Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

New Voices: “Pigeons in Every Universe” by Kiran Kaur Saini

Our first New Voices story comes to us from Kiran Kaur Saini! In this moving flash fiction, our young bedridden neighbor finds a penpal using messenger pigeons, under the guidance of her grandfather. Despite the obstacles that arise, as the end nears, her grandfather assures her: “a pigeon always finds its way home.” Read “Pigeons in Every Universe” in full at the link below!

Every morning I can’t wait to hear from Grapa if a message has returned. My penpal lives on an island, the wall of her city holding back the sea. She describes the cathedrals, the grottos tucked into the walls by the waves. I tell her how tired Ma is after her double shifts, how pigeons high in the air can look like miniature airplanes, and how Grapa gives me drills to keep me a strong soldier even in bed.

Ma is banging pots in the kitchen, and this is how I know Grapa is on the roof feeding the pigeons. The HOA had a meeting about him and Ma is worried about eviction.

Grapa and I have a coop hidden up there. On days I feel well enough to climb the stairs, he shows me how to gently cup their bodies, support their legs between my fingers, how to clean their loft and secure the landing board when it droops under a hundred touchdowns. Most importantly, he shows me how to clip the small message capsules to their legs. Got to keep your skills up, he says. Stay sharp. Be ready. Grapa doesn’t talk much, and never about the war, about the battles, his buddies, or why he limps. But he tells me a pigeon will carry my message whether it’s shot at, loses an eye or a foot, or gets punctured through the wing. A pigeon will always remember your kindness, he says, and will deliver a message you couldn’t send any other way.

Our pigeons return with only my own note. I am 12. I like physics and adventure stories. What do you like?

No one uses pigeons anymore, Ma says. They’re pests now.

Did you know the pigeon is actually a dove? Grapa says. A symbol of peace and faith.

The first reply comes after I get too sick to climb to the roof anymore. I’ve stopped going to school but still do homework from my bed. The days have become long and tedious, each the same. Grapa brings the first message like a Christmas present. I tremble to unscrew the capsule and retrieve the scroll. I haven’t studied physics, but I love stories about pirates and watching the sea.

The sea! Could this person live by the sea? I ask Grapa, Could a pigeon travel so far?

A pigeon can fly home a thousand miles, he says. In just a day or two. They’ll find their way through any obstacle.

I grab a pencil and scribble in miniature. I wish I could see the sea. But for now I can only see the sky. What grade are you in?

You have a penpal, Grapa says. Had one myself as a boy.

To continue reading “Pigeons in Every Universe” click here.

The 2022-2023 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers Shortlist!

After months of reading and deliberation, we’ve narrowed down our submissions pool to these final fifteen stories. We now hand over our shortlist to Morgan Talty, who has the tremendously difficult task of selecting the winning three. Congratulations to the writers selected for this year’s shortlist, and thank you from the bottom of our hearts to all the submitters who sent in their work this year. Check back at the end of the month for the winners, and stay tuned for news regarding our summer contest!

Shelter: A Photo Gallery by Jen Burke Anderson

Mars in Williamsburg by Therese Eiben

Bodies at Rest by Emily Giangiulio

Museum Ice (Extended Dance Mix) by Amalia Gladhart

Walls by Roger Hart

The One-Ten to Yellowknife by David Hartshorne

Inflicted by Jenea Havener

Reservoir Hill by Ronald Jackson

Dry Sink by Mina Manchester

Citizen Science by Jenna Mertz

The River at the End of the Road by Hillary Millán

Afterburn by James Noonan

Where They Come From by Casey Quinn

Advanced Reader by Donovan Swift

The Developer by Sarah Walsh

Last Day to Submit: Spring Small Fiction Awards, Judged by K-Ming Chang!

Today is the deadline for our new Spring Small Fiction Awards! K-Ming Chang is serving as our judge for this new contest and will pick three grand prize winners and three runners-up from a shortlist provided by The Masters Review‘s editorial staff! We are seeking your very best in microfiction, flash fiction and sudden fiction. Find out more below or on our contest page, but don’t wait too long—the contest closes tonight at 11:59pm PT!

//Submissions Close TONIGHT//


Add to Calendar

We’ve long admired the mighty power of the compressed form, which is why we are expanding our search for the very best in small fiction. The Masters Review is excited to announce the new Spring Small Fiction Awards! This contest will honor a grand prize winner in three categories—Microfiction, Flash Fiction, and Sudden Fiction—by awarding $1,000 and online publication to each winner selected by by the magnificent K-Ming Chang! This year’s judge will be announced next week. A runner-up in each category will also be honored with a $200 prize and online publication.

For this contest:

Microfiction is any story up to 500 words.
Flash Fiction is any story between 501 and 1,000 words.
Sudden Fiction is any story between 1,001 and 1,500 words.

We welcome up to two stories per submission, in any combination of the three categories. Please include both stories in one document.



K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2021, her chapbook, Bone House, was published by Bull City Press. Her most recent book is Gods of Want (One World/Random House, 2022). Her next books are a novel titled Organ Meats (One World) and a novella titled Cecilia (Coffee House Press). She can be found birdwatching in California.


2022 Chapbook Open Winner, Selected by Kim Fu!

Congratulations to Naomi Telushkin, author of Coats, the winning chapbook in the 2022 Chapbook Open, selected by Kim Fu! Fu calls Coats an “urgent, thrilling, gorgeous, intelligent, complex piece of writing,” and we cannot wait to share this story with you next spring. Telushkin will receive a $3,000 prize for her chapbook, along with 75 contributor copies! Upon publication, Coats will be available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Thank you once again to all of our submitters, and congratulations to our runners-up and the other shortlisted and notable chapbooks. We look forward to reading your chapbooks once again in the fall when we open for more submissions.



Coats by Naomi Telushkin


The Duncan Deal by Rex Adams

What Happened (a Montage) by Victoria Sottosanti

Sleight by David Schwartz

New Voices: “The Tail” by Kailyn McCord

Kailyn McCord’s wonderfully creepy “The Tail” begins as any good horror begins: with a seemingly innocuous, if slightly unsettling, discovery. “At the corner of our country parcel, where the driveway meets the street, my husband and I found a tail.” What follows cannot be explained by any conventional means, but her husband is certain the woman who lives across from them, le envou, is responsible. Enmesh yourself in “The Tail” below!

The woods behind our house are private woods. We do not own them, but someone does. We walk in them, long walks full of silent minutes in which my husband and I experience our own, separate peace. The morning after we found the tail, this several months after we found the cairn—which of course we had forgotten about, had not as we’d said bothered to speak with the neighbor woman—the woods sang with the steady hush of some far-off din. We had long theorized it was the ocean, or else the wind across a higher ridge line we could not see. It was not, as we’d first thought when we’d bought the parcel, traffic. Traffic was a city concern. When the sound rose, we would often stop and listen to it, straining to distinguish it enough to give it a name. Sometimes we held our breath, although this always seemed to make things harder, the steady, deafening pump of blood.

At the corner of our country parcel, where the driveway meets the street, my husband and I found a tail. Or, I found it, and showed him, and that was how things began.

We arrived at dusk. The tail hung on the edge of the trash box, which was square and rotting and had been an aspect of the property we ignored save for its function as marker, as the first built thing to signal the place as ours. The box listed—still lists—against a power pole, and lettered down the pole’s wooden length in fuzzy, faded paint was the acronym USA. Not a reference to the country, but some code, of meaning only to the company men who serviced the lines, indicating where to cut, or what they might find if they did. We had never considered the letters, or very much the bin; we used a service for our trash, women who came and disappeared it from the corner of the garage. We paid the power bill. The lights stayed on.

But anyhow, the tail. That day as every day, the bin stood sad and a little disgusting in its dusklight silhouette, the top adorned with what from far away we thought was a flag, what on closer exam proved to be a fluttering black and white spindle of hair. The driveway beyond stretched up into the property, willows on its border obscuring the house, the length of its crumbling macadam edge crowded with abalone shells. A pretty scene, all in the budding moonlight.

We’d been many hours driving, winding the passes, my husband’s face taut and flushed from concentrating too long on that which he could not well see. He hated driving at transitional times of day, or in dappled sunlight, hated when there was no clear adjustment he could make to see the world sharply. He slowed the truck. At the passenger’s side, just beyond the glass, the soft taper of the tail’s end hung past the box lid, into the empty air. I rolled down the window. An acrid odor swelled into the cab. I reached out.

“Don’t,” he said.


“Don’t touch it.”

“It’s just a skunk,” I said.

“Someone left us a skunk?”

“Well no,” I said, “the tail.”

