Month: January 2013

What Can We Steal From Lee K. Abbott’s “Gravity”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Gravity,” short story
Author: Lee K. Abbott
Date of Work: 2005
Where the Work Can Be Found: “Gravity” was first published in the Fall 2005 issue of the Georgia Review.  The story was included in All Things, All at Once, an anthology of new and selected stories by Mr. Abbott.  The book is great and makes a thoughtful present for anyone who knows how to read.  Or anyone who likes pictures of desert roadways and serif fonts.
Bonus: Wow, here’s an interview Lee did with The Atlantic.  And here’s one he did with William H. Coles!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Suspense

Discussion:
“Gravity” takes you in from its first sentence: “They grab her—Tanya, my fourteen year-old daughter—early in the afternoon from the sidewalk outside the north entrance to J.C. Penney’s at the Mimbres Valley Mall.”  Poor Lonnie Nees, the first-person narrator, copes with the truth of his daughter’s disappearance and the fact that he really didn’t know the young woman he loves so much.  There’s a lot to do; he must meet with the police, call his ex-wife and search the girl’s bedroom.  What happened to Tanya?  It’s not a spoiler, as Lee tells you early on that the young woman simply ran away, as young people sometimes do.  What is the point of the rest of the story if we already know that Tanya is (probably) alive and (somewhat) well?

Friend, this all ties into what we’re going to steal.  Why does Lee tell you the outcome of the story 15% of the way into the narrative?  Because his idea was not to tell a crime story.  The disappearance itself is not the point.  No, Lee cares far more about the emotional impact of the disappearance on Lonnie and his ex-wife and his girlfriend and everyone else in the community.  What will the grieving father think when he learns what his precious little girl has been doing?  What will he do to the young man who may know where she has gone?  What effect will the disappearance have on her parents, former lovers who have parted, but will always have Tanya in common?  Aren’t these questions much more captivating than “Hey, where’s Tanya?”

The story is also compelling because Lee adheres so closely to Freytag’s dramatic pyramid.  Gustav Freytag was a nineteenth-century writer and critic who studied Greek drama and isolated what makes a story great.  Here’s a graphic representation that adds some modern refinements to Freytag’s ideas:

freytag2Look how “Gravity” fits into the structure:

Exposition (establishing the story’s situation and characters)

  • In the first sentence, we learn the narrator is Lonnie Nees, the father of a young woman and lives in southwestern New Mexico.

Inciting Incident (the event that kicks off the story’s path)

  • Tanya, the daughter, has been “grabbed.”

Rising Action/Complications (the protagonist experiences obstacles and the situation increases in intensity)

  • Lonnie gets “the call” from the sheriff.
  • Lonnie tells his ex-wife about their daughter being in danger.
  • The sheriff looks around Tanya’s room and finds drugs.
  • Lonnie looks through…unpleasant…photos Tanya had in her locker in hopes of helping the police.  Tanya has been up to some…stuff that Lonnie didn’t know about.
  • Lonnie gets a phone call that may be from someone who knows Tanya’s whereabouts.
  • Lonnie heads to the dump to meet the Sheriff; they’ve found objects that may belong to Tanya.

Climax (the highest point of tension, after which nothing is the same)

  • Lonnie visits the gang leader who has “interfered” with Tanya.  Lonnie threatens him with a gun and comes awfully close to using the weapon for reasons any father would understand.

Denouement/Falling Action (life settles into its new normal as the characters deal with the events of the story)

  • The consensus is that Tanya is in Los Angeles; the Sheriff takes the gun and Lonnie understands that his new life, for the time being, will not involve his daughter.

See?  The story just FEELS right because of the way that Lee tells it.  I’m not saying that writing must be formulaic; there’s just a natural, organic procession to the events that feels like real life.

What Should We Steal?

  • Create the most appropriate kind of suspense for your story.  You are certainly welcome to write a killer thriller story about the disappearance of a child, but that requires a different focus.  You will likely include far more scenes about the mechanics involved in getting a kid back home.
  • Pay homage to Freytag.  Screenplays tend to follow the Syd Field formula very closely.  (This structure borrows a lot from Freytag.)  While you shouldn’t struggle to put your inciting incident on page 1 and one complication every other page and a climax on page 15, you should consider the flow of your story with respect to Freytag’s thoughts.

What Can We Steal From Alicia Ostriker’s “April”?

