The Tales of Two Adams pt 1: Johnson’s “Teen Sniper”

Techniques tracked:
-how chronic and acute tension dictate plot structure
-the use of an object to convey a character’s emotional state
-theme: empathy


While we wait six more days for Fortune Smiles, Pulitzer-Prize winner Adam Johnson’s first book of stories in twelve years, let’s take a look at a story from 2003’s Emporium. “Teen Sniper” is the story I always like to read first in my fiction classes. It’s about (surprise surprise) a teen sniper who, as a crack shot who’s the best in his profession, is isolated from his older colleagues and his own peers. This isolation is the story’s chronic tension, the situation already in place when we begin. In the first scene, our teen sniper takes out a guy at Hewlett Packard (apparently in this brave new world software guys are causing problems and the state is escalating its response). I always ask: why does the story begin here, with this scene? And the answer I usually get is: because it shows us what his life is like. That is, it shows us the chronic tension, which is true. We see that he has trouble shooting this guy because he thinks about what it must be like to be him, a “problem” he’s been working on in therapy, where he’s told empathy is not real. But while a story’s opening should make clear the chronic situation, the particular starting point depends on the acute tension. To establish chronic tension, the first scene could have shown him struggling to shoot any target on any day. But why this guy on this day?

We’ll find out, though it will take a couple more scenes. Our teen sniper returns to police headquarters, then has lunch with a bomb-defusing robot, ROMS, who, demonstrating the extent of the narrator’s isolation, is his only friend. After work he goes with a colleague to do some martial arts at a dojo and meets the guy’s daughter, whom he instantly develops a crush on. Meeting this girl, Seema, is the acute tension, what will cause the problem beneath the surface—that the violence of his job makes him unhappy and disconnects him from the rest of humanity—to rise to the surface and thus somehow resolve itself.

The next day, Seema is at the station visiting her father, and while talking to her, the narrator denies his friendship with ROMS out of embarrassment. After work, he gets drunk for the first time on top of a satellite, where he has a view of Seema’s house and spies on her through his rifle scope. Once drunk enough to calm his nerves, he goes to her door, but is too drunk to make any sense, and she asks him to leave. The next day, the narrator reconciles with ROMS and asks his advice about Seema; ROMS tells him to give her something with no strings attached and to open the lines of communication, but then seems to be talking about dealing with hostages. That week, ROMS dies in an explosion, making the narrator even more depressed. A new ROMS arrives, sounding much like the old one and making the narrator question if the first ROMS was ever really capable of being his friend. He decides to test ROMS’ advice to see, and gives Seema his rifle scope as his no-strings gesture of goodwill and tells her he is willing to listen. He imagines Seema watching him through the scope as he walks away, how he’ll appear like a thermal signature, and thinks that if she calls him (the scope also has a phone), it will prove that empathy is real.

The chronic and acute tension intersect at the story’s climax with this gesture of the narrator giving Seema his scope. The scope, more than the rifle itself, is what he uses to kill people, as he wouldn’t be able to shoot them without seeing them. What constitutes a big part of his problem is that he sees his victims as real people (making the scope an even more powerful symbol and emblem of his chronic tension), which means performing the basic function of his job is making him very depressed. The acute tension, meeting Seema, causes the narrator to look at himself through an outsider’s eyes, to consider what he looks like to other people, particularly ones he wants to like him—intensifying his problem, as he didn’t look good to himself in the first place. She causes him to question what he’s been told, to find out if empathy is real, and in this climactic gesture he takes a necessary step to find out. If he finds out it is real, we at least suspect he will stop sniping. It seems highly likely that he will, given that he’s abdicated the scope.

The object of the scope itself is used to tie the acute and chronic tension into a neat little bow at the end here. We of course first see the scope being used in its official capacity, sighting a victim. It appears, in fact, in the very first line:

When I reach the rooftop, I pull the dustcovers off my rifle scope and head for a folding chair leaned up against an air-conditioning unit—right where I left it the last time I was up here.

He doesn’t just mention the rifle, but specifically mentions the scope. Its capabilities are further elaborated in the first scene:

…the scope is state of the art, a fully digital Raytheon with cellular live feed, so that it’s a camera, phone, and radio all in one. That means Lt. Kim can see and hear everything….

The scope in this scene is also a window to empathy:

Sometimes, when I look through my scope, I am overwhelmed by the illusion that I know this stranger in the crosshairs in an essential way, like we’re old friends, like you can see his soul.

Then, he climbs on the satellite to watch Seema, and empathizes with her as he does his victims:

I’m doing what Twan says, really looking at her through my scope–the way the splashing water makes her feet glimmer, how she squinches her face when she works a gross spot on the grill–when I get this sense that she’s…

And it goes on from there. After he gets drunk and humiliates himself with Seema, he wakes up the next morning to find his rifle in a dumpster:

My poor Kruger. I shake a banana peel off the scope and try to clean coffee grounds out of the breech with a wet sock.

His sight has been momentarily clouded by drunkenness and being generally misguided.

Then, at the end, in his climactic gesture the scope takes center stage:

“A rifle scope. Just what I’ve been needing.”

“Well, it’s also a telephone and a radio, so you can reach me anytime, at work or home. If you ever want to talk. Or maybe if you just need someone to listen.”

“Here’s the range finder,” I say. “And this switches it to thermal. Thermal’s so sensitive you can see the heat signature of a pumping heart. If someone looks normal but you can’t see the strobe of their heart, then you know they’re concealing body armor.”

The scope is an offered gift, as per ROMS’ second piece of advice, a gift that itself literally facilitates communication—ROMS’ third piece of advice. The scope has become a powerful symbol for empathy, that which the narrator is seeking:

…if you’re looking at someone through a scope they become large, filling the whole field of view, and there’s nothing in the world but them.

The view in the scope here has shifted from one of deathly intent to one of love, and because of this shift we have hope for the narrator at the end. I would posit that Johnson did not make any such grand plans for the scope when he was first starting out. I imagine he began imagining a teen sniper, and the scope was a necessary physical detail that emerged when he imagined what it was like to be a sniper, what a sniper would do. Then, he was able to use the scope to facilitate the intersection of the acute and chronic tensions for the climax.

Robert Olen Butler likes to emphasize how a story should emphasize, and be driven by, a character’s yearning. Here, the character yearns for a human connection, as is apparent in the way he desperately tries to connect with his sniper squad mates, and then with Seema. It’s precisely his job that prevents him from making a human connection; there seems to be, in fact, a direct inverse correlation between how good he is at his job and how able he is to connect with others:

Flowers, I think. Flowers, flowers.

I’m a zombie, I’m so sad…

The funny thing is, my shooting just gets sharper and sharper. It’s like I’ve got my heart working on remote control, my accuracy is that good. I go where Lt. Kim tells me, fire at a dot on the horizon, and a kilometer away a neck goes pop.

All the “positive imagery” is to dehumanize his victims. You can tell he’s succeeding at dehumanizing the targets from his language: they’re not people, but a “dot” and a “neck” (the latter of which is at least a human body part but not a human). When he’s looking through the scope he’s specifically supposed to see his targets as non-human, to envision their blood like flower petals, etc. The more he’s able to do that, the better he is at his job, but the worse time he’ll have connecting with others when he’s not sniping, that is, on an emotional level. When he’s doing his job, he literally has to stop his heart! No wonder he’s so unhappy…

Part of the reason I like beginning my creative writing classes with this story is its theme of empathy and the question of whether it’s real—a question the story apparently leaves unanswered, as we don’t know if Seema will call him or not. But by giving her the scope, he is literally giving her the way he sees other people, his identity, his self (and he is giving her the opportunity to see him). That he then imagines her looking through it at him demonstrates empathy on his part: he is imagining what it is like to be her, just as he’s done with his victims, and we’re reminded that he has proven empathy is real through his actions. He leaves the question open-ended to himself, but it’s confirmed for the reader.

