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Well, this week, because it’s our 100th episode … Anne is zigging, or zagging, into some new territory. She’s asked the Roundtablers to help her in her study of how modern short stories work by analyzing “Wolves of Karelia.” This 5000 word short story by Arna Bontemps Hemenway was published last August in The Atlantic. It’s a reimagining of events in the life of the Finnish war hero Simo Häyhä, who was born in 1905 and died in 2002 at the age of 96.
Content Warning: The story describes wartime violence in some detail.
I’m going to put a little extra emphasis on some key words here, to help bring out the genre hidden in what at first glance might seem like a mashup of genres. I’ll have lots to say about that in a bit.
- Beginning Hook – When Simo Häyhä, a young Finnish boy, is trained in perfect marksmanship by his harsh and demanding father, he must learn to shoot his own dinner with only a single bullet, or else starve. He hits two rabbits with one bullet on the third day and gains both self-respect and his father’s esteem.
- Middle Build – Twenty years later, sharpshooter Simo joins the Finnish army in the battle against Russia for his homeland of Karelia. There he’s teamed with M, and they become lovers as well as celebrated snipers, killing hundreds of Russians. But when Russia pours 100,000 troops into Karelia, Simo and M are both almost mortally wounded, and are separated. Terribly disfigured, Simo must decide whether to seek M out, or remain in hiding. He remains in hiding.
- Ending Payoff – Simo goes home, where his father, now weak and elderly, is killed by wolves during a hunt. Simo unnecessarily kills all the wolves and moves to the city. There he finds M still in a hospital, and proposes that they live together, but when M turns away from Simo’s disfigured face, Simo must decide whether to persevere or retreat. He retreats, and he and M remain apart.
- Controlling Idea: Leslie has more on this, but the basic controlling idea for a cautionary Status story is “Failure results when a person sells out their values for unworthy goals.”
I think a reasonable controlling idea for this one is
An existence of purgatory results when a war hero with no mentor can’t sustain love or self esteem once the war ends.
This story generated a deep conversation with our fellow Story Grid Certified Editor Rachelle Ramirez, who probably understands the Status genre better than anyone. She’s given me most of my insights into the genre of this story. It’s clearly a global Status story, but why Tragic?
The value range for Status is Success to Failure to Compromise to Selling Out, where selling out is the equivalent of damnation, and is the negation of the negation for the genre.
Simo reaches high status as a war hero, but he lacks an adequate mentor, so he never has any way to shift from his desire for that societal validation to an internal self-esteem. When the war is over, his hero status means very little to him, but he has nothing to replace it with. Instead, he uses his extraordinary skill to simply kill a pack of wolves, something he said he would never do, and thus taking himself to damnation.
As Kim has discovered in the past, a global internal genre is often marked by bits and pieces of external genres, without requiring that any of them be fully complete. Here, we have the strong presence partial Love, War and Performance plots.
I’ll be talking about how I finally found my way into the heart of this story, specifically why as a short story it was tricky to analyze
Leslie: I just had an insight that I haven’t had time to test, but I want to mention it here because it could be useful. James Scott Bell writes about a specific event in short stories. He says, “A great short story is about the fallout from one shattering moment.” It’s a point of no return, after which the protagonist cannot return to life or the way they see life, the same way. The moment can come before or after the story, in the beginning, middle, or end, but he says it must be there or the story doesn’t have legs. I haven’t tested this, but as I think back over the short stories I’ve read, this seems true.
My hypothesis, piggybacking on Bell’s theory, is that the primary life value shift in the shattering moment, and the basic human need at stake, indicates the global genre of the short story.
What’s the shattering moment here? I would say Simo’s shattering moment is when he chooses to use his considerable skills to kill the wolves, in this way, he becomes like the Russians who invaded his homeland. This is a moment when he sells out and violates his inner moral code. It’s the tragic mistake that changes the life value and implicates his need for respect and esteem. It means that no matter his desire to reconnect with M, he can’t because he’s sold out.
The Principle – Anne – How do contemporary short stories work?
Let me first say a word about short stories. I don’t like them. I never read them. The only reason I read this one was that a trusted friend sent it to me and insisted. I was struck deeply by it without really understanding it or being able to discern its structure.
