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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to bring characters alive

Although Possession is justly considered to be a literary masterpiece, A. S. Byatt still knows how to tell a good yarn. Who can resist two attempts at a letter from a gentleman to an unknown lady professing undying admiration? lettersEspecially when the young man reading it proceeds to commit professional misconduct by purloining those two sheets of paper:

Dear Madam,

Since our extraordinary conversation I have thought of nothing else. It has not often been given to me as a poet, it is perhaps not often given to human beings to find such ready sympathy, such wit and judgement together. I write with a strong sense of the necessity of continuing our talk, and without premeditation, under the impression that you were indeed as much struck as I was by our quite extraordinary to ask if it would be possible for me to call on  you, perhaps one day next week. I feel, I know with a certainty that cannot be the result of folly or misapprehension, that you and I must speak again. I know you go out in company very little, and was the more fortunate that dear Crabb managed to entice you to his breakfast table… (7)

This is the first time the reader is introduced to Randoph Ash, a Victorian poet, and the woman he admires, Christabel LaMotte, who also writes poetry. In this medium, a letter, we have to infer what these characters are like by examining the text. We are told that Ash is a poet, and indeed we can see this by his large vocabulary (premeditation, misapprehension, entice). His writing is powerful and direct. These two characters met and fell into conversation easily. They had empathy for one another. They were well matched in intelligence. They had a great deal to say to each other, and what they said was significant. The strikethrough is a brilliant touch, showing how anxious Ash is to make a good impression on Miss LaMotte, how he restrains himself from assuming that she sees the conversation in the exact same way, even though he believes she does.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to portray jealousy

Shaul, the main point-of-view character in David Grosmann’s “Frenzy”, is a respectable academic, who is widely admired and gives interviews on television about such things as budget cuts to science education (17). Behind his calm exterior however, lies a stew of jealousy and torment.

For Shaul believes that his wife visits her lover every day, and his imagination becomes so overheated that he imagines himself not only in his wife’s point of view, but also in that of her lover’s:

She slowly walks down the hallway, wondering how to convince him to let it go today, unaware of the effect of her slow walk, which seems deliberately feline to him, twisting the tendons of his passion until it hurts…Here you are, he says, unable to hide his happiness, his face actually opening up and shining, and she still does not move as she inhales the scene, absorbing and carefully distributing it to every cell in her body, provision that must last her for a long time, for another whole day of hunger and thirst. (9)

The power of this writing lies in its surprising details: We are told that her walk twists the tendons of his passion until it hurts. We are told that she inhales the scene and that it is provision that must last another whole day of hunger and thirst (emphasis added). His passion is compared to a painful injury. Hers is compared to food. Shaul’s emotional state is indirectly conveyed by the way in which his imagination blurs his boundaries so much that not only can he RachelImenuinhabit his wife’s point of view, but that of the lover. How does he manage to do that? It turns out that he has actually met the man:

Shaul and Elisheva are in the kitchen of their old house on Rachel Imenu Street, chopping vegetables for a salad, as they do every evening, chatting about how the day went and what will happen tomorrow and who paid what and who will take Tom to the dentist, when all of a sudden the door swings open to reveal a man Shaul has never seen before. He walks straight into the kitchen and says, with a heavy Russian accent, that he can’t take it anymore. (96)

Now that we have spent 96 pages inside Shaul’s fevered imagination, it’s no surprise that he should place the worst possible construction on the situation:

Out of embarrassment or weakness, the man leans against the fridge, but it seems to Shaul as if he has already taken this stance before, with this same fridge, as if he’s used to standing there like that, among all the notes and the phone numbers and the pizza magnets. Shaul is amazed to think of how many times he himself has touched that same fridge without suspecting that perhaps an hour or two earlier, in his absence, another man had touched it for a minute…(98)

With this small detail, the juxtaposition of the uninvited male leaning against a fridge, positioning himself amidst the ordinary paraphernalia of Shaul’s kitchen, Shaul perceives it to be habitual. He tortures himself by comparing his leaning against the fridge to the uninvited male’s, as if he is his wife comparing the two men.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using narrative to convey humor

I don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor.

newsagentPerhaps my favorite moment of this whole memoir was the incident in which the teenaged McCourt is commanded by his boss, Mr. McCaffrey, to go around all the magazine shops in Limerick and tear out page 16 of John O’London’s Weekly, because it has an ad for birth control:

The biggest customer for the magazine, Mr. Hutchinson, tells Mr. McCaffrey get to hell out of his shop or he’ll brain him, get away from them magazines, and when Mr. McCaffrey keeps on tearing out pages Mr. Hutchinson throws him into the street, Mr. McCaffrey yelling that this is a Catholic country and just because Hutchinson is a Protestant that doesn’t give him the right to sell filth in the holiest city in Ireland. Mr. Hutchinson says, Ah, kiss my arse, and Mr. McCaffrey says See, boys? See what happens when you’re not a member of the True Church…

We scoop up everything on the floor and he’s happy sitting at his desk at the other end of the office ringing Dublin to tell them how he stormed through shops like God’s avenger and saved Limerick from the horrors of birth control while he watches a dancing fire of pages that have nothing to do with John O’London’s Weekly. (497-498)

McCourt doesn’t need scenes with dialogue to convey the humor of the situation, he does it in the narrative. It is a very clever way of controlling pacing. If McCourt had put this into a scene it would have slowed down the dramatic flow. But in this situation we want to feel that the characters are rushing around, trying to get rid of page sixteen. So McCourt keeps the pacing fast by keeping it in the narrative summary, giving us the details of the conversation in the form of a list. This excerpt ends with a wonderful sentence that gives us the punch line; of course the boys are not throwing the ad into the fire, they’ve saved the pages to sell later.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to avoid cliches

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a short story that sounds like a memoir. Baldwin’s powerful un-clichéd writing stems from the details he uses, particularly his choice of words. “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem. In this excerpt, they are being driven north, in a taxi, through New York City:

So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, towards the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap…(13)

harlemBaldwin uses compelling detail to make this scene come alive. The hotels and apartment buildings don’t just have an elegance to them, they have a stony, lifeless elegance (emphasis added). This is an acute observation as it both tells us that poorer neighborhoods often have more life to them, probably because people are forced to co-exist in a small space, but also that rich people don’t care about poor ones. They are not going towards the streets of their childhood, but to the vivid, killing streets. The word ‘killing’ is an arresting word that shocks the reader because it precisely describes exactly what was happening on the streets of their childhood. (I believe that this phrase has now entered the cultural lexicon.) Baldwin’s word choices contribute to the theme of the book, the rage and helplessness of black people. The housing projects don’t just jut up from the street, they jut up like “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea.” This image makes us feel the bubbling rage and resentment of black people. Baldwin goes on to talk about the inhabitants of these houses, particularly the boys who, “smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.”

With this arresting image, Baldwin makes us feel the trap they are in.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to bring an historical event alive

FrenchRevolutionA Tale of Two Cities is an historical novel by Charles Dickens about the French Revolution. Dickens is famous for the way in which he brings his minor characters to life, and makes them so memorable. They way in which he does this is to attach a telling detail to them, such as Mr. Micawber’s dictum that sixpence in the pocket means happiness, while sixpence in arrears means misery. But Dickens can also talk about the universe in a raindrop:

 With a wild rattle and clatter, and an inhuman abandonment of consideration not easy to be understood in these days, the carriage dashed through the streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way. At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices and the horses reared and plunged. (50)

The Marquis St Evrémonde is leaving Paris for his country home. Not unlike the way in which the French drive their cars today, Evrémonde allows his coachman to drive through the streets of Paris in a way that is hazardous to the well-being of everyone around him. The result is that he kills a child. This story explains brilliantly, in a few words, what the French Revolution is all about. It encapsulates the haughty disregard of the aristocrat set against the helplessness and rage of the people.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to portray repression

The ability to see the universe in a grain of sand or to convey volumes about a person or place by means of a well-chosen detail is the hallmark of a good writer. Here is an example of how Ryszard Kapuscinski characterizes Emperor Haile Selassie in his book The Emperor:

It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on dignitaries’ shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years. (5)

dogThe dog is small, so it’s not there to guard the Emperor, but to provide some pleasure and entertainment. This is borne out by his name, ‘Lulu’, a woman’s name. He is allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s bed, so the Emperor is lonely. During the ceremonies, he sits on the Emperor’s lap, then jumps up to wander around and pee on the dignitaries’ shoes. The Emperor hasn’t bothered to discipline the dog, probably because he finds its behavior amusing. The gentlemen may be august, but they are not allowed to flinch or make any gesture. In the guise of the dog, the Emperor is crossing their boundaries and invading their space, and requiring them not to make any hint of a complaint about it. They are held in his thrall while they are having an audience with him. But because the dog is making unpleasant messes, the Emperor allows a lowly servant to walk around to wipe the urine off their shoes, using a satin cloth. Not any kind of cloth will do, it has to be satin, which is intended to show off the magnificence of the Emperor and his court, but also hints that the Emperor may be living beyond his means. The narrator remarks in the last sentence that this was his job for ten years, conveying how ossified, how stagnant, and how boring that court was.

