How to Use Sensory Details

26 Nov
Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Beginning in elementary school, we’re taught to use the five senses in descriptive writing. By the time we’re writing as adults, it ought to seem like second nature, right? Too often, though, when we try to use all five senses, the sentences feel forced and unnatural. Some smells are difficult to explain. Or, the smell is easy, but to describe the other senses takes too much room on the page. So, how do we move beyond the descriptions that are easiest, that first come to mind? How do we move to descriptions that are more imaginative and interesting?

A really good example of using sensory details can be found in Syed Ali Haider’s essay, “Porkistan.” The essay combines those essential aspects of the first Thanksgiving: food and religion. It was published at Roxane Gay’s new online magazine, The Butter, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Haider writes about bacon, a food that is impossible to ignore, even if you don’t eat it. Here is how he describes it:

I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.

Haider doesn’t use all five senses, but he does return to one particular sense over and over. He describes the sound of bacon cooking three different ways:

  1. “sizzling in a pan”
  2. “The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease”
  3. “Fat popping in a hot pan.”

Two of those lines (sizzling, popping) are onomatopoeia: words whose sound imitates the thing they are describing. The other line simply states the actual sound (bacon cooking in its own grease). Haider also describes the sight of the bacon: “drying on paper towels” and “Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy.” Next, he describes the smell:

Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.

I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores.

Notice that Haider doesn’t try to describe what the smell is like. The smell of bacon is not comparable to anything else. Instead, he describes the way it sticks to everything (which is not helpful if you’re a Muslim, as Haider was, and trying to conceal your bacon consumption).

In two paragraphs, Haider has not only described bacon but attached those descriptions to story: the things he describes make life difficult for him.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description with sensory details using “Porkistan” by Syed Ali Haider as a model:

  1. Identify the thing to describe. Keep it simple. It’s difficult to describe something that is diffuse or abstract. If possible, name the thing you want to describe.
  2. State what the thing does. Sometimes it’s not necessary to compare the smell or taste to something else. A clear statement of what the thing does (cooking in its own grease) can clearly evoke the thing—and sometimes it can suggest sensory details. So, explain in close detail what the thing does. When and where do you find it? How do you know it’s there? What is it doing? How do people react?
  3. Describe the thing with a few senses. Perhaps you can use more, or even all; if so, great. But, very often, it’s effective to choose one or two senses and explore the different ways to use them. Haider uses two different onomatopoeic words. He twice describes how the smell sticks to different parts of his body. He finds two different visual descriptions of bacon: color and texture. Try choosing a sense and finding different ways that the thing looks, sounds, feels, smells, or tastes.
  4. Connect the senses to story. You’re really just connecting the thing to story, which should be easy; why else would you be describing it in the first place? Think about the effect the thing has on you. How does it affect your behavior? As you consider this, remember the sensory details. The smell of bacon made it difficult for Haider to hide the fact that he’d eaten it. How does one of the sensory details you wrote make the thing difficult to ignore?

Good luck and have fun!

An Interview with Judy Chicurel

20 Nov
Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman coming of age in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel’s writing has appeared The New York Times, Newsday and Granta, and her plays have been performed in NYC theaters and at festivals, including the NYC International Fringe Festival, New Perspectives Theatre, and Metropolitan Playhouse. She is a member of the New York Writers Coalition and was a 2011 Fellow in the CUNY Graduate Center Writers Institute Fiction Writing Program. She recently published her first novel, If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go.

To read an excerpt from If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go and an exercise on creating a narrative clock, click here.

In the following interview, Chicurel discusses endings that aren’t neat, staying true to a character’s voice, and the writer as outsider.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in your conception of the book as a collection of linked stories. On one hand, the book doesn’t quite build and develop its story lines the way a novel would. On the other hand, many of the stories do seem like chapters, with narrative arcs of their own and endings that seem incomplete, like the prelude to another story or chapter. Also, some of the chapters are almost character sketches, which is probably insufficient to drive a stand-alone story, but which, in the context of the book as a whole, are really probing and thoughtful. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

Judy Chicurel

The content and structure of If I Knew… almost had a life of its own. I wrote the last story first and knew it was going to be the last story, but really had no idea what would come before. I just started writing the stories pretty much out of sequence and I would send them to my agent as they were completed; I was simultaneously working on another novel at the same time, and at one point she said about If I Knew…, “I think this is your book.” I still didn’t know if it was going to be a novel or a story collection until the manuscript was finished, and then the linked stories made the most sense, particularly within the contextual setting of Elephant Beach. I liked the idea of stories about these connected lives that didn’t necessarily have neat, tied-in-a-bow conclusions and might haunt readers a little after they finished reading. This seems to have been accomplished, according to some of the reviews.

