Number Two: Caleb J. Ross and Pablo D'Stair:
Three dialogues on literature
NOTE: This dialogue is presented over the next four weeks in a style
of "progressive fragments." The exact order of inquiry and response as
presented is not the order of inquiry and response as it happened
between the two dialogue partners. Therefore, 'Statements' and
'Responses' from one week may not be directly addressed by both parties
until subsequent weeks.
It is the hope of both parties that the spaces between these
responses allow readers the time and opportunity to more fully and
experientially engage with the propositions, for themselves, rather than
looking at the dialogue as a closed circuit.
CHRIS RHATIGAN:Certainly some crime/noir/horror writers are trying to
shock the sensibilities. Outside of Richard Godwin, I'm not really into
the ultra-violence crowd. And I also don't write much in the way of
violence because I don't consider myself very good at it. (I prefer
writing the lead up to violence.)
As far as writers "going to places where they are uncomfortable," do
you mean like a bed of nails? Perhaps leather car seats on a hot day?
And what's a "dark effort"? Is that writing in the dark? I certainly
don't like that. Bad for the eyes. But I would save money on my electric
Anyway, I hear people saying that thing about "comfort" a lot, but I
don't know what they mean. Nor do I really care. If you're writing from
a "comfortable" place but it's great writing, who cares? Similarly, if
you're writing crap but you're way outside your comfort zone, well, that
For example, I don't think Lawrence Block writes from an
"uncomfortable" place, but he's still one of the best around, so it
In my own writing, I try to rid it of predictability by taking extra
steps, by exploring all the options of where an idea could go. So if I
have an idea and my instinct is to go one way with it, I push myself to
think of other possibilities, see if anything is stronger. If the story
moves in a different direction, that changes who the character is and it
might even change the voice -- make things as fresh as possible.
And, hopefully, those extra steps will find some weird thing that's
creeping around in the back of my head. But it's a bit of a journey to
get there and I might poop out along the way.
PABLO D'STAIR: What I want here are your thoughts about
First: Are you a "read this once, only" sort of guy? By which I mean,
predictability becomes moot if you intend a piece to be read multiple
times, you know? Or do you think the first-time-quick-reaction is the
defining thing? For me, many times, something that worked on a first
read, even after just one day thinking about it, loses its
appeal-endnote heavy, you know? But on the other hand, a very "obvious"
plot (Scott Smith's A Simple Plan) with a very "predictable" outcome
stays with me for years.
CR: The first read is the most important. I don't tend to read
stories/books multiple times, unless I'm studying them for a specific
reason related to my writing, or I just like them that much. (Hemingway
and Philip K. Dick's short stories are like that for me.)
I guess as a reader, predictability-in the sense of knowing what's
going to happen-hardly matters at all. For example, I knew the plot from
Strangers on a Train before reading it, but that made no difference-how
everything happened was far more interesting.
The way Highsmith seduces the reader into thinking that these murders
are completely logical, really the only thing that could happen-that's
the kind of writing I will never get over and sort of makes me want to
give up writing altogether. I mean, when that's out there, why bother?
I was talking more about predictability within my own writing. If I'm
writing about kleptomaniacs, I don't want every story to end with the
klepto getting chased by some rogue clerk or a cop or whatever. I'm not
(usually) looking to shock readers with a surprise ending, but I don't
want what happens to be stale, or just the first thing that pops into my
PD: Second: Do you feel the conclusion, in any way, the destination,
influences predictability? For the most part, there are only several
things likely to happen in a story and usually one of them does. Does
the "un-predictability" happen within the guts, regardless of start
point and end point? In other words, do you really see value in steering
away from predictability?
CR: But if you have un-predictability in the guts, isn't that still
steering away from predictability? Take Crime and Punishment. To me, the
most interesting aspect of that book is that Raskolikov commits murder
for no reason at all. So it's not, in a strict sense, what happened, but
more why it happened.
Sure, you can write a perfectly excellent story about a man who
murders his wife out of pure hatred (oldest plot in the book-with wife
killing husband for the same reasons a close second), but you still need
to veer away from predictability.
And Paul Brazill wrote that story. It's called "Tut," and he uses a
simple device-the sound the man's wife makes when she's scolding him-to
tie together the whole story. Yet it's more than that-most writers would
build to the climax of the husband killing the wife, but Brazill makes a
much stronger choice. He starts with the husband killing the wife, and
then catalogues the guy's descent into crazy town as he keeps hearing
that "tut, tut, tut" long after her death.
