Editor Roundtable: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

 

This week, I’m continuing my study of POV and narrative device by looking atThe Bear Came over the Mountain,” a short story by Alice Munro originally published in the New Yorker in 1999, and subsequently adapted in the 2006 film, Away from Her, which was directed by Sarah Polley.

 

The Short Story

  • Beginning Hook – Fifty years into Grant and Fiona’s marriage, Fiona begins showing signs of dementia, but when Fiona is found wandering by police, Grant must decide whether to let Fiona go for her safety to an assisted living facility. They decide on Meadowlake, and she moves in, though Grant is prohibited from visiting her for 30 days. 
  • Middle Build – When Grant visits Fiona for the first time, she has grown close with Aubrey and doesn’t recognize who Grant is, he continues to visit and she to tolerate his visits while she and Aubrey grow closer, but when Fiona’s health deteriorates after Aubrey leaves, he must decide whether he’s willing to contact Aubrey’s wife, Marian, to see if a visit would help Fiona. He goes to see her, and she refuses because she can’t afford to pay for his care there and keep her home. On the way home, he realizes he mishandled the situation. 
  • Ending Payoff – Grant arrives home to find two messages from Marian asking him to a local dance, he analyzes the situation, wondering if he could convince her to give up Aubrey, but when she calls again late to see if she’d missed his call, Grant must decide whether to call and pursue Marian. He calls and later he takes Aubrey to visit Fiona. 

  • In the film, we see Fiona moved to the second floor. We also see more of the details about the nature of Grant’s relationship with Marian. They go on more than one date, have sex, and on the day when Grant takes Aubrey to see Fiona, Marian is packing up her home, so we assume she has sold it to finance Aubrey’s stay at Meadowlake. And as Kim mentioned before recording, it’s likely that Marian is moving in with Grant.

Genre: Morality-Testing-Triumph with secondary Marriage-Love Story

I see the Morality and Marriage Love stories as very close, but here’s my thinking: Grant is tested with two specific best bad choices each time he recognizes he won’t be able to get what he wants from his relationship with Fiona: In the beginning hook, Grant lets go of living with Fiona so she can be safe. In the middle build, he lets go of the hope of keeping their partnership alive in hopes that he can restore her health and she can avoid the second floor. In the ending payoff, he chooses to be with Marian so Fiona can be with Aubrey.

Additional comments: 

Anne: I read the story before watching the movie, and though the film is lovely, with some absolutely stellar performances, I got so much more out of analyzing the text. I’m really excited about our move toward more written stories!

Kim: It’s interesting because I think this story could be interpreted as either Triumph or Surrender. The film feels more clearly Triumph, although still ambiguous. I landed on Triumph, but I also watched the film first, so that may have colored my reading. I really enjoyed the film but I think I personally enjoy a more immersive experience that may not lend itself as well to ambiguity. Still unpacking that.

Valerie: I focused on the short story this week and also landed on morality as the primary genre, but the subgenre was harder to identify. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.

The Principle – Leslie – POV and Narrative Device

This season I’m looking at POV and narrative device, the subject of the third of the Editor’s Six Core Questions. As I’ve mentioned before, if genre is what your story is about, POV and narrative device are how you deliver the story to your reader. While POV tells you whether your story is first person or third person, for example, and whether it’s written in past or present tense, the narrative device or situation tells you who is telling the story, to whom, when and where, in what form, and why. 

So while you are the writer, and you write the story for your reader, there really should be a fictional narrator or narrating entity or situation that delivers your story to a fictional audience—whether you reveal this to the reader or not. I go into the reasons for doing this in my Bite Size episode from a few weeks ago, but the main reason is that a specific narrative situation  makes your life easier because you know who is delivering the story to whom, under what circumstances, and why.

The episode can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here.

Narrative problem presented by the premise 

To begin my analysis, I like to consider the narrative problem that’s presented by the story’s premise because then we can assess how well the narrative device solves that problem and presents the story.

What’s the premise here? We have a man who must decide how to care for his life-long partner when her mental health declines and the relationship as they know it changes beyond recognition. The result is captured really well by a line in the film that doesn’t appear in the short story. Fiona says, “I don’t think we should be looking for something we like, Grant. I don’t think we’ll ever find that. I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” Right away, I can see this premise will require some deep background and context along with at least one character’s internal experience, and the problem that comes with that is how to keep the story moving when you’re delving into the past or a character’s internal experience with the tight constraints of a short story. 

