The Steeple Chase – part II

Photo by Phil Hodkinson on Unsplash

So now that you’ve been nudged toward action by The Steeple Chase – part I, and you’ve selected your languishing narrative from a stack of moldering stories, you’re ready to pull on your boots and saddle up old Bessie and ride this equestrian metaphor over the gates or into the ground or, better yet, off into the sunset with a finished manuscript tucked in the saddlebags next to a blanket, a celebratory bottle of Meursault, a wheel of drippy-ripe Époisses and a box of assorted party crackers.

Okay, enough of that.

Before we get started, here’s a little history: Randy Albers, one of my writing professors at Columbia* recalls the provenance of the exercise. A pair of decades back, John Schultz, founder of the fiction writing program there, walked into a faculty meeting with the idea of semester-long experiment that forced writers to take an unfinished narrative through a series of twelve steps. He provided a list of the steps and left it up to the instructors to adapt as they saw fit. Randy, who liked the exercise but bristled at the notion of a twelve-step program for writers, trimmed it to eleven and rebranded the “steps” as “leaps” in to more fully embrace the horse jumping metaphor.

The idea is to take a single narrative through an obstacle course of shifts and changes, each one designed to playfully tease the story forward and infuse the writing process with a sense of discovery and surprise. This idea of writing as playing is central to the whole notion of dilettantism, which is probably why I love this exercise.

“John’s goal was to throw the students off balance and see what could shake the story. So many students are stuck in the way they think it has to be told.”

Shawn Shiflett, writing professor and author of Hey Liberal!

John was an innovator when it comes to writing instruction. The fiction program was born out of the tumult of the 60’s (John authored two books on the notorious ’68 Democratic Convention). The program’s upstart social spirit and nontraditional approach reached well into the late ’90s when I attended. Columbia still had an open admissions policy at the time, which meant that the classes were a mix of graduate students and undergrads from a broad range backgrounds. I imagine it was decidedly less stuffy than the more “selective” MFA programs of the time. It had a diverse, working class and blue-collar feel. I sat beside telephone linemen and bus drivers and kids who were, like me, the first generation in their families…often the first in their entire neighborhoods…to attend college. But I digress, as I’m wont to do. So let me just sum up by saying that this is an exercise born in an eclectic literary laboratory infused with the experimental cultural spirt of the 1960s.

Here’s how the Steeple Chase worked in the classroom.

You start off by rewriting the opening few pages of your chosen story (or a complete narrative movement excerpted from a longer work), working in the point of view and voice you’d originally imagined for the piece. Once you’re a few pages in, the instructor calls for a shift.

The first shift is a simple point-of-view shift. Switch from first person to third person or vice versa.

Instructor Shawn Shiflett, who has taught this workshop for years, says that, “finding the right point of view is 90 percent of the problem. Then the story starts to write itself.”

You may think you’ve already discovered the best point of view for your story, but what if you’re wrong? Dostoyevski wrote the first draft of Crime and Punishment in first person and he found the result disastrous, so he rewrote the entire novel in the third person. This exercise, when it works, can get you on the right track sooner.

When you make your shift, just leap into the new point of view and the voice it brings. No need for fancy transitions or tidy labels or chapter headings. Just continue the story, asking yourself “what happens next?” Write another two to three pages in the shifted point of view, and then it’s time to shift again.

Now is when the shifting gets interesting. Most instructors used a prescribed list of steps, occasionally throwing a curveball. It might look something like:

  1. Start rewriting with the originally imagined point of view
  2. Switch point of view (first to third or third to first)
  3. Continue as a model-telling or how-it-happens instance **
  4. Switch to the point of view of the least-likely character
  5. Switch prose forms (a diary, a letter, a story within a story, a folktale)
  6. Continue in the overall storyteller’s voice and point of view ***
  7. Tell the story through a dialogue form (drama, screenplay, script, etc.)
  8. Parody another author’s style
  9. Switch to a point of view that you are now drawn to after the switches so far
  10. Switch to a heightened, exaggerated reality: a dream, surreal, magical realism
  11. Choose a point of view/voice for a character (or literary voice or style) that is the opposite of your own
  12. Take whatever shift from the above list that is producing the most vivid, strongest writing, and rewrite the entire movement in that form and point of view; it’s okay to even carry multiple shifts into the rewrite

In class, we’d do a couple shifts per week. I don’t want to make things complicated, but if you do a little math, and if you’re writing 2-3 pages per shift, then you’ll wind up with 22 to 33 pages by the end of step 11. That’s a length suited to a short story. But it’s not just about a single, complete story. It’s a great way to play around with narrative in a longer work, taking an excerpt that has some kind of arc and running it through these obstacles to see what happens.

