Writing Right with Dmitri: Collateral Damage

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Tip of the Week: Extended-adjective modifiers are adjectives that consist of two or more words. ALL of these words need to be hyphenated. No, British office workers do not get to decide this issue unilaterally.

A left-handed monkey wrench.

A twenty-one-year-old driver.

A never-to-be-forgotten experience.

See it, say it, use it. The Editor is tired of manipulating the cursor. At 67, the small-motor functions (note the hyphen!) are not what they used to be.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Collateral Damage

Editor at work.

I had this wonderful aunt called Cooter. Her real name was Geneva. A cooter is a turtle in Mississippi. Don't ask. My mother was Monkey to her family. These things just happened. You had to have been there, I supposed.

Cooter was my first literature instructor. I borrowed her books: Huckleberry Finn, Shakespeare, Jane Eyre. I read her Reader's Digests while the grownups shared news. I read her newspaper, the one we didn't get at home. The one with the better comics and satire columns. I know I was doing this at a ridiculously young age because I remember events from the 1950s, and I was eight years old when the 60s started. I had no business doing any of this. My excuse is that I was bored, and most of the time, it was too hot in Memphis to stay outdoors for more than 15 minutes unless there was a body of water to jump into. So I read.

I also watched television. Critically, because of Cooter. She taught me Deconstruction 101, long before Slavoj Zizek came along to spoil people's naïve pleasures. From Cooter I learned about narrative structure. Every week, we'd go over to the house she shared with Babe, our grandmother, and watch Perry Mason with Cooter. She'd feed us snacks and show us the finer points of detective fiction.

'See that man? He's the defendant. Perry Mason's his lawyer. That means he's innocent. We have to look elsewhere for the criminal.'

Later: 'See that man in the courtroom? He's the business partner. He's guilty. In exactly…' consults watch, 'four minutes, he's going to jump up and shout, "I did it! And I'm glad!"'

Four minutes pass, exactly. The business partner jumps up and shouts, 'I did it! And I'm glad!' The show cuts to a commercial. Cooter gets us popcorn. I have learned deconstruction.

Another thing I learned from Cooter was to despise the FBI. No, not Mr Comey. I adore Mr Comey. I would like to pat him on the head, which I could do only if he were sitting down and I were standing up. I mean the FBI of the Prohibition era. They were portrayed by very boring actors weekly on a series called The Untouchables, where they usually shot at better actors. Here's a sample shootout. The guest stars were Martin Landau and Jack Klugman, who were probably glad to be shot so they could go home and yell at their agents.

Cooter pointed out, 'It's very dangerous to be a bystander in The Untouchables.' She was absolutely right: they almost always shot all the bystanders. Tommy guns aren't precision instruments. It was particularly dangerous to be an eyewitness. In this episode, exceptionally, Ness and his G-men used a ruse to protect an eyewitness, but this almost never happened. They usually shot everybody in sight. And as always, they get away with it. It's enough to make you cheer for the Bad Guys.

I attribute my subversive attitudes largely to my Cold War television viewing experiences. Thanks, Cooter.

Keeping Track of Collateral Damage

You are not, I hope, currently working on a noir story with lots of shootouts. I realise that, now that I have said this, Freewayriding will go out and do this exact thing. But I doubt the rest of you are interested in gats. Nonetheless, your stories have collateral damage in them. Let's discuss this.

In narratives, actions have consequences. What kinds of consequences? The ones you, as a writer, believe in. Or that you believe happen. Or that, conversely, you want to have happen. Why do you want them to happen? You may want them to happen to illustrate a point you want to make. You may want them to happen because you believe this result will please your audience. You may simply believe that this is the way reality works.

Bad Guys get shot in The Untouchables because audiences like what my grandfather on the other family side disgustedly called 'shoot-'em-ups'. Granddaddy hated 'shoot-'em-ups'. He'd turn on the other channel – they only had two in the mountains – find a variety show, and insist that we 'watch the purty people'. My grandfather was a gem. He didn't know anything about deconstruction, but he knew what he didn't want to see on that-air television screen, and that was useless violence. I got my pacifist tendencies from him.

Back to collateral damage. 1950s audiences didn't care if you shot all the extras. It made the story more 'exciting'. You couldn't shoot the regulars, no matter how much they deserved it, because they were on salary. When you write, ask yourself:

  • Is this collateral damage necessary?
  • Does it serve a purpose within the narrative?
  • Does the damage support the underlying message of my story?
  • Is the damage well-motivated? Does it make sense within the logic of the story? Or am I hitting the reader with a bolt-out-of-the-blue plot twist simply in order to generate artificial excitement?

'Collateral damage' doesn't only involve shooting bystanders. It may not involve death at all, or even picturesque serious illness. It could mean mental anguish, experiential trauma, or abrupt changes in relationship. I'm not saying your victims have to deserve their fates. I'm saying you need to consider why you have so afflicted them, and what purpose said affliction serves in your story. The decisions, as always, are yours to make. I'm just pointing them out, as Cooter did in front of the TV so many years ago. I miss her, can you tell?

Now: for homework, go and watch Anesthesia, a 90-minute film by Tim Blake Nelson. You can find it on Netflix. It's low-key and emotionally moving. It isn't preachy, but it's about a philosophy professor. The professor is stabbed in New York City in the first moments of the film. Hang in there, you'll understand. The examination of collateral damage in that film is profound.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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