Title of Work and its Form: “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye,” poem
Author: Aimee Nezhukumatathil (on Twitter @aimeenez)
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s collection At the Drive-In Volcano. (Available now from Tupelo Press!) You can also find the poem on the Poetry Foundation web site. It’s right here.
Bonuses: Ms. Nezhukumatathil is everywhere! Here is an interview she did with fellow GWS subject Roxane Gay. Learn about Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s philosophy on poetry in her interview with the Poetry Society of America. And here is an interview she did with Flyway, a site dedicated to writing influenced by nature.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Poetic Forms
The poem features a first-person narrator who is directly addressing the man with whom she is attending an auction. While the auctioneer “rackets” on, the narrator considers what will happen in two days when she sees her lover off at the airport. She will feel a sense of loss and will miss him greatly, a sadness that colors the time she is spending with him.
What do you notice first about the poem? Okay, okay, the beautiful imagery. What do you notice next? The poem is a villanelle, a kind of poem that follows the following rules:
- The poem must have nineteen lines.
- The poem must consist of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza).
- The first and third lines of each tercet must have the same rhyme; this rhyme is repeated in the last two lines of the quatrain.
You might think that writing in a strict form could stifle your creativity, but look what the form does for Ms. Nezhukumatathil. The recurring image of the man’s corduroy jacket becomes a sad refrain; the woman remembers the smell and texture of the jacket, the kind of visceral sensory input that we crave from those we love. The use of a poetic form also forms a structure that the reader can use to understand your poem. If you knew about villanelles before I told you about it, then you understood that the ending couplet would be coming up and would not be shocked by the turn that Ms. Nezhukumatathil makes in the quatrain.
Ms. Nezhukumatathil is following in the footsteps of countless great poets by writing a villanelle; you’ve probably read Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The familiarity of the form allows you to not only compare your work to the others that came before, but also allows your reader to relax into your piece in the same way they did upon reading the Thomas.
What is that turn in the final quatrain? Ms. Nezhukumatathil begins the poem in the dramatic present, as the woman and man go to the auction. In the third tercet, the narrator launches into a bit of a daydream; she thinks about taking him to the airport and kissing him goodbye and making love to him. The third-to-last line represents a return to the dramatic present. Isn’t this a perfectly natural depiction of time spent with a lover who must soon leave? No matter where you go or what you do, the specter of the departure looms over everything!
Uh oh. It looks as though Ms. Nezhukumatathil broke a rule of writing. The third stanza mixes up the tenses a little bit. The narrator, who is at an auction in the dramatic present, says that she “will” drive the gentleman to the airport. In the next sentence she mentions that “lines sear” her cheek when they hug. She didn’t say “will!” Is this confusing? Of course not. That phrase “lines sear” is much more powerful the way Ms. Nezhukumatathil cast it. You sear meat on a grill and you sear yourself onto the heart of someone you love.
Ms. Nezhukumatathil hooked me with her beautiful images. (Gosh, the part about fingering the rim of the coffee cup is sad and sweet!) She also hooked me because there’s a part of her poem I didn’t understand. Some folks are scared of poetry because they claim not to be able to understand any of it and some poetry is intentionally opaque. Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s poem, however, is “hard to understand” in one place and in a good way. The rest of the poem is clear as crystal, but I am hung up on “how it haunts me still—what I bid—lost, sacked/ and wrapped for other girls.” The “confusion” that I have is really a point of analysis. I get to decide what the lines mean because the rest of the poem provides the context I need to come up with something interesting.
What Should We Steal?
- Adopt a strict form to force you to be creative in other ways. Sometimes writers are daunted by having too many choices. Writing a piece that adheres to a pre-established form can help winnow down all of those choices, allowing you to shine in the places in the form that are untouched by the rules.
- Break grammatical rules, but only when you have a reason to do so. We follow the rules of grammar in order to make our writing powerful. We break the rules of grammar in order to make our writing powerful.
- Offer opaque statements…once in a while. A little mystery or confusion can be good for a reader…but only a little bit. Don’t sacrifice the reader’s understanding of the piece as a whole.
2007, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ohio State, Poetic Forms, Tupelo Press
Title of Work and its Form: “It Isn’t Dead, Just Different,” poem
Author: Sommer Browning
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was published by Spork Press and also appears in Either Way I’m Celebrating, her 2011 book. You can read the work right here! Why not do so? The poem was also awarded a Pushcart Prize and is included in the 2013 anthology.
Bonuses: Cool. Here are some additional poems by Ms. Browning that appeared in Everyday Genius. The Academy of American Poets has been nice enough to publish her poem, “The Whistler.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Patterns
Ms. Browning’s work is a punchy little piece of narrative poetry. The narrator and her mother enter a rest stop and have some fried chicken immediately after nearly getting into a terrible accident. Mother and daughter “stopped dead in front of a car on fire./ Careening across four lines of Turnpike. Backwards.” A man wearing a hat that says “Flirt” nods at them as they enter the rest stop and during dinner, the women digest the experiencing, realizing that “You’re fucked even if you aren’t fucked.” Then the ladies resume their trip.
We all love patterns, don’t we? They make life predictable and eliminate a lot of the stress from our day-to-day confrontations with the world. Interesting things happen when a pattern is broken or when we notice something “different.” Not only is our attention captured, but we imbue the attention breaker with more importance. Look at Ms. Browning’s poem. All of the stanzas are three lines long…except for the second and fifth. Why?
