Monthly Archives: May 2015

Writing Excuses – 10.9 – Reverse-Engineer a Story

Reverse engineering “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

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Writing Excuses 10.9 had us figuring out how an author puts a story together. The assignment was to dissect a piece of media—novel, story, comic, movie, or TV show—to see what promises the author made and how (s)he fulfilled them. We needed to determine the story type (a la Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient) and what the story’s tone and genre were.

I chose “The Lottery” because it is short, famous, and easy to find. If you have never read “The Lottery” or would like a refresher on this short (about 3400 words) story, it can be found online here. If you’re not already familiar, I highly recommend reading it before continuing, because this post is positively rife with spoilers.

Here’s a presentation I put together for my writing peeps at the Journey:

More thoughts:

I argued that “The Lottery” was an Idea story. Given the title, we know a lottery will be held, but we don’t know what the “winner” receives. The story will be over when we know what the prize (or in this case the consequence) is. The story question—what is this lottery and what will it mean to the characters?—is what keeps the reader reading.

Genre: in keeping with the idea of reverse engineering, I looked at the end first. It’s horrifying, so while it doesn’t start with the typical horror details, at heart it’s a horror story. Whoever draws the marked paper is stoned to death. In the case of this particular story, it was important for the tone in the beginning to contrast sharply with the tone of the ending to increase the horror.

The story begins with the description of a particularly beautiful summer day. The people of this small village gather for a timeless ritual. The mood seems one of anticipation, both nervous and somewhat solemn. Folks are friendly to one another, and everyone seems to know everyone else. There’s some joking and smiling, though the men seem less enthusiastic about it than the boys or very young children do.

The foreshadowing in the beginning is almost throwaway: the middle-grade boys piling up stones. There’s no mention of what the stones are for, and only the boys seem to pay much attention to them at first, though the grown men do stand away from the pile. It’s easy for a reader to think this is some kids’ game and it may not mean anything at all.

The story is told all in one continuous scene, but it can be divided by several events or entrances.

1

It’s a beautiful summer day in a small village. The scene is set as young boys seem to play some kind of game with piles of stones, the girls also gather, and the men stand around chatting. The women soon arrive and the villagers sort themselves into family groups. The children are still lighthearted, while there’s some tension from at least one of the adults, Mr. Martin, who sharply calls his son Bobby back to his family and away from the pile of stones.

  • Revealed: Where and when are we? 20th century America.
  • Conflict: the tension of waiting for the event to start; making the children behave properly.
  • Remaining questions: what is the lottery? Who will win it, and what might they win?

2

Mr. Summers arrives with the lottery box. People hold themselves away from the box, hesitating when Mr. Summers asks for help. Some history of the box is shared, including the villager’s attachment to it. There’s also allusion to the antiquity of the lottery, and how the town and the ritual itself have changed over the years.

  • Revealed: How the lottery is usually conducted, that it’s a special event, but it’s also very traditional, and who’s in charge.
  • Conflict: implied conflicts around people wanting to retain all the traditions even though some details have necessarily changed over the years.
  • Remaining questions: What happens next? How will Mr. Summers proceed?

3

Mrs. Hutchinson arrives, having almost forgotten it was lottery day. She’s cheerful about her lateness and there’s some good-natured teasing and back-and-forth between Mrs. Hutchinson and Mr. Summers. Then everyone settles back into place. I find this authorial choice particularly masterful: Mrs. Hutchinson almost seems like an afterthought. Though she ends up being the pivotal character, she seems no more important than any other character. She enters late, which helps the reader focus on her, but at first (since everyone has a name when referred to individually) she doesn’t seem any more important than anyone else. Then she gets a first name, so that adds more weight to her appearance, but not a hell of a lot. It’s introduced very naturally, as Summers teases her. It makes sense in context. On first reading it doesn’t come across as if the author is saying: “Here. Pay attention to this character.”

  • Revealed: All the forms have been observed: now we can begin.
  • Conflict: Mild commentary about Mrs. Hutchinson’s lateness; it’s treated as if it wasn’t a big deal, but clearly her husband wondered where she was and Mr. Summers wasn’t going to start until he was sure everyone had arrived, so people have had to wait.
  • Remaining questions: Still…what’s going to happen with this lottery?!

4

When the first man comes up to draw, he and Summers greet each other “humorlessly and nervously.” The reader gets another inkling that this village may not be as bucolic as it seems. Each family representative takes a folded paper and holds it until every family has drawn before looking at it. People wait quietly, wetting their lips, not looking around. As the drawing continues, people mention that not all the towns around here still hold the lottery. Conflict in the form of Old Man Warner, who mocks that notion and introduces the saying (and the lottery’s rationale), “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The reader understands the pull of tradition that people are feeling, despite the fact that some of the characters are growing nervous, saying they wish it were all over. Mrs. Hutchinson, however, jovially prods her husband to “Get on up there, Bill” when it’s his turn.

  • Revealed: How the lottery is conducted
  • Conflict: People are suddenly serious, concerned about the result.
  • Remaining questions: Who’s going to draw the “winning” paper?


