What Can We Steal From Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Beautiful Monsters,” short story
Author: Eric Puchner
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in Issue 50 of Tin House. The story subsequently appeared in the 2012 editions Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading.
Bonuses: Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. (I love that she brought Asimov, Ellison and Heinlein into the discussion.) Here is an interview Mr. Puchner did with The Rumpus. Here is a very good GQ piece Mr. Puchner wrote about his father. (I even remember reading it in the magazine. Good for me!)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: World Creation
Imagine a world without adults. A boy and a girl, two Perennials who will never grow up, have made a home together. Inciting incident: A man, an honest-to-goodness man, shows up outside the kids’ home. The authorities apprehend these beautiful monsters, these Senescents, but the boy and girl take the man in. The ticking clock in the story is the man’s injury; gangrene (or something like it) is turning his leg into a festering mess. The boy and girl have differing attitudes toward the man; the former seems to enjoy having some kind of father (at first), and the girl seems very confused by the attention. The man teaches the children how to play like, well, real children and shares his memories with the boy and girl. Sadly, all good things must end. The boy somewhat changes his opinion of the stand-in father and infection lays the man low as sirens approach. The last paragraph takes an appropriate turn into the abstract.
Anyone who reads the story will likely notice the speed and deceptive ease with which Mr. Puchner establishes the world of the story. Readers are willing to follow a writer anywhere, so long as they are guided well and enough. Look how Mr. Puchner lays in the clues immediately.
- The character is called “the boy” repeatedly. No name. His sister is referred to by title and by pronoun. Not only can we gather that the boy is a main character (you can’t have twenty characters called “the boy”), but the generic names create a kind of discomfort
- In the fourth sentence: “The boy has never seen a grown man in real life, only in books…” Mr. Puchner makes his conceit a little clearer. No grownups in this world. (Well, not out and about.)
- The man is described in the title and the first paragraph as a monster. He is “bearded and tall as a shadow” with hands that are “huge, grotesque, as clumsy as crabs.” The reader understands what a strange experience this is for the children.
- Early dialogue: “He must have wandered away from the woods.” Okay, so the grownups exist outside of mainstream society.
A writer must decide which mysteries he or she will maintain. And you can’t have too many in your work or your reader will be confused.
I love stories that contain ticking time bombs of some sort. A bad guy or bad girl breaks into a bank and gives the police an hour to give him or her what she wants. Something is going to happen after an hour. There’s a great Dragnet episode in which a bad guy has put a bomb in a school that will detonate at a specific time; Friday and Gannon MUST GET THE LOCATION. Ticking time bombs, whether literal or not, imbue a story with inherent drama. The reader has an idea of what might happen, but has no idea about how the specifics will play out. In “Beautiful Monsters,” the gangrenous leg is getting worse and worse. The reader is left to wonder: is the man going to die? Is the man going to try and get help at the hospital? Will the boy saw the man’s leg off? We don’t know for sure, but SOMETHING is going to happen. A ticking time bomb can also reinforce the fact that the writer is in control and knows what he or she is doing.
What Should We Steal?
- Establish the strangeness of your unique world clearly and early. One or two mysteries are fine; too many will confuse your reader.
- Give your story a countdown. A pregnant woman is going to have that baby nine months or so after conception. (Hopefully!) That story has a discernible end, complete with inherent drama.