She Breaks The Rules! Alice Munro and “Some Women”

Yesterday I chanced upon an article for writers that addresses rejection. The author complied a long list of do’s and don’ts for fiction writers, most of which I’d heard before, and many that made sense (so it seemed at that moment), and I duly saved the article and made a note to use it when I revise.

Today I sat down with a stack of The New Yorker magazines from past months and flipped through their fiction offerings. Not much appealed to me.

Then I hit on Alice Munro’s “Some Women” (The New Yorker, December 22 & 29 ’08). Loved the story; I was immediately engaged, it held me tight all the way to the end. But the best part of reading it was that all the way through I couldn’t help but notice that Munro kept breaking a whole handful of so-called rules that we story writers burden ourselves with.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Munro, of all fiction writers, can do that; you, whoever you are, cannot. So stick to the rules and maybe fewer rejection slips will come your way.

I say maybe, maybe not. What has me intrigued is the myriad ways that Munro, in this particular story, bends, or drops completely, commonplace conventions for ‘good’ story writing. And does so with complete success.

The story contains a hefty seven to eight characters, and a full five major characters. Five! And, no, it’s not an unusually long story. Each character is vivid, natural, and develops the story. So much for the old rule of sticking to one, two, at most, three characters in short fiction.

The story is set in the past. Not sure if ‘the war’ that precedes the action is World War I or World War II; eventually I decided on II. As a writer friend once told me that one of my stories being set a century ago would make it less marketable, I found this time frame all the more noteworthy. There goes ‘keep it contemporary’.

The ‘stakes’ develop slowly. Indeed, for the first half of the story, the reader does not know with certainty whose story is being told, let alone what is at stake for that character. Out with ‘establish the stakes clearly and early’.

The plot emerges slowly. I felt involved with this story from the first paragraph, but I couldn’t say, if asked, what it ‘was about’ until well toward its end. So, out also goes ‘establish the situation clearly, and early’.

I did not know where, or when, it was taking place until almost the end of the story, and still do not with specificity. Those pesky comments from workshops--Why don’t I know where this is? Who are these people?–out they go too.

The story’s thirteen year old narrator is unnamed (as is her mother and grandmother). How many critiques of your fiction have you sat through when someone has exclaimed, “Why don’t we learn this person’s name until page two? It belongs at the start!”

I mean…why? Where do these impulses come from?

Descriptions of the physical attributes of the main characters are given sparingly, and in the case of the narrator, no descriptive material whatever is given, other than her age. When we do encounter details, they are unpredictable, and revelatory. So, when we struggle with letting our readers see our characters, we need to ask ourselves, what should the reader see, and why?

There is little material in the story that can be labeled backstory. What can be said about the lives of the four or five main characters leading up to the opening action of the story can be summed up in a few short sentences. And yet, the characters are compelling. So, perhaps those windy and often contrived ‘backstory passages’ in your drafts, and mine, need reevaluation. What are they doing there, what function do they serve? Is their information needed, and if so, can it be conveyed in a more natural, more subtle way?

Finally there is not, as is often the case in modern fiction, a dramatic escalation of conflict, no clear arc in the tension (or ‘turning point’ or ‘unwitting action’). But tension does build, almost without the reader noticing, and builds gracefully. The reader is surprised to notice that the story is peaking, then that it has peaked, and is ending.

Munro does this beautifully, in many a story. When I attempt it, it usually falls flat, like a hurried cake, or a March afternoon in Chicago.  But it can–glory be!–be done.

That’s all that stood out for me. Check out this story, if you haven’t already–it’s lovely. Reading Munro is inspiring and, for me, sometimes overwhelming. But I come away from her stories with a renewed sense that story writing is a fine art, and something well worth attempting.

Not, I might add, the mood that the do’s and don’ts story writing article left me in.

(Written April ’09)

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