By Katie Boyer (Contributor)
When I first read that writing an “elevator pitch” for my stories could help me make sure I’d hit on their core ideas, I was skeptical. How could a rich, complex story—the kind we all love to read and really want to write—possibly shrink down to just a sentence or two? Wouldn’t leaving out the details gut the story of everything important?
But then one day, not long after running across the elevator pitch suggestion, I was in the middle of a class at the local community college when I realized I was doing just that: shrinking the stories down and pitching them to my students. We were walking through a semester review and, bless them, the story titles and author names hadn’t stuck around very well and they needed plot details.
“Remember ‘A&P’ by John Updike?” I prompted. “That’s the one with the girls wearing bikinis in the grocery store and the cashier quits his job because he wants to defend them from his manager.”
Oh, yeah. They liked that one.
“And how about ‘Everyday Use’ by Alice Walker? That’s the one with the two sisters, and they both want the family quilts, but one of the sisters wants to hang the quilts on the wall and the other wants to use them on her bed when she gets married.”
They liked that one, too.
“And Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors’?”
One student stirred, with what might have been recognition, over near the windows.
I prodded professorially, “That’s the one with the group of boys in post-Blitz London, and Trevor the brooding newcomer, and he tells them how to dismantle the old man’s house from the inside out while he’s away on vacation.”
Oh, yeah. They liked that one especially.
I realized that all of the stories I so admire and want to emulate and end up sharing with my students can be collapsed or crystallized in this way. Almost all the great ones have an outstanding feature—a conceit, a situation, a character motivation—that is so powerful it puts the work at risk for over-simplification.
And it’s not only the shorter stories that can be shrunk. I also tried this out in literature classes, where we were reading longer works with more characters and more details and more complexly interwoven themes. Yet, even the biggest ones will shrink:
Madame Bovary—a woman with a vivid imagination becomes unbelievably bored as the wife of a dull country doctor and seeks, through adultery, to live the kind of life she has read about in books.
Daisy Miller—a young American girl abroad offends European high society with her frank, open manners and meets an untimely end.
The Odyssey—a warrior tries to get home after a war, is lost at sea, eventually takes revenge on the men courting his wife and trying to take his kingdom.
Don Quixote—an old man who reads too much loses his mind and begins traveling the countryside as a knight with a poor farmer for a sidekick, searching for wrongs that they can put right.
“Tada!” I say, with panache and expertise, and the student by the window stirs again, this time to make a note.
Of course, we must be cautious: to say that stories and even whole novels can be crystallized in this way is not to detract from their necessary complexity.
For us to fully get “A&P,” we must remember that the narrator, Sammy, is the star of the show. The story, despite the girls in bathing suits, is still at heart an exploration of how he views the world as he makes long lists of the items that line the aisles of the A&P, watches the customers whom he calls “sheep” and “houseslaves,” and interacts with the other male employees as they, too, have strong reactions to the girls. Sure, it’s part set piece and part psychological profile, but the story’s heart and humor come from Sammy’s phrasing, from the tension between his inner thoughts and outer actions. No matter how we simplify it, the story is still about heroism and chivalry and missed connections and sex and innocence and the stupid decisions we make when we’re young. To miss this complexity—to settle for just the shrunk-down version—is to miss the actual point.
In the best stories, it seems, there’s a productive tension—a constant back and forth—between simplicity and complexity. In the best ones, the kind we want to write, our analysis can oscillate between expansion and collapse. If there’s enough of the good stuff there, if the story’s heart is pure, we might say, we can both extrapolate and crystallize once we know the details.
Perhaps we can picture a well-constructed story as a Hoberman sphere—you know, that atom-like kid’s toy made of colorful plastic that expands and collapses in rings of accordion links. It’s always the same toy, always the same sphere, whether it’s at its largest or smallest.
This toy helps us visualize, I think, one of the ways that good stories work. The totality of the story is the same at all times, but it can collapse on itself, or expand. Its total integrity holds whether we’re giving a shrunk-down overview to a student or a friend, or whether we’re looking closely enough at the expanded details to write about it, to learn from it, to teach its ins and outs to someone else.
I’ve found this simplicity-complexity test to be such a useful tool that I’ve begun routinely using it on own stories when they seem close to finished. It’s an amazing, and sometimes infuriating, exercise. Of course, this isn’t the kind of thing that can be done on a first draft. The first draft has to be a big mess so we can start to see which parts are the most interesting, which most need to be connected. But then, as we tinker, hopefully, we get closer to this kind of structural integrity. We might even call the simplicity-complexity exercise a test for doneness.
For example, here’s an excerpt from a test on one of my own stories. Both parts are played by me, the author:
“So my story’s about this ten-year-old girl on a spaceship and her father is lonely because her mother left their ship for another one, and she hates school, but she has this superpower and this genetically engineered pet, and her father’s in charge of communications—”
No, dear, I’m sorry. That’s already too complicated.
“Okay, well try this: the story is about a family on a multigenerational spaceship, and the girl with no mother who has a superpower gets her first boyfriend, but he has a different religion and his grandmother—”
Nope. Entirely too much happening right now.
“Well, what if she has an intelligent computer for a sidekick instead of the genetically engineered pet? And her computer becomes necessary to the grandmother’s religion?”
It’s got promise, kid, but it’s not clean enough. Not enough crystal. Not enough collapse. Time to go back into the story and look for the purity of its heart.
Try out the simplicity-complexity test on one of your favorites to read. Then try it out on one of your own stories. Trust me, it’s harder than it looks.
Katie Boyer teaches composition, creative writing, and American and Western literature at Jefferson State Community College near Birmingham, Alabama. She’s also a fiction student in the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University. Her stories have been published in Wingspan and Birmingham Arts Journal, and a novella titled “Bartleby the Scavenger” appeared in the May / June 2014 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She lives in Birmingham with her husband, cats, house plants, books, and stacks of papers to grade.