Storyville: 15 Unconventional Story Methods
Have you ever sat down to write a short story, or even a novel, and thought to yourself that the same old stories have been told over and over again, there is nothing new to say, and no new way to say it? Well, maybe you need to break out of your conventional storytelling mode and try something different. Here are a few ways that you can tell a short story, or even a novel-length one, that are a little less common than the traditional linear first or third person narrative. Take some chances, experiment a little bit, and see what happens. It could be fun.
Typically a vignette is defined as something that is incomplete, an impressionistic scene that centers around one moment, and gives the reader an image of a person, place, or idea. It could be all about one emotion or feeling, or perhaps a few minutes or hours out in the woods, reflecting on the beauty of nature—those observations reflecting back upon your protagonist. These poetic moments do not usually have a traditional plot, and do not set up a conflict or resolve it. But there are often moments of grandeur, and vignettes can be very hypnotic and immersive. This is not to be confused with flash or micro fiction—which are supposed to be complete stories.
2. SLICE OF LIFE
Similar to the vignette, a slice of life story (or novel) is incomplete in that it focuses on the common, a random (or seemingly random) series of moments, scenes, and observations that do not always add up to a complete story—with resolution, and a set plot. Often times these feel almost like journalism, documenting events without offering up any explanation, any thoughts or understanding of what has happened—and the story typically has an open ending.
There are any numbers of ways to write a list story, but typically, it is broken up into either numbered scenes, or a collection of objects or ideas under one concept. I’ve written a few list stories in my time. One of the first was “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One To Leave,” which had twenty-one total observations on a relationship that is doomed to end after a husband and wife lose a son. A lot of list stories have an actual number in the title, but it isn’t mandatory. I also wrote “Ten Steps,” about the ten steps it takes an innocent child to become a serial killer. For a number of years Blake Butler wrote a whole series of list stories, and is in fact one of the people that inspired me to try my hand as this. I recently read xTx’s stunning novella, Billie the Bull, and she had several narratives that included lists such as “A List of Large Things” (Billie is very big) and “What They Say (She Done Did), Blame” (rumors of things that Billie supposedly did). For another story of mine, “Interview,” I ran a list of items from a grocery receipt throughout the story, which in the end, added up to a very sinister group of objects, revealing the acts and motivations of the protagonist, and what actually happened.
I’m going to include a lot of variations under this category, although by definition, an epistolary novel (or story) is one that is told through a series of letters. Rant by Chuck Palahniuk is an example, as is Carrie, by Stephen King. It can also be told through diary entries (Diary, also by Palahniuk), newspaper clippings, and even emails, tweets, voice mail, or other contemporary methods of communication. You can certainly tell an entire story this way, or you can sprinkle this method throughout your writing. I included a repeating voice mail message, as a kind of chorus, in my second novel, Disintegration, and you don’t get the entire message until the end of the book. I’ve also had the idea to write a story that is nothing but a couple of grocery receipts that show the progression of a life, from baby to teen to adult to elderly man, coming full circle at the end (don’t steal this idea!). You could tell a story that is nothing but a recipe, like Art Taylor’s clever “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” or an index, like in Matt Bell’s stunning “An Index of How our Family Was Killed.” There are endless variations.
5. ALL DIALOGUE
I’ll admit that I’ve only written one short story that is entirely in dialogue, one that I have yet to publish, entitled “Fleshcapades,” which is just two people in bed talking about all of their previous sexual conquests. It’s very difficult to make this work, but it can be a lot of fun. How do you create setting? Well, they have to talk about it, right? It’s the same for your plot, conflict, and resolution. Roy Kesey wrote a story that was also called “Interview,” but it was only one side of a conversation, just the answers. It’s a combination of a list story and all dialogue, and very compelling.
6. CHOOSE YOUR OWN PATH
Do you remember these books from your childhood? I do. They were so much fun. You get to the end of a chapter and it gives you some options: If you want to open the door, go to page 12; If you want to stay and wait for the police, go to page 18; If you want to make a phone call, go to page 22. I thought they were so much fun that I finally wrote one a few years ago, entitled “Splintered” which ran online at PANK. I also tried to make it a little more contemporary by using a bit of metafiction to address the reader, and ask them (the protagonist) to make their choice based on emotion, passion, and the history of events on the page.
So, we might as well talk about metafiction here as well. This is tough to define, so I'm pulling this directly from Wikipedia: “Metafiction is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection.” One example that leaps to mind is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which forces the reader to act and be a part of the narrative, but there are many examples: a story about a writer creating a story (Misery); a story about a reader reading a book (The Princess Bride); a story containing another work of fiction within itself (The Man in the High Castle), etc. It’s been done in television shows like Seinfeld, and in movies like Adaptation. I can’t say that I'm an expert at it, but there are certainly many ways to experiment with metafiction.