Title of Work and its Form: “April,” poem
Author: Alicia Ostriker
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: “April” was originally published in the February issue of Poetry Magazine.  The fine folks at the Poetry Foundation have even published the poem on their web site.  “April” was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the award’s 2013 anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Theme

Discussion:
“April” is a pleasant meditation on the arrival of Spring in New York City.  The theme of rebirth is a constant in literature, and for good reason.  It’s true that “The seasons go round they/ go round and around” and part of the pleasure of life is relaxing into these cycles.

The structure Ms. Ostriker chose for her poem is felicitous because it maximizes the potency of her theme.  What is the structure?  There are three stanzas, each of which focuses on a different kind of organism that responds to Spring: people, nature and dogs.  The reactions to the season are different in each stanza.  Aside from “the old woman” (who has experienced many changes of season), people are awash in optimism and working toward a better world.  In nature, the tulip dances “among her friends/ in their brown bed in the sun/ in the April breeze” and is unfazed that she is not as “powerful” as the trees that cast shadows alongside her.  The dog, of course, loves the gross smells and is gratified by the sounds of the river and traffic.

The reader is prepared to switch perspective from “people” to “nature” because Ms. Ostriker adds a stanza break.  White space, whether it’s in a poem or a short story, indicates to a reader that you are making some sort of substantive change.  You could be switching point of view or jumping through time.  (Those are just a few of your options!)

Another important and meaningful detail about the poem: there is no punctuation at all!  Why is that okay?  The omission of periods and commas create an appropriate feeling in the poem.  Doesn’t Spring wash over you in a warm, relentless breeze?  The poem mimics this effect because Ms. Ostriker provides the reader with a gentle stream of words.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider your subject from a wide range of perspectives.  “Spring” is a pretty big topic.  Isn’t it interesting to think about what nature “thinks” about it?  Just like Mozart, perform variations on your theme to encounter exciting ideas.
  • Employ punctuation to your benefit…or omit it completely.  Without pauses or full stops, your work may be a tiny bit less formal.  There’s at least one benefit: your reader will stop reading only at line breaks, allowing the words to simply flow through their mind.

What Can We Steal From John Cheever’s “Reunion”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Reunion,” short story
Author: John Cheever
Date of Work: 1962
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally published (where else?) in The New Yorker.  You can find it in Cheever’s Collected Stories.  Hey, check it out!  Here’s a recording of Richard Ford reading the story that is hosted on The New Yorker’s web site.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Communication of Pathos (Emotion)

Discussion:
“Reunion” is as short as it is powerful.  Charlie, the first-person narrator, describes the brief reunion he had with his father.  Charlie was a kid at the time and all Dad wanted to do was drink and…well, that’s about it.  Charlie gets on the train, never to see his father again.

The narrator is so calm in the story, even though you know that there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in the experience.  One way that you can tell is the frame into which Cheever has painted the story.  Here’s the first sentence:

The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.

And here’s the last one:

“Goodbye, Daddy,” I said, and I went down the stairs and got my train, and that was the last time I saw my father.

There’s a symmetry to the story, as though the narrator has closed a chapter of his life and has made it clear to the reader that he has no more to say on the subject.  You don’t have to be told explicitly; you can feel the closing of a door.

There’s further repetition at the end of the story.  Charlie calls his father “Daddy” three times.  Three is a magic number, isn’t it?  Can you hear the different tones in which young Charlie would use the word?

  1. Calmness.
  2. Sadness.
  3. Emotional detachment.

(You’re free to have differing opinions; you see the point.)

Cheever packs a lot of pathos into “Reunion” without really offering much explicit insight into the narrator’s thoughts.  Instead, Future Charlie reports the events and we are invited to make our own conclusions as to what he is feeling.  Doesn’t this mimic the process by which we do the same thing in our own relationships?

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ repetition to communicate emotion.  It is often far more fulfilling to understand something by figuring out the subtext instead of simply being told.  This is also the way that so many emotions are communicated in real life.  A dissatisfied significant other may not sit you down and tell you how they feel.  They will, however, repeatedly treat you in a manner that should clue you in.
  • Make use of three, the magic number.  Three just feels natural for some reason.  Beginning, middle, end.  Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  Larry, Moe, Curly.  Tinker to Evers to Chance.

What Can We Steal From John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt?