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone talk about the drug experimentation of the Beats. They’d expected to create a cultural revolution, he said, but, in the end, many of the changes wrought by drug use were bad, both in the effects of addiction and the conservative societal and governmental response that followed. This book seems set after the glow has worn off. There’s not a lot of sense of promise and positive excitement to the drug use. For instance, the narrator talks about “boys I’d gone to school with, known forever, groping, sniffing, sliding around me, everyone high on acid or THC, thinking I was just as stoned as they were and it would be easy.” The drug use seems more predatory than hopefully experimental here. Is this a depiction you were aiming for?

Judy Chicurel

No. The sniffing and sliding around were more a result of hormones, not drug use, which, like alcohol, has been known to lower inhibitions when it comes to sexual activity. And don’t forget the sexual revolution was in full swing, which heightened expectations. But there’s a scene in the same chapter that you’re referring to where Katie considers having sex with one of her friends on a lifeguard chair, but it never happens because he passes out from too many Quaaludes, so I don’t think you can really call that predatory behavior.

I think we tend to delude ourselves with the notion that excessive behavior is always excusable if you’re some kind of artist because then drugs or alcohol have a creative purpose, when in reality people at all ends of the spectrum fare just as badly from resulting addictions. Whether we’re talking about the Beats or working class kids in the 1970s or young people today, a lot of experimentation with heavier drugs promised mind-expanding possibilities that yielded mind-diminishing consequences. Keep in mind not all the Beats enjoyed William Burroughs’ productivity and longevity.

Michael Noll

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

The Guardian called If I Knew...”a beautifully evocative portrait of one tight-knit working-class community on Long Island during the summer of 1972.”

You occasionally let your characters talk for long, uninterrupted stretches—especially Mitch. He has one piece of dialogue where he’s talking about the flowers in Vietnam, and he talks for at least a page. I don’t often read dialogue—or monologues—that last that long? Is that the effect of your experience as a playwright? How did you know when to let a character keep talking and when to shut him down?

Judy Chicurel

I think whether writing dialogue for plays or narrative fiction, you have to pay attention to your characters, more so than to the rules of whatever medium in which you’re writing. Mitch loves to drink and the drunker he gets, the more he likes to talk; in that particularly monologue, he’s finally found someone in Luke who can empathize with his experiences in Viet Nam and he’s sharing what for him was a critical memory. Luke, the other Viet Nam vet, is more taciturn; his war experiences have made him more of a brooder. I like to picture my characters and imagine their speech patterns, the sound of their voices, conversations they might have; sometimes I’ll write snippets of dialogue and think, “That’s a nice couple of lines, but would this character really say that?” So for me it’s more about respecting the characters, trying to stay true to their voices.

Michael Noll

At one point Katie is walking through her neighborhood, watching kids play and their parents hanging out on the stoops, and the description of the place is chaotic and messy, and Katie’s heart begins to beat faster and she thinks to herself, “These are my people.” That sense of belonging is really strong in the book, and I’m curious about how much you felt—and still feel—the same way. This stretch of Long Island is not a place you’d expect to find a published writer living. How has your sense of belonging to that community changed as you’ve grown as a person and an artist?

Judy Chicurel

I think I’ve almost always felt like something of an outsider no matter how much I appear to belong to a particular group. I’ve spoken to other writers who’ve experienced this kind of psychic detachment, where externally you’re part of the scene, but internally you might as well be on an island, alone, and on some level, you’re always observing. It’s an interesting paradox because most of the time, unless you tell them, nobody else knows how you’re really feeling.

I no longer live on Long Island and haven’t for over twenty years, though I still have friends who live there. But I’m often struck by the expectations of where published writers live and don’t live, and the typecasting of people who live on Long Island by folks both familiar and unfamiliar with the geographical terrain. When I did live there, I was a journalist who contributed to The New York Times and Newsday, as well as national magazines, and I knew many other writers doing the same thing who still enjoy living there or have moved there because they want to live five minutes from the beach. So I do think these types of assumptions tend to put limitations on people that probably shouldn’t be there. Readers might also keep in mind that If I Knew…takes place over forty years ago and that the demographics of Long Island, like practically every place else in America, have changed quite a bit.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create a Narrative Clock

18 Nov
If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, the new collection of linked stories by Judy Chicurel, tells the coming-of-age-story of a young woman on Long Island in 1972 in the midst of drugs and Vietnam.