Well, it’s easier for me to explain the fifth stanza than the second. The former is a punchy sentence that reinforces the danger the narrator and her mother just confronted. Even if the driver of the fiery car manages to right the car’s direction, the woman inside is still in big trouble. (How did the narrator know the driver was a woman?) Ms. Browning made a great choice in allowing this sentence to stand alone. The fifth stanza reinforces the somewhat depressing theme of the poem and allows the reader to pause after considering the potent image of an out-of-control car on fire.
The second stanza consists of only two lines, it seems, because it describes another pattern that is broken. Generally, the kind of man who wears a “Flirt” hat winks or lets loose catcalls when the narrator and her mother walk by. This man, in spite of the suggestive hat, does not. The day is unusual for another reason.
Ms. Browning also made a very good choice in genre. She could easily have written a short story about two women who share a frightening close call. Instead, Ms. Browning seems to have wanted to concentrate on the meaning of the experience. Poems are better suited to short and sweet expressions about the meaning of life. Short stories are better tools to communicate what happens between characters. Can you combine elements of multiple genres? Of course. It’s all about the proportion you use. A hot fudge sundae sounds great, doesn’t it? Not if you add a gallon of hot fudge to a thimbleful of ice cream.
What Should We Steal?
- Break up patterns to attract attention and to put more meaning into an important facet of your work. Single-line stanzas mean more when they’re surrounded by three-line stanzas. A goodbye kiss means more after months of goodnight hugs.
- Cast your work in poetry when you’re more interested in theme than story. Each form of writing offers equal opportunity for expression, but emphasizes different elements in different proportions.
2011, 2013 Pushcart, Patterns, Sommer Browning, Spork
Title of Work and its Form: “Honeydew,” short story
Author: Edith Pearlman
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was published in the September/October 2011 issue of Orion Magazine.
Bonuses: Here‘s a nice profile of Ms. Pearlman from Hadassah Magazine. Ooh, and here‘s an interview Ms. Pearlman did with The Millions. (She offers some wonderful thoughts about the importance of short fiction.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
Even though Caldicott Academy is a prestigious day school for girls, there’s a lot of complicated adult passion lurking beneath the surface. Alice Toomey is the headmistress; she’s having an affair with Dr. Knapp, the professor of anatomy. Dr. Knapp’s daughter, Emily, has an eating disorder and is infatuated with insects. The Caldicott campus is also home to a ravine that is forbidden to students because of “the suicide [that] had occurred a century earlier.” Ms. Pearlman’s story meditates on the characters’ infatuations (sex and the female body and insects) before the threads of the story are united in the climactic scene. Dr. Knapp is sneaking back home after a special moment with Alice. Emily has climbed down the ravine and is watching her father behave “like a boy.” A brief epilogue sums up what happens to the characters and restates what may be the story’s primary theme: “Caldicott’s most important rules, even if they weren’t written down, were tolerance and discretion.”
Ms. Pearlman’s story makes particularly interesting use of the third person omniscient point of view. The narrator has access to the consciousnesses of each of the characters; there are positives and negatives inherent in the choice. Ms. Pearlman, of course, uses the third person omniscient to get all of the story’s issues and conflicts into play very quickly. Because the narrator has full access to everyone, it can simply plant all the seeds it desires. Once the field has been seeded, of course, the writer is able to nurture the plants that have taken root.
The point of view that Ms. Pearlman chose allowed her to make the most impressive move in the story. The penultimate section of the story details Dr. Knapp’s “walk of shame.” The three primary characters are involved, either as spectators or as participants. The third person omniscient acts like a hovering camera. First, Emily sees her father and thinks about what the man’s actions mean. She compares him, of course, to an insect. Then the narrator magically slides to Alice’s point of view; we understand why she begins crawling toward Emily and how her attitude toward the girl has changed. Finally, the camera slides to Richard’s perspective. Two of the women in his life are in danger and resemble insects in different ways. The climax of “Honeydew” means more because Ms. Pearlman offers us a great deal of access to the characters during the climax and does so at a crucial time.
What Should We Steal?
- Plant the seeds of your conflict early and close together. The third-person omniscient makes it easy for you to get your drama started and to establish your primary thematic imagery.
- Imagine the narrator is a kind of camera that must follow rules dictated by the point of view. The third person omniscient narrator can go anywhere and do anything…take advantage of this quality.
2011, Best American 2012, Edith Pearlman, Orion Magazine, Point of View
Title of Work and its Form: “Cholera, Drowning, and the Firstborn You Wished For,” poem
Author: Michael Schmeltzer
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was published in the July 2008 issue of the Boxcar Poetry Review. You can find it here.
Bonuses: Here are some poems Mr. Schmeltzer had published in the Superstition Review. Here are some more poems Mr. Schmeltzer published in 42opus.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Painting With Words
Like its title, “Cholera, Drowning, and the Firstborn You Wished For” is split into three sections. In the first, the narrator describes a prenatal appointment he attended with a woman who was pregnant with his child. In the second, Schmeltzer meditates on the titular cholera; the disease is spread by the same water it leeches from the victim. The third section considers water as a threat and what happens when it is allowed to flow uncontrolled. There’s a brooding intensity in the poem; Mr. Schmeltzer deals with big ideas and employs confident, reserved language to allow the reader to use both intellect and emotion.