I like to show empathy is real as a starting point for the teaching of fiction, the whole point of which to me is that yes, empathy is real, and fiction is exactly how we access it, how we feel what it’s like to be other people. That is to say, fiction is a universal rifle scope. And if anyone is equipped to show us that, it’s the guy who’s rendered himself a character in a story written from his own wife’s perspective, as well as, among others, from the point of view of a pedophile (one imagines possibly inspired by the fact that his footballer doppelganger has been brought up on charges?). Both stories are out in the new collection.


Stiller v. Thurber: The Feeling of Real

Technique tracked:
plot arc–short story v. film


Film adaptations of fiction can provide interesting insight into plot structure. What scenes have been added, left out, or reordered, and why? But Ben Stiller’s 2013 adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the most divergent “adaptations” of a work I think I’ve ever seen. Stiller was inspired by the short story to create a character who escapes real life through occasional fantasies of heroism; that and the character’s name are pretty much the only similarities.

In the original, we do not even know Walter Mitty’s occupation. The entire story takes place over the course of one day that he’s running errands with his nagging wife, and is composed in almost equal parts of his fantasies and real life. In the sections of “real” life interspersed, he is being belittled, having memories of being belittled, or struggling to remember the mundane details life has called him to, like the fact that his wife asked him to pick up puppy biscuits. In the literal world of the story, Mitty and their wife are on their way to running errands, then they diverge for separate ones, briefly reunite and then separate again. We both enter and leave the story, though, through Walter’s fantasies. The story opens with “‘We’re going through!’ The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”), a fantasy of Walter in war, and then end with him facing the firing squad for execution, “inscrutable to the last.” The war offers an astute entry point that makes the reader’s subsequent entrance into the “real” world as jarring as Mitty’s, while the firing-squad fantasy provides a sense of closure despite the fact that the fantasies have no coherent throughline, only the common theme of his heroism and/or participation in action.

The fantasies are often connected to physical gestures from Mitty’s real life: when his wife orders him to don a pair of driving gloves, the next fantasy begins with him removing gloves as a famous surgeon. We see how the fantasies are a direct product of his interactions with “real” life, reinforcing how they are, in the larger sense, an indirect product of tedious circumstance. The climax is a declaration to his wife, again nagging him about something he hasn’t done: “I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” She continues to dominate him, however, telling him to wait for her while she runs into a store for just “a minute,” at which point he returns to fantasy, letting us know that this state of affairs will continue. But we’ve learned that the only time Mitty will really defend himself, the circumstance under which he will come closest to resembling his fantastical doppelganger, is when the fantasies themselves are threatened.

While Mitty’s psychological landscape is plenty rich enough to propel this compact story, the subdued narrative—this glimpse of a day in the life of—does not, on first glance, seem like it would make the most riveting movie. The plot is there is no plot, this non-plot revealing precisely why Walter Mitty needs to depend on fantasy, which becomes a kind of plot. But, someone trying to make a full-length feature might need to add some more material. The story was written several decades ago, so it makes sense that a retelling would be modernized. But Stiller’s version I would venture to call corrupted, as he spins an elaborate plotline barely anchored to the kernel he took from the original.

First major difference: we do not enter the movie in a fantasy of Walter’s. We see him in “real” life, tentatively checking out a dating site on his computer. Second difference: he does not have a wife, but is on the prowl (though he might be too timid for such a phrase, and Stiller’s acting as such is enjoyable enough to watch if you like that sort of thing). The first fantasy doesn’t occur until he’s waiting for a train, on the phone with an eHarmony rep about an issue with his dating account. Walter can’t send someone a “wink.” Instead of helping him with the problem, however, the technician starts to try to help him fill out his profile’s empty fields, forcing Walter to admit that he’s never been anywhere or done anything interesting—at which point, a fantasy finally intercedes. The problem for me is that this world feels utterly false before we break from it for the fantasy. The world became Hollywood false the second the eHarmony rep started talking to Ben Stiller like he was an actual person instead of a customer. The “real” world of the movie is itself a feel-good Hollywood fantasy. So the fantasies are left to assert themselves as any good Hollywood blockbuster should, through a big special-effects budget. Narratives in whatever medium require a suspension of disbelief and all that, but this film is not asking me to believe this is a separate world with its own parameters, where people can fly or whatever it is—for this story it’s especially important that it’s our world, that spinning bowl of drudgery from which Walter Mitty so needs his escape.

Third big difference: we know Walter’s job. He works in “negative assets” for Life magazine, “negative” referring to photos. (Having him work for Life is admittedly a clever touch.) As soon as Walter gets to work this day he’s got a problem: they’re shutting down the print issues of the magazine, and the negative of the image they want to put on the final cover—Walter’s department—is missing. The photographer has traveled all over capturing extreme images, and this missing one is supposed to be the quintessence of life itself. Walter, bursting into random fantasy here and there, usually around his office love interest (Kristen Wiig), must eventually go track down the photographer out in Iceland to try to get another copy of the image. Now Walter’s “real” life begins to resemble the fantasies, as he navigates rugged obstacles to track the photographer, always on his heels but never catching him. He gets fired from Life for being unable to recover the negative and in frustration throws away the wallet the photographer sent him as a birthday present, engraved with inspirational life-living messages about “looking inside.” Eventually Walter finds out the negative was in the wallet, that the photographer meant “look inside” literally. Luckily his mother rescued the wallet from the garbage. The cover image is Walter himself, sitting outside a building, examining negatives: this is the “quintessence of life.”

Full disclosure: I only watched the first twenty minutes, and then I read the Wikipedia summary, because I could already tell what the problem was: in this version Walter Mitty gets the opportunity to live his fantasies. It seems a logical enough leap, that such fantasies might eventually galvanize the person having them into being the person he or she fantasizes he or she is. But it’s pure Hollywood fantasy—even though Walter doesn’t catch the photographer and gets fired, this is just a momentary setback—while Thurber’s remains true to the human condition. Thurber’s story is about the fact that the fantasies are all Walter Mitty has. They’re not about helping him engage with the “real” world, but about helping him escape it. He is offered no opportunity to better the circumstances that drive him to fantasize. They allow him just enough freedom to be able to continue fantasizing. Stiller’s narrative sugar coats the love story by resetting it to the character’s pursuit of a love interest: things might not look so rosy for Wiig and Stiller after twenty years. Thurber’s Mitty probably loved his wife when he first met her too, but things have gone downhill, as things will do. Except in Hollywood, unless it’s the initial part of the character’s arc before the upswing. The ending, with the photo of pre-real-adventure Mitty symbolizing life’s quintessence, is true to Thurber’s concept, but Thurber actually depicts this quintessence while Stiller violates it, then pays it lip-service.

The people who live and work in Hollywood might be under the impression that dreams come true, but for the rest of us, this is just a carrot stick Hollywood’s dangling for the rest of us to chase through another day.


Long Live the King, Pt. II: Until DeLillo Deposes Him

Techniques tracked:
-Humanizing villains by taking up their perspective
-Eliciting sympathy for (potentially villainous) characters through descriptions of their external environment


An earlier post touched on why Stephen King holds such appeal for mass audiences, hinting that a text’s mass appeal and depiction and/or induction of existential suffering are inversely correlated: more suffering, less appeal and vice versa. Another work of King’s I will use to discuss what qualifies as “good” fiction, just in time for the series adaptation, is 11/22/63 (2011), specifically in the context of Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988).