Title of Work and its Form: Doubt: A Parable, play
Author: John Patrick Shanley
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The script is available in a trade paperback edition as well as an acting edition from Dramatists Play Service.  (They’re a great organization, by the way.  You can buy acting editions of all kinds of plays at very low cost!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
Doubt, in my opinion, is one of the best plays ever.  Sure, I’m a little biased; I had the honor of working at the Manhattan Theatre Club during the play’s Off-Broadway and Broadway runs.  After I walked out of the third Off-Broadway preview, I knew that I had just experienced a magical evening of theater.  (And world-class performances from Cherry Jones, Heather Goldenhersh, Brian F. O’Byrne and Adriane Lenox.)  The play won a zillion Tonys and a Pulitzer and everything.  The film, directed by Shanley, is very good, but I am somewhat sad that the original actors couldn’t have their performances immortalized on film.

Mr. Shanley drew on his childhood, setting his play in a Catholic school in the Bronx.  It’s 1964 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy is still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Sister Aloysius is the principal of the school, overseeing many teachers, including young Sister James.  Sister Aloysius has…well…doubts about Father Flynn, a priest who coaches basketball and tends to the spiritual needs of the children and their families.  Father Flynn, she believes, is a little too friendly with Donald Muller, the school’s first black student.  The religious hierarchy restrains Sister Aloysius from confronting Father Flynn directly, so she deals with the situation in the only ways she can.

One of the reasons I admire the play so much is that Mr. Shanley deals with an awful lot of complicated issues.

  • Feminism – Sister Aloysius, as a woman, does not have authority over men.
  • Race – Donald Muller is the only black student in a sea of Italian and Irish kids.
  • Pedagogical Theory – Should a teacher be feared or loved?
  • Child Molestation – They’re out there…how do we find them and what should we do with them?
  • Parenting – Mrs. Muller wants the best for her child, even if it means being “interfered with” until graduation.
  • Attitudes Toward Homosexuality – Is Donald Muller a homosexual?  Does that change anything?
  • Our Moral Obligations – When we believe someone is doing something really, really wrong, what are we obligated to do about it?

Does he hit you over the head with them by releasing them all at once?  No.  They come out in a natural, organic manner.  Here’s how the audience learns that Donald Muller is an African-American child.  Five scenes into the play, Sister Aloysius finally confesses her real suspicion: that Father Flynn has been molesting the boy.

Sister Aloysius: Of all the children.  Donald Muller.  I suppose it makes sense.

Sister James: How does it make sense?

Sister Aloysius: He’s isolated.  The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for.

Sister James.  I don’t know that anything’s wrong!

Sister Aloysius: Our first Negro student.  I thought there’d be fighting, a parent or two to deal with…I should have foreseen this possibility.

Instead of launching into a big, melodramatic monologue about the equality of people of all races and yada yada yada, Sister Aloysius simply gives us the exposition.  Mr. Shanley respects the audience enough to know they’ll understand what he’s doing.  In lesser works, such a realization would be dealt with in a maudlin way such as this:

Can you believe it?  Father Flynn is molesting our first proud African-American student.  A young man who, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, simply wants to gain knowledge about himself and his life!  Haven’t African-Americans been through enough?  Hundreds of years of slavery, another hundred years of institutionalized racism.  When, oh when, will our proud African-American brothers and sisters be allowed to be free!?!?!1?!?! (Sister Aloysius begins wiping away dozens of tears.)

Nope.  Mr. Shanley gives his audience realistic scenes and graceful exposition.  In Mr. Shanley’s scorching Scene Eight, Sister Aloysius has a talk with Mrs. Muller.  Could some of the lines be shouted?  Sure.  These extremes are earned.  Does Mrs. Muller offer an unexpected analysis of the situation?  Um…yes!  The extreme is in the situation, not in the tone of Sister Aloysius’s response.

The ambiguous ending of Doubt receives a lot of attention because the audience receives no cut-and-dried answer with regard to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence.  That’s okay!  First of all, the play is titled Doubt.  What do you expect?  I wrote about this issue in my essay about the Law & Order: SVU episode with the same title.  The play puts the audience in the same position as Sister Aloysius (or anyone who read about the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal).  We’re probably not around when these terrible things happen…how do we know what really occurred?  At what point do we believe a person is guilty of a heinous crime?

What Should We Steal?

  • Confront a great deal of vital issues.  Isn’t why this a lot of writers get into the game in the first place?  Society has a lot of problems—and always will—and a lot of these problems are interrelated.  Don’t be afraid to dive into the deep end of the emotional pool.
  • Avoid melodrama by treating the extremes in your work as though they are not.  Have you ever been to a wedding where someone had a little bit too much to drink and they spend the entire reception crying in a corner and then crying in the parking lot and then crying in the bathroom because their boyfriend or girlfriend didn’t like the Nicki Minaj song the DJ played?  While I can’t blame this hypothetical person for having such a negative reaction to Nicki Minaj, there’s just too much melodrama going on.  It’s not realistic and it’s generally not as compelling as works with more verisimilitude.
  • Leave your audience guessing.  Yes, yes.  It’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  There’s nothing wrong, however, with inviting your reader to interact with the ideas in your stuff.  The dilemma of Doubt is played out in countless places in the country every day.  Isn’t it valuable to confront these questions in fiction before they face us in fact?  