The global genre, Morality-Testing-Triumph, calls for a protagonist who begins by being selfish on some level, choosing what they want over what someone else needs. By the end, they make sacrifices on some level for others, and what better way to show that than by showing their own actions, words, thoughts, and emotions are curated by a meticulous narrator with an important point. 

What’s the POV of the short story? 

Munro chose selective omniscient. What that means is we experience the story through Grant’s senses, thoughts, emotions. It’s in the past tense. The narrator doesn’t comment directly, but indirectly through the events, thoughts, emotions, words, and actions presented. This is where the idea of curating the events shown is important. But I don’t think the narrator wants to tell us what to think here.  

What’s the Narrative Device? 

I struggled with this for quite a while until Anne suggested that it could be someone like Kristy, the only provider at Meadowlake we get to know (the supervisor who appears twice in the short story has no name). I thought, of course! Who might have access to the details of people’s lives in this way and be able to infer what they don’t based on people’s actions because they’ve seen so much? The person who cares for the residents and talks to their loved ones. 

In the film there is a moment when Grant speculates about what Kristy must be thinking about his life with Fiona, that their life must seem easy to her. Kristy comes as close as she ever does to criticizing him when she says he doesn’t know what she thinks, that she would rather be the person who stayed than the person who left, and that she suspects Grant wasn’t always so devoted to Fiona. She explains that in her experience it is the men who think that not too much went wrong. Now this is in the film, not the written story, but when I reread the story through the lens of Kristy’s experience, it makes perfect sense. 

Who is telling the story? 

It’s undisclosed in the short story, but I agree with Anne’s suggestion that someone like Kristy would tell this particular story this way. 

When is the story being told (relative to the events of the story)? 

The narrator appears to be telling the story immediately after Grant brings Aubrey to see Fiona in the story’s resolution. We don’t see what happens immediately afterward because in a way it doesn’t matter. The important result is that Grant has made a sacrifice for Fiona, and that is what the narrator wants to encourage, I think.

To whom is the narrator telling the story? 

If we’re correct about the who, I think the message would be for the families of the residents. It’s as if Alice Munro is acting as master-translator and scribe for someone like Kristy—and the form feels as though it’s written as opposed to spoken or in the form of thoughts. The audience is clearer to me when I think about possible motivations because the two are inextricably linked in my mind.

Before I get to that, I want to focus on why it’s important for you as the writer to know the narrating entity’s motivation. 

People generally don’t (and characters shouldn’t) act without a reason (even if it’s a selfish one or a reason we wouldn’t support). If the narrator has no purpose, why would they take the time to tell the story, and similarly, why would someone want to listen? 

Similarly, if you don’t know why you’re writing the story you’re writing, I urge you to spend some time figuring that out as soon as you can. It’s difficult to make choices and know if you’re hitting the mark if you aren’t clear about your purpose. More importantly, writing a story takes time and effort, and sometimes it gets really hard. If you don’t know why you’re spending the time, how will you keep going, and again, why would you? Why does it matter to you?

If you don’t yet know your narrator’s motivation, where can you begin? I recommend getting curious and exploring with lots of questions. Start by thinking about the basic reasons we communicate with someone else: to inform, persuade, or entertain. Is one of these a good fit? Then consider what the narrator wants and needs and how that is related to the message. Keep digging to pin it down. For example, if the narrator wants to pass along some information, why is it important that the audience receive the information? What will it do for the audience and narrator? What would happen if the audience didn’t receive the information? Your goal is to learn why it matters.  

And here’s how it helps you make decisions: If the narrator tells the story to inform someone, they would include the facts and reasons they want or need them to know, as well as supporting details, but leave everything else out. They would try to structure the information so the recipient can easily understand, remember, and apply it. But if the narrator tells a story to confuse and mislead, they would choose different facts or present the same facts differently. If writing to persuade, the narrator would include the facts they think would be most persuasive and structure them in a way to build an argument and break down resistance. If they want to entertain, they would include details that are most entertaining and structure the story to that end. In other words, the narrator’s purpose informs both the content and form of the message they want to send—which is your story.

So, what is the motivation here? 

