The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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When I’m working on a new novel, I try to turn to old favorites to mine for examples of what I’m trying to do. Brian Evenson’s Immobility is one of those, for me. Today we’ll be examining a scene that’s doing something I’m attempting in the WIP–using a simple setting as an obstacle for a character. As much as possible, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

When you want to have a character alone in a room, interacting with a setting, building stakes and conflict, how can you maintain that for an entire scene? In what ways can settings and characters interact to create forward momentum in a plot? 

I’ve tried this in the past, and whenever I go back to the scene, it always seems to be mostly internal monologue, and it gets a tad redundant the longer the scene goes on. So I went back to a novel I enjoyed a lot a while ago that, at least in my head, had a lot of these moments. 

The Story:

Although I’m a huge fan of all of Evenson’s work, I think that Immobility likely would has the broadest appeal to genre readers. It’s set in a post atomic-apocalyptic world and has a huge backbone of mystery, and a culture more or less foreign to us. One of the things that floored me about it was how the author maintains a sense of suspense and kept my interest despite its rather simple plot, and one of the ways that was accomplished was by allowing the main character’s physical handicap to create obstacles out of rather simple things–in the novel, he simply has to travel a few miles without any mechanical form of transportation. Main trouble being, he can’t walk. 

In that context, the setting of the book becomes a concrete obstacle–it becomes physical in the same way a well-drawn villain does. You’ll see one of the more direct moments of this in the excerpt below:

     The Tunnel was wide and high, rounded at the top, and continued back for what seemed to Horkai, pulling himself forward by his hands, a very long way. It ran deep into the mountain. The stone floor was cool and had been cut straight and polished. It was dusty, but other than that seemed to have suffered no damage. 
     The hall continued straight back, curving not at all. Every ten yards or so, the light that was now behind him would click off and a light in front of him would click on. He counted six lights before he saw, just beyond the sixth one, a thick metal door, like a door to a vault. 
     He knocked on it, but his knuckles hardly made a sound. HE looked around for something to strike it with but found nothing. 
     What now? he wondered. 
     He sat there for a little while, staring at the door, gathering his breath. Finally he struck the door again, slapping it with his open palm this time. The noise it made was only slightly louder. 
     The light above him went out and he was plunged into darkness. Briefly he was seized by panic, his heart rising in his throat, but the light came immediately back on when he began to wave his arms. 
     He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello!” he yelled as loud as he could. “Let me in!” 
     The noise resonated up and down the shaft of the hall, but there was no sign he had been heard. 
     What now? he wondered again. Should he crawl back down the hall and out again, find the mules, get them to open another gate for him? And if that didn’t work, would they go on to the next, and then to the final one? And what if that one didn’t open either? 
     He pulled himself over until he was leaning against the wall. 
     And what if I’ve been sent on a wild goose chase? he wondered. What if Rasmus was wrong about what is actually here? What if someone was here but now they’re gone? 
    But that wouldn’t explain the redone road signs, unless whoever had done them had left recently. Even if they had left recently, it wouldn’t explain the plants they had seen–freshly watered, not even a day ago. No, someone was somewhere nearby. And with a little luck, they were here. 
He cupped his hands around his mouth again, yelled anew. His voice echoed up and down the hall, but again there was no sign that anyone on the other side of the door had heard. 
     He stayed there, wondering how long he should wait. He was still wondering, when the light switched off again. 
    This time, frustrated, he didn’t bother to wave his arms, just lit it stay dark. 
     There was a hint of something else other than darkness from the far end of the tunnel, the opening out in the night, where the sky was not completely dark but fading fast. There was something else, too, he realized as his eyes adjusted, a strange tint to the darkness around him, not enough to help him see, but something keeping it from being completely dark. He cast his eyes around, looking for whatever it might be, but saw nothing, no crack under or to the side of the door, nothing on the floor or the walls. But it was still there nonetheless, puzzling him. 
     And then suddenly it struck him. He looked all the way up, at the ceiling, and saw there, above his head, a small red light. 
     He clapped his hands once and when the light came on saw ,on the wall above him, a small camera. AS he watched, it made a slight whirring sound, angling differently, looking for something. Looking, he realized, for him. 
     He knuckled across the floor and to the other side of the hall, where the camera could see him. It whirred for a little longer as it tracked past him. He stared at it, one hand lifted in greeting. Suddenly it stopped, moved to point directly at him. 
    “Hello,” he said to the camera. “Can you hear me?” 
     The camera didn’t move. He turned to determine if it possessed a microphone or speakers, but saw no evidence of either. Feeling helpless, he raised his hands high above his head as if surrendering, then gestured at the door. 
     Immediately he heard a thunking sound and the door loosened in its frame. As he watched, it swung open a few inches, then stopped. Because of where he was in the hall, all he could see was the door itself, not what lay behind. 
(pg 113 – 115) 

The Solution: 

In this small excerpt, there are quite a few tricks to pick up. It’s not a long scene (certainly not as long as the one I’m planning, and maybe that’s a signal to me), but the action here is slow, even slower than most of the action lead up to it, and it’s methodical. Four main takeaways: 

  1. The setting acts very similarly to a character-based obstacle. It has a mind of its own, and after each attempt of Horkai’s to overcome it, it is given a moment to react. The resounding silences, the lights going on and off, the movement of the camera. It’s acting very much like an adversarial ally, because while it’s not working at exactly crossed purposes with him (he wants to be found and it, being half security system, wants to find him) but largely the conflict comes through the incompetence of the system and the mystery/suspense of who controls it. 
  2. Horkai begins with the most obvious of attempts–knocking. And from there he moves to less obvious stuff until it finally demands a discovery (the camera) before the obstacle can be overcome. It’s important, for this part, to know the layout of the setting, to have a good sense of where everything is, excepting the one detail. 
  3. The failures only last a paragraph or two. Horkai makes an attempt, gets a reaction from the setting, then regroups and tries again. By far the longest attempt is the final, successful one, which is not immediately successful but does end up paying off. 
  4. The failed attempts build to make sense of the setting, to teach us how this puzzle works. Knocking won’t work (it’s too quiet) and slapping won’t either (still too quiet) but movement does something (there is a motion sensor). This all leads up to the camera being obvious in hindsight, a kind of foreshadowing. Once he discovers the camera you think duh, it’s a security door. Why didn’t i think to look for a camera?

There’s a simplicity and clarity to this conflict that captivates, although it also helps that it’s at the breaking point for one of the biggest mysteries of the book: Horkai’s true identity. That has to be what gives this scene its sense of stakes. 

Finally:

Keep it simple. Treat the setting as an opposing force, trying to get a word in edgewise. Understand the relationship between your character and that setting: does it want–is it designed to–help them get what they want but need help to do so (yes, but) or does it exist to stand in the way of what your character wants (no, and). For an inanimate obstacle to take on the suspense of a living one, it’s important to consider these things. 

How do you maintain a conflict between character and setting? Any major examples you can think of? Do you notice any tips that I’ve missed from the excerpt above? 

Thanks for reading!

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When I read Harrison Squared, what impressed me most (at least technically) was how detailed the blocking of character action was always clear where each character was in a space, and where important objects were in relation to them, no matter how fast the action was moving. When I got to chapter 21, I was even more blown away when I was able to track the location of a huge field of action, and that’s what I want to discuss today. Careful for some spoilers. I’ll try to keep the excerpts light to avoid them, but it is fairly late in the novel. 

