Title of Work and its Form: “Man and Wife,” short story
Author: Katie Chase
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of The Missouri Review, one of the best journals for fiction. TMR has been kind enough to post the story on their web site for free. “Man and Wife” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2008 by Salman Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor.
Bonuses: Here is “Every Good Marriage Begins in Tears,” a story Ms. Chase published in Narrative. Here is “Babydoll and the Ring of Chastity,” originally published by Five Chapters. And here is “The Sea That Leads to All Seas,” a story originally published in Prairie Schooner.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
Hooray! Mary Ellen just got engaged to be married to Mr. Middleton, a wealthy man with a sweet moustache.
Oh no! Mary Ellen is nine-and-a-half years old.
Ms. Chase offers us a wonderfully disturbing story in which Mary Ellen is promised to Mr. Middleton. Her friend Stacie comes by to play Barbies on occasion and Mr. Middleton comes for respectable Sunday evening dinners. Mary Ellen’s mother tells the young lady some of what she’ll need to know to be a good wife. I don’t want to ruin everything. TMR has the story up for free…just go read it.
The story reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in a few ways. Don’t get me wrong; the stories are very different, but Ms. Chase is able to create a similarly delicious sense of foreboding in the piece. The story is so much “fun” that I made marginal notes that demonstrate how deeply I engaged with the story: “WTF world is this?” “Say WHAT?” “Awesomely disturbing.”
Perhaps the biggest reason Ms. Chase engages us so deeply is because she treats the world of “Man and Wife” as utterly normal. Now, every single person who reads “Man and Wife” is repulsed by the idea of preteen children being sold into marriage. Ms. Chase doesn’t allow Mary Ellen (narrating what happened eight years ago) or any of the other characters to violate the conventions of their society. Can it be tempting to remind a reader that it’s super gross for a grown man to play Barbies with his preteen fiancee? Sure. But it’s not necessary and it’s undesirable; such a scene is NOT super gross in Mary Ellen’s world.
Ms. Chase also follows Shirley Jackson’s lead by slowly layering in the “weird” stuff. In the first few pages, Mary Ellen tells us that we’re going to read the story of HOW EVERYTHING CHANGED FOR HER. Okay, normal. Then her parents say they have big news. Okay, normal. Then the parents toast the good news and there’s a little bit of ooh-child-getting-a-sip-of-alcohol stuff. Okay, normal. We know SOMETHING is up, but we’re not quite sure what it might be.
Then Ms. Chase hits us with the crazy: “He’s gone ahead and asked for your hand. And we’ve agreed to it.” This was the point at which I knew I was going on a “fun ride,” as I wrote in the margin. Ms. Chase successfully immersed me in a different world and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next because the world functioned according to rules so different from ours.
I have some cinematic examples!
The film Happiness disturbed the crap out of me, so much so that I am a little scared of Dylan Baker, even though I know Mr. Baker was simply reading words from a script. I simply don’t live in a world in which it makes sense that a father would drug his child’s friend for…unpleasant…purposes. I was immersed in the film because it was like looking through a telescope into an alternate universe.
The great Alexander Payne (with co-writer Jim Taylor) shook me from real life and dragged me into the world of Ruth Stoops in their classic film Citizen Ruth:
Ruth (Laura Dern) begins the film huffing patio sealant behind a hardware store. Then she is arrested and discovers she’s pregnant…again. The judge offers her a choice: have an abortion and go free or have the child and stay behind bars. Ruth begins bopping between soldiers on both sides of the abortion debate. While I certainly understand the political landscape and all of that, Mr. Payne immersed me in a life I don’t want to inhabit: that of a person whose only goal is to get their hands on some spray paint.
Further, Ms. Chase addresses an occasional problem of first person narration in a graceful manner. Think about it: how many times have you read a first person narrator representing a character who isn’t very smart or eloquent…but the story contains beautiful turns of phrase and features flawless craft? If you’re doing “Flowers for Algernon,” it’s really hard to pop in some Harlan Ellison/Ray Bradbury sentences. (Especially during the sections early in the story…and late.)
But gosh, Ms. Chase offers us some underline-worthy turns of phrase and powerful images:
I pushed a chair to the cupboards and climbed onto the countertop. Two glass flutes for my parents, and for myself a plastic version I’d salvaged from last New Year’s, the first time I’d been allowed, and encouraged, to stay up past midnight and seen how close the early hours of the next day were to night.
“Take a good look at that pie, Mary.”
The crust was golden brown, its edges pressed with the evenly spaced marks of a fork prong. Sweet red berries seeped through the three slits of a knife.
“It’s perfect,” she said, with her usual ferocity.
“Of course, he’ll probably let you go back soon. He’ll want you to. That’s what Mr. Middleton told us—that he admired your mind. He said he could tell you’re a very bright girl.
“I should be so lucky,” she added darkly. “Your father only saw my strength.”
Here’s the (prospective) problem: the story is being written by the seventeen-year-old narrator. A young lady who, we discover, was taken out of school at nine. Who was bright at nine, but isn’t depicted as being a huge reader. Why aren’t we jarred from the story when we read the highlights of the story?
Well, Ms. Chase is careful to point out that Mary Ellen is seventeen when writing the story. This happens in the first second paragraph. (And it’s the last sentence of the paragraph, so it stands out all the more.) Ms. Chase makes it clear that Mary Ellen doesn’t go to school, but does have a tutor that allows her to become educated while fulfilling her wifely duties. We don’t mind that Mary Ellen is such a beautiful writer because she seems very smart and interesting; we’re told Mary Ellen is an apprentice of sorts in her husband’s business and we’re sure the woman can pick up just about anything. Ms. Chase also benefits from perhaps the writer’s greatest gift: readers want to suspend disbelief…within reason.
What Should We Steal?
- Leave your morality at home. Look, we’re ALL against preteens getting married. You’re preaching to the choir. Just tell us a cool story about what happens in a world in which people DO disagree with us.
- Layer in the crazy like and don’t apologize. It’s your job as a storyteller to tell tales we haven’t heard before about exceptional characters. Think of your reader like the proverbial frog in the pot: turn the heat up slowly and we won’t even notice until the water is boiling.
- Ensure that your narration fits your narrator. Odds are that your five-year-old narrator is not going to whip out a reference to War and Peace. Just saying.
2007, Alexander Payne, Best American 2008, Jim Taylor, Katie Chase, The Missouri Review, tone
Title of Work and its Form: “Tedford and the Megalodon,” short story
Author: Jim Shepard (Fan Twitter feed: @JimShepardfan)
Date of Work: 2002
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales, an anthology that began life as issue 10 of McSweeney’s. (One of those publications that I call a “teenage crush” journal because I will love them far more than they’ll ever love me.) Here is the teaser that the McSweeney’s folks posted to tantalize readers. Please purchase the book from your local independent bookstore.
Bonus: Mr. Shepard shared his thoughts about writing with O Magazine. Here is an interview Mr. Shepard gave to Bookslut. Here‘s a very interesting interview Mr. Shepard gave to BOMB Magazine.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
Roy Henry Tedford is a 33-year-old explorer. He’s the kind of man who loves humanity and loves culture, but is willing to disconnect himself from everyone else in order to contribute to our understanding of the world. Tedford takes off in search of the Carcharaodon Megalodon, a monster rumored to live in the Antarctic. After stocking up on provisions, Tedford lugs his rifle and lantern and canoe into the Great Unknown and finds what he was looking for…in a number of ways.
I can’t help but begin my analysis by discussing what I believe McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales represents. If you take a look at Michael Chabon’s introductory editorial comment, you will find an important way forward for our literary world. Mr. Chabon points out that short fiction took an insular turn sometime around the middle of the twentieth century. The short story scene was far more popular and diverse than it is now in many ways. It was possible for “literary” fiction to include “ripping yarns.” Today, the “literary story” seems to guide the critical conversation in many places. In the past, “short fiction” could refer to “any one of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story, the horror story, the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story.”
I love so much of the work in the “mainstream literary scene,” but I worry that insularity explains why so many of the general public are strangers to the contemporary short story. Chabon’s anthology is a wonderful step toward addressing the injustice we may have done to the short story. Just look at the cover of the book…it’s one of those beautiful pulp-style paintings of a lion tamer-type guy fighting a half-man/half-panther! Awesome! Looks like something cool is going to happen in these stories.
The works Chabon chose (and wrote) are indeed as pulse-pounding as they are well-written. Now, I don’t mean to say that people in the “writing community” don’t like genre work. I know I do and I can’t imagine any of my friends dismissing a science fiction story outright. (I have also maintained my dream of being in Asimov’s for twenty years now.) I suppose that what I’m hoping is that we renew our commitment to the “woman on the bus.” We all need to do a better job, somehow, of broadening the audience for contemporary literature.
Mr. Shepard’s story is a fantastic example of work that is both “literary” and entertaining. The gentleman demonstrates a firm grasp of craft while telling a story that is a lot of fun. (Even if it is a little scary.) At its heart, this is an adventure tale. These have been around…well…forever. Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey, the works of Jack London, Star Trek…these are all timeless because they appeal to the innate human need to simply DISCOVER.
What makes the story “literary” in addition to “fun?” One big reason, I would assert, is the structure of the story. The piece is 17 pages long. The first 8 pages are devoted to developing Tedford’s character. The final 9 pages are centered upon Tedford’s voyage. Why does this structure make a lot of sense? Well, we care about the Megalodon a lot more than we otherwise would because we know what the beast means to Tedford. (Hence the felicitous title.)
Could Mr. Shepard have begun the story in the middle, as Tedford is on the brink of discovery? Sure. But the reader would miss out on a great deal. I can illustrate the principle through the use of movies. Everyone in the world should see the film Idiocracy. In the film, the most average man on the planet is reanimated after 500 years, only to discover that he’s now the smartest person on the planet. As Joe wanders around the city, he learns about the culture of the America into which he’s been thrust:
Why does Joe look uncomfortable while watching the movie Ass? It’s not because he’s offended by seeing a part of the human body. He’s uncomfortable because he hasn’t been drawn into the narrative. When Joe becomes the Prezadent of Uhmerica, he uses his inaugural speech to push a literacy narrative:
“People wrote books and movies. Movies that had stories. So you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting and I believe that time can come again…”
We care about Tedford and his personal quest means something to us. Apply the principle for movies. The Transformers movies? Not so great. Why? Because the characters are puppets that move around between explosions. Lethal Weapon? That’s a fantastic film. Why? Because we care about Riggs and Murtaugh and there are big stakes for both characters.
I also love the way that Mr. Shepard uses tone in the story. Both “halves” of the narrative are in third person, but it felt to me as though Mr. Shepard began the story with diction and a point of view reminiscent of an epic story. Tedford is, in a way, withheld from the audience as the reader begins to understand him and the world he wishes to conquer. The second section seems to shift. Mr. Shepard (and his narrator) dives far deeper into Tedford, slowing down and giving you much more of a moment-by-moment account of his journey.
To keep with the movie theme, I’ll liken the technique to zooming in and out with a camera lens. Once we have the broad strokes, we may find it felicitous to zoom in very closely on the character in the extreme situation.
What Should We Steal?
- Remember that there are millions of potential readers out there who want cool stories. Do I have all of the answers? No. Do I have any answers? Not really. I just wish we could create more new readers than is currently the case.
- Drama should emerge from the characters instead of being thrust upon them. Les Miserables is a classic because the characters are complicated individuals and must deal with unpleasantness, some of which is their own doing. Saw 9: See Saw Run is not a classic because the characters are disposable placeholders.
- Shift tone judiciously. Not only must we skip the boring and unnecessary parts of our characters’ lives, but we must also slow down and show off the moments of beauty and epiphany to which we’ve been building.
