Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Narration In Three Parts, Thanks to Frank O'Connor




(image: writer Frank O'Connor, 1903-1966)




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One of the best books I know on the art of writing short fiction, as a genre distinct from novels, is The Lonely Voice, by Frank O'Connor, pseudonym of Michael O'Donovan. O'Connor wrote many great stories, but his best known one is probably still "Guests of the Nation."

In The Lonely Voice, he argues that the short-story form is better suited than novels to the project of revealing the lives of "submerged" populations in society; of course he meant the term figuratively, but during the debacle in New Orleans, the term became frightfully literal and figurative both. People perpetually at the margins of society were also inundated by water--and by incompetence & indifference.

O'Connor didn't have any formula for deciding on who is submerged and who isn't, but he thought that, for short-story writers, Nikolai Gogol led the way when he wrote about the man in "The Overcoat." Social status has something to do with being submerged, but not everything.

At least one other great thing in the book is O'Connor's simple, effective demonstration of the concepts exposition, development, and drama (or conflict). Here's his demonstration, from p. 26 of the 1985 Harper Colophon edition of the book:

"Exposition we may illustrate as 'John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X'; development as 'One day Mrs. Fortescue told him she was about to leave him for another man'; and drama [conflict] as 'You will do nothing of the kind,' he [Fortescue] said."

Yesterday in the fiction-writing class, I invited students to write three "stories" in three sentences modeled on O'Connor's illustration: exposition, development, drama. I suggested that for a couple of these, they could add a fourth sentence that pointed toward a resolution to the drama. I also said they could use more than one sentence, or use a long sentence, for each section, if necessary. They came up with some terrific stuff. As usual, I wrote with them, and I decided to base one of my responses to the prompts on a familiar story. My version goes something like this (I don't think I used numbers yesterday), and I added a sentence that feinted, at least, toward a resolution:

1. Joseph, the owner of a small business in the Middle East, was engaged to a young woman from the same rural area.

2. One day Joseph said to the young woman, "This is going to sound rude, and I apologize in advance, but you look pregnant."

3. Joseph's young fiance said, "I look pregnant because I am pregnant, and what's more, I'm still a virgin, I know who the father is, you're not the father, and I'd still like to marry you."

4. Joseph said, "I'm going to need a minute."
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