Tag Archives: how to write a scene

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!

How to Begin and End Chapters

21 Oct
Shannon S. Thompson's YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Shannon A. Thompson’s YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Most writers have a sense for how a novel is structured. But what about chapters? We tend to make a few common mistakes, like beginning a chapter with a character waking up and ending it with the character going to bed (or getting knocked unconscious). In other words, the chapter doesn’t know where to begin and when to end, and so as long as the character is awake, the chapter keeps going.

Different kinds of novels handle chapters differently, but it’s usually the case that genre novels contain short chapters. A great example of this kind of chapter—and a great example for how these short chapters are structured—can be found in Shannon A. Thompson’s new Young Adult Dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow. You can read the opening chapters here at Smashwords.

How the Novel Works

Let’s look at the first two chapters of the novel, which are quite different in terms of setting and content but which use a similar structure. In the first chapter, the narrator, a teenager named Sophia, meets an unexpected person. The chapter begins with Sophia running through the woods with her dog. She’s checking on her father’s land while he’s away and clearly feeling at home:

Spring was the best season − when everything smelled of moss, alive and wet. But it was August. The muggy air sucked all the life out of the plants, leaving them dry, disheveled, and dead. Today, the forest smelled of burnt grass and dried mud. Among the pivots, the creek bed, and the broken logs, I followed the trail, and my dependable dog ran in front of me.

Then, she runs into a stranger:

a boy whose “tone was sarcastically carefree, his stare was intense, shadowed by the setting sun. I recognized the stillness in his expression. It was a predatory look, the expression of an animal preparing an attack.”

But by the end of the scene, the boy’s tone has shifted:

“‘Am I near the park?’ His quiet tone was rushed. ‘That’s where I meant to go.’ His shoulders slumped in defeat. ‘Really.'”

That tone isn’t the only major shift. The boy hurries away because someone else has arrived, and that arrival causes a change in the narrator:

“My usually goofy friend was a mess. His mop of brown curls sprung into his widened eyes, and he wheezed from the run. His alarmed expression ruined any lasting comfort I maintained. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.”

One of the smartest things I ever heard about crafting scenes was from writer and screenwriter Owen Egerton. He shared with me the screenwriting tip that scenes should almost always contain a reversal (a “flip” of a situation) or a change in tone. So, if a scene starts out happy, it should end with sadness. Of course, the best scenes will end in ways that don’t change the tone 180 degrees but instead change it in a way that is less predictable. This is precisely what Thompson does in her first chapter. The chapter begins with the character’s confidence in her own knowledge of her surroundings and ends with that confidence disrupted.

The next chapter does something similar. It begins with a risky encounter with the police, who are enforcing a State-mandated curfew. The encounter goes smoothly, according to the expectations of one character:

“Everything is a scare tactic with these people. They don’t check everything.”

The chapter ends with the knowledge that another encounter with the State is coming, and this one will be more serious and more dangerous: “I need you to bring me a bag of food, water, and one of your dad’s knives to school.”

Though the scene ends on a similar note as it began, the stakes have been dramatically increased.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure chapters using the novel Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson as a model:

  1. Choose the scene(s) at the heart of the chapter. I’m using the word scene because it’s sometimes a more helpful organizational unit than chapter. Most of us know what a scene is even if we have no idea what a chapter should look like. Scenes also appear in stories, whereas chapters do not. So, start by outlining a scene that you know will appear in the story/novel. There may be passages that come before or after it, but you should focus on the drama that you know will occur.
  2. Identify and clarify the tone or situation at the beginning of the scene(s). You can think about this in two ways. One, what is the situation at the beginning of the scene? Think broadly. What problem is the character facing? What approach is the character using? What is the character’s attitude? What is the balance of power? Two, what is the tone at the beginning of the scene? Is it serious? Comic? Goofy? Casual? Think about the scene as a whole, not necessarily the character’s emotions. For instance, a birthday party is casual, but a waiting room at a hospital is likely serious.
  3. Reverse or shift the tone or situation at the end of the scene(s). When you reverse or change any of these situations, you can go for a full reversal (happy to sad, birthday party to cancer), or you can go for a change in degree. So, if someone has more power, that person’s power could be amplified or reinforced rather than diminished or taken away. When you change the tone, you can keep the setting the same but introduce an element that changes the way we view it. For instance, if an ambulance shows up to a birthday party, the tone has changed from fun and casual to serious and formal. (As a general rule, if a scene contains people in uniform, then it’s probably formal.) You can also produce a change in degree: mildly happy to incredibly happy. For instance, birthday parties are mildly happy, but if you’re given a gift of a lottery ticket, and you scratch it and win a million dollars, the party just got a lot happier.

The key to all of these steps is to identify what you establish at the beginning of a scene. By the end of that scene, at least one of the basic building blocks of the scene should have changed. If you’re trying to decide where to end a chapter or scene, consider picking a moment immediately after something essential has changed.

Good luck!

How to Write a Murder Scene

18 Mar
Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, "The Last Thing We Need," appeared in Granta 111.

Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, “The Last Thing We Need,” appeared in Granta.

American films are full of violence; in fact, the anticipation of death is probably one of the reasons that people go to the movies. There’s a visceral, perverse thrill in seeing someone killed in front of your eyes, and that feeling is harder to create in writing than it is on the screen. It’s difficult to replicate the speed of a gunshot or the blind, chaotic feeling of participating in a fight. Some writers try to copy the techniques of film: a lot of choreography (punches, kicks, and ricocheting bullets). But the best writers use techniques that are only available in written fiction to create powerful scenes of violence.

Claire Vaye Watkins has written such a scene in her story, “The Last Thing We Need.” It was published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The scene takes place at a gas station in the Nevada desert. The narrator is a high school kid working the night shift for the station owner, a man who keeps a shotgun under the counter. He’s doing his homework and doesn’t see a car pull up. As you read the scene, pay attention to two things: the choreography (who did what) and the delay (what details are given to slow down the action):

I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.

I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?

There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.

I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.

Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile.

Every time I read this passage, I’m struck by the line, “I shot him in the head.” It’s blunt and direct. The language does not try to convey anything other than the barest of facts. This is important because badly written violence tends to be overwritten. The language tends to tell the readers not only what happened but also how they should feel about it (anxious! afraid! sickened!) and how it occurs (in a flash! suddenly! out of the blue!). So, how does Watkins avoid those mistakes and write a powerful scene? She does two things:

  1.  She uses simple sentence constructions to convey the choreography. By simple, I don’t mean in the grammatical sense—one subject/verb pair—though there are several of those types. For instance, this is a simple sentence: “I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried.” The beauty of a simple sentence (in the grammatical sense) is that it’s usually crystal clear. While you never want your readers confused about basic elements in a story, you especially don’t want them confused during the moment of greatest importance. That said, by simple construction, I mean sentences that use as few words as possible, like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Imagine how else that sentence could have been written. Stop is a vague word, right? Another writer might have described the exact physical movements used in the attempt to stop the man. It might have worked. Who knows? But it might also have lost the sense of purpose. In all the arm-grabbing and shuffling, the reader might have forgotten the elemental goal of stopping the man with the gun. Who really cares how motions were involved? The same is true of the word muscled. Again, Watkins eschews detailed description and again boils the movement down to its essence: stop and muscled back. She’s conveyed the physical dynamics of the scene (one person is stronger than the other) and also the basic action in only twelve words. Written stories can never approach the speed of film, but they can still move quickly, as Watkins has shown.
  2. She interrupts the action with plain information. Beginning writers tend to try to make each sentence in an action sequence more intense than the previous one. But this is almost always unsustainable. Another strategy is to switch back and forth between intense action and something that isn’t intense. Watkins interjects the actions in the gas station with basic info: “But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me.” Imagine if, in advance of reading this scene, someone told you that the best way to write a murder scene is to tell the reader, just before a man is shot and killed, how big the town is. You’d likely think it was terrible advice. But what it does in this scene is heighten the tension. A man with a gun is one thing, but a guy you know with a gun is entirely different. Watkins keeps switching back and forth between action and info: “The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.” She does the same thing with the narrator, telling the reader that he’d never touched a gun before. These interjections slow the action down but also make us lean into the page in anticipation. What started as “stop and muscled back” becomes “The fucking money, Frankie said and I’d barely touched a gun before.” In other words, the information makes the scene more personal, which, of course, makes it more tense.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a violent scene, using the scene from Claire Vaye Watkins’ story “The Last Thing We Need” as a model:

