New Yorker, On Writing, Reviews, Writing

Blue Water Djinn – Téa Obreht – Structure of a Story

When I first started writing about short stories here, I intended to approach them more as a conversation on the craft of writing, and not a simple review of a story. Somewhere along the way I strayed from that intention. So in talking about “Blue Water Djinn” by Téa Obreht, I want to focus on the structure of this story for two reasons. One reason, is that I feel like structure is something young writers struggle with. The second reason is that in “Blue Water Djinn,” the structure is pretty simple and cleanly laid out. 

The story is written in present tense and starts out in the morning, when the boy climbs out of bed.  This choice is a clear and easy way to begin: consciousness, waking from a dream.  It sets up the following scenes throughout the day.  Three pages of prose follow as the boy and the hotel staff search for the Frenchman who has disappeared, but who’s clothes have been found on the beach.  This scene ends with a search through the Frenchman’s room (who is an amateur artist) and they discover that his colored pencils are missing.  

“But where are the pencils?” Mr. Hafez is saying as he lifts up the pages one by one and looks under them. Jack does not tell him.

Among the papers scattered on the bed is the picture of the turtle from the day before, green, sturdy, fat-necked.

We know that Jack, the boy, knows something and is withholding his knowledge from the search.  This pushes the reader on.  We want to know what Jack knows.  The image of the turtle sets up the next scene, which is a flashback to the previous morning, when a turtle is brought up onto the shore.  Imagine if this were a movie and the drawing of the turtle faded and came to life as the real turtle from the flashback sprung into action.  It’s a great transition.

The third scene is another flashback, but it has no definite time attached to it.  It fills in part of the story regarding the turtle, namely how its back became so scarred.  The fisherman, Fawad, says it’s from a shark, but in this scene Fawad mentions the water djinn and says how it is easier to blame something on a shark than to explain about the water djinn.  This scene foreshadows what is to come, and also sets up Jack’s obsession with the atoll where a shipwreck and the djinn reside.

In the fourth scene, we’re back in the present, and the search for the Frenchman continues.  As this scene ends, Jack is asked what happened to his scraped knee.  For that answer, we find ourselves in another flashback to the previous day, only this time it’s night, and Jack is unable to sleep and heads to the beach.  This fifth scene of the story is where we find out what Jack knows.  We see what he witnesses in the water, and hear the last words of the Frenchman.  Not only does Jack know what happened to the Frenchman, he also took one of the flippers.

All of this builds to the final scene, which takes place three days later when the body of the Frenchman is eventually found drifting out at sea. With the flipper he secreted away, Jack heads back to the beach after the wake is held for the dead man.  The tide is way out, and we see how things might have really occurred as Jack heads out to return to the flipper, either to the water djinn, or as a salve for his own cowardice.

If we were to assign an arbitrary day, the layout would look something like this:

1) Tuesday – Morning
2) Monday – Morning
3) Weeks Ago
4) Tuesday – Afternoon
5) Monday – Night

6) Friday