After my analysis of Jennifer Manuel’s award-winning story, “The Woman in the Box with the Baby,” Jennifer wrote and tweeted to tell me she was pleased with what I had to say about her work –whew!
She also e-mailed me a copy of another award-winning tale of hers, “Silent E,” a story that earned an honorable mention in the latest Fiddlehead contest. There are two techniques I want to analyze here, on www.fighttowrite.com , and a third I’ll mention only and let you read for yourself if you can get your hands on a copy.
One important point I always make to young writers or starting writers, is the importance of PATHOS. You need readers to care about your character before you bring in the main conflict. Otherwise, they won’t care about the conflict your character experiences. The protagonist could literally leap off a cliff and we wouldn’t care if we’re not at all invested in the person.
Manuel establishes pathos for Leroy, an unlikeable bully, in “Silent E,” and she does it in at least three ways:
- A physical ailment he struggles with:
“Small creatures, moon-shaped and pearly-white, burrow into Leroy’s hands. You can see their tunnels, like thin gray pencil lines, under his skin. The creatures lay eggs between his fingers, then eggs hatch, and soon more creatures resurface to fornicate on his knuckles. Small red bumps and blisters spread to this hands to his wrists to his elbows. . . . Their itching drives him mad.”
It’s an ailment he’s embarrassed to tell others about, but the longer he delays, the worse his condition becomes.
2. Older half-brothers, who bullied him:
“ ‘Please let me up,’ he said.
His half-brothers sat there on the dock for hours, fishing for rock cods and keeping Leroy in the water. Tired and cold, Leroy wrapped himself around one of the pilings under the dock, where he shivered and cried and bled from the barnacles, until the sun set and his half-brothers went home.”
3. Low self-esteem:
“Finally he gives up and slaps his notebook onto his desk. It’s crisp and clean and hardly used except for the rows of leroy he keeps printing on the cover, without any capital L’s, even though Miss Royston has taught him about proper nouns. You’re more important than that, she has told him, don’t you think you deserve a capital?”
It is incredibly tough to make readers cheer for an unlikeable villain. Manuel more than manages to accomplish it by building strong pathos early, adding to it as the story progresses.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY PICKY AND TECHNICAL:
I can sometimes get carried away with dissections of writing I love, so let me give you an example from this story:
FROM THE MANUEL MANUAL OF FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE:
First, let me show you three examples of similes Manuel uses in this story:
- Anybody who wants to sharpen a pencil, or get something from the cart area, or leave to use the washroom has to step over his long legs. Like a tollbooth: the payment is your full attention.
2. The pull of Leroy’s gaze, like a puppet string, holds Ronnie in place.
3. He leans on the wall beside the classroom door and curls his wrist around the doorknob like a creeping tendril.
Notice anything? First, in terms of sentence fluency, the similes appear in different parts of the sentences—beginning, middle, and end. Some writers remember to vary the lengths of sentences, which helps fluency, but Manuel here is changing the very structure, even though these three examples are performing similar roles.
Also, look at WHAT these similes are used to compare–long legs, puppet strings, creeping tendrils–connection. Leroy wants to feel connected, wants others to have to stop and pay him attention and his legs in the way help him accomplish just that; he acts out to draw their attention like a puppeteer may manipulate one of her dolls; and just as a plant sends tendrils into the earth to seek nourishment, Leroy finds the attention he so desperately seeks not at home, but in a school classroom.
BY THE WAY…
I mentioned a third strong point in the story (other than the incredible story itself) that I was going to let you know about, and that is her use of EXTENDED METAPHOR. She chooses an unlikely metaphor (a tree representing a boy) and develops it and returns to it in many ways throughout the story. It takes the story to a deeper level, using imagery and symbolism to add layers.
I know that I can learn much about writing by reading Jennifer Manuel’s work. I can’t wait until a collection of Miss Royston stories (including “The Woman in the Box with the Baby,” “All Those Teeth in the Sand,” and “Silent E”) is available for purchase. I’ll let you know when I know…
My utmost thanks to Jennifer for sharing her stories with me. It’s a pleasure to read such well-crafted work.