Last time around I presented the opening scene from a work in progress by writer Nancy James. Many of you who took the time to read it may have come away with the same question in mind that I had, once I got over the sheer impact of what I’d just read. How on Earth did she craft such a powerful and evocative piece? (And if you’re fortunate to know Nancy, you will have instantly recognized how different this bit of prose is from her usual, bubbly, out-going persona.) Click here if you missed it.
So with apologies in advance to anyone disinterested in looking behind the curtain, here’s my take on why this scene works–and works so incredibly well. Simply put, it has: So, just as the Flash Gordon spaceship on the left–complete with the white fishing line that suspended it during filming–is laughably phony, the artist’s conception of the Space shuttle Atlantis on the right is easy to believe. It’s better art. It feels real.
If we focus on the elements I’ve been repeating over the course of this discussion, it’s fairly easy to see why this scene is so effective.
For openers, there are no clichés. Instead, simple language is used to describe both the macabre and the everyday, and the even-tempered mixture of the two only heightens the inherent tension.
The degree of specificity also contributes to the feeling of reality. We see the blood seeping into the gold carpet. We hear the awful sounds that go with it. There’s no hiding from this; the scene sprawls before us, a grisly image, in all its awful detail.
The point of view character experiences a range of feelings, albeit feelings blunted by the violence she has just witnessed. Her mind ricochets between thoughts of what just happened to how the furniture is arranged, from his still-beating heart to her concern for her neighbor if either had opened the door at that critical moment. She experiences someone in her face, yelling at her, and yet she’s strangely calm.
Sadly, Nancy is writing from tragic personal experience, and it is this which undoubtedly gives the entire scene its rock-solid grounding in reality.
From the standpoint of writing mechanics, one technique stands above the others: it’s the rapid-fire quality of her sentences. Short. Pointed. In some cases, brutal. Just like the terrible event which just occurred. These blunt, fast, often jolting sentences pound the reader like a hard-beating heart. Again, and again. They often eschew the niceties one expects to find in well-behaved sentences: subjects, verbs, and all the connecting tissue of evolved language.
As we read, however, we realize none of that matters in a moment like this. We’re not thinking in sentences; we’re thinking in images, and those images run the gamut from harsh and intense to soft and demure. It’s this overall juxtaposition of sensory messages which drives the truth of this scene home. We believe it, and we pray we’ll never have to experience anything like it.
Most importantly, we can’t stop reading it.
My hat’s off to Nancy, and I sincerely appreciate her allowing me to comment on her work in such a public forum. I’ve no doubt there’s a great deal more which can be said about this, and I invite my readers to offer their thoughts.
Hopefully, I’ll provide a less demanding emotion to dissect next time around.
Cogent discussion of a beautiful piece of writing – thanks, Josh and Nancy.
I liked Nancy’s use of sentence fragments. It suits the shocking scene perfectly and feels like we’re inside her mind. A great scene powerfully rendered.
I couldn’t agree more.
Thanks for the discussion, Josh, just well-done. But it still hurts so bad to read it over, even as i am admiring the sentences, the recall, the skill. The determination to share.