In an essay entitled “Artful Stealing” by Steven Schwartz in the current issue of “The Writer’s Chronicle,” he writes, “…you break into your own material by finding the key to someone else’s.” Each time I take a story apart, I’m adding to my knowledge of the possible ways to put a story together.

Here are the first questions I ask myself:

  1. What type of beginning is it?
  2. What type of ending is it?
  3. What type of story is it?
  4. What is its structure?

I answer these questions the best I can, using names that have meaning for me. The naming seems to makes the writer’s choice a concrete one, giving it shape, and making it visible. Other than that, there’s no magic to it. There’s just doing it. And I’m doing it so that the next time I sit down to consider my beginning or my ending, I’ll think what are my choices?

At the AWP Conference in Atlanta in 2007, there was a panel discussion on endings. To give you an idea of some of the names you can use as you take a story apart, here are some of the ones they used to describe endings: the barely there ending, the epilogue ending, the turns-on-an-event ending, the weird ending (seems to have nothing to do with the story yet actually reinforces the themes), and the Keystone cops ending.

There are, of course, a million more questions to ask. Here are some of the ones Douglas Glover mentioned in his lecture: (5)How many pages is the story? (6)How many sections does it have? (7) What does the white space signify? (8)What is the point of view? (9)What is repeated? (10)How many times is it repeated?

Each story may suggest slightly different questions, but I’m working on a list and/or a form to start with for each story. I hope to eventually have a notebook full of options. What was really important for me was to realize that this is a physical exercise.

It’s numbering the sections and seeing (11)when the characters are introduced, (12)when backstory is used, (13)when the story is moving forward.

The more I got into the story–the nuts and bolts–the more I learned something. And this surprised me. I thought I was getting it with some underlining and some circles and a few notes in the margins.

Learning how to write well is a process. I’m sure there are many ways to read like a writer. But “seeing how they did it,” as James Salter put it, is a way I can teach myself how to be a better writer.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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