11/22/63’s protagonist, Jake Epping, travels back in time in an attempt to stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy, which he believes will significantly impact history as we know it for the better. The portal he does this through, for some reason, always takes its users to 1958, and in the years leading up to the assassination, Jake witnesses much domestic squabbling between Lee and his wife, Marina, and his mother, Marguerite (both real-life figures). Jake is there when the Oswalds’ plane first lands from Russia, to which Lee has defected but now returned with his Russian wife. The first time Jake sees Lee he observes:

Lee’s expression was . . . amused? Knowing? Maybe both. The tiniest suggestion of a smile dimpled the corners of his mouth. His nondescript hair was neatly combed. He was, in fact, the perfect A. J. Squared Away in his pressed white shirt, khakis, and shined shoes. He didn’t look like a man who had just completed a journey halfway around the world; there wasn’t a wrinkle on him and not a trace of beard-shadow on his cheeks. He was just twenty-two years old, and looked younger—like one of the teenagers in my last American Lit class.

For the most part here, Jake observes Lee as he would any other human being, comparing him to his own students, though in this passage Jake’s already reading too much into Lee based on future actions. Jake also observes:

Lee took the baby. Marina smiled her gratitude, and when her lips parted, I saw that one of her teeth was missing. The others were discolored, one of them almost black. The contrast with her creamy skin and gorgeous eyes was jarring.

This passage seems to be on the one hand implying Lee has rescued Marina from worse circumstances—or is it her present circumstances of being with Lee that’s such a contrast to her natural beauty? Future observations hint it’s the latter, as Jake watches them move into their house:

During the moving-in process, Marina stood on the crabgrassy lawn with June in her arms, looking at her new home with an expression of dismay that needed no translation. …

I thought Marina might point at the house and say no like, I no like—she had that much English down—but she only handed Lee the baby and climbed to the porch, tottering for a moment on the loose step, then catching her balance.

And not long after:

Marina approached Lee, holding the baby like a shield. They talked. Then they shouted. Family solidarity was gone with the wind; Marguerite had seen to that. Lee took the baby, rocked her in the crook of one arm, then—with absolutely no warning—punched his wife in the face. Marina went down, bleeding from the mouth and nose and crying loudly. Lee looked at her. The baby was also crying. Lee stroked June’s fine hair, kissed her cheek, rocked her some more. Marina came back into view, struggling to her feet. Lee kicked her in the side and down she went again. I could see nothing but the cloud of her hair.

Leave him, I thought, even though I knew she wouldn’t. Take the baby and leave him. Go to George Bouhe. Warm his bed if you have to, but get away from that skinny, mother-ridden monster posthaste.

Emphasis on Marina’s poor English, use of the word “monster,” and antagonism toward Lee’s mother, Marguerite. Jake actually sees Marguerite before he sees Lee, talking to her other son:

“He’s a damn Commie, Ma, and he’s not coming home. Get used to it.”

You call me!” she shrilled. Her grim little face was set. She stood with her feet planted apart, like a boxer ready to absorb a blow. Any blow. Every blow. Her eyes glared from behind black-rimmed harlequin glasses. Her kerchief was double-knotted beneath her chin. The rain had begun to fall now, but she paid it no mind. She drew in breath and raised her voice to something just short of a scream. “I need to hear from my good boy, you hear?

The passage begins with respect for a woman who’s been through some hard times, but by the concluding almost-scream has devolved into a caricature that prompts Jake to think:

I wouldn’t see Lee Oswald for another year and a half, and I remained determined to stop him, but I already felt more sympathy for him than I ever had for Frank Dunning.

Frank Dunning being another murderer Jake will try to prevent from murdering by murdering. So we’ve got a portrait of Lee as monstrous, though not incapable of incurring Jake’s sympathy—thanks to the fact that his mother is a monster. Though Jake is reluctant to kill Lee without proof he acted alone, seeming to give fair consideration to the idea that there might be more to this whole JFK assassination than history’s told us, personal circumstances interfere: as Jake’s about to see whether it’s true Lee actually tries to assassinate a general in the weeks before Kennedy’s killing, Jake’s girlfriend Sadie’s psycho ex takes her hostage, and, choosing his love over his mission for the moment, Jake abandons his spying on Lee. Ultimately, Jake decides to carry out his mission without confirmation of Lee’s (sole) guilt; hey, he can always go back and reset the timeline if he needs to, though eventually it will be revealed that there are far graver consequences for doing so than originally thought (every time you time travel you create another reality, and the more realities there are floating around, the more likely all of them are to implode). In order to succeed in the mission he’s invested so much in and on which the fate of the free world is riding, Jake must sacrifice the love he’s acquired in the course of doing so: he kills Oswald, but not before Oswald kills Sadie.

Here is how Lee appears to Jake in Lee’s final moments, as he’s being shot multiple times by police:

He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man at the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.

King refrains from using the word “monster” again, but still. Pretty damn close. That use of “us” there almost redeems it, like this could have happened to anyone, but to me this feels forced, an afterthought. Lee feels far more excluded from humanity here at the conclusion than included.

Jake, of course, is in a position to see Lee as evil, observing him from the context of someone who’s specifically trying to stop him from killing the leader of the free world. Still, one would hope a fair portrayal would humanize Lee to some extent. Does seeing him stroke his daughter’s hair as he kicks his wife achieve this? For me, not quite. Neither does this rendition of Marina, when she comes knocking on Jake’s door:

Marina either ignored my surprised expression or didn’t notice it. She had problems of her own. “Please excuse, have you seen my hubka?” She bit her lips and shook her head a little. “Hubs-bun.” She attempted to smile, and she had those nicely refurbished teeth to smile with, but it still wasn’t very successful. “Sorry, sir, don’t speak good Eenglish. Am Byelorussia.”

“Goodbye, mister sir. Many thanks. You say nutting?”

“Okay,” I said. “Mum’s the word.” She didn’t get that, but nodded and looked relieved when I put my finger across my lips.

Jake, if not the author, is just a wee bit condescending, with the excessive amount of focus on Marina’s poor English (“You say nutting?” could read “You say nothing?” and we’d still get the gist of the Russian accent). In any case, where all these characters land on the moral compass is unequivocally clear. Lee is the villain; Marina is the victim; it’s all very black-and-white, cut and dry, except perhaps for Marguerite’s being a villain turning Lee into one with her “pernicious brand of smotherlove.”

Marguerite Oswald was out on the passenger side almost before it stopped rolling. Today the red kerchief had been replaced by a white one with black polka dots, but the nurse’s shoes were the same, and so was the look of dissatisfied pugnacity. She had found them, just as Robert had said she would.

Hound of heaven
, I thought. Hound of heaven.

I was looking out through the crack between the drapes, but saw no point in powering up the mike. This was a story that needed no soundtrack.

Of course it doesn’t, because Jake’s presumptions have already filled it all in.

Marguerite gives the impression of a shrieking psychopath pretty much the moment she hits the page, offering little insight into what made her that way or at the least some softening instant of vulnerability in which you feel you (might) understand her. Though it’s possible I’m overlooking some such moment somewhere, as it is a large book, the feeling I came away with after reading it was that the Oswalds here were distinctly two-dimensional. For more passages that sound much like others already provided:

Marguerite came puffing down the street from the Winscott Road bus stop. This evening she was wearing blue slacks that were unfortunate, considering the generous spread of her butt. … She walked up the porch steps (once more deftly avoiding the bad one) and marched in without knocking.

The spread of Marguerite’s butt is surely more generous than Jake’s capacity for compassion. Though the characterizations themselves could ultimately use more dimension, King does use a nice device of characterizing via reactions to the faulty porch step: Marina stumbles but regains her balance, Marguerite avoids it altogether (without the familiarity of actually living there) and Lee repeatedly trips hard on it and gets pissed.

On the heels of another time Lee up and punches Marina in the face (this time for having let his mother in):

Marina went to them and Lee gave her the baby. Then, before she could walk away, he hugged her. She stood silently inside his arms for a moment, then shifted the baby so she could hug him back with one arm. His mouth was buried in her hair, and I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying: the Russian words for I’m sorry. I had no doubt that he was. He would be sorry next time, too. And the time after that.

