I wrote a little piece on my blog, and a friend emailed me to say that he found it a bit disturbing because it felt hostile and tribal to him. Much of this feeling seemed to come from the fact that the narrator is first person plural (talks about “we”) and he felt himself identifying with (“Hey, we! I’m a part of we.”) and then being disturbed by the tone of the piece.
Here’s a writing prompt: write in first person plural. Invite the reader in. Invite the reader to be a part of the story’s “we.” And then force the reader out. Repel the reader. Hard.
Open the door and let them into the party, and then make them regret having enjoyed the punch and cake.
But compel them first.
(And don’t go with the easy push back. It’s not hard to punch a person in the kidney or press on someone’s gag reflex. Find a subtler solution.)
Basic: Take a first person story, new or old—one that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Go to the bottom of the story. Press return twice after the final bit of punctuation on the final paragraph. Add a little section sign. This one:
(On a Mac, it’s Option+6.)
Hit return two more times. Let another narrator take over. Explain somehow that the first narrator is dead. Reassess the story from the second narrator’s perspective.
Advanced: Take a third person story, new or old—one that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Go to the bottom of the story. Press return twice after the final bit of punctuation on the final paragraph. Add a little section sign.
Hit return two more times. Let something else take over. Consider: if an omniscient narrator “dies,” what happens to the world of the story? Does another omniscient narrator fill the vacuum? Consider: God is dead. What now? Does the world end? Does the narrator’s creator decide to step out from behind the corpse and speak? Does the world remake itself?
Say you’re writing about someone who is not around. Say you are writing about someone that some others have lost in one way or another. (There are so very many ways of losing someone.) As I see it, you have two ways of approaching this.
The first image illustrates one way of doing it. (Image by Charles Cohen.) Someone can disappear and leave a gaping hole shaped just like themselves.
This second image is by a Seattle artist named John Haddock. It is also a picture of someone who is not there. Haddock takes images from the web—pornographic images—and erases the nude figure from the image, replacing it by drawing the patterns of the bedspread, the color of the wall, the features of the room. After the character has been erased, the hole has been filled in.
Try them both. Write something about a person who is gone. In one version, leave the gaping hole. In the other, fill the hole in so it is almost like the person was never there.
I found myself stuck yesterday, looking at the last few lines of a scene, sure about where the story goes eventually, but not sure where it was supposed to go right then.
I decided to reexamine the scene I had written from a different angle. I decided to look at what was going on beneath the scene.
And I don’t mean metaphorically. I went beneath the scene and decided to try to describe what was happening within a character’s foot. Maybe I’ll keep it. Maybe I won’t. Something happened, though.
Here’s the exercise: find a scene or write a scene. Read it or reread it. Start again. Describe what is happening beneath it. The apartment below. Under the dirt. Deep within the lower extremities of a character’s body. At the opposite end of the Earth.
Maybe that scene is more interesting. If so, throw out the original. Maybe the scene makes meaning in the juxtaposition between itself and the scene above it. Incorporate one into the other. Maybe nothing will be there. Hey, at least you spent some time writing. Good for you.
I think maybe this has something to say about how significantly tone can shape a story.
We have something familiar—the opening to a sitcom. We haven’t changed a single visual element. We have instead changed the music. And we’ve gone from the fun-loving antics of a rich man and his adopted African American kids, to the disturbing story of a predator clearly intent on abusing and possibly ritually sacrificing two boys he has convinced to get into his limo.
(Is it just me, or does the car seem to be moving slower than it did in the original version with the upbeat music?)
Maybe tonight we should all spend some time trying to retell an old story with a completely inappropriate tone. See what happens.