Saturday, June 30, 2012

Since I'm On Vacation...

I'm on vacation. Thus I've been letting accustomed duties lapse--like thinking of something clever to say on this blog. My bad. If you want to move on, I understand. It's my fault.

However, I wasn't always on vacation. A while back I read and reverse-engineered Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." I wrote it up elsewhere and for your reading pleasure, I've reprised it here.

I present to you a summer rerun: Reverse Engineering Hemingway:


I recently heard a reading of this short story by Ernest Hemingway. When it was done, I went "Wow. What a great story! How could he write that?"

First off, a story like that with a WOW climax is designed from the beginning with Francis Macomber's sudden death. Step backwards, how does he die? His wife shoots him. Step back, why does she kill him? They have an unhappy marriage. Why? Because they despise each other. Why don't they divorce? Because he is terribly rich and she's too old to find a richer husband. Because he is a coward.

A coward, eh? What disturbs the status quo that causes her to kill him now? He finds his nerve. Not all cowards are doomed to stay that way, some grow up and become men. (Remember, this is Hemingway, and men are men and Women are cruel decorations.) If she doesn't kill him right now, he'll leave her.
All right, what setting will have a man manifest cowardice and shortly thereafter find his nerve? Hemingway likes Africa, the American reading public likes Africa, and a big game hunt is a pastime of the rich where there are lots of guns about. Easy enough to make the murder look like a hunting accident. And with Africa being fairly remote you don't have much in the way of law enforcement about, and African big game guides make for better characters than, say, Canadian Indian guides.

Moreover, Hemingway has spent his money from the other stories he's sold going to Africa and doing manly things there. He can use his journals as filler until he gets the word count he needs.

OK. If I were Hemingway, I'd have the outline of the story set (in my head at least and if I'm me, i'll have it on paper). With the outline clearly defined, we can drop a few clues to foreshadow the climactic murder scene, but give them a plausible non-murderous meaning in the immediate context so as not to spoil the surprise when Macomber catches a bullet from his wife.

All right, now Hemingway can start writing.

No, wait. Not yet. He needs a hook. Something that'll cast that "can't put it down" spell on the reader. Start with a celebration that has a dark shadow inside it. Yeah, they return from the hunt with the bearers carrying Macomber to his tent while he's miserable, his wife is openly sorrowful, but subtly contemptuous, and the guide is disgusted and wondering how the rest of the safari will go. OK. everybody's unhappy and the reader doesn't know why?

Great, start writing...

Wait, spin the ending so that the reader isn't quite sure if its murder or not. Yeah, ambiguity is good. 

And, no I have no idea whether Hemingway thought this way or not. He was probably a pantser.

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