A breeze blew through the black spindle, ruffled its hairs.

To continue reading “The Tail” click here.

Getting Unstuck: Don’t Go It Alone by Jen Dupree

Feeling stuck? Not sure where to turn? You’re not the only one. In this month’s Getting Unstuck, assistant editor Jen Dupree explores resources for getting feedback, including when and where to seek feedback, how to know what kind of feedback you need, and where to find writing groups!

Writing is a tender business. Most of us write alone, which is how I do my generative work and my early drafts. But at some point, especially before submission, all of us need at least one other set of eyes on our work because it’s too easy to miss obvious mistakes if you go it alone—inconsistencies with plot, character, or setting; weird sentences; even unintentional character name changes—and those things can be the difference between publication or rejection. But when is it the right time to seek feedback? And how do you seek feedback? And what do you do with the feedback you get?

First: When is the right time to seek feedback? For me, early drafts are too full of the kind of mistakes I can find myself and so for that reason, I usually write at least three drafts of something before I show it to anyone. But really, you can decide to show your work to anyone at any stage. The kind of feedback you’ll get will depend on where you are in the process, and it’s important that you know what you’re looking for before you seek critique. In this episode of Writer’s Digest Presents, host Michael Woodson says, “You should really be thoughtful about what you want at this particular time. Do you just want community? Do you want people to look at your writing and give you feedback?” If you just want to produce pages, that’s a very different thing than wanting feedback on a sentence level. Woodson and his co-hosts also suggest expressly telling the writing group what you’re there for; if you’re confident about a certain area and don’t want feedback on it, say so. This has become standard practice for my writing group. We exchange pages via email on a monthly basis and in the email setup for the pages, we say where the draft is and what we want others to focus on. Here’s a quote from one of my emails: These pages are loose. Like the wind. I just want to know if it has legs. (yes, I hear the mixed metaphor.) The point is that for me in that draft, feedback on a split infinitive would not have been helpful. I was only looking for big-picture feedback and because I was able to ask for it, that’s what I got.

What you want for feedback will change with each draft, but the people you write with might not. I’ve been writing with some form of the same group for almost a decade now. I found my writing group by finding one person in a graduate school workshop whose writing I admired, but, more importantly, who critiqued in ways that felt thoughtful and measured. It was a bonus that we ended up living near each other. We were a group of two for years until a third graduate-school friend asked if she could join and, after discussion, we said yes. The three of us wrote for years until my first friend mentioned a friend of hers who was a writer and could she join us. We are four people who care about and honor each other’s work. We have questions, even disagreements, about sentences or paragraphs, and that’s fine. That’s good, in fact, because disagreement highlights how subjective writing can be. But we don’t ever say mean or cutting things to one another. In this episode of The Shit No One Tells You About Writing host Bianca Marais echoes the need for trust: “Writing means making yourself vulnerable…and because of that vulnerability, you need to be surrounded by people who get you, who are invested in you…because getting critique from the wrong people is worse than not getting critique at all.” A writing group should not make you feel under attack. You should leave with your head full of thoughts, ideas, advice, but you should not leave feeling like you want to give up.

And what if you don’t agree with the feedback you get? Or, what if, like I mentioned happens in my writing group, you get mixed messages from the group? Personally, I find it helpful when that happens because it forces me to articulate what I’m trying to do in a particular piece of writing, not so much to defend my work (because defensiveness can get in the way of really hearing what’s being said), but to clarify, to really nail down what I’m trying to say. In this episode of #AmWriting, Joni Cole notes that “[it] is our job as writers to put [feedback] through our editorial mill.” A writer can’t—and shouldn’t—apply every piece of feedback. It’s important to hear all feedback given in the spirit of kindly moving a piece forward, but it’s equally important to hit pause, to think about the feedback, ideally for a few days or weeks, and then come back to the work with the critique somewhere hovering in mind. Cole says, “Feedback I don’t agree is as valuable as feedback I do [agree with] because it hones my own editorial instincts.” The job of the person receiving critique is to hear it, think about it, and then decide what, if anything, to do with it.

Finally, how do you find a writing group? Graduate school is an easy place to find your people, but you don’t have to go after a degree to meet other writers. Writing classes through Adult Education in your area are a great place to meet like-minded writers. Libraries often have writing groups, too. And most states have writing organizations. In my home state of Maine, for instance, has Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance which offers a variety of ways for writers to connect. Then there are national organizations like the Writers Guild of America and writing conferences like AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) which can foster relationships.

