That Hidden Second Story

I’m back on the beat as the fiction editor of Ninth Letter, after a hiatus as the nonfiction editor and as an “editor-at-large” for the magazine’s website. I have to say, it’s good to be back.

Recently we had an editorial meeting about a story that the assistant editors liked enough to “bring to table” –a final meeting in which we make a decision about acceptance or rejection.

The story in question had many strengths, and it was obvious why we were now giving it serious consideration. But something was missing, we all felt this, and instead we decided to write a letter encouraging the author to send us more work, perhaps even try us again with a revision of what we’d just passed on.

So what was missing?

My long-ago writing mentor, the extraordinary fiction writer and poet Grace Paley, might have said that the second story was missing. In workshops, all those years ago when I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, she would often observe that any single short story was really two stories: the one on the page, and the one behind or beneath it that the words on the page pointed to. Discovering this is not easy. To quote Grace Paley again (now from one of her stories), “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”

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So what is this mysterious second story?

I’ll give an example from a short story I recently taught, Ann Beattie’s “The Burning House.” A dinner party is described in a seemingly roundabout, even random manner, gossip is shared, mud is tracked in the house by a dog, dishes are washed, a child’s sleepover is negotiated by phone, a guest arrives late. No house actually burns down. But as the evening and the story proceed, it becomes clear that the family hosting this party is indeed “burning down,” heading toward an inevitable end game, and that the various dinner guests are in the midst of their own invisible flames. The author doesn’t need to overtly point this out for a reader to see the conflagration of the second story that has slowly revealed itself.

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As I tell my students, often a first draft offers little or no sign of that second story. The author might not yet fully suspect what’s hiding behind the plot, what secret motivations are fueling the characters’ complications and the story’s nascent energy. In that first draft (and, sometimes sadly, many more drafts after that!) you’ve made it inside the story you’ll eventually finish, but you’re only in the foyer. It may actually be a nicely decorated foyer, but you don’t want to mistake it for the entire building. If, during revision, you merely concentrate on shifting word choices, honing physical description, even sculpting a scene a bit better, you will keep that story stuck in the entryway. Don’t necessarily try to fix what is already there on the page, try instead to suss out what is waiting to be discovered. For instance, why has a young man become a kind of second son to his boss, and just how strong or fragile is that unspoken fictive kinship?

To quote Grace Paley once more, “You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” In this way, you take your first true steps out of the original conception of your story and you begin to exit the foyer. And just in time, too. There’s a staircase that awaits you, and a hallway that leads you to a closed door.

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What’s on the other side of that door on the first floor? Your main character’s fear, perhaps, of a possible future abandonment in her final years.

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And at the top of the stairs? Another room, where a character dreams a dream so intense he doesn’t know you’ve opened the door and entered.

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But you linger only briefly. There’s so much more, you now realize, to explore elsewhere.

*

Related posts you might enjoy:
Welcome to a Hidden World
The Hidden Face

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  • 4 Comments

    1. Rimas says:

      Nice piece and a new way to look at work. I wonder now if these extra layers – the second story (and possibly even a third or fourth) – are more present in short stories rather than in novels. Or, if in novels many second stories flit in and out of existence…

    2. admin says:

      Thanks, Rimas, and what a question you pose about the hidden layer in a novel, as opposed to a story. I’d say, having written both, that a novel has an overarching second story, a kind of theme, I suppose it could be called, and over the long course of writing an author has more opportunity to find variations and elaborations of that theme . . . and a novel could certainly hold more than one such “theme,” and make their opposition, perhaps, a form of the developing structure.

    3. Ellen says:

      Thanks, Philip. Would you liken this to Vivian Gornick’s “situation” and “story” in an essay?

    4. admin says:

      Yes, Ellen, a perfect analogy. Both genres have similar ways of moving from 2D to 3D . . .

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