I'm only two chapters into Benjamin Percy's Thrill Me, but I love it already. I remember many years ago he came and lectured on craft during Fall for the Book, my MFA program's annual festival of reading and writing and writers. I hung onto every word. Some of that talk was about structure, about borrowing other writers' successful structures — typing their stories, absorbing the rhythms of their sentences, sure, but also, bigger picture, absorbing their structures, already tried and true. He then said to go ahead and just map your own story onto those structures. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene. Where they describe setting, you describe setting. Where they write dialogue, you add dialogue. Where they introduce a new character, you introduce one. I might be totally misremembering his advice, but that is what I took away that day. And it is advice I've attributed to him and passed on to my own students over the years. I am hoping, really, really hoping that one of the chapters in Thrill Me will be about this, so that instead of paraphrasing Percy I can direct students instead to his own advice in his own words.
But until I do (or don't) get to that chapter (this extra layer of suspense is not lost on me, in the context of this post), I thought I'd write here, briefly, about what he says re: urgency. (Also not lost on me is the fact that the tissue holder pictured above is made out of cement, which is funny to me and maybe only to me, but anyway, one of the small things you're reading for in this chapter is the answer to the question: "How do you make a tissue dance?" You'll have to read Percy's essay to find out, though, because that's how/where so much of the power of his point comes through.)
In this chapter, Percy gives us clear guidelines:
- Establish a Clear Narrative Goal
- Human Urgency
- Create Obstacles that Ramp Up the Tension
- Create Lower-Order Goals
- Ticking Clock
- Delay Gratification and Withhold Information
As I've written in an earlier post, I love craft books because you can grow with them. Of the six points above, which Percy explains in detail, it's the 5th I needed to be told/reminded of today:
"I work well under deadline. There is something about the watch on my wrist, the calendar on the wall, that energizes me. Because I have only so much time. This kind of urgency carries over to fiction, where a ticking clock — a sense of time running out — can make the pages seem to snap by with the speed of a second hand."
Toward the end of this section, he adds, "There is an expiration date, of course. What if Cinderella had until midnight . . . seven days from now to woo her prince? What if Jesus was in the wilderness for four thousand days instead of forty? What if the teenagers in Superbad had to lose their virginity before they graduated from PhD programs in Germanic literature instead of during their remaining days of high school?"
For my purposes, this advice helps redirect my focus on the bal masqué scene or scenes for Fit Into Me that I have not yet written but started to recently think about here, although maybe I was already thinking about it here. Taken together, all of my recent blog posts on craft point to one thing: write these scenes.
Write them vertically: follow the characters home, live in their bodies.
Write them fantastically: because tonight she's in costume; tonight, she's Catherine the Great, and, later, when the costume's off and she's straddling her lover who says, "Jesus, it's a bloodbath," she's Aphrodite looking down at the body of Adonis gored through the groin.
Write them plainly: because, truly, the tea house woman's life is ordinary. And it's the essays, which I'll attend later — the nonfiction around her story — the prose tercets — that are stylized, that braid and twist and rhyme and intertwine and fade into these fictions I need to see through now.