reading like a writer–part 5: taking a story apart

Before I jump into the story, I’d just like to say that what follows are my notes–opinion not fact. And I hope to hear more opinions from you. Also, LONGEST POST EVER ALERT (I suggest a beverage of some sort, maybe a snack) and SPOILER ALERT:

Dimensions” by Alice Munro from her new collection, Too Much Happiness:

Type of story: journey

Type of beginning: starting the journey

Type of ending: stopping the journey

Point of View: On my first read, I thought it was third person limited to Doree, but on my second read, it appears that Munro actually moves briefly into the heads of two other characters: Mrs. Sands for a moment in the 3rd section (page 7 of the book) and Maggie for a moment in the 11th section (page 18). So the point of view is third person limited to one character at a time, and the main point of view character is Doree.

Distance at the beginning: The first few sentences (in fact the whole first paragraph with the exception of one sentence) seem distant, with Doree being observed which I think Munro starts with for three reasons: 1) because the gory subject matter to come needs distance to avoid melodrama; 2) so she can dip into the other two characters without jarring the reader; and 3) so the reader can look at Doree as separate from the reader because Doree does things the reader finds difficult to believe.

Structure: 31 pages>19 sections (marked only by white space, which Munro uses mainly to mark shifts in TIME )

[green =forward action/red=backstory/blue=Mrs. Sands/orange=Maggie]

1st section: Munro gets the story moving forward—literally and figuratively. We know something happened but we don’t know what—the unknowing adds tension and moves the story forward. And we have enough concrete details and action that we’re willing to wait for the “what.”

2nd section: Introduction of new character: Mrs. Sands (we guess she’s some sort of therapist and is “the reasonable person” to anchor the reader in the story). *[If you're reading the story in The New Yorker, this section splits here creating 20 sections total instead of 19-I'm guessing she combined them in the later version to avoid 2 sections of backstory at the beginning.] Then a moment of backstory that starts when Doree meets Lloyd and clues us we’re going to lead up to what happened.

3rd section: Story moves forward again. Brief dip into Mrs. Sands POV. This section serves to reassure the reader that there is a story and that the character we just met is part of it.

4th section: Hunk of chronological backstory—the sure hand of storytelling.

5th section: Out of order backstory—I asked myself WHY? I’m guessing it serves to give the reader a little more information about what happened so we don’t get antagonistic. It also acts as foreshadowing and adds tension.

6th-10th sections: Chronological backstory with new character—the friend Maggie. Munro filters Doree’s reaction to the murders through Maggie (dips into M’s POV) to avoid melodrama. Also Munro needs the character of Maggie during these pre-Mrs. Sands scenes. (Maggie and Mrs. Sands are both “reasonable people” who arguably stand in for the reader. Including them and dipping briefly into their POV seem to be the equivalent of the story putting an arm around the reader.)

11th section: All the threads come together (red, blue, orange) for the “what happened” and then push past it.

11th-19th sections: The story moves forward from the “what happened,” with the continued appearance of Mrs. Sands as stand-in for normal as against Lloyd, which is the battle that is going on in Doree’s head.

12th: Doree’s INTERIOR THOUGHTS- she thinks back to being on the bus at the beginning of the story-no physical location of her body-and apparent continuation of interior thoughts in previous section-SO WHY DOES MUNRO SEPARATE THIS SHORT SECTION BY WHITE SPACE instead of adding it to the end of the section before?

  • I think to draw attention to Doree’s realization of getting off the bus as a possibility, which foreshadows the ending
  • And to highlight Doree thinking for herself
  • And to have the opportunity to mention “good or bad” twice
  • “When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for the bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.”

18th: Munro pits Mrs. Sands against Lloyd (good versus evil & echo of the ”did it make you feel good or bad from sections 11 & 13 that bookend Doree beginning to think for herself in section 12)

  • “And who had given it to her? Not Mrs. Sands…”
  • “Lloyd had given it to her. Lloyd, that terrible person, that isolated and insane person.”
  • “…THE THOUGHT THAT LLOYD, OF ALL PEOPLE, MIGHT BE THE PERSON SHE SHOULD BE WITH NOW. WHAT OTHER USE COULD SHE BE IN THE WORLD—SHE SEEMED TO BE SAYING THIS TO SOMEBODY, PROBABLY TO MRS. SANDS—WHAT WAS SHE HERE FOR IF NOT AT LEAST TO LISTEN TO HIM?”

