Showing posts with label Robert Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Lopresti. Show all posts

14 June 2021

Character Twists


It’s fairly common at readings and panels for writers to be asked whether character or plot provides the starting point for their work. Where do you begin? Which motivates your process most? 
 
But here’s a twist on those questions that I personally find more interesting—particularly for short story writers: Is your focus primarily on plot or character at the end of your stories? 
 
 In my essay “The Short Mystery” from the recently released How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook From Mystery Writers of America, I made the following statement: 
 
Writers often (too often?) strive to sneak a plot twist into the final line. The ink was an exotic poison! The money was counterfeit! Those women were twins! But while such reveals can surely offer immediate pleasures, I would argue that character twists are often more effective. A new perspective on a character the reader has gotten to know, a secret desire that complicates motives, an unexpected action that nonetheless seems perfectly in character—these might provide the reader a deeper satisfaction. 
 
Crafting the essay for that new handbook challenged me to think more critically about the principles and strategies guiding my own writing—and to reflect as well on some of the stories I’ve best loved and admired as a reader—all of which led to that paragraph being, from my perspective at least, one of the most important in the essay. So I was grateful when my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti emailed to ask specifically about the idea of a character twist—and to invite me to return to the blog to write about it at a little greater length. (Rob is also a contributor to How to Write a Mystery, I should add—along with another SleuthSayer, Stephen Ross. Even more reasons to check out the book!) 
 
Unfortunately, in the same way that writing the handbook essay helped to clarify things for me, trying to draft this post—several drafts, in fact—has driven home something I hadn’t fully thought about: It is terrifically hard to write about endings and what makes them work. There are two reasons for this. 
 
First, the best endings are integrally related to many aspects of the larger tale—not just plot but character and theme and motif and tone and even small turns of phrase, building on and resonant with that larger design. As Poe wrote, talking about the ideal tale, “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design”—as he called it, the “certain unique or single effect” intended by the story. In order to feel that ultimate effect, a reader needs to have experienced all those other words first. (Three italicized words there, I know—emphasis intended!)
 
The second reason: spoilers! …primarily in terms of “surprises I shouldn’t spoil for the reader” but also in another way. Trying to summarize and explain Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind,” the first story I planned to talk about here, I realized how much I was simplifying and flattening and spoiling at a more basic level the experience of one of my own favorite stories.
 
I wanted to discuss “Red Wind” in part because of Chandler’s own essay “The Simple Art of Murder,”
in which he argues against the “arid formula” of some detective fiction (British and traditional primarily) and complains about that tradition’s characters as “puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility” doing “unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.” Chandler’s plots, of course, took on their own formulas, and some of his characters ended up inhabiting their own one-dimensional unreality, engendering their own kinds of cliches, but I do love so much of what he wrote.
 
The trouble is, “Red Wind” has a fairly complicated plot. As detective John Dalmas himself remarks, “a murder and a mystery woman and a mad killer and a heroic rescue and a police detective framed into making a false report”—and his summary arrives not even halfway through the story. 
 
Whenever I teach the story, I have to reread it carefully, having myself forgotten most of the twists and turns and how they work and why they matter and, honestly, whether I should care. But one key thread of the plot stays with me: a strand of pearls, a gift to a woman named Lola from a lover who’d died in the war, a strand of pearls she has lied about to her husband, to dodge his jealousy. As Lola tells Dalmas: “If it hadn't been for [Stan’s death], I’d be Mrs. Phillips now. Stan gave me the pearls. They cost fifteen thousand dollars, he said once. White pearls, forty-one of them, the largest about a third of an inch across. I don't know how many grains. I never had them appraised or showed them to a jeweler, so I don't know those things. But I loved them on Stan's account. I loved Stan. The way you do just the one time. Can you understand?” 
 
The pearls have been stolen and—skipping big portions of that byzantine plot—Lola needs Dalmas to get them back.
 
…which he does, but unlike Lola, Dalmas recognizes that they’re fakes. 
 
The character twist happens in the wake of that realization—and this is the point at which, in my drafts of this post, I saw how laborious it was to summarize the story, how much my summary undermined what I see as the story’s beauty, how much trying to explain the experience of an ending generally is like trying to explain the punchline of a joke… a move which inevitably ruins the joke.
 
So I’m going to cut the five paragraphs I wrote to summarize and explain the ending, and instead, I’m going to urge you to read the story, which is widely available, and then to leave this assessment instead: Throughout the story, Dalmas has been the prototypical Chandler hero— tough guy, loner, wisecracking, cynical, disillusioned, hardboiled to the core—but in the final scene, he reveals concern and empathy and he gestures toward a moment of grace, preserving Lola’s illusions even as he finds own disillusionment unfortunately confirmed.
 
The twists and turns of “Red Wind”—I struggle to remember those, to keep them straight each reread. But that final scene, the final image of Dalmas by the ocean—that’s a keeper. That’s art.
 
Apologies here, but for the other stories I’m going to mention, I’m taking the same approach—not risking deflating the power of a story by summarizing it and instead talking in more general terms about what stands out. I’ll encourage you to read each and provide links where I can. 
 
