How do you write about grief? What about the grief that lingers, the kind that worms its way into a person’s daily life and knocks them off their feet? We’re diving into The Masters Review’s archives to analyze the stories that stick out to us as writers and readers, and I’m excited to bring forward Isle McElroy’s “Raw.”
Published in our New Voices category in June 2014, “Raw” presents a richly detailed portrait of Tar, a young woman who is reeling from her mother’s death. In just under 3,000 words, “Raw” succeeds in crafting a compelling character in stasis. As readers, we understand the manifestation of Tar’s grief better than Tar understands herself, and this is an act worth studying.
Crafting a compelling opening paragraph
Let’s start at the beginning:
When did the nosebleeds begin? Months before I met Gabe? Weeks? That night? I did get a couple that night. The first came before work—technically during work. I was in the alley behind Raw, ten minutes late to my shift, and leaning my head back so I wouldn’t dirty my shirt. Eric’s car was unlocked, so I got in, knowing there’d be napkins inside. I shifted his rear-view mirror to face me. Thin red streaks crossed my lips like stitches.
Immediately, McElroy establishes narrative momentum, setting, and elements of Tar’s voice and character that are consistent throughout the text. There isn’t any buildup—we don’t have time to set the table in a short story, where every word counts and we want to get to the inciting incident as efficiently as possible.
“When did the nosebleeds begin?” is a question to the reader, but also a question Tar asks herself. We’re in her head as much as she is in ours. By beginning the story with the concept of the nosebleeds, McElroy signals that this element is a big deal. We don’t yet know why, but we get a hint in the next line when we’re introduced to Gabe.
“Months before I met Gabe?” This line accomplishes several things: It answers the opening question with another question, establishes a sense of time, and introduces a character who we think will play a significant role in the story. (Spoiler: We don’t actually meet Gabe until the second-to-last scene, but we’ll get to that later.) There’s an element of intrigue here, and even though we don’t need every paragraph to function as a cliffhanger, McElroy is cueing to the audience that there’s a reason to keep going. We’re building a story, but also introducing more questions, and as a reader, I’m already looking for answers—to the nosebleed, to Gabe, and to the question of how it all fits together.
“That night? I did get a couple that night.” Note the repetition of “that night.” This isn’t any night. Even though we don’t have an inciting incident yet, we have a clear event that motivates us to learn more. This story begins on the night that things changed.
“The first came before work—technically during work” hints at Tar’s voice, with the em dash giving us space for a second thought, illustrating that she’s aware that she’s withholding the truth in this part of her life (but not others, as we’ll see later). She knew what time her shift started, she knew she was late, and she didn’t necessarily care about either.
“I was in the alley behind Raw” immediately gives us a sense of place and tells the reader what the title of the text is referencing: a restaurant, not just a state of being, although it might be a bit of that, too. “Eric’s car was unlocked, so I got in” gives us more insight into Tar’s character: She knows Eric well enough to check his car door, knows him well enough to find the car napkins, and is in a mental state where she would rather invade Eric’s privacy than go back inside the restaurant.
“Thin red streaks crossed my lips like stitches” is a powerful image. It’s significant that this is how we end the introduction, with an image that lingers. At the beginning of the paragraph, this line wouldn’t have the same punch because it could be interpreted so many different ways; without the preceding context, the image of thin red streaks crossing lips like stitches is potentially violent, potentially fantastical. At the end of the paragraph, though, it delivers a final punch that is bolstered by the world-building McElroy establishes in the prior lines. “Thin red streaks crossed my lips like stitches” can still be coded as violent and fantastical, but it’s also grounded in our understanding of Tar’s character so far.
She observes her lips. She isn’t afraid of what she sees. The tone is neutral, and Tar’s perception of her nosebleed is neutral. By ending the paragraph in this way, the reader wants to know more.
And that’s just the opening paragraph.
On monologues, dialogues, and withholding the truth
A writing mentor (hi, Brandon Williams!) once told me that dialogue should reveal character and/or advance the plot. But never neither. I’ve yet to successfully internalize this advice, but I see it displayed throughout “Raw,” beginning with Tar’s phone call with her father.
McElroy skips the pleasantries (“after hellos, the weather”). Don’t need ‘em here. The conversation consists of quick, succinct lines that establish the conflicting desires of each character: Her father wants his daughter to come home, and Tar wants to stay in place. McElroy deftly adds a layer of complexity in this small exchange that both reveals character and adds complexity to the story:
“I have a life here.” [Tar]
“Wiping tables with your diploma?” [Dad]
No diploma. But it wasn’t the right time to tell him. “I use the gown.”
“You’re all alone out there.”
So what? I thought. “No one’s alone.”
A few things here: Tar’s dad thinks she graduated, but she hasn’t found “the right time” to tell him the truth. (When is the right time?) She also deflects his statement that she’s “all alone,” reframing the subject from “you” to “no one.” Each of these twists are dodges, effectively building enough backstory that we can get a hint of Tar’s near-past (she went to college, but she didn’t finish, and she’s far enough from home that her dad wouldn’t know unless she told him) and understand more about her as a person. She’s flighty. She’s stuck. She’s not willing to confront what’s really wrong, and she’s not willing to leave.
McElroy introduces more layers at the end of the phone call, when we learn that Tar’s mother died a year earlier. Again, this information is delivered in a way that reveals Tar isn’t willing—or isn’t able—to confront the reality of her grief:
It had been a year since Mom died and he still wasn’t over her death. They’d been, like most couples, mismatched.