2002, Jim Shepard, McSweeney's, Michael Chabon, Structure, tone
Title of Work and its Form: “Where the Summer Goes,” song
Author: Lyrics and Music by Kayleigh Goldsworthy (on Twitter @kayleighgolds)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: I am old and don’t do iTunes, but I think you can buy Ms. Goldsworthy’s album Burrower here. (The song is on the album.) You can also buy the single of “Where the Summer Goes” here. You know what? It’s probably just easier if you go to see one of Ms. Goldsworthy’s gigs and buy the album from her. The artist was kind enough to put this song on YouTube, as well. Listen and enjoy:
Bonuses: It’s well within your interest to check out Ms. Goldsworthy’s YouTube page. You will find a nine-part documentary series about the artist’s life and the recording of Burrower.
Here is a video in which Ms. Goldsworthy performs her song “I Want You Around” (and don’t worry, the sound quality is great):
One of the great joys of being a fan of music is hearing different artists sing some of the same great songs. Here is a very chill cover of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough”:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
This essay will be a lot of fun, friends! Not only do I get to celebrate, analyze and share great music, but I get to write about one of my personal favorite musicians!
Several years ago, I was driving on 690 in Syracuse, heading home from my copywriting job, wondering if I’d ever achieve all of my goals in writing and in life. (I’m still a work in progress.) I flipped through the radio stations and found the FM signal of my old high school. I heard a really cool song with a solid structure, great harmonies and a circuitous melody that was somehow also simple and graceful. The song was over far too quickly. I hoped the DJ would announce the artist and song title–no dice.
Who wrote the song and how could I hear it again? In those olden days, you had to use Google to figure these things out. I repeated the lyric over and over, hoping it would stick in my Swiss cheese memory: I can’t sleep tonight and I won’t dream again, And I’m waiting for you to stop acting like them… I can’t sleep tonight and I won’t dream again, And I’m waiting for you to stop acting like them…
I popped a few of the phrases into Google, expecting to see results filled with those terrible lyrics sites.
But I saw nothing.
Identifying the song took several minutes of searching because the awesome song that affected me deeply was from a local band! And it turned out they went to school with my younger brother! There’s talent all around, friends, and it’s up to all of us to be good literary citizens. I saw The Scarlet Ending play a bunch of times and bought their albums and even wrote about them for the Syracuse New Times. The band was fronted by sisters Kayleigh and Kaleena Goldsworthy and were notable for their excellent musicianship and great songwriting. TSE even performed through the USO, playing music for military servicemembers across the globe.
The band is currently on hiatus, but it’s well worth getting their albums or checking them out on YouTube. Here’s a beautiful performance of their awesome song “Cities by the Ocean”:
After that celebration of the past, let’s celebrate the present and future.
Kayleigh Goldsworthy’s “Where the Summer Goes” is a song that draws inspiration from and builds upon the tradition of American country and folk music. You can hear the acoustic guitar blending with the banjo, some simple percussion and the persistent, close harmony; a setup that certainly isn’t out of place at any point in American history. This is music that offers comfort, whether played on a front porch or in the dive bar where you drown your sorrows. Compare the instrumentation and tone to that of some old-timey bluegrass music:
“Where the Summer Goes,” like so much American folk and country music, has an upbeat and hopeful tone that softens the sadness of the narrator’s situation. She (or he, who knows?) laments the departure of an unfaithful lover (or at least one who won’t commit). The narrator reaffirms her love for the man, but tells him that she will seek a better and more fulfilling partner.
What can Ms. Goldsworthy teach us? Quite a bit, actually. I wish that I could tell you all kinds of advanced music theory stuff we should steal from the song (sorry, Ms. Jacobe), but writers of poetry and prose would do well to steal the way Ms. Goldworthy has made her sad song happy. As I’ve said before, the reader should have an emotional impact as a result of the characters and situation you construct. You can’t expect a reader to be sad just because you are. No, you have to tease those feelings out…you have to earn them.
Here’s an example of a songwriter who put zero scrim between his own feelings and those he wished to express in the song:
We’re laughing at Adam Sandler’s character when he sings the song. The character, on the other hand, wants us to feel the same sadness and loss that he feels. “Where the Summer Goes” actually provides catharsis (a purging of negative emotions) for the listener because the sadness is delivered by a narrator (and performer) who is inviting the audience on a mutual journey, not just shouting “BE SAD FOR ME” for three minutes.
I’m fairly sure that Patsy Cline never said “fucking” on one of her albums. Where does the word “fucking” appear? Hey…this means I get a chance to break down the structure of the song. Whoo hoo!
||Instrumental, banjo line establishes this is a bluegrassy tune.
||“Riding by the river…”
||“So these days I stay awake…”
||“Two rights; well, they’ll never make a wrong…”
||“Still I’m waiting every day…”
||“’Cause two rights…”
||Ms. Goldsworthy sings a new melody over the same chords she used for the chorus; this prevents a little repetition and shows off her voice
||“You say you’d rather be alone…”
||The accompaniment gets far softer, adding dynamic contrast to the song. As Ms. Goldsworthy sings “it’s your fucking loss,” everything goes back to forte to pound the sentiment home.
||“’Cause two rights…”
The songwriter put the word “fucking” in the fourth verse. Now doesn’t that make sense? Think of it this way: remind yourself of an ex who really mistreated you and hurt your feelings. You’re not too angry right now. Let those memories percolate for a few minutes. Oh yeah, she broke up with you and then wore a rainbow miniskirt to show everyone else the legs you never got to see. That’s right; he told you that he tucked your sister into bed, but failed to mention that he was in the bed with her. See? Now you’re angry. Now you’re apt to use, as George Carlin put it, “heavy” words. The judicious use of the “naughty” words may turn off some listeners, but that’s their problem. The word “fucking” in this song is a magic incantation that undoes the narrator’s emotional dependence on the bad guy. We hear the chorus for the third time and the narrator finally believes it and has finally broken the spell.
