Some Brief and Frightening Tips from George Saunders
George On Approaching Writing
I don't believe at all in the Deep Dark Secret theory of literature: this idea that there is a right or a wrong about a given story or a given approach. My own pathetic output is proof that, at least in my case, Mastery is totally elusive. For me, every story is a whole new set of problems, expressed in a whole new language, plus my glasses are out of prescription, and its raining. So I am a very humble writer and a very humble reader, flinchy even.
George On Confronting the Real Story
We all try to skip around the heart of the story. It is a form of avoidance that all of us do. I don't know quite why, but I see it all the time - in my work and in the work of my students. It's very odd, and very universal. Maybe it's scary to really confront the heart of the story, because some part of us knows that if we blow that, we've blown the whole deal. It's like having a huge crush on someone and never telling them because you're afraid you'll be rejected. Something like that.
George on Building Tension
Think about how much tension is built up in a good play, where we basically get no access to interior monologues at all. How is that tension built? We are made privy to the character's desires, mostly via the actions they perform, or attempt to perform. They are like people sitting on a stove: they want to change things.
George on the Interior Monologue
Now, in terms of interior monologue, and how to facilitate it, one technique that I learned while working on stories like “The Falls” and “The Barber's Unhappiness” (not that these are any great examples, but they're what I know) is to limit the character's thoughts to 1) that which he could actually think in the time allotted between two framing actions and 2) that which he would naturally think, given the context.
So say Irving is going to walk to the refrigerator, take out the milk, and accidentally spill the milk on the floor. We have to pace the inner monologue to be appropriate to the action. Can he remember his entire childhood, in thoughtful literary language, between the table and the refrigerator? He can, but if that's your aim, why frame it with action? Just tell that story. If, on the other hand, you want to represent thought mixed with action (and I do think that is your aim here, and an appropriate one) then your goal is to mimic his thoughts in those six steps between table and refrigerator. Now, our minds are wild, and a lot can be thought in a short time - but not an infinite amount. Irving's thoughts might go, very rapidly: milk...cow...farm...that time on my grandpa's farm...a certain kind of pie they ate that night...that horrific night on which, after the pie, he'd caught grandpa with that sheep. And suddenly Irving has arrived at the fridge. "Irving, trembling, opened the fridge, and took out the milk. The milk, the milk, oh God, he remembered the milk jugs that lined the barn that night, as he suddenly saw grandpa drop to one knee and propose to the sheep. The heavy carton slipped out of Irving's hand, and spilled on the floor." Do you see what I mean? The framing actions give tension to the thoughts, and the thoughts affect the framing actions, and the whole thing moves along pretty quickly.
It might be
useful to think cinematically. If we have a twenty-minute flashback
framed by two banal actions - the natural thing might be to put the flashback
in real time. A woman remembers her wedding while making a
sandwich. Why do we need the sandwich?
George on Voice
This is perhaps a
little trickier to discuss. I guess the main question is: whose
voice(s) are we hearing here? Is the vocabulary, syntax, etc to be
influenced by the character's vocabulary and syntax? There is no right
or wrong answer - you the writer make the rules, then play within them.
And what gives us pleasure is 1) the extent to which we are clear on your
rules, and 2) the fun you have playing within them.
Now, voice is very tricky. These sorts of modulations can and do occur all the time. Totally permissible. In voice, anything is possible and permitted. You have to go deeply into character's heads. What do they love? What do they remember fondly? Perhaps most importantly: How are their limitations mirrored in their voice?
A character's intelligence and experience and fears and beliefs are
all indicated by what he or she thinks about, and how he or she thinks about
George Saunders’ most recent book is The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. He has also published two collections of stories, Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and a children's story, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Story, and many other publications. He has explored for oil in Sumatra, played guitar in a Texas bar band, and worked in a slaughterhouse.