Story Skeleton: The Bear Came Over the Mountain
I edit a lot of short stories for the Darling Axe, and I am sometimes asked if there is a difference in structure between the novel and the short story. There is no difference, in my opinion, except in terms of energy. The structure of a short story relies on the same framework as the novel. In the words of literary agent Hannah Sheppard, that breaks down to: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe).
But the space in which to make this happen is compressed and so, naturally, there should be a feeling of compressed energy. Less is unraveled and explained; more is left unsaid.
How exactly is this achieved? Only the most potent dialogue is necessary, scenes must multi-task—developing character, advancing arc, presenting effective imagery, and conveying theme all at once—and sentences should feel as though they contain stories within them. The short story, in other words, is a tightly pressed coil rather than a spring that has been allowed to expand, making clear its loops and spirals. It’s tricky work and makes the short story a potent, exhilarating form. The master at this is Alice Munro.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is one of Munro’s best known stories. It is, in short, about a love triangle between two men and one woman. This sounds simple, but the story is anything but. Let’s start by looking at the plot. Applying Hannah Sheppard’s pitch test, we could describe the story this way:
When Fiona’s dementia tests the strength of their marriage, Grant must decide what he is willing to sacrifice for her happiness.
But Munro never makes things easy. She is incredibly skilled at presenting the reader with a situation that can be read in multiple ways. Every character, every scene, even snippets of dialogue are coins with two faces: two people can read the same story and come out with very different, even opposing, ideas of it. For example, we might also describe the story as this:
When Fiona develops a relationship with another man in her nursing home, Grant must choose between preserving her for himself even if this pains her, or letting go of her completely so that she might be happy—though deluded.
Or even this:
When Fiona attempts to retaliate at Grant for his past disloyalties, she becomes confused by her own game; Grant must confront the mistakes he has made and decide whether to serve himself or serve Fiona before that choice is taken away from him completely.
Each of these is correct; each is the story seen through a slightly different lens. Munro purposefully layers contradictory perspectives in order to increase the energy. To explore this, let’s take a look at the arc and the complications in order to understand how this story can be interpreted in different ways—and, more importantly, how the tight space between those interpretations allows for a kind of charged, electric reading experience.
Narrative Arc and Complications
The story which skims along the surface is of Fiona and Grant, a couple married fifty years, facing Fiona’s slow, then sudden, decline into dementia.
We first learn of their early courtship (Fiona, from a somewhat eccentric, well-off family proposed to Grant, a man from a small town, less worldly but deeply attracted to her “spark of life”.) We learn also that Fiona likes to have fun with people—as in, she likes to tease or trick in a light-hearted, self-amusing, and harmless way. All of this happens on the first page and then we are transported to the narrative present, fifty years later, as the couple approaches the steep end of old age and Fiona’s slide into dementia.
They decide she must live in a nursing home for proper care, and learn that Grant is not allowed to visit her for the first thirty days. The month-long wait is agonizing for Grant; and as he waits, we learn about his past infidelities—affairs from his distant past, which it seems Fiona was at least peripherally aware of, though there was never any confrontation about them. We get the impression Fiona was a “good sport” about Grant’s unfaithfulness, ignoring or downplaying it for the sake of maintaining the peace, and love, between them.
Much of the undercurrent of the story is about Grant’s confusion about women and how waves of feminism in the 70s and 80s changed the nature of his affairs. Or, at least, how he felt about them. We can read this in different ways: He was a shameless philanderer who didn’t deserve Fiona; he is a man nearing the end of life, reflecting with great honesty on his past and coming to terms with the consequences of his actions; he is both a dishonest and loving husband who deeply respects and loves his wife, though he spent time in his younger years cheating on her with other women. The layers of complication here fold in on themselves, adding strong energy to the story.
Munro intensifies the energy by presenting complex, astonishing events (or plot points) that feel wholly believable and real. The event that lights the fuse of this story, transforming it into a rocket, is that, during Grant’s enforced thirty-day waiting period, Fiona develops a romantic relationship with another nursing home resident, Aubrey. Grant returns to visit her and—because Fiona appears not to remember Grant or anything of their life together—is forced to watch the new couple, Aubrey and Fiona, develop a strange bond.
But all may not be what it seems. Munro has planted clues for us in that opening first page to cause the reader to suspect that what is being presented is not simple fact. Remember: Fiona likes to have fun with people; she likes to play tricks. And then we learned that she was aware of Grant’s extramarital affairs—and yet never punished him for them. Never retaliated with her own affairs. Is it possible she is punishing him now? Using her dementia as a way in which to show Grant how it felt for her to once have observed him in relationships with other women, watching from the sidelines yet never able to intervene?
The plot twists further (more tight coils! More stored energy!) when Fiona’s boyfriend Aubrey is taken home by his wife, Marian. Fiona misses him painfully and falls into a deep depression. Her dementia intensifies. Suddenly, we are unsure whether she is playing a trick on Grant or if her game has, in fact, tricked her into believing she really did love Aubrey. Or perhaps she truly did all along.
Despite the heartache it causes him, Grant comes to realize that the only way to help Fiona get better is to return Aubrey to her. He appeals to Aubrey’s wife Marian to let Aubrey return to the nursing home for visits to see Fiona. But Marian refuses—at first. After an incredibly potent scene in which we get a lush though compact backstory for Marian, we watch Grant summon his rusty powers of seduction, believing that if he can woo Marian, she’ll give in and allow Aubrey to spend time with Fiona. Put bluntly, Grant is offering himself to Marian so that they can offer Aubrey to Fiona. Is this act despicable of Grant? Or noble? Is he simply a philanderer who can’t stop trying to seduce women? Or is he making the ultimate sacrifice for Fiona—willing to set aside his need to be with his wife in order to make her happy in her confused state, even if that happiness is with someone else?
The most electric part of the story is the ending. It is, in fact, a famous ending because of the power of its ambiguity. In terms of the love triangle, I can say (without giving anything away) that two people come together in the end and two people are forever parted. I’ve read the story six or seven times over as many years, and only on the seventh read did I feel certain about which ending Munro intends. I also felt certain, for the first time, about her intention to be unclear, and why she had that intention. Munro doesn’t create ambiguous, confounding endings for the heck of it; there’s always a purpose. I think the purpose here is to create even more energy; there is more energy in a story that is indirect and open to interpretation than in a story that is too clear. The closer these interpretations lie next to each other (or the more tightly pressed the coils), the stronger the energy.
And I think there is also always a degree to which Munro wants us to be confounded. She has a very careful hold on our uncertainty; she controls the dial. In this case, I believe she wants to leave us with a moderate amount of uncertainty—enough that we have to come back to the story but not so much that we’ll never know the truth. The truth is there in the lines, but Munro’s sentences are so tightly packed, so layered with meaning, that you have to work to decode them. There are no throwaway lines. So if you’re uncertain about something in her work, read each sentence as a clue, and eventually, you’ll have your answer. That kind of reading—the action of it, the investment of it, the intellectual and emotional engagement—is what makes this short story feel as alive and full as a novel. Her handling of each element—of folding it over and over on itself so that it contains many sides—is what infuses the story with a powerful energy.
Katie's first collection of short stories, titled Equipoise, was shortlisted for the 2018 HarperCollins | UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. She is the recipient of a 2019 and 2021 Canada Council for the Arts award, the Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction award, and was publisher-nominated for a Journey Prize as well as two National Magazine Awards in fiction. Katie is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and has worked on PRISM International’s editorial board. As a manuscript editor, she enjoys working with character, theme, and imagery.