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.”

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.


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


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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reading like a writer–part 4: reading a story

Many of the stories in the new Alice Munro collection, Too Much Happiness, were first published in The New Yorker and are still available online. “Dimensions,” the first story in the collection, will be the story  I’ll take apart in the next post. You can read it here: Dimensions.

As an aside, the story was published in The New Yorker as “Dimension” and in the collection as “Dimensions.” Both the singular and the plural use of the word can be found in the story:

“But they do exist and it must be that there is another Dimension or maybe innumerable Dimensions….”

I think she changed the title to open the story up a little more.

I hope some of you will do this exercise with me so we can compare notes!

I’ll start us off:

Physical details

  • 31 pages
  • 19 unmarked sections
  • First sentence: “Doree had to take three buses—one to Kincardine, where she waited for the one to London, where she waited again for the city bus out to the facility.”
  • Last sentence: No.
  • Tense: past

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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reading like a writer–part 2: taking it to a new level

Like many of you, I feel that for some time now I’ve been reading like a writer. In other words, when I’m reading, I’m also noticing: tense shifts, point of view, use of time, distance between the narrator and the characters, the movement in and out of scenes…

In 1999 I was so amazed by Michael Cunningham‘s The Hours–its structure, its use of repetition–that I reread it in order see what he had done. I circled. I underlined. I used Excel and made a chart. I cited page numbers.

Recently at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, another student suggested I listen to the CD of a lecture given by Douglas Glover last summer on “How to Read Like a Writer.” In that lecture he said that to read like a writer, we should learn how to take a story apart. I thought, right, I know that.

But it wasn’t until a few days after that, when I actually took apart a couple of the Alice Munro stories in her new collection, Too Much Happiness, that I finally GOT how to read like a writer–or how to take reading like a writer to a new level–and how that could help me make choices when I was writing.

So the first time I read, I read for pleasure. I underline passages I like, and I notice what’s working and what’s not. Then the second time I read, I read to answer questions.

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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