The Problem: 

It’s hard to know when you’re accurately depicting the choreography of an action scene. You can picture it all in your head, you know where everyone is, so the biggest challenge is being sure that your vision makes it to the page. In looking for some tricks to master this, I turned to a published example. 

The Story: 

Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared is a young adult Lovecraft novel with a special flare for adventure. It’s a quick and enjoyable read, and isn’t too dark–although some of the monster POV scenes can get there. It’s a sequel to his award winning novella We Are All Completely Fine, which was one of my favorites of 2015, and there are a few more books in the series on their way. 

What I loved about this big battle scene toward the end of the novel was that I never felt lost. I could always track where the character was, and the narrator seemed keenly aware of when I’d need a reminder. All this is done with simple and subtle tricks. 

The Solution: 

It really is quite simple and eloquent: there are 2 methods that Daryl is using to keep us in the know. 

1. Solid Setup 

The story takes its time to orient us to the field of action. No need to rush into the events when a reader won’t be able to follow what’s going on. Check out this excerpt: 

      “Suddenly the wind roared, and the Muninn spun like a toy boat above a bathtub drain. I was thrown to my knees.
      The Scrimshander lunged at Hallgrimsson and batted aside the trident. The two of them crashed to the deck. Hallgrimsson yelled, ‘Run, Harrison!’
      I jumped to my feet and ran, skidding and swaying, to the other side of the boat. Lydia stepped out of the other side of the pilothouse, the wind whipping her hair, and pointed.
     The water under the cloud break seemed to boil, churning with white tops. The Muninn was caught in the outer rim of a huge whirlpool, circling at great speed and rotating at the same time, like a spinning planet caught in the orbit of a sun. 
     The center of the whirlpool was a circle of smooth water like the center of a roulette wheel. The raft floated in that eddy, spinning slowly . . .  The Albatross was stationed well back from the whirlpool, Montooth standing at the bow. But that wasn’t what she was pointing at . . . The Muninn spun like a compass dial. I hung on, and then the raft appeared, perhaps a hundred yards in front of us” (291-292)

This setup involves two things of note. For one, descriptive metaphors that take this large battlefield and give it a meaningful, consistent image. He uses metaphors of scale, one small (a toy boat circling a drain) and one enormous (a spinning planet orbiting the sun) and what i notice is that these metaphors are essentially creating the exact same image, except the first begins with a scale we can fathom, and then the second expands that scale into a huge one, giving a sense of the immensity of the field on which this scene will take place. 

The second activity in this segment is the creation of monuments that you can imagine in various places in this orbit or around this drain. There’s the Muninn and the Albatross, the raft and the glassy center of the whirlpool, as well as the whirlpool itself. Being able to paste these monuments onto the metaphors above is key to tracking the events in the following scene. 

2. Use the Monuments as Touchstones

The action largely oscillates between “big” events and “small” events, switching from the macro choreography of whirlpools and boats, to the personal tale of Harrison struggling to get to his mother. When we emerge from these moments, often rising up from underwater, Daryl returns to these monuments to show us where we are (how far from the raft, how far from the Muninn), as well as to track the passage of time (the Munnin swirling back around the pool). Consider the following excerpts, only three of such moments: 

     “I tried to take a breath, but my chest had seized up. My jaw felt like ti was trying to grind my teeth to nubs. I pawed at my chest and was relieved to find the knife still there.
     A wave carried me up, and I looked around frantically. The Muninn was less than ten feet from me. Then I spotted the raft, much farther away. . .” (293). 
     
     “A thrill ran through me, a hot jolt of energy better than Aunt Sel’s tea. I turned about, spotted the patch of clear air. When the next wave came, I dove into it. I kicked hard with my meat leg, and then the buoyancy of the vest pulled me to the surface
     Swim. Don’t think. 
     Some time later I realized that the wind has ceased howling. I stopped and treaded water. The surface was a s glassy as a lake, and the raft was only fifty feet away” (296). 

     “I got to my knees, scanning the water. The raft still stood in the center of a glassy lake. The Muninn still orbited at the edge of the whirlpool . . . Behind them, safely outside the whirlpool, was the white bulk of the Albatross. I could see a huge figure on its frond deck” (299).

These two strategies work in congress to produce an obvious-in-hindsight but invisible-in-situ effect that left me feeling total clarity and increasingly impressed. I’ll definitely be stealing this going forward. 

Finally: 

Be methodical, be obvious. What may not appear to be a smooth strategy on the surface could very well pass unnoticed when readers are knee deep in the climax of your novel. Part of the genius of this strategy is how close it comes to simulating how we orient ourselves in real life. Consider a time when you passed onto a busy street, the light so bright you couldn’t see your surroundings at first. As your eyes adjust, you look for some touchstone that can guide your way, tell you how long you have to go.

That’s exactly how Harrison is colliding with his antagonists in this scene. 

Do you have any tricks for managing huge scenes of battle? Any particular stories or moments come to mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and whether you think I missed anything at all. 

Thanks for reading!

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Years ago, when I first read One Hundred Years of  Solitude, the first chapter blew me away. It’s a book that is hard to get into at first, but once I’d made it through the first chapter I was hooked. I wanted to take a look at what that first chapter is doing structurally–in the same vein as my discussion of Canticle for Leibowitz from last week. As much as possible–I’ll have to avoid discussing too much how this chapter connects to larger themes of the book–spoilers will be avoided. 

The Problem: 

Again–novels. Chapter structure is an odd thing, and it seems like it differs a lot from book to book. So I wanted to take a look at a second example, one that I think most people would find to be a quite different novel, to dig a little deeper. This will also be an examination of what this first chapter is doing. 

The Story: 

I’ve never read another book like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even Marquez’s other work, which I’ve also enjoyed, comes close to the brilliant experimentation taking place in this novel. They also don’t come close to matching the depth and breadth displayed here. Even the works of Allende and Borges, contemporaries said to be writing in the same subgenre, don’t really compare. It’s not, by any means, a fast-paced thriller, but it is profound and fascinating and reading it feels like steeping yourself in someone else’s mind. 

Probably the closest reading experience is Kafka, which I think is what Marquez intended. 

Anyway, enough drooling! The first chapter of this book is enlightening for its structure and it’s actually surprisingly similar in some ways to Canticle, which will probably become clear below. On top of structure, I’ll also discuss the things this story is doing as a first chapter to introduce the rest of the book. 

The Solution: 

What’s fascinating about this chapter as an opening is how much it feels like an opening, especially in contrast to Canticle. In the latter, the first and second chapters together almost feel like a short story that outgrew itself and had to turn into a novella and then a novel, while the former really feels like it’s introducing the story. Almost like the introductory paragraph to an essay, it has all the elements that will weave through the rest of the book–it touches on themes of solitude and superstition versus connection and science. It reveals the weird playing with time (Macondo, the central village, exists at a time when most things don’t have names, the narrator declares, but also Memphis exists–so late 19th century at the earliest). It shows how the names of the main characters repeat as the generations pass. These are all themes and conflicts that span the novel to its final page. 

Beyond that, the narration goes out of its way to emphasize happenings that feel inconsequential but will have major effects on teh rest of the story. It says things like “The children would remember for the rest of their lives” (which we will see all of) (4) and “…he made him a gift that was to have  profound influence on the future of the villlage: the laboratory of an alchemist” (which will feature on the last page) (5). This sort of thing is creating a kind of simmering anticipation, not quite suspense, at least not in the Steven King sense, but a longing to understand, to fill in blanks. 

These are all powerful things that the chapter does for the novel. The final thing it does, right at the outset, is very similar to Canticle in some ways: it provides an occasion. Here’s what it says: 

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). 

This is doing two things simultaneously. First, it’s giving structure to a huge portion of the book by mentioning the firing squad, which will not reappear for decades (or hundreds of pages, depending on how you count). This is, of course, vital to the sense of suspense for the book, and is a move that has been stolen 1000 times since–we might call it an extended occasion. But it is a two part occasion, just like the example from Canticle, and the other part (discovering ice) structures this chapter, with it ending at the moment they discover and react to the ice.  It’s just strange enough to propel you through the chapter to the end. A final note of difference: this chapter does not end on a cliffhanger. If anything, it ends in a way that feels complete, as if you could close the book and return later. Personally, I found this willingness to resolve in small doses to be a wonderful, refreshing thing. 

A second thing holding this chapter together, allowing it to cohere, is a unified type of plot event. It’s arranged basically as a series of visits by the gypsy (mysterious outsiders who bring a carnival and inventions from around the world) and the Colonel’s father, Jose. Jose is a bit of an inventor, and becomes a bit of a scientist, and it’s this gypsy named Melquiades who guides and encourages him on this journey. The chapter only briefly departs from describing these visits, a section specifically defined by their absence. This gives a sense of unity and purpose to the chapter, and direciton–any time something needs to happen, the troupe returns, bringing some new marvelous thing. 

And finally, something that will look familiar to those who read my last post, the chapter is structured using simple arcs. These differ a little from the other book in key ways. For one, they are a little more cohesive, a little subtler, with full transitions and gentle backtracking. Also, instead of being based on conflict, they are largely based on POV–namely, the distance the omniscient narrator takes at any given point in the story. Here are the arcs as I saw them. 

Arc 1: Close to Jose and Aureliano (P1-5)
Arc 2: Widen out to the family (P5-7) 
Arc 3: All the way out to the village level (P7-14) 
Arc 4: Narrow back to the family (P14-16)
Arc 5: Return to Jose and Aureliano (P16-18) 

This structure does a lot of important things. It introduces the village itself as a vital player in this story–community as character. It also gives a hugely necessary sense of pacing and real change over a chapter that get its unity from a repetitive plot, and uses huge blocks of detailed summary as its style. Without these arcs, it seems clear that the story would just wash right over you.

Finally: 

So in comparison to Canticle, this story also relies on arcs that progress and then regress. It also makes use of a two part occasion to leap into the story, giving a strong sense of mystery at the opening and unifying the chapter’s events. You could easily call this the “Ice Discovery” chapter on an outline, just as Canticle’s first chapter could be described as “the arrival of the pilgrim”–and I notice that the authors seem to have gone to great lengths to establish this sense of unity.

Also, a key element in the difference of pacing in these books may be (beyond that one is largely summary and the other largely immediate action) because of the rate at which these books introduce and resolve occasions. Canticle’s two part occasion is resolved by the end of chapter two, while Marquez delays the second half of his occasion until nearly 200 pages in. This made for massively different reading experiences, although both were quite pleasureable. 


What do you think of the differences between these two novels? Is there anything important about this chapter that I’m missing? Have you read One Hundred Years of Solitude? I’d love to hear what you thought of the book. Thanks for reading! 

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In speaking about structure, few novels dazzle like A Canticle to Leibowitz, and so I thought it would be nice to look at that structure on one of the prominent levels: the chapter. Beware, spoilers ahead! Well, at least spoilers for the first chapter since largely we will be speaking about plot. But the first chapter is lovely, so I understand if you don’t want to ruin it. 

The Challenge: 

Novels are one of those amorphous structures. Some people say it’s one thing, others say it’s another, and ultimately it’s probably both and more. What it comes down to (what it seems always to come down to with novel writing) is to do what you can to cobble something cohesive together, no matter the strengths or weaknesses of your approach. 

So what can we do to cobble together a strategy? The best way I’ve found is to look at other people’s chapters. 

The Story:

One of those seminal sci-fi classics, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. really is required reading. It first appeared in the mid-to-late fifties as a series of novellas published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and was published in 1959 after a little bit of expansion. This publication schedule is one of the things that gives it its unique structure. The book sprung from the author’s guilt and anger at his participation in the bombing of Monte Cassino monastery in WWII, resulting in a work just spilling with affect. 

Chapter structures really run the gamut. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez designs chapters that take huge thematic arcs spanning over years or decades, drawing their cohesion largely from the way the summary weaves through the events, manufacturing structure wholesale (perhaps I’ll have to do that next time!). As you’ll see, Canticle takes a significantly different route to the same result, although it carries widely by chapter in my chosen story. 

Following we’ll take a look at one of most cohesive chapters, the first. 

The Solution:

Canticle
‘s first chapter opens like with this:

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with the girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert” (3). 

This is the sort of sentence that I, at least (and I think many other writers), recognize fairly immediately as an organizational tool. I’ve taken to calling it an “Occasion” but I’ve seen other names for it as well. It’s this that justifies the chapter’s existence, that makes it special, that signifies how it will make the story move forward. The occasion is not always made clear in this direct a way, but it can be often useful to do so in first chapters, since that chapter cannot be riding off of any previous information or any previous suspense.

But this sentence also does something else: it provides a neat, two part outline, a to do list of sorts. 1: discover the blessed documents, and 2: the pilgrim with the girded loins must appear. 


As a further comment on this section (although perhaps I’m reading too far into it), it’s interesting that these events are listed in the order opposite of how they will occur (maybe this immediately destabilizes you–you’re instantly in need of doing a small equation, instantly engaged. It seems at least, to have some momentum to it). So here, at least, is an outline of the run-in with the Pilgrim. I’ve separated the paragraphs out into arcs, each of which involves a desire or intent and obstacles for Francis to struggle against. 

Arc 1. Intent: Solve the mystery of the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: the Pilgrim is too far away. 
           Paragraphs 2 – 10, mostly world building and details about the Pilgrim to set up conflict 
Arc 2. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: He has taken a vow of silence and wishes to uphold the law of his faith. 
           Paragraphs 11 – 17, he fails at finding answers but succeeds at remaining silent. 
Arc 3. Intent: to build a structure for safety at night. 
            Obstacle: It’s grueling hard work. 
            Paragraphs 18 – 26, which return to alternating between world building and setting up the next conflict 
Arc 4. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim 
            Obstacle: He still wants to uphold his vow of silence. 
            Paragraphs 27 -35, in which he fails at keeping silent but succeeds at getting some answers (exit Pilgrim)
Arc 5. Intent: go back to building structure
            Paragraphs 36 – 37, A Brief Interlude
Arc 6. Intent: Explore the pit revealed by the Pilgrim
            Obstacle: it’s too small to fit down; also, FEAR (high chance of rabid animals down there)
            Paragraphs 38 – 44, Francis fails to face his fear
Arc 7. Intent: back to building his structure
           Obstacle: grueling hard work; also, distracted by the possibilities of the pit      
           Paragraphs 45 – 48
Arc 8. Intent: Clear way into pit
            Obstacle: a bunch of rocks and boulders
            Paragraphs 49 – 52, he succeeds in clearing it
Arc 9. Intent: Explore the pit
            Obstacle: fear!
            Paragraphs 53 – 56 

A few things I immediately noticed.

