I’ve been struck lately by how many events have had to be cancelled due to lockdown. We humans LOVE to plan for things. The anticipation is often just as fun as the event itself. At any rate, the old saying, that God laughs at your plans, seems particularly apt these days.
For Day 26, your prompt is to write a flash about plans gone horribly awry. There’s a lot of tension and conflict to exploit in that idea alone. Examples:
A botched caper.
A trip delayed or cancelled or upended by something unexpected (A Good Man is Hard to Find)
Mercury in Retrograde times 1000.
Perhaps the PLAN is very detailed and specific, somebody has gone to a lot of trouble to make it.
To heighten things even further, let’s say one character is extremely STUBBORN and INFLEXIBLE and the other is low-key and happy to go with the flow. I’m thinking of Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners. Write into the humor and tension that occurs when two such characters must face a carefully planned itinerary that’s botched by a series of accidents, mishaps, and misfortunes. How your characters deal with adversity says a lot about them. Do they prevail in the end? Remember that “trouble” is inherently interesting to your readers.
Last night I was rereading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, and I wanted to share this parable about a man dealing with fear:
“He said he was determined to get rid of his negative emotions. He struggled against anger and lust; he struggled against laziness and pride. But mostly he wanted to get rid of his fear. His meditation teacher kept telling him to stop struggling, but he took that as just another way of explaining how to overcome his obstacles.
Finally the teacher sent him off to meditate in a tiny hut in the foothills. He shut the door and settled down to practice, and when it got dark he lit three small candles. Around midnight he heard a noise in the corner of the room, and in the darkness he saw a very large snake. It looked to him like a king cobra. It was right in front of him, swaying. All night he stayed totally alert, keeping his eyes on the snake. He was so afraid that he couldn’t move. There was just the snake and himself and fear.
Just before down the last candle went out, and he began to cry. He cried not in despair but from tenderness. He felt the longing of all the animals and people in the world; he knew their alienation and their struggle. All his meditation had been nothing but further separation and struggle. He accepted–really accepted wholeheartedly–that he was angry and jealous, that he resisted and struggled, and that he was afraid. He accepted that he was also precious beyond measure–wise and foolish, rich and poor, and totally unfathomable. He felt so much gratitude that in the total darkness he stood up, walked towards the snake, and bowed. Then he fell sound asleep on the floor.
When he awoke, the snake was gone. He never knew if it was his imagination or if it had really been there, and it didn’t seem to matter. That much intimacy with fear caused his dramas to collapse and the world around him finally got through.”
The power of parable, and the reason they have such a lasting effect, is because parables use the power of narrative to show rather than tell. And since human beings are by nature storytellers, the lessons are more usually understood, absorbed, and assimilated.
Most religious texts use parables, but other books I love that use parables and allegory are The Tao of Pooh and The Alchemist, if you are looking for some quarantine reading.
Start with the moral lesson. Think about a moral principle that has been important in your own life, or one that you’re still struggling to learn fully. You might also choose something that you’re curious about and want to explore.
Consider its consequences. What might happen as a result of behaving (or not behaving) according to your moral lesson? In “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the consequence of dishonesty is that liars will not be believed in important moments, and it’s hard to live without people’s trust.
Write a story following a basic beginning-middle-end structure. The beginning sets the stage and tells us who all the main characters are, while establishing important themes; in the middle, some kind of problem, conflict, or danger emerges; and in the end, we learn about the results of that conflict.
(And for fun: here’s a picture of me with a cobra in Nepal when I was about 27. Unlike the lesson of the man in the parable, my face is saying: take the picture quick!)
Powerful dialogue. It’s one of the most important craft tools in the writerly toolkit. Yet writers are often stymied when confronted with the task of writing good dialogue, so they simply leave it out. Dialogue can be direct or summarized, but the best, most potent, revelatory, tension-filled dialogue ought to be given directly. Why deny your reader the pleasure?
Screenwriter Maggie Sulc, in this article, advises to take our cues from actors when writing dialogue, to examine the character’s desire:
“Your language can be poetic and lyrical or blunt and straightforward, but if there isn’t a clear desire behind it, then there’s no reason for it to be spoken and, therefore, it shouldn’t be dialogue.”
Today I want you to write a conversation that features underlying or overt tension. Perhaps like Jo and Laurie in Little Women your characters want different things. Or one wants something the other can not or will not give to them. You can do anything you want with this, but I want all the window dressing to be pared down.
Focus on ACTION and DIALOGUE. And make every word sing.
Leave stuff out. Often the most telling aspects of dialogue are what the characters are NOT saying.
Don’t make this a ping pong match. In real life, people don’t always answer questions. Real dialogue is full of unfinished sentences, of non-sequiturs and detours.
Make your characters sound different. This is very important. And a great way to characterize. Does one speak in full sentences while the other murmurs fragments? Does one of your people have some sort of vocal tic?
And how do they move about? Use body language to its fullest advantage.
Fill it up with subtext, undercurrents of emotion. What do these people want that has gone unspoken?
From Wikipedia: “The uncanny is the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents where a familiar thing or event is encountered in an unsettling, eerie, or taboo context.”
As to the use of the uncanny in fiction:
“There’s a power and weight to this type of fiction, which fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected, and in that space we discover some of the most powerful evocations of what it means to be human or inhuman.” ~Jeff VanderMeer, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” The Atlantic
“The uncanny freaks the reader out because it isn’t quite right – it taps into our understanding of the world and patterns around us and renders them slightly ‘off’.” ~Robert Wood, in this great article.
“This happened long before the initial signs of sickness from the outsiders rippled across my village. You should understand by now how my people were easy prey because most of us were trusting, greedy for finery, and readily distracted by new things or any semblance of finesse.”
I’m struck by the world-building of this story, how familiar it feels, while at the same time so uncannily “off” in every way.
So much of our world, our once familiar landscape, our interactions, have taken on an uncanny quality during this pandemic: The eerily deserted streets of the big cities, for example. People wear protective masks in the supermarket. A man pours wine out his apartment window into the glass of a woman leaning out her window on the floor below. Goats roam free in villages. We can draw on these uncanny images, this unsettled feeling, in our writing.
Today, I’d like you to face the strange in your flash fiction. Explore something that is oddly and unsettlingly familiar. What happens when a normally benign event takes an eerie or inappropriate turn, for example? Challenge yourself to take a subtle approach with this.
Consider how Hitchcock uses the uncanny in his films, for example, the “uncanny double” of Marion and Norman in the film, Psycho:
If you need a nudge, try using these below (from Psycho) to get you started: