What Can We Steal From Richard Lakin’s “Give Them What They Want”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Give Them What They Want,” short story
Author: Richard Lakin (on Twitter @Lakinwords)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story appears in Issue 5 of The Puffin Review.  You can find the story here.

Bonuses: Here is Mr. Lakin’s story, “The Debt He Carried,” first published in Notes From the UndergroundHere is a cool travel piece Mr. Lakin wrote for the Telegraph.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Callbacks

Discussion:
Mr. Lakin keeps this story short and sweet.  The story begins as Derek picks up a prostitute in a neighborhood that has seemingly had an outbreak of such behavior.  His wife Jane is on his mind as Carla gets into the car.  He drives away, pointing out the envelope full of money in the glove compartment.  Carla is a little worried for a while; Derek is driving her pretty far and, as I understand it, women in her line of work don’t like to go very far with their customers.  At last, we have the reveal.  Derek stops the car in the beautiful countryside and tells Carla to check the boot.  (That’s the trunk of the car, for all of us Americans.)  Derek has not taken Carla out to the country to harm her.  No, he wishes to make her the subject of one of his works of art.

Mr. Lakin does a lot of wise things in this story.  Perhaps the most important choice he made was to make his first-person narrator an artist, the kind of man who can use some beautiful turns of phrase.  We expect an artist to notice the small details that Derek releases, including the hue of Carla’s hair and the “apple-shaped smudge” of a bruise on her calf.  Of course, it can work the other way around; a writer will choose phrasing and details according to the character’s proclivities.

If you’ve ever seen a comedy routine–standup or improv–you’ll see what are called “callbacks.”  These are running themes or recurring images whose meaning may change throughout the work.  When Derek is negotiating with Carla, he asks how long she has been working as a hooker.  She replies, “Well, you’re not the first.  Is that going to be a problem?”  She is offering the truth in a forthright manner and trying to put a dignified face on her work while continuing to give the client what she thinks he wants.

The ending line of the story is the same.  Carla sees the…art stuff in the trunk and understands he just wants to draw her.  When Derek says the line, the situation is reversed.  He is playfully reminding her of the time a few minutes earlier when they were strangers and she thought that he wanted to have sex with her.  (And perhaps to violate the terms under which he wears his wedding ring.)  The line means something different at the story’s conclusion and reflects upon the middle of the story, too.  This is one of the great uses of a callback.  Repeating the line reminds us that the story is about art and opening yourself up to others and evokes all of the different ways in which this can be done.  (In an artistic manner, a sexual manner, a gastronomic manner…)

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ a narrator who can realistically release the details you want to provide to the reader.  Artists will generally think like artists.  They’ll notice visual details.  Different narrators will prioritize different ideas.
  • Allow callbacks to lend significance to events that happen earlier in your work.  Prudent repetition allows you to change and to deepen the meaning of your work as a whole.

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