If you had to boil my MFA experience down to one lesson about craft, it would be this: give every story a clock. That piece of advice came from the program’s director, Tom Grimes, who had been a close friend of the infamous director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Frank Conroy, and so the advice had the feeling of something inescapably essential and true. The problem was that I had no idea how to do it. As a result, like many writers, I struggled to know when to end a story. So, it’s useful to pay attention to writers who know how to set the timer for their own work.

A great clock can be found in Judy Chicurel’s collection of linked stories, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You GoYou can read a sample chapter from the book here.

How the Novel Works

In this interview with Tom Grimes’ in The Austin Chronicle, he explains how the clock works: “it starts ticking when dramatic action happens” and the clock stops “when the dramatic action ends, regardless of what it is. The clock’s out of time, so you can’t add overtime.” So, the clock is connected to dramatic action, which seems obvious and easy until you try it.

Sometimes, what is needed is an artificial clock, one that you consciously set at the beginning of a story or chapter. Judy Chicurel does this at the very beginning of her chapter, “My Country Right or Wrong,” in the description of Mitch:

I had to talk quickly, though, because once Mitch reached a certain point in his drinking it would be useless to try and get his opinion on anything. The good thing was, the drunker he got, he wouldn’t remember most of what we’d talked about so he wouldn’t be able to repeat it to anyone else we knew. The trick was to get his wisdom on the subject before he reached “the click,” “that place between the last drink you should have had and the last drink you actually drank. You know, the one you’re still tasting the next morning, while your head’s exploding and you’re sitting around waiting for the room to blow up,” he once explained to me.

This is the type of clock that George Saunders has said he uses: “there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up.” In this case, Chicurel’s narrator must finish her yapping—say what she needs to say—before Mitch becomes too drunk. The clock has started ticking.

We know the clock will stop ticking when Mitch is too drunk to talk or remember anything. The question is how do we get there? If Mitch simply sits and drinks until he becomes incoherent and then the narrator leaves, we’re likely to feel disappointed in the way that we’re often disappointed when expected things play out in expected ways.

So, it’s interesting to see how Chicurel interrupts an expected chain of events. About halfway through the chapter, her narrator is watching Mitch carefully: “He raised his glass and drained it. I stared into Mitch’s face. His eyes still looked okay.” Then Mitch “licked the dregs of his glass and signaled to Len for another.” He’s getting drunker and talking about awful things that happened to Vietnam vets, and that’s when Chicurel introduces something unexpected: a bunch of construction workers who tell Mitch they don’t appreciate the way he’s running down America. An argument ensues, which Mitch wins, but winning it involves getting off his bar stool in order to fight and rolling up his pant leg to reveal his wooden leg. The scene ends with the bartender settling everyone down and pouring a round of drinks:

When he began making Mitch’s boilermaker, Mitch put up his hand and shook his head, “no.” He threw some bills on the bar and picked up his jacket with the bottle of Gordon’s in the pocket and began walking toward the door that led to the rooms in the hotel.

The clock has stopped ticking. Mitch is about to drink himself beyond “the click,” as promised at the beginning of the chapter. What is unexpected is how he got to that point: leaving the bar after an argument and finishing his drinking alone, rather than yapping it up at the bar.

In short, Chicurel has not only set a clock, but she found a way to make it stop ticking in a surprising way.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a ticking clock using If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel as a model:

  1. Identify the ongoing action. A clock often involves something anticipated by the characters. This could be someone who walks in the door (or doesn’t, as in Waiting for Godot). It can also be a significant event (which is how every sporting event in the world works, with the audience waiting for the last great play). In both cases, the ongoing action is what happens in the meantime, what the characters are doing while waiting for the anticipated thing. This ongoing action could be purposeful and active, like someone trying to defuse a bomb before the timer runs out. The ongoing action can also be less purposeful and less active, like characters sitting around, talking.
  2. Set the clock. The clock is whatever will put an end to the ongoing action: someone arrives, an event occurs, a timer runs out. Inexperienced writers often use the timer that is most readily available: the course of a day. Their chapters and stories begin in the morning and end when the character goes to bed. The key is to find some other way of ending the action. Chicurel uses the effects of alcohol. In other words, the ongoing action ends when her character has had enough (or more than enough). How can you use that criteria for a clock: when will your character have had enough of whatever is happening?
  3. Notice the clock ticking. Chicurel does this by showing Mitch finishing his drink and ordering a new one. In a sporting event, we check the game clock to see how much time is left. If we’re waiting for someone, we watch the door. Make your characters aware that the clock is ticking, and give them an opportunity to check the time in whatever way is appropriate for your ongoing action.
  4. Introduce something unexpected. If your characters are watching the clock, find a way to make them forget it. We’ve all had the real-life experience of saying, “Oh, look at the time!” (and not in an ironic way). The key is to use the elements available to you given your ongoing action. Chicurel’s characters are drinking in a bar, and so she uses other patrons of the bar as interrupters. How can you identify some element of the ongoing action, some detail that exists in the background, and bring it to the foreground? When this happens, you may be able to distract your characters from the ticking clock.
  5. Stop the clock. No matter the distraction, the clock should still stop ticking. The alarm should ring. This moment becomes especially interesting when it interrupts something: the ongoing action or the unexpected interrupter of that action. Just because the characters have forgotten the clock doesn’t mean you, the writer, have. Experiment with ways to bring the clock back into the story.

