In May 2014, we published “Linda Peterson Sounds Like a Reasonable Name” by Jennifer Dupree (now assistant editor!) during Short Story Month. The story follows an unnamed narrator as she navigates her relationships with a divorced man, his seemingly perfect ex-wife, and their children—with an unexpected turn at the end. Let’s take a trip into the archives.
A good short story is like a guided tour through an unfamiliar city. You don’t quite know where you’re going, but you trust that your tour guide knows the spots you should visit to get a snapshot of the city’s world.
Similarly, a skilled short story writer doesn’t try to fit every single detail into a story—we don’t have the time or space for that. Instead, the writer shows us the details we need to understand the world, get a sense of character, and feel the story’s tension. We want to keep reading because we want to know where the tour ends.
In a great story, that ending feels complete—even if we still have unanswered questions after the last line.
Dupree’s story “Linda Peterson Sounds Like a Reasonable Name” is a memorable example of the power of concision. I’m going to recommend reading it in full before we pick it apart—it’ll make the following analysis make a lot more sense.
Setting stakes from the beginning
Ready? Great. We jump into the thick of things in the first paragraph:
We are on the way home from a Saturday afternoon family Halloween party and I am wearing my sexy witch costume, which is basically a black leotard, tights, and a lot of eye makeup. I ditched the hat in the backseat with the girls. The leotard is riding up in both the front and the back and Lily, dressed as a black cat, has her face in my hat. Brit is fixing her pompadour. Ricky is singing some made-up Halloween song that is making Lily and Brit laugh.
Overall, this paragraph establishes the story’s world. We’re setting the table: time, Halloween. Setting, car. Characters, a family. But when we take a closer look on a second read, note that Dupree is already establishing the tension that will exist throughout the rest of the story.
We have some discomfort between “family” and “sexy” in the first line, which sets the narrator’s costume choice against the more wholesome idea of a family party. She doesn’t even get to enjoy the costume, which is “riding up in both the front and the back.” She’s setting herself apart, but she’s also uncomfortable—she’s an outsider in this space, which we confront again in the next paragraph.
“I think the invitation was for you and Connie,” the narrator tells Ricky. It’s interesting that we get this line on the car ride home; theoretically, it could have come up in conversation before the party, when Ricky first invited the narrator. But by placing it here, after the party is over, the line carries extra emotional weight: it’s accusatory because nothing can be done about the invitation or the experience. When we learn that everyone was asking about Connie, we feel the narrator’s frustration—a moment of sympathy for a character who will quickly become more complicated as the story progresses.
A note on complication: Are these likable people? Not entirely. But they’re complicated characters, and that’s what makes them feel engaging on the page. Like real people, these characters are messy; they’re selfish in their own ways and clueless in others, and Ricky is clearly still infatuated with Connie. But this is the narrator’s story, and by generating sympathy for the narrator in the beginning, we’re a little more inclined to stay on her side by the story’s end.
Notably, the opposite dynamic exists for Ricky. He’s smarmy: instead of responding to the narrator directly, he asks if she had a good time—then tamps down his eyebrows, ostensibly to clean them up before dropping off his daughter at Connie’s. We read Ricky as a negative force and the narrator as the victim, which is significant because the author is going to give us plenty of reason to root for Ricky: He literally helps save the Petersons (or thinks he does, anyway).
So, to recap—we’re less than 200 words into the story, and we already have strong impressions of these characters and the worlds they inhabit. We suspect this story will incorporate Connie in some way, and we’re curious to see how the relationship will play out.
We keep reading because we’re curious about the story’s stakes: will they stay together? Will Ricky get back together with Connie? Will the narrator decide she doesn’t want to continue comparing herself to Connie?
Then, the car crash.
Escalations and endings
The crash is the story’s inciting incident, and its placement makes a lot of sense: it comes after enough exposition to see the tension building between the narrator and Ricky. By the time the crash happens, we’ve watched the couple talk past each other.
Note how their conversation quickly escalates: the narrator sarcastically says that Connie is amazing, which Ricky misses, and then Ricky denies the narrator when she places her hand in his lap. At the end of this section, she indirectly insults Connie (“People who aren’t goody-two-shoes”)—and instead of showing us how Ricky responds, we’re distracted by a car “veering hells-bells off the road.”
As writers, we want our readers to, well, keep reading. One of the ways to do that is to build narrative momentum—a sense that the reader wants to see what happens next. We’ve got a dysfunctional couple in Halloween costumes reacting to an accident, and we want to see how this impacts their dynamic.
Ricky springs into action, vampire cape streaming behind him, while the narrator stays behind. Why does it matter that she stays in the car? Because we need to see her struggle to maintain a sense of control while Brit, Connie and Ricky’s daughter, undercuts her attempts to parent.
Now, we see that it isn’t just Ricky who’s pushing the narrator away—it’s his daughter, too.
With that in mind, how do we read the ending?
The final twist is that the narrator kisses Connie on “the spot just below her diamond hoop earring.” We get to this moment through a steady escalation of events that continue to undercut the narrator’s sense of self:
- She’s constantly reminded of Connie at the Halloween party.
- Ricky rejects the narrator’s touch in the car.
- Brit rejects her attempts to manage the situation in the car.
- Ricky and Connie reject the narrator’s attempts to talk about the situation at the hospital.
The narrator we meet at the beginning of the story wouldn’t have kissed Connie, but the one we get at the end is so fed up with Ricky—and feels so poorly about herself—that she must act. Without these steady insults to the narrator’s identity, her final act of rebellion at the end wouldn’t make sense. And even with this context, it’s still a surprisingly intimate moment: she feels the softness of Connie’s skin and “her fluttery heartbeat beneath my dry lips.”
But her final comment to Connie is what codes this ending as both an act of defiance and victory for the narrator: “’Thanks for the ride,’ I say, my mouth still against her neck, my warm breath carrying itself back into my face.”
She’s invading Connie’s space and disrupting her idea of the way the world operates; even on a night that featured a literal car crash, the narrator’s kiss is the most surprising and unsettling event that happens. And something about that act—and all the ways that it can be read—is imbued with power.
The narrator knows that she doesn’t have Connie’s French-manicured nails or the same hold on Ricky’s attention. But she does have her autonomy, and she exerts that autonomy on Connie because, by this point in the story, that’s all she has. And it works.
In terms of craft, I’m a big fan of this story for the following lessons:
- In a short story, explain less and progress more. We don’t need to see every detail about Connie’s car, but we do need to see that it has heated seats: a sign of luxury and another hit to the narrator’s ego.
- On that note, we don’t have to tell the reader every single detail in dialogue and prose—just the moments and details that show the way a character exists, and struggles, in their world.
- Start as close to the inciting incident as possible. It doesn’t have to be on the first page, but it does have to happen in the beginning.
- Vibrant characters aren’t always likable. They can be selfish, insecure, rude, and irrational—all the things that make us human and make our choices unpredictable.
by Rebecca Paredes