Mr. Schmeltzer isn’t using a specific kind of meter in the poem, but he is still thinking very much about the music made by his lines. I love the way that he opens the lines with different iambs (metrical feet).
||Iamb I felt Mr. Schmeltzer used:
|as an answer
Mr. Schmeltzer switches up the rhythm of the lines, which attracts the reader’s attention. When you read an Elizabethan sonnet (all iambic pentameter), the reader doesn’t need to focus on the meter. Simplicity is far less appropriate in a poem like “Cholera, Drowning…” Mr. Schmeltzer makes the wise choice to leave many elements of the poem out of balance. After all, flooding is an imbalance in the water table, cholera is an imbalance in the immune system and so on.
There’s another interesting “imbalance” in the poem. Look what Mr. Schmeltzer does in the last sentence of each section: there’s a deliberate break between the words. (And it looks like the space decreases in size each time.) Is this a mistake? Of course not. Mr. Schmeltzer is altering your understanding of the poem by influencing the way your brain receives it. That gap is only three quarters of an inch wide, but requires the reader to pause for just a moment. This respite allows you that much more time to absorb everything you’ve read in the poem and adds importance to what follows.
And what does follow? “gradually forgotten,” “too much,” “deluge of language.” The three phrases serve as a summation of the poem’s theme. The “key” is made more obvious because Mr. Schmeltzer subtly nudges your subconscious into adding more emphasis to the phrases.
I love Rembrandt for many reasons, but look at the way he uses light to direct your gaze. Look at his painting called “The Nightwatch:” You could look at this painting for hours, especially if you were standing before the actual canvas. Your eyes are likely drawn to the gentleman on the right because he’s bathed in light. Directly parallel is the child, also awash in light. Next, we likely notice the gentleman between the two…see how Remmy is telling you where to look by using shapes and light? Mr. Schmeltzer is also “painting,” only with words.
What Should We Steal?
- Mess with meter to make music and create tone. You can keep your reader’s attention if he or she is always off-balance. Nudging the reader to constantly assess your meter can also reinforce the idea that there are even more complicated thoughts to be mined in your work.
- Paint in the same manner as Rembrandt, only with words. Direct your reader’s subconscious to the most critical parts of your piece.
2008, Boxcar Poetry Review, Michael Schmeltzer, Painting With Words
Title of Work and its Form: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, feature film
Author: Written by James Cameron and William Wisher, Jr. Directed by James Cameron
Date of Work: 1991
Where the Work Can Be Found: The work is on DVD and is likely in your collection. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.
Bonuses: Whoa, cool. Here‘s the Stan Winston Studios recap of some of the effects they created for the film. Here‘s what the great Roger Ebert thought of the film. Oh, this is cool. Here‘s what a real psychiatrist-type person thinks of the representation of psychiatric treatment in the film.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience Preparation
Do I love Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde? Of course. I’m also quite proud of my affection for the work of James Cameron. His movies feature plots that tick along with flawless logic and immense energy. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is certainly no exception. It’s several years after the events depicted in The Terminator. Sarah Connor is in a mental institution because she tried to blow up the company responsible for creating Skynet in the future. John Connor, the future leader of the human rebels, is living with a progression of foster parents. (His father, if you’ll recall, is both from the future and dead.) Well, Skynet sent back another Terminator to kill John Connor before he can become the great leader in the post-apocalyptic future. The big secret? The T-1000 liquid metal Terminator is the bad guy, even though he is played by Robert Patrick and looks nice. The T-800 (Arnold) is the good guy, even though he was the antagonist in the previous movie. Picture a Commodore 64 fighting your current PC. Not an easy task. John gets his mother out of the psychiatric center and the three become a strange family as they 1) kill the T-1000 and 2) destroy Cyberdyne, the company that will create Skynet.
The big difference between a James Cameron film and an action movie from a lesser director is very clear: Cameron has a reason for each of the zillions of choices he makes. There are certainly surprises in his films, but the viewer is prepared for each of them in such a way that they’re not really a surprise when viewed in retrospect. Think of it this way. You may be shocked when your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you. But if you were paying attention to the important details of your life, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Let’s begin by examining what happens around 26:00 minutes into the film. (The beginning of Act Two?) It’s been established that the two Terminators (Arnold and Patrick) are looking for John Connor. In a reference to the first film, Arnold has stolen clothing. The music even tells us that he’s “bad to the bone.” Patrick visits John’s foster parents…I hope he’s going to help the young man. Sure, it seems as though he stole the policeman’s uniform, but it’s okay so long as he’s helping humans in the future. (Kyle Reese stole, too. He was justified, right?)
Both Terminators realize that John is at the mall, where he’s spending stolen money in the arcade. Budnick from Salute Your Shorts gives John a heads-up that the police officer is looking for him. As John slides into the bowels of the mall, the following “beats” happen, followed by what the audience learns:
- Cameron establishes that both Terminators are in the corridors. They must be looking for John.
- John sees the T-800 as he cocks the shotgun that was hidden in the box of flowers. This is the mythological creature that his mother has warned him about his whole life. He’s scared.
- John tries to find an open door, but can’t. There’s a janitor standing in the hallway, yelling at John.
- The T-800 points his gun right at John’s head. It’s lights out for Johnny boy, right?
