairing, or a doubling, or a mirroring. Think beyond human twins – for example, consider objects, animals, features of the natural or human-made landscape, events/actions, etc
Draw some other kind of inspiration from the example story and use this as a springboard for your own writing.
As always, with such prompts: “Make it new.” (Ezra Pound)
I love how the following story (at Pithead Chapel) by Kyra Kondis suggests a whole story-world in a compressed space, through the use of vivid, specific details. (A novel might be constructed from these beginnings!) The title too is neat – offering more than we might take from it at first glance. Taking this story as a springboard, why not write a scene/chapter for your novella in which…
a character gets involved in an affair (as revenge?)
OR: a character is propelled towards risky behaviour (of some kind) after experiencing a loss
OR: a character does something “wrong” but feels justified or has fair motive (you decide the justification/motive)
OR: a character checks someone else’s text messages or some otherwise confidential or private information (you decide the reason why – and what they find when they do)
OR: the story is split into a three-part “montage”, set at different times (use past/present/future as you see fit, and consider focusing on three primary characters)
OR: find some other angle that you unearth from the example
Something in the Potato Room, by Heather Cousins (Tucson: Kore Press, 2009), pp.69
Subject Matter – A somewhat hypochondriac museum administrator, who is also a collector of Victorian cutlery and reader of rare books, moves house and discovers a mysterious hominid hiding in a small room under the stairs. “A chief of the Inner Station”, Cousins writes, parodying Heart of Darkness.
Structure/Style – The presentation of this book is unusual, with large margins, and paragraphs as thin columns running down the middle of the page. The language has the strangeness, intensity and compression of poetry – although it has a narrative impulse, it’s clearly calling attention to itself as out of the ordinary. The book was classified as poetry by the publisher, but there’s surely a kind of novella-in-flash here, in all its quirky glory, with a clearly defined central character moving and acting through time and place in a linked sequence of narrative fragments. Something in the Potato Room might be categorised as a ‘novella-in-prose-poems’ – and a magnificent one. The book’s central crisis taps into that universal, childlike fascination: the possibility of a creature lurking in the dark of the wardrobe.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Prose Poetry: Something in the Potato Room is full of unusual prose, more akin to poetry. Cousins is a fan of the quirky, verbless sentence that teeters on the verge of logical sense: “Wasn’t I just ‘stuck in a rut’? A standard pattern? A Federalist? A Simple? A Plain?” (p.11). And again here, in a passage that is broken into lineated verse: “What has been placed / here // has been placed here // to DORMANT. / to STILL. / to STULLIFY.” (p.44) This style of writing makes sense in a more intuitive way. Meanings are forged through the interplay of unusual sentence structure and word choice. And even amidst the more routine syntax and vocabulary, the descriptions still make metaphorical leaps: “Dr. Paul stood behind my desk. Looming. A reconnaissance balloon. A zeppelin.” (p.29)
Invitation: How might the flash fictions in your novella adopt some of the rich language strategies frequently used in poems: metaphor or simile, musicality, strange sentence structures, surprising word choices?
(2) Illustrations – Something in the Potato Room is also made strange by being peppered with odd, Victorian-style illustrations: extravagant moths and butterflies, a woman downing her head in a bowl of water, a detailed display of teeth, rows of kitchen utensils. Each one is captioned in a way that associates the picture with the ongoing story, yet the images themselves feel only tangentially relevant. This adds to the eerie atmosphere – a feeling that something is out of sorts. The visual experience is further estranged by the prose poems being presented in very narrow columns, centred on the page, surrounded by an expanse of blankness.
Invitation: How might you express your visual imagination through your novella? Is there an opportunity to do something unusual with layout or spacing? Might photographs, illustrations or diagrams appear at any point? (This won’t be relevant to every novella, of course, but these questions might spark ideas for some writers…)
(3) Off-kilter/quirky style: The narrator’s voice is delightfully off-centre, expressing anxiety and a quirky perspective, and the story itself is wilfully unpredictable. An increasing pressure on her job at the museum alternates with scenes at home describing the encounter with the hominid. These domestic scenes are creepy and fantastical, revelling in macabre sensory detail. The narrator adopts a stance towards her house guest that is maternal, forensic, and apparently sexual, all at once. “I called and called. We had so many more things to discover. To unearth. I yearned to rub his mandible.” (p.63)
Invitation: Would it be interesting to shift your novella into unsettling genre territory – for example by introducing magical realist, horror, Gothic, or fantastical elements? In what other ways might your novella grapple with elements of strangeness?
