Saturday, February 2, 2013

MAGNETIC DOGS: Relationships in Fiction

February is here—the month we celebrate ground hogs, presidents, and lovers. This also happens to be the first Saturday of the month, which means this is the week I post 99-word stories sent to me by writers who read my blog, “The Joy of Story.” My rules for their submissions:

Stories must be exactly 99 words long.
They must be real stories, which means something has to happen to someone. Stories must contain conflict in order to be stories.
The stories must be inspired by the assignment.

This month’s assignment was: Make up a story about a relationship that changed someone’s definition of the word “Love.”

You’ll find next month’s assignment at the end of this blog. But first, I hope you’ll read “Magnetic Dogs,” my essay about relationships in fiction, which is appropriate to Valentine’s month.

Then read and enjoy the good stories sent to me by fellow writers. (Confession: I included a story of my own this time.)

Then read next month’s assignment, and write me a story!


How to Write Fiction about Relationships
The relationship between lovers is perhaps the most common theme of fiction. It also accounts for a good share of movies, plays, and operas, and almost all popular songs. As for fiction, I can think of no other theme or category more popular. Love, for fiction writers and readers, and for almost everybody else, for that matter, makes the world go ’round.
It makes sense. We all come from coupling, and we all seek coupling or enjoy being coupled. We may enter this world alone, and we will departed it alone, but most of the time in between we're interested in, concerned with, often even obsessed by, the process of relationship. The world "love," by the way, can name a wide range of emotions, including its own opposite, hate.
I'll steer clear of defining the ideal relationship. Bookstore shelves are full of books that will tell you about successful relationship. If I knew how to make love work perfectly every time, I'd write one of those books and retire. But I don't know how to make love work right every time, or what makes a perfect, successful relationship. To tell you the truth, I don't think a perfectly happy relationship really exists, since any couple is made up of two less-than-perfect parts.
Furthermore, if a perfectly happy relationship did exist, it wouldn't make good fiction. Plot requires conflict, and fiction about relationship focuses on the flaws in the relationship. Conflict in relationship fiction, as in real-life relationships, can come in an inexhaustible variety of forms.
All of us have had relationships, or at least have dreamed of having relationships. Furthermore, we've all read countless stories about relationship; our culture is soaking with relationship plots. So there's no excuse for not being inspired to write about relationship. We all have plenty of experience and ideas to work with.
The challenge is to do something original. And being original is especially important in this arena.
Avoid clichés. Love is such a common experience, and fiction about love is so omnipresent in our culture, that we're tempted to rely on stereotypes and plot formulae. The lazy writer will use stale language ("heaving bosom," "pulsing manhood") or hackneyed situations ("My wife doesn't understand me." "You mean you're married?") or stock characters (boy next door, whore with a heart of gold), and count on the reader to fill in the blanks. If ever there were a place to remember to show rather than tell, it's in the well-explored realm of relationship fiction, where the challenge is to find something original to say or an original way to say it.
Here's an essential rule for being original: Respect your characters as individuals. They're not just symbols or stereotypes or caricatures; they're people. Your reader must meet and spend time with them, so make your characters different and memorable. This goes for the good guys and bad guys as well. If the woman is mean, make her mean in her own unique way; if she's kind, make it a special kindness we haven't seen before. And the more original they are, the realer they will be.
Among the ingredients of any good short story are the elements of choice and change. These requirements are especially important in the area of relationship fiction. The characters must make important choices, together and separately, and as a consequence of those choices, they will change as individuals and the relationship will change as well.
Since good fiction about relationship focuses on the problems in the relationship, the burning question is: can this marriage be saved? Will this couple make it? Will they fall apart and go separate ways? Will they be better off or worse off as a couple at the end of the story?
So the conflict in relationship fiction is not just between two lovers as adversaries, but between the couple and the circumstances.


This month’s guest writers, and their 99-word stories!

by June Kosier

I waited until 6 a.m. to call the intern. Interns need sleep but my dehydrated, elderly patient needed fluid.
He came and kindly spoke to the old vet as he competently reinserted the needle. When he was done, he held the man’s hand for a few minutes.
I fell in love with that intern at that instant. It didn’t hurt that he was good looking too. Then I noticed the gold wedding band. 
I got to know him better during the next year but then I let him go because I loved him and myself too much.


by Joseph M. Bonelli

In a Boston Office they first said, "Hello."
Crista worked on the ninth floor, Jack toiled one below.
They talked through business and laughed at lunch.
He was struck by her wit, charm, and beauty a bunch.
Jack wasn't available to do much more.
His longing for Crista he'd have to endure.
Her happy Valentine he could never be,
and soon she retired to Italy.
An ocean apart, he felt some relief;
then heard she married to his disbelief.
No Cupid's arrow took flight; Crista's far away in Rome.
Jack thinks of her each night, and forever dreams alone.