- The T-1000 approaches from the other side of the hallway. John is trapped as the T-1000 pulls a gun and points it at John.
- The T-800 tells him to “get down.” (He doesn’t mean that John should start dancing.)
- No longer in slow motion, the T-800 fires the shotgun. Whoa, did Arnold just shoot a policeman?
- The T-800 shields John from the shots fired by the T-1000, who has a weird metallic wound on his arm. The poor janitor gets shot, giving us the clue that the T-1000 is not the good guy.
- As the T-1000 is reloading, the T-800 tosses John into one of the rooms whose doors John couldn’t previously open.
- Firefight between Terminators. The T-1000 is down for an eight count. John peers around the corner just in time to see that…
- The T-1000 is morphing itself back to health. What?!?!?
- Hand-to-hand Terminator combat starting with a distinct image. The T-800 was established as superhuman in the previous film, but now the much smaller T-1000 is matching his strength. Arnold looks confused.
- Both crash each other into the walls. The audience starts to understand the power of the T-1000.
- The T-1000 throws the T-800 into a clothing store and out the window. The T-1000 deliberately takes a look at a mannequin that looks like a liquid metal robot. Is this a coincidence?
- As the T-800 gets back up, a bystander takes several photos of him. These will be used later, obviously.
- John is still running away as both Terminators are in pursuit. He starts his dirt bike just in time. The cop who was shot about a zillion times is now running after him like Usain Bolt. Boy, that T-1000 doesn’t seem to get tired or to sweat!
- John almost wipes out and nearly gets run over by a giant black big rig. The driver swears at the darn kid in his way. Geez…that giant square machine looks awfully imposing!
- The driver is pulled out of his rig by the T-1000 and crumples to the pavement. How did the T-1000 catch up and why doesn’t he care about human life?
- Oooh, Arnold pulls out on his hog. Looks like both Terminators are determined to catch up with John.
- There’s a lull as John descends into the L.A. River basin. Phew. That feels better. I needed a break and a chance to catch my breath.
- Oh, snap. The big rig just crashed into the pavement and is pursuing John. He’s not messing around. Those old, rickety non-liquid metal machines are quite fragile, aren’t they?
- John speeds away as the T-800 spots him. He can’t get over quite yet. Which one will catch up to John first?
- The T-800 makes his way into the actual basin. A fight between a big rig and a motorcycle doesn’t seem fair, just like a fight between a new Terminator and an old one!
- The T-800 shoots at the T-1000 in the truck’s cab. Well, the T-1000 knows he has competition.
- Oh, shoot. The top of the rig is sheared off by the overpass. Hopefully the T-1000 was ki—oh, never mind, he shoots up easily.
- The rig taps John’s bike. He’s caught up. Luckily, the T-800 has slid past him.
- The T-800 easily lifts John and puts him on the chopper. The dirt bike is crushed under the tires of the big rig. OMG…that’s what would have happened to John Connor! We’re seeing the effect of the T-1000’s desired action!
- The T-800 shoots out one of the rig’s tires…the rig crashes into a bridge support and immediately catches fire.
- A tire rolls out of the flaming wreckage. The T-800 is crazy suspicious of it…but holsters the shotgun. They speed away. Phew! Everything is okay for now.
- Hey, why are we still at the wreckage? Why didn’t we go off with John and the T-800? Whoa…the metal guy is walking out of the wreckage. And he looks just like that mannequin in the clothing store! He’s not even hurt and he’s already trying to figure out where John will go! I guess that terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until John Connor is dead.
Imagine it’s 1991. Vanilla Ice is ruling the charts with “Ice Ice Baby.” Teenagers have to speak to each other on phones that either have cords or that must remain within a small radius of the base. Not a single Kardashian was famous and Bruce Jenner was famous for being an athlete instead of…I’ll let you finish the joke.
If you were interested in seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, you had likely seen the first film, or at least knew about it. You knew a lot about the “world” of The Terminator. John Connor was destined to be a hero in the humans’ war against the robots. Sarah Connor is the only person in the world who understands the threat. The Arnold Schwarzenegger character is the bad guy and he’s really tough to kill. The original Terminator survives a massive police station shoot-‘em-up and a fuel truck fire. The T-1000 can do all of that and more, making him a worthy adversary.
The first time I saw Terminator 2, I’m sure the joy was in seeing the cool action setpieces and in the humor the actors bring to the tight script. Upon reflection, however, it’s clear why the film is so great (to my mind, at least). Mr. Cameron makes everything add up in the film’s ledger.
- He establishes the doors in the hall are heavy and locked, making it more impressive when the T-800 busts them open.
- He makes sure a looky-loo takes pictures of the T-800 in the mall; these are used moments later during Sarah’s interrogation scene.
- At point, no audience had ever seen a morphing liquid metal robot. Seeing the silver mannequin prepared you to accept this wrinkle in the rules of the Terminator saga, as did…
- The splashy squib wounds on the T-1000 add believability later on when you learn the extent of his abilities.
- The primitive machine versus advanced machine is reinforced by the conflict between the three vehicles.
Every beat has a direct purpose! And Mr. Cameron is a master at laying out the geography of his settings to make the events believable. There are lots of wide establishing shots in order to inform you, for example, where the T-800 is in relation to the T-1000. At the end of the film, it’s not a surprise that the foundry has a giant pit of liquid metal (how appropriate) because Mr. Cameron showed you before the pit came into play in the action.