19th: The first line: “So she found herself travelling on the bus again…”

  • Lloyd versus Mrs. Sands: “Who but Lloyd would remember the children’s names now…Mrs. Sands…did not even call them children but ‘your family,’ putting them in one clump together.”
  • accident, bus stops, driver tells everyone to stay on the bus but Doree gets off “AS IF SHE HAD NOT HEARD THAT, OR HAD SOME SPECIAL RIGHT TO BE USEFUL, DOREE GOT OUT BEHIND HIM.”
  • Similarities between Doree’s children and the victim:
    • The driver refers to the victim as “kid”
    • Doree sees him: “The boy was lying on his back, arms and legs flung out, like somebody making an angel in the snow….He was so young…”
  • “Be quiet, be quiet, she wanted to tell them. It seemed to her that silence was necessary, that everything in the world outside the boy’s body had to concentrate, help it not to lose track of its duty to breathe.”
    • Echo of beginning of story with Doree not wanting to talk.
    • Also a bit of her taking charge, at least in her own mind
    • And these are words she could be saying to Lloyd and Mrs. Sands
    • I also see Doree as the boy here
  • Unusually beautiful sentence from Munro with echoes of the “journey” aspect of the story: “Shy but steady whiffs now, a sweet obedience in the chest. Keep on, keep on.”

The ending:

    “Go on,” Doree said. “I’ll hitch a ride to town with them and catch you on your way back tonight.”

    He had to bend to hear her. She spoke dismissively, without raising her head, as if she were the one whose breath was precious.

    “You sure?” he said.

    Sure.

    “You don’t have to get to London?”

    No.

About the ending:

  • The key to the meaning of the story can be found in the concrete: in the repetition of the word USE.
  • In the beginning of the story, there is death; in the end, life.
  • Despite all the ugliness of Lloyd, he is “useful” to Doree because that’s how she knows to breathe life into the victim.
  • Doree does not choose either Lloyd or Mrs. Sands but finds her own place in the world.
  • The reader “knows” Doree will not go back to Lloyd because she has found another reason to be in the w orld.
  • In a beautiful return to the game she played in #1, Doree makes the word “no” out of the word “London.”
  • Also by her not saying the last two words, only thinking them, there’s another return to section #1—Doree not wanting to talk to people.
  • She got off the bus. Her life has changed. Munro shows this in the quietest of ways.

So if this is NOT ENOUGH MUNRO for you, I actually made a simple, color-coded chart that just shows the movement of the threads, but I can’t figure out how to include it here. If you would like to see it, just request a copy in the comments section (no need to put your address in the comments) and I will email it to you.

Hallelujah I’m done!

Despite the fact that I’m done, this post does not exhaust the ways we can take apart this story. There’s still how Munro uses distance throughout (it changes), how she presents the different characters, how many times and why she repeats “three,”…….

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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25 thoughts on “reading like a writer–part 5: taking a story apart

  1. wow! its a very elaborate post on understanding the reading like a writer process! and I find it very interesting, you have put in a lot of work in making us understand exactly how to go about “reading like a writer” keep the good work going! :)

  2. Great breakdown, Cynthia! I noticed while reading through your points that many of the things you write are ones I “knew” in some way, or had tangentially noticed, but which hadn’t percolated all the way up to be acknowledged by my conscious mind. One thing I struggle with is the fear of stating the obvious, which is so misguided since the “obvious” is often either exactly what I want, or a bridge to what I want. This exercise strips away that fear. Very nicely done.

    • Thanks, Emily. Once I got started I couldn’t stop. I asked myself WHY about everything: For example why the repetition of 3: 3 buses, 3 children, the 3rd trip to visit Lloyd. I assume to highlight the triangular relationship of Doree, Lloyd, and Mrs. Sands. Obvious when I thought about it, but I didn’t think about it the first time through.

  3. Printing the story to read tonight. How wonderful to have your post to refer to as soon as I finish. You have been working hard. And I certainly appreciate it. Thanks, Cynthia.

  4. Nice work, Cynthia. Thank you for this breakdown of the story. You noted many things I didn’t get on my own.

    One thing I noted was that while Doree was getting “breathing space” Lloyd was taking the breath from their children. Echoed in the end by her giving her breath to give life back to the injured boy.

    In section 12, after Doree finds the children, Munro writes that she stuffed things in her mouth. As I read, I thought Doree was indentifying with the suffocation her children, even desiring it for herself, so I was surprised when Munro gave us her interpretation.

    I wondered why the last two things Doree said were not in quotes. You gave an explanation. Do you see her return to silence as a positive?

    Please send me your color-coded chart. Btw, aren’t there 20 sections?

    • Thanks for “playing along,” Linda. Nice point about the breathing space.

      Interesting thought about Doree stuffing things in her mouth as a way of identifying with the suffocation of the children. And what are you referring to as Munro’s interpretation?

      I just recounted the sections–math not being my strong suit. There are 19 in the version of the story published in the book and 20 in the earlier version published in The New Yorker. The difference comes early: in the book, sections 2 and 3 of TNY version are one section. My guess is that Munro did not want to have two sections of backstory right at the beginning. Thanks for catching this difference–I’ll add a note about this in the post.