And that’s why I chose to look at it—and two more kind of like it—this season: because I know that only by digging into types of stories that aren’t easy for me do I level up my craft and become a better writer. Turns out, it was a thrill to do this work.
When I first encountered this story a few months ago, I experienced it very much the way I experienced “Brokeback Mountain,” as primarily a tragic or forbidden love story. But isn’t it really a War story? Or maybe a bit of a Performance story?
Well, it’s a global Status story, but why are War and Performance and Status stories—and even sometimes a certain kind of Love story—so hard to tease apart?
Because War, Performance and Status fall squarely into the Esteem tank of human needs, where what we think of ourselves and what others think of us defines the life value of our story in some way. Winning and losing, victory and defeat, rising and falling, honor and dishonor—all these values swim around in that Esteem tank.
It seems to me that “Wolves of Karelia” falls entirely into that tank, whichever genre leaps out at you—War, Performance, Love or Status. We’ll be hearing more about this on the flagship podcast eventually, but I have the inside scoop, so here it is:
Instead of a simple binary between the external genres and the internal genres, we’re going to start talking about the Transitional Genres.
Transitional genres live wholly or partly in that Esteem tank of human needs, and include Society, War, Performance and Status stories. I’m going to stick my oar in the water here and say that certain tragic or forbidden Love stories like what we find in “Wolves of Karelia” and “Brokeback Mountain” are also Transitional.
All these story types turn on all three types of validation:
- Internal validation, or personal self-esteem
- Interpersonal validation, or the love or regard of another person; AND
- External validation, which is the approval of the wider society.
This is brand new stuff, with lots of work still to be done, so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, my study for Season Six isn’t particularly about genre. I set out to learn how a short story of 5000 words can contain so much meaning, so much emotion, such a long timespan. How is it that a story that took me about 2o minutes to read could continue to unfold in my mind for weeks, revealing more with each reading, and give rise to several hours of fascinated deciphering effort by a bunch of Story Grid Certified Editors–all of us, and Rachelle Ramirez.
I think the answer lies on the far side of the line where story structure principles give way to line writing. I’m talking about motifs, symbolism, and specific word choices.
Of course, no matter whether you’re writing an epic multi-part fantasy adventure or a super-lean short story, word choice matters. Symbolism and repeated motifs can add depth and meaning to any kind of story, of any length.
But when you’ve only got 5000 words to convey your genre, your controlling idea, your setting, your characters and your beginning-middle-and-end, obviously every single word counts. Every word choice must do double and triple duty. And that includes the duty of adhering to the story spine as dictated by the genre.
So let’s look at some word choices and line writing. The very first line of “Wolves of Karelia” is “Do you see?” my father said.
This isn’t some random choice on the author’s part. The story contains 23 more instances of seeing, being seen, spotting, looking down a rifle’s sights, and disappearing. Seeing and being seen are integral to stories that swim around in that Esteem tank. Everyone needs to be regarded by others.
So the first line already hints at the genre, and if that flies past you, as it flew past me on first reading—and second, and third—the genre is fully revealed in the rest of the opening scene, which clearly turns on success and failure.
It took me several careful readings to pull out and tabulate all the other motifs in the story. In addition to the “seeing” motif, I found the following, and it’s not an even exhaustive list. Just the most often-recurring and obvious ones:
- Father/Papa/“The Terror” (nickname of the commanding officer)—34 instances
- See/seen/seeing, scope, sight, spotted, disappear—30 instances
- Froze/freeze/frozen, ice—17 instances
- Hunt/hunted/hunting—13 instances
- Body/bodies—12 instances
- Name/nickname, “called”—12 instances
- Clear/clearing, clarity—12 instances
- Warm/warmth, hot, sun—12 instances
- Wolf/wolves—6 instances
- Fox/foxes/“Kittuseni” (M’s nickname for Simo, meaning “little fox”—4 instances
Each motif is meaningful and adds richness and depth to the story without adding extra words.
What do I mean by that? I like to think of it this way: given the basic story idea, which is the reimagining of the true historical story of a Finnish hero of the Winter War, you’ve got a hundred ways you could go.
The setting dictates extreme cold, ice, and snow, but in 5000 words you don’t have space for descriptions alone. What else can ice and snow stand for? Clarity, brilliance, blinding light. Also harshness and danger.