First, there’s a nice balance to the arcs–they seem to switch back and forth between arcs that pursue the plot full-speed and arcs that rock back into the everyday, allowing suspense and mystery to build. The latter also give much needed pauses for world-building. There’s also this almost mechanical, finely tuned balance to the conflicts–he chases his intent with a couple strategies, fails and gives up, but then tries a second time and succeeds. These are try-fail cycles, of course, that oft-spoken-of tool, but they look a little different than I’ve seen because there are basically two complete tries full of micro-attempts. Also, the try-fail cycles with the Pilgrim have a lot of tension because succeeding in one way causes him to fail in another. 


This little outline I’ve made, seen without the organizing occasion, would come across as pretty disorderly. The cohesiveness of this chapter is not subtle–it depends totally on knowing the trajectory of the chapter: this pilgrim is going to lead him to a set of blessed documents. Knowing that allows us to pick out what’s important and forget what isn’t. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice one last thing. 

This outline does not end with the finding of the documents. In fact, the chapter ends with the following words: 

“The novice stared at the sign in dismay. Its meaning was plain enough. He had unwittingly broken into the abode (deserted, he prayed) of not just one  but fifteen of the dreadful beings [Fallouts]! He groped for his phial of holy water” (17). 

This chapter ends on a pretty suspenseful cliffhangar. We get an implication of danger, but we know he’s going to go down there because the first sentence told us so. We can already start to build the next arc in our minds. His intent will be to search the abode, and his obstacle will to risk injury. Will he have to fail at one of those things to succeed at the other?

We are anticipating this in these final moments of the chapter, partially because of the opening. 


Finally:

It may be more accurate to call this a half-structure. In one chapter we’ve been given half of the occasion, and made to anticipate the second half, which comes in the second chapter. This is probably my biggest takeaway, as that usage of occasion is different than what I’m used to. But also, the structure relies on the balance of the try fail cycles and the clarity of intention and obstacle.

All of these things come together to form a chapter that, if not elegant or subtle, is still enthralling. 



What do you think of the outline? Does it bring any other stories or scenes to mind? For those of you who’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz, is this reflected in any of the later chapters, or is this strategy particularly first-chapter-ish?

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Let’s take a look today at how to handle capital-D Drama. As with many things in fiction, drama requires a particular balance, and we’re going to examine a scene from How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, a young adult near future science fiction novel that I highly recommend. To look at this, we’ll be dissecting a specific scene, and it does include some minor spoilers. 

The Challenge:

It’s hard, when I get to that moment I’ve been building toward, where everything has come to a head and something has to happen. How do you handle scenes of high emotion without melodrama but still with impact? Seems my pendulum always swings back and forth between the extremes of giving up drama and giving up impact. 

For some answers, I turned to a novel I’d read years ago. 

The Story:

Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is about an American girl living in Britain when things really hit the fan–they’re invaded and conquered by a mysterious, unnamed enemy. It’s a young adult romance and adventure novel that is both emotionally impactful and full of suspense. There are few novels I recommend as easily as this one, even to people who don’t often read. It reads quick and leaves a mark. It balances blot and character masterfully. And the prose is beautiful in a simple, streamlined way. 

For my purposes, I analyzed a scene toward the middle, at the end of a chapter of descriptive summary, little more than a list of chores in this fairly transitional moment of the story. Read the short scene below: 

One night we were driving home through the usual checkpoints and Piper and I were asleep and Joe, who sometimes came with us to stay with his parents in the village, suddenly took it into his head to stand up and get show-offy, and I guess thinking war was some kind of open discussion forum where everyone was really interested in your opinion, started shouting a whole bunch of obscenities at one of the checkpoint guards and when Major McEvoy told him to sit down in a really icy army tone of voice he ignored him and kept shouting stuff about Johnny Foreigner being an Effing Bastard and worse. 

And then in almost a lazy kind of way the checkpoint guy who’d been looking at him raised his gun and pulled the trigger and there was a loud crack and part of Joe’s face exploded and there was blood everywhere and he fell over out of the truck into the road. 

Piper watched the whole thing without moving a muscle but the shock of it made me retch and I had to turn away over the side of the truck. Someone else was screaming and when I turned back the whole world seemed to have slowed down and grown quiet and from inside the silence I watched the guard go right back to chatting with his friend and saw Major McEvoy’s head roll back for a moment and his eyes close and a look of despair crumple up his face and in that split second I wondered whether he was really that attached to the kid and then it was with horror that I looked down and saw that Joe was still alive, gurgling and trying to move the arm that wasn’t caught under his body and when I looked back at Major M I realized he was doing what he felt was his duty as a member of the armed forces defending a British national and still in slow motion he was climbing out of the truck and his plan must have been to get Joe to his feet somehow and then to safety when I heard about a hundred shots from a machine gun and the momentum of the blasts hurled Major M backward across the road away from Joe with blood welling up in holes all over him and this time you could see Joe’s condition was 100% dead and with brains splattered everywhere and our driver didn’t wait around to see what might happen next but just stepped on the gas and as we drove away I thought I felt tears on my face but when I put my hand up to wipe them it turned out to be blood and nobody made a single sound but just sat there shell-shocked and all I could think about was poor Major M lying there in the dust through I guess he was much too dead to notice. 

There never were seven more silent human beings in the back of a truck, we were too stunned even to cry or speak. When we reached Reston Bridge our driver, who I knew was a close friend of the Major’s, got out of the truck and stood there for a minute trying to get up the courage to go inside and tell Mrs. M what happened, but first he turned to us and said in a voice full of rage, In case anyone needed reminding This is a War. 

And the way he said those words made me feel like I was falling (103 – 105). 


The Solution: 

At five paragraphs and about two pages, this is a decidedly short scene (although not too short for the book’s average), but it does a deceptive amount of work to both control the drama and heighten the impact. It’s doing a good bit of complex work to maintain this delicate balance, and I’ll try to pick that apart here. 

First a brief outline of the scene, as I see it: 

Paragraph 1. (Setup). Scene conflict begins, exposition is given with a humorous tone. 
Paragraph 2. (Escalation). One shot. A distant description of the bloody scene. 
Paragraph 3. (Reaction & Further Escalation). A wide range of reactions from a number of different people. A little more humor. Much longer sentences. 
Paragraph 4. (Deflation). A very muted response and a clean getaway that also connects the loss of life to the wider world. 
Paragraph 5. (Effect). A single, punchy line on how the protagonist has been changed by this scene. 

So how does this scene attempt to control drama, minimize melodrama? There are a number of ways that this is being done. Paragraph 1, for instance, seems only to exist for this function. It’s using humor to deflate the tension, exposition to slow the pace, summary (mimicking the rest of the chapter, which was fairly low-key) that creates a level of distance, and it even uses a linguistic trick to add to the drudgery (“usual checkpoint”). It’s routine. It’s a chore–just like the rest of the chapter, this will be every-day. That, of course, is not how it pans out. 