Stanley Ellin
Stanley Ellin is another favorite author and another who seems a master of the character twist. His “Moment of Decision” famously stops short of explaining what happens next at a pivotal and potentially life-endangering moment in a bet between the two main characters, but as I explain when I teach it, the story is nonetheless complete—because the focus isn’t on plot but on character. “The Moment of Decision” closes on the moment when the philosophy held so dearly by one of those characters—his massive surety of self, his belief that “for any man with a brain and the courage to use it there is no such thing as a perfect dilemma”—when that belief is irrevocably upended. 
 
Another of Ellin’s great character twists comes in “The Question,” which focuses on a father and son relationship and explores the morality of the death penalty. The father—the narrator—is an “electrocutioner,” a term her prefers to executioner, and his monologues reflects on his work, how he came to this duty, questions of criminality and justice and responsibility, and then his relationship with his son: “The truth was that the only thing that mattered to me was being his friend.” In the final scene of the story, that son asks his father a question about his work: “But you enjoy it, don’t you?”—which seems to be the question of the title, but it’s not. The important and revealing question is the final line of the story, another surprise, another upending, a revelation about the narrator that’s been hinted at throughout the story and then, in the final line, dramatically brought into view. 
 
A couple of years ago, I taught “The Duelist” by David Dean, another fellow SleuthSayer, and it may well be my favorite of Dean’s stories; it originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Here again, trying to summarize the story would inevitability reduce it, shearing away the story’s suspense and its emotion and more. In short, however, it’s the story of a “fearsome marksman,” Captain Horatio Noddy, and of his unlikely challenger, Darius LeClair, a “small, portly stranger” who seems to fumble his way through every encounter and into his own duel with Captain Noddy. The story’s surprises are many—unexpected twists and tensions nearly every step of the way—but it’s only in the final lines that an element of Darius’s character steps to the forefront as a motivation, something that’s been mentioned briefly in earlier scenes but which takes on greater depth, quietly devastating depth, in the final, heartbreaking reveal. (You can hear David Dean read the story at the EQMM podcast—and you should.)
 
My own story “Parallel Play” also deals, in its own way, with a showdown between two people—a mother home alone with her son and the father of a boy who attends the same pre-school playspace. That man has become fixated on the woman and ultimately holds her hostage one rainy afternoon while trying to explain himself to her—explain the connection he feels between them. At the end of the story—spoiler alert—she kills him, but in telling the story I skipped over that scene, skipping ahead to the aftermath, and only returning to the killing in the final lines of the story. I remember a member of my writing group asking why I’d decided to do that—why not just keep the story linear? But my goal there wasn’t to emphasize what happened but rather to explore why it happened, to explore something about that young mother that I had touched on throughout the story, even as I’d tried to keep an aspect of that “something” hidden until the final lines… where I’d hoped to emphasize that hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of character inside the violence of the scene I’d saved for last.
 
In all these cases, I recognize that I’ve been analyzing endings without explaining the endings… but I also hope that I’ve encouraged you to actually read these stories with an eye toward the point I’m trying to make. There are others that jump to mind as possibilities for exploration: Ruth Rendell’s “The Fallen Curtain” and “The New Girlfriend,” for example, and Karin Slaughter’s “The Unremarkable Heart,” just off the top of my head. And I’m sure that others here might add their own to the list—and, in fact, I hope you do. 
 
As you might imagine, I’m always looking for more good stories to read. 
 
Art Taylor is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His work has won the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University. Find out more at www.arttaylorwriter.com.

19 May 2021

Billy and Me



I attended a small college in Pennsylvania back in the seventies.  With 1,200 students we were not exactly overwhelmed with concerts by famous musicians.  I recall shows by Steve Goodman, and Hall and Oates.  

But the show programmers had one triumph that I imagine they have bragged about ever since.  They booked a concert by a musician whose first album had gone nowhere and whose second record had just been released.  I'm sure a month later they wouldn't have been able to even get his manager on the phone, much less sign a contract, because "Piano Man" was a pretty big hit.

So I got to see Billy Joel live, very early in his career.  He did just about all the songs on the Piano Man album but also played a lot from Cold Spring Harbor.  This was the first record, so badly mastered that Joel sounded a bit, well, chipmunk-ish.  I remember him playing a very depressing song from it, "Tomorrow is Today" and saying "I hope none of you feel like this."  As soon as it ended my friend Mike turned to me  and said: "I feel exactly like that."  I hope you feel better now, Mike, wherever you are.   

Last year, after I wrote a story for Josh Pachter's anthology The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, he mentioned that he was working on an anthology of crime stories based on Billy Joel songs.  I told him I would love to participate, and, wouldn't you know it?  One of the albums no one else had claimed was the legendarily obscure Cold Spring Harbor.  Perfect!

I focused on the song "Why Judy Why."  In it, the narrator complains to Judy about being badly treated by another woman.  But from a crime-writing point of view a song with that title had to be about motive.  So that's what I wrote.  You will find it in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired By The Songs of Billy Joel, available now.

Fun fact: My story appeared dead-last in the Nero Wolfe book.  "Why Judy Why" is the opener for the Billy Joel volume.  I could claim that my work has advanced, but the truth is that the stories are arranged chronologically.  

I'm just happy to be part of the celebration of Mr. Joel's classic works.