Good luck!

An Interview with Kerry Howley

13 Nov
Kerry Howley traveled with MMA fighters for three years and wrote about the experience in her book-length essay THROWN.

Kerry Howley spent three years traveling and visiting with MMA fighters and wrote about the experience in her book-length essay Thrown.

Kerry Howley’s essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in Harper’sThe New York Times MagazineSlateThe AtlanticThe Wall Street JournalGulf CoastVice.com, and frequently in Bookforum. Her short story “Pretty Citadel” was published in The Paris Review. Thrown, her book-length essay, is an account of three years spent in the company of mixed martial artists, narrated from the perspective of an excitable, semi-fictionalized graduate student named Kit. Howley teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

To read Howley’s essay “Cold Water in Texas” and an exercise on writing dialogue, click here.

In the following interview, Howley discusses framing essays around comic dialogue, the challenge of describing fight scenes, and the kind of person who is attracted to mixed martial arts.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the role and POV you assume in the piece (I’d call it an essay, but it’s partly fictionalized, yes?). There’s an interesting moment once you move out of the locker room and into the crowd. You write this:

In the way of any traveler, I ascribe every aberration to the jurisdiction. I have been to fights at bars and strip clubs and flyover state fairgrounds but never have I seen a barefoot ring girl — this one’s Vietnamese, in a bikini — and I’ve never seen an announcer cat-call a ring girl on his descent from the cage. “Texas,” I think.

It’s such an unexpected detail, and it suggests quite a bit of familiarity with the world of Mixed Martial Arts. How long did it take you to feel comfortable writing about a world that I’m assuming is pretty far outside your natural habitat?

Kerry Howley

It’s an essay, and semi-fictionalized in that the narrative voice is that of an imagined narrator named Kit. I probably felt comfortable well before comfort was justified. It took years for me to really understand the rhythms of those small fights, and longer to be able to write competently about them. That cat-calling of the ring girl is still surprising to me.

Michael Noll

In Thrown, Howley portrays the lives, battles, and worlds of two MMA fighters.

In Thrown, Howley portrays the lives, battles, and worlds of two MMA fighters from the perspective of a semi-fictionalized female graduate student.

It would seem tempting to draw conclusions about certain parts of society based on their love and enjoyment of MMA fighting. Yet you seem to resist this. At the beginning of the essay, you mention that fight takes place in Cleveland, Texas, where 19 men were charged with sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl, a fact that seems important, yet you refrain from drawing the connection, writing, “I don’t know what to do with this information.” Was it difficult to avoid that kind of societal analysis? Or did you find that the complexity of the people involved precluded easy conclusions.

Kerry Howley

It was never tempting to conflate the kind of brutality on display among Cleveland’s rapists with the kind of artful, consensual violence I was witnessing at the fights. I think my book-length essay, Thrown, does have something to say about the kind of person who is drawn to MMA. The men I follow tend to be proud nonconformists given to the kind of cosmopolitan worldview you’d expect from a sport closely identified with Japan and Brazil.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue between the fighters as they’re trying to distract Charlie before the fight. It’s one of those rare moments when people are trying to be funny and succeeding and you seem to make a choice to get out of the way as a writer and let them talk. What was your approach to dialogue like this? Did you simply write it down as fast as possible and put it on the page? Or did you need to craft and revise the essay so that the dialogue would sound right?

Kerry Howley

Thank you. That was all recorded on my iPhone; I just transcribed what I took to be the best back-and-forth. I take such joy in bringing a funny voice to the page that I naturally frame essays around those moments. Part of editing the book involved purging a bunch of scenes I’d included—scenes much like the one you identify—that weren’t serving any purpose beyond amusement. I just felt like the reader had to know this hilarious thing the protagonist said about lawnmowers.

