Badly Behaved Cephalopods: Why Perspective Matters

Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences by Madelyn Lemons, is a story from Periphery 55.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            A question I hear a lot about perspective in storytelling is, ‘when should an author choose the first-person perspective versus a third-person perspective?’  The best answer I can give is the story Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences from Perphery 55 by Madelyn Lemons.  Lemons’ story relies heavily on character narration.  The main character Jim’s internal monologue not only sets the scene, works to characterize every character we meet in the story, but is damn funny the entire time.  Few stories we receive at Periphery are so effortlessly comedic, but more importantly, use that comedy for a very specific purpose. 

            Take a look at the opening paragraph of the story.  Notice all that it does simply using character voice.  How would this scene have been different if it was narrated in the third person?

Be an octopus research scientist you said. It would be fun, you said. No no, they can’t steal things. Absolutely not. They don’t memorize night guard patterns and steal fish from other exhibits. They don’t open their tanks, slip their grubby tentacles out, reach into your candy drawer, and steal your Almond Joy. Not them. Dumb fish, yes they are.

Everything you need to know about the entire story you get from the opening paragraph, and all of it comes directly from the character’s voice.  It is Jim’s opinions about Lenny’s actions that matter here.  Lemons could have easily told us about how Lenny has escaped in the past and Jimi is made about having to find him.  A flat description here would have worked well enough.  By seeing those events through Jim’s eyes, however, the reader understands so much more about both the events and Jim as a character.  The reader knows that the protagonist is an Octopus research scientist who is bitter about their job and sardonic to a fault.  The reader knows the antagonist is a clever octopus who’s exploits not only show how intelligent he is, building up a persona and background for the story itself, but also are able to deeply characterize Jim, and show his crass nature.  Only by seeing the world through Jim’s eyes is so much content able to be put into simple descriptions. 

            Another great example of how Lemons is able to use descriptions to deeply characterize Jim is how she describes ‘Bill’: “I’m pretty sure his name isn’t actually “Bill the orange fish man” or even “Bill” at all, but I’ve never actually talked to him”  Like Jim, the reader still knows nothing about Bill, but hears all that Jim thinks about him.  The comments about Bill’s outfit, the mocking nickname, work to push the story forward while at the same time working to characterize both men.  These comments show the reader how judgmental Jim is in a much more powerful way than if Lemons were to simply tell us. 

            Lemons never has to say that Jim is judgmental, or angry, or well versed in octopi because the reader is able to understand that simply through the work Jim’s point of view does.  The odd phrases like “ugly yellow linoleum” or “I know his pissy eyes when I see them” show how bitter Jim is about his job, surroundings, and having to find Lenny.  Comments like “Octopus vulgaris” and “he’s a cephalopod without the ability to even perceive sound the way humans do” show how much Jim knows about taxonomy and octopi without Lemons having to spend time telling the reader these things.  Through character voice, Lemons is able to be incredibly efficient with her prose, having each line pull a lot of weight and tell the reader many things.  A telling aspect of the story is that the first time Jim speaks is six pages into the story.  We don’t hear a word from his mouth and yet we know so much about him.  By the time he does speak, his actions and motivations are clear to the reader. 

            So far I have glossed over just how funny Jim’s narration is, and I don’t that that is fair when talking about all that Jim’s perspective is and does.  The line, “Oh no, bad idea don’t do it danger zone he’ll eat you Jesus Christ Lenny’s one mean little bastard when he wants to be-” can only work in its breathless terror because it comes from Jim.  Even in this joke though, Lemons is moving the story forward.  The reader, just like Jim, is watching Bill try to wrangle Lenny, and through Jim’s perspective the reader gets more information about it. 

            Why then is Lemons’ Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences an answer to the question, ‘when should an author choose the first person perspective versus a third person perspective and why?’  Because the story doesn’t function without the character voice.  Every line in this story works in several ways either to describe the surroundings, characterize Jim, talk about Jim’s job, or characterize Lenny or Travis.  A story that relies so heavily on a character’s perspective demands to be told by it.  If a story does not, it shouldn’t be.  Madelyn Lemons shows us a wonderful example of that through Badly Behaved Cephalopods Lead to Amazing Occurrences

The Wolfhound: Why Syntax matters

            The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson, is a story from Periphery 47.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            Something I look for when reading through Periphery submissions isn’t just a good story.  More than a sold structure, a well paced narrative, or engaging characters, what I look for is how authors use the structure of language to communicate.  Because there is basically unlimited variance in how even a single sentence can be written, that level of detail can work incredibly hard for the story, if only the author pays attention.  To me, much of the elegance of writing is that because how one goes about creating a story is so open, each decision has the ability to become meaningful.  Decisions don’t all have to be painstakingly thought over, but authors can play tricks and layer meaning into even minute choices that are astonishing.  The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson from Periphery 47, is exemplary of that attention to detail, and just how hard syntax can work to tell a story. 

