Vitamins by Raymond Carver, 1983
The magic trick:
Setting up the story’s entire plot in only seven sentences
Much has been said about Carver’s brevity – whether it’s his own doing or fostered by some choice edits from Gordon Lish. Well, I’d throw “Vitamins” in as Example A when it comes to Carver’s ability to just get right down to brass tacks. He doesn’t use clichés like brass tacks, for starters, but let’s ignore that detail and get on with the magic trick.
Let’s look at the first paragraph. Seven periods. Three commas. That’s really all you need to know. Short sentences with no breaks. If you ever get stuck writing your story – particularly when it comes to exposition or just getting the narrative started – read the first paragraph of “Vitamins.” It lays out the start of the story in about 12 seconds of reading time. Now, trust me, this story has a lot of surprises in store for the reader following that opening paragraph. But the narrative momentum is moving from the very start. And that’s quite a trick on Carver’s part.
I had a job and Patti didn’t. I worked a few hours a night for the hospital. It was a nothing job. I did some work, signed the card for eight hours, went drinking with the nurses. After awhile, Patti wanted a job. She said she needed a job for her self-respect. So she started selling multiple vitamins door to door.