Layering: A look at Jennifer Weiner’s “Swim”

Flickr Creative Commons Benjamin Dunn
Flickr Creative Commons:Benjamin Dunn

And now for something completely different.  Instead of my explaining a single idea or craft point, I’d like us to look together at a complete short story, the way we would if we were in a classroom or a critique group.  I’ll give you my take on it, but I’m eager to know yours as well.  (I hope the comments section will grow enjoyably lively.)  I suspect there are things we can see looking at a story in its entirety that get missed in an article that focuses on a single aspect of writing.

The story is “Swim,” by Jennifer Weiner.  It’s available for free from both Kindle  and Nook.  If you don’t own either of the magic devices, you can download the story onto any computer using free Kindle software. If you’re pressed for time, I think you can follow most of what I say without reading the piece.  But it would be more fun if you did.

The first thing I noticed is how the story begins and ends with Caitlyn, giving the arc clearly-defined anchors at either end.  The shallow, image-conscious teenager we meet at the beginning – sporting glitter lipstick and writing the essays she thinks adults want to read — mirrors Ruth’s own psyche, trapped by the self-consciousness of her first party, freshman year of college.  It’s this self-consciousness she shares with Caitlyn that drives her away from screenwriting (and romance) and into the safe haven of coaching students with their college applications.  When Ruth finally sees the more complex Caitlyn at the end, caring for her younger brother (who has cerebral palsy) in the mall with no self-consciousness, she’s inspired to shed her own fears and be her true self.  Essentially, the arc of Ruth’s character growth is defined by the way Caitlyn’s meaning changes for her.  Even though Ruth’s transformation is left open ended – we don’t know whether she dates Gary or how it turns out — the Caitlyn bookends make the story feel finite and complete.

Weiner skillfully weaves the theme of reality vs. perception through the story in other ways as well.  There’s the contrast between Gary, who remains authentic even as he hires Ruth to revamp his generic online persona, and Rob, her co-worker at her former screenwriting job, whose wardrobe and car make it seem as if he doesn’t care how people perceive him but who betrays Ruth and turns out to be a fraud.  The contrast between reality and image even shows up in the pairing of the beloved but out-of-place suburban furniture in Ruth’s apartment and the ironic Barcalounger in the studio.  There are few people more aware of their image than those who create one ironically.

Weiner makes particularly good use of idiosyncratic yet plausible details to create her characters.  Ruth’s laying claim to the coffee shop’s power outlet and fighting off her co-caffinators tells us a lot about her.  Her grandmother’s mud masks and monthly thanksgiving meals are another telling detail.  Weiner is a deft hand with metaphor as well, with swimming standing in for Ruth’s withdrawal from the world, which is also woven in with Gary’s less than interesting online name, SWM.

So where, if anywhere, does the story go wrong?  Two places, I think, both of them involving slightly unfair manipulations of Weiner’s characters.  Caitlyn strays into stereotype at the beginning of the story, embodying most of the clichés of a vacuous, rich high schooler – glitter lipstick, ear piercings, turning every statement into a question, benign self-absorption.  These characteristics in themselves aren’t necessarily bad, especially as Weiner later suggests that Caitlyn developed the question habit while communicating with her brother, thus transforming the cliché into a serious character point.  But there are no hints at the beginning that there is more substance behind the vacuousness, so Catilyn’s transformation from Valley Girl to loving sister seems to come out of nowhere.

Then there’s Gary.  He is willing to approach Ruth cold in the coffee shop and keep talking to her despite her resistance.  And during the scenes at the mall, he is witty and personable, and apparently interested in Ruth.  So why is he still single?  The question grows even more pointed when his improved online profile apparently only hooks him up with freaks.  I suspect that Weiner needed a plausible romantic interest for Ruth, but also needed the cute initial meeting.  As a result, Gary is a little too good to be believed. Giving Gary a reason for his dating trouble – a recent divorce, perhaps, or some quirk that can later become endearing – would have made him a bit more plausible.

One final thought.  Notice how many things Weiner does at once.  The Barcalounger helps you picture the setting, reveals the mindset of the writers who work at the studio, and serves as a metaphor for a larger theme.  Caitlyn’s glitter lipstick is a sign of her empty conformity and of her love for her brother.  Nearly everything in the story works on two or three levels.

