Thu 12 Feb 2015
by Erin Entrada Kelly
Choosing the right words to tell a story is an art, and the greatest artists make it seem effortless.
Let’s face it: If you want to learn how to build a boat, you have to study the shipbuilders. So let’s take a look at a successful piece of flash—Kenneth Gagnon’s Liar—and find out what made this story strong enough to win the highly competitive 2013 Best of the Net prize for fiction.
First, the opening paragraph:
I think things went south because I was a habitual liar, especially about the story of how we met. I have an active imagination. I considered it charming, and for a time – a long time – so did you.
Gagnon doesn’t waste any time. (You can’t waste time in flash, after all). He tells us right away that things went south and gives us boatloads of information about himself and his relationship, in only three sentences.
When I balanced Jonathan on my knee in the glow from the tyrannosaurus lamp, for instance, I told him I leapt four hundred feet in the air to catch you as you plummeted from the whitest, softest cloud. In light emanating from the mouth of the fiercest of all dinosaurs, he asked: Was mom an angel?
Absolutely. And unbelievably clumsy.
Again, a ton of information. They have a small child, Jonathan. And while the narrator might be a “habitual liar,” his lies aren’t of the evil variety. He’s likable, sympathetic. This is important, because it gives the rest of the story unique resonation.
As the 500-word story unfolds, we travel with the couple to a company Christmas party, where the narrator tells his wife’s boss the real story (or maybe-real-story—nod to the unreliable narrator) of how they met. This clever thread unites the playful-kid scene with the work-party scene.
The narrator then senses tension in the air and perceives that his wife is trading side-glances with one of her co-workers, “a Greek with eyebrows and hair so thick they looked painted.” His suspicions escalate on the ride home.
I regarded the headlight-lit, winding road, certain now we were bound for a shadowy, unexplored country. I pictured jaguars and deep green vines.
Metaphors are tricky. If you try too hard, they come off cheesy and overworked. If you use them too often, it’s gimmicky. And if you sacrifice them altogether, you rob yourself of an effective prose technique. Gagnon’s smart. He threads “shadowy, unexplored country” with a follow-up metaphor of “jaguars and deep green vines.” This adds a distinct layer of richness to Gagnon’s prose. It’s also interesting how he embeds the word “now.” Consider how it changes the context of his sentence when the word “now” is removed.
I regarded the headlight-lit, winding road, certain we were bound …
This is an example of how one word makes a world of difference, even if it’s not immediately apparent (remember: good writers make it look easy). The word “now” tells us that there is finality in the narrator’s thought process—that he had suspicions that were validated at that moment. Before that moment, he was uncertain. But he is certain now.
Gagnon continues with I was drunk at the helm, in which the word “drunk” could have double meaning. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it works.
Then this perfectly placed, eloquent metaphor:
I saw in your eyes the cold ocean’s floor, and the Greek there, swimming ghostly amongst a hundred faceless others.
So, here is a man who is suspicious of his wife. But remember—we like him. When we’re introduced to the narrator, he is bouncing his son on his knee and telling him a whimsical story about his mother being an angel. At the company party, he makes jokes with the company COO and attempts to kid around with his wife. Imagine how different the story would be if our narrator were abusive, or an alcoholic, or a philanderer.
In 500 words, Gagnon has crafted an eloquent piece of fiction with a clear story arc and textured, three-dimensional characters. Not an easy task, but he makes it look effortless. That’s when you know it’s good.
Read Liar, by Kenneth Gagnon at Drunk Monkeys.
Erin Entrada Kelly has published more than 30 short stories and essays in publications worldwide. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Kelly was a 2011 Martha’s Vineyard Writer in Residence and a finalist for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel BLACKBIRD FLY will be released by HarperCollins/Greenwillow next month. She is also the author of HER NAME WAS FIDELA, a novella-length collection of flash fiction. Learn more at www.erinentradakelly.com.