Above all, Mr. Cameron labors intensely before, during and after his films are in principal photography. Some folks assert that he’s a little prickly on set, but only because he is completely dedicated to making the best film he can. Shouldn’t you feel the same way about your own work?
What Should We Steal?
- Play with your audience’s expectations and subvert them when necessary. Once you’ve clearly laid out the rules of the world in which your story works, feel free to change up the formula
- Prepare your audience for what will happen and make all of your surprises natural in retrospect. Just like in the real world, all of your surprises must have a perfectly reasonable explanation.
- Give your pieces the attention they deserve. In a way, you are the parent of your stories and poems; prepare them for the world with the same dedication you would give a child.
1991, Audience Preparation, James Cameron, Skynet, William Wisher Jr.
Title of Work and its Form: “Best Man for the Gob,” an episode of Arrested Development
Author: Written by Mitchell Hurwitz (@MitchHurwitz) and Richard Rosenstock and directed by Lee Shallat Chemel.
Date of Work: The episode originally aired on April 4, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The episode is included in the Arrested Development Season 1 DVD package that you should have on your shelf. You can also stream the episode on Netflix.
Bonuses: Here the episode’s page on The O.P., a very cool fansite. Here’s a Tumblr filled with animated GIFs from the show. (A necessity on par with food and water and air.)
Here is the pain Tobias went through after Lindsay and Maeby quit the band and he learned about the conference’s policy regarding parking validation:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
It’s hard to summarize any episode of Arrested Development because of the simple fact that SO MUCH HAPPENS in all of them. In this first season classic, accountant Ira Gilligan points out that money is missing from some of the Bluth Company’s accounts. Gob is going to have a bachelor party to celebrate his union with Wife of Gob; George Sr. takes the opportunity to turn it to his advantage. What’s the plan? The bachelor party will be an excuse to make Ira think he killed a narcoleptic stripper, leading him to leave the country and end his investigation of the theft. Tobias, Lindsay and Maeby are getting the band back together. Dr. Fünke’s 100% Natural Good-Time Family-Band Solution played lots of wellness conventions, informing listeners about the side effects of drugs such as Teamocil. (“There’s no I in Teamocil…at least not where you think…”) Buster is thrilled about the unlimited juice (fake blood) at the bachelor party and Michael, offended at being passed over as Best Man, takes George Michael on what he intends to be a fishing vacation. But poor George Michael wants to spend time with Maeby and play wood block in the band because he’s such a good percussionist. The bachelor party goes wrong, of course. Ira’s a designated driver, so he’s not drunk. He vows to testify against the Bluths. The kicker? Ira’s the one who stole the money.
One of the greatest strengths of Arrested Development is its dedication to giving secondary and one-time characters full citizenship in the story. We’re never going to see Ira Gilligan again, but we learn a great deal about him. He’s annoyed by working with incompetent people, he puts up with a lot of abuse (being called “Gilligan”), he seems like a moral person (until the reveal), he’s good at his job… Ira Gilligan is a real character and you can imagine what happens to him after the episode is over. Now, you can’t make EVERY character in your piece a complete citizen. Think of Law & Order; sometimes you need a witness who isn’t a full character to simply point out where the bad guy ran. But look at this list of secondary characters from Arrested Development:
- Wife of Gob
- J. Walter Weatherman
- Steve Holt!
- Bob Loblaw
- Stan Sitwell
- Sally Stickwell
- Warden Gentles
- Tony Wonder
The list goes on and on. Even though these people are only given a few minutes of screen time, the writers, directors and actors make them real, well-rounded people. Why is this a great thing? People, just like characters, don’t exist in a vacuum. When you write a story, you’re creating a world and are just choosing to focus on specific characters from that world. In spite of this focus, your protagonist inhabits a reality filled with people who are protagonists of their own stories.
One of the many ways that Arrested Development sets itself apart from other programs is that the characters are extremely unlikeable in a number of ways. Each Bluth is selfish and is usually willing to cheat the others to get what they want. George Sr. embezzles from his business. Lucille dislikes most of her children and has smothered Buster so much that he can’t function on his own. Tobias refuses to get a job or to acknowledge the truth about himself. Lindsay is insanely shallow. Gob lies to women (a lot of them) and ignores his son. Why don’t we hate the Bluths? Their misadventures seldom cause terrible damage to the lives of others and, just like a real family, there are moments of genuine love between them. (Just think of the Lucille intervention that turned into one of their best-ever parties.)
Your audience will see the humanity in the worst character if you depict them in full. Tom Perrotta’s Little Children depicts a child predator in an appropriately sympathetic light. You love your crazy uncle, even though he’s crazy. We can appreciate unpleasantness in the people we read about so long as we have some clue as to WHY they are the way they are. (Lucille just wants her childrens’ love, Gob doesn’t know how to love, George Sr. is really a henpecked husband…)
Arrested Development stole a lot from Seinfeld in the structure of its plots. The Bluths spend a lot of time apart in the rest of the episode. The bachelor party climax of the episode, however, brings together many of the elements from the episode. Gob’s relationship with his wife, the theft of the money, the strife in Tobias’s family, Buster’s addiction to juice…they’re all dealt with. Interestingly, this moment also evokes a lot of emotion. In spite of all of the unpleasantness the Bluths try to visit upon each other through the episode, Michael and Gob share a kind moment between brothers and the problems in the Fünke household are dealt with in some manner.
