The Upside of ‘Disturbing’

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?


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

23 Responses to The Upside of ‘Disturbing’

  1. Great post, Larry. Thanks for reminding me yet again to TAKE CHANCES. Raise the stakes, increase the tension, jack up the suspense. The only thing possibly worse than a bad book is a boring book. So if mines gonna suck, at least it’ll go down in flames. 🙂

  2. Yesterday in our neighborhood chili place, I noticed an old photo of Bogart and Bergman from Casablanca–that last moment in the airport where they say goodbye and he gives her the ticket for her husband’s escape. No words, no glitz–just pure passion in one photo snap. And an unforgettable power moment.

    Plus, somehow that moment made the chili taste better.

  3. “…asking readers to flesh out the moment in their own minds” – one of the great truths in writing, imho. I urge writers to refrain from always telling the reader how to react to a situation; it’s often much more powerful to let the reader imagine what happens.

    The reader’s imagination truly is one of an author’s best tools. Once again, Larry, you’ve given a perfect explanation of how – and why – to do this. Bravo.

  4. Jonathan Harker prepares for bed in the Count’s fog-enshrouded Transylvanian castle. He hears a lone voice screaming outside in the courtyard, it drifts up to his window through the mist. Harker looks out and sees a distraught woman: wild, dark hair flying around her head; she is obviously in great pain. She is screaming that she wants her child back. Through bitter tears, she stares silently at the wet stone walls and then screams, “Monster!”

  5. nancy

    Your current kick is my current quest. I’m going to closely re-examine your examples and look for the common factors. Thanks for giving me material to work with.

  6. Thanks for another great post. This one really does give me something to think about.

    I love how you say “asking readers to flesh out the moment in their own minds.” I think that really says it all. So much more happens in the readers imagination than what we put on the page. We just have to stealthily lead them up to that point.

  7. What’s going to stick with me, Larry, is this amazing blog. My next book thanks you.

  8. Larry. You continue to demonstrate why we have told stories since that time when thought became word. You also demonstrate there is no end to the varieties and variations, nuances and subtleties that make “story.”

    P.S. Your first couple of paragraphs are not bad as a free verse poem either. Is that not a great feeling when the line of direction is straight and true and builds with energy from the first sentence to the resolution even in our prose?

    I think it is what makes writing an addiction.

  9. Excellent post. Got me thinking. I do dwell on certain scenes from books and movies long after I turn the last page or turn off the tv. Time to go back to my ms and see if I’ve led readers to any such moments.

  10. Werner

    I can’t think of a book or a movie at the moment, but the last scene of ‘The Walking Dead’ season finale has definitely stuck with me. It put me squarely in the characters shoes and living the experience. I’m left pondering all of its implications.

    If you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean.

  11. Pingback: Food For Thought | Unread Author

  12. Many stories I’ll keep around and re-read several times (I can put on a selective forgetting on a story) are solely because of that power moment. Now, if they’ve got a couple of them, it’s a good thing the bits don’t wear out.

  13. @Curtis — thanks for noticing, totally makes my day.

    @Werner — that “last scene” moment is a great place to inject a “moment.” The last episode of “Six Feet Under,” after five years of experiencing that show (a real ride), had a scene in which the daughter is driving off toward… her life, her forever, with cutaways to the ultimate fates of all the other characters. Haunting, and unforgettable.

    One reader asked how this look when it’s NOT dark, a moment with that staying power and impact because it is so unthinkable beautiful. In “The Lovely Bones,” the narrator’s description of heaven is that way for me.

    Anyone care to chip in with some other blissful moments that have stuck with you?

  14. This is awesome! Thank you for a brilliant post!

    I have one of those moments in “The Dark Ones,” this year’s novel that I’m starting to rewrite. Reading it over though, I realized I could turn the screw one notch tighter on it. The gist of one of the twin protagonists’ turning points is there, but I can make it even more powerful.

    Thank you for reminding me of some of the best moments in writing. When you’ve done one of these it sticks with you as much as if you found it in a book you love. Sometimes they’re subtle, too. Like that moment when Starling realizes someone can understand you that well and doesn’t mean you well. That’s one that hit home for me hard – from personal experience, the way so many of these do.

