sunset near GlenuigA little while ago I ran a writers workshop for a group in Connell, in the Scottish Highlands just north of Oban.

I took the well-tested ‘cut-up’ exercise, this time using Mary Mann’s shocking short story Little Brother. The basis of the exercise is that I take a short story and cut it into a dozen or more sections, mix them up, and ask the group to put it back together again. It’s a simple idea, but like many simple ideas, is worthwhile. It brings writers face to face, not only with the story in hand, and how it works, but with their own unconscious assumptions about what a story is, and what they think it ought to look like.

Experience has shown that two people working on a cut-up will do the job fairly briskly, three will take a little longer, four longer still, and a larger group, forever! From what the near observer hears and sees though, whatever size the group there are striking similarities of approach. There’s a search, to begin with usually, for the beginning, and another, usually next on the agenda, to find the ending. Sequences of events are then constructed using what is known, and what is not known at different points in the story, to readers, and to characters.

We have an idea, however vague, of what a beginning ought to do and be, and so for the ending! In Mary Mann’s little tale the ending is unusual, surprising one might say – but then aren’t all short story endings surprising in some way? The surprise here is not so much what is revealed as who is speaking, for in a story about desperate rural poverty, witnessed by a middle class narrator, Mann gives the final word to the poverty stricken mother. What she has to say in defence of her children using the eponymous sibling – dead by the way – as a doll, rebukes both the narrator and, I suspect, the general reader.

This ending, despite being a definitive statement about the rest of the story, often eludes the writers doing the exercise: they are looking for a summation from the narrator, and from the narrator’s perspective. The beginning, though, is nearly always found quite quickly. The scene is set, characters and themes introduced, narrative voice revealed, and the ambience of the story, to some extent, implied. The ‘middle’ sequences, and this is usually the case, seem more fluid and hard to place, except by specific clues where something is referred to for a second time.

The exercise underlines the way in which story works: it draws the reader in by location in time and place, theme, character, narrative voice and ambience, and through sequences of action, thought and description, contextualises progressively an ending that need not be sharp and explicitly pointed, but which metaphorically will counterbalance the weight of everything that has gone before.

In Mary Mann’s tale there are some beautifully executed technical operations: the concealing of the true nature of the doll – by distraction to another feature as it is first mentioned, so that its eventual exposure, perhaps suspected by then, still shocks. Then there is the immediately following shock of the description of the children playing with ‘the doll’. The first shock comes because of what we don’t know, the second because of what we do: a clever and well executed double whammy.

There’s also, in this tale, a striking absence of description. Sparse hardly covers it. The village, the turnip house, the bereaved mother’s bedroom are thumb-nailed in a few ‘telling’ words – our reader imagination does the rest of the work. How different to the ‘showing’ of story in a film, where every detail of landscape, buildings and rooms has to be ‘in shot.’ The fault, for me, of so many contemporary stories is that their writers try to be the all seeing camera, burying the story under detail that the story teller does not need – because his reader can imagine, or because his reader does not need to imagine. Said of poetry, but also true of the short story, what does not work for you, works against you.

Only with the character of Hodd, the father, and his son, does Mann make sure we ‘see’ the details – of red hair, which the doll will have, and of the ‘sack’ clothes, that will later distract us when that doll is first slipped into view.

The beauty of the cut-up exercise is that it can be done so easily, and with any story you care to use. There will always be a beginning, a middle, and an end – and don’t you believe anyone who tries to tell you differently! – and they will always, but not quite the way you expect, conform to your ideas of what they should be; and each story will have its own little gems of construction and execution to appreciate. It’s the sort of exercise that each member of a writers group can set up for the others, and when they do, the very act of cutting, itself becomes an exercise, in where, and why to snip.IMG_7421

If you would like to read more about short stories you could try Love and Nothing Else, the second volume in my series Reading For Writers.12 more essays on short stories and their writers Readings For Writers cover

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