What Can We Steal From Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather?

Title of Work and its Form:  The Godfather, film
Author: Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Written by Mario Puzo and Coppola from Puzo’s novel.
Date of Work: 1972

Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD.

Element of Craft We’re Going to Steal: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
The Godfather is one of the many films you REALLY MUST SEE if you want to be a writer.  The structure is solid, the characters are lush and fully rendered and there’s violence with actual consequences.  If you watch the film, you’ll even get a great recipe for tomato sauce!  The film tells the story of the Corleone Family and how the initially reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino) becomes the don.  Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) does his best to conduct business in an “honorable” fashion, resisting the push deal drugs.  (After all, the numbers racket and prostitution don’t hurt anyone in the way drugs do.)  If you haven’t seen the film, just go see it.

Right now, I’m only talking about the very beginning of the film, so there shouldn’t be any spoilers.  Puzo and Coppola’s screenplay accomplishes a LOT in the first five minutes.  Best of all, the scene is as simple as it is powerful; it’s just Don Corleone talking with Bonasera, the owner of a funeral parlor.

What are the first words?  “I believe in America.”  In reality, “America” is an idea as well as a tangible entity.  “America” means something different to everyone in the film.  Bonasera describes how his daughter has been raped by two men who get a slap on the wrist.  Bonasera begs Don Corleone for justice, hoping he will use his resources to have the rapists killed.  “America” failed him.  He tried to live by the rules and trust our nation of laws, but his daughter didn’t receive justice.

Don Corleone is offended by Bonasera.  He laments that Bonasera has never treated him like a true friend.  Bonasera has never asked him over for a simple cup of coffee and has foresaken the fact that Vito’s wife is his child’s godmother.  Only after he discusses personal matters does Don Corleone discuss business.  We learn in the first few minutes of the film that, to Don Corleone, personal relationships are more meaningful that official legal ones.  America seems to be a place where a pure sense of justice can be more easily forged than in the Old Country.  The Don isn’t bloodthirsty; he calmly refuses to have the men killed.  After all, “[Murder] is not justice; your daughter is still alive.”  Only when Bonasera submits to Don Corleone, by kissing his hand and calling him “Godfather,” does Vito agree to do the requested favor.

The scene is so powerful because the big themes of the film emerge from a relatively small discussion between two people.  The viewer is immediately immersed in the BIG THEMES of The Godfather without being beaten over the head with them.  The intimate scene is also immediately contrasted with a much larger, more public one: the wedding of the Don’s daughter.  The juxtaposition allows us to understand the Don’s morality in the larger context of the world he inhabits.  

What Should We Steal?:

  • Start a story with a calm but meaningful scene that introduces your central themes.  It can often be tempting to start our stories with BIG acts and EXPLOSIONS and FIREWORKS.  Sure, the Don ends up ordering an assault, but the calmer introduction here allows the audience to become comfortable with the Godfather’s unique world before the fireworks happen.  (I’m thinking the scene between Sonny and his brother-in-law.)
  • Allow your characters to have complicated ideas about the world and unexpected concepts of morality.  In a boring story, everything is black and white.  Mobsters are monsters who only care about money.  The bad guy is bad just because he is bad.  In The Godfather, the characters have motivations that are sometimes unexpected.

What Can We Steal From Erin McGraw’s “Punchline”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Punchline,” short story
Author: Erin McGraw
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece is included in the 2013 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology and was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review.  Looky here!  Erin did a short interview about “Punchline!”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Father Phil Castor is having some problems.  His parishioners are driving him a little crazy and he’s not happy with the counsel he is providing.  Worst of all, his mind is wandering during his homilies; he’s improvising, going on a tangent about his long-dead sister and saying things he doesn’t remember when quoted back to him.  Phil, already struggling not to weep at the altar, sees one of his at-risk youth die of a drug overdose.  In short order, Phil’s brother is killed in a hit-and-run.  Phil has been emotionally adrift for a few weeks when two cars collide near his rectory.  Those involved in the crash are perfectly fine.  In fact, they’re annoyed at the police/insurance company hassle they’re going to endure.  Phil returns home, knowing he’s of no use.  He hears a mockingbird sing and is reminded of an appropriate and colorful memory.

