Columns > Published on May 2nd, 2012

Storyville: Dissection of "Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave"

I wanted to do something a little different with this column. I wanted to let you inside my warped little mind as I break down one of my stories. I want to talk about the various aspects of what went into the story, why I did what I did, and show you the end result, and my thoughts on how it all turned out. I hope that by dissecting this story it may provide some insight into what I go through in the process of writing, editing, and finalizing a short story.

THE STORY

I wanted to focus on what I consider one of my more successful stories, so I’m going to talk about “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave,” which was not only accepted at Metazen, a really cool online site, but was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. As of the writing of this column, I don’t know if I got in [I DIDN'T], if I am a winner [I WASN'T], but already this story has beaten some odds to get to where it is. It’s what I consider a “list story,” because it is not in a conventional format, and I’ll get into more of that later. There are twenty reasons to stay, listed in order, and one reason to leave. Each sentence begins with the word “because.” Here is the story in its entirety. I’m going to put it in italics later so that you can differentiate between what I wrote and what my thoughts on it are.

“TWENTY REASONS TO STAY AND ONE TO LEAVE”


(Originally published at Metazen on August 5th, 2011).

Because in the beginning it was the right thing to do, staying with her, comforting and holding her, while inside I was cold and numb, everything on the surface an act, just for her.

Because I couldn’t go outside, trapped in the empty expanse of rooms that made me twitch, echoes of his voice under the eaves, and in the rafters.

Because she still hid razorblades all over the house.

Because I wasn’t ready to bare myself to the world, willing to pour more salt into the wounds.

Because of the dolls and the way she held them to her bare breasts, the way she laughed and carried on, two dull orbs filling her sockets, lipstick on her face, hair done up, but the rest of her like marble, to go with her porcelain children that watched from his bed, defiling it, making a joke of it all.

Because at one point in our past she saved me from myself, the simple act of showing up. Lasagna filled my apartment with garlic and promise when all I could do was fall into a bottle.

Because I kept hoping he would walk in the door, backpack flung over his shoulder, eager to show me his homework, the worlds he had created with a handful of crayons.

Because it was my fault, the accident, and we both knew it.

Because if she was going to die a death of a thousand cuts, one of them wouldn’t be mine.

Because tripping over a Matchbox car, I found myself hours later curled up in a ball, muttering and listening for his response.

Because she asked me to, and I hadn’t learned to say no to her yet.

Because she wanted to live in any time but this time, jumping from one era to another, bonnets and hoop skirts, wigs and parasols, and I allowed it.

Because when I held her in the black void that was our bedroom, pressing my body up against hers, part of me believed I was a sponge, soaking up her pain. It was a fake voodoo, but it was all that I had.

Because I had no love left for anyone in the world.

Because I didn’t want to go.

Because it was still my home, and not simply a house yet.

Because I wasn’t done talking to my son, asking him for forgiveness.

Because I didn’t believe that we were done, that our love had withered, collapsed and fallen into his casket, wrapping around his broken bones, covering his empty eyes.

Because I didn’t hate her enough to leave.

Because I didn’t love her enough to leave.

Because every time she looked at me, she saw him, our son, that generous boy, and it was another gut punch bending her over, another parting of her flesh, and I was one of the thousand, and my gift to her now was my echo.

THE PLACEMENT

Metazen has a pretty high acceptance rate (30% according to Duotrope.com) but that’s still saying that only one in three stories gets in. And since they publish a story a day there, that’s a lot of stories to accept. It took 33 days for them to accept this story, and since the format was a little different, I was pretty thrilled about the placement. They’ve published some great authors there over the years, xTx, Meg Tuite, Kirsty Logan, J.A. Tyler, Sara Lipppmann, etc. These aren’t huge names, but they are authors that I’m familiar with and that I consider good company. That’s always something to think about when submitting stories: is there any pay (none), what kind of exposure will I get (the story of the day, great focus) and the company of your fellow authors (talented people that I know). The Pushcart nomination was a real honor, especially when you consider that they picked my story as one of six stories selected out of the 260 they publish each year.

