Showing posts with label Benny Salvador. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Benny Salvador. Show all posts

09 March 2022

Grace Notes

Previously in this space, I spoke about beginnings, the hook or hinge of a story, how it presented itself in the mind’s eye.  What, in other words, made it seem like a story at all, why did it catch our attention?  Which got me thinking about endings, and wrapping things up.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  That’s a last line that sticks to your ribs.

Bill Goldman once remarked that the first five pages of a script sell the picture.  Paul Newman said, OK, but it’s the last five minutes of the movie people walk out talking about.  There’s that first rush of adrenaline, when you recognize you’ve opened the door, and you’re about to step through into a place of wonder or certainly surprise, and then there’s the enormous satisfaction of closing it behind you.

Another example: Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat.  It begins with the line, “None of them knew the colour of the sky.”  (John Berryman argues that, no, in fact it begins with the title, and I have to agree.)  And there’s the ending, like a long, indrawn breath, “When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”  Extraordinary.

In between, of course, there’s incident, and dialogue, fated meetings, and sudden partings, missed opportunities, and the like, but I wasn’t considering process, as such.  It’s that when we first look through the keyhole, which is I think Virginia Woolf’s metaphor, possibility clamors.  Then, necessity steps in.  Each narrative choice we make closes off other variables.  At the end, though, when we’re putting the tale to rest, we can tuck in the covers.

Now, in my case, I have a hard time starting a story if I don’t have a title, because the title captures, or projects, a sense of the story as a whole.  By the same token, I want the ending to reflect back – not necessarily a twist, but a comment or a glancing blow.  For instance, with Aesop, each story points a moral, the Tortoise and the Hare, the Fox and the Grapes.  I don’t mean that I want to be cautionary, or prescriptive, or teach a lesson, but I want to draw a line under the story.  Think of it as a sort of curtain call.

There’s a Benny Salvador story called “Old Man Gloom,” which takes place not long after the war (WWII, for you young’uns) and goes back to the Japanese internment camps.  At the end, Benny takes his daughters upriver to Embudo, to gather fruit.

     As he expected, it was hard work, but satisfying.  The girls, of course, complained to him about it.

     Benny had little sympathy.

     Peaches, he explained patiently, are easily bruised.

This is very much on the oblique, but as a last line, I thought it was terrifically effective, the story turning on honor, and obligation, and bitterly damaged feelings.

Here’s another.  At the wind-up of Black Traffic, a spy story, there were half a dozen closing scenes, each of the major players getting a last bow, and the final scene was somebody I figured the reader might have left off their mental list.  Oh, yeah, that guy, the Serbian gangster with the blood feud.  And the box of chocolates.

To the fallen, in forgotten wars.

The last line of the book, and it said it all, so far I was concerned.  It was about grievance. 

I’m using examples from my own stuff, but obviously the Fitzgerald or the Crane are more widely known.  I know why I used what I did, and how.  I don’t have any particular insight into the other guys.  It’s said that Fitzgerald put this passage into the book earlier, in a first draft.  I also heard Franklin Schaffner told George C. Scott he wouldn’t lead Patton off with the “No dumb bastard ever won a war by dying for his country” address.  Which happens to be a good example of how to round out your picture, without easy irony.  “All glory is fleeting.”

The first five pages; the last five minutes.

09 April 2014

Cold Case

by David Edgerley Gates

This is a Where Do You Get Your Ideas? post. Generally speaking, I think this is a dumb question, and demonstrates that somebody knows next to nothing about the actual process of writing. Ideas, in fact, are floating around in the zeitgeist, and we pluck them out of the air.

The movie critic Robert Warshow once famously remarked that there were only half a dozen basic plots to the Western. You might not entirely agree, but can tell where he's headed. The stranger rides into town, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, say, and trouble follows. You can ring a lot of changes from that set-up, even if the conventions are pretty rigorous. In other words, it's not the what, where, or when that matters, but the how.

In this particular instance, I saw an article in my local newspaper, the Santa Fe NEW MEXICAN, about a cold case that had gotten new legs. Sixty years ago, a woman disappears. Everything points to murder. The cops like her husband for it, but they can't pin it on him. For openers, there's no body, and the guy doesn't crack, under interrogation. Some time later, he dies. End of story. Unsolved. Cut to the present day. All these years later, somebody else owns the house where these people lived, and they're remodeling the garage. Digging up the floor, they find human remains. Is it possible, using modern forensics, DNA from her kids, to identify Inez Garcia? Could you finally lay the crime to rest, and give the dead woman, and her family, both justice and closure?

Photo Credit Luis Sanchez Saturno SFNM

It's not the case itself, so much, that caught my attention. It was the gap. Sixty years is a long time. And it occurred to me, what if you framed two parallel narrative lines, the original investigation, and the new one? I've already got the characters waiting in the wings. Benny Salvador, sheriff of Rio Arriba county, back in the day, and Pete Montoya, the New Mexico state cop, in the here and now. Pete could be looking at Benny's old notes, the murder book, the physical evidence, which might even point to a different suspect. That's as far as my thinking takes me, at this point. It's in my peripheral vision.

You probably see where I'm going. The newspaper article didn't give me an original idea. What it did was suggest a way to tell the story, which is half the battle. Not just P.O.V., but voice. A way in, and a way out. Something you can hang your hat on, a shape that casts a shadow.

Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.