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Olive Kitteridge exercises – part 2

As I wrote about here, Olive Kitteridge is both a wonderful book and a kick-ass instructional guide for fiction writers. I’ll continue here with a few more exercises based on things I think Strout does like a boss:

Two stories in one: In “Tulips,” we learn the story of the Larkin family as well as what happens to Henry Kitteridge after his stroke. How does the blending of two stories strengthen both narrative lines, and how does the larger (public) story help to shape the smaller (private) one? Write a story where you take a larger event–of national importance, or local importance–that affects many people and tell it beside a personal story that is unrelated but happening simultaneously. How does the public story help to shape the private one, or how does the private story inform the understanding of the public story for the character?

Character understanding: Oftentimes when we’re telling a story, we’re telling it to try and figure out just what it means or because there is mystery inside of it somewhere. In “Tulips,” on pages 145 and 157, Olive is trying to understand why her son doesn’t seem to like her very much, and while telling the story, the reader begins to understand even though she can’t see through to the truth. How can you lead the reader to understand what a character cannot?
Write a scene where the reader understands something the character telling the story doesn’t–a child telling their parent about an incident at school, a man telling a friend why his spouse has left him, a person fired from a job for no apparent reason.

Assumptions: People often aren’t what they seem, and not in the secret I’m-a-serial-killer way they (delightfully) would have us believe on Criminal Minds, but in that we are more multi-faceted than we give each other credit for. Strout constantly is turning characters on their ears in a way that is believable and in-sync to who they are but a surprise to those who know them. Look at the portrayal of Mary acting out of character on pg 160, or Marlene not just being a sweet, daft woman on pages 176-77.
Write a scene where someone upsets another person’s expectations, where they do something that isn’t out of character, but that reveals another facet of that character.

I hope these have been helpful, or if nothing else, will lead you back to read Olive Kitteridge again. Even writing these up, I’m tempted to take another look and discover all I’ve missed. If you have exercises of your own based on specific works by Strout or by other writers, let me know in the comments!

Olive Kitteridge exercises

I’ve long been a fan of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for about anyone who loves to read, and each time I read it, I’m struck once again by its wonderfulness. I’ve taught it a lot too–in short story writing classes, in novel writing classes. If I taught straight up lit classes more often, I’d use it there too. As such, I’ve put together quite a few fiction writing exercises around this book that I thought might be useful to others.

(I’m referencing the trade paperback edition.)

1) Inference: Look at pages 18 (longest paragraph), 31 (first paragraph, second section), and 100 (second half of page). Much is revealed, but little is actually said about what has happened, rather it is implied. This is a practice in suspense and subtlety. Write a scene where something has happened but that something isn’t actually said: a character lost a job, is putting a marriage back together after an infidelity, cheated on an exam, etc. How can you imply the action so it is understood by the reader without actually saying it, and what does the not saying reveal about the character?

2) Setting: Look at page 39 and the top of 40. In this scene, Strout uses the setting to further the conversation both by addressing it and using it as backdrop to mirror the current emotions. Write a scene where setting is used to deepen the meaning of a conversation between two characters.

3) Triangles in fiction: Read pages 116-118. Pay attention to how Olive’s allegiance changes throughout the scene from her husband to the boy. How does this happen? Why do triangles work so well in fiction? Write a scene with three people where two are aligned and there is an outsider that comes in and changes that alliance: A couple and a child, three friends but two are closer, two co-workers and their superior, etc.

4) Ambiguity: Strout does a lot of “telling” in her stories and does it brilliantly, but sometimes she relies wholly on action and leaves it to the reader to interpret. Students sometimes have a hard time with this, but I think she has some great examples for discussing the difference between ambiguity versus vagueness. With ambiguity you have different interpretations of the same action, while with vagueness, you’re left with no real interpretations and have to fill in the blanks about what has actually happened. Page 122 has a great example of a solid action left up to interpretation. Olive’s body doesn’t work the same anymore but does that mean she’s changed, she can’t return to “normal,” that the physical pain is a manifestation of the emotional? I don’t know for sure, but I know what’s happening to her body and can suggest evidence for all the readings. In this exercise, try writing a scene with solid action that can be interpreted multiple ways. What types of textual evidence do you need to supply? Do any of the readings contradict the others? In many ways, this is just “showing versus telling” taken up a notch.

I’ll have a second post soon with a few more.