Way back in the summer of 2014, we published Zana Previti’s “Instruments” in New Voices, the story of a young woman obsessed with a professional hockey player desperate to castrate himself. It’s also, believe it or not, a meditation on love, loneliness, and what we owe to each other. Let’s dive in.
Detail as Data
I sometimes find it useful to think of a story as a stream of data, specifically: a dynamic sequence of information made up of details about the characters and the world they inhabit. In this mode, how and when that information is conveyed matters just as much as what information is conveyed. This is ultimately what we mean when we talk about story structure and pace, and “Instruments” is a masterclass in both.
One reason it’s useful to think of fiction in terms of data/information is that it’s demystifying. We start to move away from this sort of nebulous thing called “craft,” and instead put a spotlight on how to practicably build story elements from the ground up, using these elements with intention to direct readers’ attention and emotion the way a culvert channels water. With every successful move, you further readers’ understanding of—and therefore feelings about—the characters and their developing situations.
The first piece of information we get in “Instruments,” for example, is the following: “Gosso drives the Zamboni and sells surgical instruments from a JanSport backpack.” It’s a sentence with plenty of verve (specificity of detail, clear and concise construction, the excellent name “Gosso”), but its chief power is in how we receive the information it’s doling out. In learning that Gosso drives a Zamboni, we’re actually getting a three-for-one deal—in addition to the obvious, we also learn we’re in an ice rink, and that (by going with “the Zamboni” as opposed to “a Zamboni) it’s a singular location, probably one with which the narrator is familiar. The next half of the sentence, too, does a lot of work on a subtextual level, fleshing out Gosso as a supremely shady guy.
But what’s fascinating about this opening from an informational standpoint is that we don’t actually learn anything about the narrator—except that Gosso predates her—until the second paragraph. Even then, all we know is that Gosso is distrustful of her, maybe that she doesn’t quite belong in this space. We get a couple more hints throughout the next two paragraphs—she watches hockey games, knows the players well, has a tumultuous relationship with one of them—but mostly we’re in the dark about who she is and where she’s from and what she thinks is important. By the end of the fourth paragraph we realize, probably unconsciously, that actually we’ve been learning about the narrator the whole time, with every sentence, that above all else she’s an observer. And this realization, or culmination, whatever you want to call it, leads us right into paragraph five, where we learn she isn’t just an observer but a stalker. The narrator then pivots into self-examination. Because of the setup in those first four paragraphs, the reveal of her status as stalker feels both surprising and exactly right, like something we’ve known all along.
It’s also worth taking a look at exactly how Previti handles this reveal on a line level. In paragraph four, she tells us that Bobby Cannon is “the man I’ve been involved with intimately, on and off with only occasional lapses, for the past fifteen years.” On a first read, it’s easy to take at face value, and we’re likely intended to. Then we get the first sentence of the next paragraph: “When I say Bobby and I have been involved intimately . . . it is true.” The reason this works so well is because it’s information we already have. Instinctively, your brain is going, “Wait, I already knew that. Why are you telling me this again?” We’re suspicious right off the bat, because it’s obvious this narrator is on the defensive. Why should she need to specify it’s true, as if we already assume it to be false? She equivocates, then we learn why. So, not only is this narrator unreliable, but, as we glean from this and the next paragraph, she’s self-aware, reflexive, devious and genuine at the same time. That’s a compelling combination.
Before zooming out, let’s take a breather at the end of this opening section. Take stock of the information we actually have vis-à-vis our POV character. She’s a stalker, but she’s also particularly observant of details outside the realm of her stalkee. She’s protective of said stalkee, too, causing beef with Gosso over Bobby having purchased some surgical equipment. She’s self-aware enough to know she’s nuts, and even what kind of nuts she is, but she’s also kind of meek, unsure of herself in some ways. “When I do something wrong, I regret it. I stand to the side; if there is a cart coming down the supermarket aisle, I let it through and look at my shoes.” Even this quick note right before that, in the middle of the sixth paragraph—“I don’t know”—casts doubt on her not only as a narrator, but as a human being. We’re probably judging her for her stalkery habits, but it’s hard not to feel for her at the same time.