Read these lines too quickly and you might skip the fact that it’s Tar’s mother who died. She says “he still wasn’t over her death,” implying that she’s already over it, and the following line emphasizes her parents’ relationship—again, deflecting the attention away from herself. “They’d been, like most couples, mismatched” functions as a shoddy explanation for her father’s lingering grief, but the narration quickly transitions into a solid paragraph of backstory about the way Tar’s parents met.
“Was there love? There must have been love. Plenty from him. He’d loved her too much, I’d decided,” she says, effectively framing her father’s love as a bad thing, something that places him at fault for her death, even obliquely. Is she aware of this blame? Tar has demonstrated earlier that she possesses an element of self-awareness. But in this paragraph, she frames her father’s phone calls that beg her to come home as “him wanting to recover some part of my mother. But I let him call, let him talk. We all make sacrifices.”
What’s the sacrifice here? Tar offers a detailed explanation of her parents’ relationship and her father’s grief, but fails to consider her own. This tracks with the way McElroy presents Tar’s neutral reaction to her nosebleeds, neutral reaction to her father, and neutral reaction to her work. She turns off her phone and finally starts her shift, only to pour herself a cup of green tea as her fellow servers scramble to deliver food.
By the end of the first section of the story, Tar seems like she has no agency. However, McElroy demonstrates that Tar’s lack of agency is part of a broader pattern of deflections. Maybe this story resonated with me because I’m fascinated by the idea of characters in stasis, avoiding change until they must confront it. What makes “Raw” compelling in these first few pages is that we’re aware that Tar is avoiding reality, which means the story hinges on her losing the ability to hide anymore.
After the section break, Tar tells the reader, “I’m getting to Gabe. But I should probably say more about my mother.” There’s so much value in this cue; it functions as a reminder to the reader that the narrator hasn’t forgotten about this person who seems so essential to the story, even as we’ve been taken in other directions. Note that we’re placing Gabe’s name next to Tar’s mother; each of these characters is important, for different reasons.
McElroy gives us just enough backstory about Tar’s mom to frame her grief and move on with the rest of the story. We learn that Tar’s senior thesis was based on a chapter of her mother’s book, and when she learned her mother was sick, she dropped everything and flew home. It’s worth noting that McElroy delivers the details of Tar’s mom’s final days in a way that complicates Tar’s relationship with her mother; Tar says, “During her final weeks I treated Mom like a chore,” and, “I liked being mad at her,” but her description also reveals the layers of Tar’s loss. The section ends:
She would tell me, when we spoke, not that she loved me, or that she would miss me, but about the things she wanted, not material things, but things like more flesh on her bones, or softer skin, fuller hair. The things I had. The things that I was pleased to be unable to give her.
Death is ugly. So is grief. The reality of this closing paragraph characterizes Tar’s mother, but it also hints at the feelings Tar isn’t willing to confront. The sequence of clauses in that first line contrasts emotions (“love” and “miss”) with the physical. Tar’s burden is knowing that she couldn’t give her mother any true comfort in her dying days. Is there guilt? If there is, Tar isn’t willing to interact with it.
This section is short, but gritty—and it sets the foundation for the grief that Tar holds onto a year later.
The structure of stasis
There’s a lot more that I can say about each individual beat in “Raw,” but I do want to draw attention to the overall structure of the story.
We spend most of the narrative in and around Raw, with breaks for backstory. Tar leaves the restaurant, runs to a grocery store, and ends up at Gabe’s condo. Taken further, it makes sense that we spend so much time at Raw; Tar has been stuck for a year, clocking in and out of her job, going through the motions of her days without considering her emotions. This repetition is cued in the third section, where we get a description of the restaurant rush (“…I began to accept, or to hope, like I normally do midway into a rush, that I’d die here, that people’d keep coming and I’d keep serving and they’d keep eating and I’d keep smiling and we’d keep this up for the rest of forever.”) that ends with the final moment of change.
No, it’s not Gabe. It’s an unnamed woman at the titular sushi bar who wears Tar’s mother’s perfume, which triggers a nosebleed. Tar walks outside to the alley and runs through the rain until she finds herself at a Safeway, where she finally meets Gabe. She agrees to go with him to a party. She says:
This, I think now, is how life occurs: through coincidence and avoidance. We do things because we do not want to do other things.
Up until this point, Tar has avoided doing anything that would force her to confront the reality of her emotions, the actions of her mother, the question of what happens next. The power of “Raw” is that it’s about a character who avoids her grief until she doesn’t, and it’s all based on coincidence—Tar happened to smell her mother’s perfume, she happened to run away from the restaurant, she happened to meet Gabe, she happened to do something impulsive and go to his condo. This story isn’t about Gabe. It’s about the night Tar allowed herself to change.
At Gabe’s party, a gathering of “second-string cheerleaders for Whitfield University,” Tar joins a cheerleading stunt and happens to get another nosebleed. They all collapse into a pile of “unsexy bodies, limbs hooked and bent.” Someone happens to wipe the blood from Tar’s lips. Was it Gabe’s hand? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Tar’s character has changed, in some small way that marks this night a special night, and that’s what makes this story complete.
She avoided things until a series of coincidences caused her to change. Such is life.
Three takeaways from “Raw”
- Characters can be messy and flawed, but consistent traits—like an established voice or lack of self-awareness—make them feel more real.
- Start a short story close to the inciting incident, and preface it with only as much scene-setting as the story requires.
- Thoughts and dialogue should reveal character and/or advance the story. Ideally both. Never neither.
Follow Isle McElroy on Twitter.
by Rebecca Paredes