For a long time, I was shy about my writing and a little scarred from a bad workshop experience, and so I did go it alone. But being in a writing group with trusted writers has made me a better, more astute, more generous writer and I can’t really imagine going back to writing alone.

by Jen Dupree

June Deadlines: 11 Deadlines for Contests This Month

There are only so many ways to beat the heat this summer, so make sure to be cool, calm, and collected as you send your work to one of these contests!

FEATURED! Spring Small Fiction Award

The Masters Review has a new contest, looking for the titans of the tiniest writing forms! Microfiction is less than 500 words, Flash Fiction is between 501 and 1000 words, and Sudden Fiction is between 1001 and 1500 words. First place in each category receives $1000 and online publication! Judged by the magnificent K-Ming Chang! More details here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: June 1

Bard Fiction Prize

This amazing prize is offered to a promising emerging writer through Bard College, and the winners receive a stipend of $30,000, an appointment as writer-in-residence on campus for one semester, and the opportunity to give a public lecture. Be aware, though, they’re looking for writers who are 39 years old or younger. You’ll need to have published a book in order to apply, but this is the chance of a lifetime! Learn more here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: June 1

Halifax Ranch Fiction Prize

American Short Fiction and amazing judge Kelly Link are looking for writers who are confident, concise, and creative – could that be you? Stories must be between 2000 and 6500 words, but multiple entries are allowed. First place receives $2500 and guaranteed publication in an upcoming issue. Additionally, the continued partnership with Tasajillo Residency means that the winner will also receive an all-expenses-paid writing retreat! Details here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: June 1

Salamander 2023 Fiction Prize

Offered through Suffolk University, Salamander is working with Kirstin Valdez Quade  to discover amazing new fiction! Each submission must be less than 30 pages, include a cover sheet, and be entirely unpublished. First prize is $1000, second prize is $500, and all entries are considered for publication. Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: June 1

New American Fiction Prize

If you have an unpublished fiction manuscript, then this is opportunity knocking! New American Press and Gabriel Bump are currently accepting submissions for this prize. A full-length fiction work of outstanding merit will be selected, and the winner will receive a publication contract, including a $1500 advance, 25 author’s copies, and promotional support. Do it!

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: June 15

Barrow Street Press Book Contest

If you have been hoping for a chance to show the world your talent for poetry, your wait is definitely over with this competition! Judged by the lovely Nathalie Handal, the best previously unpublished manuscript of poetry in English will receive $1500 and publication. Each collection should be between 50-80 pages, but you are allowed multiple submissions. Don’t wait!

Entry Fee: $28 Deadline: June 30

Drue Heinz Literature Prize

This contest has some very stringent requirements, but the prize is almost beyond belief! In order to be eligible for the University of Pittsburgh Press’ award, you must have been published by a reputable journal, magazine, or publisher, before you can submit your collection of short fiction for consideration. The winner of this award, however, will have that manuscript published, and then receive $15,000! Details here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: June 30

Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction

The University of North Texas Press offers this prize every year, and this could be the year for you! Entries can be a combination of flash fiction, short stories, and novellas, from 100 to 200 book pages in length. Authors may submit multiple applications, and simultaneous submissions are allowed. The winner receives $1000 and publication by UNT Press! Submit here.

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: June 30

2023 LAR Literary Awards

Here is a great chance for writers of all stripes, as the Los Angeles Review’s contest rewards authors in creative nonfiction, short fiction, flash fiction, and poetry! Chelsey Clammer judges creative nonfiction, Carlos Allende judges short fiction, John Weir judges flash fiction, and M. Soledad Caballero judges poetry. The winner in each category receives $1000 and publication – Make sure you submit to the correct category! Submission guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: June 30

Lascaux Prize in Flash Fiction

If you think you’re ready to medal in writing flash fiction, then this is the contest for you! The Lascaux Review is accepting three stories per submission, less than 1000 words each. All finalists in this contest will be published, but the winner also receives $1000 and a bronze medallion for their efforts. Check it out!

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: June 30

2023 Short Story Prize

The Moth is looking for short stories, less than 5000 words, with little constraints beyond that! Only unpublished short stories are eligible, but authors may submit multiple times. The winner receives €3000 and publication in the autumn issue, second place receives a week-long writing retreat, and third place receives €1000. Judged by Ottessa Moshfegh. Learn more here!

