Discussion/Writing Prompts

considering carver's "popular mechanics"

As writers committed to our craft, we are constantly looking at the work of accomplished writers to see how they do things. For this discussion, we will look at a very short story by Raymond Carver—to consider it generally, but also to it examine closely for Carver's handling of narrative time—"scene" in particular—and dialogue. Another task, dealing with narrative "stretch," follows the one below below to provide a study of contrasts. Complete these as directed by your instructor.

Task 1: Examining Scene

First, read the very short story by Raymond Carver entitled "Popular Mechanics." The preceding link will take you there. This story is almost all dialogue and completes itself in a single scene. The time it takes you to read the story is about the time it would actually take the scene to play out. This is, in fact, the definition of "scene" when we are talking about narrative duration. In scene real time equals narrative time. When you're done reading the story, try answering the following questions:

How does Carver's use of scene allow this tale to be so short? Could the same brevity be accomplished with, say, summary or some other narrative duration?

What can you learn from close examination of Carver's dialogue in this piece?

Raymond Carver thinks a short story should should have a sense of "threat" or "menace." He said the following:

[There should be] a tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.

And now the question: Do you sense a tension, a threat or menace, lurking throughout "Popular Mechanics"? How exactly would you say this is accomplished?

Task 2: Examining Stretch

While "Popular Mechanics" is an excellent example of the use of "scene," that is where real time equals narrative time, Proust's description of eating a small cookie in his Remembrance of Things Past is an excellent and oft-cited example of narrative "stretch" where real time is much less than narrative time. This is an interesting example for a point of contrast to the use of scene. Take a look by clicking the link above and then do one or more of the following in small groups, as directed by your instructor:

Simply comment on Proust's use of narrative stretch. When do you think it would be appropriate to use such a technique? When might you use it?

Try rewriting Carver's "Popular Mechanics" (or some small part of it) from a point-of-view and with narrative "stretch" instead of "scene." See what happens. This could be fun. Either rewrite as a group, or rewrite individually and share what you've done with the members of your group for comments.