            Let’s say that you are narrating a character running a long distance.  How could sentence structure show the passing of time, and the scattered thoughts of the runner?  Take a look at how Nelson narrates Patrick’s run.  

Sixteen miles now, pound, pound. I’m fucking tired. I’m golden as shit. These are the kinds of thoughts that run through your mind when you run; crazy thoughts. The runner’s high starts deep into the run; you say the strangest things. You laugh but it’s casual. When you run the senseless things rise to the surface and take some sort of form before dissipating like the sweat from your skin evaporating into the air.

The short sentences that begin the paragraph bounce around from thought to thought.  They jar the reader with their quick change of subject, while also matching the pounding footstep-rhythm established in the first sentence.  The scattered thoughts both underscore how tired Patrick is, but also hint at the distance he has run between thoughts.  How much time passed between the start of mile sixteen, and Patrick imagining thoughts sweating from his skin?  If each sentence perfectly flowed into the next, one could easily assume that they were one right after the other: a continuous flow of thoughts.  That is not the case.  The jarring distance between thoughts easily translates to the distance Patrick has run. 

            Notice the breathless semicolons that connect thoughts that wouldn’t otherwise make a great deal of sense next to each other.  I love the simple description of runner’s high as “I’m golden as shit”.  It is nonsensical, and seemingly random, but perfectly encapsulating the fatigued thoughts of mile sixteen.  The comment feels like an inside joke Patrick has with himself, that only really becomes funny when exhaustion has overcome you.  You don’t have to run sixteen miles to understand the wild thoughts that beat through the fatigue of running.  The clipping sentences, each with different thoughts, show the reader how tired Patrick is beyond Nelson simply saying so. 

            Through syntax alone, Nelson underscores the point of both how far Patrick has run, as well as how tired he is.  Through choices the author made, not about the narrative, nor the character, he was able to convey meaning through the construction of language. 

            Another example that shows just how well Nelson makes his points through syntax is the second sentence in the story

My sister Donna had already awoken, and sat at the kitchen table, wearing her small eyeglasses and Cinderella pajamas, pretending to read the National Geographic and actually sipping at a cup of coffee.

Donna shouldn’t be drinking coffee.  She knows this, and Patrick knows this.  It is something she does with a little bit of pride and little bit of shame.  It isn’t hard to picture her hiding the coffee mug behind the pages of the National Geographic magazine.  Nelson never says any of this.  What he does say, however, comes from his construction of the sentence.  Just as Donna is hiding her habit from Patrick so too, is Nelson hiding his description of it from the reader. 

            The first clause of the sentence, an independent clause, stand alone, almost like a cursory glance from Patrick.  The longer he looks, the more he sees, starting with where Donna is sitting, what she is wearing, what she is pretending to be doing, and finally what she is actually doing.  Nelson hides what is actually happening, within the sentence itself, and by doing so, tells the reader so much more about Donna and Patrick as characters, and their relationship as siblings. 

            I was talking with a friend recently, when she off-handedly said that no one under twenty-five knows how to use a semi-colon, and that struck me as odd.  Not simply because semi-colons are rarely useful in 280 character tweets, but because they are another tool for a writer to use.  Not knowing how to use a semi-colon would be like an artist not using a specific color.  (Though Semi-colons are admittedly the color terracotta of grammatical tools).  It’s not that writer’s need to use them, but simply knowing about all of the choices that go into the writing process allows authors to make more meaningful decisions about language.  And making meaningful decisions about language is the most specific definition I have ever heard about the term ‘Literature’

Crisscross Applesauce: How to Pull Off a Plot Twist

            Crisscross Applesauce by Ashley Flaws is a story from Periphery 55 and can be found in the archives as well as the story of the week.  This post will be talking about how the story uses plot twists and foreshadowing.  If you have not read the story I would recommend that you do so before reading this.  You have been warned.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            Crisscross Applesauce is the kind of story that made an editor get up on a table and shout about when it was first discussed before the Periphery staff.  It is the kind of story that sucker punches you in the gut on the fourth page; M. Night Shyamalan would weep hot tears that this wasn’t his idea.  Beneath the talk of Barbies and triple scoops of ice cream lays something dark, and I love it for that.  What I want to talk about this week is how Crisscross Applesauce uses foreshadowing and why its plot twist works. 