Entry Fee: €15 Deadline: June 30

by Kimberly Guerin

One Week Remains: The Spring Small Fiction Awards Close June 1st!

The clock’s ticking! Only one week remains to submit your microfiction, flash fiction and sudden fiction to our new Spring Small Fiction Awards! K-Ming Chang stands by to select a winner and a runner-up in each of our three categories. Winners receive $1,000 and publication while runners-up receive $200 and publication. All submissions will be considered for New Voices publication, as well. The full details for this contest are below and on our contest page. Submit before time runs out!

//Submissions Close June 1//


Add to Calendar

We’ve long admired the mighty power of the compressed form, which is why we are expanding our search for the very best in small fiction. The Masters Review is excited to announce the new Spring Small Fiction Awards! This contest will honor a grand prize winner in three categories—Microfiction, Flash Fiction, and Sudden Fiction—by awarding $1,000 and online publication to each winner selected by by the magnificent K-Ming Chang! This year’s judge will be announced next week. A runner-up in each category will also be honored with a $200 prize and online publication.

For this contest:

Microfiction is any story up to 500 words.
Flash Fiction is any story between 501 and 1,000 words.
Sudden Fiction is any story between 1,001 and 1,500 words.

We welcome up to two stories per submission, in any combination of the three categories. Please include both stories in one document.



K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2021, her chapbook, Bone House, was published by Bull City Press. Her most recent book is Gods of Want (One World/Random House, 2022). Her next books are a novel titled Organ Meats (One World) and a novella titled Cecilia (Coffee House Press). She can be found birdwatching in California.


May Book Review: The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor

In our final book review for the month of May, Kathryn Ordiway examines Brandon Taylor’s newest novel, The Late Americans, out today from Riverhead. “With The Late Americans,” Ordiway writes, “Brandon Taylor returns to a space he has a talent for exploring: the minutiae of life on a college campus and in a college town.” Read the full review at the link below.

With The Late Americans, Brandon Taylor returns to a space he has a talent for exploring: the minutiae of life on a college campus and in a college town.

The Late Americans concerns a carousel of characters, each revealing more about the others as they take their turns in the spotlight. The book begins with Seamus, a poet suffering through a workshop he perceives as full of people who only want validation from their peers, and who has not been able to submit his own work to the class all semester. Seamus introduces the reader to Fyodor, who carries the story forward next, and so the book passes, each chapter a baton handed to the next character, a glance forward and a glance back.

Read more.

New Voices: “The Space Between Heartbeats” by Jessica Yen

Jessica Yen’s “The Space Between Heartbeats,” this week’s New Voices entry, offers an honest look at the difficulties of pandemic parenting. Already an isolating and exhausting experience, the forced-solitude of the COVID pandemic compounded the frustrations of raising a newborn and led, Yen shows us, to this moment of frustration, and the moment immediately after, when “remorse overtook frustration.” Read Yen’s flash nonfiction below!

Friends and family had frequently assured me I’d be a wonderful parent, not understanding the tepid smile I gave in response. They knew only my tremendous reservoir of patience, not how quickly it could drain. It had always been easier to wallow in remorse than to try to change.

Once, the baby woke prematurely from a nap, or perhaps she screamed and refused to go down for one, I remember not which, only that I needed a moment to myself and she would not grant me even that. Resentment vaporized any patience that still clung to my bones. By that point, the husband and I—and only the husband and I—had tag-teamed at least seven hundred naps between us, spread over the first one hundred days of COVID. While we tended this endless cycle, other people cultivated sourdough starter. Binged movies for days. Napped twice in an afternoon. Just once, I would not be beholden to the baby’s needs. She would submit.

I stormed into the darkened room. Each stomp mushroomed my fury like a sheet of sun. I flew to her bassinet, then reached in and yanked the baby out.

Perhaps she welcomed my appearance, thinking it portended a play session. Perhaps, swaddled as she was in an oversized muslin blanket, a package more fabric than human, she did not sense the iron in my fingers. Perhaps her gaze held a mixture of surprise and hope and maybe even love.

As soon as I lifted the baby to chest height, I tossed her in the air.

To continue reading “The Space Between Heartbeats,” click here.

Litmag Roadmap: Kansas

Our next stop on our Litmag Roadmap: Kansas! Join Rebecca Paredes on a quick tour through this Great Plains state to see what exciting publishing opportunities can be found!