What Should We Steal?
- Populate your world with a full set of real people. You may not tell the reader what your tangential characters do in the future, but your reader should nonetheless be able to figure out some of the secrets that reside in their hearts.
- Allow your characters to be unlikeable…allow them to be human. Superheroes have been given increasing amounts of pathos for a reason. Real people are flawed; if you look deeply enough, there is darkness in us all. (Except for me.)
- Build your plots and subplots to a meaningful crescendo. No matter what you’re writing, think of yourself as a conductor. Your climax is the place where you detonate all of the land mines you’ve planted and when you get to show off your skills to the fullest.
2004, Arrested Development, characterization, Hermano, Mitch Hurwitz, Teamocil
Title of Work and its Form: “Mr. Disappear-o,” short story
Author: Mike Alber (On Twitter: @malber)
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in Quick Fiction 11. The piece can be found on Mr. Alber’s site. See the PDF right here.
Bonuses: Mr. Alber is a very cool guy and that really comes through in his appearance on the TV Writer Podcast. Cool, here’s an online chat he did for fellow TV writers. (Isn’t it awesome how much he likes to share with others?) And here‘s his IMDB page.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Economy
The male narrator, now an adult, is reflecting upon his habit of swallowing objects in hopes of changing the way people feel about him. He swallowed cufflinks to keep his father at home. He downed the objects on his teacher’s desk to amuse his classmates. A girlfriend’s family heirloom went down the hatch because it made him a part of her family. (Admittedly, in a very odd way.) The story ends as the narrator breaks up with the girlfriend, but he carries a reminder of her in his gastrointestinal tract: one of her keys.
The story is very sad, even though it’s very short. How does Mr. Alber pack so much meaning into less than a page of text? He chooses one great central metaphor and doesn’t leave it. The narrator swallows things because he wants the people he loves to be a part of him in a way that is otherwise impossible in his life. (That’s my idea, at least.) Mr. Alber didn’t have a lot of page space with which to work, so every paragraph relates to the idea in some way:
- He swallows a cufflink to keep his father near
- We learn the origin of his swallowing stuff; his peers enjoy the performance
- He swallowed a girlfriend’s heirloom and has his eye on her Maglite
- He met the girlfriend in an appropriate manner: she’s a gastroenterologist
- Flashback: he swallows the items his peers give him
- Dramatic present: he wants to confess his feelings to the girlfriend, but can only express himself in the way to which he has become accustomed.
You should always try to make your images and your characters’ actions as powerful as possible—think Susan Sarandon placing her husband’s picture face-down in Thelma and Louise. The form of the short-short story requires you every element of your story to do as much “work” as possible.
Mr. Alber also exercises one of the fiction writer’s greatest advantages. If you’re writing a play, you need to worry a LOT about scene changes. Can we build a rocketship that we can get onstage after the chocolate factory scene? How can Matthew Broderick sing is “I Want” song and be in a chicken costume two minutes later? How can we let the audience know that six million years have passed between scenes? Fiction writers can simply tell the reader what about the situation has changed.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Boom. No matter what WAS happening, the reader knows that the narrator has brought him or her to the ranch. Mr. Alber does this especially well in the third paragraph of his story. In the second paragraph, the narrator is a child, and then—
Later, I was dating a nervous woman with exquisite breasts.
The reader easily understands that the narrator is referencing events that take place far later than the schoolroom scene. A little kid probably isn’t “dating” and certainly doesn’t have a girlfriend who has “exquisite breasts.” (The ability to zip through time is also very important in a story of this length.) The narrator is also the kind of person who doesn’t have a lot of practice telling his story, making it a natural choice for him to jump around a lot as he tells his tale.
What Should We Steal?
- Concentrate your imagery like Minute Maid concentrates orange juice. The shorter your story is, the more powerful your metaphors must be.
- Assert your right as narrator and slide between locations and time in a felicitous manner. The methods will vary depending on the genre in which you’re writing, but take advantage of the unique ways in which stories can be built in the form you’ve chosen.
2007, Hobart, Mike Alber, Narrative Economy
Title of Work and its Form: “North Country,” short story
Author: Roxane Gay (On Twitter: @rgay)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published in Issue 12 of Hobart, one of the best lit mags out there. (Their web site is as awesome as their journal, too.) Tom Perrotta subsequently selected the story for The Best American Stories 2012.
Bonuses: Here are some bonus notes on the story that were posted by Hobart. Cool: here’s a brief interview the Kenyon Review did with Ms. Gay.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Motif
Kate is an African-American woman teaching at a college in northern Michigan. She feels as though she’s the only person of color around and feels lonely for this and a number of other reasons. Then she meets Magnus, a logger who plays in a band. Kate begins to open up, slowly but surely. Not only to the world, but to Magnus. We learn that Kate suffered from a stillbirth and found the man was cheating on her; how appropriate that Kate should write with such emotional reserve! She’s working through big, sad issues. The climax of the story occurs when Magnus overhears Kate tell her family that “he’s no one important.” Magnus is extremely understanding; Kate is eventually able to open up, admitting she’s “not very nice.” Magnus seems to disagree, and Kate finally shares her feelings about the stillbirth, indicating that she has reached some kind of emotional catharsis.