So out of the four seasons of the year, you decide to imagine Simo’s lessons in survival taking place in winter. Simo’s father is harsh, but you don’t need to say that. You let the environment do double and triple duty, tying harsh father and harsh climate together and letting the reader sense the connection.
This layering of motifs and symbols continues in every scene.
One more example:
What little dialogue there is is carefully chosen to feel realistic, but also to convey extra meaning. During their first practice together, Simo gets irritated with M for not conforming to the rule of calling out the distance to the target. It goes like this:
“Aren’t you going to inform me?” I said to him.
He spoke without opening his eyes.
“No,” he said.
“You’re not?” I said.
“I know who you are,” he said.
Realistically, M could have said “You don’t need me to inform you,” or “You’re the expert,” or “You already know what it is,” but he says the words that the Status protagonist most needs to hear: “I know who you are.”
Choices like that aren’t accidental. I have no idea how much time Arna Bontemps Hemenway spent on this story, or how long his first draft was compared to this final, but a close study of the text proves to me that to carry such a large freight of meaning in so few words requires that he consciously considered every single word.
I’ve created a study document that includes a foolscap, a scene by scene analysis, and notes on the repeated motifs in the story.
I’m going to continue looking at tightly-written modern short stories for the rest of the season to test my ideas and maybe learn to write one myself.
Additional notes not included in the recorded episode:
In her excellent Fundamental Fridays post on Secrets of the Status Genre, Rachelle points out that there are two ways to gain or maintain status: either through dominance or through prestige.
A protagonist earns prestige when their actions and choices result in admiration and support from those around them. Status through dominance results when the protagonist exerts power over others through greater speed, strength, size or violence. Status through dominance comes from behaviors like bullying, intimidation and threats.
If the dominant Status protagonist doesn’t eventually find internal esteem, no longer needing to dominate others, their stronger traits will carry them to damnation.
Why? Because the Status protagonist WANTS to rise in external success, but they NEED to find their own moral compass, and learn to value self-esteem over the validation of third parties. If the protagonist lacks an adequate mentor, they may never be able to find that inner compass or be able to connect to others in meaningful ways. Then you get a cautionary tale, and that’s what happens in “Wolves of Karelia.”
Simo, the protagonist begins as a young boy needing prestige in the form of his father’s esteem. At the age of 10, it’s perfectly normal for him to base his self-esteem on that external validation.
But when he enters the middle build 20 years later, his father’s training has allows him to become an elite sharpshooter for the Finnish army. That status is all he’s got, but it’s enough for wartime.
Now, whether taking out enemy soldiers with sniper fire is an act of dominance or an act of prestige is going to depend a whole lot on your views of war, or even of killing animals for food. Is it admirable or horrible that Simo kills two rabbits with a single bullet when he’s starving? Is it admirable or horrible that he silently kills one Russian after another in a war to save his homeland?
He slides into a kind of self-satisfied dominance in section 6, The Hunt, that begins with “A scope isn’t the world, my father said…” and concludes with “I was never spotted.”
His one skill is exactly what makes him a national hero after the war, but by that time, he has lost his father, his family, and the war itself, and has literally lost half his face. War was the only situation where his skills had any real meaning. He has moved into a city, and it’s peacetime, and he needs to become something else, but he has no way to fulfill his need.
So year after year, he returns to the winter woods with his rifle, but no bullets. He has no need to kill, no reason to kill, but he also has no other source of esteem. He lives for 61 more years after the war, and every one of those years is completely hollow.
Leslie – POV/Narrative Device
I’m studying POV and narrative device this season, so I’m focusing on how to present the global genre must-haves of your story to the reader. Some useful tools or approaches to understand this critical part of your story include connecting the narrative device or situation (the who, to whom, when, where, how, and why of the story) to the controlling idea, as well as thinking about the narrative problem or challenge presented by the premise of the story. In the case of a short story, I would add considering the best way to present the shattering moment—in a novel, think about the core event. In other words, how can you best showcase that big moment the reader is looking forward to, to deliver your message? So let’s see if these inquiries can provide insight into “Wolves of Karelia.”
What’s the narrative problem(s) presented by the premise?