So, I don't know, maybe both are important. It's like that story you
wrote about the guy who starts stealing clothes from a woman who lives
in his apartment building so that he can dress up his girlfriend in the
other woman's clothes. Many writers would have wanted to punish that
character, have something really bad happen to him-he takes his fetish
one step too far and everything falls apart, something like that.
But you just ended it with everything sort of status quo-him and his
girlfriend appear to be, on the outside, a normal, happy couple. To me,
this is way creepier than if the guy got caught or his girlfriend broke
up with him.
PD:Now, not just because of the kind words about my work there, I
cannot disagree with you about the "better way to go about steering a
story" but I don't know about the specifics, perhaps just based on
reading history. And so from this I'll steer to that larger point:
I find a lot the time that lines of analysis concerning "how things
tend to be done" especially when dealing with the larger subject of
"predictability" or "tropes" or "storytelling style" don't necessarily
reflect the fullness such an investigation should have.
To even take the two example you bring up-Brazill's and my stories. I
have read "Tut" and even just going from how you describe it, I don't
find the storyline/progression of it out of the ordinary at all. Indeed,
I cannot think of many pieces (especially modern pieces, but going back
a good long ways) that would, in fact, climax a story of murder with the
murder. Indeed, for the most part this murder act always seems prologue
material and the murderer either descending or coping or regretting or
confessing. are more the typical sort of way things "proceed." This is
not bad, to me, it just is something outside the realm of a
"predictable" story line discussion.
Some would say of the overarching idea of such a story (and have said
regarding many of my stories) that it's "just another decent into
madness story" you know? A poor man's tell tale heart. I don't think so,
because I don't think the meat of the thing is the murder, the
aftermath, any of that. Those things don't concern me.
And to my story, just to flesh this out a bit more, from the
perspective of writer, I can tell you that (certainly to me personally)
I did not aim for any sense of suspense or unpredictability. Indeed,
when I write a noir/suspense/crime piece I tend to always ask myself
"What is the most predictable line these events could take, the most
banal, ordinary, likely way it would go?" and then I strictly write
that. I do not exaggerate.
Take the story you mention, what I did was just tick-by-tick say
"Okay, what would this guy do next?" "If he wanted to do this, how would
it be done?" Nothing that pushed credulity other than the fact that the
situation, itself, is a bit outside of the hep. But watch any episode of
Cops-I could not think of anything odder than the way people behave, but
that is banal, everyday, over and over reality, as predictable as the
I've often argued-and still feel this to some extent-that the terms
"predictable" and "unpredictable" are wrongly used in suspense writing.
I take pains in my larger, longer suspense work to clarify as soon as
possible (or to heavily suggest) where the thing is going and then make
it go there, and I take pride when someone says "I figured it was going
there, but I can't believe it actually did!" meaning "It's so direct and
ordinary, people don't write like that".
In a sense, it is, in crime/suspense writing, what would be generally
considered "predictable" to do what would generally be considered
"unpredictable." It's just a detail. I don't think readers care about
that. Everyone knows the rhythms of predictability, of the banal, and I
think respond more deeply to these in all art. If a story is defined in
having "unpredictable" turns, superficialities dictate its direction,
other than as a "popcorn, soda pop" sort of thrill response, readers get
bored, it doesn't hit.
CR: On the Brazill story, I disagree. In terms of the "Wife annoys
husband, so husband kills her," I've seen that particular story many,
many times and almost always with the climax as the murder. A less
capable writer would have tackled that story this way: "Wife tuts at
husband for every little thing he does, husband plots to kill wife, but
it turns out wife was planning to kill husband the whole time and knocks
him off at the end."
That's the other thing Brazill did in that story-he didn't resort to
a twist. He simply followed the premise to its natural conclusion. If
literary fiction's weakness is writerly writing and static plots,
crime's weakness is relying too much on twists.
Which is, in part, why your plots tend to be more satisfying. They're
aggressive banality is precisely what sets them apart. Take the ending
of Man Standing Behind.
The murderer gets arrested and the man he's held hostage the whole
time just walks away. The police don't even question him! It's absurd in
its banality, but perfect for the story, because you refuse to give this
character a box in which he can categorise this experience. If the cops
take him in and question him, he becomes a "victim" or a "witness"-but
if he walks away, he's just a guy with this horrific experience rattling
around in his head.
And you dismiss the unusual and interesting nature of the premise
you're working from-in this case, a criminal forcing another guy to
follow him as he goes around murdering people seemingly for no reason.
That to me sounds interesting and a bit different from the get go. As
does the story I reference earlier about the guy who starts dressing his
girlfriend in someone's else's clothes-the premise itself is solid.