Bullet in the brain

Last month I taught a writing workshop for teenagers. I stuck to the basics: Aristotelean arc, point of view, character, plot. It was only a three hour workshop so we barely scratched the surface but I was thrilled with how much the students seemed to absorb and the quality of group discussion.

Much of the workshop was spent looking at excerpts of short stories, teasing sentences and paragraphs apart to see how all the different aspects of fiction (point of view, character, sensory detail) work together. We ended with Tobais Wolff's short story Bullet in the Brain. Find it at The New Yorker or allow Wolff to read it to you on this episode of This American Life.

Fair warning to anyone who doesn't know the story: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Wolff's story was the perfect end note, bringing together many of the things we had been discussing all afternoon. But the interesting thing about the story is how Wolff both follows and flaunts convention.

Bullet in the Brain goes like this: A man walks into a bank moments before two armed men hold the place up. The plot is compelling. Right away something dramatic happens and the tension climbs and climbs to a climax. And the pace is quick. The men with guns storm in on page two and by the top of page three one of those guns is shoved into the protagonist's midsection. So far, so conventional.

But then there's this: the protagonist is an ass. A book critic, Anders is known for the "weary elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." He's arrogant. He's elitist. He can't keep his fool mouth shut, not even when there's a gun shoved into his gut. This is a risk. Because when I paused the reading to ask the fifteen young writers, not one was rooting for Anders. And neither was I.

Another thing Wolff does is he subverts the Aristotelean arc. In a conventional story the denouement and conclusion follow in short order after the climax. Some stories dispense with the resolution altogether and end on a cliffhanger. This makes sense of course; once the big blow up happens, there's little reason for the reader to hang around.

But in Bullet in the Brain, the climax happens at the bottom of page 4 and there are still three more pages left to go...nearly half the story! After the present tense action, the compelling narrative that has keep us glued to the page, ends, Wolff pulls us into flashback and character development.

What?! Character development is meant to happen in the first act, during the "introductions" stage. Flashback is used to develop character of course but also to pause the narrative and draw out the tension. It's not used at the end, after the gun has been fired and the main character is a goner.

Or is it? Wolff doesn't just make the unconventional work, the story works because he flips convention. The drama of the robbery - which we are tricked into thinking is what this piece is all about - is only there in service to the real story. The real story is a tale of character development, how this man Anders became the surly goat he is today. The real story is embedded in the flashback. And then the turn happens. Not in the action on the page (the outcome of which is foreshadowed by the title), but in the mind of the reader. At the end I asked the students how they felt about Anders. They were surprised to find they sympathized with him.