THE TITLE

For the most part, I like to use one-word titles. I’m not sure what prompted me to go on this kick, but there’s something appealing about it. Both of my novels, Transubstantiate and Disintegration, follow this approach, as well as many stories, such as “Victimized,” “Released,” “Transmogrify,” and “Interview.” With those titles there is usually a layer of meaning, the first hint about what is going to happen. For example, in “Released” it’s about not only freedom, but also an actual release from a mental facility.

With the story we’re talking about today, I wanted to do several things with my title. First, I wanted to alert the reader to the fact that there will be twenty-one items in this list, in this story. This way, they know how long the story will be, or how much to expect. It’s not 100, it’s not 1,000—it’s a number that can be counted, something manageable. It also gives the reader the first hint of the subject matter—somebody is talking about staying, the many reasons for staying, and there will be a shift, from staying, to leaving. We have our conflict, and a possible resolution right up front. It also helps me, as the author, to stay on track, to keep my focus. I figured twenty was a list, a series of scenes, observations, and emotions that I could handle.

THE FORMAT

We discussed a little bit about the fact that this is a list story. They’re fun to write, a way to really get deep into something, to list out all of the many emotions that are building up inside your protagonist. You have room to experiment, to try out different answers. One thing that I definitely wanted to do, but I did consider a risk, was to start out each paragraph with the word “Because…” in order to create a pattern, a rhythm to follow. I wanted that echo of because, because, because to fill the readers head. In my own mind, the protagonist is answering the questions that people are asking him. They are asking him “Why do you put up with her insanity?” and “Why do you stay with her?” and “How can you still love her?” Those are the questions I heard in my head.

THE IDEA

Before I forget, I wanted to tell you about where the idea for this story came from. I originally entered this story in a contest at Moon Milk Review. I obviously didn’t win it, or even place, but let me describe the picture (the website is dead and gone, and I don't have a copy of the picture): a woman in a black and white photo, maybe 1800s, breastfeeding a porcelain doll, one breast out, staring off into space, sitting down, with a frilly dress on, and a parasol, other dolls lined on shelves around her. Genuinely creepy. 

DISSECTION

So what I’m going to do here is break down each of the twenty-one paragraphs, and let you know what I was thinking, what I was hoping to accomplish. I’ll list the original story in italics so you know which is the story and which are my comments.

Here we go!

Because in the beginning it was the right thing to do, staying with her, comforting and holding her, while inside I was cold and numb, everything on the surface an act, just for her.

I’m showing that this guy is a “good guy” since he is doing the “right thing” here. He is showing us the reasons he stayed. By saying “in the beginning” I’m telling the reader that something happened here, so there will be a beginning, a middle and an end. He’s comforting her, we’re again showing that he’s the kind of guy that stays, not leaves, even though he is “cold and numb.” He’s putting on an “act, just for her,” and we’re getting a sense about what kind of guy he is. That’s important, up front. This is my hook, the tip of the iceberg. I think it’s a decent hook, because it hints at much more to come. But it doesn’t spell it all out for you yet, so maybe I could have told you more. Does it pull you in?

Because I couldn’t go outside, trapped in the empty expanse of rooms that made me twitch, echoes of his voice under the eaves, and in the rafters.

Okay, we’re showing that he’s hiding out, unable to face the world, and also, that there is an emptiness in the house and an echo of “his” voice. These are early hints. Who is “he” and why is there this feeling in the house? We’ll get to that. But hopefully a sense of unease and dread is slowly starting to build. We get a little bit of on the body physical description in the “twitch” which allows us to picture him. Echoes are sound, another sense to pull in. Do you know what’s happening yet?

Because she still hid razorblades all over the house.

