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.

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