Tag Archives: drug cartel stories

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

14 Feb
The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped. Read essays by writers responding to the book at Books Are Not a Luxury.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white-hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Barefoot Dogs,” originally published as “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can read the story here or in the collection.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white-hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white-hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white-hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white-hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white-hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

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How to Write Moments of High Emotion

24 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's story, "Madrid," is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” was published by StoryFront and is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” from his new collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can buy the story for $1 here.

How the Story Works

The story is about a son who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

How to Write from the Headlines

17 Feb
Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San León," tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León” tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

In a recent interview, the late New York Times journalist David Carr was asked if cable news drove coverage of events, and he answered, in short, no. The current news cycle, he said, is so full of large, complex stories that news organizations don’t know where to look. In other words, the news is driving the news. As writers, we inhabit and absorb this same news cycle, and because of the size and savagery of some of these events, it’s tempting to incorporate the headlines into our fiction. The question is how to do it?

A terrific example of a story based on an actual news event is Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León.” The story was inspired by a narco massacre in the Mexican border city of San Fernando and, more generally, on stories about suitcases arriving at depots without their murdered owners. You can buy the story for $1 at Amazon, where it was published as part of the journal Day One.

How the Story Works

The real-life massacre in San Fernando—or any massacre, for that matter—has a two essential sets of people involved: the murderers and the victims. Focusing a story on characters based on these real-life people is possible but difficult. It involves detailed research, which may or not be possible from a safe remove. It also involves some sticky questions of ethics: Is it okay to fictionalize the lives of real people? The less historical remove the writer has from those people, the more difficult it is to answer this question.

The next level of involvement in the headline includes people with direct connections to the event but not an immediate presence at the actual massacre: the narco bosses who ordered the murders, the officials who provide cover to the narcos, the victims’ families, witnesses, the police, and the people who discovered the bodies. Generally speaking, the farther the story moves away from the immediate event, the more freedom it has to roam. An event like a massacre acts as a kind of black hole, overpowering everything around it with its gravitational pull. A story about a victim of a massacre is likely to be almost purely about the massacre. But a story about a witness or an accessory or family member can give those people lives beyond the event—but that freedom is not limitless.

A third level of involvement includes people with no direct connection but whose lives are impacted in specific ways by the massacre. When fictionalized, these are characters whose connection to the central event is thin or tangential. They are removed from it by several degrees, and, as a result, they can have problems and concerns in their lives that, to them, rival the problem that the event causes. There is inherent tension between those problems—how does the character balance them? A victim’s brother or mother or spouse will drop everything to deal with the event. But someone at a remove will not.

It is at this third level that Hawley writes “The Suitcases of San León.” The story is told from a group point of view—the “we” of the workers at the San Leon bus depot. Their connection to the massacre is indirect. When the victims were pulled off of the bus, their suitcases were not pulled off with them, and so they arrive ownerless at the depot. The workers must decide what to do with the suitcases, and when they decide, they must live with the consequences (mental, emotional, and situational) of those choices. As you read the story, you’ll notice that the narcos become a stronger presence toward the end, and their presence suggests the gravitational pull that the massacre exerts on everything around it. By setting the story at a remove from that event, Hawley gives the characters room to develop. If she had set the story closer to the actual massacre, that room might have been very difficult to create. As a result, the story might not have added complexity or depth to the headline where it began. The distance from the massacre also gives the story a chance to surprise us. We’ve all heard about the atrocities committed by narcos, but it’s likely we haven’t thought about the way those crimes alter even the most mundane aspects of Mexican life. Empty suitcases are such a great starting point for a story that it’s hard to imagine it being written about anything else.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story from a headline, using “The Suitcases of San Leon” by Jane Hawley as a model:

  1. Choose the headline. There is no shortage of news to choose from: geopolitics in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and internal politics and/or savagery in Nigeria, Mexico, and Venezuela; racial and ethnic strife in Ferguson, New York, and, most recently, in North Carolina; political unrest in, of all places, my home state of Kansas; drones; surveillance; a train derailment in West Virginia; and blizzards across the northeastern U.S. Simply choose the news you’re following the closest and that you find yourself imagining yourself into.
  2. Chart out the first level of involvement. Who bears the most immediate impact of the headline? Who is it about? Are there sides? If so, what are they?
  3. Chart out the second level of involvement. Who is connected to the news but not immediately present? Or, who is present but not at the focus of the headlines? Who are the journalists not talking to? This level often contains family members, police, witnesses—people who are among the first to react to the event.
  4. Chart out the third level of involvement. Who is not present or connected to the event/news but is impacted by it? People in this group are often going about their business, only to discover that the news has forced its way into their lives. In the case of the winter storms, most of the stories are from this level, people whose lives have been disrupted, sometimes urgently (first responders) and sometimes with unforeseen consequences (a couple on the verge of divorce but now trapped together by the snow).
  5. Choose the level for your story. To do this, you will likely need to determine how much of the headline you want to write about. Are you interested in the event itself or the way it ripples outward, effecting everyone? A lot of great fiction has been written about war, some of it from the point of view of soldiers (first level), some focusing on family members (second level), and some focusing on the people back home without relatives in the fighting (third level). Once you decide how much distance to put between your characters and the event, you can think about how the event will intrude into their lives. The closer they are, the more forcefully and overwhelmingly it will intrude. The farther they are, the more subtle its effects may be.

Once you choose the level of involvement and know how the event will sneak into the story, you may find that the story begins to write itself. You’ve given yourself something to write toward and, once the event arrives, tension to work with.

Good luck and have fun.

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