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?
Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/