What Can We Steal From Michael Kardos’s “The Three-Day Affair”?

Title of Work and its Form: The Three-Day Affair, novel
Author: Michael Kardos (on Twitter @michael_kardos)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was published by The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic.  You can find it at your local independent bookstore.  If you don’t know where your closest indie shop is, check here.  I got my copy from The River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, NY.  The book can also be ordered online, of course.

Bonuses:  Here is what some smart guy thought about Mr. Kardos’s story, “Maximum Security.”  (Oh, wait.  That was me.)  Here is Mr. Kardos’s interview with Brad Listi on his Other People podcast.  Here is a very good review of the book from Spinetingler.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Will, Jeffrey, Evan and Nolan have been lucky enough to remain friends since their Princeton days.  Sure, they don’t see each other very often.  Getting together is hard; Jeffrey is a dot-com zillionaire, Evan is a hard-charging lawyer, Nolan is on his way to taking over Missouri politics and Will…well, Will is doing better.  He witnessed his bass player get shot and killed in drive-by crossfire.  He’s busy running a New Jersey music studio.  No matter their busy schedules, the four men always make time for each other; they spend a week playing golf, eating steak and touching base.

Everything is great!  Until the INCITING INCIDENT.  (Or the turning point of Act One.)  Jeffrey needs to get something from a convenience store, so they pull in.  In a couple minutes, Jeffrey shoves the young clerk into the car and shouts, “Drive!”  Will drives.  This is a mystery/noiry-type book, so I don’t want to say too much more.  Just read the book if you haven’t already; it’s great!

So, I don’t ordinarily like to create GWS essays about writers I’ve already featured.  There are so many great storytellers out there and I want to feature as many of them as I can.  On the other hand, I really liked the book and this is my site and I can do whatever I want.   (I can’t really say that about too many other facets of my life.)

Mr. Kardos is probably quite justifiably proud of the favorable note The Three-Day Affair received from The New York Times Book Review.  One of Ms. Stasio’s comments challenges me with respect to my experience with the book.  “The plot,” she writes, “is original, if distinctly bizarre.”  Now, I’m certainly not engaging in a respectful disagreement with someone like Ms. Stasio, someone with tremendous qualifications.  I’m just not sure how I feel about her description of the plot, as the basic structure felt very familiar to me.  In the prologue, we learn about the first-person narrator (Will) and what led him to move from New York City to the ‘burbs.  The dramatic present picks up in Chapter 1.  And Chapter 1 is pretty sweet.  The four men care for each other deeply…they’re making good money…most of them have loving wives…Will is going to be able to start his record label…all is well.

Then boom–page 25 brings the kidnapping that starts the actual plot.

It’s certainly not a knock on Mr. Kardos or Ms. Stasio, but the book employs the tried-and-true structure for a noir/thriller/mystery.

  • The first 100 pages of The Firm are great.  Mitch is making money, he and Abby have a great relationship; all of his hard work is paying off.  THEN THOSE TWO ATTORNEYS GET KILLED.
  • In Strangers on a Train, Guy has his normal life.  Sure, he’d like to ditch his wife, but things are looking up with the senator’s daughter.  THEN BRUNO PROPOSES THE CRISS-CROSS MURDERS.
  • Jimmy Stewart broke his leg, but things could be worse.  After all, Grace Kelly is his girlfriend.  THEN HE STARTS SEEING ALL OF THAT CRAZY STUFF OUT OF HIS REAR WINDOW.
  • Marion Crane can’t afford to get married, but at least she has a boyfriend, a good job, a trusting boss…THEN THAT RICH GUY COMES IN AND PLOPS FORTY GRAND IN HER LAP.
  • Will, Jeffrey, Evan and Nolan have their health, they ostensibly have a little money, they’re getting together for a week together.  THEN JEFFREY SNAPS AND KIDNAPS THAT GIRL.