            To me, the beauty of Crisscross Applesauce is how effortlessly it misdirects from the plot twist.  The quick succession of names on the first page of the story, of the girl’s Barbies, of the principle and school teacher, keeps a reader from focusing on the fact that you never get the main character’s name.  I didn’t realize the name is never given until much later in the editing process of edition 55 than I would like to admit.  That is how perfectly Crisscross Applesauce misdirects. 

            The most effective way Crisscross Applesauce misdirects is by framing the story from the perspective of a troubled child.  Details about a “Cool trick off the swing” to make her mother smile, or fantasizing about what it must be like to be seventeen, not only attach the reader to the main character, but stop them from picking up on what is really going on.  They also drown out the other details that could point the reader in the right direction like, “We have matching pigtails braids and the same pink dress on”  The framing also makes readers think differently of details that would otherwise hint at the twist.  Details such as how the twins have to “Talk really loud because Mom and Dad are yelling downstairs” makes the reader worry about the girls and their home life, long after it becomes apparent that her parents are yelling about her mental health.  As a first-time reader, I was much more concerned about the parent’s fight and how it affected the twins, than what the fight was about.  Flaws does a wonderful job of showing how much the fighting disturbs ‘the twins’ and making me care about that, rather than the hints put into the conversation. 

            From the first line of the story, the identity of the ‘twins’ is construed.  “I talk too much, that’s what my sister, Cali says”  The first thing the reader knows is not the name of the point-of-view character, but her sister.  Also From that line, the only thing the reader knows about the speaker, is what her sister thinks of her.  Immediately, the identity of both of characters is intertwined.  On top of that, little hints like how Flaws describes the girls playing with their dolls: “I saw him. He looked nice,” Cali makes Susie say” have an entirely different meaning when the main character makes Cali makes Susie say.  Early foreshadowing cements the twist in the story, making it seem more real and earned. 

            These details, of Cali crying and the speaker consoling her, become incredibly worrying, once the twist is revealed.  Most importantly, they don’t simply reframe the story in a new context, but shows the interiority of the main character.  That second point, of having a plot twist do something more than shock, is a key part of plot twists that is often forgotten.  A twist should be shocking, but it also should do something more than that.  Returning to our friend M. Night Shyamalan, the reason why the twist in The Sixth Sense is so good, is because it not only reframes the entire story, but the conversations between Cole and Malcolm show how Cole is caring about spirits, and gives insight into how Malcolm is unable to accept his own death  The twist gives great insight into both characters rather than simply shocking the viewer.  Crisscross Applesauce does the same thing.  Through Cali, the reader can understand how the main character is disturbed about her parents yelling.  The conversations between Cali and the main character show the internal resilience of a child, and how it can go wrong.  The twist also sheds light on a dysfunctional family, and how parents struggle to help their children. 

            Looking back at Crisscross Applesauce I wonder how many people figured out the twist before it was revealed.  I wonder if Flaws was laughing the whole time while writing this piece because she would be playing her reader like a fiddle.  I went from concerned to sympathetic to worried to horrified in the span of less than 1800 words. 

            Quentin Tarantino said in a 2005 interview about his movies, “I want to play you as an audience.  I want to be the conductor and you’re my orchestra.  There are sounds that I make you to make, and feelings I get you to feel, then I stop you from feeling those feelings, then I stop you from feeling that, and make you feel something else yet again.  If a director call pull that off, that is a real lucky audience member”  That is specifically what Flaws did in Crisscross Applesauce, and I’m still not over it. 

‘Japanese Woman’

This week’s blog post comes from Emily Albers, the Art Director for Periphery 57. She discusses the piece ‘Japanese Woman’ by Agnes Jung that was featured in Periphery 56. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

Artist Agnes Jung did not just deliver in her incredible line art and coloring for “Japanese Woman”, but in her ability to create a piece open to storytelling. 