The main point of the exercise is to tease out the best way of telling the story. John Shultz wrote in Writing from Start to Finish that “There’s a right, unique variation of point-of-view for every piece of writing.” While the Steeple Chase exercise isn’t described in that book, he does provide an outline for a point-of-view exercise:

“Start a point-of-view shifts exercise by emphasizing the storyteller-essayist’s overall point-of-view, then switch to a character’s vantage point or internal point-of-view (the character who most immediately attracts your attention), then switch from first person to third person or third to first, then switch to a person whose point-of-view you would be unlikely to take (someone you would not feel sympathetic with), then to a form and point-of-view shift such as a monolog, a script, or other form that attracts your attention. Keep the narrative moving through all of these shifts.

John Schultz, Writing from Start to Finish

Shawn saw this exercise work for students in his workshops who were searching for the right point of view. “When it hits, it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s like you’re dealing with a whole different writer.” He found the “opposites” and “dream” shifts to be especially productive.

But while the exercise is grounded in point of view, that’s not all there is to it. Randy Albers insists its also about exploration. “That sense of discovery is so important in getting across to fresher language. That’s what makes writing fun. Otherwise it’s drudgery,” he says.

“We’re drawn to story by its sense of play and discovery.”

Randy Albers

Play and fun are words that get us back to the whole point of this blog, which is that this is what creative work should be about. Being a professional is all well and good, but if there’s no sense playful discovery, then I’d argue that you’re better off approaching your work with the spirit of an amateur or a dilettante. Do the work because you love the process.

The prescribed “steps” or “leaps” of the Steeple Chase process may seem daunting, but in reality this formula just formalize what a lot of writers do already. Using a letter form is part of a long tradition of epistolary stories and novels. Point-of-view shifts were the bread and butter of Faulkner’s inventive narratives.

I just picked up Amor Towles’ bestselling novel A Gentleman in Moscow. It starts with a poem by the main character and shifts to the transcript of a tribunal before slipping into the third-person point of view, mostly from the main character’s perspective, that dominates the rest of the narrative (with healthy doses of the overall storyteller’s voice mixed in as well).

If you do this exercise, you’ll start seeing these forms and shifts in good writing everywhere. They’ll become an intuitive part of your writing and rewriting process, and you’ll find yourself taking leaps automatically, whenever you face a stalled narrative. Sometimes these shifts will encourage rewriting in a certain voice or point of view. Sometimes they’ll become part of the story themselves. And other times they’ll open up a window that you’ll decide to climb through in the spirit of discovery, taking the narrative in a direction you never would have imagined otherwise.

In part III of this series, posting in a week or two, I’ll go into some techniques for adapting this classroom exercise to your own process, and I’ll give a few examples for how it’s worked for me over the years.


* When I refer to “Columbia,” I mean Columbia College Chicago. Folks from outside the Windy City always, for some reason, assume that I’m referring to a certain other Columbia back east when I fail to use the full name. That is also a fine institution.

** A description of the model-telling form could occupy an entire series of posts, but here’s an attempt at a short summary. In Writing from Start to Finish, John Schultz writes that, “the model-telling is an image or narrative of the pattern of how something usually happens.” It establishes a, “pattern of repeated experience.” They often use present tense and second person (On Tuesdays you visit the pier with Granny…) but not always. It often uses the conditional, or “would” (Every Tuesday, Victor would slip thorough the gap in the fence…). Model-tellings establish a pattern, and when such patterns are broken, that’s when stories often happen.

*** The concept of the overall storyteller point of view could likewise occupy volumes, but think of this as the high-level narrator’s voice, the omniscient point of view that can slip deftly from one character to the other, can offer outside perspective and that can tie a story into the historical context that’s happening around the narrative. It’s not exactly the author’s voice, but it can have the author’s voice backed into it. It’s more Toni Morrison than Raymond Carver.

**** I had to refresh my basic grammar to keep my first-person point of view from my point-of-view shifts to first person. But the basic Chicago Manual of Style rules for hyphenation say that when point of view or first person are nouns, no hyphens needed, but when they’re working together as adjectives, hyphenate those suckers.


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