If you’ll notice, the THEN often happens around the Page 25 mark, just as the THEN often occurs around the MINUTE 15 or MINUTE 30 mark of a film.  The book also mildly reminded me of the excellent 1998 film Very Bad Things.  Here’s the trailer:

So five guys head to Vegas for a bachelor party.  Then one of the guys accidentally kills the young lady who has come to “dance” for them.  So the murder is an accident and the other four men are more complicit with each moment that passes.  Should the guys protect their friend or go to the police?  How do they handle their “105-pound” problem?

Like Very Bad ThingsThe Three-Day Affair does something wonderful.  The characters are placed into a situation that tests their senses of morality.  The stakes are constantly raised, of course, so what seemed okay two days ago (driving away from the store) becomes nothing in comparison with what seems okay in the present.  Mr. Kardos’s book uses the changing dramatic situation to ask a number of important questions:

  • How far would you go to help a friend?
  • What’s more important?  Your family or your good name?
  • How do you get people to forget or to live with the bad things you’ve done to them?
  • What’s the proper price of betrayal?

Mr. Kardos certainly doesn’t neglect his primary obligation; he tells us a rip-roaring story that you won’t forget for a while.  But he does encourage the reader to consider deep and important thoughts.  Will any of us, for example, be in the same situation as Mike McQueary, the man who walked in on Jerry Sandusky, well, raping a small boy?  Probably not.  (Thank goodness!)  We will, however, be confronted with moral and ethical dilemmas that test us.  What do we do in the moment?  What do we do an hour later to atone for our failings in the moment already passed?

The world-class writer and teacher Erin McGraw would advise us, I think, to abandon our mistrust of numbers.  (We are writers, after all.)  So I’ve counted the length (in pages) of each of The Three-Day Affair‘s chapters.

Prologue: 3

PART ONE

Chapter 1: 7-26 (20)

Chapter 2: 27-32 (6)

Chapter 3: 33-39 (7)

Chapter 4: 40-49 (10)

Chapter 5: 50-60 (11)

Chapter 6: 61-64 (4)

Chapter 7: 65-71 (7)

Chapter 8: 72-77 (6)

Chapter 9: 78-83 (6)

Chapter 10: 84-90 (7)

Chapter 11: 91-94 (4)

Chapter  12: 95-110 (16)

Chapter 13: 111-117 (8)

Chapter 14: 118-129 (12)

PART TWO

Chapter 15: 133-142 (10)

Chapter 16: 143-152 (10)

Chapter 17: 153-156 (4)

Chapter 18: 157-168 (12)

Chapter 19: 169-173 (5)

Chapter 20: 174-180 (7)

Chapter 21: 181-189 (9)

Chapter 22: 190-195 (6)

Chapter 23: 196-202 (7)

Chapter 24: 203-209 (7)

Chapter 25: 210-217 (8)

Chapter 26: 218-223 (6)

Chapter 27: 224-233 (10)

Chapter 28: 234-248 (15)

And you know I love my literature-related charts:

kardos chart

What’s the point of all of this math-type stuff?  Well, you can really see into Mr. Kardos’s thought process with regard to plotting.  Look at the anomalies.  There must be a reason Chapter 1 is so long, right?  Well, he’s setting up the relationship between the men and painting a happy relaxed scene…so he can shake things up with Jeffrey kidnaps the girl.

Why is the last chapter so long in comparison?  I’m going to be a bit vague, but the very beautifully written scene offers a motivation for the events of the whole book while complicating the narrative.

I should also point out that the line often looks like a roller coaster.  Why would that be?  You follow a fat Pope with a skinny Pope.  The longer scenes tend to consist of high-octane suspense and the shorter scenes are a lot calmer connective scenes that prepare the next jolt.

What Should We Steal?

  • Appropriate the structure of the classics.  Look: Psycho  worked in 1960.  It works now and it will work a hundred years from now.  You start out with a sunny and very normal day…then you bring in a lot of complications.
  • Confront your reader with a series of deep moral dilemmas.  Great drama comes from asking your audience to debate right and wrong.
  • Consider the length of your chapters and scenes.  Are you giving your reader enough time to recover from the gut punches you’re doling out?

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