Marina took June back into what had been Rosette’s bedroom. Lee stood where he was for a moment, then went to the fridge, took something out, and began to eat it.

Here we see Lee doing something human and other than beating someone…but it’s to demonstrate his indifference to beating someone. King, in providing a portrait of Lee, has relied on what ultimately amounts to–in this rendition at least–a reductive theory to explain Lee’s violence and aggression: that Marina bears the brunt of his rage from his mother consistently emasculating him. This theory could have more facets than the note that gets hit in the text over and over, kind of like you-know-who beating his wife:

Marina added her two cents’ worth: “Mamochka, Lee say no.”

Marguerite laughed merrily. “‘Lee say no, Lee say no.’ Honey, Lee always say no, this little man been doin it all his life and it doesn’t mean a thing. Ma takes care of him.” She pinched his cheek, the way a mother would pinch the cheek of a six-year-old after he has done something naughty but undeniably cute. If Marina had tried that, I’m sure Lee would have knocked her block off.

Don DeLillo, on the other hand, implicitly reinforces sympathy for Lee from the moment he’s introduced, both by depicting aspects of his life that are far removed from the public dialog about him, and by the physical details he includes about Lee’s surroundings. Granted, Lee is introduced much earlier in Libra, being one of its central characters instead of just a critical one relegated to the periphery—which is precisely why I think Libra is more ambitious, challenging and rewarding than 11/22/63. In the latter, one of the last century’s most infamous villains remains a villain, while in the former he becomes a human being, and even more than that, as the much larger forces he’s at the mercy of are fleshed out: he is both human being and cog at the end of an intricate political machine. DeLillo takes up Lee’s perspective rather than just gazing at him from the outside, as King does, as we’ve done ever since Lee was swept up in the detritus-choked stream of history. Though Libra’s plot is supposedly as fictional as 11/22’s time-traveling—Lee being in Libra simply the triggerman at the front end of a complex CIA conspiracy to incite war with an assassination attempt—it’s certainly nowhere near as far-fetched, and reinforces, along with the astrological title, that even though these might not be the exact forces the real-life Lee found himself at the mercy of, he was inevitably at the mercy of some we haven’t considered and would not personally, in the context of our 21st century lives, be able to comprehend.

This is what good fiction does: reveals the humanity in those whom we would ordinarily consider the most inhumane. 11/22’s plot would be more interesting to me if Jake Epping accidentally became friends with Lee and wound up trying to help him, rather than the bulk of the plot consisting of Jake dealing with obstacles from “the obdurate past” trying to stop his interference, obstacles that are sometimes connected to Jake’s personal choices, but that are often completely random.

In Libra’s first chapter we meet Lee as a child, who, riding at the very front of a subway, is presented to us “smashing through the dark,” as tragic a circumstance for a person or description of life in general as I’ve ever heard. The chapter is bookended by Lee’s subway-riding, which in being repeatedly referenced gains the substance of metaphor:

It did not seem odd to him that the subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets.

This passage reinforces the idea that the real truth lies beneath the surface of things—because there’s always more to something than just its surface. King’s Lee is all surface; DeLillo’s burrows inside.

In the first chapter, we see Lee being a person, humanized by simple facts and actions other than wife-beating: “He rode the subways. He spent serious time at the zoo.” And “Nobody knew how hard it was for him to read.” We also meet Marguerite, whom Lee is living with by himself at this juncture:

”I love my United States but I don’t look forward to a courtroom situation, which is what happened with Mr. Ekdahl, accusing me of uncontrollable rages. They will point out that they have cautioned us officially. I will tell them I’m a person with no formal education who holds her own in good company and keeps a neat house. We are a military family. This is my defense.”

Here Marguerite is defending herself to a truancy officer for Lee’s skipping school, a situation that offers her precisely the defense she’s denied in 11/22. You can hear her Russian accent through the rhythm of her words rather than from the individual words’ misspellings. We’ve also learned that she’s gone through a divorce with a man who claims she “rages,” which she claims is a made-up accusation, and we are left unable to believe completely either Marguerite’s or Mr. Ekdahl’s version of events, knowing the truth lies somewhere in the middle. DeLillo manages to make Marguerite overbearing and sympathetic, rendering vividly their close-knit environment, the smells in the bathroom they share. You feel Marguerite’s desperation as her life is summed up as moves to successively smaller apartments, and understand why she might be so overbearing. She also defends Lee, downplaying the importance of his pulling a knife on his brother’s bride—a potentially monstrous aspect of Lee introduced early on that’s really a vulnerability higher powers will use to exploit him when they need an unstable front man to be the fall guy.

Let’s meet Libra’s Marina:

She wore shorts like any housewife in America. She thought she was in a dream at first, walking on the street in bare legs, with her hair cut short, looking in shopwindows. She saw things you could not buy in Russia if you had unlimited wealth, if you had money spilling out of your closets. She knew she hadn’t lived in the world long enough to make comparisons, and Russia suffered terribly in the war, but it was impossible to see all this furniture, these racks and racks of clothing without being struck by amazement.

They had very little money, practically no money. But Marina was happy just to walk the aisles of the Safeway near Robert’s house. The packages of frozen food. The colors and abundance.

Lee got angry one night, coming back from a day of looking for work. He told her she was becoming an American in record-breaking time.

They were like people anywhere, people starting life a second time. If they quarreled it was only because he had a different nature in America and that was the only way he could love.

Neon was a revelation, those gay lights in windows and over movie marquees.

Marina is happy here, for one thing (as reinforced by the description of the environment in the final sentence). Her natural adjustment to an unfamiliar country is shown by her amazed reaction to the clothes and goods rather than her poor English. And, without predominantly laying the blame at Marguerite’s doorstep, this passage also provides us some insight into the motives for Lee’s domestic abuse, which doesn’t rear it’s ugly head with a punch in the face every time Marina turns around, but slowly builds from the frustrations that anyone could identify with—difficulty finding work, a wife being seduced toward the opposition of your principles. We also get access to Marina’s justifications for staying: she understands Lee’s violence as a form of love, which would mean the more violent he is, the less likely she is to leave—ah, love!

Wikipedia’s description of Libra summarizes its presentation of Lee nicely:

Oswald is portrayed as an odd outcast of a man, whose overtly communist political views cause him difficulties fitting into American society. He is not portrayed sympathetically, nor is he castigated; he is treated fairly in the novel, yet is not a character easy to attach to. He loves his wife, yet beats her; he dotes on his children yet he mistreats his mother. He is not shown to be a madman with absurd ideologies, but well-read and intelligent. However, the book also indicates that he is dyslexic and has great difficulty both in writing letters and reading books (he is described reading the works of Karl Marx slowly). He could be described as a pawn easily manipulated by others. But there is also continually a tendency to use this dyslexia as a wider theme in the issue of ‘reading’ situations, and more widely still the human difficulty in understanding themselves and the human situation.

Compare this to Wikipedia’s description of 11/22‘s portrayal of Lee:

Oswald, who is vocal about his support for Communist causes, is depicted as an ill-tempered loner who acts out of a self-absorbed desire for fame.

To go back to the description of Libra‘s Lee, I suppose I don’t make much of a distinction between a character being treated “sympathetically” and “fairly”; Wikipedia must equate “sympathetic” with treating a character as all good, angelic, without flaws, but to me “sympathetic” means human, which means flaws, mixed in with the good stuff. DeLillo was criticized for being a “bad citizen” after writing this novel, for “blaming America for Oswald’s act of derangement.” This particular critic believes novelists should be “constrained by concern for truthfulness,” i.e., faithful to historical fact, as if we were academic historians. But our jobs are something else. As DeLillo puts it,

Being called a “bad citizen” is a compliment to a novelist, at least to my mind. That’s exactly what we ought to do. We ought to be bad citizens. We ought to, in the sense that we’re writing against what power represents, and often what government represents, and what the corporation dictates, and what consumer consciousness has come to mean. In that sense, if we’re bad citizens, we’re doing our job.