8. SECOND PERSON
I’ve seen a lot of metafiction use second person narratives, so why not talk about that as well? I don’t think that I’ve ever written anything in second person, but one of the most famous examples has to be certain chapters of Fight Club by Palahniuk—“You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” Also, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is another well-known example. It’s tricky to pull off, but done right, it can be hypnotic.
9. UNUSUAL POINT OF VIEW
Why not write your story or novel from the point of view of an animal, or a tree, perhaps a typewriter, or a dollar bill? You can give a creature a voice, or an inanimate object a soul. You can also attach a camera to something, like I did in my story “Twenty Dollar Bill” and follow that object from person to person, recording the events, connecting threads. (Yes, they also did that in a movie called Twenty Bucks.) I’ve written a story called “Bloodline” that is split between the perspectives of two humans and two rabbits, a contemporary version of Watership Down (this is known as anthropomorphism). Franz Kafka is famous for his novella The Metamorphasis, where Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach.
You’ve certainly written short stories in a variety of lengths, but typically the length of a short story is supposed to be between about 1,000-7,500 words. But there are a number of publications that publish much shorter stories. There is flash fiction, which usually runs from 500-1,000 words. Then there is micro-fiction, which is usually in the 100 to 500-word range. Ever heard of a drabble? That’s supposed to be exactly 100 words. There are competitions and online sources that call for 55 words, or even one sentence—you’ve heard the legend of the famous six-word Hemingway story that goes, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” right? Obviously the shorter you get, the more difficult it is to write a complete story, with all of the components—hook, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution, not to mention a detailed setting, with believable characters, but it can be done—it’s an art form all of its own.
This kind of story is based on the 1950 film, Rashomon, of course—by the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (also known for Seven Samurai). Essentially it is a story that is told from several different perspectives—usually all centered around one event. In the movie Rashomon, we get different versions of what happened from a bandit, a samurai, the wife of the samurai, and a woodcutter. Each person tells a different account of a possible rape and murder. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, and I’ve only attempted it once, with my story “Dyer” set in Dyer, Indiana, about four friends that go to a bonfire on the dunes. In the end, the audience isn’t sure if anybody was raped or not, and who is to blame. It’s tricky, but a lot of fun to attempt.
12. UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
I'm not sure how unconventional this is anymore, since it’s been widely used across literature and film. I write using unreliable narrators all of the time, but if you haven’t before, certainly try it out. It’s been used in everything from the films The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects to the novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy (Kiss Me Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre). The idea is that your narrator can’t be trusted, whether the delusion or false information is because of insanity, drugs, alcohol, a lying nature, a complicated plot, greed, or a hidden agenda. A twist ending is a popular way of wrapping up a story with an unreliable narrator, but there are a lot of ways of utilizing this technique.
13. REVERSE CHRONOLOGY
It’s very tricky to pull of, and I’ve never actually attempted it, but there are some stunning examples of it out there. I think of Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World, and the films Memento and Irreversible. Whether it’s Dick’s novel where time has started to run backwards, Christopher Nolan’s film where a case of short-grade amnesia allows us to feel the horror that his protagonist goes through, or Gaspar Noe’s violent story of rape and vengeance, be careful that your story isn’t a gimmick. You still need to make sure that we can follow your narrative, and that we care about your characters—the impact still has to be powerful and your story has to make sense.
Again, I’ve never used footnotes in a story, and it certainly can be tricky to make that part of a narrative something that adds to the story, and isn’t just a distraction, but I’m a big fan of David Foster Wallace, who has done this with some success, I think, and there is the aforementioned House of Leaves, as well. It should provide an insight that isn’t available in the main narrative, whether it comes from outside sources, as footnotes frequently do—more of a journalistic approach, or a secondary voice that provides a different perspective.
15. STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Essentially this is writing a narrative that captures the interior monologue of your protagonist, showing his or her thoughts and feelings, typically as they happen. Most of the work of Bret Easton Ellis is told in this way. And I also enjoyed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, and the way that his rapid-fire, scattered voice permeates this critically acclaimed novel. You are essentially resting in his mind the entire time, with no filter or outside authority to judge or decipher what is being thought.
The bottom line is that you don’t want whatever form you use to come off as a gimmick. It has to serve the story, and in a way that adds to the narrative, and still fulfills the job of a traditional linear or modular story. I hope that I’ve inspired you to stretch yourself and experiment a bit. What other ideas do you have, what strange and compelling formats have you seen over the years, and have they been successful? I’m sure I’ve missed some great ideas. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, only a means to some possibly different ends.
Here are two of the stories I mentioned above: Matt Bell's "An Index of How Our Family Was Killed," and Art Taylor's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." They're both really unique, and definitely worth checking out.
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