Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rebecca McClanahan's Selected List of Literary Gear Shift Moves

In her talk on Imagination and the Essay at AWP 2017, Rebecca McClanahan mentioned that she has a list of 72 (as I wrote it down) moves in creative nonfiction. After, in the audience Q&A, someone had asked to see that list. We thought that our readers too would appreciate that list, so asked for it, and she offers it here, with a note that it's a living document. Writers and students of writing may also want to consult Matthew Salesses' "57+ Moves in Contemporary Flash Fiction" and Mike Young & Elisa Gabbert's "Moves in Contemporary Poetry."


Selected List of Literary Gear Shift Moves

Created by Rebecca McClanahan

. . . narrate, describe, record, persuade, quote, document, ask a question, argue, inform, make a scene, weave, collide, list, sidewind, sidestep, skip a step, inventory, time travel, tell a tale within a tale, interview, meditate, speculate, ruminate, intrude, interrupt, deconstruct, reconstruct, reveal, talk back to an earlier self, talk back to your present self, interrogate, extrapolate, characterize, generalize, theorize, contextualize, summarize, rhapsodize, dramatize, imagine, rant, echo a word or phrase or sentence, use camera or editing moves (pull back for big view, zoom in for close-up, dissolve, cut, stop action, splice together, split screen, reverse, flip image, colorize, speed up or slow down, replay), employ negative space (What lies outside the frame of the subject? What is being omitted? What didn’t happen? What might have, should have, would have if only…), expand, shrink down, rewrite history, say it again in a different voice or a different rhythm, rewrite same scene in a different way, get inside characters’ thoughts, flesh out the bones, remove the bones so we see only the skeleton of the subject, don a mask, remove the mask you have worn, create or discover metaphor, mix a metaphor, switch pronouns (I, you, she, we, etc.), switch tenses, change tone, change audience, rewrite sentences in a different musical key (open vs. closed syllables, etc.), change rhythm of sentences, return to earlier statement and overturn it, create a visual disturbance on the page, mute one or more senses to create a description employing the remaining senses, start the piece over several times until you exhaust your original intent and find a more complex one…


  1. I challenged my graduate students to write a 300 word experiment in which they employed as many of these shifts as possible and used footnotes to identify them (the record was 15). I don't usually use prompts, but this turned out to be an incredibly effective exercise. Every student's writing experienced a significant shift in voice, rhythm, form, and playfulness. Thanks for posting and thanks to Rebecca McClanahan.

  2. Sweet. That does sound intensely fun!