Birds and BASE

Techniques tracked:
-Narrative as emotional trajectory
-Chronic and acute tension intersecting for climactic choice


Before he upended television with True Detective, writer Nic Pizzolatto cut his writing chops on literary fiction. His short story “Ghost Birds” from the collection Between Here and the Yellow Sea (2006) demonstrates two fundamental craft lessons: 1. A narrative tells the story of a character’s shifting emotional trajectory, and 2. This narrative is a product of tensions interacting at the surface (acute) and subtextual (chronic) levels.

The story has a built-in symbol of emotional trajectory: it opens at the top of the St. Louis Arch, where the main character, a park ranger, has his office. Positioned thus with an expansive view, about to BASE jump six hundred feet, the narrator observes: “in that moment I feel I might be straddling the sleeping intersection of a country’s dreams.”

In a story there are lots of things going on, all of which fall into one or the other category of what I’ll call here, courtesy of former Gulf Coast editor Zachary Martin, the story’s “chronic” tension and its “acute” tension. Chronic refers to past, ongoing tension that exists before the start of the story, and acute refers to that which is happening right now, the situation of the story.

Every story surrounds a particular event taking place in the present moment. In “Ghost Birds,” the acute tension is that this narrator, who’s living an isolated life, begins seeing a girl named Erica and teaching her how to BASE jump, his preferred method of stress relief. People who have seen him doing this from the arch at night believe him to be a mythical “ghost bird,” and Erica is the only one who knows his identity as this entity. The story begins in the moments right before he meets Erica, unspooling the circumstances of his meeting her.

The events of the present, the acute tension, are only important insofar as they are informed by the character’s past. The character is going to experience some type of change from going through the events covered in the story’s time span, and the past, the chronic tension, is the key to why these particular present events have whatever effect on the character they do.

Some writers might dump a lot of information at the beginning about the things a character has been through, but this risks draining energy from the present narrative and is generally ill-advised. Pizzolatto handles the insertion of the past with brief deft brushstrokes that reveal a little bit more each time they appear.

In the opening scene leading up to his meeting with Erica, as the narrator is in the elevator going down the arch to investigate some suspicious people he’s spotted, we get:

I had a girlfriend who loved exploring forbidden places. Our nerves humming along on whatever we copped, Mabel would lead me through dark spaces crammed with steam pipes and No Trespassing signs, staircases to rooftops that ended in a kiss.

And after the scene in which he meets Erica, when he’s coming back up the arch’s elevator, we get:

I’m compelled to think of Mabel, so I spend the rest of my shift practicing guided meditation. In the lotus position, I close my eyes and focus on the Blue Triangle where I store the egoless self, trying not to remember Mabel’s laugh and the cleft at the base of her spine, the taste of her sweat or the purple bathwater that covered her on our last night together.

That “last night” reference piques our interest. What happened to Mabel? The next mention of her comes when Erica, trying to procure his instruction, asks him why he BASE jumps:

…the image of Mabel floating lifeless beneath lavender soap bubbles flashes across my mind…

This is a description that intimates Mabel might have committed suicide. A while later, after the narrator’s father makes an appearance, Mabel comes up when he first sleeps with Erica:

Her skin is darker than Mabel’s, and she weighs less.

And when Erica again asks him why he BASE jumps, when he’s trying to convince her not to go through with hers:

I don’t mention the time four years ago when I bought half a gram of heroin, or the night Mabel used it, passed out, and slipped under the bathwater we were going to share when I got home.

The intimation of suicide was a tease, it turns out. We discover the narrator was involved in the death himself. No wonder he’s so reticent to think about Mabel. A bit later in that same conversation we get:

What I don’t mention is that I can’t possibly handle killing another girl.

The narrator was not only involved in Mabel’s death by having been there for it, but feels directly responsible. Erica insists on jumping, and since she’s going to with or without him, he packs her parachute for her, assuming the responsibility he does not want. Erica makes her first jump but promises not to do any more. Later, when she insists on returning to jumping despite his reservations, we get:

…the face I see is Mabel’s. My stomach hurts, a cramping I haven’t felt since I first went cold turkey, four years ago.

And he breaks up with Erica. When she demands an explanation, his response is the intersection of the acute and chronic tension:

“Because I don’t want to be there when you die.”

The acute tension is his relationship with Erica, the chronic his relationship with Mabel—more specifically, the responsibility he feels for her death. The acute and chronic tension are integrally related: the issues the narrator has surrounding Mabel have remained below the surface for him until the acute tension, meeting Erica, forces them to the surface. The sparingness with which the narrator spools out information about Mabel isn’t just to pique our interest: it’s organic to this stoic, control-obsessed character. The surfacing occurs gradually, but steadily, and in spite of his apparent resistance to it. Mabel’s face appearing to him the day Erica declares she’s jumping again drives him toward his climactic decision to break up with her and not retread the road of witnessing a girlfriend’s death.

The plot embodies an arc: the narrator meets Erica, the action rising to the moment of her first BASE jump, at which point the narrator realizes she is doing it for the same reasons he started to—to attempt to (futilely) tame fear and death. There’s a brief interim where we stay at the emotional arch’s pinnacle: Erica promises not to jump again, and the narrator quits working so many creepy graveyard shifts at the park, apparently no longer jumping himself, either. Then, eventually, Erica changes her mind, initiating the arch’s downward slide into the story’s climax, where the chronic and acute tension intersect: the narrator breaks up with Erica because he doesn’t want to be responsible for another girl’s death. His decision in the present is informed by the formative experience of his past. He gets his old job back, and starts jumping again. These returns to positions he occupied at the story’s beginning might seem to imply he hasn’t changed, but his perspective on the view from the arch at least has:

Now I tell myself that I don’t straddle the dreams of my culture, but that I stand within them.

He has gone from being an outsider to insider, or at least telling himself he has, and taking solace from the thought of what other people will interpret him as, a ghost bird. With this ending, he actually becomes a ghost bird.

This conclusion, however, did not bring me to my knees; the “change,” though well executed technically, fell short of a satisfying emotional catharsis. It could be the abstraction of the idea of “standing within the dreams” of the culture that I’m struggling with. Thinking about the people “ready to mold me into whatever they decide to believe I am,” the narrator seems to have gained a more altruistic impulse, which seems to be why he sees himself as more integrated into the culture. He goes from wanting no one to see him because what he’s doing is illegal to welcoming it, human connection he gets in lieu of a relationship with Erica. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a significant change because when we begin the story, the narrator seems to have himself well in control (see all the Taoist texts and Blue Triangles). Erica disrupts the balance of his Triangles, but only briefly, and his disciplined decision to sever the relationship seems a manifestation of the control he’s been working hard to maintain, of the control he already had. The decision seems in character, not one that disrupts character and changes it.

It would still be a perfectly fine story if he technically stays the same from beginning to end, as he has the opportunity to change—a decision was still made. But this decision doesn’t feel momentous enough to have enabled the change the story seems to be trying to imply occurs, his alleged shift from inwardly focused (dealing with the Mabel trauma) to outward (helping people by being whatever they believe him to be). Perhaps it is critical that the sentence begins “Now I tell myself” instead of simply reading “Now I don’t straddle the dreams of my culture, but stand within them.” Perhaps we are supposed to read him at the end as in denial, but other textual clues seem to be pushing for legitimate change.

An ongoing thread is that the narrator’s father has Alzheimer’s and lives in a home nearby, with a scene of the narrator visiting him and witnessing his deterioration during the brief interval after Erica stops her jumping (perhaps hinting at the deterioration of this peaceful state). The issues with his father would seem to be part of the chronic tension, since they exist before the story starts. There are references to the narrator’s having grown up on a farm and then not fitting in when he went to college, which the reader might interpret as a potential contribution to his drug use. But the real way the father contributes to the story’s chronic tension is exposed when Erica presses him for more of an explanation of why he’s breaking up with her:

“I can’t handle losing anyone else,” I say, and what I’m thinking is, I am so tired of everyone disappearing.

