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)
The 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.
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.
Near 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.
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.
When 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.”
For the last two weeks, we’ve been talking about Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Chain”. Near the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Brian Gold, saves his daughter Anna from a dog.
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 Emmanuel Barnes found it there three hours later. He knelt and ran his hand along the jagged cleft in the car door, flecks of paint curling away under his fingertips. He knew exactly who had done this. He picked up the crowbar, tossed it on the passenger seat, and drove straight to the apartment building where Devereaux lived. As he sped through the empty streets he howled and pounded the dashboard. He stopped in a shriek of brakes and seized the crowbar and ran up the stairs to Devereaux’s door. (29-30)
Wolff conveys rage with the use of strong verbs: “tossed”, “sped”, “howled”, “pounded”, “seized”. (30) And where Wolff uses a less strong verb such as “stopped” he makes the imagery memorable by using an unusual group noun: “stopped in a shriek of brakes” (emphasis added.)
Tobias Wolff plunges us into near tragedy at the beginning of his short story “The Chain”, which begins at the moment when the dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter Anna:
He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backwards off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there. (1-2.)
In the first sentence of the excerpt Wolff creates a list of disadvantages the narrator must overcome to save his daughter, contrasting the dog’s speed with the narrator’s “own dreamy progress, the weight of his gumboots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow.”
When trying to enact emotion on the page, consider using lists to create emotional tension.