I like what I’m implying here, that she’s suicidal, but the cliché of razorblades bugs me now. I wanted something obvious, since the first two paragraphs are a little vague, but if I had to change one section out of the twenty-one, it would probably be this one. I also varied the length of the paragraphs here, this one is much shorter—it speeds it up a bit. That she hides them is a great way to show there is tension and pain in the house, but I wonder if I couldn’t have said it better? A straight razor, a chef’s knife, maybe I could have done something a little more unique. What do you think?

Because I wasn’t ready to bare myself to the world, willing to pour more salt into the wounds.

This is an echo of the second entry, but it adds a bit more depth, showing that he can’t handle more pain, that he is unwilling to do that. He’s hiding out. I like to use repetition sometimes, to find a second (or third) way to say something. Will this develop into a chorus? Already we have the chorus of “Because…” running throughout this.

Because of the dolls and the way she held them to her bare breasts, the way she laughed and carried on, two dull orbs filling her sockets, lipstick on her face, hair done up, but the rest of her like marble, to go with her porcelain children that watched from his bed, defiling it, making a joke of it all.

Okay, here we get to the meat of the story. It’s only the fifth entry, so we haven’t waited too long, hopefully, and it also addresses the woman. We are finally getting more of her story, where for the most part, it has been about him. This is also the scene I wrote that was a direct response to the photo, the prompt for the contest. The dolls and the bare breasts, it’s just weird, right? I wanted to show that she was mentally unstable at this point. Laughter, the “dull orbs,” they imply a distance and an unhinged quality. And at the end of the paragraph we get the real truth that is buried in here “defiling it, making a joke of it all.” What is he talking about here? We don’t quite know yet (do you?) but there has been a sense of loss throughout the whole story, if I’ve done my job, that is.

Because at one point in our past she saved me from myself, the simple act of showing up. Lasagna filled my apartment with garlic and promise when all I could do was fall into a bottle.

And then immediately after showing his wife as a bit of a freak, as somebody who is not doing well, we immediately flip it to the past, and something positive, something she did for him, something generous and kind and thoughtful. We get the sensory items, the garlic, paired with hope, with promise, a time when “all I could do was fall into a bottle.” That shows his past, a time when he was falling apart, a drunk, and she was helping him. It’s important to create these shades of gray—to show that they are both complicated people. (Note: This comes from a personal moment in my life when I WAS falling apart, and my wife saved me from myself—the lasagna the actual food, and my drinking, ergo the bottle. I say to put yourself in your work, and this is just one example of that.)

Because I kept hoping he would walk in the door, backpack flung over his shoulder, eager to show me his homework, the worlds he had created with a handful of crayons.

Okay, here we go. A this point, the story should be realized, or at least, partially realized. It’s still not totally clear what happened, but if you add everything up, we can see that the protagonist, the father and husband, is hoping his son will show up. This is tugging at your heartstrings, hopefully. The use of crayons is there to pull the reader in deeper, I mean—we’ve all used crayons, right? These are childhood memories. What is he saying here? Is he saying his son is no longer here? Then what happened? The reader has to keep reading to get all of that information—I’m trying to pull them down that path.

Because it was my fault, the accident, and we both knew it.

A-ha! There was an accident. And it was his fault. Guilt is implied, and blame. And I’m also varying the length—this is short. The next couple of paragraphs will be short, a machine gun rhythm of bam, bam, bam with the story being revealed.

Because if she was going to die a death of a thousand cuts, one of them wouldn’t be mine.

He’s showing compassion, but also that she’s being hurt, over and over again. This was also a form of execution in China in roughly AD 900, a slow death—brutal stuff.

Because tripping over a Matchbox car, I found myself hours later curled up in a ball, muttering and listening for his response.

Back to the boy, and a moment where we see the father break down. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, that’s all it takes, some tiny, random reference to totally unhinge you.

Because she asked me to, and I hadn’t learned to say no to her yet.

