What Can We Steal From Arthur Plotnik’s “Monica, before Bolivia”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Monica, before Bolivia,” short story
Author: Arthur Plotnik (on Twitter @artplotnik)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece was first published by Split Lip Magazine, a very cool journal.  You can read the story here.

Bonuses:  Here is Mr. Plotnik’s Amazon page.  Here is a fun and perceptive little article in which Mr. Plotnik points out a certain short-fingered vulgarian’s tendency toward the superlative.  Here is a sonnet Mr. Plotnik placed in Off the Coast.  The author has strong ties to The Writer magazine, a wonderful publication with which we are all familiar.  (I love how the magazine looks now, but I miss the good old days with the “boring” covers…  Why must things change?)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Transitions

Discussion:
The protagonist is in a strange time in his life.  The first sentence launches us into his plight:

It took some three weeks for Monica Graf to stop calling me even after I’d gathered my self-respect and begged off the humiliating affair.

Monica is married.  Monica is crazy.  Monica is cruel…but he can’t stay away.  (It shouldn’t surprise you that Monica is also incredibly sexy.)  The first-person narrator is on a break from the woman when he decides to head off to Bolivia to spend time with Hector, a grad school friend who is extremely fond of the ladies.  Before he can head off to La Paz, however, he must spend a little more time in Monica’s orbit.  A substantial portion of the story depicts the meeting between the narrator and Monica, who has also been cheating on husband Brent with a gentleman named Mark.  The narrator foregoes the opportunity to make love with Monica and returns to his apartment.  In an epilogue labeled “After,” the narrator informs us as to what happened in Bolivia and thereafter.  (I don’t want to ruin everything; go read the story yourself.)

I was a bit surprised by the structure of the piece.  The first 20%, give or take, is an exposition dump that allows you to understand the characters and their situations.  You certainly care about the narrator’s plight by the time you get to the middle section, the 70% of the story in which Mr. Plotnik paints the scene in which the lovers meet and talk.  The remaining 10% of the story is that epilogue.  (Feel free to check my math; I was an English major.)

What surprised me?  I was fascinated by the way Mr. Plotnik turned from narration to scenework.  As we all know, a writer trains his or her reader how to read a story.  For the first few pages of this story, we’re reading a kind of wistful first-person recollection of a lovelorn memory from the protagonist’s life.  Then–BOOM–there’s some white space and we’re into a scene-driven piece.  This kind of transition could be jarring for a reader.  How did Mr. Plotnik switch gears without giving the reader whiplash?

One reason: the use of white space.  There’s a double space between the narrator’s decision to contact Monica and the moment they greet each other.

Another reason: an in-your-face acknowledgment of the change.  It’s really hard to miss that we’re in a scene when we read Monica’s unintroduced line:

“I don’t know what the fuck you wanted,” Monica typically blurted when I arrived at the reference desk. “I grabbed whatever we had.” She seemed as unfazed by my reappearance as if we’d been in bed all morning. I, on the other hand, broke into a sweat seeing that developed body again and the green fire in the eyes.

Some might say that you shouldn’t toggle between scenework and narration, but you can do anything in your work so long as you help your reader understand what you’re doing.

I also love the idea of a “centerpiece scene.”  A man and woman in a museum courtyard…he wants her, she wants him (and her husband and her lover)…she is sexy and brash…he’s drawn to her rudeness for reasons he doesn’t understand.  This is a scene in which I enjoy being immersed!  Mr. Plotnik contrives his story in the service of the centerpiece scene.

Let’s think of the “centerpiece scene” in terms of film.  Now, I love every minute of Pulp Fiction, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the film has a number of bright, shining moments and that Mr. Tarantino contrived the film to emphasize the impact of these moments.  For example: in the beginning of the film, Jules and Vincent are just kinda dancing around and talking…there’s not much suspense, not a lot of focused tension.  Then what happens when the two men enter the apartment to retrieve the suitcase?

A “centerpiece scene!”  Mr. Plotnik and Mr. Tarantino both know what we want to see and they both put the focus on the cool moments they  have in mind.

What Should We Steal?

  • Guide your reader through the transitions in your work.  You’re going from scene to narration and back again?  That’s fine…but be sure you hold the reader’s hand or offer him or her bread crumbs to help them follow you along.
  • Craft centerpiece scenes.  A story can be like a diamond ring.  Sure, the gold band is pretty, but everyone is excited about the gem.

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