One problem occurs when we write about historical figures. There’s a certain level of dramatic irony. I wasn’t familiar with Simo’s story before reading, but unless it’s presented as alternate history (like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America), you’re working more or less with the facts and filling in the whys and hows of the character’s actions. (Georgia by Dawn Tripp is a novel-length example of this.)
Here’s the objective part of the POV/narrative device inquiry:
What’s the POV? First-person, past tense
Channels of information? We have access to Simo’s thoughts, perceptions, feelings, his spoken words and actions, as well as the words and actions of other characters.
What’s the narrative device?
We have an overt narrator in first person, so we know who is telling the story. But the rest of the answers about the narrative situation are based on what we can infer from the details and the way they are shared. When I do this analysis, I assume that everything is intentional and is there for a reason.
Who is telling the story? Simo, a national hero, who despite his status, hasn’t lived a fulfilling life. He was most alive during the 98 days, but that was long ago when he’s narrating this story.
When does the narrator tell the story, relative to the events he is sharing? Most of the events Simo describes are in the distant past. He is an old man revealing key events from his life.
Where does the narrator stand in relation to the events he is sharing? Simo is both inside the story as the protagonist and a reflecting character, but also outside the story as the narrator, serving a telling function. Time gives him perspective on the events from his childhood and early adulthood.
To whom is the story being told? Although Simo sometimes seems to lapse into private thoughts, the details of the narrative and the way he shares them indicate he is telling someone else the story. He includes contextual details unnecessary in his private thoughts, “I was 10,” “which was as close as he ever got to good cheer,” “I was born the last of four brothers.” He anchors the events and information, providing context in a way that appears to be to provide meaning for someone unfamiliar with his experience.
Once Anne said this reminded her of an interview, I couldn’t see it any other way. An interview by someone who is not of Simo’s generation, someone younger who is familiar with his status as a national hero. Each section of the story appears to be the answer to a question—or at least we can imagine a question he might be answering.
Notice how some elements of the narrative device are overt, the writer reveals who is speaking and when, but other elements are not revealed. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.
In what form (by implication)? Form seems to be spoken. I’m inferring this based on the details and the way they’re presented. If he were writing, some of the details he probably would have taken out. The delivery feels informal. While I agree with Anne that even the micro choices were intentionally considered, the details suggest reflective and telling combined as they might be in spoken form.
Why? Assuming the narrative device is an interview, on the surface, Simo is answering the interviewer’s questions, trying to be helpful, but it feels like his essential action is “to sum things up” for himself as much as for the interviewer.
It always seems to me that short stories focus on one or more of the Five Commandments (“The Greatest Gift” or It’s a Wonderful Life are Crisis stories to me). This one feels like a Resolution. This is the result, the consequences of his failure to make a connection and why (whether or not he had good reasons). “What does it all come to?” It seems as though this story is written to answer that.
How does this connect to the controlling idea? I would adjust the controlling idea to say, A protagonist becomes mired in moral purgatory when he violates his moral code as a result of misfortune, preventing connection or enjoyment of success.
How well does it work? How well does the writer solve the problem presented by the premise with the narrative device and the shattering moment? Key elements in my mind include
- A first person narrative allows us to have access to the thoughts and feelings, it is the protagonist’s view of himself that matters, and here we receive this in Simo’s words. These choices allow us to derive a prescriptive lesson directly from the source.
- The time allows perspective and the covert interview questions I’m inferring from the story move Simo to assess his life and look at the events and ask the question, “what does it all come to?”
- Everything builds to his moment of selling out, and we see through his eyes the fallout or resolution of that tragic mistake.
Could the writer have chosen a better way to present this story, the shattering moment, and deliver the controlling idea? Perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine. Now this is a relatively quick analysis of the story, and a deeper study would reveal more about it, but to me the narrative device and controlling idea are aligned and deliver the shattering event in a powerful way.
Kim– Story Beginnings / Establishing Life Values
This week was a lot of fun because I got to play at the line level, something we can’t do when we’re analyzing a film.
Now this season, in general, I am examining the crucial role that beginnings play in a story: how the status quo establishes life values and introduces conventions that lead up to the value shift in the inciting incident.
So this week I decided to analyze the opening scene of “Wolves of Karelia” to see how it’s functioning for the reader. I used Shawn’s beat by beat analysis method, as modeled in the Masterwork Experiment on the flagship podcast with our very own Anne, and in the Story Grid Ground Your Craft course.