5

THE STORY TURNS HERE! When it becomes that Bill Hutchinson drew the “winning” paper, panic sets in, at least for Mrs. Hutchinson. The reader is left in no doubt:  winning this lottery is not a good thing, despite social pressure from the other villagers to continue. It’s not even a question that this ritual will go on until the end.

  • Revealed: The Hutchinson family draws the marked paper.
  • Conflict: Despite the outside influence of other towns giving up the lottery, this village wants to keep it to ensure a good harvest. Tess Hutchinson is not happy about the result. The rest of the village exerts pressure on her to “be a good sport.”
  • Remaining questions: What does this mean for the Hutchinsons? Why does Tess resist and start to complain?

6

The conflict then becomes focused between Mrs. Hutchinson and the rest of the village. The author seems to slow time at this point; there’s a surprising amount of detail packed into few words as each member of the Hutchinson family comes up to take their papers. The smallest child’s paper is open first, and the whole crowd breathes a sigh of relief when it’s shown to be blank. As each of the other kids open their papers, more relief is expressed. Mr. Hutchinson’s paper is also blank. We know, at this point, that Mrs. Hutchinson (who was cheerful about the proceedings until she started to look like the winner/victim) is about to get it.

  • Revealed: Mrs. Hutchinson is the one chosen via the lottery.
  • Conflict: Mrs. Hutchinson doesn’t want to be chosen, but she has no choice.
  • Remaining questions: Why is Mrs. Hutchinson freaking out?

7

Perhaps the most chilling part of the story comes when someone gives little Davy Hutchinson a handful of pebbles to throw at his mother. This moment really drives home Shirley Jackson’s point about mindless conformity: teach children at a young age to do this, no matter what the ramifications.

  • Revealed: the person chosen by the lottery is stoned to death.
  • Conflict: Everyone must do the stoning, even the victim’s family.
  • Remaining questions: Geeze, Grandpa, why did you make me read this? But seriously: what was Shirley Jackson trying to say with this story? Did she succeed?

Still More Thoughts:

I thought it clever of Shirley Jackson to have the main character arrive with, perhaps, some premonition of her own fate. Is some unconscious dread why Mrs. Hutchinson was late to the drawing? Was her seemingly flippant “get on up there, Bill” a way to conceal her own uneasiness? Jackson was also clever to make Mrs. H. progressively less likable. As soon as the lottery hones in on her family, she gets whiny and shows herself to be, as one of the villagers says, “not a good sport.” Because she grows less likable/conformist, you get the sense that perhaps this village has held onto the lottery tradition (while others have abandoned it) because the victims start to stir a kind of bloodlust. Maybe most or all of the victims begin to make themselves unlikable, and thus, easier to kill.

Setting: One of the elements of tone that I think makes this story so interesting is that, while there’s a concerted effort to be nonspecific in terms of place, and the ritual itself seems quite archaic—maybe something out of druid times—the setting is very American. It was also a contemporary setting at the time it was published (1948). Everyone pays taxes; the kids all go to school; there are tractors. There’s also a mix of last names. In addition to the English-sounding ones, there are names like Delacroix and Zanini. Then there’s the casualness of the whole affair. In the past there was apparently chant and a ritual salute the lottery official offered to those who drew from the box. Now the whole affair is handled so efficiently everyone can get home in time for lunch. The exhortations not to fuss, to be a good sport, all seem very American as well. In any case, it’s the contrast of peaceful, apparently civilized setting and the horrible event that makes this story unforgettable.

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Sense and Sensibility – the Musical!

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre photo by Liz Lauren

If you reacted to the above blog title the same way I did to the announcement of this production in the Chicago Shakespeare subscription notice for 2014-2015, a spit take might have been involved.

I’ve really enjoyed some Jane Austen re-imaginings. The movie Clueless is probably my favorite, if you don’t count straight-up dramatizations, like A&E’s Pride and Prejudice or Emma Thompson’s film version of Sense and Sensibility. Still, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of a Jane Austen musical. Maybe the life I lead is too sheltered…much like that of an Austen heroine. However, my curiosity won out almost immediately. We chose a subscription package that included Sense and Sensibility, and we’re glad we did.

My first hesitation had to do with the addition of music to the story. How, I wondered, does music make much sense in this world, outside of the occasional spinet-playing required of accomplished young ladies and/or during ball scenes? Fortunately the musical integration felt seamless—no more evident in obviously musical scenes than it was in others. The music worked well stylistically—at least for me—in that it was used to fully reveal the characters’ emotions while all the time they outwardly appeared calm and unruffled. I know that’s how music often functions in musicals, but it worked particularly well in this genteel Regency setting, where appearing to be in control of every aspect of one’s life was the ultimate goal. These characters only truly revealed their feelings in song.

The singers were all pretty fabulous; to my mind Sean Allan Krill might just be one of the best singing actors I’ve ever heard. While his voice was glorious, it was the passion he brought to his songs that really knocked my socks off.