by Jerry Giammatteo

It was love at first sight. Sleek, beautiful and yet powerful at the same time. She was all that I could think of the entire year during fifth grade. I simply had to have her, but knew no means of doing so.
Time passed; days, months and years. I began to despair in my quest at winning her. In truth, I had about given up.
Now in seventh grade, I came home from baseball practice. “Look in the garage,” said Mom. I did, and there she finally stood. A gray, Schwinn ten-speed racing bike!
At last, she was mine.

by John M. Daniel

He cried again. My wife groaned, “My turn.”
“I’ll go. I’ve been awake since last time.”
I grumped to the night-lighted nursery and leaned over the crib to change the amonia-perfumed diaper, then held his sobbing body to my chest, resting in a rocker. I promised to protect him from the cold attacking his body, and from all life’s slings and arrows, if only he’d let me sleep.
Peace filled the room, the strongest feeling I’d ever known.
We both slept in the rocker that night. Next morning, I was the one with the cold, and no regrets.


by Toni Hallock-Betts

Jim and I played together as children. We grew up, fell romantically in love, married, and had one daughter, Sarah.
After eighteen years, his gruff manner and my ensuing depression led to a divorce.
We went our separate ways, until a new grandson brought us together.
Jim's angry manner still annoys me, yet his poor health worries me.
 It is because of a very different love called nostalgic affection; affection for that little boy I played with; for the man who shares precious memories of our extended families; and, of course, for the father of my favorite girl.

by Donna Weinheim

I passed a window of fat puppies bouncing and rolling over each other, unsteady on their feet.
Wouldn’t a puppy be the antidote to heart break?
I carried one little terrier home.
She went everywhere I did, listened to my fears, and loved me whether I gained a few pounds or dominated the remote. I was perfect in her brown velvet eyes.
One day she was just facing the wall, staring. She bumped into furniture. Then she was gone.
I cried. I never replaced her.
Inseparable for twenty years, I still miss Woody.
I don’t even remember his name.


Now for next month’s assignment.

In honor of the stormy month of March, the theme of next month’s stories is “Storm Warning.” Write a story with that theme, inspired by the illustration below.

Hint: your story doesn’t have to be about a tornado. It doesn’t even have to be about weather. A storm can be symbolic, or psychological. Have fun!

Again the rules:

1. Stories must be 99 words long.
2. Stories must be about the assigned theme.
3. Stories must be real stories, which means something happens to somebody, somebody changes; and stories need conflict.
4. One story per writer per month.
5. This month’s deadline: March 1.

Okay, here’s the picture:

Now, finally, a word from our sponsor:
This Blog, “The Joy of Story, is brought to you by
John M. Daniel Literary Services.


  1. Exactly. I'd say a relationship is essential to create a fully rounded character. Even a single person can pine for a relationship, or have one with a non-human such as a cat or dog, or even an object--like the kid and the bike in the 99 word story above.

  2. I agree, John. Relationship is as necessary to storytelling as it is to life itself.

  3. Ah, love! There are so many different kinds of love. My favorite 99 word story was yours, John: The Catcher in the Night.

    1. Thanks, Pat. I confess that's a favorite of mine, too.

  4. Enjoyed the stories. I'm too intimidated to try writing one that's 99 words, but I sure am impressed.

    1. I've seen your postcard-sized stories, Bill, and I'm sure you could pull off a fine tale in 99.

  5. Wonderful stories, and a good post. You hit on a lot of points about relationships that writers need to remember. No relationship is perfect, and probably most are nowhere near perfect. Write believable characters. :)
    Marja McGraw

    1. I agree, Marja. Believable characters are flawed, and so are believable relationships. Luckily, we adapt, and that way enjoy each other.

  6. Nice stories! Relationships are at the heart of what mystery/fiction writers do; otherwise, our work would just be a police report or documentary. Readers love stories for the characters. My WIP is all about various family relationships which is fun to writer. My pet peeve in stories is the "instant bedding" syndrome in which two people go to bed together almost as soon as they meet and the rest of the book is them staying apart. Whatever happened to getting to know somebody first?

  7. I agree with you about "instant bedding," Sally. In real life it tends to lead toward shallow relationships, and the same can be said for relationships in fiction.

  8. As usual, I found myself printing out your entire essay -- Magnetic Dogs this time -- for my personal use and for advice to students. Well done! I'm proud that some of my students are sending in stories; they'll receive your March prompt this week. I think the Posse members should buckle down and create 99-worders for you. Maybe you can run a contest - prize being, well, you decide!