Tag: The Twilight Zone

What Can We Steal From Thad Kenner’s “My Wife Doesn’t Get Just How Good I Am at Call of Duty”?

Title of Work and its Form: “My Wife Doesn’t Get Just How Good I Am at Call of Duty,” short story
Author: Thad Kenner
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece made its debut on Monkeybicycle in January 2014.  You can read the story here.

Bonus: Here is a piece Mr. Kenner published online at Hobart.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Titling

I usually begin each of these essays with a summary of the work in question.  This time, I want to talk about the title.  I was just looking through the ol’ Great Writers Steal Twitter feed when I saw this:

After reading that tweet, I simply had no choice but to click on Monkeybicycle‘s link.  I haven’t read Mr. Kenner’s story yet, but I want to point out why I think his title is cool and effective:

  1. The title establishes a character.  I’ve read the title, so I’ve really already started reading the guy’s story.
  2. The title establishes conflict.  There’s some Call of Duty-inspired marital strife going on.  I don’t happen to play the game, but I know this happens.
  3. The title establishes POV.  It’s in the first person.  I already feel close to this guy, just by reading the title.
  4. The title is a little bit “odd.”  I dunno…when I try to think of a title, I usually end up with a significant word or phrase from the story.  Or the name of the pivotal character.  Or something else that is boring.  Mr. Kenner’s title is “different.”
  5. The title relates to something that a lot of people like.  Like I said, I’ve never played Call of Duty and I don’t have an XBox, but I do know that lots of people do play the game.  I’m hoping that gamers who don’t ordinarily read short stories will click on the story (and read it) based upon the title.

Okay, now that I’ve described what brought me to the story in the first place, I’m going to actually read the story.  BRB.  K?  OMFGWTFBBQ?  A/S/L?

Okay.  I read the story.  (It didn’t take long.)  Fortunately, I enjoyed it a great deal.  It would be a bit embarrassing if I went to the trouble of writing the first half of the essay and ended up hating the story in question.  “My Wife Doesn’t Get Just How Good I Am at Call of Duty” is a piece of flash fiction in which the narrator describes how the relationship with his wife has changed during his extended time between “freelance” gigs.  The wife is at work every day and he is at home playing Call of Duty.  In the past, husband and wife would be supportive of the others’ pursuits.  This time, however, the wife just doesn’t appreciate her husband’s Call of Duty skills.

The prose is fun and the details seem accurate to me.  I don’t know if Mr. Kenner plays Call of Duty, but the screen names seem pretty typical.  I’m sure we all enjoyed that the story relates to the eternal conflict: partners trying to relate to each other and attempting to preserve domestic tranquility.

What do I think we can steal from the actual story?  I don’t know about you, but I really try to be a good person and not to hurt anyone.  Life is hard enough; I don’t want to contribute unfairly to anyone else’s happiness.  We live in a time in which there are many competing worldviews and the Internet brings them to us EVERY DAY.  WE CANNOT GET AWAY FROM THEM.  Most people must be a little bit like me: I try to reconsider my positions when I’m presented with a solid argument by a social scholar.  Here’s the problem: if ideology comes before story when I’m reading or writing, it’s no good.  When someone flips their metaphorical chair around and says, “Hey, I’m gonna tell you a story,” the narrative and characters must come first.  I can’t be thinking about this -ism or that -ism when I’m trying to feel the narrator’s joy or pain.

Social commentary doesn’t seem to have been Mr. Kenner’s primary goal, so I pushed ideological concerns out of my mind as I enjoyed the story.  Now that I’m done, here are some of the questions that I’m not letting myself consider:

  • The wife has a job and the narrator doesn’t.  Is he fulfilling his responsibility in the relationship?
  • Would we ask the same question if the genders were reversed?  And should we?
  • The first person narrator never specifies his or her own gender.  Is it being heternormative to simply assume that the narrator is male?  After all, I couldn’t care less if two women get married.
  • Some Call of Duty players say hurtful words to each other through their microphones.  Are there better ways to express what they’re feeling?  Should we try to condition aggression out of people?  Out of men?  Is it even possible?
  • There are countless women out there who enjoy the game.  Why can’t the wife play Call of Duty?

I could go on for quite some time, but I don’t think that is what Mr. Kenner would like.  He wrote a really short, really fun story that left me feeling a bit sad for the narrator.  My reading of the piece indicates that there’s a storm brewing between husband and wife.  They seem to love each other, but may be growing apart.