How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkerson, published as part of the three-novella anthology How to Make a Window Snake (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2017), pp. 120.
Subject Matter: A woman looks back upon the death of her younger sister and the effect this event had on her family. Issues relating to gender and race supplement the domestic tragedy in the foreground, as the narrator reflects upon her African-American identity and male/female contrasts ripple below the surface of the story. This award-winning novella-in-flash was published in an anthology alongside novellas by Joanna Campbell and Ingrid Jendrzejewski, as part of Bath Flash Fiction Award’s inaugural Novella-in-Flash competition in 2017.
Structure/Style: 19 chapters, each one 1-3 pages long and each a full-fledged scene or story. We encounter a small ensemble cast of characters – the parents, three sisters, two neighbours – via a first-person narrator (one of the sisters) and occasional chapters presented from other characters’ third-person POV. Written in classic “novella-in-flash” mode: a brief book of self-contained chapters that link to suggest a broader tapestry, namely the community (and history) of one family.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Certain Plot Events as “Obsessions” – Wilkerson uses an interesting device of recurring references to the younger sister’s death on a lake and to red paint splashed on the steps of the mother’s art studio. These feature repeatedly in the midst of chapters ostensibly devoted to other topics, as if they are traumas that the novella is obsessed with. The novella, of course, need only inform the reader once of these two events, but instead it mentions them repeatedly. It’s a bold technique that subverts accepted practice, since it’s generally understood that individual stories within a novella-in-flash don’t need to repeatedly re-establish the plot context. But Wilkerson’s innovation has a powerful effect that has nothing to do with plot. It’s a form of haunting. Gradually the reader accumulates information about the context for the family tragedy. It’s wonderful sleight of hand, and an object lesson in how to tackle fraught emotional trauma in a story – as Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the truth / but tell it slant.” It is also done without melodrama or cheap sentimentality.
Invitation: Might there be certain elements of your story material that haunt your characters, such that they can’t help but keep thinking/talking about them? Might these, in a productive way, be obstacles inhibiting your characters from moving forward, struggles that they must overcome?
(2) Haunted by a Location – One landscape in particular – the lake – recurs as a liminal location several times. At least three (or arguably four) significant, life-changing events and transitions happen there during the story. This is another way in which the novella is haunted – not just by the sister’s death or the splashed red paint, but also by a location. It’s a good example of making the most of a setting in a story.
Invitation: Might there be one particular location in your story where major transitions and experiences repeatedly occur? A landscape/setting that haunts your novella as a liminal place of change?
(3) Secrets and Point of View – The novella uses an ensemble cast tethered by one main narrator at the centre. This narrator delivers five chapters in a self-addressed, second person “you”; the rest of her chapters she narrates using a first person “I” (which often expands into a plural “we” when recounting family stories, especially of the sisters). We also get to know a select number of secondary characters, via occasional chapters from their third-person POV (one by the father, two by a sister, one by a neighbour). These flashes take us away from the central narrator and help to build our understanding of events by uncovering unexpected truths – overall in the novella, at least four or five things are revealed that are secrets unknown to some of the characters. In another writer’s hands the chapters in other people’s POV might seem like arbitrary jumpcuts, merely functional chapters designed to fill in information from the plot. However, since Wilkerson focuses on several key events in the distant past, it often feels like the novella is not moving forward methodically to fill in gaps but proceeding via an intricate spiral or web, as we gradually go deeper into the story situation. There is nothing laboured about the writer’s unfolding of events – we discover the facts of the family situation in a very natural way, almost as if by accident. The novella treats its storyline as a series of important secrets to be revealed, and the intricate and gradual unfurling of these is achieved with breathtaking skill.
Invitation: Might you embed a small number of significant “secrets” within your story material – events, facts and hidden stories that some characters know and other characters do not? How might you reveal these to the reader gradually, in an interesting way, such that the novella becomes a process of gradual revelation?
Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970; London: 4th Estate, 1998), pp.214
Subject Matter – Maria Wyeth is an actor, in her 30s, divorced from film director Carter Lang, and headed into a whirl of prescription drugs, alcohol and anorexia in a 1960s Hollywood of intoxicated, B-list parties and disillusioned romantic liaisons. The novel primarily describes the events that led up to Maria being treated in hospital following a breakdown, from which location she narrates the introductory chapter. It explores how Maria experiences “peril, unspeakable peril, in the everyday.” (p.100). An appealing cocktail of ennui, glamour, tragedy and spiky dialogue, depicting life on the margins of the movie industry. One of the classic novels – Time magazine included it in its list of the top 100 novels of all time.
