What Can We Steal From Brendan DuBois’s “Leap of Faith”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Leap of Faith,” short story
Author: Brendan DuBois
Date of Work: 2015
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut the February 2015 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The fine folks at that magazine have posted an excerpt of this equally fine story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
I’m not quite sure why, but I devote a lot of GWS focus to “literary” fiction, for whatever that means. I’m guessing I’m not the only one, but I love spending time in the realm of “genre.” Or whatever that means. Mr. DuBois is a fantastic writer of mystery and suspense fiction and we should all be familiar with his work.
This particular story is a first-person piece whose protagonist is named Hank Kelleher. This is a frame story; the first couple pages take place when Hank is an adult. He climbs his way to the old quarry, a place that many people can understand. Isn’t there a similar place in every town? In this particular case, teens exercised their invincibility by drinking beers on the bank of a man-made lake and jumping into the water from three outcroppings of increasing height: Rook, Bishop and King. A police officer questions Hank, giving Mr. DuBois the excuse for Hank to tell the story of what happened when he was young. Hank’s father died when he was young, leaving him the “man of the family.” As a teen, Hank felt deficient in this duty because he couldn’t protect his little sister Kara from Dev Cullen, her abusive rich kid boyfriend. I don’t want to describe all of the fun out of the story. Suffice to say that “Leap of Faith” is tidy, entertaining and powerful.
One of the biggest reasons that “literary” writers should spend more time in the mystery sandbox is because writers like Mr. DuBois excel at creating plots that are utterly fictional, but seem perfectly natural in the refractory period after the story’s final blow. After setting up the frame–believe me, we’ll talk about that frame–Mr. DuBois wastes zero time introducing the story’s characters and central conflict:
The name’s Hank Kelleher, and I was seventeen that summer. And that’s when my fifteen-year-old sister Kara got into trouble. Not that kind of trouble, thank God, but over supper one night Mom had pressed my sister Kara about why she was dating Dev Cullen. “You know he’s just a bad sort,” Mom said, as she slapped dollops of mashed potatoes on the chipped white plates we used, next to the freshly made Hamburg steak. “He and his father Patrick and his damn uncle Blackie. Crooks, all of them. You stay away from him.”
The reader is not asked to wonder what is going on or to break out graph paper to chart the relationships between a thousand characters. Nope. Hank has a baby sister who is dating a bad young man. Everyone understands this situation, regardless of gender, race or age. Instead of wondering what is happening, we’re wondering something more specific: how will Hank save (or try to save) Kara from Dev.
If you are a dedicated GWS reader, you know that I love Freytag’s Pyramid and I love countdowns and other literal representations of its principles. The climax of the story takes place at the abandoned quarry, the place where teenagers go to…well, be teenagers. Mr. DuBois describes the quarry in the introduction of the story. There are three jumping platforms of increasing height: Rook, Bishop and King.
Why do I love the way Mr. DuBois contrived the geology of the story? The quarry’s topography is a literal match for Freytag’s Pyramid.
Like I said, I don’t want to give away too much, but the climax reaches increasing peaks of rising action on all three jumping platforms. The reader gets a moment of excitement…and then the calm as the splash recedes. We’re not wondering anything general about Hank’s motivations; we know he wants to protect his sister. Instead, our curiosity is focused upon a single, specific question: how is Hank’s final plan going to protect his sister and get Dev off of their case? Since the reader’s curiosity is so focused, Mr. DuBois can simply draw out the tension and put us on tenterhooks.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. DuBois is also a fan of something I love a great deal: old-time radio dramas. One of my favorite programs is Suspense, which I suppose you could say was a bit like the Law & Order of its day (before the radio version of Dragnet premiered). Every week, the Man in Black would introduce a story. For half an hour, you would get thrills and chills and an ending that you didn’t see coming. (But an ending that makes sense in retrospect.) Here’s one of the best episodes ever, and one that was repeated live several times. It’s Agnes Moorehead in “Sorry, Wrong Number:”
Why should you listen to every episode of Suspense? Because the plots were usually constructed with flawless precision. The writers were expert at trading levels of power between characters. And the nature of radio required an awful lot of first-person narrators and frame stories. (You can’t exactly have long moments of silence on the radio and a third person narrator that zips around a lot would likely be confusing.) So go check out the vast beauty of old time radio.
Okay, let’s talk about that frame. At first, I was wondering why Mr. DuBois began with that present-day introduction and told the real narrative in flashback. I’m thinking about the suspense/crime stories I’ve written and I’m much more likely to begin with the sentences that kick off the flashback, “The name’s Hank Kelleher…” than a passage that is much calmer:
It took me three tries before I found the old dirt road, on the outskirts of the small Massachusetts town where I had grown up. The road twisted and turned, and ended up in a wide turnaround. There used to be a trail that went up a high slope, but now there was a chain-link fence blocking access. Every few feet there was a no trespassing sign, contrasting with trespassers will be prosecuted. I parked the rental car, got out, walked over to the fence.
Why did Mr. DuBois make the right choice? What can we learn? Putting the what-happens-to-Dev story in a frame allows Mr. DuBois to…
- Foreshadow that something significant happened in the quarry and in the Hank-Kara-Dev trio. After all, Old Hank knows what happened.
- Contrast the differences between the eighties and the present-day. The quarry is now filled up, being there attracts the attention of the police.
- Conclude with an ending frame that gives us a “happy ending” of sorts and tells us information to which we would not have access otherwise.
For more proof that Mr. DuBois made the right decision, think about the way the frame functions in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man.” Now, “Leap of Faith” is a very different story, but I think that the structures are similar.
What Should We Steal?
- Ensure that your plots invite your reader to wonder about increasingly specific questions. Think about LOST. At first, we wondered, “Where are they?” After five years, we were wondering, “What’s the Man in Black’s relationship to the John Locke who reappeared on The Island and how does he relate to the Heart of The Island?”
- Employ Freytag’s Pyramid in literal ways. The size of the dragons the hero must fight get larger for a reason…
- Consider trading an extra-punchy first sentence for greater depth and utility of narrative. Freytag’s Pyramid encourages us to employ a slow build in our plots; doing so is sometimes better than an explosive opening sentence or paragraph.