If you’re looking for literary magazines in Kansas, you’ll find your home on the range with these journals. The Sunflower State is home to several publications with a long history of publishing short fiction about Kansas, the Midwest, and beyond. Here’s a look at a few active litmags in the state.

Cottonwood Magazine

Established in 1965, Cottonwood is a literary magazine published by the University of Kansas. The magazine has published authors such as Rita Dove, William Stafford, Doug Ramspeck, and Patricia Corbus, among others. The journal publishes a print edition once annually in the spring.

Flint Hills Review

FHR is a national literary journal housed at Emporia State University. For nearly three decades, the journal has sought to discover and redefine regional writing by “publishing work with a particular interest in the Midwest region, including its connection to ethnicity, gender, and personal relationship.” FHR publishes one print issue annually in the summer.


Touchstone Literary Magazine is Kansas State University’s student-edited literary arts magazine. The magazine’s namesake is defined as a “hard, black stone” used to test the quality of gold or silver. True to form, Touchstone aims to select the “gold” in literary work by new voices. The magazine publishes online throughout the year and one annual print edition in the spring.

by Rebecca Paredes



From the Archives: “Mutts” by Shane Page—Discussed by Melissa Bean

In this month’s From The Archives, Melissa Bean returns to a former Short Story Award finalist: “Mutts” by Shane Page! Bean dissects Page’s incorporation of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? throughout the story and how Page ensures that every character matters in this tautly written winner.

I end up thinking about the oft passed around quote “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one” when reading short stories. Brevity is difficult. One of the things that writers of longer form fiction have in their favor is space. Over a whole novel, you have the time and space not only to develop motifs and layer imagery, but also to hide extraneous elements. Long form fiction comes with its own pitfalls of course, but it gives you some leeway. Short stories (and their writers) don’t have that luxury. They have to be careful about how they allocate their few thousand words.

“Mutts” by Shane Page is a great example of ultra-efficiency in action. Virtually everything we see either furthers our understanding of the characters or builds toward the resolution of the piece. Not only that, but most of the elements are pulling double if not triple duty. But the story never feels spartan or sparse. By effectively choosing and reusing the elements of the story, Page gets the most out of the space he has.

Crafting an engaging opening

Page demonstrates this economy of writing from the opening paragraphs. The first sentences of this piece do all the basic things an opening needs to do: laying the groundwork of the story, giving the who, what, why of the piece.

Bill the Dog had been killed, run down by the mailman, and Mom said Dad was to blame, so she dragged our kitchen table out in front of the television, set two stools on either side, and called to Dad that they needed to settle this. They were going to sit down like adults and arm-wrestle.

We get all the relevant characters (Mom, Dad, child-narrator), the situation that’s gotten them to this moment (Bill the Dog’s untimely death), and the central conflict (the parents determining what should be done about said dog’s death). There’s also something absurd and engaging in the straight delivery. You want to read more to figure out what happens next. However, these two sentences do more than lay the necessary groundwork for the plot, they also give us an invaluable peek into who these characters are. That second sentence, aside from being unexpected and humorous, gives us a sense of so many other things we learn throughout the story—like the family’s instability and the parent’s volatile relationship. They’re the kind of people for whom arm wrestling is the most adult way they have to solve serious problems. Two birds with one stone.

Million Dollar Motifs

One of the story’s most notable workhorses, at least from my perspective, is Who Wants to be a Millionaire. On the most basic level, it gives the narrator something to do while his parents are arm wrestling. But that could have been any solo activity—watching cartoons or playing solitaire would have also accomplished that goal as well. However, Page returns to Millionaire throughout the story, layering more importance on it. By the end, the show is a vital part of the piece on multiple levels.

First of all, Millionaire acts as an avenue for additional characterization. The show is first introduced to the story when the narrator says:

I had been watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Because I figured I did. I wanted to be a millionaire. And Mom and Dad did too, so I thought if I studied the show enough we might all have our wish granted.