One thing I love about Story Grid, it that it has tools that allow us to analyze every unit of story – from the global to the beat. This beat by beat analysis lets us break down a scene into its component beats and then even examine the elements within the beats to further understand how and why it’s working—or in many cases, not working. This tool is not something you’d want to use until you had a solid grasp of the global structure and how each scene was turning and contributing to it. But then, whether for your own work or studying a masterwork, a beat by beat analysis can really open your eyes to the details that make a good story a great story.
So to begin I am going to read you the opening scene of Wolves of Karelia – it’s 403 words and should take about 3 minutes. Then I’ll walk you through beat by beat and show you what I found.
Before we begin, let’s how we define a beat. Shawn tells us, “A beat is an identifiable moment of change.” That means there is a turning point where a life value shift occurs. You might think of it like a single commandment in a scene, although a scene can be made up of any number of beats. And beats themselves contain the five commandments, although not all of them appear “on the page”. Just like a scene, many are omitted or inferred. But the trajectory of the beat still contains them, creating a beginning / middle / end, or as I am growing fonder of saying: a before / during / after.
Beat 1 – Lay of the Land – 104 words
“‘Do you see?’ my … would be our target.”
Kim’s Notes: Functionally this beat introduces the two onstage characters (father and the narrator), provides clues to the time period (winter when the narrator was 10) and location (field behind their home cabin, on the ground under some trees), duration (two hours), and the character’s goal (narrator is searching for the tip of the reindeer antler that his father has hidden, so it can be their target). Father’s character is introduced as dangerous (words like hunt, sliced), as well as the situation that he is creating a test for his son. The revelation (to the reader at least) that the father has his 10-year-old on his stomach in the snow for 2 hours, searching for a white antler in a snowy field to be a target. This increases the elements of danger – either that the father would make his son do this unnecessarily (just for sport), or that it is necessary (for survival). Either way, the narrator’s situation is not fully known to the reader but is perceived as dangerous. This unknown dangerous situation introduces narrative drive (mystery – something the narrator knows but we do not).
- Turning point – revelatory: 2 hours in the snow
- Life Value shift: safe / at risk
- Polarity: + / –
Beat 2 – The Mentor’s Test – 100 words
“‘Yes?’ my father said … it lay between us.”
Kim’s Notes: This beat propels the action with progressive complications. The narrator has spotted the antler (+, tool, he can get out of the snow sooner) and reports its position to his father. It’s then revealed that the father will be the one shooting, not the son, and that he will aim “only and exactly” as his son instructs (-, obstacle, heightens risk). This is the test. The father asks for the precise distance (-, obstacle, heightens risk). He verifies with his son (+/-, can be taken either way, his father wants to ensure his son is sure, or if it only casts doubt). Son confirms and then is told to “go mark it” and father takes the rifle (-, obstacle, increases danger). We also see additional characterization of father/mentor: He would aim only and exactly as I instructed. Such was his test (indicates zero compromise). Round, dull eyes (indicates emotional distance).
- Turning point (active): Told to “go mark it.”
- Value shift: at risk / danger
- Polarity: + / –
Beat 3 – Student at the Mercy of the Mentor – 145 words
“Progress was slow in … passed through my stomach.”
Kim’s Notes: The major action of the scene where the true nature of the test and the danger is revealed (life and death stakes, child at the mercy of the mentor). Notice that the son counts his five steps toward his father and stops, then immediately the shot rings out—there is no hesitation on the father’s part. We see the effect of the blast and how close the son was to being shot. Also we recognize that this may not have been the first time and is certainly not going to be the last time this happens. A horrific sort of Russian Roulette (or Finnish Roulette, I suppose).
- Turning point (active): Shot rings out, hits the target, not the son.
- Value shift: Endangered to safe
- Polarity: -/+
- Turning point (revelatory): Son realizes how close he was to actually being shot.
- Value shift: triumph / terror
- Polarity: +/-
Beat 4 – The Student’s Reward – 54 words
“When I got back … only wrong once, Simuna.’”
Kim’s Notes: Father is further solidified as the “present but flawed mentor.” Doesn’t wait for his son to come in, merely glances at him, doesn’t encourage or praise (ever), but instead focuses on the risk of being wrong (always).