By definition, synthesizing all this information as a reader creates both questions and expectations. Some questions I had at this point: Why does Gosso sell surgical equipment? How is the surgical equipment going to come into play? Does Bobby ever actually interact with the narrator? How is their relationship going to play out? You’ll notice that all these questions also come with implicit assumptions, for instance that the piece is in fact going to address the surgical instruments and that Bobby’s relationship with the narrator will be key going forward. As a writer, it’s worth constantly asking yourself the same questions a reader might ask in order to evaluate that reader’s probable expectations. And from there decide whether (and when, and why) to subvert or fulfill those expectations.
OK, zoom out. Enhance. This piece, roughly 3,760 words in total, is separated into sixteen sections, which means each section is, on average, 235-ish words, assuming they’re of equal length, which they aren’t. Either way, pretty short. These sections are chock full of dialogue, for the most part, which leaves plenty of white space. Each paragraph break is a breath, each page break is a place for the reader’s brain to kind of reset, generate new questions and judgments and expectations. The story’s top action is one scene during which not much happens. In fact, it’s really just a single conversation, followed by one (undescribed, horrifying) action, all interspersed with flashbacks.
These are big, structural decisions, and have a lot to do with the overall pace of the story. Liberal white space and page breaks mean the reader’s eye moves more quickly. Flashbacks that interrupt the top action slow the reader down. It’s a kind of balancing act to make sure that we both stay engaged and come away with a thorough understanding of the characters. So on a structural level, we can think of pace as a matter of how much, i.e. how chunky your paragraphs are, how often you jump through time and space, how much your characters say to one another. Finding the right pace for a given scene/story, as we can see with “Instruments,” is often a matter of knowing how to speed things up when they’re moving too slowly (more dialogue, a paragraph/page break), or vice versa (flashback, more sensory detail).
Of the sixteen sections, six are in the present tense. Three additional sections—the second, the fourth, and the sixth—are in the past, but take place only the night before the top action, and are more or less part of the same conversation, and therefore the same scene. In fact, section three is the first time we’re actually grounded in the present moment. So why break up the timeline this way, instead of telling it chronologically from the moment our narrator finds Bobby in the locker room?
The obvious effect is one of disorientation. After having encountered the pattern of flipping between the past and present, every time we find ourselves in the locker room our first question is inevitably going to be, “OK, when are we again?” We can read this as a reflection of both characters. Bobby, obviously, is in a state of flux, prepared to commit an act of irreversible self-harm in order to assuage the emotional turmoil of his imploding marriage. But the narrator, too, is discovering herself in this moment, having finally come face-to-face with her object of fixation, trying to figure herself out and define her actual relationship to this guy she knows “much better (I say this with certainty) than he knew himself.” Of course her experience of the moment is going to be fraught, probably more so than she would want us to believe, split by indecision and contradiction. Thus, we get this temporal back-and-forth, ping-ponging between moments only a few hours apart.
So here’s a way to think about structure: as a reflection of a character’s psyche. If you have to tell a story in a specific sequence (which you do, because that’s how time works), why not tell it in a way that holds a mirror to your character’s inner mental/emotional state? A focused, linear narrative might reflect a similarly focused and linear way of thinking, for example. When the narrator of “Instruments” tells us, “Once focused, I cannot shift my gaze. I cannot forget. I cannot be distracted,” don’t be fooled. The fractured structure tells a different story.
Which, after all that, leaves seven sections not grounded in the “scene” of the story, and it’s here that we return to the framework of fiction as sequential data. Sure, these sections contribute to the fractured nature of the piece, but they too are ordered (probably) intentionally to lead us to a given conclusion. The flashback sections are placed as follows: (1) the intro, (5) a description of narrator’s distance and Bobby’s affair after his incident with the hamstring, (8) some comments on narrator’s craziness, (10) a woman dying as a result of Gosso selling surgical instruments, (12) further exploration of the affair, narrator lamenting her distance, unable to help Bobby, (13) an explanation, finally, of why Gosso sells these surgical instruments, and (15) the first time the narrator saw Bobby.