In a small paragraph of a few words, Kapuscinski has told us volumes about the personality of the Emperor and the tone of his court by choosing a few key details.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using silence to enact emotion

The_LoverMarguerite Duras’ The Lover is a semi-autobiographical story of forbidden love between  a 15-year-old French girl and her 27-year-old Chinese lover, the son of a millionaire. The nameless young woman, the narrator of this story, comes from an abusive family, and this causes her to be emotionally shut down. Thus Duras has the difficult task of rendering emotion on the page via a character who doesn’t have easy access to her emotions. Throughout this story, Duras deploys silence as a way of expressing emotion.

Silence can be bliss, it can be inviting, it can be peaceful. Or it can be an act of violence, and in this novel we see it used in very aggressive ways. Here is how Duras describes the meeting between the young woman’s family (mother and two brothers) and her lover:

These evenings are all the same. My brothers gorge themselves without saying a word to him. They don’t look at him either. They can’t. They’re incapable of it. If they could, if they could make the effort to see him, they’d be capable of studying, of observing the elementary rules of society. (50)

All of the emotional information (greed, hostility, disdain, denial) is given via the narrator’s interior monologue, giving us a blow-by-blow account of her thoughts as she watches her brothers. The sentences are carefully put together, with each sentence raising the stakes. We start at a low point of energy in the first sentence (these evenings are all the same). We learn in the second sentence that the brothers don’t speak to him, in the third sentence that they don’t look at him and in the fourth sentence that they’re incapable of engaging with him. The narrator ends the paragraph with a long sentence in which she speculates that if her brothers made the effort, all they could manage would be politeness. This last sentence captures how shut down the narrator is with her focus on the forms of social engagement, rather than its emotional content.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using one emotion to convey another

The story of Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain” so far: Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his story, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money. Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, and kills him with the crowbar.

porchswingAfter Marcel’s death, Victor drops the crowbar, runs downstairs and drives to his grandmother’s house: “He drove to his grandmother’s house and told her what had happened, and she held his head in her lap and rocked over him and wept and prayed.” (31) Wolff uses the expression of one emotion to convey another, the grief expressed by Victor’s grandmother conveying Victor’s shock, as he is unable to express that grief himself, or do much of anything except put his head on her lap.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using point of view to make emotion more vivid (2)

The story of Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain” so far: Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his story, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money. Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, and kills him with the crowbar.

teenagersNear the end of this story, we meet Tiffany and Garvey, high-school sweethearts, who take advantage of the news surrounding Marcel’s death by skipping school for the afternoon. They decide to go to Gold’s Video on their way to Garvey’s place. We learn via Garvey’s point of view, that Brian was “slow writing up the the receipt”, and that “he looked sick.” (34) After Garvey’s eulogy of Marcel, Brian “put his hands on the counter and lowered his head.” Garvey doesn’t know what we know, and so we hear him puzzle it out in the next sentence: “Then Garvey saw that he was grieving and it came to him how unfair a thing it was that Marcel Foley had been struck down…” (35) and his empathy makes him think the same thoughts as Brian. Articulating someone else’s thoughts via another character’s point of view makes the emotion more powerful. Brian’s guilt and grief are much more powerfully conveyed because they are filtered through the point-of-view of a self-obsessed teenager out on a date with his girlfriend.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using point of view to make emotion more vivid (1)

The story of Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain” so far: Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his story, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money.

crowbarWhen Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, Wolff enacts Marcel’s fear and courage by switching to Marcel’s point of view and using detailed descriptions: “He stood facing the door while Barnes jimmied it, his aunt and cousins and grandmother gathered behind him…shaking and clinging to one another. ” (31) Once Victor and Marcel begin to struggle, we shift back to Victor’s point of view: “Barnes shoved him away and swung the crowbar, catching Marcel right across the temple.” Within Victor’s point of view, Marcel’s death occurs in silence, conveying Victor’s shock and disbelief: “The boy’s eyes went wide. His mouth opened. He sank to his knees and pitched facedown on the floor.”  

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