Assuming that Kristy (or someone like her) is the undisclosed narrator, why would she want to tell this story in this way? I think her goal is to inform and persuade. Someone like Kristy probably wants the residents’ partners (and other family members) to see their situation clearly and be willing to sacrifice to improve the lives of the residents. When you can’t get what you want in the ways you’re used to getting it, it’s easy to disengage and give up. I think Kristy would suggest grace can be found if we let go of what we want but can’t have and reach for the best solution supported by the circumstances.

So the ultimate why and controlling idea I would assign to this story, whether we’re talking about Munro’s masterpiece or Polley’s skillful adaptation is:  

Love survives when life partners are willing to sacrifice what they want for a little grace. 

How well does it work? 

You can probably tell that I think this works really well. Sometimes when the controlling idea and narrative device are so well aligned it’s hard to say why it works so well. I find myself in this situation here, which is why I struggled in answering the questions at first. That’s why it helps to look at the story from different angles and perspectives and to consider what the answers could be, rather than seek the correct answer. In other words, don’t be afraid to flounder and get it wrong. Use what you know or understand to solve for what you don’t yet. And I can’t say enough how useful it is to have a study group. I gain so much insight by struggling with the material then discussing with the other Roundtablers. It’s really important.

Kim – Creating a Crisis

I’m veering a bit off topic today, but I think it will be worthwhile. Leslie told us last week that a short story seems to focus on one or more of the five commandments. “Wolves of Karelia” felt like a Resolution. I’d say this week’s story feels like a Crisis.

The crisis questions stuck out to me this week. And I think that may be a characteristic of Morality-Testing stories, which I am fond of, to lean more heavily on the crisis question. Because unlike the other internal genres that seem set up from the start (at least in retrospect), Morality-Testing stories aren’t over until the curvy woman who is beautiful at any size sings. Morality-Testing stories can end in Triumph or Surrender.

So let’s look a little closer at some of the key crisis moments that stand out in this story. 

In the film version, there is a lot more weight put on the BH crisis of whether or not to put Fiona in Meadowlake (or any assisted living). Grant toils over this decision. We see him take a tour of the facility, ask lots of questions, and then continue to struggle about it at home. He struggles in part because he won’t be able to visit her for 30 days. It’s Fiona who believes she needs to be checked in more than Grant. 

And then, in both the short story and the film, we see a moment when they are on their way to Meadowlake to check Fiona in, that they drive past a road sign for a conservation park—a place they had skied by together. And Fiona remembers it! In the short story it says:

Fiona said, “Oh, remember.”

Grant said, “I was thinking about that, too.”

“Only it was in the moonlight,” she said.

She was talking about the time that they had gone out skiing at night under the full moon and over the black-striped snow, in this place that you could get into only in the depths of winter. They had heard the branches cracking in the cold.

If she could remember that, so vividly and correctly, could there really be so much the matter with her? It was all he could do not to turn around and drive home.

In the MB, he faces several crisis moments. In the film version, as Fiona’s attachment to Aubrey plays out, he faces the question of how to proceed—interject himself? Interfere? Take her home? He still visits her daily but mostly decides to stay out of the way, so as not to upset her. After Aubrey leaves Meadowlake and Fiona declines, she is at risk of being sent to the second floor. And then she is in fact sent to the second floor. Grant’s decision to comply with Meadowlake’s rules is a big one. And we can feel the crisis that occurs on either side of that … before: whether to put her in the second floor or take her home … and after: how to help her … by trying to get Aubrey back. 

This leads us of course to Marian’s doorstep. He tries various forms of flattery and persuasion but fails to convince her to even let Aubrey visit, even if Grant drove him there himself. But when Marian calls him back and invites him out for dancing, he must decide how to proceed. 

As Leslie mentioned, the film explores the relationship between Grant and Marian more fully. There is a great moment when they are driving down the road together and she asks him to pull over. She tells him, “I know what you’re doing. It would be easier for me if you could pretend a little.” They exchange a kind look of understanding, and the next scene we see them in bed together post-coitus, and they’re both kind of blown away by the experience which is really amusing. 

So within this scenario we see several crisis questions implied: does Grant call her back? Does he pursue something romantic with Marian? Attempt to persuade her to let Aubrey return? Does he sleep with her? And she too faces many of these same questions. I appreciate in the film that it’s clear that she’s in on it—she’s not being duped. She expresses agency in their decision to sleep together. 

