What Can We Steal From Tobias Wolff’s “Bible”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Bible,” short story
Author: Tobias Wolff
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in The Atlantic‘s 2007 fiction issue.  As of this writing, you can find “Bible” on the magazine’s web site.  (Feel free to say thank you to those fine folks!)  The piece was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2008 by Salman Rushdie.  Ann Graham was nice enough to compare a revised version of “Bible” to the original.  Thanks, Ms. Graham!

Bonuses: Here is a great Paris Review interview with Mr. Wolff.

Want to see Mr. Wolff discuss his excellent book, Old School?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Power Imbalances

Discussion:
What a great story.  Maureen is a schoolteacher who has spent the evening with friends at the Hundred Club.  In the first two pages, we learn that Maureen’s life is not as perfect as she wishes it were; she has serious problems with her grown grown daughter, Grace.  One is led to believe that these are the kinds of obstacles that could be overcome with a little mutual humility and maybe a bottle of wine, but that has not yet happened.  After we feel like we know Maureen, she is carjacked by a mysterious man with an accent.  He forces his way into her car and tells her to drive.

I don’t want to ruin everything in the synopsis.  Just read the story.  It isn’t very long and it’s available on the Atlantic web site.

Done?  Okay.

I had a lot of fun re-reading this story in the Best American volume in part because it occurred to me that I remembered the story from its original public…in 2007.  What in the world makes a story so great that a reader will remember it seven years later?

One big reason that the story maintained its power in my mind was the way that power shifted between Maureen and the man (Hassan’s father).  Before the two meet, Maureen has high status; she’s a financially secure teacher who is taking advantage of her education.  Hassan was a doctor in his home country…and now he is not.

The story is exciting because it’s a real fight between two characters that is based upon big, important issues.  Why do we love Law & Order?  Because we vacillate between “He or she is guilty of assault!” and “He or she is innocent of that assault!”  Why is 12 Angry Men so great?  It’s a big fight between twelve characters that determines a man’s innocence and future.  Wolff has our attention for the same reasons: we want to know what happens and we want to know what the characters (and Mr. Wolff) are ultimately saying about the big issues in the story.  (What parents will do for their children…the sadness that can result from the immigrant experience in America…when mercy should be granted…)

Okay, okay.  Fine.  I’ll make a chart that demonstrates that “Bible” is so great, in part, because it’s a live wire that keeps us interested:

wolffbiblechartresizedThe play Doubt is great because we are forced to empathize with both characters and we’re not spoonfed the truth.  We love long tennis rallies because they’re a fight between two great players.

“Bible” derives its power from the way it takes away our certitude with respect to the characters and the story’s outcome.

Mr. Wolff makes a choice halfway through the story that he can only make because he did such a fantastic job establishing the characters and their situation.  If you’ll notice, there are few dialogue tags in the scene during which Maureen and Hassan argue about the place of women in Islam, whether Hassan will be reported to Father/Mr. Crespi and whether Hassan is a decent enough student to be a doctor.  The reader really doesn’t need dialogue tags because there are only two characters.  We don’t need “stuff”/description of tone or action during dialogue because Mr. Wolff already brought the characters to such vivid life.

Omitting the dialogue tags is a fun choice because it allows us to read the story faster and to concentrate on the battle being waged between the two characters.  In order to make use of this technique, unfortunately, you must have well-established characters who actually say interesting and powerful things.  (See?  You knew there would be a catch!)

What Should We Steal?

  • Make use of power transfers.  I’m a big Detroit Tiger fan.  Would I love if they won every game they played?  Sure.  But there wouldn’t be too much drama in that season, would there?
  • Omit dialogue tags and description during the meat of an argument.  The reader should understand the differences of opinion between characters during your climax…why not consider releasing that dialogue uninterrupted?

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