“Why don’t you leave?” is what I hear as the question here. “Why do you stay?” is the second part. He’s still unable to do anything but listen to her, to comfort her, even if it’s not necessarily the best thing for her, his presence.

Because she wanted to live in any time but this time, jumping from one era to another, bonnets and hoop skirts, wigs and parasols, and I allowed it.

I imagined her in denial here, dressing up in costumes, playing with the dolls. I’m not sure if this is an easy scene to picture for the reader. He’s letting her stay lost, because it’s better than the alternative, to embrace the death of their son. You’ve got that by now, right? The son is dead?

Because when I held her in the black void that was our bedroom, pressing my body up against hers, part of me believed I was a sponge, soaking up her pain. It was a fake voodoo, but it was all that I had.

Okay, back to a longer scene, which will be followed by several short paragraphs, sentences, really, and then the final scene, which is longer, the ending being particularly important. This shows the vulnerability of their bedroom, “the black void,” a place where there used to be peaceful sleep, and sex—all of that. I hope it’s also a softer moment, one that shows that he was trying to help her, to take her pain. I also love the “fake voodoo” because it implies a bit of dark magic and because it’s true, right? In times of need we get very superstitious in our actions, our prayers, everything.

Because I had no love left for anyone in the world.

Back to this echo, the one about avoiding the world. When we lose somebody, either a breakup or a death, isn’t this how we react? “Fuck the world, screw all of you—I want nothing to do with any of you, I just don’t care.” Right?

Because I didn’t want to go.

Because it was still my home, and not simply a house yet.

More of this echo, rippling out, his voice, and his solitude—“I don’t love you, I don’t want to go.” And then this is followed up with a change—this is a shift here, or implying that the shift is coming, anyway, from a home, to just a house. I’m setting you up for the ending. I’m telling you what is coming.

Because I wasn’t done talking to my son, asking him for forgiveness.

We’re almost done now—can you feel the ending coming? He’s trying to move on, but he can’t forgive himself, not yet. What a painful place to exist.

Because I didn’t believe that we were done, that our love had withered, collapsed and fallen into his casket, wrapping around his broken bones, covering his empty eyes.

Finally, the full confirmation of what happened. When you mention a casket, his broken bones, there’s no more denying his death. And it also shows us that this is the death of their relationship, that they cannot survive this transgression. He’s not quite there yet, he is still clinging, but not for long.

Because I didn’t hate her enough to leave.

Because I didn’t love her enough to leave.

I love this flip here—these sentences are so close to each other. In the beginning, leaving would have been cruel. As a reader, I hope that this slows you down, that there is a moment when you pause to say, “What exactly did he say here?” Because it would be easy to miss this, as only one word changes—hate into love. The second line sets you up for the final paragraph, the last scene, and the first (and only) reason to leave.

Because every time she looked at me, she saw him, our son, that generous boy, and it was another gut punch bending her over, another parting of her flesh, and I was one of the thousand, and my gift to her now was my echo.

This it the final change, the final transformation, we have now gone through the journey, the twenty reasons to stay, and now, we are at the one reason to leave. If I’ve done everything right, this should be a powerful ending. My goal here was to make people cry. I know of a few people that did, and as masochistic as that sounds, it made me happy. It means I told the story right.

What he’s saying is that he reminds her of the boy, in the way he lives, the way he loves, his face, and he admits that he is in fact “one of the thousand” cuts that are slowly killing her. The only thing he can do is to leave.  I’ve set this up from the beginning, and told you he would do this. It is his “gift to her,” his leaving, “his echo.”

CONCLUSION

I hope this has been a helpful exercise, and that by walking you through what I did here, I can help you to be conscious of what you are doing in your own work. I know the editing process can be painful, but if you go back through and cut the fat, if you look over your sentences, your paragraphs, your entire arc—you can see the big picture in all of the tiny steps, and get a sense for what you need to do with YOUR story. If you have any questions, please, don’t hesitate to ask.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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