This is no. 90 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Reading a story told in alternating periods of time can be comforting in its set expectation: We will move, with some regularity, forward and backward. This kind of story, a braided narrative, establishes propulsion in each sphere of time and supposes the eventual interaction or coalescence of its threads. While a large chunk of backstory can deaden a story set in an otherwise forward-moving present, I love how a story that doles out the past and its accompanying narrative present in equal measure can camouflage the narrator or protagonist’s desires, sustain tension, and ultimately, manipulate the trajectory of the story itself.
I first “discovered” the braided narrative more than a decade ago, after writing a draft of a story on a computer in a public library—an effort to shame myself into getting pages out. (He’s checking his phone again? I’d imagine some stranger judging.) I had, as I remember it, very painstakingly painted each brick as I laid it, sentence by sentence. When I went to e-mail the story to myself, it was nowhere on the desktop or server. Not hidden or minimized: It was gone. I ran home, flipped open the heavy lid of my black MacBook, and furiously reassembled the story from memory: A woman in a hotel overlooking the beach, three kids spearfishing in the water, pockets of blood lighting up in the tide. Her girlfriend. Strange nightmares. Her father’s wake.
In my rather manic redrafting process, I braided together distinct periods of time as I recalled them. I instinctually resequenced the narrative to accommodate each of its seemingly disparate threads—how the nightmares evolved during the woman’s stay at the hotel and the meaning of those children on that beach, out of which the character of a young girl confidently appeared in this draft. The threads had been called up in my memory as distinct but were thematically linked, with images and elements that gathered import as the story progressed. Failing to save what was almost certainly a mediocre draft became an invaluable lesson on structure and the managing of time in short fiction.
Of course there is no one perfect form, and despite the braided narrative’s serious versatility, it cannot always be deployed or imposed successfully. But as I found years later, the hyperartifice of the structure can be an effective way to play with how a liar manages, or manufactures, their own story, a fascination that guided me as I wrote the stories that eventually became my debut collection. My unreliable narrators and protagonists sang on the page with an urgency to tell their own story that implied an honesty their histories and relationships, often unfurling in a past sequence, called into question.
Despite that fateful day, I now save my work very carefully and often. But it still is an effective exercise, painful to entertain as it is simple: Rewrite the story from memory. From heart. Go.
Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.Thumbnail: Daniele Franchi