As I said, one thing I love about Ms. Goldsworthy’s songwriting is the way she can create melodies that are both languorous and exciting at the same time. Upon first listen, you’re not really sure where the line is going…but when it’s over, the line seems perfect and natural. Unfortunately, I can’t write much about the musical aspect of the music, but I can unpack the structure of the lyric. Check out the first verse as posted by Ms. Goldsworthy:
Riding by the river, I don’t know where the summer goes
Or why you stayed the night and then you left me all alone
Still, I couldn’t stay away even though you wouldn’t change
Up your mind or your story in the morning
So these days I stay awake through the twilight every day
Take another hit of something just to ease the pain away
But I couldn’t bear to breathe in the dust from when you leave
so I cried and told my heart to just keep beating
Uh oh. I want to get under the hood of the meter Ms. Goldsworthy uses in the verse. Let’s look at another table:
|Riding by the river, don’t know where the summer goes
|Or why you stayed the night and then you left me all alone
|Still, I couldn’t stay away
||(ignore “still) two iambs
|though you wouldn’t change
|Up your mind or your story in the morning
Maybe all of the songwriter’s verses fit together so beautifully because she’s always changing the rhythm of the lines. Perhaps the freshness and novelty is what I admired in that song so many years ago. I love that she alternates between trochees (STRESSED/unstressed) and iambs (unstressed/STRESSED). You’ll also notice that the song comes together very well because of the complicated rhyme scheme; there’s end rhyme and internal rhyme and the lines of each verse end in “-ing.” (Not technically a rhyme, but doing so makes the song come together in a satisfying fashion.)
What Should We Steal?
- Adjust your tone so as not to ENFORCE an emotional state on your reader. Show your reader what they need in order to feel what you want them to feel, don’t just tell them how they should respond to your work.
- Build up to the big emotions, the big actions and the “heavy” words. “Naughty” words are like spice in a pot of chili. They can make a work more powerful and delicious or they can just burn your mouth.
- Switch up your sentences, rhythms and meter to keep your audience listening and guessing. Your reader wants to wonder, but he or she also wants to know that you have a plan in mind once the meandering is done.
Baldwinsville, Kayleigh Goldsworthy, The Scarlet Ending, tone, Where the Summer Goes
Title of Work and its Form: “How to Save a Wounded Bird,” short story
Author: Rebecca Barry
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Issue 16 of Tin House, a top-notch journal. The story was later included in Later, at the Bar, Ms. Barry’s excellent “novel in stories.”
Bonuses: Here is Ms. Barry’s author page at Simon & Schuster. Here‘s a cool interview Ms. Barry gave to the New York Times‘ Arts Beat. Here‘s what the folks at The Biblio Blogazine thought of Later, at the Bar. (Spoiler alert: they loved it.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
Elizabeth Teeter is having a rough go of it. Her husband recently left her for a man. Her cat keeps plucking baby birds from their nests. Her students at the community college are uninspired and apathetic. Right before a Monday class, Elizabeth finds a baby bird in her cat’s mouth and arranges to take it to a wildlife center right after she teaches. So her students didn’t do the reading. At least she got to teach a class with a baby bird on her desk. Elizabeth makes a deal with the class: they’ll all get out early if someone will give her a ride to the wildlife center. A young man named Trevor agrees. The car ride is a little uncomfortable; Elizabeth snaps a little bit, but her loneliness overtakes her. She doesn’t confess her desire, but she wants to share some (relatively) pure intimacy with the young man. Instead, Trevor simply continues their errand of mercy.
Many writers great have instincts, but they don’t take their ideas far enough. How many of us have had a significant other stolen away by a same-sex interloper? It certainly happens, but it happens infrequently enough that folks might still be attracted to your story because of the idea alone. A cool idea is seldom enough to make a great story. Ms. Barry’s story is so cool (in part) because the same-sex affair is simply a part of the situation, a mere facet of Elizabeth’s life.
When you have “crazy” things happen in a story that aren’t quite tethered to plot and character, you’re dealing with melodrama. That’s not necessarily bad; Trapped in the Closet is so gloriously awesome in part because of its increasingly outlandish and unrealistic plot points. Compare “How to Save a Wounded Bird” to the first few chapters of Trapped in the Closet. R. Kelly expects to keep an audience and propel a story along by simply adding a same-sex affair. We never get a deeper understanding of any of the characters who are involved. Ms. Barry’s story instead presents a portrait of a woman working through her sadness. It’s okay to make use of extreme plot points, but they should be a means, not an end.
One of the reasons that Elizabeth is so sad is that everything is seemingly crashing down on her at once. She’s finding it difficult to see anything but things that reinforce her loneliness and sadness. Ms. Barry, however, is wise enough to avoid this problem in her story. There are moments of great humor in an otherwise sad piece. Elizabeth’s jerky neighbor calls her cat fat and advises her to put a muzzle on the feline. This annoys Elizabeth, who replies, “If you put a diaper on your dog, he wouldn’t shit in our yard.” The narrator shrewdly allows Elizabeth to correct herself: “My yard.” There’s a moment of laugh-out-loud humor that makes the story engaging.
There’s another great moment in which Ms. Barry subverts the overall tone of sadness. Elizabeth is teaching and is annoyed that her students didn’t do the reading she had assigned:
Her students were sitting at their desks, dozing or talking on their cell phones. Elizabeth shut the door and wrote a pop quiz on the board.
“If you miss one question on this one,” she said, “you will automatically fail.”
“Peep! Peep! Peep!” said the bird.
Elizabeth may have trouble agreeing with the idea, but there are good things happening to her. There is humor to be found in her situation and people around her are still falling in love, even if she’s dealing with the negative effects of trusting someone else. “How to Save a Wounded Bird” is more meaningful and more life-affirming because Ms. Barry looks at the world through the writer’s wide-angle lens, not Elizabeth’s blinders.
What Should We Steal?
- Allow extreme plot points to affect your characters, not the other way around. You shouldn’t think of your protagonist as “some priest who leaves the clergy for a woman who treated him like crap in high school and still does and who is abused by her friends and becomes addicted to crack and must do community service at a dog pound.” You should think of your characters as people and illustrate the way plot points change their lives.
- Leaven the primary tone of your story with bits of contrasting tone. Not only do your readers need a change of pace at times, but alternating tone also lends verisimilitude to your work.