Right before the passage about the narrator’s supposedly changed motivation that precedes his story-ending jump, he drives by his father’s home and, seeing his father’s not in his window—that is, seeing his father’s absence—he thinks “I ponder my father, perhaps for the first time, with true clarity.” This presents difficulties similar to the dreams-of-my-culture line, an abstraction pronouncing clearly that there’s been a change, in this case in the way he sees his father. The change toward his father seems to be another signal of his trajectory shifting from inwardly focused to outward, a textual clue that potentially undermines the denial reading.

What’s shown is that he’s in the exact same place doing the exact same thing as at the beginning; he’s just told us his reason for it has changed. Perhaps his actually seeing someone watching before jumping would do more to show us that he wants them to see. The story’s being bookended by the exact same prop and action—the arch, his jump—subconsciously reinforce a lack of change, and I’m left feeling like I’ve been told the change rather than shown it.

“Lost Brother in Yosemite,” an article about real-life BASE jumpers, is an example of a piece bookended by the same prop that succeeds in reinforcing a massive shift occurring between beginning and end. At the beginning we get the description:

There were no tourists, only a raven, black and unhurried, circling at the edge of the cliff.

Two BASE jumpers, Dean and Graham, then jump from the cliff to what turns out to be their deaths. At the end, we get,

Rapp [Dean’s girlfriend] sat alone on a rock. A raven appeared. Unflinchingly, it approached and patiently ate a piece of salami out of her hand. It had never happened to her before.

Rapp then declares her belief that the raven is Dean. We begin and end with the raven and Dean on a cliff, but they are separate entities at the beginning, combined at the end, viscerally demonstrating the biggest change that occurs over the course of the story, Dean’s continued presence despite his bodily absence.


Creative Writing 101

The goal of creative writing is to make the reader feel like they are inhabiting the fictional world you wish to render (or nonfictional one you wish to recreate), to make this world seem real. EM Forster says the writer’s only responsibility is to make the reader want to know what happens next; making the world seem real is an implied and necessary prerequisite. To make your readers feel the world, you must create an image in their brains. Studies show that specific, concrete actions and objects (verbs and nouns) light up the same neural pathways that would go off if we were actually performing that action or seeing that object in real life. In our brain, we are experiencing it. In other words, reading is equivalent to doing—that is, when the right words are being used.

One of the best ways to access the images your brain naturally projects is to observe how you experience your memories. The writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry has a method called writing the unthinkable that demonstrates the three-dimensionality of projected images. As the warmup, close your eyes, and picture a car. Got it there, situated in your mind’s eye? How can you if you’re reading this?
Okay, good. Now:
Are you inside or outside?
Is it day or night?
What’s to your left?
What’s to your right?

Did you picture a black Camaro? A pistachio Volkswagen Beetle? Being able to answer these questions (admittedly better administered verbally than in writing) should give you an idea of how clear and specific your mental images can be. As Russell Brand extrapolates,

There is no limit to what can be imagined either; we can now in this moment command the mind to play the Kylie track, then instead of her singing it, have the words emerge from the mouth of an elephant in dark glasses. Your mind is doing it now. It exists. Then you can put your school’s hardest kid in there, mine was Jamie Dawkins (no relation), put him on the elephant’s back dressed as bin Laden, singing the harmonies.

Barry’s next step is to pick any concrete object—“lemon” or “feathers” or “cookie” or whatever tickles your fancy (she has a readymade box of nouns to draw from)—and take 2-3 minutes to jot down images you associate with it. For “lemon,” mine might be “melting lemonade popsicles in summer,” “seeds in a strainer,” “rinds in a slushie,” “shrimp cocktail,” etc. Then take the most vivid image on the page and sketch in more of the surrounding scene, describing the sensory details associated with it. Move around in the image; explore it. What’s going on to the left and the right? What do things sound like, smell like, taste like, look like, feel like? Barry’s point is that the things we remember are significant; if they’re not, then we forget. I might remember the shrimp cocktail because it was from the celebratory dinner after my high school graduation at which my grandparents presented me with a new car they left out in the parking lot with a giant picture of me taped to the side. The lemonade popsicles might remind me of the time my brother busted my lip while we were playing street hockey and I couldn’t eat them for a week because they stung so bad. The point is, if you probe your memories, you’ll discover narrative. Of course it’s impossible to sift through all of them; the object provides a useful filter that organizes the mental database.

Senses are the gateway to memory: if you suddenly smell the air freshener that your deceased grandma used to use in her bedroom, then your mind will flash to your grandmother’s bedroom back when she was alive. And you won’t only remember the place itself, but the things that happened in it, whether it’s a recurring memory of how she read in her armchair or a specific one of your rifling through her dresser to play dressup. Barry points out that if we pay attention, we’ll notice this flood of sense-based memory happens all day long.

And this is the next important lesson: pay attention. This poem by James Wright (via David Mitchell) discusses the importance of observing:

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Much like Barry’s exercise, here the writer is apprehending what’s above, below, and to either side of him. The point, according to Mitchell at least, is tongue-in-cheek; it’s not a waste of time for a writer to observe, but rather a writer’s job. There’s a difference between observing and merely seeing; the more time you spend observing, the more you will see (Wright sees horse poop and observes cyclical regeneration). Once you’re able to mentally look around and observe the physical sensory details that bring a scene to life—that is, project it into the reader’s brain—then you’re well on your way to fulfilling the classic creative writing adage “Show, Don’t Tell.” As Anton Chekhov says, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Showing lights up the neural pathways; Telling doesn’t. For example:
Telling: Dad was a mean man.
Showing: One Christmas Eve [Dad] shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. (George Saunders, “Sticks”)

Flannery O’Connor offers this on showing:

Now when the fiction writer finally gets this idea through his head and into his habits, he begins to realize what a job of heavy labor the writing of fiction is. A lady who writes … wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

The line she cites of Flaubert’s as an example is:

She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.

This passage shows both the larger town that Emma Bovary is a part of, and her effect on it. The bailiff’s clerk is activated by his bareheadedness, slippers, and sheet of paper: three strokes.

Point is, you can’t just tell the reader you’re at an amusement park and expect them to believe it. You have to show them the skeletal behemoths of the rides and the creaking chains that pull them, the clammy feel of the bar clamping you into the roller coaster cart, the smell of cotton candy, the sound of screaming and the fact that, eventually, you start to ignore it. In “Sticks,” Saunders offers more “sensuous strokes” to activate the mean father: “He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream.” The things we do show what kind of people we are.

Now that you can beam scenes into your reader’s brain with evocative sensory details, you’re ready to discover how these scenes fit into the larger overarching structure of a plot. An industry plotting standard is the infamous “inverted checkmark” model:
which represents rising action leading to a climax followed by a brief stint of falling action (the resolution). A story is, loosely, something that happens. What happens, however, cannot be arbitrary, but could only happen to your particular character(s). A family going on a picnic and being struck by an asteroid is something happening, but it is entirely arbitrary, as the asteroid would have killed any family. In Flannery O’Connor’s classic “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a family gets killed by a fugitive criminal, but this is not arbitrary; it is specifically the grandmother’s fault that they encounter the criminal. She brought along the cat she wasn’t supposed to, and, emerging from its hiding place, the cat causes a car wreck that puts the family in the criminal’s path. The grandmother’s selfishness initiates the story’s chain of events; it not only leads them to the criminal, but also ensures their destruction once there when she is unable to contain herself from blurting that she knows his identity from the papers. This is an important lesson: plot comes from character. Characters cause their own problems, and problems are plots.