Laid out this way, we begin to see a kind of interstitial arc that culminates in the present moment. First, there’s the narrator’s focus on her inability to help Bobby, for obvious reasons—she doesn’t know him, so her help wouldn’t be wanted. He cheats, then lies about it, deliberately undercutting his marriage and thus punishing himself for being injured, for being too old, for being, in his eyes, a failure. We come back to this idea with Gosso, notably unpunished for gross moral negligence, but himself the instrument of punishment when the team suffers a particularly humiliating loss. Emotionally, the effect is one of steep decline. We feel Bobby’s despair and the narrator’s helplessness, and gradually we come to understand how Bobby got here, that he once felt as though he belonged somewhere, and then he didn’t, because of his race, because his body failed him, because of the passage of time and his own self-sabotage.
Then we arrive at section fifteen. The missing piece of data to this point has been the reason our narrator has been following Bobby all these years. You can sort of accept the explanation that she’s simply crazy, fixated, at least at first. But we as readers know it’s not the whole story. Crucially, the narrator doesn’t know this. She sees herself as doomed, mentally broken, a total outcast. But still remembers the first time she saw Bobby:
Instead of pulling his backpack from the car, he unbuckled his baby sister. He stood on the sidewalk in front of the school, talking to her in her ear. It was the end of August, and sunny, and the baby was laughing. The bell rang inside the school, and the young man threw his little sister into the air. She squealed with happiness, and when he caught her she stared at him, open-mouthed with delight. Bobby threw her again, and, when he safely caught her, he said to her, so happily, “You’re my sister!”
A problem that often comes up with first-person narrators is the withholding of information. If the narrator knows something the reader doesn’t know, only to reveal it later, it runs the risk of feeling like a cheap twist. The hand of the writer becomes apparent. Here, the narrator doesn’t know why she’s obsessed with Bobby, and by the end of section fifteen, she still doesn’t know. But we do. She’s longing for a kind of singular, intimate, familial connection she’s never known, and the absolute purity of the moment has driven her to try to capture it with the person who created the moment in the first place, to hold onto the memory by any means necessary.
It’s vital that this is sequentially the last of our flashback sections, because now we can see the parallels between the narrator and Bobby—he’s spent the last years of his life becoming more like her, driving himself into a state of isolation, and she’s watched this person who provided her a glimpse of familial happiness slip away. She’s used him for fifteen years as an instrument of human connection, and now he’s using her as an instrument of self-destruction.
Flashbacks provide a more obvious window into a character’s internal life than pure structure, but of course the sequence of information still does a lot of work. Ultimately, what a character focuses on or remembers is who they are. However, as its most effective that focus still needs to reveal something about the top action of the story, here not only about the narrator’s relationship with Bobby but about punishment/emotional distance. These flashbacks are signposts guiding us toward the heart of the story, not always advancing us forward but telling us we’re on the right track.
Two Things at Once
The last decently-sized paragraph ends like this:
All in the air is the smell of him. I think it is a good smell. I think it is the smell leftover from when we all traveled in tribes, the smell of each other. And then sometimes when someone was hurt, when someone had to be expelled from the tribe, when someone was left behind, she sat alone, in the forest or desert or canyon, and remembered this smell. It is a very real smell. The smell of us.
The beauty and heartbreakingness of this concept, especially in concert with the information we’ve gathered from section 15, is it’s bringing these characters together and driving them apart at the same time. In the act of castration, the narrator and Bobby are working toward a goal as a single unit, but it’s not a goal the narrator ever wanted, a move that both denigrates what drew her to Bobby in the first place and brings him down to her level. They’re part of the same tribe, but they’ve both been abandoned, too hurt to carry on.
Now we’ve left the realm of data; we’re learning contradictory pieces of information. How can these characters simultaneously be part of the same tribe and completely alone, belonging nowhere? But they are. The story is able in its final moments to both reach out and pull away, and that ability to be two opposing things at once is what makes it great. People are full of these contradictions—they reach out, pull away, and hold on all at the same time. Fiction needs to do the same. It hurts—but we do it.
by Benjamin Van Voorhis