Sadly, Kate seems to be stuck in an emotional rut because of the several traumas she endured in her recent history. How does Ms. Gay communicate Kate’s sense of sad passiveness and her confusion as to what is happening in her life? By using a motif, of course. Two of the story’s sections begin with the sentence, “In my lab things make sense.” Kate is a scientist and clearly loves the black-and-white dichotomy that science presents. Either something is true or it isn’t. Unfortunately, human relationships are not that easy. After Magnus has unwittingly helped Kate understand that she “feels nothing,” the ice has broken. Ms. Gay begins a subsequent section thus: “In my lab things make sense but they don’t.” This is an acknowledgement that Kate is actually feeling something for Magnus, even though she doesn’t understand what is happening inside her. The sections of the story that take place in the lab represent the fortress that Kate built around herself in the wake of her pain. Science can be a lonely pursuit, but that’s what Kate wanted at that time in her life.
What does Ms. Gay gain by returning to the same sentence and the same image? Doing so allows her to make her point about Kate’s psychology without being too explicit about it. She is SHOWING you that Kate is sad, not telling you. Motifs are one of the many kinds of patterns that rule our lives; there can be a lot of drama to mine when a person or a fictional character breaks out of that pattern, which is what Ms. Gay is doing.
Ms. Gay is also demonstrating advanced use of another literary device: imagery. Look: I love science, but you have to admit that many laboratories are cold, sterile places. (Many of them MUST be sterile, right?) The chill and solitude of Kate’s lab reflects Kate at that point in her life. She wants to be alone; she’s looking for some kind of order in her disordered life. Ms. Gay subverts this image toward the end of the story. Her hydrologist colleague “corners” Kate in her lab and makes an advance that makes her feel uncomfortable. She calls Magnus. Even though he’s “still angry” at her, he puts his feelings aside for the moment, accompanying her to the lab to get her things. That’s right; the empty lab that Kate has been using to get away from men and everyone else is no longer empty. Magnus has been allowed into her private space and indeed into her heart.
What Should We Steal?
- Plant subtext through the use of motifs. Simple repetition of a phrase can call attention to your intentions without forcing you to call TOO MUCH attention to them.
- Subvert the imagery in your story to accomplish character development. We’re attracted to things that are different. Once you’ve established the way an element of your story operates or looks, you can play with the meaning of the image.
2011, Best American 2012, Hobart, Motif, Roxane Gay
Title of Work and its Form: Smart Pop Books, publishing company
Author: Smart Pop is an imprint of BenBella Books (On Twitter: @smartpopbooks)
Date of Work: Founded in 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: Smart Pop’s books can be found in fine bookstores everywhere. You can also purchase them directly from BenBella. Why not do that?
Bonuses: Well, Smart Pop is the one who offers you bonuses. They are kind enough to post selections from their books on their web site. (I would link to the essays directly, but I am guessing the temporary sample links go away.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creative Mindset
Pop culture criticism can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you are exploring deep thoughts about a book or television show or movie that means a great deal to you. On the other hand, you sometimes find yourself launching into an intelligent critical defense of Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo Child. Smart Pop books have meant a lot to me because I genuinely enjoy thinking about and discussing the many popular creative works that I love. (For evidence, look no further than this very site!)
An imprint of BenBella Books, Smart Pop publishes engaging and intellectual books that analyze and reconceptualize some of your favorite pop culture artifacts. You like Mad Men? They’ve published a book about it. You’re a big fan of everyone’s favorite web slinger, Spider-Man? There’s a book about that, too. I like the Rule of Threes, so I’ll mention their April 2013 book containing essays about the classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game.
The great value of Smart Pop’s books (and their worldview) is that they are doing at least two very important things:
- They make scholarship accessible to people who don’t realize they are really scholars
- They enrich our understanding of cultural artifacts that often go without the critical consideration they deserve.
“Scholarship” often gets a bad name because it’s really a societal subculture. Many folks love Shakespeare, but never read a single article from Shakespeare Quarterly. That’s okay, I suppose, but when you understand the theory behind the writing that you produce, you’ll inevitably do better work. Smart Pop and similar publishing concerns put a heaping spoonful of sugar into their medicine. Veronica Mars may never break its way into some kinds of journals, but there are plenty of fans out there who want to read about what Veronica Mars really means. Smart Pop is happy to oblige.
Smart Pop is a great entry point into this scholarly subculture. Let’s say you have a fourteen-year-old child who loves the Buffy TV show. When you put Smart Pop’s Buffy anthology into his or her hands, you’re subconsciously beginning their training as a scholar. They begin to learn the language of the scholar and the way those folks think about storytelling and about life. You don’t need a child in order to reap these kinds of benefits. I just re-read Neptune Noir to celebrate the Veronica Mars movie and it hadn’t occurred to me how well the production team chose cars for each character. (I still associate LeBarons with Veronica.) I had thought deeply about the Season 1 finale, but I enjoyed having another scholar walk me through it in their own way.
The point is that no artist creates their work in a vacuum; we’re all inspired by the culture we consume and the discussions that are happening around us. Am I likely to write a show like Downton Abbey? Sadly, this probably won’t happen. But I love hearing my friends talk about it and watching the Sesame Street parody of the show and realizing that everything I create sheds light on the “more important” works of the day. It’s true that most of us are writing for all time, but we’re also writing for the age.