2003, Ohio State, Rebecca Barry, Tin House, tone
Title of Work and its Form: Doubt: A Parable, play
Author: John Patrick Shanley
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The script is available in a trade paperback edition as well as an acting edition from Dramatists Play Service. (They’re a great organization, by the way. You can buy acting editions of all kinds of plays at very low cost!)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material
Doubt, in my opinion, is one of the best plays ever. Sure, I’m a little biased; I had the honor of working at the Manhattan Theatre Club during the play’s Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. After I walked out of the third Off-Broadway preview, I knew that I had just experienced a magical evening of theater. (And world-class performances from Cherry Jones, Heather Goldenhersh, Brian F. O’Byrne and Adriane Lenox.) The play won a zillion Tonys and a Pulitzer and everything. The film, directed by Shanley, is very good, but I am somewhat sad that the original actors couldn’t have their performances immortalized on film.
Mr. Shanley drew on his childhood, setting his play in a Catholic school in the Bronx. It’s 1964 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Sister Aloysius is the principal of the school, overseeing many teachers, including young Sister James. Sister Aloysius has…well…doubts about Father Flynn, a priest who coaches basketball and tends to the spiritual needs of the children and their families. Father Flynn, she believes, is a little too friendly with Donald Muller, the school’s first black student. The religious hierarchy restrains Sister Aloysius from confronting Father Flynn directly, so she deals with the situation in the only ways she can.
One of the reasons I admire the play so much is that Mr. Shanley deals with an awful lot of complicated issues.
- Feminism – Sister Aloysius, as a woman, does not have authority over men.
- Race – Donald Muller is the only black student in a sea of Italian and Irish kids.
- Pedagogical Theory – Should a teacher be feared or loved?
- Child Molestation – They’re out there…how do we find them and what should we do with them?
- Parenting – Mrs. Muller wants the best for her child, even if it means being “interfered with” until graduation.
- Attitudes Toward Homosexuality – Is Donald Muller a homosexual? Does that change anything?
- Our Moral Obligations – When we believe someone is doing something really, really wrong, what are we obligated to do about it?
Does he hit you over the head with them by releasing them all at once? No. They come out in a natural, organic manner. Here’s how the audience learns that Donald Muller is an African-American child. Five scenes into the play, Sister Aloysius finally confesses her real suspicion: that Father Flynn has been molesting the boy.
Sister Aloysius: Of all the children. Donald Muller. I suppose it makes sense.
Sister James: How does it make sense?
Sister Aloysius: He’s isolated. The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for.
Sister James. I don’t know that anything’s wrong!
Sister Aloysius: Our first Negro student. I thought there’d be fighting, a parent or two to deal with…I should have foreseen this possibility.
Instead of launching into a big, melodramatic monologue about the equality of people of all races and yada yada yada, Sister Aloysius simply gives us the exposition. Mr. Shanley respects the audience enough to know they’ll understand what he’s doing. In lesser works, such a realization would be dealt with in a maudlin way such as this:
Can you believe it? Father Flynn is molesting our first proud African-American student. A young man who, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, simply wants to gain knowledge about himself and his life! Haven’t African-Americans been through enough? Hundreds of years of slavery, another hundred years of institutionalized racism. When, oh when, will our proud African-American brothers and sisters be allowed to be free!?!?!1?!?! (Sister Aloysius begins wiping away dozens of tears.)
Nope. Mr. Shanley gives his audience realistic scenes and graceful exposition. In Mr. Shanley’s scorching Scene Eight, Sister Aloysius has a talk with Mrs. Muller. Could some of the lines be shouted? Sure. These extremes are earned. Does Mrs. Muller offer an unexpected analysis of the situation? Um…yes! The extreme is in the situation, not in the tone of Sister Aloysius’s response.
The ambiguous ending of Doubt receives a lot of attention because the audience receives no cut-and-dried answer with regard to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence. That’s okay! First of all, the play is titled Doubt. What do you expect? I wrote about this issue in my essay about the Law & Order: SVU episode with the same title. The play puts the audience in the same position as Sister Aloysius (or anyone who read about the whole Jerry Sandusky scandal). We’re probably not around when these terrible things happen…how do we know what really occurred? At what point do we believe a person is guilty of a heinous crime?
What Should We Steal?
- Confront a great deal of vital issues. Isn’t why this a lot of writers get into the game in the first place? Society has a lot of problems—and always will—and a lot of these problems are interrelated. Don’t be afraid to dive into the deep end of the emotional pool.
- Avoid melodrama by treating the extremes in your work as though they are not. Have you ever been to a wedding where someone had a little bit too much to drink and they spend the entire reception crying in a corner and then crying in the parking lot and then crying in the bathroom because their boyfriend or girlfriend didn’t like the Nicki Minaj song the DJ played? While I can’t blame this hypothetical person for having such a negative reaction to Nicki Minaj, there’s just too much melodrama going on. It’s not realistic and it’s generally not as compelling as works with more verisimilitude.
- Leave your audience guessing. Yes, yes. It’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun. There’s nothing wrong, however, with inviting your reader to interact with the ideas in your stuff. The dilemma of Doubt is played out in countless places in the country every day. Isn’t it valuable to confront these questions in fiction before they face us in fact?
2004, Doubt, John Patrick Shanley, Law & Order: SVU, tone
Title of Work and its Form: “The Long Walk Home,” short story
Author: Okla Elliott
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in the Press 53 Spotlight Anthology 2011 and was subsequently published in Elliott’s debut short story collection, From the Crooked Timber. Why not purchase the book directly from the small press that published it: Press 53? Yes, yes. You can also purchase it from Amazon.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
War has always been a popular topic in literature because of the way it traffics in extremes. The opposing sides are devout in their belief that they are defending hearth and home. The individuals involved struggle with their desire to live and their reticence to kill. Moments of beauty and grace are entwined with representations of brutal cruelty. The literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has already begun to be written and Okla Elliott has added “The Long Walk Home” to this body of works.