Paragraph 2 uses a similar linguistic trick when it describes the shot as “lazy”–the laziness of it reduces the melodrama. In Paragraph 3, a return to humor seems to aid the reduction of melodrama (100% dead). We also get a number of characters who fail to react in any active way to this shot–Piper watches “without moving a muscle,” the guard goes “right back to chatting with his friend,” and the driver who did nothing but “not wait around.” These muted reactions serve as a counter balance to the descriptions of gore and to the narrator’s response. Paragraph 4 continues the muted response, allowing it to spread to the rest of the car. Meanwhile, Paragraph 5 does little to manage the drama–how does the scene’s final line have such a strong impact? 

While Paragraph 1 is the touchstone paragraph for controlling melodrama, Paragraph 3 is its counterpart, a keystone in developing impact. It does this in a large number of ways. Firstly, we have the more dramatic character reactions: the narrator, who retches, and Major M, who reacts with nothing short of anguish, not to mention Joe himself, twitching on the ground. There is also the natural drama of further escalation of the conflict (going from Joe, a minor nobody, dying to the death of Major M, who we’ve come to know and who was a central figure of this chapter, and the imagery usage (like tears that transformed into blood). Beyond those things, there is also the massive and sudden stretching of sentence length (so long it’s almost beyond comprehension) using polysyndeton (lots of “ands”) that makes each sentence feel like a constant barrage of horrors. 

The other paragraphs build upon this one, adding minor touches of drama to increase the impact. In Paragraph 2, drama comes from the conflict escalation and the use of face-explosion imagery. In Paragraph 4, emotions are driven home by revealing the delayed anger of the driver (This is a War) and focusing on who is hurt (Major M’s wife). Finally, in Paragraph 5, the tragic punch line, a single, lonely line, a structure that serves to emphasize how alone the narrator feels, further hitting home the imagery of falling. 

Finally:

It’s the delicate balance of this passage that makes it work so well. Just look, for instance, at the “sandwich” created by the first paragraph, which only works to reduce melodrama, and the fifth paragraph, which only works to increase impact. And the sparseness of Paragraph 2 contrasts with the extravagance of Paragraph 3 to create a similar sense of balance.

Ultimately, what I take from this scene is that, while there are consistent strategies worth knowing for reducing melodrama and increasing impact, the brilliance of this scene comes from structure–how those methods are designed to balance each other. 

Is there anything you’d add? Are there any scenes that you’ve read that should have been melodramatic but ended up deeply moving you without going over the edge? I’d love to hear about this or anything else you have to say. 







 

 

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Clicking the image to the left will take you to the Amazon page for the edition I own of Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, which we’ll be talking about today. Obviously, I don’t expect you to read the entire novel just in preparation for this post, but I’ll be providing a few pages below for context and I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.

Let’s talk about talk. 

The Challenge:

I avoid dialogue. Part of that comes from what I read–most of the short fiction I’ve read is notably sparse on speech. But as I switch back into novel gears, I’ve noticed more and more how unavoidable dialogue is, and how compelling it can be in a sea of prose. There’s just one problem: my dialogue muscles are flabby from under-use. I can’t seem to write dialogue that moves the plot forward (or even understand what that means), and the language of it feels unreal, useless, loose. My writing loses the sort of density of purpose that I’ve come to expect of it. 

Is it even possible to write dialogue like I want? 

The Story:

The Area X trilogy is a fascinating modern weird fiction. Shorter than your average novels (averaging out at about 250 pages), they read quickly and they take weird fiction right into scifi territory–and it’s the overlap of weird and scifi that tends to grab me the best. So these books really swept me up–they’re doing a lot of things that I desperately want to do. 

I will say, as a word of caution, that if you can’t stand mysteries that extend over several books (and indeed, may never be answered) then these books probably aren’t for you, ultimately. But there are still some great gems of technique, and one of those is dialogue. 

In this book in particular, Vandermeer’s dialogue is superb. It feels combative, high-stake, and tightly crafted. Here are two excerpts relevant to our discussion today, from the second book, Authority. First, one from the very first chapter: 

First day. The beginning of his last chance. 

“These are the survivors?”

Control stood beside the assistant director of the Sourthern Reach, behind smudged one-way glass, staring that the three individuals sitting in the interrogation room. Returnees from the twelfth expedition into Area X. 

The assistant director, a tall, thin black woman in her forties, said nothing back, which didn’t surprise Control. She hadn’t wasted an extra word on him since he’d arrived that morning after taking Monday to get settled. She hand’t spared him an extra look, either, except when he’d told her and the rest of the staff to call him “Control,” not “John” or “Rodriguez.” She had paused a beat, then replied, “In that case, call me Patience, not Grace,” much to the stifled amusement of those present. The deflection away from her real name to one that also meant something else interested him. “That’s okay,” he’d said, “I can just call you Grace,” certain this would not please her. She parried by continually referring to him as the “acting director. Which was true: There lay between her stewardship and his ascension a gap, a valley of time and forms to be filled out, procedures to be followed, the rooting out and hiring of staff. Until then, the issue of authority might be murky. 

But Control preferred to think of her as neither patience nor grace. He preferred to think of her as an abstraction if not an obstruction. She had made him sit through an old orientation video about Area X, must have known it would be basic and out of date. She had already made clear that theirs would be a relationship based on animosity. From her side, at least. 

“Where were they found?” he asked her now, when what he wanted to ask was why they hadn’t been kept separate from one another. Because you lack the discipline, because your department has been going to the rats for a long time now? The rats are down there in the basement now, gnawing away. 

“Read the files,” she said, making it clear he should have read them already.

Then she walked out of the room. (133-134)


Now, their third exchange in the book, only a little while later. 

“You interviewed just the biologist. I still do not know why.” She said this before he could extend even a tendril of an opening gambit…and all of his resolve to play the diplomat, to somehow become her colleague, not her enemy–even if by misdirection or a metaphorical jab in the kidneys–dissolved into the humid air. 

He explained his thought processes. She seemed impressed, although he couldn’t really read her yet. 

“Did she ever seem, during training, like she was hiding something?” he asked. 

“Deflection. You think she is hiding something.”

“I don’t know yet, actually. I could be wrong”

“We have more expert interrogators than you.”

“Probably true.”

“We should send her to Central.”

The thought made him shudder. 

“No,” he said, a little too emphatically, then worried in the next split second that the assistant director might guess that he cared about the biologist’s fate. 

“I have already sent the anthropologist and the surveyor away.”

Now he could smell the decay of all that plant matter slowly rotting beneath the surface of the swamp, could sense the awkward turtles and stunted fish pushing their way through matted layers. He didn’t trust himself to turn to face her. Didn’t trust himself to say anything, stood there suspended by his surprise. 

Cheerfully, she continued: “You said they weren’t of any use, so I sent them to Central.”

“By whose authority?”

“Your authority. You clearly indicated to me that this was what you wanted. If you meant something else, my apologies.”

A tiny seismic shift occurred inside of Control, an imperceptible shudder. 

They were gone. he couldn’t have them back. He had to put it out of his mind, would feed himself the lie that Grace had done him a favor, simplified his job. Just how much pull did she have at Central, anyway?

