Tag Archives: Flannery O’Connor

A Little Menace

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.

The Turning Point

I’ve blogged before about the key elements of a novel.  Tonight I’d like to touch on the short story. For its brevity and eloquence, it’s one of my favorite forms, both to read and to write. Some of the world’s best-known novelists continue to experiment with this short form and for good reason. She’s a tough and relentless mistress, but once a writer succeeds with one, he feels as if the curtain separating us from the divine has parted just for a moment. That all-too brief glimpse is a wonderful and terrible moment because once you have experienced it you are forever trying to capture it again. The rewards for the reader run in parallel. The curtain parts and for the briefest of moments we are in sympathy with each other.

What makes a great short story? As much as I enjoy them, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve studied enough of the classics to know, however, that these masterpieces share something. They all have a major turning point for the principal character. The point at which this character realizes that their world will never been the same. Novels may have multiple turning points but short stories only have room for one. The author, and Flannery O’Connor is the best at this, may hint at the turning point, but it is up to the reader to figure out just when it actually happens.

In a “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” we know that the grandmother is malicious and scheming. We know that she has misled her family into veering off the main highway and causes them to fall into the hands of the notorious criminal, the Misfit. The turning point for the grandmother is the point when she lays eyes upon the Misfit. “His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.” And while later in the story, she will ask the Misfit to pray, she will touch him, call him one of her “babies,” and ultimately be shot by him, for me this first moment of recognition is what sets the wheels in motion for the grandmother.

Another example is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace.” In it, this master of the short story also foreshadows the end of Southern belle Sally Carrol’s engagement to northerner Harry Bellamy. The moment that it ends for Sally Carrol, however, is the moment she finds herself lost in a palace built of ice. “It was an icy breath of death; it was rolling down low across the land to clutch at her.” At that point, you know, you just know that she will not marry Harry and that she will happily return to the Southern “boys” that were beneath her before. And when she does, for the reader, there is that delicious little tickle in the pit of your stomach that tells you that you were right!

One story that I will also love forever is Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog.” And not just because I have a little white spitz, and not just because of the main character’s ironic observations about the people around him, but because of the way Gurov describes the moment he knows that this love affair will be different. “Anna Sergeevna looked at the ship and the passengers through her lorgnette, as if searching for acquaintances, and when she turned to Gurov, her eyes shone.” I’m sure this is even more beautiful in Russian, but for me it’s indelibly lyrical in English.  If you have never read this story, you simply must. The ending paragraph is one of the most exquisite of all short stories, even rivaling O’Connor’s fabled (and very different) ending of “A Good Man.”

There are many other key parts of a good story: unforgettable characters, pivotal scenes, and a strong sense of place, but what brings them all together for me is that turning point. I’ve been told several times by good writers that “there’s no money in short stories.” Perhaps that’s true, but the rewards of writing them are endless and lead to the kind of skills that will help you write longer works. So, if you’re like me, who’s working my way through two short stories (not to mention the sequel to my novel), take some time to read over your favorite short stories and identify that crucial turning point. But beware. It’s the moment where your world may also change forever.