When you’re reading the usual tightly-focused advice articles that people like me write, it’s easy to forget how much every element of your story has to work on different layers.  This is especially true of a successful short story, where you have very little space in which to get a lot done.  But within novels, too, everything has to do everything at once.  Real life is not neat, with clear metaphors or convenient, telling details.  It’s often mysterious, with ordinary events meaning things we could never have realized at the time, or meaning several things at once.  If your readers sense that there are levels of meaning behind the ordinary, then your fiction is going to feel like real life.

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. Liz Tully says

    Thanks Dave! It’s so easy to be inspired by something you read (or hear on audio), but then to go back and analyze it is another skill set.

    I loved your mention of ‘idiosyncratic but plausible details’. I think that is the art of writing, weaving a realistic but interesting characters and plots. And it is probably what I find the most intimidating about finally finishing my first manuscript – the idea of having to go back and not only edit, but layer in the personal details and pieces of the plot that fill out the whole.

    Now I’m going to google a picture of a Barcalounger and get some glitter lipstick for inspiration.

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  2. says

    Without actually reading the story, it’s a bit hard to relate your advice but I do see your point of the layers of meaning behind the ordinary. So, Dave, you are saying that this layering needs to happen naturally from the characters themselves in order to be authentic? So this begins with character development first and then plays into the plot/story?

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    • says

      Actually, Paula, I think it’s even more complex than that. Much of the layering is rooted in the characters, since it involves what events, other characters, and objects mean. Ruth certainly became aware before the end of the story that swimming alone for hours meant that she was hiding herself away from life. But there are other meanings that the characters aren’t necessarily aware of. Ruth may never have seen the connection between the ironic Barcalounger and the honest dining table in her apartment, but that meaning is still there for readers.

      As to where to start, there’s no good answer to that. I think it’s more difficult to build a layered story starting from the perspective of plot (which is pretty linear by definition). But I can easily see someone more plot oriented working layers of meaning into a subplot or a plot twist.

      I think the danger is including elements of your story that only mean one thing. Scenes whose only purpose is to highlight a given character attribute or lay groundwork for an upcoming plot twist. If you have enough of those one-purpose elements, your story starts to feel a little contrived.

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  3. says

    Terrific article. I found it a bit ironic that I had just read a short piece on character arc on The Blood Red Pencil blog, then came to this, which was a nice in-depth complement to the other. We learn so much from studying other writing, and your evaluation of the story was insightful. I agree about Caitlyn being too stereotypical in the beginning. We all go with the stereotype – or close to it – in the beginning, but then have to go back and add some detail to add depth.

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  4. says

    dave, liked that you gave pros and cons in your review, makes for a much more interesting review –

    and esp liked your suggestions of how a character could have been rounded slightly, into a touch more believability –

    but esp liked the layering comments :

    “Real life is not neat, with clear metaphors or convenient, telling details. It’s often mysterious, with ordinary events meaning things we could never have realized at the time, or meaning several things at once.”

    some things, in my own work, i sense or see the layering right away, even in draft, yet other times, it’s in the re-pondering re-write that all kinds of stuff, uh, well, layers ;-)

    thanks so much, enjoyed!

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  5. says

    Wonderful review. As a short story writer, this is a constant struggle, cutting words without slicing off the layers. I do enjoy the challenge. I agonized over this very thing for the past two days, debating whether to delete an entire layer, but it was too close to my heart, so I reworked the story, making sure every scene is doing double and triple duty. I just popped that story in the mail to Highlights for their fiction contest.

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  6. says

    Thanks for an interesting article. It reminded me of teaching short stories in my high school English classes. How often I’d hear the question, Did the writer mean it? Not to get into the intentional fallacy issue, but I find such comments to be insulting to the writer’s craft, as if depth of thought, layers of meaning just pop out of nowhere with no effort. Perhaps this attitude reflected the students’ own resistance to revision.

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    • says

      While I agree, Christina, that layered meanings don’t show up in stories by accident, it is an open question as to how much conscious thought (as opposed to intuition) plays a part. I have had a couple of clients respond to my take on their manuscripts with, “Wow. I didn’t even know that was there.”

      In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni and I refer to an old Leonard Nimoy story. Nimoy was asked how he’d worked out the relationship between Kirk and Spock. He said he hadn’t. If he had, the relationship would never have been deeper than his calculations. By playing it intuitively, he opened up the possibility that it would be deeper than even he realized.