Like the unadorned statement of arm-wrestling to solve problems giving us a sense of who the parents were, this gives us more info about our narrator. He wants to help his whole family, not one parent over the other (which he’ll be forced to do eventually). He has a specific aspiration to financial security without a clearer indication of how to achieve it. He doesn’t want to be an investment banker, for example, because they make millions. Game show winner seems to be the clearest path available. Additionally, each of the characters’ way of approaching the questions acts as a kind of crystalized view of who they are in this moment. The narrator, too young to actually know the answers and yearning for stability, tries to find a pattern within the answers. The mother, with her laser focused determination, knows the answer as soon as it’s presented, ignoring the other options. The father sees the answer as an opportunity to make a joke about his wife. These moments reflect the struggles and tensions of the larger piece in their own minute ways.

Second, Millionaire helps the story’s pacing. The dramatic present of this story—the arm wrestling match itself—is incredibly short, most likely only a few minutes long tops. However this story is able to play around with our experience of that few minutes in a few ways. First of all, we aren’t limited by linear, logical time. We see a good amount of the family’s past and future throughout the piece, moving forward and backward as the narrator creates mental associations between this moment and others in his life. Jumping around time this way slows down what might otherwise be a rushed piece. However, our experience of the storyline in the dramatic present doesn’t get lost or stalled because of the questions that keep us moving forward at an even clip. We have a sense that time is passing (and a sense of how much time the narrator thinks is passing) because questions keep getting asked.

Page also gives himself some leeway to play with how we as readers perceive time by establishing a clear set of rules at the beginning and then subtly tweaking them as we move through. Our perception of the events at the end of the piece is allowed to dilate and warp along with the narrator because he gives us a guide, so to speak.

And finally, Millionaire works on a thematic level. This story, at its heart, is about looking for definitive answers. Who is responsible for Bill the Dog’s death? Who will stay in the house? How do I salvage my family’s relationship as it is actively falling apart in front of me? Millionaire resonates with that underlying theme—people answer successively more difficult questions to try to gain something. But Regis Philbin’s string of questions and answers acts as a fourth speaker, set off from our main cast in italics. The interaction between Regis on the TV and actions in the real world gives way to the interesting formal shift in the latter portion of the story, where the italics of the show start to interject and interweave with the main narrative. The questions interrupt actions and sentences, they displace lines and thoughts. Eventually, Regis’s voice seems to break down entirely, merging with the father’s and the narrator’s. The questions and their corresponding answers become garbled. So yes, the narrator could have been playing cards or watching public access, but we would have lost out on the thematic resonances that exist between the narrator itself and this element within it.

Making Sure Each Character Matters

One of those writing clichés that is a cliché for a reason is, Is this the most interesting moment in your character’s life? and if it’s not, why aren’t you showing us that instead? The less often asked but equally valuable counterpoint could be, Is this the most interesting entity you could have telling this story? And if not, why aren’t they? The most interesting entity might not be the most interesting character. A third person omniscient narrator gets access to multiple people’s perspectives. A close third gives us a flavor of the character that isn’t limited by their experience or mindset. But it can be more difficult to make the case for the understated first-person narrator. I can understand the appeal—someone who is close to the drama without being in the drama, someone who can give you that clean exterior perspective while keeping it personal—but sometimes the fly-on-the-wall narrator ends up being the story’s dead weight. They can add an extra character or interiority to account for who doesn’t necessarily factor into the story’s pay off.  This is often the case with child or retrospective-child narrators, who lack 1) the agency or autonomy to impact the story’s plot and 2) perspective to effectively communicate the actions or emotions of others. (Of course there are many brilliant stories told by children, but I’m speaking in generalizations here.)

But Page utilizes the receded position of the narrator (literally and figuratively tucked off to the side) to his advantage. The first-person point of view gives the piece the uncertainty and wobbliness of memory. It’d be harder to play that wonderful pacing trick without the cover of memory’s faultiness.  But it works on a larger level. The first 5/6ths of the story are the parents’. Their dynamic and big personalities plus the palpable desperation of their situation is where the heat of the story is located. But the final moments, as the italics of Regis Philbin’s voice break down and the narrator seems to speak as he does, the story becomes about the narrator speaking (in this kind of way) for the first time. In that moment—where he tries to find his voice, tries to find the answer that he needs to recite to keep his family together—this is just as much his story as it is anyone else’s.

In Conclusion

One of the many things that we can take away from this story from a craft perspective is to make use of the things you have wisely. A writing teacher years ago called underutilized elements “unopened gifts.” A successful story doesn’t leave such gifts unopened. A successful short story can be so impactful because of the way they use a few carefully chosen characters, details, and elements to do a large amount of work.

by Melissa Bean