  15. That snap, in a book of psychological terror, does not have to be a moment of violence. It can be a profound moment of emotional violence that makes the physical violence seem like it’s not on the same scale. Your example of the line from the villainess is a good example of that emotional violence.

  16. Cindy Hassell

    How about that moment in Pirates of the Caribbean when Captain Jack Sparrow finally fires his pistol?

  17. spinx

    There was this one movie- a western, a bad one at that, with only a hand of good scenes.

    Most of you might know it though, as it starred Russel Crowe, Gene Hackman and a babyfaced Leo DiCaprio.
    Nothing special really…but there is that one scene, in which Hackman ends up duelling, and killing his own son, Leo.

    What follows after gets my eyes wet every time.

  18. Carolyn

    In The English Patient when he and Catherine are in the garden and ending their relationship and he says, “I just want you to know. I don’t miss you yet.” She jerks away from him and hits her head on the gatepost, winces and says, “You will.”

  19. andrea.

    This is a great post! Although one thing I would add is that the power moments don’t exist on their own — they’re powerful BECAUSE of all the set-up, context, world-building, etc. that goes into the story beforehand. I don’t think you can just insert those moments out of the blue — the last thing you want is your reader going “WTF??”

    Per your question in the comments about the happy power moments — for me, one of them is in the movie As Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson’s character is having dinner with Helen Hunt’s character, and he tells her that since getting to know her, he’s gone back on his medication (for his OCD/anxiety), and when she asks why, he says, “You make me want to be a better man.” SWOON. To me that moment is perfect. (But it’s perfect not just because of what he said, but because of all the work that went into developing his character and their relationship up until that moment.)

  20. Laureli Illoura

    I’m the guilty party who asked about building a powerful beautiful moment (rather than a horrifying shock). I appreciate the feedback here so far! I think after Andrea’s post I get the gist of it. It’s like in The Lord of the Rings, (the Return of the King), when Frodo is hanging over the pit of lava and Sam reaches down for his hand. Your fear makes your heart beat so hard, because Frodo’s expression is one of giving up. And then Sam says, “Don’t let go. Don’t you let go!” The depth of their friendship seems to give Frodo something valuable again, enough to change his mind and grab for Sams hand. You still fear that it won’t save him because his hand is slimy with blood, but it’s the strongest sensation of rooting for the protagonist, ‘pulling for him’ that I’ve ever seen- and all credit to the PREVIOUS scenes of struggle on their shared mission. I always cry when Aragorn sees Arwyn after he’s crowned King, for the same reason. These are ‘beautiful moments’ that endure long afterward and what I was looking for insight to.
    Pulling them off still seems a tall order though. I almost wish I were writing a thriller, so I could enhance a horrific shock effect instead.

  21. Laureli Illoura

    Then again, it’s not really a climactic resolution scene that I’m looking for help with, it’s more like what Larry said, about the Heaven scene from “The Lovely Bones” – which I have never read. Something that lifts the reader off the page into a kind of euphoric or enlightened state, amazed and awed – as opposed to horrified, shocked and queasy! I can’t see any description of heaven being less than “wow” in some way, but how can you express such things otherwise? Those who’ve had children – just after the birth of your firstborn- remember those feelings? THAT’s kind of what I’m after… something that makes you soar and want to hold that moment forever. If possible, how can you make sure it’s PLAUSIBLE? I’m thinking it would be easier to convey within a death scene, (or near-death), or even a dream scene , but what about in context with normal life? It seems a stretch.

  22. Olga Oliver

    From McCullough’s THORNBIRDS when Meggie’s son, Dane, drowned:
    “A pit opened at her feet. Down and down and down it went, and had no bottom. Meggie slid into it, felt its lips cover her head, and understood that she would never come out again as long as she lived … the pit closed in, suffocating.

    “She watched his casket lowered in the ground. To assign him an identity outside the world was not in her thinking. Yet he was gone. She knew it most keenly in the dimishment of her own self. He was gone, she knew this, but something of him clung to the baseboards. At times the floor quivered under his footstep.”

    “She knew it most keenly in the dimishment of her own self.” Only twelve words opening and stretching meaning that will navigate the ethers of forever.

  23. Laureli Illoura

    (Euf!) That took the breath right out of me like a punch!