The Steeple Chase – part III

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

A great thing about graduate writing programs is that they can sometimes approximate a salon. If you’re lucky, you wind up with a cohort of incipient creatives and you can cobble together, for a time, your very own Algonquin Round Table, your Paris of the 20’s or maybe Denver in the 50s. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t round up some writer friends and try to build a similar environment without the tuition. We’re a social species and we thrive on community, even while we’re pursuing intensely personal and solitary activities like writing fiction.

But in the end we all wind up alone and at the keyboard. In Part II of this series, I described how the Steeple Chase Exercise works in a classroom, but that’s not very helpful for us after graduation. Nor is it useful for those who don’t buy into the idea of workshops or MFA programs.

There are advantages to group workshops. For one thing, an experienced instructor can often spot a point of view that’s working particularly well in your work and call your attention to it. In some workshops, you have the chance to hear your own work read aloud, which is always enlightening. Instructor Shawn Shiflett says, “usually the light bulb doesn’t go on [for the student]…you have to point it out. They’re surprised when they hear it out loud.”

But there’s no reason you can’t run your own steeple chase exercise on your own. Every time I feel the story going flat, I try out some of my favorite shifts. If you’re stuck on a project and you need a nudge, I’ve included this handy set of cards to help you out. Print, cut, shuffle and drop them into a hat. When you get stuck, draw a card, make a shift, write a few pages, then draw another card and shift again. This is especially helpful for me when I’m facing a blank screen with a pulsing of the cursor mocking my torpor.

These cards are just for starters, but there’s no reason you can’t make up your own shift. The novelist Ward Just, whom I consider the best living (and little known) political novelist, talks about how shifting the gender of a character can launch a narrative forward: “It’s amazing what you can do. It gives you a whole new outlook on what he’s up to when all of the sudden he’s a she,” he said in an interview.

“It’s amazing what you can do to a character when you change the gender.”

Ward Just

All too often we forget the freedom inherent in the act of writing fiction. We find ourselves adhering to an idea on page 100 merely because that’s how we first happened to write it on page 7, forgetting that we have the power to easily change anything we want. The Steeple Chase Exercise forces us to face that almost daunting amount of liberty we actually do have with with fiction, but do it with the training wheels provided by a structured activity.

Shifting points of view and leaping into other prose forms has always been a natural part of writing. Shawn Shiflett, who has taught countless Steeple Chase classes, uses the technique often. He told me how shifting from the point of view of his main character to that of a high-level overall storyteller helped him navigate a stuck scene while writing his novel Hey, Liberal! He said, “I wound up deleting most of it in the end, but it got me where I needed to be.”

I’ve already mentioned Dostoyevski’s unsuccessful first draft of Crime and Punishment told from Raskolnikov’s first-person point of view. He switched to the third-person for the next draft and wrote a classic. A point-of-view shift in the other direction is what turned Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha into a massive bestseller. His first draft was roundly rejected by agents and editors. “My mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator,” Golden said. When he shifted to the first-person point of view of the main character, Sayuri, the story took off.

More examples abound. Consider Fitzgerald’s choice to tell the story of Jay Gatsby from the point of view of the less-exciting Midwestern outsider, Nick Carraway. Many of us might be tempted to explore the first-person point of view of Gatsby himself, the dynamic protagonist. But Fitzgerald’s choice allows us to channel some of Carraway’s awe while also seeing through his naiveté into Gatsby’s seductive huckster veneer. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye seamlessly blends shifts to a third-person overall narrator’s point of view with first-person perspective of Claudia McTeer, who observes the main character of Pecola Breedlove much in the same way Carraway watches Gatsby.

I could go on. There are at least a million and a half fantastic examples. But I’ll wrap up with an anecdote I know well.

My novel Vintage is the story of washed-up restaurant critic and newspaper columnist Bruno Tannenbaum who discovers the secret to a lost vintage of wine stolen by the Nazis. He sets of on a global quest to find that wine in hopes of writing a bestseller and resurrecting his career and failed marriage.

What first drew me to the character of Bruno was his bombastic voice. I originally began the novel by writing a few newspaper columns in his voice. He was a sort of Dear Abby who would fix his readers’ relationship problems with prescriptions of recipes and wine parings, using food to patch things up when love has gone awry. The conceit was that his own personal life was something of a disaster. He was separated from his wife, estranged from his children, struggling with writer’s block and was a borderline alcoholic. But boy could he write some fancy prose.

I soon found that Bruno’s boorish first-person voice was too dense, meandering and flamboyant to move the story along. I kept getting sidetracked. Or rather Bruno did. So after a filling up a few yellow legal pads with a plot that was quickly heading nowhere, I took a step back, switched to the keyboard and rewrote the entire story.

But this time I wrote it all as a screenplay.

I’d written screenplays before, personally and professionally, and I love the rigid structure of the form. One page equals roughly one minute of screen time, so a typical film gets 90 to 120 pages, and that’s it. Plus the industry is in love with the three-act structure, so you’re forced to riff off of that framework, or at least begin with it. In a screenplay you can’t get lost in descriptions because directors and producers frown on thick blocks of prose. Also, long, winding, interior monologues are impossible in screenplay form. Add to that the fact that you’re forced to make your dialog crackle, and you have a whole new way of looking at a story.

So I wrote and rewrote the screenplay, plugging holes and figuring out where the plot needed to go. In the end I even thought that it might make a good movie. It still might.

But I ultimately knew that Bruno’s story belonged in prose. So I rewrote the entire thing again, but this time I used the screenplay as a sort of outline and I employed the third-person point of view. Much of Vintage is still from Bruno’s perspective, but with enough distance to keep things moving forward.

A fun side note is that I did save some of Bruno’s original first-person columns and I used them as brief chapter introductions. A number of readers told me that they loved these vignettes, some even saying that they were their favorite parts the book. And other some writer types found Bruno’s writing pompous and offensive. One journalist, who gave the book a positive review overall, confided to me: “Gosh, that Bruno is such a bad writer!”

I can definitely say that the permission to shift and leap through forms and points of view granted to me by the Steeple Chase workshops allowed me to turn the whole process of writing Vintage into one big point-of-view exercise. I doubt it would have finished the book otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t have written something publishable. And what’s more, the exploratory process made writing that book a whole lot of fun.

The Steeple Chase is a great activity for reminding us that writing should be an exercise in play and discovery. Instructor Randy Albers has this to say about it:

“If you have a very rigid idea of story, and you just try to get from A to Z, you’re not going to trust discovery. You’re going to have to muscle the movement forward. You could miss a stronger story that may be coming from the side. And it will kill the enjoyment of writing.”

As an admitted dilettante, “enjoyment” is the whole reason to write in the first place. This exercise is something that helps me maintain a playful approach that prevents writing from becoming drudgery.

So there you have it. That’s the best thing I learned in graduate school. If you haven’t yet, check out part I and part II of this series. The Steeple Chase is a fantastic exercise for stuck stories and a good way to look at narrative in a new way.


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