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre photo-Liz Lauren

I can’t imagine a better set. It was fluid and flexible, while still feeling opulent when necessary, and you definitely knew when you were in a different location. The costumes were good, with Marianne’s second act ensemble being particularly striking.

Overall the show wasn’t a perfect experience for me, but I tend to be picky and opinionated about theatre. A few script, directorial, and musical choices distracted from the overall effect. However, as a whole, I felt the play worked. I teared up at the right parts; I stood up to applaud at the end.

Here’s my takeaway: if you have even a passing interest in Jane Austen novels and/or romance, and generally enjoy musicals you will probably enjoy this show. It’s been extended by popular demand until June 14, 2015 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier.

Somebody Else’s Turn — BK

It’s been a long time, but I’m excited to announce the first guest post in just over a year!

BK (yes, the BK made famous (?!) by this very blog) shares some of his thoughts on music and writing, with tips on enjoying either or both. Here’s what he has to say:

The focus of CeeBee’s blog is normally writing. As a guest contributor who is not a writer by craft, I cannot give writing tips or point to helpful books or workshops. And, as an engineer by profession, I am more a supporter of the arts than an artistic individual on my own. I do, however, enjoy music.

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I play at guitar. I am not an accomplished musician. There will never be long lines outside the box office where eager fans wait to get the best seats to a BK concert or multi-thousand hits on a YouTube music video featuring my latest release. So, if American Idol or a big recording contract is not in my future, why do I play? Let me introduce you to the BK Theory of Musical Performance.

Set your level of expectation:

What I seek in playing is fun. I do not expect note for note reproduction of an Eric Clapton guitar riff. And no one will ever confuse my rendition of a James Taylor vocal with the original. But that is okay, because my goal is to play well enough so that when friends come together we can make a happy sound.

Accept your mistakes:

I was discussing guitar with a former coworker who played while he was in college but had stopped playing when he moved into the real world of jobs, student loan repayment, independent living – the adult things into which we fall at some point in life. No time to practice, fewer friends with whom to play. “But why did you stop?” I asked.

“I used to be able to play songs without missing a note. Now I make mistakes.” I guess this is an extension of setting expectations, but it is also a statement about self-forgiveness. When CeeBee and I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band a few years ago there was a moment during the show when the band had a miscommunication at a song bridge. Bruce made some comment about the band messing up and they picked up then continued the song. After the song ended Steve Van Zandt whispered something and Springsteen broke into a big smile. Stepping to the mic, he said “So Little Stevie just told me that I was the one who was off.”

He laughed. “You just heard The Boss (expletive deleted) up!” So if The Boss can make light and move on, then BK can do the same.

Make the music your own:

I cannot play exactly what Little Feat plays on “Willin’” nor what Blind Faith played on “Can’t Find My Way Home” but it does not stop me from adapting the song to my skill level. I jokingly say that I reserve the right to correct oversights in the original songwriter’s version. You may be surprised at how well your interpretation works for you. Probably one of the biggest kicks I get from playing with friends and family is when the version of a song that comes out of the jam session elicits enthusiasm and comments. I remember one jam session version of “Hotel California” done with a reggae syncopated rhythm and with Guitar Jack absolutely wailing on the guitar. When it was over, we looked at each other with an almost “Was that us?” look on our faces. Okay, maybe The Eagles have nothing about which to worry, but we really stuck it that afternoon.

There are other things. Play with family and/or friends if you can. Set the goal as fun, not perfection. Kids are especially good at this. The next time you have a family gathering you may be surprised at how enthusiastic the little ones can be.

I have been very lucky. I came from a family in which music was a normal part of life. Then I married into a family with a similar love of music. And so many of our friends enjoy playing, singing and listening that pulling out a guitar usually leads to others joining in.

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How to make this about writing? Let’s try this.

Set your level of expectation:

If you write as an outlet for your inner artist, take satisfaction from meeting your milestones. You completed a short story and are happy with the results so you deserve a reward. If your goal is to be published, you probably need help from someone for whom writing is his craft rather than from a back porch guitarist.

Accept change in your choices:

I modified “Accept your mistakes” here because, in writing, you make character choices, plot choices, and dialogue choices that, after self-editing, friends’ suggestions and group critiques, you decide to change. The changes are not mistakes but the natural result of refinement during the authoring process. Writing a story or play is a living activity. The story will evolve as you proceed. That the first draft requires changes does not invalidate your effort.

BK didn’t include a writing section on making the work your own (the way he said to make the music your own), so this is CB, adding on to what he wrote:

Make the story your own:

We’ve all heard the old saying that there are no new plots. Depending on who you believe, there only three, or seven, or thirty-three plots…or some other number I’ve forgotten or haven’t come across yet.

However: we all still like stories that utilize old plots or somewhat familiar characters. An individual writer can help a story say something it never seemed to say before. That’s what keeps us looking for new novels, short stories, movies, and TV shows.

So, whether you’re a writer, a musician, a knitter, or an enjoyer (um, is that a word?) of some other avocation/vocation, keep at it for as long as it brings you joy. That is all.