“The Long Walk Home” depicts the homecoming of Reynolds, a soldier who is returning from the Middle East. Reynolds has lost a leg and has a prosthetic replacement. (Elliott provides some interesting details about the leg. Indeed, “most people don’t think of prosthetic legs as having batteries.”) Reynolds gets off the plane and charges his leg. Reynolds waits at baggage claim. Reynolds thinks about his friends, some of whom were not supportive of his enlistment. The narrator moves from the narrative to tell the story of why Reynolds enlisted: he was good with Arabic. Reynolds remembers an old girlfriend and she picks him up and brings him home. He drinks and they engage in a romantic encounter that is tainted somewhat by why I am guessing is PTSD.
What do all of these story beats have in common? They’re all very passive on Reynolds’ part, aren’t they? Isn’t this appropriate? After all, Reynolds was in theater for a long time and was very much out of control what happened in his life. The Army told him what to do and where to go. Insurgents determined he would lose his leg and would witness unspeakable violence. After such trauma, it is fitting that Reynolds would be somewhat passive and lose agency in his own life.
On the final page, Elliott allows Reynolds to emerge from his slumber somewhat. And what unlocks the key? The mingling of sex and violence. What greater influences are there on the psyche of a young adult male? Especially one that has been through so much? The story is beautiful and vital because the reader experiences the psychological change Reynolds is feeling. That change is demonstrated through the contrast between passive and active, between being carried along by life and forging one’s own path and between fighting an enemy because of orders and fighting him because of an inner sense of justice.
One way that Elliott makes the depiction of violence visceral for the reader is in the narration. There’s a very cool turn that occurs a few pages into the story. A man at the airport offers to sell Reynolds a doll. (It’s no coincidence that one of the doll’s eyes is dangling from its socket.) The narrator recounts:
The man’s face reminded Reynolds of a housewife in Qatar whose husband he’d been ordered to detain. She was veiled from head to toe, and all he could see were those eyes, wet with accusation and plea. She thrust money at him, a fistful of coins worth maybe half an American dollar. Her husband struggled in his binds and a soldier brought his book down on the man’s jaw. A tooth splintered and blood dribbled forth.
“All right,” Reynolds said to the man with the Indian doll, pulling out his wallet and handing him the first bill he found.
See what Elliott did? There was no transition between the memory and the present tense, implying that this is the thought process that is happening inside Reynolds all the time. Just like in the story, Reynolds experiences a short episode in the present tense before feeling a memory that is related to the sad drama he witnessed.
Elliott’s story illustrates what may be the great (and necessary) contradiction of the soldier. He or she simply must act according to orders and kill without thinking, willfully tossing away his or her humanity. On the other hand, the soldier must maintain the humanity necessary to defend fellow soldiers to the death and to return home, turning swords into ploughshares.
What Should We Steal?
- Structure your close third-person narrator in a manner that resembles the thoughts of your focal character. Reynolds is haunted by memories of the war and daunted by the prospect of returning to “normal” life. The narrator, therefore, commingles both kinds of thoughts, allowing the reader to experience the character’s psychological conflict.
- Build character and tone through juxtaposition. Think of the friends with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. Are you ever shocked by what they have become and achieved? Wow…Bob was still eating paste in ninth grade and now he’s a chef? The guy who peed on your shoe during gym class and goofed off every single day is now a doctor? The shock comes from the juxtaposition. Reynolds is passive through the whole story and the reader feels an emotional catharsis because he is motivated to some kind of action at the end of the story.
2011, Ohio State, Okla Elliott, tone
Title of Work and its Form: The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, poem
Author: William Shakespeare
Date of Work: 1600-ish
Where the Work Can Be Found: Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet. Remember, kids: we love public domain. You can find a full text of one of the versions of the play at Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1524/pg1524.html You may find the soliloquy itself and some variations between quarto and folio versions at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_be,_or_not_to_be. Go ahead, watch Kenneth Branagh deliver the soliloquy in his excellent film version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JD6gOrARk4
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
At this point in the play, Hamlet is not doing very well. He knows that his father was killed by his uncle, the same man who married his mom. He’s having problems with his girlfriend (granted, he’s the cause of a lot of the problems). That darn Fortinbras is always out there, ready to attack at any time. But Hamlet has a plan. An acting company is coming to give a performance at court and Hamlet decides that the play is the thing wherein he’ll catch the conscience of the king. And once Claudius feels guilty…he’ll apologize? I don’t know. I don’t think Hamlet knew, either.
During this soliloquy, Hamlet is indeed weighing the value of his life and whether or not his struggles are worthwhile. One of the eight zillion things we can steal from the Bard is the way he really uses the iambic pentameter. In a lot of poetry (especially mine), the meter can be an obstacle. The effort to maintain meter and rhyme can lead a writer to make choices that are not motivated by artistic intention. Instead, we’re trying to figure out how to find a rhyme for “equanimity.” Adhering to meter often leads poets like me to rearrange lines to get a word into the line that is otherwise unnecessary.
Shakespeare, of course, wields the iambic pentameter with more skill than Laertes handles his sword. One way that you can tell is the length of his sentences. While there’s lots of great blank verse that consists of one-sentence lines, it can be difficult to express complicated thoughts in abbreviated sentences. I suppose you could argue with the punctuation chosen by Shakespeare and his numerous editors (such mechanics are far different now than they were then), but the longer sentences lend themselves well to an instance in which a complicated character is having complicated thoughts.
When we talk about Shakespeare, we can’t escape the awesome phrases he comes up with. We can literally steal these for use as titles. Look at just a few of the works that have gotten their titles just from this soliloquy:
- To Be or Not To Be – lots of movies, including the Mel Brooks film
- Slings and Arrows – A British sitcom about a theater company
- Outrageous Fortune – The Bette Midler movie from the 1980s
- Perchance to Dream – A Twilight Zone episode
- There’s the Rub – A Gilmore Girls episode
- What Dreams May Come – The Robin Williams movie
- The Insolence of Office – A Star Trek novel (actually, lots of Star Trek novels are named for Hamlet)
- Quietus – The name for the suicide drug in the film Children of Men (it’s not the title of the film, but I think it still counts)
- The Undiscovered Country – The subtitle of the sixth Star Trek film
- All My Sins Remembered – An episode of Andromeda
You get the idea. There are advantages when we steal a title from a great work. People who recognize the reference will take some of their understanding of the original work and apply it to yours. Unfortunately, this can also work against you. What would have happened if Tom Wolfe had written The Right Stuff in 1989? Thousands of teenage girls would have bought it and been disappointed because the book has nothing to do with New Kids on the Block or their hit song “(You Got It) The Right Stuff.”