Michael Noll

You have a natural ease in writing about the actual fight—the punches and kicks, the action of it. This is actually quite difficult to do. It’s easy to get lost in a choreography of fists and feet, as in those films where the camera is zoomed in so close to the person fighting that we can’t get a sense for the action as a whole. But you really manage to convey both the immediate sense of what is happening and the arc of the fight. How did you approach writing these scenes?

Kerry Howley

Great question. The reader is only going to tolerate so much description of bodies in motion, so you end up molding a fight into the simplest version of itself—a few key moments and a mood. There are going to be a lot of small movements lost between point A and point B, and in that way perhaps writing about fighting (or dancing, which presents the same challenges) is emblematic of essay writing as a whole. So much of the struggle is subtraction.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Attribute and Describe Dialogue

11 Nov
Kerry Howley's "Cold Water in Texas" portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros' attempt to fight in spite of a broken hand.

Kerry Howley’s “Cold Water in Texas” portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros’ decision to enter a bout despite having a broken hand.

Here is my claim for the most difficult thing to do in writing: attribute and describe dialogue. The problem of who said what can seem impossible to solve. How often do you attribute a line of dialogue? Every line? Every other line? What words do you use? Only said? Screamed? How do the characters speak their lines? With dancing eyes? (Definitely not.) While looking intently or patiently at someone? (Preferably not.) And, what if the dialogue includes more than two people? What do you do then?

A great model for how to handle these problems can be found in Kerry Howley’s essay, “Cold Water in Texas.” The essay is an extension of her new book Thrown, about the three years she spent with a series of mixed martial arts fighters. The essay was published at Vice Magazine‘s Fightland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The essay begins in the locker room with MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros and a roomful of others:

a reticent black 260-pound heavyweight champion wearing a hat that says “Jesus Didn’t Tap,” his extremely gregarious black 275-pound friend Chris in the same, a chubby Hispanic coach named Mando currently absorbed in the wrapping of Charlie’s hands, and lithe, lily-white 170-pound Charlie himself.

All of these men are trying to keep the mood light before the fight begins. Imagine the challenges of writing such a scene: at least three speakers, two with the same build and clothing, plus some cornermen and officials who haven’t even been named. If you’re writing this scene, how do you keep everyone straight? Watch how Howley does it:

The joke in the room is that when Derrick, the slow-to-speak 275-pound heavyweight who will tonight successfully defend his belt, has mounted you, the best way to get out of the situation is to come onto him.

“I just pinch his butt,” says Chris. “He jump right up and say, ‘Stop with that gay shit.’”

“I lick his ear,” someone offers.

“He talk so low you can’t hear him,” someone says of Derrick.

“He don’t talk low,” says Chris. “He talk sexy.”

“That’s some Barry White shit.”

“Some of us grew up eating animal crackers. Derrick grew up eating animals with crackers.”

Chris glides about the room as he speaks. “Do a split,” someone demands, and the 275-pound superheavyweight does a to-the-ground straddle worthy of a Texas cheerleader.

“I ain’t acting too colored,” he says, apropos of nothing in particular. “I just watched Django before I came here is all.”

Charlie is laughing so hard he is crying, wiping tears from his cheeks.

So, how does Howley handle multiple speakers? Only one of them is named: Chris. Why? Because he’s more or less directing the banter. The other speakers are lumped into the tag someone, which puts the emphasis not on the speaker but on the subject of the dialogue: Derrick.

In other words, Chris is leading a rapid-fire conversation about Derrick, and so the focus is on Chris and Derrick. Notice how Howley, as the writer, stays out of the dialogue except to clarify things. The first sentence explains what the men are talking about. There is no other description until Chris does the splits—so, the action accompanying the dialogue has been stripped down to the most interesting moment. Howley steps in again in the next line—”I ain’t acting too colored”—in order to clarify since the conversation has jumped topics. Finally, she directs our gaze to the purpose of all this banter: Charlie and his reaction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue with more than two characters using “Cold Water in Texas” by Kerry Howley as a model:

