Tag Archives: how to describe characters

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!

How to Write a Sex Scene

28 Oct
David Gordon's new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, "Man-Boob Summer," was published in The Paris Review.

David Gordon’s new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, “Man-Boob Summer,” was published in The Paris Review.

Every year, the British journal Literary Review announces its Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the year’s worst sex writing in a novel. This year’s winning passages are, as usual, notable for both their physiological specificity (areolae) and vagueness (hole) and their awkward use of metaphor and simile (“the hard pearls of her nipples, like tiny secrets”). The authors of these prizes are not unknown; this year’s list contains two of the best-known and most respected writers in the English-speaking world, Philip Roth and John Banville.

Such passages can lead to despair: if even good writers write bad sex scenes, what chance do the rest of us have? One solution is to find good writing about sex, such as can be found in David Gordon’s new story collection White Tiger on Snow Mountain. The sex scenes manage to be both erotic (or not, depending on the situation) and literary. The first story in the collection, “Man-Boob Summer,” appeared in The Paris Review, and you can read it here.

How the Story Works

The work necessary to make a sex scene believable often begins before the scene takes place. One way to set up the scene is by setting up the possibility of sex. Sometimes this can be literal; for instance, Mary Gaitskill’s story “A Romantic Weekend” establishes very early on that the characters are taking a weekend getaway to have sex (and a particular kind of sex). Other times, the setup is more subtle. For example, “Man-Boob Summer” is about a down-and-out writer who spends time at his apartment complex’s swimming pool. He watches the swimmers and, quite naturally, notices their bodies.

At first, the descriptions of the swimmers have no hint of sexuality. For example, here is a “blond and stocky” woman:

“thighs were scored with the plastic pattern of her chair.”

Here is her son:

“blond and wan, and no matter what he was doing—floating in the man’s arms and practice-kicking, jumping into the pool, eating a cookie—he screeched incessantly in this high, petulant squeal that set my teeth on edge.”

And finally, there was the woman’s husband, whose body inspired the story’s title:

“there he was, rising from the pool, mustache drooping, water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank, and I saw it, one flat male breast and one pendulous female breast.”

In short, Gordon uses the family to create a standard of beauty for this particular place, and then he introduces a character who breaks that standard. Notice the difference in this description of a lifeguard:

In fact, her legs were long and slender, and they kept folding and unfolding, rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.

This difference in appearance—the difference in the details that the man notices—drives his behavior. He begins to flirt:

“Hey,” I asked, “do you think if you had to, you could really lift me out of the pool? You’re kind of little. Don’t they have some kind of height requirement?”

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Try it and see.”

At this point, the story has focused our attention on the lifeguard’s body, especially her legs, and created a kind of sexual momentum. We’re not surprised when the sex scene arrives:

We undressed quickly, peeling off her shoulder straps and slipping her suit down her legs, pulling off my T-shirt and trunks. She climbed onto my lap, and we jostled a bit until I was inside her, and then we just sat there like that for a while, mouths together, chest to chest, not moving, except for our breath. She stopped kissing me and spit in her hand, then reached down in between us, making a serious face. Then she began to move against me, and grip me harder, and I took her in my arms and pushed her onto her back as her breathing raced and she put her nails into my chest and I brushed back the hair from her eyes. Later, after it was over, we both lay on my towel and she smoked. Again, it was silent, but this time the quiet felt uneasy, and when I tried to put my arm around her, she shrugged me off.

Notice how quickly the scene happens and how little their bodies are described. We’ve already seen the bodies, and so now the focus can be on the sex itself, on movement: peeling, slipping, climbing, jostling, breathing, kissing, spitting, moving, gripping, pushing, brushing. This focus on movement is important because a) it avoids forced, eroticized descriptions of body parts and b) it allows the sex to take place in only four sentences. Finally, the movement uses commonplace verbs and not clichéd, sexual verbs like thrusting or throbbing.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up and write a sex scene using “Man-Boob Summer” by David Gordon as a model:

  1. Establish a standard of beauty. In stories, as in life, sex usually starts with noticing someone and finding them attractive. This person may or not be classically beautiful. What’s more important is that he or she stand out from the other people in the room (as Flight of the Concords made clear). So, start by describing the other people in the room. The descriptions should carry some sexual charge: neutral, negative, or positive. The setting matters. At a community pool, as in Gordon’s story, regular people are almost naked and looking like real, almost-naked people. At a public function (work, party, church), people are generally dressed to look their best. At certain kinds of parties (night clubs), people are dressed to accentuate their sexual appeal. Therefore, your standard of beauty ought to reflect the setting. The standard also raises or lowers the bar for the person who breaks the standard: it’s easier to be the best-looking person in the room in some places than others. Regardless of the standard, show the bodies in close, physical detail.
  2. Break that standard. Make someone stand out, either because everyone finds them more beautiful or because one person finds them more attractive. Again, focus on close, physical detail. However, it’s not enough to say that so-and-so has a better butt or better legs or a prettier face. You need to sensualize the descriptions. It’s the difference between “water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank” and legs “rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.” Focus on movement, but unlike the action of sex, you’re focusing on more subtle movements. Imagine that your narrator or character is trying not to look at someone but every time he or she moves, the narrator’s eye is drawn back to him/her. What small, perhaps unconscious movements attract the eye?
  3. Act on the attraction. In other words, flirt. If sex is going to take place, then an initial encounter must happen first. If the encounter is successful (i.e. if the attention is desired by both people), then the words become as sexualized as the movement: “She stuck her tongue out at me. ‘Try it and see.'”
  4. Write the sex scene. If the previous passages do their work, the reader believes that the characters will have sex. Therefore, very little setup is needed. We don’t need to see the bodies in great detail. We don’t need to see the foreplay. In other words, the scene can happen quickly and consist primarily of sex (action) rather than looking. So, write sentences that are active, rather than static. Use verbs that you’d normally use in any scene, not verbs that have become sexualized by pornography. Keep the prose flowing. Avoid abrupt stops of punctuation (unless they mimic the action of the sex). Get to the end of the sex since what happens afterward will tell us a great deal about how to understand what just happened: “this time the quiet felt uneasy.”

When you read “Man-Boob Summer,” you’ll see that even though the story is about two characters who have sex, most of the story is setting up the sex and then showing what comes after. In other words, the most important parts of a sex scene are not the actual sex but everything else around it.

Good luck!

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