Our Stories That Teach series closely examines works of fiction for the lessons that they can teach us about craft. We’ve taken a look at Lauren Groff’s exquisite sentences, the creepy suspense of Laura Benedict’s “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and interiority in Anne Valente’s beautiful story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” to name a few. Today, we dive into our own archives and discuss sentence integrity in Molly Jean Bennett’s flash story “A Particular Woman.”
“Each of these sentences is a portrait of a particular body part. They add up to form a cohesive story, but they are also complete in themselves. You could put each of them up on the wall, or on the refrigerator, and appreciate them individually.”
Discussed by Sadye Teiser
Every single story that we publish at The Masters Review furthers my own understanding of the craft of writing. Editing a story is, also, a wonderful opportunity for close study. In our Stories That Teach series, we focus on craft elements of our favorite works of fiction and examine why they are so effective. So, we decided that it was high time we feature a story from our own archive.
Molly Jean Bennett’s bold piece of flash fiction, “A Particular Woman,” was published in our New Voices section. It charmed us, and our readers, instantly. In this story, the parts of a woman’s body, quite literally, come alive. Her bladder is shy. Her spine is a compulsive liar. Her eyes love disco. This story is an excellent lesson in the power and integrity of the sentence. Bennett crafts sentences that are beautiful works of art in themselves, but that also function within the living, breathing body of the story.
This story is what we jokingly refer to in the office as “twitter friendly.” In other words, it had lots of sentences that we could use to promote the story on social media, which fell comfortably within the one-hundred-and-forty character limit. I’m talking about stunners like these:
“The moon, rising over the crumbling house across the street, appeared like a wound beneath a gauze bandage.”
“The kidneys scolded other people’s children.”
“The tongue was a brilliant expressionist painter living in the wrong time.”
“The elbows couldn’t break dance, but often tried to at wedding receptions.”
“The liver painted pastoral scenes on sliced almonds.”
Of course, I’m not trying to assert that twitter is the ideal place for thoughtful, nuanced dialogue. That must be made clear. But it’s important to note that you don’t need a lot of words to paint a vivid picture.
Each of these sentences is a portrait of a particular body part. They add up to form a cohesive story, but they are also complete in themselves. You could put each of them up on the wall, or on the refrigerator, and appreciate them individually.
Have a little fun: try illustrating each of the lines above. What do you get?
I’m a terrible artist, but I enjoyed this exercise. My drawings included a kidney wagging an accusatory finger and a picture of a little liver with his paintbrush poised over an almond slice, his tongue sticking out in concentration. I love the grim vividness of that first quoted sentence, but those last four sentences are so good because they get to the heart of who the characters are. (Yes, in this story, the characters are the parts of this woman’s body.) Each body part described in this story has its own distinct personality: we also learn that the right knee is a sturdy fellow who likes hockey; the lower intestine is dependable and vacuums her bedroom two times a week. These traits combine to form the readers’ perception of the woman as a whole, in all her quirkiness and fragility. Near the story’s end, the lens zooms back out to describe our protagonist sitting on her porch. This story explores the components of a woman’s humanity—on more than one level.
While this lesson may seem simple, crafting succinct description isn’t easy. When we read submissions, it’s common for us to come across a story with far too much unnecessary detail. A writer may spend two pages describing a character’s room when all we really want to know is: what is that person’s most precious possession? If a detail reveals character, include it. If not, use it sparingly. It’s important to establish setting and texture through description, to be sure, but it is also necessary to assess the work that each word of a story is doing.
Granted, the scope of a flash story is smaller than, say, that of a novel and there are many moments in which you will want more than one sentence, or even one paragraph, to describe a character. But the same rule applies. If the description doesn’t seem essential: don’t use it.
“A Particular Woman” succeeds in painting miniature portraits of the parts of a woman’s body before—I assume you have finished the story by now—they reach their tragic end. We care immensely for the cast of organs and bone and skin that makes up this particular woman, even though most of their descriptions could fit into a tweet.