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.
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