This web site should make it clear that I love Shakespeare and Renaissance drama and literary novels and other examples of “high culture.” I’ve also written about “Baby Got Back” and How I Met Your Mother, examples of “low culture” to varying degrees. The popular culture offers us a vast buffet. You don’t want to mound the iceberg lettuce on your plate because you’ll have no room for the olives and onion and cherry tomatoes. Great writers consume a balanced diet of stories, from the vulgar to the sublime.
Easy full disclosure: Smart Pop has long been on the list of publishers with whom I want to work at some point. (Partial list: MAD Magazine, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Greywolf Press, The Normal School, Hobart and about a zillion other publications and companies.) These are all long-term goals and most will likely go unfulfilled, but we work toward them nonetheless. The important thing is that these goals push a writer to absorb the tone and structure that each of the markets are looking for. Even if you never see your byline in a Smart Pop book, the work you do as a result of your ambition to fulfill that goal will lead you in other meaningful directions.
What Should We Steal?
- Admit you are simultaneously a scholar and a producer of cultural artifacts. Even if you never attended grad school (or any college at all), all writers are part of the fraternity of scholars.
- Acknowledge that your work is part of the contemporary zeitgeist. Yes, this includes your historical novel. By simple virtue of the time and place in which you grew up changes your understanding of the world. Easy example: today, it’s hard for us to understand how anyone could be in favor of slavery. Three hundred years ago, even if you opposed slavery, you would be more likely to understand the motivation behind it.
- Appreciate high and low culture in appropriate proportions. Fine, go listen to Ke$ha. But make sure that you love Beethoven, too.
- Set your sights on the kind of publications you want to publish your writing. Establishing these kinds of discrete goals can help you immerse yourself in the corners of the publishing world that are most appealing to you.
2001, Popular Culture, Smart Pop Books
Title of Work and its Form: “The Breaking-Up Game,” short story
Author: Liz N. Clift (On Twitter: @NWBorealiz)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The…short story? Yes, the short story was published by the literary journal Booth. You can find the piece right here.
Bonuses: There’s a powerful little poem called “Quarry” by Ms. Clift at the Valparaiso Poetry Review. How cool! Ms. Clift was published by The Postcard Press.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
No matter how much we want to fight against the inevitability, we will all endure many break-ups during our lives. (With a divorce rate of fifty-plus percent, the specter of breaking up even hangs over married folks.) Ms. Clift tells the long, sad process of the break-up in an unconventional manner: she appropriates the form of the board game rule sheet. After establishing the players and their suitable ages, Ms. Clift describes the gradual alienation and increasing apathy that blossoms in the break-upper. In the end, the reader/player fails to make a decision, leaving the actual breakup for “Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Next month. Soon.”
Ms. Clift (I’m guessing) went to her closet and took down her copy of Monopoly or Yahtzee or Candy Land and simply followed the structure of the rule sheet included with each game. Players, then Ages, then Rules & Setup and so on. I’ve done the same exact thing a few times. One of my stories is formatted as a scholarly research paper; another is in the form of an end-of-class evaluation. What does Ms. Clift gain with her structure?
- Familiarity. We’ve all played a board game and can ease into her “experiment” more easily because of it.
- Built-in Conclusion. The form dictates that the story will end relatively quickly. Therefore, Ms. Clift was forced (in a good way) to make her story potent.
- Safe Experimentation. Ms. Clift is able to do something “new” and “crazy,” but doesn’t leave her audience behind. Borrowing a structure in this manner allows you to hold your reader’s hand as you guide them through a “different” form.
- Backdoor Second-Person. Ms. Clift puts YOU, the reader, in the position of the “Primary Player.”
I want to talk about that last point a little more. The second person is powerful, particularly because it is great for immersing your reader in the mind of your protagonist. The “board game rules” format is, by definition, in a kind of second person because YOU are being told what YOU need to do as YOU play the game. Ms. Clift made a particularly felicitous choice in structure because a break-up is very much a situation in which one person has more knowledge than the other folks who are involved. Ms. Clift understands this; her first sentence points out that at least one of the players in “The Breaking-Up Game” should be “unaware that s/he is playing.”
There is humor in the story, even though it is about lovers who are parting. Toward the beginning of the piece, she informs the player that his or her Significant Other (SO) “should be long distance and wildly different from you.” She lists some examples:
|You or Significant Other
||Significant Other or You
|Atheistic and/or religiously confused
||Devout, evangelical Christian
||Hates any sort of welfare
Ms. Clift is dealing with a situation that is inherently sad in which people simply must act in ways that are unpleasant. Thankfully, she keeps the tone of the story somewhat light; a choice that is particularly appropriate considering that “YOU” are the protagonist.
What Should We Steal?
- Overwrite a document in an established form. Whether or not you realize it, the user’s manual for a car is a kind of story. So is that memo your boss sent you telling you and your co-workers are no longer allowed to tool around the office on a riding mower. Create an unexpected story in the form of a document.
- Choose an “experimental structure” that suits your intent. A police report requires declarative sentences and enjoins the writer to include details without poetic flourish. A passive-aggressive note to roommates requires the writer to write in a much more emotional style.
- Find the dark humor in sad situations. Break-ups are sad, but lots of humor is present…especially if you’re not involved.
2013, Booth, Liz N. Clift, Narrative Structure