  1. State what will occur. Know what your destination is. In Watkins’ story, a teenage gas station attendant shoots an armed robber. Don’t worry about crafting a great sentence. You’re just reminding yourself what the endpoint of the action is.
  2. Describe the choreography in simple sentence constructions. Your goal is a sentence like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Boil the action down to quick descriptions of purpose. What are the characters trying to do? When the purposes are clear, it becomes easier to introduce complications. So, for instance, you might write, “He grabbed at the money, and I tried to pull it away. The bills  ripped down the middle.” Try to choose words that accomplish two things at once: statement of action and description of how that action occurs. Consider the difference in the scene if muscled was replaced with slipped. It might make the man harder to shoot in the head. He might be too quick, and so the scene would play out in another direction.
  3. Interrupt the action with plain (uncharged) information. By uncharged, I mean that if you read the information out of context, you wouldn’t think twice about it. But you can’t insert just any old info. You need a goal in mind. Are you trying to make the scene more personal for one of the characters, as Watkins does? Are you trying to make the characters more hesitant or eager? Do you want more or less urgency?  Do you want them thinking of ways to safely extricate themselves from the scene, or do you want them escalating the tension? How do you want the characters to feel after the scene is over? Regardless of your goal, the information should be simple. Characters who are about to engage in violence probably don’t have a lot of mental space for abstractions or reflection. The information should be the sort that they would likely be instantly aware of during the moment.
  4. Switch back and forth between action and information. The idea is not so much to keep applying pressure on the reader but to take short breaks from the tension so that the reader wants to know what will happen. One way to do this is to repeat one of the pieces of information that you’ve introduced. Watkins does this by revealing and repeating the identity of the man with the gun: who his mother was, who his sister was, his name, and his name again. The result is that the scene becomes increasingly personal for both characters because they know each other. You can do something similar by taking one piece of information and showing it to the reader in slightly different ways. (Genre writers, especially mystery/detective/crime writers, often do this. At a moment of high tension, the character will notice a refrigerator humming too loudly or a scratch on the floor. Sometimes this fact will get incorporated into the scene somehow, either directly or by causing the character to remember/realize something.)

The key to a scene like this is twofold: use short, clear language that reveals multiple things at once and add moments that step away from the tension to reveal information that is initially uncharged but that becomes important as the scene progresses.

Good luck!

An Interview with Benjamin Reed

27 Feb
Benjamin Reed's story, "King of the Apes," appeared in Arcadia Magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s story, “King of the Apes,” appeared in Arcadia Magazine. He guest edited the most recent volume of the magazine.

Benjamin Reed’s fiction and essays have appeared in [PANK], West Branch, Arcadia Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, and The Southern Quarterly. He won the 2013 Austin Chronicle Short Story contest, and Junot Díaz selected Reed’s “The Quiet Hunt” as winner of the Avery Anthology Small Spaces Prize. Reed was born in Houston, and grew up near San Francisco. He is a graduate of the University of Texas, and recently earned his MFA from Texas State University, where he currently teaches English. He lives in Austin with his wife and their two boys.

In this interview, Reed discusses Tarzan’s Faustian bargain, writing sex scenes, and the use of metaphor by nomadic hunter-gatherers.

To read “King of the Apes” and an exercise on unrequited love and writing inevitable scenes, click here.

(Reed will be reading at the AWP Conference this week at Big Fiction‘s event at Tony’s Coffee Bar on Saturday at 7:30.)

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Committee Room, you said, “Good stories often show relationships in transition. They often revolve around some kind of power imbalance.” In “King of the Apes,” this is certainly the case—in the jungle, Tarzan has power over Jane, but when he comes to America, the balance shifts in her favor—but it’s also not that simple. To some extent, the characters all use each other. Edgar Rice Burroughs uses Tarzan’s story for money and fame, but Tarzan also uses that relationship for money as well. In New York, the anthropologists and Tarzan use each other—for study and fame (anthropologists) and education and fame (Tarzan). Did that complexity of relationships always exist in the draft? Or, did you start with something simpler (anthropologists taking advantage of Tarzan, Tarzan fighting back) and discover the complexity during subsequent drafts?

Benjamin Reed

Originally, Edgar Rice Burroughs was dead the whole time, just a reference and a quick flashback. No dialogue. I decided to include Burroughs as a living, speaking character in a very late revision. Having him echo Tarzan’s original rejection from Jane totally refocused the nature or “aboutness” of the story: The loneliness and profound sadness a person feels when he can’t let go of someone who has let go of him. For me this was better and more specific than just focusing on my Tarzan’s “alienation” or “strangeness,” which is what I’d been working with before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes in 1914 and wrote more than two dozen follow-up novels.