  1. Summarize the dialogue. Think about the purpose and direction of the conversation as a whole. (If it’s an extended, even story-length piece of dialogue like Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” summarize a section of dialogue.) Howley’s dialogue could be summarized this way: Chris tries to distract Charlie by leading a series of rapid-fire jokes about Derrick. Notice how the summary identifies a leader, a subject, a tone, and a purpose.
  2. Set up the subject of the dialogue with summary. A general rule for writing dialogue is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible. One way to do that is to identify the good stuff and summarize what the reader needs to know in order to follow the dialogue. This is exactly what Howley does when she begins the dialogue by explaining the joke in the room—the thing that everyone is laughing about. So, tell the reader who is present and what they’re talking about. Then, write the dialogue.
  3. Identify only the character leading the dialogue. It’s almost never important to identify every speaker. If the readers understand the direction of the dialogue and who’s leading it, you can simply identify the leader’s words and use they or everyone for everything else that gets said. If you’re writing an argument, you can also divide the group into factions (men and women, kids and adults, etc) and identify the statements by faction rather than by individual.
  4. Describe only the most important or interesting action. If the only thing that a speaker does is look at the other speaker, then you probably don’t need any description; most people look at the person they’re talking to. If they’re not looking (if they’re driving, on the phone), then it can be useful to describe their actions more often. Usually, though, you can use one good description to describe the action in the scene as a whole. Howley does this by describing Chris generally (“glides about the room”) and then specifically (“does a to-the-ground straddle”). Compared to that moment, what else could be worth mentioning? The answer can be found in the final line: the reaction that the speaker is trying to get. In this case, Chris is trying to get Charlie to laugh, and the essay shows us that he succeeded. In your scene, what reaction is the speaker trying to get? Does he or she succeed? Give an answer with description.
  5. Clarify to help orient the reader. Dialogue doesn’t always move in a straight line; in fact, good dialogue often doesn’t move directly from Point A to Point B. When it switches subject or tone, it’s often necessary to cue the reader to the change by giving a brief description of what has changed. Howley does this when she writes that Chris has changed subject “apropos of nothing in particular.”

Once you summarize the dialogue and understand who is driving it forward and what their aim is, you may find it easier to identify who said what and how they said it.

Good luck!

An Interview with Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

6 Nov
Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree are the authors of Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories written through the lens of the films from the Criterion Collection.

McGriff is an author, translator, and editor. His most recent book, Home Burial, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection. He is also the author of Dismantling the Hills, a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola, and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire.

Tyree was a Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. He works as an associate editor of The New England Review and is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman and the coauthor, with Ben Walters, of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, from the British Film Institute.

To read their story, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” and an exercise on writing sentences that push past expected endings, click here.

Michael Noll

The version of “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” in Our Secret Life in the Movies is slightly different than the version published in Tin House. The girl becomes a kid, who we learn, through pronouns, is a boy. A line of dialogue is cut (“I’m seventeen and a half,” she said. “My dad’s a cop down in the hills. He didn’t like my boyfriend. I guess that sums it up.”), as is a line in the last paragraph (I ripped the pom-pom off my ski hat and used it to clean up her face.) I’m curious about your thoughts behind the revisions. To some extent, the scene can be read quite differently depending on the kid’s gender and how we view that act of the characters sharing a sleeping bag in an abandoned mansion. The final version is more fraternal, less potentially creepy. Was that purposeful?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

As readers, we tend to assume that a story is done because it has been published. As writers, we know better, because we stay awake at night worrying about all the ways we got it wrong. The important point to keep in mind is that publication is only one part of the creative process. In this case, the ending seemed better when the genders were reversed because that way you could never rule out the possibility that this character was actually alone the entire time, or that he had run into his doppelganger. Something along those lines. There are at least four kinds of stories – the kind you never get around to writing, the kind you write and abandon, the kind that come out right the first time, and the kind that come at great cost after a struggle and too many drafts to mention. This story was one of the last kind.

Michael Noll

In the book’s introduction, you write that the book began as sketches written while you watched films from the Criterion Collection. At a certain point, you figured out that these sketches were part of a narrative. How did you turn those early sketches into a coherent book? The process of free writing for fun and the process of revising for narrative coherence would seem to be very different. Was there a point at which you created a timeline or outline to follow? Did you discuss in advance of watching certain films or writing certain pieces what direction you might go with them?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

We never had an outline or a timeline. I think we were both surprised as the book gained momentum, almost of its own accord, to look less like a smaller “cycle” of sketches and more like a book. A pile of sketches began to look like it had a trajectory, showing the parallel lives of characters growing up during the last days of the Cold War. It was honestly more a matter of subtraction, of removing material from the book so that the linkages of the stories made more sense and a sense of continuity could be inferred or imagined. The book wound up as something more like a fragmented novel, or a mosaic with some of its pieces missing. The painful thing about working the way we did is that a lot of good material got left on the cutting room floor. Like any film! As with so much writing, paring things down often makes things clearer.