All of my writing instructors have discussed narrative structure and each has helped me a great deal.  Erin, however, approached the topic from a different perspective, so we’re going to figure out what we can steal from the structure of her story.

Introductory advice: If possible, get over your bibliophile inclinations and make notes in a story when you are reading it.  Underline, box in the names of characters…whatever will help you gain some insight.

Erin organizes her story thus:

# Number of page inches/pages What the narrative accomplishes:
1 4”/.5 Two expository paragraphs in which McGraw tells the reader about Father Phil and the (minor) sins he has been committing recently.
2 4.75”/.7 No break.  McGraw brings the narrative into the dramatic present, recounting a scene that demonstrates the odd interactions Phil has been having with his parishioners.
3 10”/1.3 No break.  The story is rewound again so the reader can learn about the first time a parishioner repeated to Phil a line he hadn’t remembered saying.  The third-person narrator tells the reader exactly what Phil has been like in the past and how he has changed. Phil laments that he needs to write his sermon.
4 17”/2.5 Section break.  The sermon “wrote itself,” possibly because Father Phil was distracted.  McGraw describes Father Phil’s work week: one of the young people in a church program overdosed and he had to justify the continuance of the program and talk to the police and everything.  There are appointments and rehearsal wedding dinners.  Father Phil buys a “small bottle of Stoli” and is finally able to write; he is overwhelmed by thoughts of the Good Samaritan and the meaning of mercy.  Father Phil finally reflects upon the dead teenager and begins to weep.
5 25.5”/3.75 White space.  Father Phil gets counsel of his own from his brother, Gary, as they watch some Law & Order: SVU.  (A TV show that’s all about judgment and punishment and mercy.  Coincidence?  I think not.)  Father Phil is weary of talk; “that was their job description.”  He talks to the sick and bereaved, emcees a wine auction and understands he’s going to break down.  Another sermon written and performed, Father Phil goes out for a walk and returns to his office only to discover that Gary was struck in a hit-and-run.  Father Phil immediately goes to the hospital and tries to care for his brother, who dies several days later.  Father Phil asks a doctor the kinds of questions that parishioners usually ask him.
6 10.5”/1.1 White space.  Other priests have been covering for Father Phil as he works through his grief.  The bishop has instructed him to go back to work, but Father Phil is not ready.  He has a few drinks and the section break ends on his grief.
7 16”/2.2 White space.  The next day, Father Phil witnesses a traffic accident that occurs very close to the rectory.  The crash looks bad, but both drivers are fine.  (Both of them also seem like jerks.)  In spite of all of the tragedy and sadness and grief, a mockingbird comes by and sings, reminding Father Phil of a joke he shared with his brother and sister.

How can we tell which parts of the story were most important to Erin?  Look at how much page space she devotes to each section.  I found it interesting that Erin doesn’t spend more time in the dramatic present during the scene in which the kid dies in front of Father Phil.  Erin certainly cares about this story beat, but it looks like she cared more about its emotional aftermath.

The longest section by far falls in the middle of the story and describes one of the most critical weeks in Father Phil’s life.  He starts the week wondering about life and how he could best do his job and ends the week mourning the loss of his dear brother and confessor.  The section relentlessly bounces around, mimicking the loss of control that Father Phil is feeling in his life.  Erin allows Father Phil and the reader no break.  (Remember what Gertrude said to Laertes after Ophelia’s death?  “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,/ So fast they follow.”)

A lot of writers wonder how the heck they are going to orient the reader in the world they create.  Erin used the first 2.5 pages to introduce her character, give almost a page of backstory in the narrative past and then fast-forward to depict the kind of experience that is getting harder for Father Phil.  (Giving counsel and maintaining his own psychological balance.) The lapses and accidental honesty that Father Phil doles out are a harbinger of the sadness to come for him.

Maybe it’s just me, but I spend a lot of time thinking about section breaks and white space and the effect they have on readers.  Erin omitted white space in the first few sections for the same reason that rock bands start their concerts by playing three songs without a break: the reader feels a lot of energy and is drawn into the performance.  I think that the white space in the story represents Erin shifting between weeks.  (Give or take.)  Doesn’t this make sense?  Sunday is prime time for priests, right?  I love the idea that Father Phil would measure his life in this way.

What Should We Steal?