“I can always read the transcripts if I change my mind,” he said, attempting an agreeable tone. They’d still be questioned, and he’d given her the opening by saying he didn’t want to interview them. 

She was scanning his face intently, looking for some sign that she’d come close to hitting the target. 

He tried to smile, doused his anger with the thought that if the assistant director had meant him real harm, she would have found a way to spirit the biologist away, too. This was just a warning. Now, thought, he was going to have to take. something away from Grace as well. Not to get even but so she wouldn’t be tempted to take yet more from him. He couldn’t afford to lose the biologist, too. Not yet. 

Into the awkward silence, Grace asked, “Why are you just standing out here in the heat like an idiot?” Breezily, as if nothign had happened at all. “We should go inside. It’s time for lunch, and you can meet some of the admin.” (150-151)

The Solution:

To keep this as tight an analysis as possible, I decided to limit my talk to the three big takeaways that these two exchanges seem to be dishing out. 

1. Be Efficient:

A lot of the lean feeling of this exchange comes from it actually being lean. The spoken sentences are quite short, almost to the point of feeling stilted, and reading it out loud does not produce an exchange that sounds in anyway human. They’re worse than Spock. This may not work in all dialogue (I’d have to go looking for more–and maybe I will) but when two characters are speaking in this sort of conflict-heavy manner, it seems to really work. 

Another way Vandermeer keeps it lean is by not letting it get too chatty. When Control isn’t sure what to say, he just says nothing, and Grace picks the conversation back up. And when Control is explaining something we already know, he summarizes it (“He explained his thought process.”). Finally, he makes sure the conversation isn’t side tracked into obvious distractions from the task at hand (“We have more expert interrogators than you” could have devolved into a pointless argument, but instead led into “Probably true.”).

As a final note on efficiency (all this can only have come from ruthless cutting, right?), all of the conversations end rather rapidly with a line of narration or a quick quote into the next scene. 

2. Move the Story Forward

Maybe this is not the only way to move story forward in a dialogue (BIG REVEALS come to mind) but this conversation uses an interesting technique: limitation. When Grace declares that she’s sent the other members of the team away, this of course functions as a reveal, but that’s not how it’s affecting the plot.  What it serves to do is tell the reader where the plot will be going–in essence it says “Don’t get distracted by these other three people, they don’t matter.” At that point we realize (and we had some reason to suspect this) that the story won’t be wasting its time with the other scientists. 

Of all the typical advice about dialogue, this was perhaps the one I knew the best but found the most mysterious. Here, at least, is one practical example of how it’s used in actual work, which was fascinating to me.

3. So Much of this Dialogue is Under the Surface

In the first segment, a bunch of narration is basically invaded by two short exchanges of dialogue. Mostly, I included that first segment because of how important the context of it is for the second exchange to make any sense at all. Providing this context lets the reader know, pretty much immediately in this story, that these two are playing a verbal chess game, and that colors all of their future interactions. Largely, these characters want the same thing, but they are heavily antagonistic to each other, and we’re never sure if we can trust Grace. 

I don’t know, but I certainly would expect, that the second exchange would be quite hard to follow without this context. Even without the gentle reminders of theirs conflict between lines in the second dialogue, it would be a little hard to understand why Grace has done something that seems to be against her own interests. But because of the context, and the stuff taking place under the surface (the breakdowns of communication) we can understand that not only did Grace do this purposefully to upset Control, she did it despite the fact that it would cost her. 

Finally:

Perhaps the ultimate take away is that I’ve been writing dialogue far too flippantly. It takes an aggressive level of forethought (or post-thought or both) to write a solid piece of dialogue. Even a brief, two line exchange without this level of interrogation may corrupt your sense of strength and pacing. And ultimately, powerful dialogue boils down to concisely displaying conflict between two characters. 

What do you think of the three tips above? Might you add any others? Do you have any scenes of dialogue you go back to for tips now and again? I’d love to hear them and take a look at them myself.

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king-ratClicking the picture to the left will take you to the Amazon page for King Rat by China Mieville. Seems obvious to  me that you won’t be reading this novel in preparation for reading this blog post, but we’ll be talking about plot so beware of spoilers below. Today I’m going to be talking about plot–the first act of a novel–in the sense of how Mieville keeps his readers interested. 

The Challenge:

People (and writing books) have a lot of advice for how to start a novel. Much of this advice seems contradictory–for instance the idea that you need to start immediately with high-stakes conflict, but the sort of opposing idea that no one will care about those high stakes until they care about your characters. So wait, do you start with solid conflict? Or do you start with character? Or is it some strange amalgam of both, precariously balanced? Although I don’t know yet, I imagine it’s some version of the latter, although perhaps King Rat does little to really clear this up, beyond providing an interesting example. 

The Story:

Mieville’s debut novel, King Rat, has its weaknesses. They’re fairly evident: sometimes the prose gets far too purple with little to gain from it, some major characters lack any real kind of agency (which might have improved some portions of the book), and the very end reads like rather forced, disingenuous philosophizing (although that ending still interested me, because of how different it was from most novel ends, philosophically). That said, this book blew me away because of it’s array of morally-grey characters, its distinct plot twists, and a handful of exceptional prose moments, full of poetry and voice. It also managed to really keep my attention in Act 1. 

Well, not exactly. Chapter 1 left me unmoved, and so did chapter 2, largely (although the structure of this piece, with multiple clipped little narratives, was fascinating), but the end of chapter 2 through chapter 8 really had me enthralled. I began to wonder why. What exactly was driving this opening?

The Solution:

Mieville tries to open with high-stakes conflict. The story opens with (following an excruciating driving/subwaying-to-the-story scene) the murder of Saul (the protagonist’s) father, and Saul’s subsequent arrest for this crime. Ultimately, this bored me. One reason for this was simply confusion: beyond the level of mystery, I had no idea what was going on. The disjointed narrative of chapter 2 probably contributed to this. But also, we never met Saul’s father on the page, so his death had no effect on me, and although Saul seemed pretty distraught by his father’s death, it didn’t reach me. 

And maybe part of the reason I was unmoved by this initial conflict was a lack of a clear desire for the main character. Actually, Saul does not develop a desire at all until the end of Act 1, and does not become fully active until the end of Act 2. 

But when the title character hit the page, he immediately increased my engagement with the story. He was strange, he was gross, he was dark and of questionable morality. And that level of engagement for the next six chapters remained fairly high (on average), but also kept a number of those qualities, following a fairly predictable sort of structure. Each chapter had a central purpose. Chapter 3 showed King Rat and Saul escaping from prison. Chapter 4 described Saul’s lunch. What made these chapters intriguing was context–all this took place in (as the text constantly affirmed) a new world. This Act 1 is a kind of exploration, and that exploration has the same flavor as King Rat himself–in Chapter 4, Saul’s lunch is strange and gross and dark. 

Two caveats here. (1) There were some mini conflicts going on, although they didn’t really capture me. These were necessary and important in the longer term of the plot, foreshadowing later conflicts that come to the fore in acts 2 and 3. (2) If you broaden the definition of conflict enough, you might argue that this whole act is a conflict, Saul interacting with and coming to terms with this new world he’s exploring. And there’s a good point there, but I think it overgeneralizes something super practical: some readers engage most with a story when it takes them somewhere new. Exploring a world vastly different from your own is a pleasurable part of reading. That pleasure can drive a reader through your story. 

