My current kick is power writing.
Infusing narrative with a differentiating and memorable visual, an iconic freeze frame, a punch to the gut, a soft unspeakable touch, the forbidden, the exquistely beautiful, the unthinkable, the twisted and the ironic, the delivery of relief and the rendering of justice, the impossible made real… access to what is universal…
…asking readers to flesh out the moment in their own minds, taking them to the precipe of that which cannot be leveraged with words and is therefore etched into the imagination as an outline , the internal texture of which becomes something both personal and permanent.
These things are delivered as moments in our stories.
To try for them in our overall narrative voice risks the dreaded interpretation of purple. The most powerful writing skimps on adjectives and is long on sub-text, irony and the delivery of a poignant image in which our vicarious empathy for a character collides with the darker side of expectation.
The most powerful writing sprinkles such moments — sometimes only one or a few — into the exposition of the story.
These moments stick.
They may not be something you desire or will admit to, but long after you put down the book it’s still there in your head. There’s no rationalizing, no defending… you’re reading a thriller, a mystery, you’re reading something in which a hero is squaring off with darkness… all of which opens the door to the disturbing.
Let’s be honest, this is precisely why we read these things.
As the creator of those moments, my advice to you is this: don’t hold back.
Here are a few moments I can’t shake.
The poster child of disturbing story moments comes from Sophie’s Choice, William Styron’s 1983 masterpiece of human angst set during the outbreak of WWII. You’ve read it, you’ve seen it: a mother is forced to choose one of her two children from the steps of a train heading off to a Nazi death camp. She can only choose one. The other will die.
Just try to forget that one after you’ve read it or watched Meryl Streep bring it to life on the screen.
In Chelsea Cain’s terrific novel Heartsick (the first of a series featuring The Beauty Killer, Gretchen Lowell), there is a moment when the hero (stud detective Archie Sheridan) is strapped to the table at the hands of the villainess, who brings her glistening lips close to his ear while holding a scalpal in one hand where he can see it, and whispers, “… however horrible you think this is going to be, I promise you it will be worse…”
I’ve read all of her books, all wonderful, but this moment defines them for me.
In one of Kyle Mills early novels his bad guy is doing something similar. What I can’t shake is the fact that this bad guy knows medical things, and has the victim rigged to an I.V. feed that prolongs life much longer than Mother Nature would otherwise tolerate, given what’s in store. Which we can only imagine.
And we do.
Phil Margolin did the same thing to a victim in the name of revenge: a widowed doctor deprives the guy who killed his wife of all senses and the ability to move, except, of course, the ability to experience pain. With the know-how to keep him on the edge of consciousness for months, the doctor’s revenge begins.
Disturbing as hell.
In an early Stephen King novel — I can’t even recall which — he cuts away just as a vampire wraps his arms around a young girl in an isolated locatiion where, literally, no one can hear her scream. The word he used to describe what happens next — the only word — was unthinkable.
But he was wrong. It was too thinkable.
In The Narrows, the oft-cited (here) novel by Michael Connelly, there is a moment in which Harry Bosch is told to shut down an investigation that might — and, Bosch already knows, inevitably will — lead back to the very highest levels of the LAPD. To be betrayed by the very people who manage what you do and are charged with protecting the people it is preying upon…
… it’s disturbing. I can’t shake that moment from that story.
In Hannibal, one of Thomas Harris’ sequels to Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector casually dispatches a character with the flick of a wrist in front of dozens of passersby, an efficient and quiet slicing of the femoral artery, the reality of which dawns on the victim as he watches Lector smoothly retreating into the crowd.
It doesn’t have to be violent or even dark.
It can be real… reality sometimes being the most disturbing thing of all.
The sound of a dream shattering barely registers, yet it can happen in a moment, with a word, a glance, a subtle inflection within a line of dialogue. Like the first plot point in the wonderful film, “500 Days of Summer,” where the girl informs the guy, thus far led toward hope, that she doesn’t believe in marriage. At least to him.
Maybe I remember that one because… well, many of us probably remember it for the same reason.
In the 1996 Oprah Bookclub hit (the first of many), The Deep End of the Ocean, author Jacquelin Mitchard gives us vicarious moments of hell on earth when her heroine realizes her child is gone. That moment returns again and again as the story unfolds, an unrelenting and universal hammer to the head of the reader.
In her 2008 bestseller 19 Minutes, author Jodi Piccoult borrows a page from the true account of the Columbine shootings (thus making the forthcoming moment all the more disturbing), with a scene that depicts a student-whackjob-gunman going off in a high school shooting spree. The shooter puts the weapon to the head of a girl and asks her if she believes in God. Moments earlier he’d pulled the trigger on a kid who said he did, and now it was her turn. Her decision was her fate.
It happened just like that. The novel was a window into something all too real. It is a moment that is not easily forgotten. Nor is the novel.
Is there something wrong with me?
Or is there something incredibly, strategically brilliant on the part of these writers?
Bottom line: if such moments burn a hole into us as readers and film-goers, then you can be certain they’ve already burned one into the minds of the agents and editors who, at some earlier point in the process, were weighing the merits of the story. No doubt these little islands of disturbing frozen moments played a role in the outcome.
What moments are seered into your brain as a reader?
Ask then yourself… have you delivered moments like this in your own work?