What Should We Steal?:
- Ensure that the restrictions of a genre don’t force us into too many bad choices. Just because you’re writing in iambic pentameter doesn’t mean that you should be restricted to short sentences that happen to fit the formula.
- Titles are fair game and can lend additional weight to whatever you’re writing. Titles are often hard to come up with and pinching one from writing you admire can be a good solution, even if it’s a temporary one.
1600, Blank Verse, Classic, Hamlet, Soliloquy, tone, William Shakespeare
Title of Work and its Form: God Bless America, feature film
Author: Bobcat Goldthwait (writer and director)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and may be available on streaming services.
Element of Craft You’re Writing About: Tone
People of my generation know Bobcat Goldthwait as a comedian and as the Police Academy officer with the haggard hair and funny voice. In the 1990s, he reached the pinnacle of human achievement by marrying Nikki Cox. In the past decade, Goldthwait (who is also from the Syracuse area) has become a respected writer and director. (Seriously, the films are very good!) God Bless America, like Goldthwait’s other films is as funny as it is dark. Frank is a divorced dad whose daughter hates him as much as she loves her cell phone. He believes he is striking up a sweet romance with his company’s receptionist…only to find that she has reported him for harassment. It is no longer politically correct, after all, to send flowers or lend books to a woman who hasn’t told you to back off. After being fired, Frank learns he has a terminal brain tumor. He can no longer tolerate the incivility and stupidity of American culture and decides to use his remaining time on Earth setting things straight. He starts by killing one of those spoiled reality show brats. Much to his surprise, he takes on a sidekick: a 16-year-old girl who feels the same way about the vapid nature of contemporary American culture. The middle-aged man and teenage girl go on a killing spree that climaxes in a fitting manner.
Like I said, Goldthwait is a Syracuse native. I saw Frank (Joel Murray) walking around a city square while talking to his daughter and…things looked familiar. Lots of cities have a fountain like that, right? Hmmm…I guess a lot of cities have a reflective pool, I suppose. At last, I realized that the actor really was in Downtown Syracuse heading off to work at the Federal Building. Admittedly, it was pretty cool to see a familiar place on the silver TV screen. Seeing Syracuse wasn’t the problem. What jolted me was the geography of the film. Okay, fine. Frank is in Syracuse. Cool. I love that he worked at “Bank of Onondaga.” Awesome. But then he leaves to begin his killing spree. Was he near Syracuse when he shot the spoiled brat? I would swear that some of the “travel” shots were taken around Syracuse. Mr. Goldthwait is wielding a double-edged sword. It’s fun to see locations you recognize, but it can also shake your viewer from the illusion of reality that you’re trying to create.
I go to the movie theater about once a year. Do I hate films? Of course not. I hate the people who go to films. They talk and text and shout and bring their kids to midnight movies…terrible. I particularly hate when people will shout a description of what is happening at the screen: “Hey! That’s The Rock! See? It’s The Rock.” Yes, madam. I know it’s The Rock. We all know it’s The Rock. Goldthwait shrewdly has Frank continue his quest against crudeness and civility in a movie theater. Frank shoots everyone who was being rude. The scene takes on a new meaning after the terrible shooting in the Aurora theater, but try to think of Goldthwait did in a pre-Aurora context. Theatergoers were literally in a theater watching Frank correct the behavior of rude theatergoers. How many people do you think stopped texting when they realized what was happening onscreen and why? Goldthwait used the medium to extract additional meaning out of the scene.
What Should We Steal?:
- Make sure you establish a real and workable geography for your story. Instead of empathizing with Frank, I was wondering if he was still in Syracuse. The next day he was in Virginia. Then, I don’t know. Don’t make your reader think about maps or math. A writer must somehow figure out how to add local flavor without working against his ultimate goal: to tell a story and send a message.
- Understand that some people will live in the same place as your characters and will have special knowledge that may exceed yours. Short story master Lee K. Abbott once told my class about a letter he had received from a reader. Lee had mentioned in one of his stories a specific (and quite real) golf tournament that took place during summer in Arizona. The reader politely corrected him; pointing out that the tournament could not take place during that season, if only because of the sweltering temperatures. Lee acknowledged that he failed that particular reader. His goal, of course, was to inspire the gentleman to empathize with the character and to become immersed in the story’s dramatic situation. Instead, the reader was jerked out of the flow of the story, thinking about geography instead of human relationships. We want to do our best to make sure that the reader’s focus remains on the story, not on the outside world.
- Make full use of your medium and the ways people are inherently consuming the work in question. Shakespeare did this with Hamlet’s play-in-a-play. When Hamlet is lecturing the actors who were portraying actors, he could also have been speaking directly to the actors. (Remember? “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.”) Audiences who understand the different meanings of the lines will enjoy the multiple layers.
2011, Bobcat Goldthwait, film, tone
Title of Work and its Form: “The Lottery,” short story
Author: Shirley Jackson
Date of Work: 1948
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally published in The New Yorker‘s June 26, 1948 issue. You can also find the story in a ton of anthologies.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
I know…I know. Your ninth-grade English teacher made you read “The Lottery.” Just because it was forced upon you at gradepoint doesn’t mean that it’s not awesome. The story describes the morning of June 27th, the morning during which the lottery is to take place. Every seems downright wholesome and perfect in this community. Mr. Summers organizes civic activities for everyone: square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program. Isn’t it beautiful? All of the families in the village are getting together on a clear and sunny summer morning to share a timeless tradition. What could be more perfect? Oh…right. The person who reaches into the lottery box and pulls out the slip of paper with the big black spot gets stoned to death by everyone else. (Can you believe we make teenagers read this story?)
Shirley Jackson establishes the tone very quickly, inviting the reader to think about happy, comfortable things. There’s a bright blue sky over a rustic town, the kind of place where tradition and family are cornerstones. Jackson immediately informs us that it’s the day of the lottery. “Lottery” sounds like a good thing, right? The Oxford English Dictionary points out that the word “lottery” has been used to describe the distribution of prizes by chance since at least 1567. Ooh, somebody is going to win something! Cool! As the 300 townspeople gather, they gossip and the kids run around and gather with stones.
Jackson creates great suspense in the story by painting a perfectly normal image and then providing small details that make the reader uncomfortable. Mrs. Hutchinson is late to the lottery drawing and a few people in the crowd inform Mr. Hutchinson that his wife has just arrived. What’s the big deal? You can still win the New York State Lottery if you don’t watch the live drawing, right? Mrs. Dunbar volunteers to take the place of her husband in the drawing instead of giving her son that extra chance. Why would a mother try to prevent her son from winning? We learn that some communities have stopped doing a lottery; Old Man Warner calls them fools. That sounds harsh, right?
Whoa, then everyone (except for Mrs. Hutchinson) lets out a relieved sigh when they see they didn’t win. Why would they be happy to lose the lottery? Half a page before the story ends, people start pelting Mrs. Hutchinson with stones. The moment is powerful because Jackson has withheld a lot of details, allowing the important ones to stand out. The wise narrator also chooses not to pass judgment on any of the events; this lottery is a normal part of life in this town and it’s up to the reader to understand they’re getting a glimpse into a slightly different world.
“The Lottery” ratchets up the tension by adhering to the Unities (Time, Place and Tone). Our attention is focused on the lottery and the many reactions to it. We don’t have a chance to breathe because Jackson never cuts away from the events that lead to the sad conclusion. The story begins as people start to gather for the lottery and ends as “they were upon her.”
What Should We Steal?
- Adhere to the Unities to keep the focus on the small slice of life you’re depicting. Would we love to know more about Mrs. Hutchinson and her relationship with her husband? (Why doesn’t the guy try to save his wife?) What do the surviving husbands and wives say to each other that night? How does a parent react when their child is chosen as the winner? Yes, these answers might be interesting, but Jackson leaves us with a spine-tingling chill by leaving those questions (and others) open to the answers provided by our imaginations.
- Employ a calm narrator and choose details very carefully. Remember, the narrator is not necessarily the writer. In fact, the two are generally very different. Thomas Harris is very much opposed to men who keep women in a well and force them to coat themselves in lotion so they can make a woman suit from the hides. The narrator of The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t, however, spent several pages pointing out that Buffalo Bill’s actions are abhorrent. Instead, Harris tells you Clarice’s story and allows you to pass whatever judgment you like.
1948, Classic, dystopian literature, Shirley Jackson, The Lottery, tone
Title of Work and its Form: “Harrison Bergeron,” short story
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Date of Work: 1961
Where the Work Can Be Found: Just about every anthology of short stories ever. It’s one of the big stories, folks.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
Well, if you haven’t read this short story, you should. I know…I know. It’s one of those stories they force you read in high school. Here’s the deal: “Harrison Bergeron” is an incredibly subversive story that is practically screaming at you to DEFY AUTHORITY. Can you believe so many high school teachers (including my own) were trying to tell you that there are many forces in American society that strive to glorify mediocrity? That one of the overriding messages in American media is that you should sit down, shut up and watch crappy TV shows so you won’t think? You have to give Vonnegut some love.
“Harrison Bergeron” describes the Bergeron’s family night of television. Hazel and George, Harrison’s parents, watch a music and dance show. The Handicapper General makes sure that everyone is “equal” by burdening the strong with heavy weights. The brilliant people are forced to endure periodic aural disturbances so as to prevent them from thinking brilliant thoughts. The ballerinas (masked to hide their unfair beauty) are plodding about when there is breaking news: Harrison Bergeron, “a genius and athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as completely dangerous.” Harrison, the smartest and most athletic of us, breaks into the TV studio and removes his handicaps. He declares himself “Emperor” and chooses his bride, the most beautiful of all the ballerinas. Diana Moon Glampers, that Handicapper General, interrupts their honeymoon dance, killing them both. Hazel and George? They remember they saw something sad on TV, but can’t quite remember what it was.
The narrator of “Harrison Bergeron” is a big key to the story’s success. Vonnegut is dealing with BIG emotions and BIG ideas, but the narrator is very calm and matter-of-fact. “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.” If you look at the narrator’s sentences, they are very calm. The narrator does not pass judgment on Diana Moon Glampers or the society she leads. Instead, Vonnegut allows the reader to absorb the events and the dialogue and to draw his or her own conclusions.
It’s so tempting to make our narrators editorialize. For example, I am writing a short story about a teenager who befriends a former major league ballplayer who played with men who had been in the Negro Leagues. It is VERY EASY to want to editorialize in these kinds of cases. How could Americans want to see segregated baseball? What kind of a person would want to discriminate so blatantly against people based upon skin color? What could have been? Bob Feller facing Josh Gibson…Satchel Paige against Joe DiMaggio. Instead, it is better to pull back and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. It’s a matter of SHOW, DON’T TELL.
What Should We Steal?:
- Consider an unobtrustive narrator to allow your points emerge from other parts of your writer’s toolbox. Vonnegut’s narrator pretty much sticks to just the facts, ma’am. This allows the dialogue to punch the reader in the gut. Why can’t George simply reduce the weights that are part of his prescribed handicap? “Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George. “I don’t call that a bargain.” The narrator could easily have given us this information in this clumsy manner: “The government prescribed that the strong be weighed down according to their strength. George could have reduced the weight in his handicap, but then he would have been punished with prison time and a big fine for each ball of birdshot…blah blah blah.” See how bad that is? (And not just because I wrote it instead of Vonnegut.)
- Allow your narrator to match the needs of your story. George Bergeron is a brilliant man (that’s where his son gets it), but he’s unable to concentrate because of the periodic sounds that derail his trains of thought. For example, George “began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.” George and the narrator are both unable to focus upon the emotions inherent in the story because of the handicaps placed upon them.
1961, Classic, dystopian literature, Kurt Vonnegut, tone