      I think that’s how you go about creating a multi-layered story. It helps to be aware that deeper levels can be there, to notice them in writers you admire, and to seep yourself in writers who do it well. But when you’re working on your own story or novel, the best way to find those layers is to focus on your characters and the story you’re telling, and let them develop by themselves.

      And if every you’re adding an element to your story that accomplishes one goal, and your instincts turn you in another direction, follow your instincts.

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  7. Betsi Palmer says

    I seem to be the only commenter who read the story first! As a short story writer myself (14 short-shorts sold to Woman’s World magazine) I found your analysis illuminating and useful. Even in an 800 word story, “layering” and adding telling details is essential to make the story come alive. In fact, it’s MORE important in such a brief story slice.

    I didn’t have a problem with Caitlyn being stereotyped at the beginning, but I DID question Gary’s lack of dating success from the very first, when Caitlyn found him attractive.

    Thank you for the heads-up on the free download — I’m going to share a link to this with my writing friends ASAP.

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  8. Bronwen Jones says

    Dave, thank you very much for that blog. I’ve written two novels (unpubbed) and am turning my mind to shorter fiction, so it was timely to see your post. I really get what you are saying. Thanks.

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  9. says

    I don’t want to read your post until I’ve had a chance to read the story, but wanted to insert my thanks for this initiative, Dave. I’m looking forward to chewing on something substantive.

    On another note, maybe we could talk you into leading a WU Book Club; you have so much spare time on your hands and I hate to see a mighty intellect go to waste. ;)

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  10. says

    From what I see of the reviews, this should have been called a prequel, not a short story. Isn’t a short story supposed to feel complete, while a prequel can leave readers hanging and wanting more?

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    • says

      That’s a point, Bettye. And Weiner was so take with the story (Ruth’s character, in particular) that she did turn it into a novel. But I think the story stands alone successfully. It is a bit open ended in that we don’t actually see Ruth dating Gary. But I think her review of her screenplay and refusal to work with Rob shows that she is coming out of her shell. And, as I say, by starting and ending the story with Caitlyn, Weiner gives a sense of finality despite the open-endedness.

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  11. Michael says

    Hi Dave,

    Great review. I read the story first, since I had the time. I found the early caitlyn a little cliche; it might have helped to hint a little at her depth. I guess she tried it with her comment about taking care of her little brother, but that came across as another example of her shallowness.

    I also found there was a lot of exposition in the story that seemed to be forced in too much. The background of her parents’ accident is what come to mind first.

    But great idea to review a story and then spark some discussion about it!

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  12. says

    Read it last night, and it’s interesting to read your comments as well as the others. I took away a different interpretation about the two major plot elements that are giving people trouble.

    First, I thought Caitlyn displayed a moment of vulnerability when she’d mentioned her brother and Ruth shut her down so…Ruthlessly. Remember she rushed out the door after, as if she’d noticed and deeply felt a rebuke? At the time, I wondered if there was something more to the story, and Ruth shut the door to hearing it out of envy and low self-esteem. It didn’t make sense to me that parents who appear so indulgent otherwise would force Caitlyn to babysit a younger child. Why not just employ a nanny and spare their princess?

    And Gary? I thought he was playing up the dating disasters as a way to prolong his contact with Ruth, make her laugh. He seemed like an astute character. I didn’t think for a second that he intended to buy the chihuahua.

    I LOVED the detail about the power outlets, thought that was telling. And I’m seeing I have work to do in my own fiction.

    Thanks, Dave. I love that you did this!

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  13. John Mahaffie says

    Interesting review and comments. Thanks everyone.

    I took the shallow, Valley Girl Caitlyn as what Ruth saw in her, i.e. filtered by Ruth. It seems likely that the Rob we are shown is also idealized and probably Dan too.

    I have to say that Rob rang false to me, and his scooting off with the TV star seemed more improbable than Dan needing Ruth or the freaks.

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  14. says

    You’ve got a point that all the characters are filtered through Ruth. But I’m not sure that Ruth is that unreliable as a narrator. Granted, she did miss the depth in Caitlyn, but given what she saw, I think her assessment of Caitlyn in the opening was justified.

    Of course your mileage may vary. Any other thoughts?

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