Built by Counterpointing Characters
One of the things a flash writer can do to build tension and velocity is to put two counter-pointed characters into a setting together and see what happens. These characters do not need to be exact opposites. As Douglas Glover says, “Well, they are not “opposites’ in the sense of antonyms. They are opposite as in opposing actions or intentions; they interfere with each other.” Competing desires pushed to the extremes of each character drives the narrative forward, creates this sense of velocity as the reader deliciously struggles to keep up! The more these characters oppose each other the less time there is for describing feelings, for getting into the weeds of the setting. These characters are forced to make decisions, take action, and worry about the fallout only after they have tried to achieve their goals, their desires. Not only does this guarantee conflict and tension, but it can also be used to explore or develop the structure of the flash.
We can see this counter-pointing effect in action by taking a look at “
Snowstorm” by Tara Isabel Zambrano published in Atticus Review. Notice the way the collective “we” point of view forces these characters into one entity in the opening. They are so joined that the first couple of lines are more summary than direct action. These are the things we did. Together. This opening is so direct, a bit raw. A balance between oft-putting and intriguing. What else will this narrator say? What else will we learn? The tension here is that we know they won’t stay a “we” or we hope they won’t so we can see how this scene creates a crucible—a space neither character can leave. Sitting under a blanket, shivering, the normal activities or actions already completed in that quick, punchy summary. The moment here is a chance for these characters to say things to one another they’ve never said before. In the middle of this micro, Zambrano splits these characters. “I say my mother lost me once on a crowded bus stop; you say you ran away from home, twice, and came back after a day.” The “we” is gone, splintered by the separate voices. Notice there’s no argument, no violence, but still, there’s that tremor of tension!
The more they share, the worse it gets. “I say my parents stopped trimming my nails after my brother died. You say you were molested on a train, by a man your father’s age. Then we go quiet…” The action here is to reveal something about themselves. I love that Zambrano skips the thinking of the narrator and just gives us the revealing dialogue. This story could have been clouded by these thoughts when instead the dialogue is a form of escalation, a way of making things more uncomfortable. In a longer work, these escalations or reveals could have gone on for a while, but the power here is in the few, but powerfully chosen revelations. The use of the word “quiet” and then that semi-colon suspending us for just a second, creating form and structure. We must pause just as the characters have paused.
And then a piece of brilliance when Zambrano brings back that image of the toenails. She’s lost in her memory and he’s asking her back to bed. “Afterwards, I run my fingers over my crudely cut toenails. You reach an arm around my waist, suggest going back to bed.” Notice they were together and now the new information has separated them and he is suggesting they stop talking, that this form of intimacy is dangerous.
And then the ending line! Everything literally and figuratively buried, maybe to never come up again...And we the reader get to decide how far this relationship has actually moved!
But maybe this example is too quiet for some readers, not explicit enough a model for some writers? So let’s look at Carver’s provocative and famous “Popular Mechanics”.
Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.
Maybe a counter-intuitive example in that the camera starts outside of the house, and isn’t directly filtering the world and these senses through the main character, but Carver is establishing the crucible here. A mood and tone of the possible horror to come.
Notice how Carver has made the weather active, how we move from the snow drifting in the sky to the dirty water on the ground, and then back to the window facing the backyard. Then the cars and the darkness from outside to inside. Carver plays against linearity in order to create a mood and tension, a dramatic irony almost as we now move toward the inside which can't be much better than the outside. All the time working against the type of good feelings we have about being inside when it's cold outside. Micro can work on a subconscious level making the reader feel things without them noticing until the end of the story or on a second read.
He was in the bedroom pushing clothes into a suitcase when she came to the door. I’m glad you’re leaving! I’m glad you’re leaving! She said. Do you hear? He kept on putting his things into the suitcase.
A conventional scene of a couple fighting, one packing to leave, the other swearing that she’s happy, even if her separation and tone give away her lie. Carver starts the set-up of the myth or allegory here by not giving either character a name. Carver’s goal is to make the reader complicit with the violence; more than mere witnesses.
