What Can We Steal From Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “The Boneyard”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Boneyard,” short story
Author: Justin Lawrence Daugherty (on Twitter @JDaugherty1081)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the May 2013 issue of Knee-Jerk Magazine, a very lively literary journal.  You can read the piece here.

Bonuses:  Consider purchasing Mr. Daugherty’s short story collection, Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise.  Mr. Daugherty is the Managing Editor of Sundog Lit, a cool and lively journal in its own right.  Here is an interview in which Mr. Daugherty describes some of his philosophies about literature.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Non-Linear Structure

Discussion:
Aurelio, the “lizard-boy” is not in a very good place.  In search of his pregnant mother, longing to meet his future sister, “the beast” is being pursued by an angry mob of people wielding cleavers and shotguns and gripping “ball-bats and Molotov cocktails.”  Fortunately, the “translucent-skinned man” is there to help.  He kills many of the men in the mob and rescues the lizard-boy, saying, “without love, what are we?”

The first element of the story worth stealing is Mr. Daugherty’s structure.  The piece is explicitly non-linear and the changes in time are labeled before each section thus:

Now:

Three Days Earlier:

Two Days Earlier:

One Day Earlier:

Now:

Now:

Now:

Now:

Now:

Now:

The structure reminds me of what you see in a lot of television programs.  The teaser at the beginning of the program depicts the protagonist of the show in a sticky situation.  The next scene begins with a title on the screen: 72 HOURS EARLIER or the like.  What are some of the benefits of this kind of structure?

  • You get added kick out of the telegraphed climax.  We’re not sure in what context or with whom the translucent-skinned man will share the wish of love…but we want to find out.
  • You assure the audience that there is a big climax coming.  A program such as The Walking Dead will start out with a massive zombie buffet, then zip back in time to describe what led to that exciting scene.  Mr. Daugherty opts for an emotional punch over depicting a cool fight, of course.
  • In this specific case, Mr. Daugherty was able to draw an immediate tight connection between his two primary characters.  How?  The structure puts them so close together even though they were distant “three days earlier.”

Are there inherent risks when you use this kind of structure?  Sure.  In “The Boneyard,” we don’t learn too much about the mob itself and the “translucent-skinned man” remains a bit of a cipher, but that’s okay.  Zipping around in time allows Mr. Daugherty to put the emphasis where it belongs: on the lizard-boy.  (For more adventures in non-linear storytelling, check out my thoughts about Pulp Fiction.)

In a story that is this short, language often plays a more important role than usual.  When you read Mr. Daugherty’s piece, you might notice that he employs repetition to great effect.  Look in the “Two Days Earlier” section.  The author begins many of his sentences with “And,”.  In doing so, Mr. Daugherty evokes the kind of language that is used in mythology.  (To me, anyway.)  Aside from the lizard-boy, doesn’t this sound as though it belongs in a book like the Christian Bible?

And, the beast being alone, the mob gathered in the watchful outside, and they brought cleavers and shotguns, and they gripped ball-bats and Molotov cocktails. And, the mob gasped when they stumbled upon the boneyard–this refuse pile of the lizard-boy’s outgrown bones, the sloughed-off tokens of pain–and how their resolve was steeled. And, the lizard-boy, Aurelio, locked inside the trailer, trying to sleep if only for dreams of his sister, of the mother. And, instead, he dreamed of blood-soaked soil and the snap-cracking of men’s bones and the caving of skulls.

Further, Mr. Daugherty also repeats the “Now:” tag six times at the end of the story.  What’s the effect?  I think it adds to the suspense.  NOW the angry mob is being dispersed…NOW the lizard-boy is tasting freedom…NOW he is rededicated to finding and feeling love.

What Should We Steal?

  • Experiment with a non-linear structure.  Moving around in time makes it easy for you to cut the boring parts out of your story.
  • Employ repetition to enhance the timelessness and significance of the language you use.  Repeating phrases and ideas can slow down the reader and force him or her to live more deeply in your tale.

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