How to Write Human Stories amid Cosmic Conflict

3 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

The risk in using high-concept plots for your stories is that your characters may end up as nothing more than dinosaur food. This is what happened in all of the Jurassic Park movies (and books). Who was the star? The T-Rex. The raptors. In that tense scene in the first film, when the kids are hiding from the raptors in a kitchen, the kids exist primarily to highlight the terrible power of the dinosaurs. Almost certainly, the scenes that you remember from the films involve water trembling in a glass and close-ups of inhuman eyeballs. It’s tempting to blame the thin characterizations on Michael Crichton, but the truth is that plots of apocalyptic proportions can challenge even the most literary of writers. How can we possibly pay attention to nuances of human drama when oil field workers are trying to blow up an asteroid?

A story that has figured out this problem is Anabel Graff’s “The Prom at the End of the World.” It recently won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize (which involves a ceremony at, seriously, Prada’s headquarters in Milan) and was published in Prada Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins with two things: an asteroid hurtling toward Earth—an event that we’re immediately told will lead to either complete or near destruction—and a high school prom that is scheduled for the same day as the asteroid’s impact. It’s clear, then, what the source of tension will be. Will the story be told from the cosmic level, at the same level as that photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, in which the planet appears as a small dot in the vastness of space? In other words, will the asteroid win out and dominate the story? Or, will the story be told from the level of prom, an event of pure human invention and meaning? The conflict has both human and storytelling dimensions. In life, imagine how difficult it would be to concentrate on prom as an asteroid barrels toward you. And yet, you wouldn’t cease to be human, either. This story manages to retain that humanity. It starts with a dress. The narrator has the dress but no date—or even any hope for one. And then she’s asked at the last minute:

Martin Hemley, my science partner, had ended up asking me though, a week before the prom, four days before the news announced that the end was near. “Jenny,” he had said mid throat clear, and my name emerged from his mouth coated in phlegm. “Seeing as we both don’t have a date and—

It’s the end of the world, and this is the best that the narrator can hope for. “Pick me up at seven,” she says, but here is her interior reaction:

I read online once that loneliness is physically painful. Just as you have a drive to avoid physical pain, you have a similarly powerful drive to connect with others and seek companionship—in order to avoid the pain of loneliness. I also read that when you blush, the lining of your stomach blushes too.

In that passage, Graff manages to create an impulse—the need to connect and avoid loneliness—that is more immediate and visceral than the approaching asteroid. The power of the passage is such that what comes next—after a space break—is not a reference to the asteroid as you might expect. Instead, it’s this:

Have you ever done this thing where you rub your eyes so much that when you close them you begin to see things?

The passage has dropped us so cleanly into the narrator’s head that it’s natural to stay there. We don’t need to look up at the sky. We will eventually, but our attention has been trained on the interior and not the cosmic. It’s this directing of our attention that makes the story great. Recently I was teaching a class and mentioned how I dislike stories that become such page turners that I’m skimming and skipping ahead. A student said, “But doesn’t that mean the book is good?” I don’t think it does. As a reader, I prefer to read the words as they come. I want to stay in the moment of the story and not race ahead. The way to achieve that, as a writer, is to maintain the reader’s focus on the personal and not whatever plot the personal has been involved in. The plot, if it hovers on the periphery, will provide all the forward momentum the story needs.

The Writing Exercise Let’s focus the reader’s attention on the person amid a cosmic conflict, using “The Prom at the End of the World” by Anabel Graff as a model:

  1. Choose the conflict. Think high concept: asteroid, dinosaurs, time travel, alien robots that turn into cars, zombies, vampires, pandemics, superheroes, mutants, hobbits, dragons, Old Testament floods, or any of the story lines used by the top grossing movies of the past year. Some of the best books of this year use similar plots but keep the focus on the personal and human. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble features a story about a superhero convention that manages to focus on a girl visiting the hotel. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me manages to keep a pandemic in the background. So, choose whatever story you’re drawn to on the big screen or in beach reads but often find yourself wishing were better than they actually are.
  2. Choose the personal need. Rather than thinking about character in terms of demographic (single white female, old Hispanic male), think about basic human desire: to be loved, to be wanted and valued, to be happy, to be safe and secure, and to make others feel that way, too. Draw from your own life if necessary. When did you feel an acute need for those things? What was the situation? Graff has chosen a prom, which carries with it an almost built-in desire to be wanted. What other common situations are often accompanied by basic desires? Choose one and use it as the focus of your character’s personal conflict.
  3. Introduce the cosmic conflict as a matter of fact. In Graff’s story, an asteroid is coming, and nothing can be done about it. The asteroid simply is, and so it cannot be the primary focus of the story because it’s no more interesting than grass or a wall or other things that exist. It’s interesting because of it’s placement. Like a wall that separates people from one another, the wall instigates the drama but then falls into the background, the way furniture recedes from view in a room. We’re more interested in the people sitting on it. So, introduce the conflict as something that cannot be changed.
  4. State the need. An easy way to do this is to allow the character a moment of reflection, an opportunity to think, “I’m so lonely that…” or “I want to be happy so much that…” Graff does this in a particularly artful way, letting her narrator think about her need as something that exists independently of her. Rather than writing, “I’m so lonely that…” she instead writes, “I read online once that loneliness…” It’s a distancing mechanism. Your character can do something similar. Instead of thinking, “I’m so lonely that…”, let the character think, “I’ve heard that some people are so lonely that…” or “I heard once that loneliness…” Then, when the reflection is over, don’t cut away. Keep our attention focused on the personal. Locate the need in something particular. In Graff’s case, that something is a prom date and the trappings of the night.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Write Human Stories amid Cosmic Conflict”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Anabel Graff | Read to Write Stories - March 5, 2015

    […] To read her story “The Prom at the End of the World” and an exercise on writing human stories in the face of cosmic disaster, click here. […]

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