Got writer’s block? Don’t try to conquer it on your own. Find a little menace.
“I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story.” — Raymond Carver. On Writing. 1981.
The legendary short story writer Raymond Carver held Flannery O’Connor in such high esteem that it’s easy to imagine he was thinking of her most famous story when he penned these words. Here he outlines the perfect recipe for a rich and satisfying story, and the fiction writer would do well to study this advice within the context of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” While a violent criminal known as “The Misfit” does emerge, this classic story is driven by the “menace” of the protagonist. The scheming grandmother delivers the conflict, the motion, and the tension.
A first lesson for any beginning writer is to recognize the importance of conflict to a story. This one provides a textbook example of how to establish it quickly and effectively. In fact, in what other story is the conflict so quickly laid bare? With the very first sentence, “The grandmother did not want to go to Florida,” the stage is set. Although she is unsuccessful in changing the destination of the family vacation, she does manage to control the motion by engineering a detour.
In an attempt to relive her youth, she baits the children into convincing their father to take them off the main highway in search of a mysterious plantation house with secret hiding places. By the time she remembers that the house is actually located in Tennessee, the cat she had stowed in a basket suddenly springs forth and causes the wreck that delivers them directly into the path of the Misfit. Their doom is sealed by her arrogance. Her desire for supremacy overrules any sense of caution for as soon as she knows who he is, she immediately confronts him. “You’re the Misfit!” she says. The Misfit’s reaction is calm but ominous: “It would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”
The menace is also responsible for simmering tensions in the form of family dysfunction, which heightens the conflict in the story. The grandmother is a master of manipulation, and her weak son is easy prey. Bailey has many opportunities to stand up to her but fails. In the end, once they are at the mercy of the Misfit, he tries unsuccessfully to take charge but finds himself immobile. “ ‘Hush! Everybody shut up and let me handle this!’ He was squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn’t move.” To the end, even as he is pulled into the woods to be shot, he acknowledges his mother’s hold over him. “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!”
Either tyranny skips a generation in this family or June Star and Wesley are simply emulating their grandmother but nonetheless these two are despots in miniature. They are more than disrespectful to their elders; they use aggression—both verbal and physical—to have their way: “John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother’s shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do.” In spite of their obnoxiousness, however, they are nothing more than their grandmother’s pawns. She knows precisely how to rally them to her cause. “ ‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, ‘and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .’ ”
The story reaches its climax when the grandmother locks horns with the Misfit, and the story’s most meaningful showdown ensues. Here she has met her match. While she continues to employ manipulation as her weapon, there is a new desperation. Helpless against the physical power of the tall Misfit, his henchmen, and their guns, the grandmother’s superiority dissolves into obsequiousness: “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people!”
The two do forge a bond of some sort, and the Misfit unburdens his heart. He apologizes for his lack of a shirt and divulges details about his upbringing and his supposed injustices. The tension escalates as the members of the grandmother’s family are shot, one by one, and in a futile attempt to save herself, the menace turns evangelist. “If you would pray,” she says, “Jesus would help you.”
Their conversation ends abruptly when she goes too far and hits a nerve. “She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.”
Even though she has to die in this story, the grandmother and the Misfit appear to have an enduring impact on one another. She may indeed have found salvation, as indicated by her smiling dead face and he, by acknowledging his own distaste for his crimes, does confess to owning a conscience of some sort. The story’s most famous line reinforces her murderer’s role as redeemer: “ ‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ ”
Much has been written about religious symbolism and the question of grace in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but for the student seeking to understand the more basic elements of a story, he or she can learn volumes about conflict by studying the role of the grandmother. Such characters can propel the conflict, tension and even the plot of a story. The menace may be annoying, despicable or even downright evil, but such a character is never dull. And their appearance is sure to help you solve even the most stubborn case of writer’s block.