From the Archives: “How to Develop (Film)” by Candice May—Discussed by Melissa Bean

May 17, 2024

Stories, like photographs, are a matter of composition. What is in focus and what is not? How can we use framing elements to draw the audience’s attention to a specific element of the piece? When can we effectively use negative space to our advantage? Despite the many technical and technological differences between photography and short story writing, “How to Develop (Film)” by Candice May invites this comparison. This isn’t just because of the story’s subject matter, but because of its masterful use of elements like perspective, framing, and negative space. The content of the story is, for lack of a better word, provocative. This is a snapshot of a high school girl as she invites, orchestrates, engages in, a sexual relationship with a teacher. But this story doesn’t stand out just because of the scandal that lies in the subject matter. May’s technique is masterful, with each element of her story adding to the overall effect and experience of her work.

Point of View

I had a writing teacher tell me once no one uses second person point of view. Or, at least, no one should. To a younger me (and the vestige of her contrarian spirit that still lives in me today) that felt like a challenge. Why can’t you write in second person? I still have a semi-sentimental attachment to this much maligned point of view. May’s story stood out to me not only because it’s a particularly good example of second person specifically, but also because it’s a story that effectively uses point of view to its advantage in general. How a story is told—whether it’s first-person present tense or omniscient third person past or anything in between—should be chosen to best serve the story.

One of the things that readers tend to bristle against with stories written in second person point of view is the way that it involves the reader in the events of the narrative in a jarring way. I didn’t walk across the room. I wasn’t overcome by sadness. I didn’t slay any dragons, let alone that one. However, some of the bite of this story would be lost if it was told in a different manner. A first-person story of a particular girl might be a bit too individualized—one specific girl’s specific experience. A third-person story might be too detached—a girl, any girl that you can brush out of your mind. May works with this jarring quality, incorporating it into the fabric of the story itself. By making the primary character “you”, us, May forces us to directly grapple with the central character’s actions in a way we might not otherwise. We are made complicit, in a way that feels (productively) uncomfortable. The main character of this story’s role in events feels similarly thorny and uncomfortable to us as readers—she, or rather, “you make things happen, too […] Even though you’re a shy girl, you’re also an artist and you can create the things you want.” Throughout this story, May carefully maintains this tension. Let’s take the line, “Your fingers unroll the coil like you are undressing a teenager, like the way he undressed you…” from section 3. In this sentence, “you” act first, then the act is returned. We undress and then are undressed.

Another reason that second person stories rub readers the wrong way is that they can come off as bossy. An unseen voice orders you to walk across the room, to feel sad, to slay that dragon. All characters in stories are moved by unseen strings of course. Using the second person, also, highlights the inherent coerciveness of the situation. You have no choice.

Framing in Tight Places

Going along with point of view, how the information is presented to us also frames our experience of a piece. Fifty-six words, approximately 5% of the total word count of this piece is devoted to headings. The story is broken up by the successive steps of the photo development process—from “Materials and Set Up” to “Clean and Store Film”—with each named and sequentially numbered. In flash or micro fiction, even more so than in conventional short stories, space is at a premium. Each word must be carefully chosen to serve the overall functioning of the narrative.

The headings earn their keep in May’s piece. On one level, these headings serve as a pacing mechanism. Our experience of the unfolding story is portioned and dispensed in measured chunks. We are forced to pause, to reflect periodically throughout the short piece. Each successive step of the interaction with the teacher is made to feel as deliberate as the steps to the photo developing process. On another level, the headings reinforce the underlying themes and actions of the narrative. Just as the main character must develop (like film) throughout this whole story. In section 9, or, “Agitate Film Periodically”, the main character brings a camera to class and “kept clicking even when Mister held up his hand and said, Enough, stop.”

Despite this piece’s brevity (coming in at just under 1000 words), May doesn’t abandon the build to the narrative arc that exists here. Her use of the phrase “your flesh in a blood hued tone” in the first section, “Materials and Set Up”, sets the stage effectively. May draws our attention to the main character’s body and imbues it the hidden sense of danger, violence that colors it. In the second section, “Open Film Cassette”, May uses the word “evidence,” further preparing the reader. Evidence of what? Positive things rarely produce evidence that must be managed. When we do learn the nature of the story in section 3 “Cut Film Off Cassette”, it is revealed in a similar way on the sentence level. “Your fingers unroll the film from its coil like you are undressing a teenager, like the way he undressed you…” In this sentence, we are taken from the unspooling of the film (suggestive its theme, the revealing of something hidden), to the hypothetical comparison of undressing (suggestive in that it evokes of a set of behavior), to the actual act itself.


Many flash fiction stories fail to strike an effective balance between developing characters or developing actions in the space. Much like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in many cases the more we know about who a character is at that moment the less we know about where their character is going at that moment and vice versa. However, this story effectively chooses actions that reveal something intrinsic about the character. Or to put it a different way, May focuses on actions that continually and specifically tell us something about who the main character is on the inside and what she does on the outside. Her appreciation and careful cataloging of the steps in developing film, her sharp awareness of her own appearance, her choice to keep the negatives for later date—all of these things reveal her character while also getting us closer to the loaded-gun-potential of the negatives at the end of the story.

The ending of the story, with the negatives being kept under the bed, leaves us on a moment that closes the door but doesn’t lock it. The developed film wraps up the metaphorical “development” and the literal development taking place. It also leaves room for the reader to imagine what happens next. Does she reveal the negatives? If so, when? How? Why? If not, what prevents her from doing so? Even though the story is so short, it feels like we know enough to guess what might happen next. Ultimately, the things that are left unsaid, unexplored in this piece leave the reader thinking about the story after they’ve read the final word.

In conclusion

One of the most admirable elements of this story from the craft level is the careful consideration it puts into how the story is told. An interesting or novel or scandalous plot can get readers intrigued, but it’s the “how” of a story that keeps readers engaged. How you reveal and omit information. How you choose your narrator is and utilize their unique perspective. How you choose what moments to focus on. Spending time not just on plot or dialogue, but on these elements of framing and focus will make your writing stand out.

by Melissa Bean


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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