When does lunch capture a reader’s interest? When it’s surreal. 

When does an easy prison break become intriguing? When it launches you into a new world. 

Finally:

Despite its failings, I fully recommend King Rat especially if you enjoy genuinely strange novels. What works here works exceptionally well. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was that strangeness can drive a story, and sometimes frontloading conflict for the sake of frontloading conflict can do more harm than good. 

What’s your take on strangeness vs. conflict? Let me know in the comments. 


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fsf-maraprClicking the picture to the left will take you straight to the purchase page for the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of F&SF, where you can find this weeks story “The Ghost Penny Post” by Marc Laidlaw. Unfortunately, the story is not available anywhere online. As far as the issue goes, I enjoyed it–especially the Cat Rambo and Sarina Dorie stories. Today we’re going to be talking about how to set the scene in historical fiction, using this story set in Early Modern England. 

The Challenge:

Setting is a tough thing sometimes: how do you clue readers in to past or future without slowing down the narrative, short of doing something obvious like giving the story a particular date or year stamp? In looking to write a few historical fictions myself, I asked this question and turned to Laidlow’s story for a detailed answer. 

The Story:

“The Ghost Penny Post” is a fun and vivid story, especially in the fairy tale moments. It includes an interesting main POV–an old-timey postal inspector looking into a mysterious mail problem. It takes the form of a mystery, mostly, but also descends into a Wonderland-like absurdity. Also, it’s a multi-pov story with narrators who range in age, profession, and their position on the conflict. Of course, we’re most interested here in how the story sets the scene for all this to occur, and it turns out it’s fairly simple. 

The Solution:

Here’s the first paragraph: “I hope London’s trust in me is not misplaced, thought Hewell as he sought his valise under roadside ferns. He spotted the leather case, still buckled, its sheaf of papers safe. Drawing it from among the fronds, he climbed out of the ditch to stand beside the carriage. Always fond of a good puzzle, Hewell was none too keen on mysteries; but events of the morning suggested more of the latter than the former were in store for his afternoon” (7).

While also kickstarting the key internal struggle, there are a few ways that this paragraph lands us in the correct(ish) era. I’ll start from the simplest and go forward from there. 

  1. Technology: Mentioning travel by horse-drawn carriage is a quick short hand for “this happened a long time ago” and strikes me as practically useful but also widely overutilized. In this instance though, it’s doing it’s job, in combination with a couple of other things. 
  2. Syntax: A more formal, grander syntax seems to be doing some work in this story (whether or not texts actually written in that era show this kind of syntax is up for some debate, based on my readings, and it can certainly go too far if you don’t keep it tightly controlled). In this first paragraph there are a few (certainly at higher density than much of the story). First, “events of the morning.” Then “none too keen” and “suggested more of the latter than the former.” This kind of syntax is almost academic, and is used selectively throughout the story. 
  3. Vocabulary: This technique is used incredibly well in just this one paragraph. The basic form is simply to use old nouns (i.e. “valise”) but I’ve always wondered how to get away with using nouns that readers might not recognize. Even when I read this first sentence, I wondered “What is a valise?” and I bounced off of that a little. What has not occurred to me before is the ability to “translate” those nouns, and if you look in the second sentence, you’ll see it there: “He spotted the leather case…” To me, that was an interesting discovery, but also if you look deeper, Laidlow also translates a word back, from a modern to an early modern word: Sentence one’s “roadside ferns” become, in the third sentence, “fronds.” These three sentences are forming a feedback loop of sorts that state “This is in olden times!” And that really impressed me. 

These three techniques are working quite elegantly, and subtly, to set the scene in the story. They also happen to be highly-usable practical moves. I plan on snapping it up as soon as I can. 

Finally: 

Perhaps ultimately, the answer to my original question was fairly simple. Old language will set a scene in olden times, but it’s also important to do part of the work. This practical example really worked for me to figure this out, though, and now I’ve got to go find all my other historical fiction stories, and see if they’re making similar moves! 

Thanks for reading! What do you think? Any favorite methods for setting the scene in historical fiction or even in far future science fiction? Any recommendations for historical fiction I should be checking out on my journey to writing it?

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anchor-bookClicking the image to the left will take you to NPR’s website for the story “The Old Dictionary” by Lydia Davis, which I read in an anthology called The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus. I highly recommend this collection if you’re interested in literary fiction at all–one reviewer criticized it for trying “too hard” to entertain, generally a sign that it’s from the “light side” of lit fiction. We’re going to be talking today about character change, tightly compressed into flash. Warning, spoilers ahead!

The Challenge: 

In short fiction, finding believable space for character change can be a challenge, yet often a story feels empty without it. So how can you pull this off–how have other people pulled this off? That’s what I aim to find out.

To get as nitty-gritty as possible, let’s look at a really impressive flash fiction story. 


The Story:

Who better than Lydia Davis for this exploration? Her work can get unbelievably short (and sure, some of it might just be poetry) and is also entertaining, believable, and moving. The last bit, the “moving” part, always impresses me, and is one of the things that made “The Old Dictionary” stand out to me. 

It’s the story of a researcher and her realization about how she treats her son. By the end of the story she decides to change. How does Davis pull this off? In ways both complex and simple. 

Give it a read. It’s quick, and beautiful. 

The Solution:

Ultimately, for a character to experience believable change, they must struggle through and survive an Odyssey. Their current status needs to be challenged and questioned, and they must allow their experiences to shift their beliefs or actions toward change. 

In short stories, there often just isn’t time for such a long journey. My copy of The Odyssey stands a solid 560 pages thick. But I’d argue that Lydia Davis pulls off a character change in her 1000 word flash fiction tale. In fact, I’d argue she went into it specifically to test the assumption that character arcs are impossible in flash fiction. All of her decisions, narratively and stylistically, limit her space and push her toward focusing on character change. 

Stylistically, she keeps her sentences short, even clipped at times. This forces her to always push forward, digging deeper into her character. She also chose first person, which allows you to trim significant framing and description, and allows an almost-exclusively internal story to feel much more natural. The “telling” nature of the story allows for an insane amount of compression, and allows the narrator to struggle with her own actions. 

Narratively, almost all of the actual story has happened in the past. The character thinks about her typical treatment of her son, and struggles through the why. And it’s important to note that Davis makes this struggle feel very concrete, very real, by including specific real-world details about the plants, the dog, her son, etc. She tires to explain her (brutish?) actions one way, then corrects herself, then tries another way. She examines other specimens, too, in trying to puzzle through her motivations. The narrator’s struggle with this moral issue is visceral to the point that you can feel the tension building. It’s the details that do that. 

The last 2 elements I’ll mention are perhaps the most important moments in the story: the beginning and the end. 

1. The beginning includes an inciting incident, in lifting the old dictionary carefully from its case. With its detailed description and present-day time, this is easily the largest moment of external conflict in the story, and that’s important. It gives this journey a real-world catalyst and a touchstone to return to so that it never rambles too far. It also really sets the reader in-scene in a compelling way. But also, this beginning ends with a specific intention in mind: the character asks herself WHY (about 225 words in). This gives the story it’s shape and sets up our expectations that, in the end, the narrator will answer this question somehow. 