Structure/Style – Compared to many “classic-form” novellas-in-flash, Play it As it Lays feels particularly novel-like. Over 200 pages, there are 87 chapters, varying in length from half a page to six pages. Some are impressionistic moments; others run in sequence, picking up where the previous one left off. Thus, not all the chapters are fully developed to become self-standing stories, and a narrative momentum builds that makes it feel close to being a continuous novel. Many chapter openings establish a strong sense of “joined-up-ness”, e.g.: “In November the heat broke, and Carter went to New York to cut the picture, and Maria still had the dream.” (p.98) The first chapter, a kind of prologue or introductory piece, runs to eight pages. It is written in the first person, as Maria recovers in hospital in Los Angeles. There follow two brief chapters also in first-person POV (spoken by other characters), and then there are 84 numbered chapters in close third person POV, following the events in Maria’s life leading up to her time in hospital. Even the longer chapters are broken into discrete sections or scenes, and chapter length overall feels deliberately varied– short follows longer, longer follows short etc. Dialogue, often full of conflict or tension, is used frequently throughout. Towards the end of the novel, the linear narration of Maria’s pre-hospital experiences breaks up slightly, as Didion deliciously delays (and prepares us for) a key plot event.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Significant Events – Play it As it Lays is particularly dominated by two major plot events. The first begins to be announced on p.47 – roughly one quarter of the way through. At once, the whole novel’s energy lifts, and something is urgently at stake in the main character’s life. This plot ingredient casts a shadow over the next 100 pages. One could argue that that until p.47, the novel has almost meandered through the main character’s relationships and situation. Suddenly now, it catches fire, and everything changes. The other major plot point is actually referred to in passing in the second chapter, but isn’t shown happening in real-time until the penultimate chapter. Again, it’s a momentous event, and it retrospectively changes how we interpret the whole novel. Everything else – the divorce from her husband Carter, the casual affairs, the descents into drunkenness and self-medication, Maria’s half-hearted Hollywood career, her eventual breakdown and hospitalisation – does matter, but these ingredients almost feel like supporting context for the two major plot points that shape the meaning of the novel.
Invitation: Depending, of course, on the kind of novella-in-flash/novel-in-flash you want to write, might you include one or two seismic plot events that irrevocably change the course of your story? And is there enough at stake yet, in your story situation (again, depending on the aims of your novella)?
(2) Cast of Secondary Characters – Didion locates her central character in a web of relationships – there are at least eight significant secondary characters, each with desires that compete with Maria’s, values that conflict, and motives that tug her in different directions. Didion keeps three prominent secondary characters close to the centre, repeatedly returning to their relationship with Maria over time. But at least five other minor characters still have a significant effect upon Maria. Each of them is prodding her, provoking her, telling her how to live or wanting something from her. Dynamic energy arises from this – and it’s a testament to Didion’s skill that, within 200 pages, she conjures Maria’s network distinctly and somehow keeps a grip on all the moving parts.
Invitation: Do your secondary characters crave something from your main character(s), and if so – what? Without overloading your novella, would it help to establish some conflicting desires in your story situation, a tangle of motives and values surrounding your main character(s)?
(3) Dysfunctional main character? – Maria Wyeth is a zone of turmoil: a jumble of addiction, anorexia, sleeplessness, and avoidance of responsibility in work and relationships. She goes AWOL while filming, she vomits drunkenly into a friend’s lap, she casually sleeps with people without being fully present to the experience. Didion is a writer unafraid to explore demons and dysfunctionality, and yet she still salvages something positive and admirable in Maria by the close of the book.
Invitation: What elements of vulnerability could you explore within your main character(s)? Would it help the story to make them damaged, in some way? Alternatively, if your characters do feel like a wreckage, what positive qualities can you salvage?
The Audacious Adventuress, by Calum Kerr (Southampton: Gumbo Press, 2014)
Subject Matter: A comical adventure about Lucy Burkhampton, who is repeatedly thrust into situations of extreme peril and risk of death at the hands of her nemesis Lord Diehardt. Lucy was due to inherit the Burkhampton estate following her father’s death, but Lord Diehardt has other ambitions. The book primarily offers the reader scenes in which the protagonist’s life is threatened and she must enact an archetypal “thrilling escape from death”, over and over again – dangling from a cliff-face, hanging onto the rear door of a moving train, locked in a crate on a sinking ship, tied to a burning rope above the stage of an opera in mid-performance, etc etc.
