Brief and Unsettling Writing Tips from George Saunders

George Saunders

George Saunders

George On Approaching Writing

I don’t believe at all in the Deep Dark Secret theory of literature: this idea that there is a right or a wrong about a given story or a given approach.  My own pathetic output is proof that, at least in my case, Mastery is totally elusive.  For me, every story is a whole new set of problems, expressed in a whole new language, plus my glasses are out of prescription, and its raining.  So I am a very humble writer and a very humble reader, flinchy even.

George On Confronting the Real Story

We all try to skip around the heart of the story.  It is a form of avoidance that all of us do.  I don’t know quite why, but I see it all the time – in my work and in the work of my students.  It’s very odd, and very universal.  Maybe it’s scary to really confront the heart of the story, because some part of us knows that if we blow that, we’ve blown the whole deal.  It’s like having a huge crush on someone and never telling them because you’re afraid you’ll be rejected.  Something like that.

George on Building Tension

Think about how much tension is built up in a good play, where we basically get no access to interior monologues at all.  How is that tension built?  We are made privy to the character’s desires, mostly via the actions they perform, or attempt to perform.  They are like people sitting on a stove: they want to change things.

George on the Interior Monologue

Now, in terms of interior monologue, and how to facilitate it, one technique that I learned while working on stories like “The Falls” and “The Barber’s Unhappiness” (not that these are any great examples, but they’re what I know) is to limit the character’s thoughts to 1) that which he could actually think in the time allotted between two framing actions and 2) that which he would naturally think, given the context.

So say Irving is going to walk to the refrigerator, take out the milk, and accidentally spill the milk on the floor.  We have to pace the inner monologue to be appropriate to the action.  Can he remember his entire childhood, in thoughtful literary language, between the table and the refrigerator?  He can, but if that’s your aim, why frame it with action?  Just tell that story.  If, on the other hand, you want to represent thought mixed with action (and I do think that is your aim here, and an appropriate one) then your goal is to mimic his thoughts in those six steps between table and refrigerator.  Now, our minds are wild, and a lot can be thought in a short time – but not an infinite amount.  Irving’s thoughts might go, very rapidly: milk…cow…farm…that time on my grandpa’s farm…a certain kind of pie they ate that night…that horrific night on which, after the pie, he’d caught grandpa with that sheep.  And suddenly Irving has arrived at the fridge.  “Irving, trembling, opened the fridge, and took out the milk.  The milk, the milk, oh God, he remembered the milk jugs that lined the barn that night, as he suddenly saw grandpa drop to one knee and propose to the sheep.  The heavy carton slipped out of Irving’s hand, and spilled on the floor.”  Do you see what I mean? The framing actions give tension to the thoughts, and the thoughts affect the framing actions, and the whole thing moves along pretty quickly.


It might be useful to think cinematically.  If we have a twenty-minute flashback framed by two banal actions – the natural thing might be to put the flashback in real time.  A woman remembers her wedding while making a sandwich.  Why do we need the sandwich?

And then a secondary principle might be that, within each narrative section, there needs to be some larger dramatic shape – somebody decides something, or witnesses something, or is somehow changed or nudged towards the thing that will happen in the next section.  (In other words, this should be true of the framing sections – the sandwich making).

George on Voice

This is perhaps a little trickier to discuss.  I guess the main question is: whose voice(s) are we hearing here?  Is the vocabulary, syntax, etc to be influenced by the character’s vocabulary and syntax?  There is no right or wrong answer – you the writer make the rules, then play within them.  And what gives us pleasure is 1) the extent to which we are clear on your rules, and 2) the fun you have playing within them.

I will here confess a preference: I like to see the character mimicked or reflected in the narrative voice.  I tried, in the two stories mentioned above, plus “Winky” – to have a 3rd person narrative voice that quickly – as quickly as I could manage it – gave way to a voice which, though still technically still 3rd person, was actually more of a 1st person  – a 3rd person that mimicked the character’s internalized voice – third-person ventriloquist, is how I thought of it.  Now this of course is not a universal – it’s just my preference.

Now, voice is very tricky.  These sorts of modulations can and do occur all the time.  Totally permissible.  In voice, anything is possible and permitted.  You have to go deeply into character’s heads.  What do they love?  What do they remember fondly?  Perhaps most importantly: How are their limitations mirrored in their voice?

A character’s intelligence and experience and fears and beliefs are all indicated by what he or she thinks about, and how he or she thinks about it.

For example, we can imagine the same scenario being narrated in two different ways, depending on what sort of person our character is:

Character 1:
Jack knew he was wrong.  He almost always was.  Even when he though he was right, no.  He was wrong.  Always he was wrong.  It sucked to always be wrong. Sometimes he felt like doing what he wanted even if it was wrong.  Like the time he smashed that window to get back at Jim.  He knew he was wrong to be mad at Jim.  And he knew smashing the window was wrong.  But he’d just done it, and it felt good.  That’s how he felt now.  He knew it was wrong to propose marriage to the sheep, but he was going to do it just the same.

Character 2:
Many might well ask, how could one, one such as himself – a man of taste, dignity, and exquisite good looks (God he loved the way his lower lip protruded)- lower himself to propose to a woman who – far from being beautiful, or sophisticated, or for that matter even human – was actually covered with coarse fur?  But those who might evince such a concern were at a distinct disadvantage relative to him, inasmuch as they were inferior to him, and could not see the situation in its entirety.  Her eyes, the grasslike smell of her breath, those soft, soft eyes – the heathens of the world could not be expected to understand.

The two characters – who want the same thing (the sheep) and are going to do the same thing (propose to it) are (clumsily) distinguished by diction, voice, degree of self-esteem, etc.

So my point is, stories can hinge on not only characters’ relationships- but also on characters being representatives of different human traits.  Or suites of different traits.  Voice is one way we might make this distinction.

From Wikipedia:

George Saunders (born December 2, 1958) is a New York Times bestselling American writer of short stories, essays, novellas and children’s books. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s and GQ, among other publications. He also contributed a weekly column, American Psyche, to the weekend magazine of The Guardian’s Saturday edition until October 2008.

A professor at Syracuse University, Saunders won the National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004, and second prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1997. His first story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award. In 2006 Saunders received a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2006 he won the World Fantasy Award for his short story “CommComm”. His story collection In Persuasion Nation was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2007.


7 thoughts on “Brief and Unsettling Writing Tips from George Saunders

  1. Pingback: Brief and Unsettling Writing Tips from George Saunders « the poet's billow

  2. I had never thought about voice in quite this way, and this explanation revealed a deeper aspect of it’s power to me. I’ve used it this way, but I was driving the car without understanding the mechanics, and it will be interesting to revisit my characters and see them more consciously.

  3. All but one of these fall under the heading of craft and are fairly easy to identify and learn if you’re willing to practice.

    Confronting the real heart of the story, the most difficult in this list, is my Achilles’ heel. I tend to start on a superficial note and write my way into the heart, as one of my former professors observed. Confronting the heart falls under the heading of voodoo, divining rods, and psychotherapy. It’s only when I get to the 5th or 10th revision that I start to feel something beating–and that’s if I’m lucky. Some authors don’t seem to have this issue. I envy them.

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