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. You can read it for free at The Gutenberg Project.

I’m really heartened by this question, because you totally recognize what I was trying to do. After Jane tilts the axis of power by leaving Africa, Tarzan never recovers. He becomes a man shipwrecked on an alien society. In civilized America, his relationships are transactional and exploitive, both parties using each other as a means to an end. These are Faustian bargains of self-sacrifice and bondage: the researchers who replace Tarzan’s social identity, the circus promoter who retains his liberty, and finally the pulp fiction writer who acquires and appropriates his very life story. He sells off his mind, body, and soul. This sinister trifecta has always been in the story, but it wasn’t until Burroughs showed up that I knew what everything meant.

Michael Noll

Early in the story, you’ve got this amazing passage about the love story that Tarzan wants told about Jane and him:

It’d be “a real literary affair where Tarzan has to find Jane. He has to seek her out. Possibly cover hundreds or thousands of miles. A story that spans the globe. He tracks her down, Jane, who’s in this kind of spell, or a haze, or a hypnosis or something. So Tarzan has to save her, not just from the darkness, but from herself, Edgar. A story where Tarzan reaches inside Jane to keep her from falling off some rocky precipice in her own heart.”

In Tarzan’s summary, it sounds hackneyed and ridiculous, but, of course, the line between hackneyed and emotionally-impactful is a fine one (just ask Nicholas Sparks). Were you ever tempted to write this story?

Benjamin Reed

“Hackneyed?” You’re dead to me, Noll.

No, but seriously, yeah, it’s supposed to be trite and make Tarzan look ridiculous, revealing how he sees things when he’s alone in his apartment, feeling sorry for himself. In a way I feel like I did get to explore this fantastic and divergent storyline by having Tarzan narrate it as a kind of embedded text, a story within a story, while also evincing that sometimes he can get a little drunk on his own a delusional sap.

 Michael Noll

The story moves very quickly over some important moments. For instance, Tarzan’s move from Africa to New York happens in a single paragraph. And, before that move, there are these lines about Jane:

When Jane’s stinking clothes finally fell into rags she covered herself in leaves until I could steal a lion pelt from a hunter’s cache. She taught me how to speak some of her language. And of course, she gave me so much more than that. For a brief time, the jungle flowered into paradise.

Again, another writer might have handled that passage very differently. Was it difficult to find the right way to say, “We had sex?”

Benjamin Reed

Isn’t that a lot of what we deal with when we write? Answering mundane questions like, “What does my character do for money?” or resolving issues of taste, such as how to convey that characters have had sex without engaging in the dreaded sex scene? Honestly though, I think I originally did have a less subtextual sex scene in that spot, and it was probably an orgasm of bad taste and falling flower petals. As writers are taught, I wrote my way out of it. I just revised and revised until what I had in front of me didn’t make me cringe.

Michael Noll

A character gives Tarzan a copy of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is apt since both Tarzan and Frankenstein’s monster had to learn to speak. How did you approach the voice of Tarzan? It would seem challenging for a couple of reasons. For one, you have to invent a way of speaking that suggests the consequences of coming to any language (or, in this case, all language) late in life. In addition to that, you’re also working under the “Idea of Tarzan” that every reader will immediately have in mind once they learn your Tarzan’s name. What was your process for finding the right voice?

Benjamin Reed

It might surprise you how much of my time is preoccupied with this exact problem. Right now I’m working on a story about a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers in about 30,000 BCE, and figuring out how they speak is like creating a new language, but one whose only existence is in my own fluid translation. Lately I’ve been grappling with this clan’s dexterity with metaphor. It’s also been made clear to me how heavily English relies upon a modern and contemporary idiom. I thought my “caveman story” would be fun and relatively quick, but it’s become this huge project. I have to create these people’s entire culture and worldview, one word choice at a time.

Tarzan’s voice was easier. As the story is told in retrospect, I totally avoided having to figure out what a “primitive” or transitional Tarzan would sound like. Instead I gave him a normal, only slightly elevated diction, this slight lilting of an ironic aspiration to society, which I hoped would give him that bourgeois tinge of insecurity.

Dr. Kroeber was a real man, an early anthropologist from UC Berkeley who became famous for his work on Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yana people of California. In my story, Kroeber is trying to nudge Tarzan toward greater self-awareness. He gives Tarzan a copy of Frankenstein because, like Shelley’s terrible creation, Tarzan is also a construction, and a kind of monster.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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