Structure/Style: 36 short chapters, following the formula of heroic adventure stories. Written as a brisk, readable, good-natured romp, it deliberately toys with the genre tropes of mid-20th century radio or film serials. Each story is prefaced by a recap (beginning “Last time:…”), then delivers a short scene of Lucy’s life under severe threat, followed by an (often far-fetched or miraculous) escape, and closing with Lucy falling into a perilous situation once more. Endings are self-conscious “cliffhangers”, with the editor addressing the reader and speculating as to what might happen next: “Will our plucky girl be consumed in a fiery inferno? […] To find out, come back next week…” The “editor” (Kerr, of course) also becomes increasingly tired of the absurd lengths to which the story is going to keep placing Lucy in peril then rescuing her. The chapter numbers run from 1 to 199, so the 36 parts of the story Kerr provides are merely a partial account of Lucy’s adventures: there are “plot holes” everywhere, as we see the protagonist abandoned in one impossible situation after another, only to find out, in the next section, that she survived (but with precious little explanation given as to how!). In other words, exactly half of the book’s story is unresolved. The author revels in not bothering to fill in this information – “[s]uggesting plotlines that the reader never actually sees is a lot of fun to write”, Kerr says in an Afterword. And he revels, too, in exploiting as many clichéd conventions as possible in this affectionate and breathless literary parody. Our heroine is an intrepid solo adventurer; the antagonist is villainous yet charming, etc etc. The book is tremendous fun, as is Kerr’s equally remarkable sequel The Ultimate Quest (2014). (NB Kerr is one of the pioneers of the UK flash fiction scene, establishing National Flash Fiction Day in 2012.)
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Connective Tissue: Most novella-in-flash chapters tend to start in a new situation, place or time, with fewer seamless links joining the dots between chapters than would occur in a more traditional, continuous novel. And each chapter tends to create a world of its own, offering up a meaningful standalone story experience – with the overall effect of the book seeming like a “constellation” of stars (Beckel and Rooney, eds., My Very End of the Universe: five novellas-in-flash and a study of the form (Brookline: Rose Metal Press, 2014) pp. VIII). However The Audacious Adventuress radically subverts this model by drawing connecting lines between the individual stars of each story. It spends time at the beginning of each chapter explicitly referring back to preceding elements of the plot, as if to remind the reader of what has happened so far. And each story ending looks ahead and imagines what might follow, preparing the reader for what comes next. It’s the very opposite of what the novella-in-flash has usually done, and it’s done very self-consciously (as an adventure serial parody). One strategy it does borrow from the “classic-form” novella-in-flash is to set each story at some distance in time from the next – the narrative is a gap-ridden patchwork of fabric with holes in between – indeed there are arguably many more “gaps” here than a novella-in-flash would often have. Kerr is therefore toying with the very idea of the connective tissue existing between stories – deliberately leaving big plot-holes (and drawing the reader’s attention to these absences), then also stitching together what remains of the piecemeal design using thin, joining threads (each chapter’s “preface” and “cliffhanger conclusion”). Meg Pokrass’s analogy of the novella-in-flash as a “crazy quilt” composed of scraps of cloth (Beckel and Rooney, p.47) is here taken to an extreme – the scraps placed some distance apart, with the tiniest threads of cotton left dangling between them.
Invitation: How will you deal with the gaps between each star in the constellation of your novella? Will you join the dots between chapters, referring back to other parts of the novella? Or will you make each chapter stand up on its own, as self-contained a story as it can bear to be? The latter may be the dominant, classic method, but Kerr’s novella shows us that the novella-in-flash can be approached in different ways.
(2) Page-turning effect: Part of the enjoyment of this publication (by the independent publisher Gumbo Press), is that it is written as an extreme parody of the mainstream/commercial potboiler mode. It is informed by a postmodern awareness of literary conventions, and generally moves at extreme high pace towards its climax via a series of cliffhangers. Most “classic-form” novellas-in-flash published to date haven’t operated this way – they proceed more gradually and in a more straightforwardly literary style, at times lingering on moments of epiphany, lyricism or revelation, even encouraging us not to turn the page, but inviting us to pause and “celebrate small moments” instead. Kerr is engaged in deliberately different game here, using preposterously action-driven storylines and an energetic style in the sentences to propel the reader onwards quickly.