  • Measure the effect of white space and section breaks and when you decide to omit them.  A section break (*       *       *) is a SOMETHING.  The reader’s eye trips over it, understanding that it signifies SOMETHING.  In that nanosecond, the reader pauses and prepares for something new.  White space is an ABSENCE; the reader understands it in a different way.
  • Count lines or sentences or pages to allow you to take stock of the way you subconsciously understand your own work.  It’s often hard to see our own work with fresh eyes; why not use the power of cold, hard statistics to offer yourself a look from a different angle?  Perhaps you are including way too much material about a story beat that isn’t very important to you.  Maybe you’re not devoting enough page space to something that is crucial to your work.  Think of an action movie like Terminator 2.  How would you feel if the climactic scene lasted for ten seconds?  You would feel cheated; that’s why James Cameron keeps you in that foundry for quite some time.

What Can We Steal From Kevin Smith’s Clerks?

Title of Work and its Form: Clerks, feature film
Author: Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: Clerks has been released on DVD. The tenth-anniversary edition includes a ton of bonus features that will be of interest to fans of the film. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
Kevin Smith was working at the Quick Stop when he decided to sell his comic book collection and max out his credit cards to make Clerks. The story is relatively simple; Dante Hicks is called in to work in the Quick Stop on his day off. He’s not even supposed to be there on the day the film takes place! Dante is in a bit of a rut; his sweet and beautiful girlfriend, Veronica, urges him to go back to school. Instead, Dante seems resigned to a lifetime of jockeying the register and dealing with the crazy customers. Randal Graves is his best friend and works at RST Video next door. The two play hockey on the roof and attend Julie Dwyer’s funeral and even deal with the news that Dante’s ex-girlfriend is engaged to an Asian design major. (Things don’t end well for poor Caitlin Bree…)

Clerks represents Kevin Smith playing to his strengths and getting the most out of everything at his disposal. Smith couldn’t afford a ton of lights and could only film at night, so the script calls for the store’s security doors to be jammed shut. In the days before digital video, cost was a huge roadblock for beginning filmmakers. Mr. Smith made his budget realistic by filming in black-and-white. At the time, Nicolas Cage wasn’t willing to take a role in exchange for a ten-dollar bill handshake. Therefore, Smith cast local actors, some of whom had no experience in front of the camera.

These limitations were actually fortuitous accidents for Mr. Smith. David Klein’s black-and-white cinematography lends a rough, rock-and-roll look to a film that was decidedly NOT a product of the Hollywood studio system. The film is about young people who don’t make that much money and don’t have much going on in their lives…the look of the film fits perfectly. Liev Schreiber, one of our finest actors, would not have fit in the film. Being forced to cast relative amateurs like Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson meant that Mr. Smith got a fresh kind of passion on the screen that most films just don’t have. Having the shutters over the windows through the whole film reinforces the sense of claustrophobia in the protagonist’s life. Dante is scared he’ll never get out, but he doesn’t know how to get out.

Mr. Smith made the most out of everything he did have. When writing his script for the film, he clearly thought about everything that could be done in a convenience store and a video store. He might not have been able to afford a thousand crane shots and to film each dialogue scene with the perpetual spinning you find in a Michael Bay film, but he could give one of his friends the role of a customer who searches for the “perfect dozen” carton of eggs. The building has a roof, of course…Mr. Smith had his characters play their hockey game up there. What does a video clerk need to do from time to time? Order videos. So Randal reads a list of porno movie titles in front of a mother and her two-year-old.

At that point, Mr. Smith was not a highly experienced filmmaker, so he made up for it with loads of passion. He didn’t have a ton of money, so he wrote a script that he could afford to make. Most importantly, he just went out and DID IT. Shouldn’t we all follow his lead?

What Should We Steal?

  • Exploit your setting and your characters. As you’re writing, make a list of everything that you would find in your settings. Let’s say you’re setting a horror movie or book in a hardware store. Wouldn’t you expect to see your characters use a wide range of tools during the story? What if a character happens to be a plumber? Plumbers are generally good with their hands and have a good sense of how to fix things. How could you exploit that in your story?
  • Turn your limitations into advantages. Do you have trouble writing stories that are very, very long? Write an epistolary novel that consists of lots of very short sections. Maybe you’ve only lived in one place your whole life. That’s fine; write the short story that truly captures the feeling of your hometown.

What Can We Steal From Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest?