- Turning point (active): “You’re only wrong once, Simuna.”
- Value shift: Acknowledged / warned
- Polarity: +/-
We see that while he may be safe for the moment, his father will continue to put him in danger.
The title of this section is Distance, which literally is the distance that Simu marks for his father’s shot, but also the emotional distance between them. This establishes the present but flawed mentor that is a convention of the Status-Tragic genre.
The Life Values established in this scene point to a variety of genre possibilities that a reader is unconsciously picking up on – Life/Death, Respect/Shame, Success/Failure, as well as Power/Impotence. Everything in the scene contributes to shock and the sense of foreboding the reader experiences by the end, which they carry forward into the rest of the story. Like our story from last week, Whiplash, this is another example of a killer opening scene that hooks us and establishes essential elements for the next part of the story.
I encourage you to give this kind of analysis a try. Pick a scene from your favorite short story or novel and practice looking at it as this micro level. Then you can take it one step further by applying what you learn to an original scene of your own. This is precisely what Anne has done with “Brokeback Mountain” and what we do in the Story Grid Ground Your Craft course. In fact, an anthology of 12 original short stories is being published by Story Grid Publishing in May 2020, each of which were crafted using the beat by beat framework of a masterwork story/scene. So stay tuned for that!
Anne: Thank you, Kim. I’m editing one of the stories in the anthology, and I can’t wait to read the rest!
Thanks for your work here. I know how hard it is to find beats the first time you try it, and how much practice it takes to be this good at it. As for scene types, I wrote in my annotation that this opening is a Mentor/Pupil training scene.
In a story like this one, with no mustache-twirling villain, forces of antagonism can be pretty hard to spot. Valerie, what have you found?
Valerie – Forces of Antagonism
There are a lot of things I could say about this short story, but I’m sticking with my study of Forces of Antagonism because I want to see how that story principle works, or doesn’t work, in as many stories as possible.
Because stories are art, they’re inherently subjective; they’ll resonate with some people and not with others. When we studied Whiplash, Anne admitted that it wasn’t her cup of tea, but because the Story Grid tools allow us to look at art objectively, she was still able to have valuable insight into the film.
So this week, I’m intentionally putting my personal taste aside and viewing “Wolves of Karelia” objectively—and no, that doesn’t mean I disliked it. It means I have my editor hat on.
Let’s go back to basics for a minute. Stories are about change and it’s the force (or forces) of antagonism that create that change. The antagonist wants one thing, the protagonist wants another and that creates a point of conflict. A working story has conflict at the macro and micro levels. These principles are really easy to understand when we apply them to global external genre stories, like superhero movies, because the conflict is primarily in the physical world, and when we consume stories through film or television, we can literally see it on the screen.
But what happens when we’re dealing with global internal content stories, or stories that are on the page? In stories that work, the force(s) of antagonism must be equally present, although they’ll be handled very differently. This is one of the reasons why, as writers, it’s crucial that we consume stories widely and deeply—across genre but also across medium. We interviewed Shawn about this very thing for the podcast once. The episode is called Shawn on Reading.
What are the forces of antagonism in “Wolves of Karelia”? It’s pretty easy to spot them. Externally there’s Simo’s father and the Russian army, socially it’s Simo’s love for M and social attitudes generally, and internally? Well, those are a bit weak—but I’ll talk about that in a minute.
After determining that all three types of antagonism are present, my next step was to examine them one at a time, and figure out what role they play, how effective they are, and so on.
The first part of the story is subtitled “Distance”—this is when Simo’s father is teaching him to hunt with precision. His father is both a mentor and antagonist here, but since this isn’t a working scene, his role as antagonist is watered down considerably. There’s no real tension between them or sense of danger. Hemenway establishes the stakes after we know Simo is ok. Only after the threat has passed do we understand that a meter or a step wrong would have put him at risk. But then, was Simo really at risk? Would his father have actually shot him? Probably not. His role here is 95% mentor, 5% antagonist and the antagonism is only given as a challenge to teach Simo; to get him to level up. Plus, they both want the same thing, and that is to turn Simo into an excellent marksman.