Invitation: Kerr may be adopting this mode for comic, playful purposes. But for the writer-as-reader, this novella invites us to ponder questions of pacing and tension. At what pace do you want your novella to proceed? Are there times when you want to speed the reader onwards – perhaps towards a dramatic climax? Are there times when it would be good to slow the story down? Do you want your novella to grip the reader with action and a strong sense of drama – with an engine of conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist in the foreground? Or are you aiming for a quieter effect? There are no right or wrong answers here, only strategies and style choices for you to explore, ones that will influence which kinds of readers (and indeed publishers) your novella will appeal to…
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (London: Granta Publications, 2014), 177 pp.
Subject matter – A fraught novella about infidelity. The wife/mother who narrates the novella is a creative writing tutor, the husband/father is a sound archivist; other characters include a philosopher and an almost-astronaut, and all four of these roles feed into the rich themes of the text. The story arc moves from married bliss, to the rupture caused by an unexpected adultery, and ultimately towards an uneasy resolution – compromised, saddened by wisdom, and authentic to the realities of adulthood.
Structure/Style – 46 chapters, each consisting of a haphazard collage of fragments, sequenced through free-wheeling free association and jarring juxtapositions. The narrator leaps from thought to thought, letting loose a torrent of observations, incidents, quotations, aphorisms and facts. Some of the fragments have the compressed narrative arc of micro-fictions, offering urgent present-tense reports to describe the characters’ actions; others are simply single-sentence quotations from philosophy and literature, or information from science and astronomy. Sometimes the material flows in a continuous narrative stream; more often, Offill places disparate material side by side, sparking it like tinder and flint. A devastating implication about infidelity might be followed by a quotation from Yeats. Initially the novella moves briskly through incidents as the narrator’s daughter ages rapidly, then as the plot rises towards its crisis, the story slows down to linger over narrative details.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) “Stream of Fragments” – A classic novel-/novella-in-flash might more obviously be a sequence of self-standing stories, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to publish mainstream novels like this one, where the writing is a patchwork of fragmented paragraphs, sometimes as short as one sentence long. We might categorise this as the “novella-in-fragments” form. In Dept. of Speculation, where extra meanings are sparked by laying different types of content side by side, the rapidly changing subject matter is suggestive of a disorganised life teetering out of control. It’s worth comparing Offill’s novella to Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2001), a book which is more regularly categorised as a bona fide novel-in-flash. Actually, in terms of the style of the content – fragments, microfictions, almost-aphorisms, and the feeling of a chaotic life represented on the page – the two books have a lot in common. But Offill’s book is marginally less scattergun and doesn’t use numerical separators between fragments, so it reads more like a fluid and continuous stream of material.
Invitation: Consider how titles, numerical separators, and also page breaks (or the absence of page breaks), affect the reader’s experience of your material. Dept. of Speculation offers a more “continuous” vision of the “novella-in-fragments”. Could you use “fragments” in your own novella, and if so in what way?
(2) Point of View Shift – This is another novella that uses Point of View in an innovative way. Initially it is written in the first person, and addressed to a “you” – it is confided to the imagined audience of the husband. Then the “you” becomes “my husband” in chapter 9, a small, third-person distancing device. Exactly half-way in terms of chapters (Ch 23 out of 46), the entire story shifts into the third person, with the narrator talking about herself as “the wife”. It is as if the action has become a fable that she’s narrating. Increasingly we are aware of the story as a text the narrator (as a creative writing professor) is exploring, including, in chapter 32, the critical feedback she would give herself about her storytelling. We become vividly aware that the narrator may be selectively cherry-picking narrative details – is her testimony an objective record? It’s a clever shift. Only in the final chapter does the first-person “I” narrator return – as though, in the main, she couldn’t face talking about infidelity in the first person.
Invitation: Although it may be problematic to apply Offill’s point of view innovations directly to our own story situations, Dept. of Speculation does prove that point of view can be played with in unusual ways. If you find an interesting innovation or shift in this respect, and it fits well, it might enrich your material. How might you experiment playfully with point of view as you produce your novella?
(3) Thematic Richness – This is a novella in which the characters’ “work identities” have a huge influence on the text. This holds true for the two main characters – the wife (a creative writing professor) and the husband (a sound archivist) but also the two most significant secondary characters – a philosopher and a man who didn’t quite manage to be an astronaut, who is writing a book about space travel. All four work identities influence the fragments of material that the narrator chooses to include – she throws in facts about sound, about philosophy and about space travel, and there are frequent quotations from literature, philosophy and science. We only really know these other characters through the narrator, especially as there are very few scenes of direct dialogue in the novella. It feels like everything is being mediated through the female narrator, and the narrator has absorbed these other characters’ worldviews and their subject interests, and then the text of the novella is embodying them as a result. The book becomes, to some extent, a tapestry of facts and quotations. Although the narrative of infidelity is itself relatively simple, it feels like Offill is tapping into a deep wisdom about the world, wrapping layers of profoundly enriched context around the basic story.