Title of Work and its Form: The Importance of Being Earnest, play
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date of Work: 1895
Where the Work Can Be Found: The play appears in all kinds of anthologies.  Thanks to the wonders of public domain, the play can be found on the Internet.  (In your face, Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
The Importance of Being Earnest is, quite simply, one of the best comedies around.  Not only is there a laugh every fifteen seconds, but the characters are compelling and charming.  Best of all, it’s a love story!  Don’t we all enjoy a good love story?  John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are…committed bachelors…wink wink…right?  Get it?  All they want is to find women with whom they can settle down.  The course of their true love doesn’t run smoothly at all.  Each of them assume the name Ernest as a way to remain anonymous while having fun.  Algernon also pretends to have a friend named Bunbury who serves as a convenient excuse when he wants to take off.  Enter Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell.  Gwendolyn is a sweet and beautiful young woman; John/Earnest proposes marriage.  (She loves guys named Ernest.)  Unfortunately, John is not satisfactory marriage material; his mother stuffed him in a handbag as a baby and left him in a train station.  Long story short: a ton of coincidences are discovered and everyone ends up happy and married at the end.

Lady Bracknell is my favorite character from the play.  She’s an older woman who epitomizes the Victorian ideals of propriety.  The most important thing, of course, is not actual propriety, but the appearance of propriety.  (Do we have anyone like that?)  Lady Bracknell doesn’t worry too much about money, which gives her the luxury of living life “properly.”  Her clothing is always perfect and a judgmental quip is always on her tongue.  Freed from the struggles of “normal” life, she is free to tell others what to do.  And the dialogue Wilde gives to her couldn’t sparkle any more brightly.

Let’s look at Lady Bracknell’s entrance and first lines.  (Always a good idea.)

[Algernon goes forward to meet them.  Enter Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.]

Lady Bracknell.  Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.

Algernon.  I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.

Lady Bracknell.  That’s not quite the same thing.  In fact the two things rarely go together.  [Sees Jack and bows to him with icy coldness.]

Wilde wastes no time!  Lady Bracknell follows the social script by asking how-do-you-do and then reprimands Algernon, doling out one of her legendary pronouncements.  We don’t often think deeply about these kinds of perfunctory situations, but Lady Bracknell is right; behaving well and feeling well are two very different things.

We love Lady Bracknell because she is relentless and devoutly committed to her beliefs.  Unlike wishy-washy people, she creates drama by being inflexible and unforgiving.  Here are some more of her lines:

I’m sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury.  I hadn’t been there since her poor husband’s death.  I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.

Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die.  This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.  Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids.  I consider it morbid.  Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others.  Health is the primary duty of life.

An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.  It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .

I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.  Which do you know?

It’s true that Oscar Wilde stole a little bit of Lady Bracknell’s character from similar characters in farces that preceded Earnest.  In the years since I read the play, I have noticed some examples of television writers doing what Wilde did: taking a character “type” and putting a unique spin on it.

Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and her husband and her adopted child Annyong and her grandchildren and the painters and the household help how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: Lucille constantly criticizes her daughter Lindsay’s weight.  They share this exchange in a restaurant:

Lindsay: Did you enjoy your meal, Mom? You drank it fast enough.

Lucille: Not as much as you enjoyed yours. You want your belt to buckle, not your chair.

Two and a Half Men’s Evelyn Harper (Holland Taylor) is a wealthy woman who cares only about appearances.  She’s forever telling her children and grandchildren how they should live their lives and what is “right” and “proper.”  Fun example: in one episode, Evelyn is excited to attend a party in her honor and to soak up attention.  Unfortunately, she is upstaged by the singing of the housekeeper’s sister.  In a moment of reflection, she lets loose this very Bracknell line:

Evelyn Harper: Why does anyone want a party? To feel superior while feigning humility!

What Should We Steal?

  • Take a stock character and make him or her your own.  These words can be very confusing.  They can also characterize the attitude of a character or narrator.
  • Make the most of the entrances your characters make.  Your audience or reader should understand your characters within seconds of meeting them.  Sure, you may change the perception you create later in the piece, but your characters are actors at heart.  They want to make big waves and burn themselves into the audience’s memory instantly.

What Can We Steal From Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Hills Like White Elephants,” short story
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date of Work: 1927
Where the Work Can Be Found: This story has been anthologized a thousand times.  Based upon the book’s title, I’m guessing you can find “Hills” in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Economy

Discussion:
Ernest Hemingway rejected the idea of extreme rhetorical flourishes in literature.  Instead, he kept his sentences short and sweet.  The ideas stood on their own.  “Hills Like White Elephants” consists primarily of a dialogue between a Man and a woman who are in the Ebro Valley.  (The Ebro is a river in Spain.)  During a hot day, the man and woman order drinks and talk about the rolling hills they see.  (The hills look like white elephants.)  After the drink situation is sorted out, the man says, apropos of nothing, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig…It’s not really an operation at all.”  Air blows through beaded curtains.  It’s clear the operation will change their lives.  The man claims it will make their lives better.  The train is about to come and the decision has been made.