Michael Noll

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan's GZA's album Liquid Swords. GZA discusses the album here.

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA’s album Liquid Swords. GZA discussed the album at WaxPoetics.

It’s exciting to me that this book wears its inspirations so clearly on its sleeves. Many writers work out of homage to or inspiration from another artist, but that influence is not often made explicit in fiction. It’s much more common (it seems to me, anyway) in poetry, music, and, to some extent, film. Do you think the fact that one of you is a poet and the other is a film critic (in addition to being a fiction writer) allowed you the freedom to create this particular narrative structure?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

It’s funny, but we never thought of not mentioning the movies. We could have left them out but we did want to expose the mechanism a little bit, as well as to relate the parts to the whole. We wanted the stories to be accessible to any reader, whether they had seen the movies or not. But we wanted to lead interested parties deeper into the maze with us. One of the influences on the book’s overall structure was the hip-hop album Liquid Swords. How certain snippets of dialogue from the Kung-Fu movies on that album – “I see you are using an old style” or “special technique of shadowboxing” – got repurposed and suddenly made a new kind of sense. We wanted to emulate the way sampling works in music.

Michael Noll

Many of the stories reference Ronald Reagan and the economic disillusionment that much of the country was feeling at the time. For instance, the early piece, “Boxcars,” pairs these two passages:

  • “Bodies without work permits, addicts, drunk high-school kids come down from the valley to slum through the rhythms of the rural American night. Dead bodies, dumped bodies, bodies alive with fear, bodies of elation, bodies that should have known better. A one-day notice in the Bay River Gazette, then the ten-mile stretch of industrial waterfront was closed.”
  • “In the paper, on AM talk radio, at the State Capitol, the regulators blamed the deregulators, the state the country, the county the wood beams collapsing in the rail tunnels, the loggers the environmentalists, and the end-of-days folks blamed our perpetual slipping from grace.”

There’s a pretty clear moral vision at work here, not laying blame, exactly, but clearly articulating a situation that we’ve tended to gloss over with some happy political speech. Did this image of an America in decline arise naturally in the course of viewing the films and writing, or was it something that you discussed and wanted to write about?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

What we’ve both found is that a lot of writing is just luck. You stumble around in the dark, rely on your instincts, and try to stick to your impulses, no matter how strange those impulses might be (in one of our stories the speaker’s child is an invisible boy, in another the speaker’s father marries an egg). All the leitmotifs and connections and echoes in Our Secret Life in the Movies are there because we both wrote stories rooted in our own experiences, which happened to parallel each other in unexpected ways. This isn’t a work of autobiography by any stretch, but it does reflect some facets of the experiences of working-class life for folks in our generation. In one sense, we got lucky that there was so much overlap in the book. But, as writers, it was our job to craft a book and tell good stories, not just rely on luck. We highlighted many of these overlaps and themes in the revision process, and we had some great help from trusted readers, friends, and our editors at A Strange Object. I think the important point here is that we didn’t set out to move from A to B and specifically hit on themes X,Y, and Z. Instead, we had faith that the interesting and worthwhile would surface in our writing if we kept exploring our shared love for the movies and our desire to be connected to them.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Sentences That Surprise the Reader

4 Nov
Our Secret Life in the Movies, by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree, is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

The novelist Hanif Kureishi recently made news when he complained to the British newspaper The Guardian that his writing students lacked the necessary focus to become writers: “They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'” It’s undoubtedly true that sentences don’t make much sense without a story to hang them on, but it’s also true that stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them.

You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a new collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. The writers (a poet and a fiction writer/film scholar) attempted to watch the entire Criterion Collection of films while writing short fictions inspired by the films. The collaboration eventually took shape as one of the most beautiful and idiosyncratic books you’ll ever read. One of the stories, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space,” written after Vagabond by Agnès Varda, was published at Tin House, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A staple of film is the twist ending or sudden reversal. Some films like Memento feed the audience a steady diet of these reversals so that every time we think we’ve found solid ground, the bottom is snatched out from under us again. Classic films use reversals as well (just watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). One way that reversals and unexpected twists work is by pushing a scene past the point where we’d normally expect it to stop. The same is true of novels and stories—and it’s also true of sentences. You can see this at work in the first sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space”:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes.