We had similar mentor relationships in Whiplash and Black Swan. Fletcher and Thomas existed to bring out the best in their students, but both were definite antagonists too because both Andrew and Nina were at risk of getting hurt by them (and were hurt by them!).
So, rather than this being a working scene that incites a story, it’s instead, an account of one lesson on one day in childhood.
The Russians, or more precisely, the Russian army, is another external antagonist but they too have been diluted. They’re off stage most of the time, and when they’re on stage, they’re not much of a threat. One soldier was an unarmed deserter who begged to stay. He’s a victim in that scene, not an antagonist. And again, the scenario is presented not as a working scene, but as an account of what happened.
In the section subtitled “The Hunt,” we see Simo killing an encampment of Russian soldiers. Given the topic, I’d expect an internal force of antagonism to arise. Yes, Simo has been taught to hunt his whole life, but unless he’s a machine, wouldn’t he have some feeling for what he’s about to do? I’m not talking about a massive moral crisis in that moment, but some awareness of what he’s doing—even a tiny, tiny bit would do, just enough to show his humanity because he does have it. Also, the Russian soldiers don’t fight back. Because of that, as a force of antagonism, they fall flat. In fact, they become victims.
When Simo is shot in the face on the 98th day, the Russians finally become the antagonists we’d expect to see in a war story. This is probably one of the reasons why Anne thought about the war genre.
So, if the external forces of antagonism are mostly ineffective, how do the internal and social forces of antagonism fare?
I’ve already mentioned Simo’s internal struggle briefly. When it comes to killing enemy soldiers, Simo doesn’t struggle that much—or at least not the way Hemenway presents it. Now, this could be one of the points the author is making. Simo has been trained from childhood to be a sharp-shooter, and presumably the army has trained him to be a killer and he can’t do that job if he’s wracked with emotion. He does, nonetheless, feel. He’s definitely not a robot. I think this was a bit of a missed opportunity.
This brings me society as an antagonist, and I think that of the three, this is the most effective in terms of a force of antagonism.
Why do I say that?
Simo is in love with M, but it’s a forbidden love. Society will not allow these two soldiers to have a romantic relationship. Period.
Now, M’s feelings are less certain. I think if the level of affection been equal, then once they reunited in the village years later, they would have at least remained friends. Did M love him in the moment? Possibly. Simo certainly believed him to be.
Finally, society “attacks” Simo when he’s discharged from service because he looks so scary. He was shot in the face in the course of duty but he’s not cherished as a defender of the people. Journalists are curious about his sharp-shooting skill and still ask him about the number of kills he made.
Because of what society has done to him, what it has made him become, Simo is alone. All he has is a memory of lying next to M in the snow.
So, to recap: It’s society’s expectations that caused Simo’s father to raise him the way he did. It was society’s expectation of Simo and his brothers that caused them to go to war, and ultimately become victims of the war. And it’s society’s intolerance of a same-sex relationships that forces Simo and M to hide their love, and it results in Simo being alone.
I had to really dig to find this common antagonist. Even now that I’ve identified society as the prime villain, it’s so far off stage that its not nearly as effective as it could have been. Think about “Brokeback Mountain” and how powerful it is, and how clearly Annie Proulx presented society as the antagonist. “Wolves of Karelia” is more of an essay than a story, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean it’s less valuable, but it’s a different beast.
Remember, most readers aren’t going to sit down and analyze what you’ve written. They’ll read it, once. They’ll pick up on the fundamentals (like force of antagonism and the elements in the Editors Six Core Questions) subconsciously, so if you take the time to identify your primary villain, then a lot of other things start to fall into place. You’ll know what the point of conflict is in a scene and that will naturally lead you to the five commandments, to the development of a character arc, and so on.
So, whether you’re in the drafting stage, or the editing stage, identify who or what your forces of antagonism are. Make sure they’re creating conflict in every unit of story.
Anne: Thanks, Valerie. It’s not a story for everyone, and definitely doesn’t work quite the way we’d like a story to work. I find the same thing in a lot of contemporary short stories like this that are published in places like The Atlantic and The New Yorker. I hope my study this season will help me understand the inner workings of the form, because it’s my theory that they have one, and that it’s its own thing.
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?
Leslie: What’s coming up consistently for me this season already is the importance of attention to detail. The right details create layers that make a story re-readable, allowing it to stick with the reader long after they reach “the end.” The global elements are vital, and the micro details, the way we execute the global elements, are vital too.
