Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Understated writing

Here's an extract from the opening of Anne Tyler's short novel, Earthly Possessions. The main character is in a bank having some money counted out:

Just at that moment, the nylon jacket started up behind me. Somebody pushed me, somebody stumbled. There was a sudden flurry all around. A nylon sleeve swooped over my shoulder. A hand fastened on the stacks of bills. I was extremely irritated. Now look, I wanted to say, don't be so grabby; I was here before you were. But then the teller gave a squawk and the man ahead of me spun in my direction, unbuttoning his suit coat. One of those plumpish men, puffy-faced as if continually, just barely, holding in his anger. He fumbled at his chest and pulled out something stubby. He pointed it at the nylon jacket. Which was black - the sleeve, at any rate. The sleeve darted back (the hand clutching money) and circled my neck. For a moment I was almost flattered. I curved to make way for the object pressing into my ribs. I smelled the foggy smell of new dollars.

Anybody move and I'll kill her," said the nylon jacket.

It was me he meant.

Now, in my time I've done lots and lots of critting of stories, where I've given my impressions on the writing and how it could be improved. The reason for doing this, it should be stressed, is NEVER to improve the story or the writer, but ALWAYS to improve the reader, ie me.

Anyway, I was very struck by this opening, because I know that once, not that long ago, I would have ripped this to shreds. Utter shit, I would have said. Completely wrong register. Doesn't convey the drama of the scene. This woman is being held up at gunpoint in a bank, and she's describing the colour of his jacket, for christ's sake. Where's the sense of fear? Or danger? Sheer, unadulterated terror? (Make a note of that response - it's important.) And joking about him being grabby when she was first in the queue?: inappropriate humour, surely. And describing his face - she wouldn't have time to notice details like that. And so on...

Now, I think what a fine opening. Crisp, tartly comic but still with an edge of tension. Understated. It lets the drama unfold, and leaves the reader to decide how much or how little tension to ascribe to it. In my crit above what have I done? Deliberately tried to ratchet up the tension, with an ever-increasing triple of descriptions: fear, danger, sheer, unadulterated terror...

That's how the amateur writer would approach a scene like that. Describe every bead of sweat, ladle on the adjectives and adverbs, invest it with a portentousness it doesn't deserve.

But Anne Tyler: an excellent piece of writing: off to read the rest of it now...

No comments: