I read ‘A Strong Urge To Fly’ from Alan Baxter’s collection Crow Shine last night on the train home from Sydney. I’d started in late in the commute and finished just before getting to my stop. A good thing too, because I was so engrossed I would have had to sit on the platform in the cold to finish it before going home.
If you read my last post you know I’m all about upping my writing game at the moment. A big part of that is reading critically. And when I say critically I mean analytically. Reading like a writer, one might call it, in fact there’s a whole book on how to do it by Francine Prose.
So what did I learn from reading ‘A Strong Urge To Fly’? Let me tell you about it.
Pacing and Tension
The pacing in this story is brilliant. There is slow building tension and disconcertment in the reader and the protagonist. What Baxter does really well, which elevates this story beyond the usual , is disrupt the rising tension with a sudden spike that defies expectation (I actually gasped) and yet makes total sense as the thing we were working towards all along. The following conclusion is short and sweet. The reader may know what’s coming now but the reading of it is altered by the sudden change.
Something I’ve often wondered when writing short fiction, is how to get away with writing something that is mostly realist until the very end?
After reading ‘A Strong Urge To Fly’ I think the answer might be foreshadowing. Sprinkling enough oddness throughout so that the reader is set up to accept an outright supernatural conclusion. This also works to build the tension of the story.
I also wonder what role the market the story is published in plays. On the one hand, such a story published in a speculative fiction market prepares the reader for strangeness and makes them more willing to accept it. On the other hand, does it give the game away?
In ‘A Strong Urge To Fly’ being published is a speculative market wouldn’t give anything away. While the conclusion is supernatural the actual surprise, the turning point in the story, is not. And how’s that for a good way to subvert readers expectations!
I think readers want to like protagonists, especially if they’re the narrator as well. I think we have (almost) all be programmed to enter a story liking and trusting our protagonists/narrators. Which is why unreliable narrators and unlikeable protagonists piss people off (Atonement I’m looking at you) but are also so interesting.
In ‘A Strong Urge To Fly’ Jeremy is our protagonist and the story is told in a close third person. I found myself fighting with my predisposition to like him and the casually dropped details that screamed at me not to.
Really there were two layers of rising tension in this story; Jeremy’s unlikability, and the eeriness of Mrs Oates and her cats. And both threads reach fruition at the end of the story so the reader is both horrified and satisfied.
People say it all the time, reading is the best way to learn how to write. And they’re right.