In the final scene of the story, Grant visits Fiona in her room on the second floor. He has brought Aubrey to see her. In the film it’s as though Aubrey has come to stay, not just visit because we see Marian packing up her house, presumably to sell. And I assumed she would be moving in with Grant. Both the short story and the film give us this fabulous final crisis for Grant. 

She said, “Look at this beautiful book I found. It’s about Iceland. You wouldn’t think they’d leave valuable books lying around in the rooms. But I think they’ve got the clothes mixed up—I never wear yellow.”

“Fiona,” he said.

“Are we all checked out now?” she said. He thought the brightness of her voice was wavering a little. “You’ve been gone a long time.”

“Fiona, I’ve brought a surprise for you. Do you remember Aubrey?”

In the film, it’s clear how much her being like herself affects him. It’s an echo of the moment in the BH when she remembers the conservation sign. But he forges ahead and announces Aubrey. To me she seems to understand, which makes her final line to him so powerful:

“You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”

To which he says, “Not a chance.” 

I actively noticed this final “test” for Grant, and as Norman Friedman puts it, “When he makes the only proper choice, we end with a feeling of satisfaction that our faith in him has been justified.” I feel satisfied with his decision.

In both versions of the story I enjoy noticing what is shown and what is omitted. The turning points and crisis moments stood out to me, but the climaxes (decisions and actions) less so. Often we would jump past it and infer the decision that had been made. I think this technique works well for a short story, and you can use it in longer works as well. 

In all cases, we can ask ourselves the all important question, “Does the reader need to see this? How will including or omitting this moment change their experience? Does it make it closer to or further from the experience I am trying to create for them?”

For a Morality-Testing story, I think the crisis question is a great place to linger, as it’s uniquely qualified to showcase the crisis, which may often be omitted/inferred in a scene, especially on screen when we don’t have access to a character’s inner world. 

But, just as Leslie is showing us with Narrative Device-POV, it’s essential to know what experience it is that you’re trying to create. Only then can you make the kinds of intentional choices we see in this story by Alice Munro and Sarah Polley. 

Leslie: Thanks, Kim! The Crisis questions are really clear, even though they aren’t expressly stated on the page or screen. It’s as if Grant is thinking around them and focusing on the facts that would be relevant to his dilemma. This works really well here because we see what’s at stake for him and what the choices mean through subtext.

Anne The universe in a grain of sand, or: how the opening scene reveals the whole meaning of the story

I’m going to put a microscope on the opening scene of the story, because the more I looked at it, the more I began to understand how a short story works. Last week I traced the motifs that ran through “Wolves of Karelia” and how they conveyed meaning almost subconsciously to the reader. It was a story that I had to read two or three times before its meanings, and its global genre, began to unfold in my conscious mind.

And that’s one of my first conclusions about a well-written short story: you—or at least I—have to read it at least twice before it begins to reveal itself.

The same is true with “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” so I think I’ve found one important key to short-story writing: the careful and precise selection of details to deliver multiple meanings at once—a surface meaning such as a character trait, and deeper meanings about the characters’ true desires, the real story, the author’s intended controlling idea or theme.

The opening scene of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” has a “montage” quality. In under 300 words, we get a vivid and specific picture of Fiona as a young woman when she and Grant first met. If you’ve ever wondered how the movie scene type of montage could translate to the written page, this scene is a good one to look at.

The specifics in the opening at first reading seem to be nothing more than clever shorthand for Fiona’s character traits: she’s the well-to-do daughter of a cardiologist, but she thinks sororities are a joke. She (and her Icelandic mother) are left-wing liberals, a fact that Fiona’s conservative father tries to ignore. She plays labor and revolutionary songs on the phonograph if she thinks it will make a guest nervous. She has several suitors who are interns at the hospital, and she makes fun of Grant’s small-town way of speaking. She proposes marriage to Grant out of the blue because she thinks it would be fun.

From this description we can see Fiona’s objects of desire, at least through Grant’s eyes: she doesn’t have any obvious unmet needs. She’s a nonconformist. She wants to have fun, to enjoy life. She likes surprise. She doesn’t like order. Fiona’s desire seems to be breaking rules or norms—not to be pinned down or conventional. So marrying a man from a different class—proposing to him, even—would fit that desire.

