What Can We Steal From Elias Marsten’s “Gossamer Crypt”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Gossamer Crypt,” short story
Author: Elias Marsten
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Issue 12 of Fiddleblack, a very cool publisher of fiction and creative nonfiction.  You can read the story here.

Bonus: Mr. Marsten has published a number of stories in Fiddleblack; they can be accessed here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Teaching Your Reader

Discussion:
“Gossamer Crypt” is a series of vignettes about Eddie, a man who seems to fit into the stereotype of the “country” guy, but is somewhat more complicated that he may appear on the surface.  Eddie goes to drive-in movies and to secluded cabins with women, though the seem to be an afterthought.  Mr. Marsten concludes his examination of Eddie by describing the character’s reaction to the message he received from an old high school friend.  Even old friends, Eddie understands, may have trouble accepting us for who we are.

If you read Mr. Marsten’s story, one element of craft becomes apparent.  Mr. Marsten enjoys employing very long sentences and makes the shrewd choice to begin the piece with a 126-word whopper:

The long line into the drive-in wrapped around the corner of a Wal-Mart parking lot and extended some ways toward the horizon line there on the state route until after some ten or fifteen minutes the snakewound cars began to creep through the two stoplights and past the bend, past the derelict farm homes and rotting red barns and sixes of cats stood Bastet-like on the tops of short old dog houses, crossbar fences, and even on an old mound of dead tires that had built up from sometime decades ago when the trees were thinner at their trunks and much younger in their branches and now criss-crossed over the roofs and wires run across the street where their car turned slow into the drive-in lot.

By beginning with a long sentence, Mr. Marsten is teaching you how to read his story.  You know right off the bat that you are in store for a wild ride through language.  The long sentences that populate the story also contribute a great deal to the tone.  “Gossamer Crypt” is not a plot-heavy story; Mr. Marsten seemed much more interested in characterization.  A lyrical open, therefore, makes total sense.  Compare the opening of this short story to the first few sentences of a piece that IS plot-heavy.  Here’s the beginning of John Grisham’s The Firm:

The senior partner studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.  He had the brains, the ambition, the good looks.  And he was hungry; with his background, he had to be.  He was married, and that was mandatory.  The firm had never hired an unmarried lawyer, and it frowned heavily on divorce, as well as womanizing and drinking.

In this passage, we learn a lot about Mitch McDeere from the perspective of the evil partners who will later serve as the antagonists in the book.  We know that Mitch is being hired at a big firm and that he was poor and is married.  The reader learns that Mitch is entering a situation that is at least Puritanical and at most homicidal.  This is a passage that teaches the reader that he or she is in for a fun thriller: a complicated struggle between hero and villains.

Mr. Marsten made different choices than Mr. Grisham did, and that’s okay.  The choices each writer made served the work.

Under ordinary circumstances, writers are wise to make each character a full citizen of the work they inhabit.  One thing that struck me about “Gossamer Crypt” was how vaguely drawn Eddie’s women seem to be.  In a narrative-driven piece, this might be a problem.  After all, we want to understand those who influence the protagonist’s actions.  What does it mean that the women don’t seem to mean very much?  Well, they must not be very important to Eddie.

The same principle applies to characters in programs such as Law & Order.  To some extent, the characters must SERVE A PURPOSE.  “Record Store Clerk” must tell the detectives that they recognize the man or woman in the mug shot and where to find him or her.  I’m guessing that the actor who portrays Record Store Clerk does his or her best to make the clerk unique, but such a character will always be limited by the indelible stamp of its lowly origin.

What Should We Steal?

  • Teach your reader to understand your work.  A piece that is less about narrative and more about character should begin in a manner that reflects this fact.
  • Ensure that your characters are full citizens of the story…unless they’re not supposed to be.  Characters must be at least as important as the function they play in the work.

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