Invitation: Following Offill’s lead, consider your characters’ “work identities” in particular (NB this may not be formal paid work – this may be as a parent or relative, student, volunteer, carer etc). How might the details and complications of their relationship to “work” (or “responsibilities”, if you prefer) influence the rich, meaningful tapestry of your novella, in terms of the different worldviews we encounter?
Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino (1972; London: Vintage, 1997), pp.148
Subject Matter: Marco Polo describes 55 fictitious cities to the emperor Kublai Khan. The cities are generally uncanny or unhomely: for example, a city that expels all its waste on a daily basis into its outskirts, such that it is threatened with landslide; a city on stilts where everyone refuses to touch the ground; a city whose construction is never complete; a city with a parallel city of its dead citizens living alongside it. Each city expresses a distinct way of living, and even could be said to resemble a state of mind. Wild, untameable forces compete against forces of order and benign structure. Twinned, doubled, split and shadowed cities feature repeatedly: if these cities resemble characters, they feel like late 20th century, post-Freudian representations of existence. The cities all have notably feminised names (Irene, Clarice, Phyllis, Laudomia, Beersheba, etc), which implicitly contrasts with the masculine identity of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, but the reason for this is not made explicit. Ultimately, all these invisible cities speak to a single, imagined location – as Marco Polo puts it: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice’.
Structure/Style: The city descriptions are grouped into eleven categories: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities & the Dead, etc, and there are 5 cities in each category. Each category is gradually introduced through an alternating, spiraling mathematical pattern. The detailed, technical focus of Calvino’s world-building can be related to both dystopian speculative fiction and travel writing, and there’s a definite philosophical edge. The dense, highly descriptive chapters read almost like prose poems. It’s not a book that can be read quickly. A recurring narrative ‘frame’ (conversational interludes between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan) introduces a political context for the city descriptions, and queries the meanings of these cities and their relationship to Kublai Khan’s empire. This book is the epitome of what can be called the “novella-as-collection” – in the main body of the book (the descriptions of the cities), there isn’t really a developing narrative situation – it is more like a series of portraits, individually dynamic but lacking a collective forward movement. Only within the “frame” material (the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan) could there be said to be any progression, as their relationship changes subtly. The main material reads more like a miscellaneous anthology. We are left with a novella that feels like it has rejected “plot”. Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, along with the recurring pattern of city descriptions, provide the necessary “thread” for it all to hang together.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Frame:The two very distinct types of material in Invisible Cities – the city descriptions and the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan – create the effect of a kind of scaffolding wrapping itself around the main body of the book. These conversations (between an authority figure and his more junior messenger/emissary, in which Marco Polo almost plays Fool to Kublai Khan’s Lear) add crucial texture to the themes the book explores: power, ownership, acquisition, ambition, politics, memory, language, journeys, time, acts of interpretation.
Invitation: Would it be relevant, in your novella, to use a “frame narrative” either at the beginning and end, or interspersed throughout, to add extra context to your main story situation? Or might you interweave two very different types of subject matter in some other way? How might that “narrative frame”/contrasting material add meaning and richness to the novella?
(2) Patterns: The city portraits in Invisible Cities are categorised in clusters of five (according to their titles) and then dispersed throughout the book – they can be read in the almost-random/spiralling order in which they are presented or a reader could sift through to pick out each group in sequence– Cities and the Dead 1-5, Cities and Memory 1-5 etc, Thin Cities 1-5 etc.
Invitation: How might you use patterns when sequencing your flashes? Might you create some groupings, either through a linking title given to each flash or through the subtler patterns of the subject matter itself?
(3) Meaningful description: Calvino’s descriptions of these imagined cities are so intensely vivid that each one is raised to the level of a philosophical statement, capturing an emotional state within each concrete physical description of the city’s structure. This is achieved by giving the reader very specific details indicating both animate and inanimate elements: “The man who knows Zora by heart… remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower, the melon vendor’s kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion…” (‘Cities & Memory – 4’, p.13). And the ingenious degree of variety within each city portrait creates contrast, tension, paradox, and development, so that not only is the animate contrasted with the inanimate, but the real is contrasted with the imaginary, vitality with entropy, the untameable with the ordered. Finally, each city-system has an impact upon the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of its visitors or residents.