It’s a great character sketch. But look a little closer and you also get Grant’s objects of desire, and these will drive the story, since he’s the protagonist. The scene—and therefore the whole story—begins with the words “Fiona lived in her parents’ house.” The motif of houses runs throughout the story, and signifies, among other things, the anchoring factor in people’s lives, both as security and bondage. The fact that the house is both luxurious and disorderly makes it seem perfect, presumably to Grant. Like Fiona herself, the house is warm, comfortable, and not restrictive.

The final lines of the scene are “He never wanted to be away from her. She had the spark of life.”

The spark of life. She has what he can’t live without. Could it be that he’s a little bit dead inside? Cold and needing warmth? Poor and wanting a richer life? Well, let’s see. That opening scene also mentions that Fiona owns a pile of cashmere sweaters. The house is in “luxurious disorder.” It’s a cold, bright, windy day on the beach when she proposes to him, and of course he accepts—he shouts “yes.”

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” shows us what Grant is right from the first scene, by indicating what he lacks. The spark of life. Warmth. The juxtaposition of warmth and coldness is even hinted at by the two songs Fiona likes to play to shock her parents’ guests. “The Internationale” was used as the Soviet national anthem, while “The Four Insurgent Generals” is from the Spanish Civil War. That’s Russia and Spain, for another subtle juxtaposition of cold and warm.

As I looked a little more closely at just the opening scene, I began to see how much Alice Munro packed into those 300 words. Fiona describes one of her suitors as a Visigoth. On the surface, it sounds like a typical college-girl thing to say, maybe flaunting something from a college history class. But of the infinite ways Alice Munro could have chosen to show that character trait, why did she pick the very specific term Visigoth? Because the Visigoths—or the Goths in general—were the force of chaos that took down the old order of the Roman Empire. It’s a reiteration of the motif of “luxurious disorder” in Fiona’s life, her wild-haired mother and her precise, wealthy cardiologist father.

And this fascination with the luxurious disorder of Fiona defines Grant. After all, the story is told from his point of view. He seems to be the one remembering these details. 

Throughout the text we get clues to Grant’s inner emptiness. The point of view emphasizes his gaze. In the second scene, where 50 years later they’re leaving to go to Meadowlake, he’s looking at Fiona. We get a detailed description of her physical appearance. She has arrived at the age of 70 still trim and attractive, with long white hair, fine bones, sapphire eyes—much of the description, if you subtract the mention of her age, would do for a fashion model. But as to who she really is, all Grant’s point of view can deliver is that she is “direct and vague, sweet and ironic.”

We never learn anything about what Fiona has been doing for fifty years. While Grant pursues his university professor career, while he philanders with returning women college students, and then with the young ones; while he congratulates himself on always coming home at night to his wife, we get very few clues as to how she fills her days. There’s a pair of wolfhounds that she lavishes care on when she learns that she can’t have children, and we know that she cross-country skis, but from Grant’s point of view in the story, she exists mostly for him to come home to. She exists for him to congratulate himself on. 

All of this is hinted at in those first 300 words. I could go on for days about how Alice Munro put meaning into every choice of specific detail, but let me just mention a couple more standout clues that helped me decipher the story. 

First, the name Grant itself is suggestive of being given something, granted something. This will play throughout the story. He’s just lucky. He escapes the consequences of his philandering by the skin of his teeth, mostly because of Fiona’s family wealth. He doesn’t deserve what he has, he has merely been granted it.

And then there are the flowers. When Grant goes to visit Fiona at Meadowlake for the first time since dropping her off, he brings, of all possible flowers, a bunch of narcissus. This was the most telling detail of all. Grant is a narcissist. He is empty inside. He needs Fiona to love him. He sits inside himself and judges every woman he encounters on detailed points of her physical appearance. And that’s all he’s got.

And this sense of him, that pervades the story in its selected details from beginning to end, is what creates the subtle narrative drive and clues us in to the internal genre: it’s the question of whether he will redeem himself in the end.

Valerie – Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis

I know I said I was going to focus on Forces of Antagonism this season, but this week I want to take a step back and look at the fundamentals of storytelling. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for her short stories, so this is a golden opportunity for me to see how, or if, the all-important Editor’s Six Core Questions (E6CQ) apply. 

