Last week, I discussed how reading Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” deepened my understanding of two crossroads in my writing journey. This week, I want to discuss how reading literature with a writer’s perspective can inform and improve our own creative writing. To do so, we’ll again consider Frost’s poem (Read it here), and I’ll show you how I tried to mimic some of his techniques in one of my original microflash stories (See sidebar, left).
What’s the difference between reading like a reader and reading like a writer? Think of it like the difference between admiring a muscle car zooming past you on the highway and popping its hood in your garage so you can maybe build your own. First, take stock of what you liked (or didn’t) and determine WHY the work created that effect in you. Second, identify and evaluate HOW the author created that effect, repeating as needed. Finally, consider ways to employ similar techniques and whether doing so will enhance or detract from the story you’re trying to tell.
SPOILER ALERT: Frost is a master craftsman, and I still have a lot to learn.
1. EFFECTIVE TITLES ARE INTEGRAL TO READER UNDERSTANDING AND ENJOYMENT, NOT INCIDENTAL.
Frost’s title serves multiple functions. It hooks the reader into wondering, Why wasn’t the road taken? It introduces several key storytelling elements: plot (a literal and/or figurative journey), conflict (an implied choice), and a central image (road). It also sets up the poem’s theme regarding the value of choice. (More on this later.)
My title contains a hook (Distressed jeans are currently fashionable. Why mend them?), a plot (a literal and/or figurative repair), conflict (the damage’s cause), and a central image (clothing). I’m also trying to set up the story’s theme regarding healing, though I think my title is a bit of a cheat because it’s too direct.
2. PLACE PROTAGONISTS AT A MAJOR TURNING POINT AND FORCE THEM TO ACT. Doing so engages readers with the story’s stakes and increases momentum.
Although a narrative poem of four five-line stanzas, “The Road’s” plot utilizes a traditional three-act story arc. Within the first stanza (act 1), we know the setting (“a yellow wood”) and the protagonist’s dilemma: Choosing a path by which to continue his journey, even though he cannot see where each ultimately leads. In line six, he chooses. This action begins act 2 (stanzas 3 and 4) in which he journeys, contemplates his path, and anticipates its impact. After acknowledging the futility of a do-over (lines 14 and 15), tension builds in act 3 (stanza 4): Will his journey resolve happily, or will it lead to disaster?
My dilemma is implied: How will the young protagonist react to the message that she is not worthy of the love so readily showered on her classmate? My plot is also not as detailed, in part because of the genre’s word count restrictions, but I tried to increase tension by first, unpeeling her secrets in sentence three, and second, displaying her wrists in the final paragraph. I wanted readers to wonder, Will she heal internally, or will she continue to self-harm?
However, I have no setting, which creates confusion: Readers don’t know where she is nor approximately how much time has elapsed, and therefore can’t accurately evaluate her arc.
3. USE A CENTRAL IMAGE TO LINK PROTAGONISTS’ OUTER JOURNEYS WITH THEIR INTERNAL TRANSFORMATIONS. Such metaphors enable readers to synthesize external events (plot), plot’s impact on protagonists (character arc), and the point of those transformations (theme).
Frost’s protagonist walks a literal road that impacts his life in ways he has yet to fully understand. What readers haven’t grappled with similar crossroads? Worried whether they’ve made the right decisions? Agonized over unknowable outcomes? Readers recognize the significance of the protagonist’s journey because it mirrors our own.
The clothing image in my piece has the potential to achieve this connection but falls short. I wanted readers to juxtapose Leann’s pristine wardrobe with the protagonist’s cast-offs AND the metaphorical ‘wounds’ on the fabric to the literal wounds on her wrists. However, doing so feels like not one but two related images, which lacks the unity, clarity, and sophistication of Frost’s road.
4. CREATE AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE THAT GOES BEYOND THE ADAGE OF ‘SHOW DON’T TELL.’ Think of immersion as a portal through which readers not only enter the story world but participate in it.
Frost creates that effect through narrative POV, tense, tone, and structure. First person POV allows us access into the protagonist’s head: We see, feel, and process as the character. Tense situates us within his world: Past tense in stanzas 1-3 indicates their events have already occurred and thus cannot be changed, whereas future tense in line 16 indicates their impact has yet to be determined. Thus, the speaker addresses readers in his present, somewhere between choosing a path and discovering its impact. Word choice and syntax create a wistful yet contemplative tone: The roads and their setting contain recognizable milestones, and the meandering sentence structure mimics his physical and emotional journey through them. Thus, our understanding transforms with his. Likewise, the chronological structure leads us to anticipate a resolution to our earlier question: Will his journey resolve happily, or will it lead to disaster? We are vested because his success has implications for our own, real-world struggles.
I chose first POV, diction, detail, and syntax to create a confessional, yet confrontational tone, and a chronological structure to encourage anticipation: How will this event encourage or impede character growth? I also employed tense to develop character arc: Four of its six sentences use past tense. The final two, present. This shift suggests movement in time and action though not their extent, in part because I have no setting and a weak central image.
5. EFFECTIVE ENDINGS DON’T MERELY CONCLUDE A SPECIFIC STORY BUT RATHER LAUNCH CHARACTERS AND READERS INTO SUBSEQUENT ONES. They highlight characters’ transformations and/or realizations in ways that suggest how characters might behave differently next time AND how we might learn from their experiences.
Think of endings as the final stitch in theme’s tapestry, the patterns of which have been woven by the techniques discussed above. (There are many more, of course, but such is the nature of Frost’s brilliance and the poetic form.) As I discussed in last week’s post (Read it here), we confer value to our paths by choosing. We understand their impacts by processing our choices and continuing to act. That’s why we’re still in the protagonist’s present at the end of the poem. That’s why the title alludes to the unselected path, the poem to the one selected. Meaning, like a tapestry, derives from synthesis.
As a reader, I love those kinds of stories. As a writer, I strive to emulate that process. Here, I wanted my ending to suggest growth: Whereas at the beginning she is isolated, awash in shame, and silent, at the end she reveals her scars and speaks her grief aloud. I imagined her ‘See?’ in the next to last sentence as a challenge. Like she’s forcing us to see not just her scars, but her. We don’t know the details of what happens next, but we do know that she has changed. I chose the title to suggest that healing process, though it’s a bit of a cheat, as I said earlier, because it telegraphs rather than sets up theme.
Ultimately, I’ve concluded that “Today” isn’t a terrible story, but it would definitely benefit from further revision.
BONUS ROUND: Don’t just read other people’s works through this perspective.
Read your own.
Comparing my story to “The Road” forced me to determine why my techniques and their effects are markedly weaker than Frost’s.
But more importantly, doing so enabled me to develop strategies to improve.
I already knew flash isn’t my métier and thought I struggled because of its word count limits.
I don’t necessarily need more words. I need more of my words to have more than one function. Specifically, when writing flash my central image must work overtime. Like Frost’s use of roads, it must be the keystone upon which character, conflict, plot, and theme rely. Knowing this strategy will enable me to be more deliberate when I draft and revise, rather than pantsing my way forward and making no progress.
I’ll let you know how it works.
Which authors and stories do you strive to emulate? And what have you learned about your writing in the process? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below and we’ll chat 🙂