The Twilight Zone was conceived out of Rod Serling’s desire to tell socially relevant stories without all the hassle he received when confronting racism and other problems without the benefit of the scrim of science fiction or fantasy.  Those who were against integration in 1959, for example, were less likely to understand that Serling was arguing for equality because the story took place on Mars instead of on terra firma.

Have we all spent countless hours thinking about the powerful ideologies that Serling was espousing through his show?  Sure.  But Serling (and Matheson and all of the other writers) put storytelling over their desire to tell others what’s wrong with crazy people in this crazy world.

What Should We Steal?

  • Refuse to settle for a boring title.  I have one terrible story I called “The Choice.”  Really?  “The Choice?”  Why didn’t I just call it “Random Noun?”
  • Ensure that your story is more important than your message.  How will anyone interact with your grand idea about humanity if the story seems like a lecture?

What Can We Steal From Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Miracle Polish,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story premiered in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  As of this writing, you can read “Miracle Polish” right here.  Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta chose the story for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Bonuses: Here is what Short A Day thought about “Miracle Polish.”  Here is a lengthy and interesting interview with Mr. Millhauser over at BOMBHere‘s “A Voice in the Night,” another Millhauser story from The New Yorker.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Momentum

Inciting incident: A peddler shows up at the first person narrator’s home.  The old man is selling Miracle Polish, a product that will put a special shine on any mirror in your home.  The narrator watches as the peddler leaves; there’s a perfectly appropriate moment of oddness as the salesman locks eyes with the narrator before leaving.  The narrator cleans a mirror with the polish…he looks younger and fresher.  His girlfriend Monica is tired, too.  She doesn’t seem to like the happier-looking Monica she sees in the mirror.  The narrator soon puts mirrors on every wall in his home, causing tension in his relationship with Monica.  She believes that he prefers the more youthful version of her that he sees in the mirror.  There’s a perfectly inevitable conclusion in which Chekhov’s mirrors are dealt with in proper fashion.

The story reminded me a bit of an episode of The Twilight Zone, which is a massive compliment.  Mr. Millhauser creates a through-a-mirror-darkly magical realism world in the same way that Rod Serling did in many of the Twilight Zone scripts.  Everything in the narrator’s world is perfectly normal…except for the Miracle Polish.  There’s the sense of impending danger; we’re led to wonder why the peddler locked eyes with the narrator in such a strange way.  There’s a “hook” in the beginning that looms over the entire story.  That second bottle of Miracle Polish…the peddler advised the narrator to buy one, but he didn’t.  This hook is paid off in the final paragraph of the story.  As in the best Twilight Zone scripts, the “strange” things, the magical fantasy, all relate to the rest of the story and its theme.  That unpurchased second bottle also creates a kind of countdown…will the narrator run out of Miracle Polish?  What will happen when he does?

Mr. Millhauser also creates characters that truly belong in this story.  The middle-aged man feels run-down and doesn’t seem to like what he has become.  He’s just the kind of guy who could use a look in the mirror.  So Mr. Millhauser offers him a particularly clear look into one.  His girlfriend Monica has a habit of “assessing her looks mercilessly.”  As she is first described, I thought Monica was a teenage young woman.  Instead, she merely has a few of those qualities.  It’s been quite some time since I was around a teenage young woman, but I’m guessing mirrors still play an important role in their lives.  These two characters are confronted by mirrors; one likes the reflection and the other doesn’t.  That means tension!  Whoo hoo!

Another tactic Mr. Millhauser employs is apparent when you look at the left margin of the story.  One of the problems I have is deciding which parts of the story to render in scene.  Mr. Millhauser creates an around-the-campfire feeling by offering long paragraphs and sliding through time a great deal.  Which scenes are absolutely necessary?  We need to see the narrator and Monica looking into the mirrors.  And arguing about the mirrors.  And what happens during the climax, when the conflict comes to a head.

What Should We Steal?

  • Relate the ending of your story to its beginning.  Your story should make some kind of unified comment about humanity or the world or whatever, right?  The theme should be as consistent as the characters and setting.
  • Give your characters what they deserve.  Four horny teenage boys want to have sex?  Make them forge a pact with each other to get laid.  Your character is a liar and manipulator?  Put him or her in a political drama.
  • Flatten out the left margin.  You can create narrative momentum by focusing less on describing scenes and more on describing story.