Short stories seem to have been relegated to the back bench, as somehow lesser forms of literature. At least that’s how it looks from where I’m standing. They weren’t part of the curriculum when I did my undergraduate degree, or when I was working on my graduate degree (both in English Literature), I don’t see anthologies featured in bookstores, and I haven’t heard my reader or writer friends talking about them. That is, not until very recently.

I, for one, think that short stories are brilliant and are a win for both readers and writers. As writers, we get to practice our craft on smaller projects which are much less overwhelming (at least in terms of length), and readers don’t have to commit as much time; these puppies were made for busy people! So, I have my fingers crossed that they make a resurgence. If you’re interested in short stories, then Alice Munro is an excellent place to begin your study. She is a master. Even if these aren’t the types of stories you want to tell, there are lessons to be learned.

Given that my focus is how the E6CQ apply to a short story, I intentionally didn’t watch the film this week; I didn’t want it to cloud my analysis.

Ok, so here we go; an E6CQA of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. 

What’s the genre? Globally, I think this is a morality story although I’m having trouble identifying which subgenre it falls into. It’s probably closest to punitive, except that Grant isn’t punished. Not really. Yes, he strikes up a sexual relationship with Marian so that he can get Aubrey back to the nursing home for Fiona, but that hardly compromises his morals or constitutes a punishment. He’s been having affairs with other women for years; this is just who he is. True, he’s not particularly attracted to her; a walnut-stain tan and cleavage that is crepey-skinned and odorous isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. But then, he didn’t seem to be overly attracted to the other women he’d had affairs with either. Plus, he’s quickly able to switch his focus to “the practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue” — so he doesn’t seem too broken up about it.

He does eventually manage to get Aubrey to the nursing home, but of course by then, Fiona has forgotten who Aubrey is. That’s a beautiful irony (and I’ll talk about that more when I get to the ending payoff), but it isn’t a punishment.

The global spectrum of value for a morality story, from most negative to most positive, is as follows: selfishness masked as altruism, putting one person’s needs ahead of self, putting the tribe’s needs ahead of self, and finally, sacrificing self for all humanity. Grant never moves out of the negative values. In fact, he’s mostly at the negation of the negation which is selfishness masked as altruism.

The secondary genre here is a love story, and there’s no doubt that he does love Fiona. However, I’m hard-pressed to find a solid example of him truly putting Fiona’s needs ahead of his own, and he never puts society’s needs ahead of his. I don’t think this is a failure in the storytelling, I think it’s one of the strengths! Let me explain.

On the one hand, I can say that Grant putting Fiona into Meadowlake is in her best interest; this is an example of him putting her needs ahead of his own. Although she seems fine and he wants to bring her home rather than to the nursing home, she needs the care. He puts her need for care ahead of his need to have her at home with him.

On the other hand, there’s no reason he can’t care for her himself, at least longer than he did. Munro gave us a description of Marian looking after her husband. Grant and Marian could have met anywhere. That scene could have taken place at Meadowlake, or in the parking lot, or at a coffee shop. Instead, Munro chose to put it in Marian’s home so the reader could see that it is possible for someone, with less advantages in life, to care for an ill spouse. I’m not suggesting Marian is a saint, but Munro made some  interesting creative choices.

She’s created a character whose actions are questionable, and she’s put him into a situation that is challenging even for the purest of hearts. This scenario is rich with interpretation. 

This is one of the biggest things I’ve noticed about short stories…I’m talking about the economy of storytelling. Everything has to do double and triple duty. There’s no room for anything superfluous. This is just one example, but there are many.

What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for a morality story? 

Conventions:

  • Despicable protagonist begins at his worst: Grant is despicable, but he doesn’t begin at his worst. Not in my opinion anyway. I think he ends at his worst when he consciously chooses to manipulate someone for his own gain.

Anne: Valerie, I’d argue that there are subtle clues to a despicable nature right from the opening scene. Despicable may be slightly too harsh a term, but given the subtle interplay of point of view and specific details, I think you could make the case that the author, or at least the narrator, doesn’t think highly of him even at the very start.

Valerie: Yes, I’d agree with that. There are so many layers here to explore that we could probably do an entire episode on the story’s opening.

  • Spiritual mentor/sidekick: There isn’t a spiritual mentor or sidekick which is probably why Grant’s shift is from bad (negative on the value spectrum) to worse (negation of the negation on the value spectrum).