Laura Numeroff’s classic children’s tale If You Give a Mouse A Cookie nicely illustrates the “rising” action of story:

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin. Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache. When he looks in the mirror, he might notice his hair needs a trim. So he’ll probably ask for a pair of nail scissors. …

One thing causes another causes another. Plot is just one big ole snowball rolling down a hill—down the hill being, in this case, through time.

As per Barry, plots aren’t premeditated. In my experience, there are (at least) three avenues to generating them: beginning with a concrete setting, a concrete character, or a concrete action (note the common theme here). The key is you are discovering plot from writing, not generating it beforehand. There are plenty of exercises to jump start you from any of these three avenues, providing some parameters to work in that can help narrow the overwhelming possibilities of the blank page. Once you have something that happens, you can then ask what other things this thing might logically (or illogically) cause.

Setting. Justin Cronin offers a list of mini scenes to bring to life with concrete details. Once you start to describe the setting, you’ll find the story of what happened there just waiting for you to discover it. Starting from “something rusty,” I began describing an old scythe by a woodpile that used to be the narrator’s father’s. Implicit here is the story of why the father is no longer around; the fact that the narrator associates a sharp (or formerly sharp) object with her father implies he is a man who could also cut—emotionally, that is. Though he can cut physically too if that route is best for the story.

  • Dusk descending on an open field in autumn, beside a rarely-traveled road far from any city.
  • An amazingly expensive instrument in a surprisingly humble setting.
  • Being searched at an airport.
  • Being in the presence of a favorite relative who might be ill.
  • Someone buying something large/expensive/frivolous.
  • Getting a haircut
  • The first night in a new house.
  • Begin lost in a thoroughly alien neighborhood.
  • Stepping off a plane into a strikingly different climate.
  • The look and feel of the world just before a storm arrives.
  • The “feel” of stealing something.
  • The room of an abandoned house, unaccountably strewn with books.
  • The view from a rooftop.
  • Having dental work done.
  • Driving on an icy road.
  • Sneezing and hiccuping at the same time.
  • A crying child who cannot find her mother.
  • A butcher shop.
  • Counting out a lot of money into piles.
  • Sorting warm laundry with a small child.
  • The room of someone who has died.
  • Something rusty.

Objects. (I’d call this a subset of Setting rather than its own avenue, but that’s merely quibbling.) The Storymatic is an expanded version of Barry’s noun box, with the goal of combining random elements to inspire the story of how they are connected. Draw two gold cards, which describe potential characters (member of the clergy; rider of elevators), and two copper cards, with props and plot points (long awaited invitation; abandoned building), or as many cards as you want. The possible number of story combinations is supposedly six trillion.

Images. (Still in the Setting subset.) What better to conjure mental images than real ones? Robert Olen Butler’s Had A Good Time: Stories from American Postcards is an entire story collection in which each piece was inspired by a postcard. You can see Butler, who is also a vocal advocate of writing without thinking, composing one of these pieces in real-time (that is, unearthing the narrative implied by the image) here.

Character. Robert Boswell’s craft book The Half-Known World eschews traditional character questionnaires (How tall is your character? What is his job?) for an alternate one:

What did your character forget to do this morning?
Why does your character think he ought to be fired?
What recent mistake vaguely reminds your character of a previous mistake she can’t name?
What stupid thing kept her awake last night?
If you met your character in a bar, what would she think of you? In what ways would she be right? What would she get wrong? What would she see about you that you don’t yet understand about yourself?

An answer to any of these could provide a great opening from which to work forward.

Action. Plot is conflict working itself toward resolution. All stories must have conflict. All conflicts are caused by people. An exercise designed by former Gulf Coast editor Zachary Martin called “Boy Circle Girl” generates instantaneous scenes waiting to be fleshed out. Start by making a list of verbs that one person can do to another, then plug in “boy,” “girl,” “man,” and “woman” on both sides of each verb.
Boy dresses woman
Woman swindles woman
Girl reads to boy
Delve deeper and show us the scenes these lines are telling (and use the Storymatic for further inspiration).

Once you have these story starters, whether from setting, character, action, or some combination thereof, they can offer you clues as to what might happen next. For example, I had a student once write a story opening from the Storymatic card “frozen piece of wedding cake”: a man wakes up in a hotel room late at night and goes to snack on his wedding cake, but finds it frozen due to an apparent refrigeration malfunction. Trying to remedy this, he sticks it in the microwave, but for too long, and the cake melts. From these events my mind’s already spinning the deeper conflict that this man’s surface struggles are evidence of: he is unable to get the cake into the state he needs it to be in to do what he wants to do with it (i.e., eat it). I would expect that he’s about to learn, or already has learned, that something similar is also going on with his new wife. The cake is a symbol of their union, which is apparently unpalatable: a great starting conflict to hatch a larger plot. Curiosity is piqued, a question raised: why would this man marry someone he potentially didn’t like? Future scenes will likely explore how the union came to be, when and how it became so unpalatable, and whether it can eventually be restored.

Seek out the questions your concrete descriptions have raised. If there aren’t yet enough questions whose answers inspire scenes, try rewriting the opening with some new parameters—from a different point of view or in a new setting. When the aforementioned student rewrote his scene in a new setting that had to be a tight space, he had the man wake up in a coffin on top of a giant wedding cake. Though he did not write so far as to indicate whether this was the case or not, it seemed like a dream our newly married character was having that further underscored the problematic union, unequivocally showing the man’s stress about it. The concrete impetus of the Storymatic card kept the student from telling us something along the lines of “Mike was unhappy in his marriage…” which is not painting a scene in my head that enables me to feel his unhappiness in my own cells. I can’t see “unhappy.” I can see a melting piece of wedding cake. Now that we have this unhappy couple, we can apply the mouse’s logic: If you have an unhappy couple, they’re probably going to fight. When they fight, they might break something, like a priceless string of pearls. When the string of pearls breaks, one might roll into the a/c vent, which in this hotel are on the floor, and when the man goes to chase this pearl down…he might meet the woman he really should have married.


Long Live the King

Techniques tracked in this post:
-Establishing sympathy and setting with physical sensory details
-Randomizing a character’s fate
-Involving the reader: first- v. third-person narration 

Only one person has sold more books than Stephen King, and that’s God. The questionable source I stole that line from may have incorrectly reported his death three years ago (Stephen King’s, not God’s), but the veracity of this claim…it turns out is also dubious.

And yet, has any other writer’s name appeared more in the debate about what qualifies as “good” writing? Does any other writer have such an apt Dickensian moniker? If you want to reach mass audiences, for god’s sake, read him. But if you want to be “good”? For someone who’s averaged almost a book a year since he started publishing over four decades ago, there’s bound to be a quality differential. Two of his stories that reflect this gap for me are “Autopsy Room Four” and “A Death.” I would classify the latter as literary, while arguing that the former falls short. Good or bad, though, both still utilize techniques worth emulating.


“Autopsy Room Four” is told from the first-person perspective of a man who finds himself on an autopsy table, unable to move or communicate his consciousness to the morticians about to cut him open. We come to understand exactly where the narrator is as he does, via the sensations he’s experiencing: the sound of a squeaky wheel, the smell of vinyl, the scuff of shoes, the motion of rolling. King is a master of sketching the setting via specific physical, sensory details. Crackles and “rubbersmelling stuff.” The hiss of a pneumatic hinge. The tickle of his handler’s tie on his forehead. The whine of a drill, the sight of various scissors and saws. The convincing physical sensations are what yank the reader in, making us a) sympathize with the narrator by making us feel like we are also paralyzed on a gurney; b) want to know what is going to happen; and c) want to know what has already happened. The tension of b and c is further heightened as the narrator regains snippets of memory about what he was doing just before he landed here (golfing), and from the question of whether he’s dead or not. But for this reader, both the mode of revelation of what happened to land him here (what’s going to happen) and what actually landed him here (what already happened) fall short of living up to such a grand, tense setup. Basically a guy storms in just in the nick of time and yells something along the lines of: he’s not actually dead! While just how he figured this out is unclear, it seems he needn’t have bothered anyway, since the narrator’s erection simultaneously reveals he’s alive to the female doctor who is holding it because, in the process of noting markings on the corpse, she has come across an old Vietnam shrapnel wound near his groin. This approaches satisfying irony in that something painful from his past turns out to save him, except that it turns out it doesn’t actually save him, the arbitrary burst-in does, and the emotional pain surrounding this physical past wound is pretty much undeveloped. At any rate, he’ll end up dating this doctor, despite having experienced some pretty grave breaches of corpse-handling protocol during his paralysis.