Kim: The opening scene of a story is so important—it hooks the reader, introduces key elements that establish the genre, and set the tone for the rest of the story. Not only should you use global storytelling tools to discern which moment to feature as your story’s opening, but use micro tools to ensure it is effectively crafted to deliver maximum impact.
Valerie: Whether you’re in the drafting stage, or the editing stage—or whether you consider yourself to be a literary writer or not—identify who or what your forces of antagonism are. Make sure they’re creating conflict in every unit of story.
Anne: Go and read this story, if you haven’t already. Or choose a different contemporary short story. If you’re used to novels and full length films, you might feel confused about the genre, or about the nonlinear timeline. I did. If you’re tempted to say, “Eh, not for me, too literary,” keep going anyway. “Read with your body,” as Christopher Vogler says, and notice what scene or phrase evokes emotion in you. That’s your way in. You may have to slow your mind way down to find the treasures locked inside these short 5000 words. I did. be willing to be that the exercise will make you a better writer.
You might have heard the Masterwork Experiment on the main Story Grid Podcast last summer, and Anne has been hammering away at the story she’s supposed to write based on the beat structure of “Brokeback Mountain.” If you’d like to get updates on the project, or have a look at my draft in progress, sign up at annehawley.net/masterwork.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from “Kennis the Menace” on voicemail. Kennis asks about how to use the foolscap to plot a very complex story with multiple lead characters and plot lines.
Kim: Hey Kenis the Menace, thanks so much for your question. When you’re telling a story like yours, with so many characters, locations, and plots happening at once, it can definitely be unclear how to best apply the tools, and how to best tell the story. But in a story of this scale, it is even more critical that you have a cohesive story spine of 15 Core Scenes united under a global genre, which is precisely what we get on the foolscap.
Before you can answer the 15 Core Scenes, you need to answer the Editor’s Six Core Questions. And another important thing to consider is: are you planning your story or are you revising your story? The lens we use to look at story differs slightly depending on which phase of the creative process we’re in.
So if you are in the editing/revising phase, I have a couple pieces of advice that I hope will help you approach your story and the Story Grid tools with more clarity.
Even though you have seven main characters and groups, you still only have one global genre. So shift your thinking from tracking your protagonist to tracking your global genre shifts. With an ensemble cast like yours (or Game of Thrones or Love Actually) your 15 core scenes may not have any one of your main characters onstage.
Remember, your main characters are one element to telling your story, but you are the architect. So zoom out of your protag’s POV to the 30k foot view to gain a global perspective.
From your new god-like state, consider how the story will be experienced by the reader. How does the value shift of each scene affect them and their perception of the story? In other words, how do the scene shifts affect the Global Life values? If you were to plot your entire story on a Story Grid Graph according to the Global Life Values of Stake, which scenes would stand out?
Now if you haven’t already landed on a Global External Genre, then that is definitely step one. But after that, it’s identifying the 15 Core Scenes for that genre, regardless of which characters are in the scene. Your five commandments of your BH, MB, and EP. Each of these scenes should turn on your global life values at stake. If not, maybe it’s not the core scene, or maybe you just need to revise the scene.
So I do recommend completing a single foolscap for your global genre, but after that, it is definitely valid identify the other arcs / subplots that exist in your story and how they are operating over the spine.
If you’re planning your novel, Valerie can give you a bit of advice.
Valerie: Thanks, Kim. I’m actually using the Story Grid method to draft my psychological thriller and one of the big a-ha moments for me was realizing that it’s really important to take the Editor’s Six Core Questions in order. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty anxious to get writing so I kept jumping into my book only to get stuck. I’d realize that I hadn’t accurately identified the basics yet, for example, I started writing before clearly articulating my protagonist’s (and my antagonist’s) objects of desire. That’s a massive waste of time.Leslie is my editor on this project, and we’re both keeping piles of notes on what’s working and what’s not working. Our plan is to compile our lessons learned in a book tentatively entitled Story Grid: Start to Finish, so keep an eye out for that. Also this is exactly the kind of thing I share in my Inner Circle, so if that interests you, you can sign up at valeriefrancis.c/innercircle.
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.
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