Then she noticed the baby’s picture on the bed and picked it up.
An action, an object, an escalation, and our story’s velocity is increasing! These characters are more alike than they realize, and though they want the same thing, there’s a competition here that both refuse to lose.
Then he went out to the living room. She stood in the doorway of the little kitchen, holding the baby.
I want the baby, he said. Are you crazy? No, but I want the baby. I’ll get someone to come by for his things. The baby had begun to cry, and she uncovered the blanket from around his head. Oh, oh, she said, looking at the baby.
He moved toward her. For God’s sake! she said. She took a step back into the kitchen. I want the baby.
Get out of here! She turned and tried to hold the baby over in a corner behind the stove. But he came up. He reached across the stove and tightened his hands on the baby. Let go of him, he said.
Get away, get away! she cried. The baby was red-faced and screaming. In the scuffle, they knocked down a flowerpot that hung behind the stove. He crowded her into the wall then, trying to break her grip. He held on to the baby and pushed with all his weight.
The picture of the baby becomes an actual baby. And our sense of dread of fear increases. The stakes have been raised. These characters are not only trapped in this house, but they are trapped in their next actions. Each one a worse choice. Notice how Carver fills in the space, the urgency of the pending violence wit the broken pot and that stove, the looming wall. Some writers would let these character’s out of this moment, would dissipate the tension, settle the conflict, but our crucible has been fully engaged now.
I’m not hurting the baby, he said. The kitchen window gave no light. In the near-dark he worked on her fisted fingers with one hand and with the other hand he gripped the screaming baby up under an arm near the shoulder. She felt her fingers being forced open. She felt the baby going from her.
Even the light is escaping. This certainly feels metaphorical as the man crosses the physical line and wrenches free the baby. These characters started apart and are only growing more apart even as their physical bodies collide. Now that’s another way of counterpointing. Physicality doesn’t always create closeness, especially in acts of violence.
She would have it, this baby. She grabbed for the baby’s other arm. She caught the baby around the wrist and leaned back. But he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard.
In this manner, the issue was decided.
Here, either character could have given up, could have swallowed their pride, their anger, and insured the safety of this baby. A baby that most readers probably fictionalize by making it a metaphor, because otherwise, this ending is awful, full of violence, the worst kinds our imagination can conjure. And even though this story is 40 years old it still provokes, shocks, and angers, because Carver dosn’’t bail out of the crucible, the conflict he has created until l that last line. The line fades us out of the story, gives us an excuse to think of these characters no more. To make this an exercise and not a condemnation of our voyeurism.
Prompt: Use the power of setting and counter-pointed characters to create a crucible for two or three characters. Push them closer and closer together until they are forced to tell each other something they’ve never told before or say something to one another they’ve never said before. How will this affect/change their relationship to each other, to themselves? Consider how the setting can be described to show the characters’ inside and outside reactions to this new information. Consider using that piece of dialogue you’ve always wanted to say to somebody in your own life.
What I’m Reading:
Try At Home:
Think about a place you love. Now write about it from the point of view of someone that hates that place, that wants to destroy that place. Can you get this feeling into a 1-5 sentence story opening?
Preorders are open!
In Hollows, Tommy Dean takes us to the places we yearn for, places we didn’t know we needed until they were already lost, revealing the crawlspaces and basements of American families. These fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, crack and bend under the pressure of conventional love, running away and toward each other, longing for a place to call home, often giving in to the hollow securities of their lives.
In these 45 flash fictions, you’ll find the last two people on Earth, wondering if love or ramen will keep them both alive; two brothers racing the clock of the millennium, as they consider their fear for the future; a son trying to convince his father to abandon a decrepit house while the father demands to die among his things. These stories thrum with the electricity of wonder, challenged by the open wounds of love for parents, of desire to strike out in a world without reason or guidepost, threatening to harden players into their desperate natures. Dean’s clear and urgent prose unites reader and character as they travel down dark and shaky paths toward the fading light.