2. In the end, the question is answered and the narrator has acknowledged, to some level, her failure. She goes on, as a follow through, a third act of sorts, to reaffirm the ways in which she treats the old dictionary with care and, through implication, the ways in which she will treat her son better: “I know its limitations. I do not encourage it to go farther than it can go (for instance to lie open flat on the table). I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” 

This ending drives home the character change and is perhaps the most moving part of the entire tale. 


Finally: 

While I realize these methods might not be useable in every story, there are lessons to be taken from it none the less. For one, maybe in a 5000 word story, a writer could deliberately set aside 1000 words for character change, and that these words would be distinctly internal and focused, but spread out throughout the tale. 

Also, there is a lesson in the directness with which the narrator handles her character change. To save space, it may be necessary to “tell” as much of the change as possible, to forgo “showing” some things you might have in favor of a different goal. It’s important to note, also, that so much of this story works through implication, and that is, to me at least, an interesting form of compression, requiring a deft hand. 

What do you think? Does a short story occur to you that shows a compelling (and complete) change of character? Are there other ways of compressing a character arc to fit into 5000 words or less?

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Tremblay Bourbon carbideToday we’ll be discussing disaster plots in short stories, comparing two stories for answers. Each image to the left links to one of the stories. As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

Ultimately, I want to understand this: how do I write a successful story in which the end implies that we all die? And a couple of restrictions are useful. First, I want it to be short. Second, I want it to be deeply personal and in a close POV. Finally, I want the ending to pack a wallop, rather than feel anticlimactic or unresolved in some way. 

Why this kind of story? Why these restrictions? Because I’ve read not 1 but 2 stories recently that blew me away and did both of these things. 

The Stories:

First, I read Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks” in Bourbon Penn. Then I read “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson, which appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens, although I read it in Best American SFF 2015. These stories both got to me. In some ways, these stories are quite different: “Swim…” works better on a metaphorical level with the natural disasters of the MC’s life and the disaster is introduced almost immediately, although we never fully understand it; “The Blue…” comes to tell us exactly what is going on (in fact our MC is one of only a handful who fully understand it) and so the end is far less open. 

But what strikes me more, looking back, is just how much they have in common.

Both have distant narrators that dominate the voice of the story, one is distant because of drug addiction, the other because of his highly-analytical scientific language and through processes. Both involve a single parent and their one child. Both have 4 scenes. Both end in lyrically-described disaster.

For the first step in the solution, I’ll break down these stories a little further. 

The Solution:

A little outline for “Swim…”: (1–124 words) A micro scene implying past trouble of mom with law (through her daughter); (2–2025 words) A scene of MC at work, where we learn about her troubles and normal life; (3–686 words) A sort of “bridge” scene that becomes progressively more distant, the character at her most high/destructive; (4–2410 words) MC interacts with daughter in a house and soon destruction rains down around them. 

A little outline for “The Blue…”: (1–529 words) A scene of MC with his daughter in which we learn about his problems and normal life; (2–602 words) A flashback scene in which we learn about how things went between MC and his ex-wife; (3–920 words) A scene in which we learn, scientifically, analytically, about the danger occurring, and at the end the mystery of it is finally revealed, all in context with our MC’s research and life; (4–1749 words) MC returns in time to maximize time with his daughter, interact a little, and then the end comes. 

Both of these stories are SO SIMPLE. And they keep it pretty short, for the whole world ending. They each have a single central character, with a young child as a secondary character. “Swim” has a few other, very minor characters. Both have a relate-able conflict: the parents feel in some way distant from their children, one because of drugs and actual no-custody style distance, and the other because his daughter is changing, growing up.

So this must be how the authors are keeping it short. 

1 scene to introduce the character’s problem– Scene 2 in “Swim…” and Scene 1 in “The Blue…”
1 scene to deepen that personal issue– Scene 3 in “Swim” and Scene 2 in “The Blue” 
1 scene to bring personal and universal destruction together– Scene 4 in both stories.

The scenes that are outside of the pattern are also interesting, though. In “Swim…” it’s a micro-scene at the start that seems mostly about setting tone–it has this distant, lyrical tone of the end of the story, which is very different from the mundanity of the first scene. Meanwhile in “The Blue…” the extra scene is scene 3, and this seems mostly a function of genre. It’s hard scifi, thus we need a scene that tells us, scientifically, what is happening–Wilson puts it all here, so that it won’t bog down his ending. 

It also seems, based upon this outline, that the stories remain personal and impactful (while gaining distance) by devoting about half of the space of the story, and most of the scenes, to the character’s workaday world. To their conflicts at home. Only in the final scene do we really get to a novum. 

So on to the final question. What about the ending? This seems, to me, the hardest part to pull off, but to some extent, they are easy to pick apart. Some reasons the endings have such an enormous impact: 

(1) They are endings: endings get automatic emphasis, and that is boosted if the endings come along with conflict resolutions and a uniting of disparate story elements (creating a sudden release of potential energy). 
(2) The principal players of the stories (parent and child) are super secluded in the endings, and so the ends are sooo focused on them. It’s what really allows the disaster to take on a more personal meaning–it HAS to be about them, because they are all we’re seeing. In “The Blue…” the MC and his daughter are chained to a pipe. In “Swim…” the MC and her daughter are in an unfinished mansion. 
(3) The stories grow progressively more distant as they go along (“Swim…” gets more drug-infused, “The Blue…” more science-infused, with every scene that passes) until the tippy-end, the final paragraph, when the destruction and the MC’s struggle come together. 
(4) It’s easy, I think, to underestimate the level of impact made by variations in sentence length and style in these stories. The final few paragraphs of these stories have sentences notably longer than the rest of the story (especially evident in “The Blue…” which has pretty typical hard-scifi short sentences for most of the story) and the styles lean distinctly more lyrical/less practical at the end, which certainly fits with destruction that really is poetic and absurd at its heart. 

Two other things I’d like to note about the ends, specific to each story. 

In “Swim…” the final scene is split into 3 distinct sections, each doing something different–each shows the relationship between the MC and her daughter differently, each has a different level of distance, each ends with a sort of cliff-hangar propelling you into the next scene. This gives the final scene an very deliberate sense of pace, structure, and drive.

In “The Blue…” you can almost argue for a happy ending. This is spoilery, but in the end, the MC basically gets what he wants: he’s frustrated by his daughter growing up, and in they will be frozen in this moment for eternity. She’ll never grow up. Also, unlike in “Swim…” (where the end really seems disastrously pointless for the MC), the MC of “The Blue…” has an epiphany at the end. His conflict gets a positive resolution and he gets a moment of change. It’s particularly striking. 

Finally:

I’ve gotten out of hand with length! But I feel like I’ve barreled through these stories, tearing them up and canning them–they’re tuna now. Go read them, because this post doesn’t do them justice! 

Nevertheless, I find myself amazed by how similar these stories are. In my readings, I don’t think I’ve read any other short, personal disaster narratives, but I wonder if these have some kind of classic-scifi antecedent. It is, relatively, plausible that Wilson’s story was inspired by Tremblay’s but that seems to me too coincidental, and they came out so close that it would have meant an incredibly quick turnaround for Wilson to outline, write, and sell the story. 

Have you read any other disaster narratives like these? What do you think of the uniquely late introduction of the novum?