  • Seemingly impossible external conflict: Yes, absolutely. Anyone who’s had loved ones suffering from Alzheimers or Dementia knows that it’s truly an impossible situation.

  • Ghosts from the protagonist’s past torment him: There are plenty of ghosts in Grant’s past, but none of them come back to torment him. He suffered some retribution in the past for his affairs (for example the word ‘rat’ on his office door), but even he admits that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He did lose his job, but he was given an early retirement, so all-in-all, he didn’t fare too badly. This is another reason why Grant doesn’t change. There isn’t anything forcing him to change.

  • Aid from unexpected sources: Marian is an unexpected source of help. Grant wants Aubrey back at Meadowlake but Marian doesn’t want to take him there initially. Eventually though, she helps Grant by allowing Aubrey to return to the nursing home.

    A quick aside here: As part of my study into psychological thrillers I developed a list of conventions and obligatory scenes for stories that have this psychological element. One of the conventions is something I’m calling the aikido strategy. This is when the villain uses the hero’s desire for his conscious want, and uses it against him. This is true in all the examples we studied here on the podcast; Whiplash, Black Swan, The Girl on the Train, Primal Fear and Gone Girl. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is told from Grant’s POV, but look at his final exchange with Marian from her POV. Grant is taking Marian’s loneliness and her desire for companionship and using it to manipulate her. How is this different from what Fletcher, Thomas, Tom, Aaron and Amy have done?

Obligatory Scenes:

  • A shock upsets the hibernating authentic self: Yes, Fiona begins to forget things and wander off. Grant can’t ignore what’s happening to her.

  • The protagonist expresses inner darkness with an overt refusal of the hero’s journey call to change: Grant does refuse to accept Fiona’s illness at first, but I don’t think this is the inner darkness that the morality stories are addressing — or at least this particular morality story. It’s certainly denial which is a very human and understandable reaction to the situation. I think his inner darkness is expressed at the end when he makes the conscious choice to manipulate Marian. He’s taken advantage of women his whole life and he could choose to end it with Marian’s phone call. He could have called her back and politely declined her invitation. Instead he intentionally kept her waiting so as to increase her vulnerability (he actually says this!). This is when his inner darkness really comes out and he makes an overt refusal to change.

  • Protagonist faces an All Is Lost Moment and either discovers their inner moral code or chooses the immoral path: Grant’s all is lost moment comes when Marian refuses to bring Aubrey to Meadowlake. It’s when he chooses the immoral path and decides to manipulate her.

  • Protagonist actively sacrifices self in service of an individual, a group, or humanity (positive) or consciously chooses to remain selfish (negative): Again, in that second-to-last scene Grant consciously chooses to remain selfish. Worse, he consciously chooses to remain in the negation of the negation. He tells himself that this is for Fiona, and he probably believes that. But there’s more to it. He’s manipulating Marian for his own gratification too.

  • Protagonist faces literal or metaphorical death and either loses the battle but gains self-respect, meaning and peace, or wins the battle but loses those things: No. Grant doesn’t face literal or metaphorical death and this is part of the reason why he doesn’t change. He’s not being forced to change. 

What’s the point of view? Third Person, Limited (Grant)

What are the objects of desire? Grant wants to make Fiona happy, or at least to give her mental and emotional peace. He needs to learn to put other people ahead of himself. 

What’s the controlling idea/theme? “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” ends negatively and I think Shawn’s template controlling idea for the morality story fits Grant perfectly.

Evil reigns when the Protagonist pursues selfish needs ahead of the needs of others.

Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers

We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. What have we learned this week? 

Kim: No matter what you’re writing, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, asking yourself, “What kind of experience am I trying to create for my reader?” will shed light on your choices and if something will move you closer to or further from this experience. Taking this kind of authorial control is highly empowering, so you can stop second-guessing your own intent and intuition, and instead boldy write.

Anne: I came to this study as a stranger to short stories. An antagonistic stranger. The short story doesn’t do my work for me, dammit! I have to think, to interpolate, to re-read. I have to be willing to let it unfold in my mind after that fact. And now this is starting to become a real goal for me in my own writing: never select specific details at random. Even in a novel-length piece, let every possible name, location, setting, weather event, image and sound do extra work to tell the story I want to tell. 

Which, of course, means knowing what story I want to tell. I suspect that these fine-grained decisions come pretty late in the revision process. I’ll let you know!

Valerie: Short stories, at least this one, do follow the same global structure as other forms of storytelling. Yes, not all of the conventions and obligatory scenes were present, but I believe they’re absent for a reason. The point is that Grant doesn’t change. If the missing conventions and obligatory scenes had been included in the story, he would have been forced to change. I think writers can get away with this because it’s such a short form of storytelling. Although, as I say this, Mad Men pops into mind. Don Draper doesn’t change either and that’s a long form of storytelling. So, there you have it. It works for both long and short form stories.

This brings me back to something we’ve said on the podcast many times. It’s not about getting an A in Story Grid, or about following a rigid set of storytelling rules. It’s about understanding what the tools of storytelling are, and what they do, and then putting them to work to tell the story you want to tell. 

Leslie: This story is a great example of a Crisis Question story. Munro is so specific about the Crisis that Grant faces that it applies universally. But I also want to say, you may see the story in a completely different way than we do. You could reasonably conclude that Munro intended a different narrator, audience, controlling idea, or even global genre. Some stories are written in such a way that they give the reader what they need, no matter what they bring to the story or where they are in their individual journey. Stories like this, just like people like Kristy, create positive effort for the good. There’s a shit ton of work and attention to detail that goes into crafting a story like this. And that is daunting. But if this is the level of work you want to create, keep going, keep working at it. There is a way to do it. The topics we’re studying and the way we’re looking at stories this season, by toggling between the macro story structure and the micro details down to word choice, is helping us unpack how to accomplish this.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Jule Kucera via voicemail. In a nutshell, Jule wonders about how to make flimsy characters beefier when moving from nonfiction stories to fiction.

Valerie: Great question, Jule. I was looking at character development a little while ago in my own personal study. I was thinking about the kinds of character sketches that writing teachers had me do where I had to list things like what does the character look like, where she works, who she hangs out with and so on. I was encouraged to find photos of movie stars and paste them to my character sheets, all of which I did. Faithfully. Although, I never understood why. 

Of course I had to go and try to figure it out and here’s what I discovered. There’s a difference between character and characterization. 

Characterization is the stuff that’s observable. It’s the superficial stuff and it’s usually, but not always, irrelevant. But a character is more than what’s on the surface. Characters are personalities and the kind of people they are is revealed by their choices under pressure.

Let’s look at these things in a little more detail.  

Characterization: For the most part, the external stuff about a character doesn’t matter. Even the gender and name aren’t necessarily relevant. If you don’t believe me, look at Detective Riley in film version of The Girl on the Train and Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Of course, there are exceptions. For example, sometimes how a character looks (the ethnicity, the gender, the gender identity), is what the book is about. This ties in with point of view and theme.

Character: Learning that characters are revealed rather than developed was a major a-ha moment for me, and it ties into this whole business of “show don’t tell”. More importantly, it explains why the turning point, crisis, climax and value shift are so important. It’s the key to making a scene work. 

Since character is action under pressure, those old character sheets that are floating around (the ones that get you to list physical attributes) aren’t of much use. We need something new.I’ve developed a character sheet that lists 7 key things we really need to know in order to make our characters come alive and our stories shine. I sent it out to the people in my inner circle – that’s the kind of exclusive content I share there. So, if you want the full sheet, you can sign up at valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle and I’ll send you a download link. But for now, start by clearly articulating the objects of desire. That alone will help your story enormously.

If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (2)
Author Leslie Watts

2 Comments

Jule Kucera says:

Isn’t it interesting how your studies are creating a value shift in us—the value we place on short stories?

Thank you, Valerie, for answering my question! I also have lists of characterizations (favorite music, MBTI type, etc.) and they didn’t seem to help. Now I know why: it’s the difference between characterization and character.

This gives me a better appreciation for objects of desire. I know those well for the protagonist but not the antagonist. My attitude had been, “Well, you can figure out what he wants and needs later—maybe it will emerge organically as you write this.” Nix that plan! The OoD (I like that abbreviation) drive the character’s every move. I can’t write what the antagonist will do if I don’t know what he wants.

There’s always a next step when writing. My next step is to figure out my antagonist’s OoD. Thanks again. I’ve signed up for your inner circle and am looking forward to fleshing out what else is on the list of things to figure out regarding character.

PS: Totally agree with you about Fletcher! What a wonderful/horrible villain!!

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