What first caught my attention in this piece was the woman’s gaze. Unlike a traditional portrait, this woman is sitting very relaxed, with a look in her eye like she knows something the viewer doesn’t. Her traditional, red getup also juxtaposes the scenery around her, offset in blue. Her smirk and the bottles around her make me want to be in on the secret. 

From the artist’s bio:

Agnes Jung is attending an international school in Seoul, South Korea. Her inspiration comes from the people and places in her daily life. She also admires the director Wong Kar Wai and his use of color.

Looking at Jung’s work next to her favorite director’s work, I can see her inspiration. Kar Wai makes many artistic choices that reflect a similar atmosphere as “Japanese Woman”, such as block coloring and character posture.

I wanted to touch briefly on Jung because she is also one of several international submissions Periphery 56 received! We are incredibly excited that our Art and Literature Journal is reaching people all over the world. The fall submission window for Periphery 57 opens September 1st. We are so excited to see what you all send our way for the newest edition!

‘The Mulberry Tree’ Part 3

            This week I am so thrilled to unveil the once-lost ending of ‘The Mulberry Tree’.  Huge thanks to the author Kara McKeever for helping me be able to show off the ending of her wonderful story.  So without further ado, here is the original ending of the story:

It was Oscar who was sent to retrieve Elliot later, when his mother was ready to drive them all home. He ascended easily up to his cousin, wrapped an arm around him and started to climb down. Elliot fought him and gripped hard at the branch, but Oscar extricated him little by little and brought him closer to the base of the tree. Near the bottom, Elliot kicked furiously. His glasses were knocked from his head and Oscar accidentally crushed them scrabbling to yank Elliot from the trunk.

On the ground they separated, breathing heavily. Elliot had clutched the tree so hard that his hands bled from being torn away.

There was no one around outside when Oscar stood by the tree the next morning. His father had dropped him off at the house on his way to work, to see if he could help his grandfather. Oscar looked at the scratches Elliot had made in the trunk, and bent over to pick up a few pieces of Elliot’s broken lenses lying near the tree’s gnarled roots. Elliot was being taken to get new glasses that day. His eyes had looked smaller without them. Yesterday he had snatched the broken rims from the ground, and Oscar saw that he was sweating and trying not to cry.

Oscar went to get the weed cutter from the shed. Between this house and his cousins’ and his own, Oscar felt like he had been cutting grass all summer. He was actually looking forward to the hot, dry spell of late July and August when the lawn almost ceased to grow, even though the dried grass pricked bare feet.

He had long been aware of the ax hanging against the dark walls of the shed, shrouded in dust-laden cobwebs. Just looking at it had brought on a delicious sort of terror when he was smaller. But today he put the weed cutter back and for the first time reached for the ax, the rusted head heavier than he expected, the long wooden handle worn smooth. For a moment he had the ridiculous thought that it must be so old it wouldn’t work. The blade didn’t look especially sharp. But it could probably still do something. He hefted it in one hand and went back outside.

The mulberry tree’s dead branches swayed slightly, though there was only the smallest whisper of a breeze. There was almost more dead in the tree than alive, Oscar thought. He approached the trunk and studied the base, then put his hand in the hollow that used to be hard to reach. The inside felt damp and dirty—in fact, it really felt rotten, diseased. Oscar brushed his hand across his jeans, gripped the handle of the rusted ax, and swung.

Oscar knew that it was only a matter of time before the sound drew someone from the house. He moved the ax as hard and quickly as he could. And then his younger cousin Megan came around the side of the house and screamed.

“Hey, Meg,” he said, turning toward her.

“What are you doing?” she asked. He could tell that just the sight of the ax—so large and rarely used, present in tales of horror even little girls had heard—scared her.

Kate appeared around the corner, following Meg’s outcry.

“What are you doing?” she repeated, but with her horror directed at the tree. She rushed over to the trunk where Oscar had pounded a crack into the wood. It had been harder than he’d expected, but he thought that if he could get far enough inside the rotting flesh would be soft.

Kate knelt and touched the tree’s new wounds tenderly.

“Are you crazy?” she said in a quavering voice. “What’s wrong with you?”

Oscar stood and glared at her with the ax in her hand.

“What’s wrong with you, Kate? It’s a tree. Stop being a baby about it, and get out of the way.”

“You’re worse than Elliot. This is stupid—this is insane. Just leave it! What’s wrong with you?”

