Friday, March 03, 2006

The Fiction Machine

I read a couple of stories today by Tim Gautreaux, a Louisiana writer whose "Welding with Children" appeared in the Best American Short Stories 1998 anthology.

Gautreaux writes about Louisiana with a fine ear and eye, as well as a sense of humor that never escapes his control. But these two stories that I read today, "The Piano Tuner" and "Same Place, Same Things," remind me of something called The Fiction Machine. I first heard of this from Justin Cronin; I don't know if the term originated with him.

The Fiction Machine is a game, of sorts, for generating new story ideas. Something to play with when you're dry. It works like this. On one set of index cards, write two- or three-word descriptions of potential characters, e.g., The First Baseman, The Minister's Daughter, The Taxi Driver. On another set of index cards, write a brief predicate. Something concrete, something visual, nothing too complicated. One of Cronin's favorites is "let down her hair." Other examples might be "called the dog" or "turned to the sports page" or "tried to remember the name of his first wife" or even something more static, like "was excited" or "was confused." Then shuffle your cards and draw a card randomly from each stack and use the result as your first sentence. With any luck you might get "The first baseman tried to remember the name of his first wife" or "The minister's daughter turned to the sports page." Or maybe "The taxi driver let down his hair."

The Gautreaux stories open as follows:

"The phone rang Monday morning while the piano tuner was shaving, and he nicked himself." --"The Piano Tuner

"The pump repairman was cautious." --"Same Place, Same Things"

Obviously, once you have your Fiction Machine sentence, you may embellish it. "The piano tuner nicked himself shaving" becomes Gautreaux's great first sentence above. This is a great first sentence. First, it starts with the old-but-never-tiresome trick of starting with a phone call. This always works, in the same way that the arrival of a mysterious letter or package always works: we readers are like Pavlovian dogs, responding with eager anticipation. Who is it? What's in the package? The sentence then introduces the protagonist, always a good idea, and as "the piano tuner," an interesting occupation, made more interesting because we see him not in the act of tuning a piano, but in another, more mundane act: shaving (it's the combination that works). Finally, he nicks himself. This is another little trick that works time and again: inflict some minor injury on the protagonist in the first paragraph to win the reader's sympathy.

Don't scorn the Fiction Machine just because you think it's a trick or leads to formulaic stories. It can be a great way to get launched, and besides, it only gives you the first sentence.

I leave you with a line from "The Piano Tuner," part of a description of a messy kitchen, that was not produced by the Fiction Machine:

"The cabinets looked as though someone had thrown the pots into them from across the room."

So there you go. Combine one from column A with one from column B, mix in a line like that, and you've got a story.