Plotting Short Fiction: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio

Vanessa Blakeslee
Jan 7 · 6 min read

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Photo by Sheri Hooley on Unsplash

As the paramount artistic intention of “Winesburg, Ohio” centers on revealing the inner lives of his characters in separate stories, each providing us with a uniquely focused perspective on a protagonist, so do the individual plot structures follow in a departure from the traditional dramatic approaches outlined first by Aristotle and modified later by Freytag. Such a departure must occur subsequent to Anderson’s choice to focus on character, causing him to structure the traditional elements in nonlinear places in the narrative or even eliminate certain elements. In “Hands” and “Sophistication,” Anderson shows an inciting incident first, delivering exposition more naturally by inserting relevant back story as needed throughout and developing the story in a less chronological manner, which allows each protagonist to reach a highly emotional moment of insight more organically and effectively.

“Hands” begins with Wing Biddlebaum walking nervously on his porch as the teenagers nearby tease him, first showing his status as a person of ridicule in Winesburg and inciting an obstacle immediately. Anderson then provides three sentences of background exposition on Wing in the next paragraph, only as much as we need to know for the moment, before returning to Wing on the porch, furthering Anderson’s choice to focus on character over an Aristotelian/Freytag plotline of starting with exposition before moving into action. For the next several paragraphs, Anderson weaves back and forth from describing the current situation to the secondary plot complication — the story of the hands. Anderson shows us the relationship between Wing and George in a flashback scene which builds to a point where Wing, inspired by his conversation with George, forgets his hands momentarily. In the climactic moment, the horror of his hands returns, and he hurries off and leaves George, ending the friendship. This informs us on Wing’s current state in the narrative moment: pacing the porch and pining for his loss of George.

George’s intrigue brings us into the falling action and the story of the hands, which Anderson’s omniscient narrator tells as a story in itself. The complications of the expositional back story given at this juncture create suspense as they reveal more about Wing, for the more we learn about his previous life the more fascinated, horrified and doubtful we become about the protagonist. The emotional build corresponds to Poe’s “singularity of effect,” for when we return to the narrative moment and Wing on the porch, our emotional state in relation to his character has changed to a much more complex one. The final image of the hands resonates and ends the story on a moment of emotional insight.

The framework of “Hands” keeps plot subordinate to character, for by starting and returning to the scene of Wing at home with his hands, immediate investment goes to character and contributes to plot unraveling as necessary, in order to create the most heightened, layered emotional insight. Had Anderson revealed the complete back story of Wing’s hands more chronologically, this effect would have depleted the suspense of the underlying tension in the climactic scene showing his friendship with George; indeed, the climactic moment of the story itself would have completely diminished in dramatic stakes. We would have known too much, too soon about Wing and thus lost interest and empathy for him in the obstacles he faces in the narrative moment, certainly the loss of George.

The plotline of “Sophistication” unfolds in a structure closer to the Aristotelian/Freytag model, yet Anderson still utilizes the order of dramatic elements selectively when he finds it necessary. Similar to his method in “Hands,” “Sophistication” begins in scene with immediate rising action and a focus on character, as George pushes through the crowds at the fair and anxiously questions if Helen White will see him. Only then does Anderson give us exposition on who George Willard is and his current condition. Character continues to remain the focus as another scene shows us Helen’s condition and obstacle. For the stakes to increase and rising action continue, Anderson must establish the emotional connection between the two characters, so he chooses to insert a brief flashback scene between two sections of exposition. Without this short but crucial scene, the emotional effect concluding the story would hardly carry the weight it does; we must see what the relevant connection has been in the past between George and Helen in order to sense the hope, loss and nostalgia evoked in the latter half of the story.

As Anderson builds the rising action of George and Helen escaping to the grand-stand, he continues interspersing the exposition throughout with sections such the one beginning, “In youth there are always two forces fighting in people.” During the scene in which the two characters sit underneath the grandstand, this interwoven exposition extends the scene and maximizes the effect of mounting suspense. Reaching the climax happens slowly, in a drawn-out moment, and Anderson skillfully continues to capture our intrigue afterward in the falling action. By building up the final scene of them turning from embarrassment to playfulness nearly moment-to-moment, he creates an emotionally layered, visual ending. Had Anderson given us too much exposition up front and rushed the scenes before, allowing the rising action and climax to occur too quickly, the “singularity of effect” would likely have not been reached. However philosophical the narrator’s final lines ring in “Sophistication,” Anderson’s sound, character-ordered choices pay off as the last scene concludes: “For some reason they could not have explained they both got from their silent evening together the thing they needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.”

Both “Hands” and “Sophistication” exemplify Anderson’s selective approach to the structuring of his plots throughout the collection, “Winesburg, Ohio.” The emotional resolutions of his “singularity of effect” depend vitally on his allowing the character focus to take precedence over principles of plot from the very beginning of his stories. In some such as “Hands,” his elliptical plotlines meander more obscurely, even haphazardly, while others like “Sophistication” are only slightly deviating from the Aristotelian/Freytag model, but the majority of choices Anderson makes are appropriate and resounding in his work as a whole.

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Vanessa Blakeslee (photo by Ashley Inguanta)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Short Stories (Gold), the 2019 IPPY Silver Medal for Short Story Fiction (Silver), the NIEA (Gold), and was a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick, among other accolades. Her debut novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015), was hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “tale of self-discovery and intense first love.” The book earned high praise from the Jewish Book Council, the LA Progressive, Bustle, Washington Independent Review of Books, the Rumpus, the SIBA Award/Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, to name a few. Her story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and optioned for a feature film. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, Publishers Weekly, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. She has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, Writers Omi, The Banff Centre, the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and many more. She teaches writing at Rollins College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project of Orlando, FL.

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