“Move, Kate!”

“There’s no way…”

Oscar swung the ax. Kate shrieked and jerked back, but Oscar had aimed above and to her left, into a crevice where the trunk split into branches.

Megan started to cry.

The look Kate gave him made Oscar wish it hadn’t seemed like he wanted to hit her. She took the younger girl and went quickly into the house. Oscar tried to pull the ax from the tree and realized it was stuck. He left it.

“Someone thought he’d do it the hard way today,” said one of Oscar’s uncles at supper that night. “The good old-fashioned ax.” He grinned over his hamburger.

Elliot noticed that Kate was barely eating, and that she glowered at Oscar across the table. He saw Oscar mouth the words “grow up” to her before pushing back his chair and taking his plate to the sink. Elliot had seen the ax sticking out of Mrs. Mulberry that evening through his new glasses. He thought it must have struck her heart. But the fact that it had gotten stuck there meant the wood hadn’t given way. That part of her, at least, was not sick.

Elliot set his sandwich on the floor for the cat.

Later Kate went out to the front porch to sit with arms folded and stare at the firefly-filled yard. Her parents were still talking with the other adults in the kitchen. Kate wanted to go home, but she was also afraid to leave, afraid that when she got back things would have changed before she was ready. Soft lamplight from the living room window lay in a distorted square beside her. After a little while she got up and went back in the house, entering the room with its single lamp glowing in the corner and the shag green carpet cushioning the floor.

“We have to cut down Mrs. Mulberry,” Kate told her grandmother while she slept. She could feel all the bones in her grandmother’s hand.

Kate wasn’t there when it happened. She was watching the kids at home while her mother was at her grandparents’. That evening their father picked them up and took them over to the house for supper. It had been a long day for everyone and supper was very late.

The door to the living room was shut and the adults gathered the children around the kitchen table with plates of spaghetti, before sitting down at the dining room table themselves.

“Sit by me, Kate,” her cousin Patrick insisted, so she had squeezed between him and Donald, scooting her chair as close as she could and elbowing gently for room to use her fork. It was only then that she realized the sun, bright and red in the west, was cutting across her eyes, obscuring the faces in front of her. She looked up through the window and straight into the sunset.

“Uncle Jim cut the tree down today,” Patrick announced to Kate, sitting on his knees on the wooden kitchen chair and stabbing his fork into his noodles.

“And Daddy. And Uncle Pete helped when he got off work. Uncle Jim had a chainsaw.”

“You shoulda heard it, it was loud!” Donald chimed in, and then reproduced the sound to his best ability until Kate shushed him and made him sit back down.

“He cut the big trunk and it crashed into the ground,” Patrick continued, smacking one arm onto the table. “Then he cut another one and it crashed into the ground! Then Daddy made me pick up the branches.”

“I picked ‘em up, too,” added Donald, looking pleased when Kate praised him.

Elliot’s lip trembled a moment. If only he had held on tighter. If only Oscar hadn’t been stronger than him. If only Mrs. Mulberry had never started rotting. If only they had all cared more. If only Kate had helped him. He glanced at his sister’s face, the sunset brushed pale over her cheeks. He watched as she urged the boys to eat their supper, to keep their restless bottoms on the kitchen chairs as they reenacted different moments of their day, watched as she gave an approving smile to the girls eating quietly across from her, their chins only inches above the tabletop. She seemed older all of a sudden.

Oscar got up to pull the kitchen curtain over. The sun was at an obnoxious slant, filling the room with a thick, red ray that illuminated dust swimming in the air and made it hard to see; Elliot looked bug-like with his lenses reflecting it. Oscar glanced outside, irritated suddenly that with the tree gone the sun would shine in this way. Even half-dead, even rotting, the tree had been useful. And it had been his grandmother’s tree. Quite unexpectedly, Oscar found himself remembering when he had first bent to pick up a fallen mulberry and had put it in his mouth. He had been very small, as it was one of his blurriest memories, and he had been holding his grandmother’s hand. He remembered her smiling and letting him feed her one. She had looked up and thanked the tree, and she had called it Mrs. Mulberry.

Oscar gripped the edge of the sink as he stared out past the clean-cut stump at the sunset. It shone on the faces of his cousins behind him and he ached that the tree was no longer there to block its brilliance.

But that, he thought after a moment, was maybe the wrong way to look at it.