      Color-coded chart on its way to you!

      • Okay, yes, I read The New Yorker version. But in the book, section 2 is combined with section 3 (definitely backstory) and not section 1?

        My thought about suffocation came as I read these two lines: “For some time Doree kept stuffing whatever she could grab into her mouth. After the dirt and grass it was sheets or towels or her own clothing.”

        Then in the next line Munro tells us: “As if she were trying to stifle not just the howls that rose up but the scene in her head.”

        • That’s right, Linda. In the book, sections 2 and 3 of TNY version are combined–both are backstory.

          So I see what you’re saying–instead of wanting to suffocate herself, Munro is making it clear that Doree’s trying to blot out what she has seen.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful series on reading like a writer. I enjoyed learning how you approach reading, the questions you ask, and how you break down a story. I would love to see the color-coded chart. Please send it to me!

  6. Cynthia, you break down the story so well. Thank you for sharing your analysis.

    I wonder about a few things.

    In section 13, Doree seems to tell Lloyd “You told me to stop contradicting you or get out of the house. So I got out of the house” and “I fully intended to come back. I wasn’t walking out on anyone.” Those few lines are in quotes, but did she really speak them out loud? If she does, I’m not clear if she says it to him right after the murders or when she visits him later.

    And, in the end you highlight Munro’s repetition of “use” and “useful.” It seems to be related to the quote above. Lloyd blamed his act of violence on Doree’s leaving, and because she was at Maggie’s Doree was of no use, no help to the kids.

    That leads me to the ending and the scene with the boy. For me, Doree breathing life into the boy becomes an act of redemption for her. I agree with your comment that you see Doree as the boy. And, in that moment with him, I see Doree fall into the other dimension Lloyd tells her about, so that as she revives the boy, she gives life back to the children she couldn’t save.

    “Be quiet, be quiet, she wanted to tell them. It seemed to her that silence was necessary, that everything in the world outside the boy’s body had to concentrate, help it not to lose track….”

    Then, that last line, just one word (no quotes on purpose) telling herself, No. Lloyd was of no use anymore.

  7. Très belle analyse. Il y a beaucoup de travail dans ce compte rendu.

    You have a perfect balance between reading like a reader and reading like a writer. I do have a tendacy to analyse every book I read. Specially at the begining of the story. But after a studie of the cover, the stucture, the pages number, the chapters numbers, etc. , I do let myself navigate into the story.

    Merci!

  8. I finally got around to rereading the story. I read it in The New Yorker back when and then bought the book from our local bookstore. I waited. I have to be in the right mood to read Munroe. She writes beautifully about the most ugly things. I usually feel depressed but fortified. I can only take it in small doses, although I know it is good for me. Her stories are unforgettable and so well crafted.

    It was interesting to see how you broke it down for analysis. I read the story as being from Doree’s perspective, but I can see your point about the secondary characters. Are you sure the white space was Munroe’s decision? I’d have guessed it was the editor’s. I agreed with your analysis of the word “use.”

    I look for different things as I read with more focus on the story, pace and characters as opposed to the physicality of the words on the page and usage. I was impressed by how Munroe established tension early (you flagged this too.) The best part of Munroe is how she builds character through little details like Mrs. Sands’s shirts. She makes horror seem plausible by grounding it in the real world.

    Not all of the story worked for me. The letter section was too long and broke the narrative flow, but then again I’m never too crazy about stories told via letters, especially in contemporary fiction. Lloyd never felt real to me. It was a cop out to blame his behavior on insanity. A little more back story about him would have helped, ie was he abused or abandoned as a child? Also, it would have been more believable had he been physically abusive either to his wife, kids or patients before he snapped.

    I did like the ending – unusually upbeat for Munroe to leave us with so much hope.

    Great comment from Linda about breathing space. I’m sure that was intentional. Munroe has a wicked sense of humor.

    Fun discussion!

    • Sarah, thanks so much for coming back to this post after you were able to reread the story. About the white space, or space breaks as I suppose they are technically called, of course I don’t know, but my guess is they are the author’s decision as part of the story. Interesting question, though.

      You are spot on with how Munro makes horror plausible by grounding it in the real world.

      I agree that Lloyd’s letters seemed unnecessarily long. I don’t think anything would have been lost by shortening them to a paragraph.

      Yes, I appreciated Linda’s observation about the breathing space. And I liked the ending too–I love hope.

  9. It’s been a while since you published this post, but if you still have the color-coded chart handy, I would enjoy taking a look at it.

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis.

  10. Pingback: Reading Like A Writer » Numéro Cinq

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