The sentence could have ended with “threw them at me” or “one after the other.” Instead, it adds that last clause about where the shoe lands. Even then, the sentence keeps pushing past the expected ending, past “back of my head,” where it could have stopped for comic effect. When all is said and done, the sentence has moved past three potential endings to finish with “unwashed dishes.”

So, why does this matter? It’s not as if we’re stunned by the realization that someone who hides morphine under the sink also does not wash his plates. There are two answers, I think: 1) The additions fill out a scene that might feel sensational without them. It’s easy to turn fictional addicts into something that borders on caricature. The dishes ground the scene in detail. 2) The additions set up the structure for subsequent sentences in the story, which continue to push past expected endings.

For instance, here is the next sentence:

She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie.

Again, the sentence could have ended with “on the counter.” The addition of the comparison adds humor and a manic energy. Again, these aren’t shocking reversals of the information that came before, but they color and deepen the reader’s perception of the scene. The next two sentences keep with the trend:

Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten.

The first sentence did not need to add “while screaming, ‘Happy Birthday,'” in order to make sense, and the second didn’t need “kill a kitten” to complete the image. The sentences could function without those phrases, but their presence helps set the tone and even change it suddenly. (I’m willing to bet no reader expected the “Happy Birthday” song in that moment.) After all, it’s not initially clear how we ought to view these events: an addict getting kicked out of the house by his girlfriend, licking up some leftover morphine after she burns the bottle, and spending the night in an abandoned mansion. Are the events tragic? Comic? Both? Should we feel sorry for the character? Angry at him? The additions to the sentences actual prevent us from settling onto a simplistic reading of the scene—and it’s this uncertainty that is key to the story.

For contrast, here’s a sentence from a novel that runs away from uncertainty and toward absolute certainty: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This sentence is on the second page and describes Howard Roark’s face:

“It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.”

This sentence, too, could have ended earlier than it does—with “hollow cheeks” or even with “cheekbones.” Instead, it keeps adding descriptors, finishing with two options for how to understand the face: “executioner or saint.” Unlike the sentences from Our Secret Life in the Movies, however, this sentence does not deepen our understanding of the character. Instead, it points us in a firm direction. Executioner and saint are more or less complete opposites of each other. As a result, the character is limited to two black-and-white options. If you’re at all familiar with Rand’s work, you’ll recognize how this sentence sets up the novel’s didactic message: you’re either an individual or a collectivist.

But literary fiction like Our Secret Life in the Movies isn’t interested in a message, at least not one that can be easily distilled into a political motto. Instead, the prose tends to open possibilities, rather than limit them. Because McGriff and Tyree’s sentences continually add details that complicate the initial details, the story gains richness and texture and keeps the readers on their toes. The final lines are beautiful but not easily categorized within the moral dimensions that we’re often tempted to read into stories of drugs and addiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move past expected endings using “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree as a model:

  1. Choose a scene. Stylish, complex sentences can be written in any scene. What is necessary is a knowledge of who and what is involved. So, fix the scene in your mind. What’s going on? Where is it set? Who is present?
  2. Write a two-part sentence. This happened, and then this happened. McGriff and Tyree write that a woman finds a morphine bottle and then throws her shoe. Scenes often begin this way: something happens that causes a character to act. That happening and its resulting action are the reason for the scene’s existence. Focus on the logical sequence: this happened, and so this other thing happened.
  3. Add to the first part of the sentence. The sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” adds a description of the bottle of morphine mentioned at the beginning of the sentence: “the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away.” This addition is actually quite crucial to the understanding of everything else that takes place in the story. The fact that it’s given as an aside suggests a kind of shrugging reaction by the narrator, who could have led with the fact that he’d hid a serious narcotic under the sink. Instead, he mentions this fact casually, which tells us something important about him. So, try adding an essential description of the first part of the sentence in an aside that is set off by m-dashes. Doing so can give your character or narrator layers: a layer that understands the immediate events of the scene and a layer that has unspoken opinions about what is happening.
  4. Add to the second part of the sentence. This doesn’t mean adding a third part: this happened, and then this and this. Rather, you’re adding to the reader’s understanding of the second part. The sentence from “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” adds to our understanding of the thrown shoe with “the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes.” So, stay with the image or detail that is introduced in the second part of the sentence. What does it do? How does it look? How do the characters react to it? Or, if you’ve already stated these things, what else does it do? How else does it look? How else do the characters react to it?

Remember you’re moving beyond the first and most obvious details in order to discover what else is present in the moment. It’s this exploration that will reveal the scene’s complexity, and it’s this complexity that we tend to pass by when writing sentences that end at the first opportunity.

Good luck and have fun!

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