Invitation: How might you raise up your descriptions of landscape and setting so that they suggest emotional states or philosophical truths? Can you get more specific and vivid in your descriptions? Can you understand better the contrasts between different elements of your settings, and what these contrasts signify (animate/inanimate, real/imagined, vitality/ entropy, wild/ordered, and so on)?
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953; Chicago: Third World Press, 1993), pp.180.
Subject matter: A coming-of-age story about an African-American woman, from childhood to motherhood. The novel illuminates the ordinary, daily struggles (social, domestic and spiritual) of a black woman in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s.
Structure/Style: Thirty-four vignettes (in close third-person) of mostly 2-5 pages, often making vivid use of setting and description, and often ending with a kind of gentle epiphany or musing that feels poetic in instinct. (The novel actually began as a sequence of poems but was rejected by Brooks’s publisher in that form.) It feels like a novel of quietly fraught reflection, as Maud Martha witnesses the world around her and contemplates its meanings and her place in it. Other than marriage, home ownership and motherhood, there are few major dramatic events (at least, not ones with lasting consequences) occurring in the plot. We glimpse a “story arc” mainly through the overall passage of time and personal development of the protagonist’s consciousness as she navigates from childhood to motherhood; a sense of “plot” moving forward is barely suggested. The central struggle feels spiritual in nature – how to make a life count and how to be happy. As Asali Solomon has put it: “good days and bad, no headlines.”
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) A Single Character Study – If a writer wants to understand how to explore one central character really profoundly using a classic novella-in-flash form, they could do worse than use Maud Martha as their model. Maud Martha, published in 1953, has a strong claim to be the very first fully fledged novella-in-flash/novel-in-flash (it runs to 180 pages, so could be said to be almost novel-length). It is the epitome of the novella-in-flash as a character study, a coming-of-age story revealed only through impressionistic, individual moments. The early chapters (1-10) cleverly telescope time as they skip through her childhood years. They are a wonderful example of using “foundational” early chapters to establish the key values and character qualities that a novella is going to explore – in this case, Maud Martha’s place in the world and within her family, the broader context of social conventions of the era and aspirations to status, the financial insecurity of her family, romantic attachments, and the unsettled inner world of Maud Martha herself. As a character portrait the book is wonderfully rich: we watch Maud Martha being overlooked or mistreated, we sympathise with her struggles in terms of self-esteem, inferiority and shaky social status, her experience of racial prejudice; we warm to her determination to be a good person and her instinct for self-sacrifice. We admire her resistance in the face of her difficulties, her will to live positively and embrace life. The novel is a portrait of an opinionated young woman forming her consciousness. Brooks delivers all this effortlessly, exploring subtleties with a light touch that is incredibly sophisticated and skillful.
Invitation: to what extent could your novella-in-flash go really deep into a single character’s worldview and experiences, even in third person?
(2) Epiphanies – Particularly notable in this novel-in-flash is Gwendolyn Brooks’s use of the quiet, almost transcendent epiphany after Maud Martha witnesses some small detail of the world around her. Gutting a chicken, listening to music, a view of dandelions, trapping a mouse – Maud Martha’s intelligent reflections and her instinct for musing mean that these moments take on deeper, spiritual qualities. She witnesses the world and draws conclusions about herself and how to live. These chapters are perfect studies in how to wring every last drop of meaning from a simple scene.
Invitation: In what ways could your main character(s) be sensitive to the world, and be provoked (by what they witness) into thoughtful/emotional/sensory response?
(3) Social Context – The individual life here is set within a vivid social context: Maud Martha’s sense of her own mortality and her spiritual search are sparked by witnessing the deaths of relatives, and she experiences friction from society’s expectations about womanhood and racial identity. We know her partly through seeing her community connections with family, friends and neighbours, and partly through watching her soak up contemporary culture. Maud Martha is an examination of social affectation, signals and customs, and the book shows us very effectively how to portray one character from various social angles – the individual framed within a broader context. Seeing her through this wider lens, and through an accumulation of situations like a montage, we come to understand the main character much more fully and more intimately.
Invitation: to what extent could you set your main character(s) within a broader and more meaningful frame, by depicting significant details of the social context and culture in which they live?
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1984; London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004; 110 pp.)