And how did our narrator get here in the first place? Does it turn out someone was seeking revenge on him for his arrogance, a character trait that’s been seeping subtly through his generally indignant reaction to the situation (“What the fuck do they think I am, a buglight?”) and is hinted at through his nickname, “Howard the Conqueror”? Has he perhaps committed some wrong he’s not even aware of, symbolic of many similar wrongs committed throughout his life that he’s now being called to task for, grabbed by the emotional collar and shaken in a way that forces him to take a long hard look at himself and ask why am I such an asshole? No. A snake bit him. The paralysis will slowly fade, and he gets to date the doctor. Everyone’s happy. And that’s why I would say “Autopsy Room Four” is ultimately not a “good” story. “Good” fiction can never be completely happy; that’s for your sitcoms and blockbusters. As Buddhists know, only suffering leads to redemption. This narrator suffers on the surface, but he never has to reckon with the shortcomings of his own character, and therefore the suffering will not lead to meaningful change. The problem is, what happened to him could have happened to anyone who wound up in that particular place at that particular time, who wound up there as the narrator does: randomly. It was not some essential element of his character that drove him into the brush where the snake was hidden. It would be different if he’d been at the golf course with his wife and pissed her off and she’d hurled her wedding ring out there and that’s why he wound up in the brush where the snake was (for a bad example). If he was in this situation because of something he himself had done, being avenged for ripping someone off in a Ponzi scheme or sleeping with their significant other or just being a general dick bag, then he truly would have suffered in an existential sense, and perhaps would have properly earned his date with the doctor via the charming honesty of a newly turned leaf. But he didn’t really get himself into this mess. No one can blame him for golfing, unless he’d been there in service of some sleazy business shortcut or something (see Ben Fountain’s “Asian Tiger” [note: that is only the beginning] for a golf game that really ups the moral stakes). The snake bite is random, the equivalent of an asteroid, and leaves this tale hovering in the realm of anecdote instead of story.

In 127 Hours, based on the memoir Between A Rock and A Hard Place, Aron Ralston cuts off his own arm to survive. His suffering is not just that induced physically by the extremity of the situation. The thirst, hunger and heat he feels are intensified dramatically by the knowledge that he hurled himself into their clutches. If he only hadn’t been so self-involved as to not tell anyone where he was going, his aggressive independence a fatal flaw…

King is the king for the same reason sitcoms and blockbusters are ubiquitous: we’ve been conditioned to take short-term pleasure over long-term gain. But King is really the king because he’s proven he can also grab those of us who are seeking a challenge by the literary balls when he wants to.


“A Death” (note: that is the whole story) takes what could be called an opposing narrative stance to “Autopsy”’s voice-y first person. The reader is left to interpret events described in a cinematic external third person rather than having a character-narrator mediate them. The story opens with Sheriff Barclay arresting Jim Trusdale for what we eventually learn is the murder of a little girl. Everyone is certain Trusdale is guilty, though Barclay eventually comes around to believing the opposite:

“I ain’t lying,” Trusdale said, and that was when Sheriff Barclay believed him.

Once Barclay does, it almost becomes inevitable, for plot’s sake, that he is wrong and Trusdale is guilty. Trusdale insists upon his innocence until the end, but the silver dollar that the victim was murdered for, whose absence has played significantly in Barclay’s assessment of innocence, turns up in Trusdale’s stool after he’s hanged. Thanks to the even-handed third-person narration, the reader is stuck squarely in Barclay’s position of having to evaluate Trusdale based on sca(n)t evidence. We experience Barclay’s learning of Trusdale’s guilt as though we, too, have been fooled (though one might note we were set up to be, “true” being in the lying character’s name). But as another character points out:

“Maybe that says more about you than it does about him.”

But no one wins here. The key change that is the “what happens” in this narrative happens in both Barclay and the reader: it is revealed how little we know of human nature. Judging a person innocent based on little more than that person’s own claims shows you’re a chap who’s inclined to give humanity the benefit of the doubt. Barclay is stuck, as he is with the crap-coated silver dollar, with the knowledge that the townspeople so quick to condemn turned out to be correct—but at the same time, these people have long misjudged Trusdale’s intelligence, allusions to Trusdale’s stupidity surfacing throughout:

‘Ain’t got a brain in his fuckin’ head,’ one of the men remarked. ‘Makes his daddy look smart.’

‘…He’s too bone-stupid. If he’d had that dollar, he’d have gone back to the Chuck-a-Luck and drunk it up.’

Justice was done, and yet the reader’s left with a feeling in the pit of the stomach as unsettling as we’re left to imagine swallowing a silver coin must be. That’s because several passages underscore how justice was not done:

Roger Mizell, who had familiarized himself with the case, served as prosecuting attorney as well as judge.

Prosecutor Mizell called half a dozen witnesses, and Judge Mizell never objected once to his line of questioning.

During the jury’s lunch hour, hammering was heard from behind the stage depot and not ninety paces from the scene of the crime. This was the gallows going up.

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

Trusdale may have been guilty, but his elaborate measures to hide the coin and maintain his innocence prove he was never given enough credit.

“He didn’t have any holes in his pockets,” Barclay said. “Only one in his boot, and it wasn’t big enough for a dollar to get through.” He drank some of his beer. The tumbleweeds blowing up Main Street looked like ghostly brains in the snow. [boldface mine]

The silver coin implicates Trusdale as guilty of murder while simultaneously implicating the townspeople of ostracizing Trusdale, perhaps implying that they play a much larger role in this crime than they’re willing to recognize. They go on singing their Christian hymns in church right after he’s hanged in front of them. (That the hymn-singing gets the very last line—“It was the Doxology.”—might imply that Christian attitudes spawned this whole cycle to begin with; here at the end, we’re back at the beginning.) Barclay says of the recovered silver piece:

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”

Me neither. There are no easy answers here. And that’s what makes this good—it’s truer to the human condition than a happy ending.

But this is just one reading: mine. Another reader wondered if Trusdale might have been framed. Confronted with this possibility, it seemed to me only the undertaker could have been in a position to plant the coin in Trusdale’s excrement. This undertaker, Hines, pops up quite a bit throughout the story. The truck with “Hines Mortuary” is mentioned very near the beginning, it is Hines who yells passionately at Trusdale during his trial testimony and must be escorted from the courtroom, and Hines is the one who confronts Barclay about his belief in Trusdale’s innocence, suggesting he simply threw the coin away (though if he wants Barclay to believe this story, one wonders why he’d go through the trouble of then planting the coin in Trusdale’s crap). There is no textual confirmation of Hines’s framing, but the text does leave the possibility open.

Supposing, on the other hand, that the coin does indict Trusdale and there was no framing, this other reader and I also read different implications into the silver’s discovery. I thought the act of concealing the coin indicated a certain mental astuteness beyond what Barclay thought he had, while the other reader thought it seemed like something a child might have done, and wondered if his lack of competence was supposed to somehow exonerate him from the murder as not being responsible for his own actions. The more I ponder these possibilities, the further away any concrete conclusion seems. And this is exactly what makes “A Death” such a great story, that it leaves possibilities open so the reader’s own presumptions are revealed.