The fireworks in this story aren’t in the sky; they’re in the relationship between the man and woman.  They talk about drinks, but they’re not really talking about drinks.  They talk about being happy like they were before, but they’re not really talking about the past.  They talk about the train arriving, but they’re not really talking about the train.  Hemingway pared away pretty much everything but the dialogue.  The reader feels as though he or she is sitting in the café beside them.  Does it matter what the characters look like?  No.  What matters is that they’re negotiating whether or not she’ll have an abortion.

Think of your boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife.  Or your boss.  Do you want to be told to go do “that?”  How do you know what “that” is?  You come home and your significant other says, “How could you do it?”  What is “it”?

Yes.  “It” is an abortion.  How do we know?  The man says it’s an “operation.”  “It’s just to let the air in.”  “It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”  The woman repeatedly asks if it will make everything “all right” and restore happiness to their relationship.  The details Hemingway provides makes it reasonable to repeat “it” and “that” and “the operation.”  We infer what the characters mean.  Just as though we’re sitting in a café on one side of a beaded curtain, eavesdropping on a traumatized couple on the other.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think of your work like a side of beef.  Cut away the bones and fat and gristle and leave the tenderloin.
  • Use words like “it” and “this” and “that” in a graceful way.  These words can be very confusing.  They can also characterize the attitude of a character or narrator.

What Can We Steal From Billy Collins’s “Days”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Days,” poem
Author: Billy Collins
Date of Work: 1995
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was originally published in the September 1994 issue of Poetry, one of the biggie-big journals.  (That one happens to be VERY reasonably priced, too!)  The Poetry Foundation is kind enough to have posted the poem here.  You can go and read it for freeRight now!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Imagery

Discussion:
Billy Collins is one of our Great American Contemporary Poets™.  The gentleman served as Poet Laureate and has done an incredible amount of good for the genre he loves.  His work is simultaneously accessible and beautiful and are a wonderful starting point for folks who mistakenly believe that they “don’t get” poetry.

“Days” is a six-stanza poem in which Mr. Collins offers his take on carpe diem.  (Seize the day!)  The poem seemingly begins in the morning, when “you” are waking and ends at night as “you” finish your day with a relaxing cup of tea.  (Doesn’t it make sense to begin in the morning and end at night?)

The imagery that Mr. Collins uses jumps right out at you.  In the morning, the ground is heavy with snow “and the thick masonry of ice,/ the sun glinting off the turrets of clouds.”  Goodness, isn’t it interesting to think of snowfall as masonry?  This unexpected comparison continues in the fourth stanza: “the days of the past stacked high/ like the impossible tower of dishes/ entertainers used to build on stage.”  Instead of thinking of time as a continuum, Mr. Collins compares time to a big brick building in terms that we can understand.  Even if we’ve never laid brick, we understand the concept, right?

How can we come up with phrases as pretty as the ones Collins included in “Days”?  I’m betting Billy Collins would agree with me.  You have to read a lot of poems, stories, screenplays, grocery lists, scraps of paper you find on the stree…  You have to jot down countless ideas.  You need to share your writing with others and get feedback.  The kinds of ideas you find in “Days” must percolate, so get your mental coffee pot started.

Look at the way Mr. Collins uses italics.  Here’s the first line of the poem:

Each one is a gift, no doubt.

Mr. Collins uses the italics to let you add some kind of meter to the line.  The word “is” might be italicized to let the reader know that the word deserves to be a stressed syllable.  Would you otherwise expect “is” to be stressed?  This choice also adds emphasis.  Mr. Collins is saying that each day *IS* a gift.  Who would doubt him?  Well, aren’t there times that we may be a little depressed and may forget how special it is that each of us are here?

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ unexpected comparisons.  Time can be a building instead of a river.  The sun can be an explosion instead of a fire.  Marriage can be a Siberian exile instead of a relationship.  Geesh, these are all bad.  But you get the point.
  • Use italics and other kinds of typographic tricks to get your message across.  Words in bold or in italics or in ALL CAPS or struck through will have a big effect on the reader when they get to them.  Just be careful to use these tricks sparingly.  They’re like garlic.  A little bit is great!  Too much?  You don’t get a kiss at the end of the date.