Subject matter – a short novella about a young Mexican American girl growing up in an impoverished district of Chicago and longing for a home of which to be proud. At once a coming-of-age story and a study of the fellow residents of her neighbourhood, it explores issues of poverty, sexual harassment, domestic violence and racism.
Structure/Style – many of the forty-four chapters are very short – the shortest being only about 70 words long – and approach prose poetry in their vivid lyricism, lightness of touch and absence of narrative arc. As a novella it would feel even shorter were it not for the large spacing between the top of each page, the title of each chapter, and the beginning of each story – these gaps have the dual effect of creating a meditative spaciousness and also encouraging the book to seem longer than it is, as a number of the tiny vignettes run to two pages when they would otherwise fit onto just half a page. Although the book is often described as a coming-of-age story, a significant proportion of the book is devoted to characters other than the narrator – Esperanza is writing the story of a whole neighbourhood through a kaleidoscope of varied scenes. The reading experience is like looking across a street at a large apartment block and peering in briefly through the windows. The novella has established itself as a classic of Chicano literature – Chicano/Chicana identity being seen as distinct from Mexican American identity partly through its resistance of pressures to assimilate into or be subsumed by white American society.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Setting – The House on Mango Street is a great example of how to use setting as the springboard into narrative. The novella is bookended in its first and last chapters by Esperanza’s yearnings for a more affluent and permanent home to live in. Her desire to escape “the house I belong but do not belong to” (P.110) manifests as a conflicted relationship with her own family and community, and shapes the entire story. The book is a description of a street, which becomes a portrait of a community, which becomes an exploration of a racial identity, all of which is framed by that opening and closing expression of a desire for something other/something more. With a deft touch, Cisneros refers to this longing for home in occasional asides through the course of the book, perhaps most explicitly in the chapter ‘Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water’, in which Esperanza visits a fortune-teller and discusses ideas of “house” and “home” with her. All of this gives the book a through-line or thread, and the faint suggestion of a narrative arc, while it moves towards an ending that somehow balances the desire to escape with the desire to be rooted.
(2) Ensemble Cast – In its balancing of inner and outer worlds, this novella juggles the portrayal of a broad ensemble cast while never losing sight of the central character. Esperanza acts as witness to over two dozen characters within this very short book, and many are given their own dedicated chapter(s). The depictions of Mango Street’s residents explore questions about the society Esperanza has been born into and the cultural traditions and customs that press down upon her. In particular, Esperanza watches female neighbours closely, evaluating their negative and positive qualities, and we notice a strong undercurrent of her searching hard for role models. She processes and solidifies her own social consciousness and sexual identity through everything she observes, even learning about her own yearnings through other people’s disappointments. Of a new neighbour who has left a cherished home behind, Esperanza says “Home. Home. Home is a house in a photograph, a pink house, pink as hollyhocks with lots of startled light. The man paints the walls of the apartment pink, but it’s not the same you know. She still sighs for her pink house, and then I think she cries. I would.” Ultimately, Cisneros is exploring the boundaries of story-telling as an act of empathy, as Esperanza indulges in projections about her neighbours’ inner lives, all the while confessing so much about her own desires.
(3) Voice – So much of the success of this book is down to language and especially voice – it is street smart yet youthful, disappointed yet idealistic, yearning to be established and accepted yet yearning to escape, the voice of a victim (of racial and class discrimination), yet a voice of passionate strength and freedom of thought. Although the book’s primary language is English, Esperanza occasionally uses Spanish words, such that the narrative voice itself can be seen as an expression of Esperanza’s duality – blended as it is between the English tongue and her Hispanic roots. The sensory detail is intensely vivid yet delivered with a graceful, light touch, often rising into an everyday lyricism – “That is how it goes and goes.” (P.28) “Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.” (P.9) “Sometimes I hear them laughing late, beer cans and cats and the trees talking to themselves: wait, wait, wait.” (P.73) “The taxi door opened like a waiter’s arm.” (P. 76)
(4) Minimal Plot – The House on Mango Street is an example of how to succeed with pacing a novella patiently and plotting it only lightly. It’s only really towards the mid-point – about half way to two thirds through – that work and a growing awareness of sexuality and death start to crowd the narrator’s worldview and give the story more forward movement, as we realise Esperanza is growing up. Until then we have been hooked by that opening yearning for “a home” and then carried along by the vivid multiplicity of the ensemble cast crowding the foreground and by the wonderful qualities of Esperanza’s voice. Even in the final third of the novella, plot is suggested only with the barest of touches. The primary engines of this story are character, voice and setting, not plot.