Annie Proulx’s prologue (that wasn’t in the New Yorker)
Anne Hawley is the author of Restraint, a love story set in 19th Century London. She’s a Story Grid Certified Editor specializing in literary and historical fiction, and is the producer of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast.
[0:00:00.5] AH: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment. My name is Anne Hawley and I’m an experienced novelist trying to ground my craft more solidly in Story Grid methodology. I’ve agreed to be the lab rat in the masterwork experiment, which Shawn Coyne is conducting as a test of his latest writing and editing methods.
Shawn is the creator of the Story Grid method, the author of the book The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, and an editor with many years’ experience in the big New York publishing houses. In the masterwork experiment, Shawn and I analyze Annie Proulx’s short novella, Brokeback Mountain, with an eye to understanding what it’s made of right down to the beat level.
Then my job will be to write a novella of my own using exactly the same beats and structure, but set in Regency England, with a very different style and voice that that setting demands. Last week, we continued examining the beats of Brokeback Mountain and I as usual, got a little bit down into the weeds. This week, I finished the micro-beat analysis and we both get a little lost in admiration of Annie Proulx’s remarkable multi-layered prose.
It’s another fun episode, so put on your white coat and safety goggles and step into the laboratory for Episode 6 of the Masterwork Experiment.
[0:01:16.3] AH: Well, good morning, Shawn.
[0:01:17.9] SC: Good morning, Anne.
[0:01:18.8] AH: I went over what we said last time when we said we were going to start on scene 9, but we actually finished scene 9 and we’re going to start on scene 10.
[0:01:25.6] SC: Okay. Well, what I always like to do whenever I start anything is to just go back and even though we both know what we’re doing, let’s just state it again.
What the whole masterwork experiment is about, is looking at a masterwork and in this case, it’s Brokeback Mountain, at the highest level of resolution that we possibly can, so that you the writer, Anne, can go through that high-resolution analysis and use it as a template to create your own original work, which will be inspired by Brokeback Mountain, but will be in a different time period, featuring different characters, different clothing, all that stuff.
Where we are now is we’re in about the middle of the middle build and we’ll take this as far as we can. The goal here is to get the highest resolution analysis first, and then we’ll take it step by step and you’ll do some work on a scene or two and we’ll go through it that way, so that you’re not trying to completely write the entire thing in one shot and then hand it over to your editor, which is me. Then that’s just too much. I think just doing it, working it deliberately with a lot of focus and intention, this is what the whole experiment is about.
The most important thing right now is for us to get a very clear high-resolution document that you can use as inspiration. Right now, we’re on scene 10 of a – how many scenes is it? 17 scenes or something?
[0:02:58.0] AH: 17 I think is what I came up with.
[0:02:59.8] SC: Yeah. We’re a little bit further than halfway.
[0:03:02.6] AH: Well, good. I’m going to need some extra help this time, because breaking down the first few scenes, I got down to those micro-beats and they were like a 100 words, or 20 words, or little tiny pieces. When I got to this part, I don’t know whether it’s me and my brain, or the actual structure of the story, but the beats seem longer. There’s more in them.
Maybe I just got where I couldn’t see a breaking point. What I have here is what I came up with, but it feels I might have missed a few things, or I’m not defining them very accurately. Should we just take a look and see what we’ve got?
[0:03:36.1] SC: Yeah. I mean, I do have one comment about that. If you were to assume and I think you should assume this, that you did not just suddenly lose your ability to pick out a beat, so you were to assume that you’re continuing with the expertise that you already have and the beats are getting longer in this mental build, can you think of a reason why that might be?
[0:04:04.1] AH: Well, the middle build is 50% of the story, so it’s longer, it’s twice as long as the other two, and needs to be built out with more – well, basically the middle build is all about progressive complications in the global story. The beats have to be longer, there has to be more in them.
[0:04:23.2] SC: Well, if you look at it in terms of narrative drive, it makes sense that the early parts of the story are going to be Gatling gun microbeads, because what the writer is doing, her intention is to really suck the reader in with lots of really varied information that is very specific. Now, we’re moving into the middle build of the story, which is also these two characters coming into middle age, right?
What happens when we get into the middle of things is we slow it down and the days go on and on. Also, she’s already really clearly introduced these two guys to us, so that we generally know who they are and what they were about. Now, she can put a little wind underneath the story, and that’s why I think the beats are a little bit longer. That’s my hypothesis to that question. Let’s go through it now and see if I’m close, or if I’m wrong, or if I just made all that up.
[0:05:31.7] AH: Okay.
[0:05:33.9] SC: I think I’m pretty good on that. Yeah.
[0:05:36.7] AH: Well, I imagine that you probably are, Shawn. I wasn’t so sure about myself. Well, let’s start with scene 10 then. We’re in the middle build and this is the scene where after Jack and Ennis are magnetically drawn together in their reunion kiss, they run off together leaving Alma alone. The note that I made in this first paragraph, they went off in Jack’s truck, bought a bottle of whiskey and okay, note the next 11 words. Within 20 minutes, we’re in the motel siesta, jonesing a bed. My note was, a sex scene in 11 words, which is quite an accomplishment.
[0:06:14.7] SC: Yeah. It’s all you really need, right? I mean, it’s perfectly.
[0:06:18.3] AH: Perfectly clear.
[0:06:20.3] SC: It’s just enough. Yeah. It’s just enough.
[0:06:23.5] AH: The amazing thing is that the next sentence, which appears on its surface to be just scene setting, there’s hail outside, rain. Every word she chooses in that next sentence contributes to the sex scene without being obvious, “A slippery banging through the night.” It’s amazing. You can’t address these beats in this story without addressing the absolutely incredible distillation she does.
[0:06:53.4] SC: Yes. It’s also, it echoes the very beginning of the story with the dust that rattles Ennis’s trailer.
[0:07:01.3] AH: Yeah, yeah.
[0:07:02.5] SC: It’s very much foreboding. It’s a brilliant sentence, because you’re right, it’s all about the fecundity of the sex, but it’s also a foreboding of death. You’ve got this life and death all wrapped up into one sentence that echoes the very beginning of the story in the very ending of the story.
[0:07:23.2] AH: The word unsecured. Just I stopped and I just moved my mouth open. The deeper I go into this story, the more amazed I become. Okay, the next beat is I just called a pillow talk, basically, post-sex pillow talk. It goes on for quite a while. They discuss after having sex how they were both planning to do what they just did. It’s nice to know that they both wanted it and it just took a long time for them to get back together.
[0:07:52.6] SC: Yeah. I also liked the fact that Ennis addresses that punch that made Jack’s job black and blue and he thought that maybe that’s why he hadn’t contacted him in four years. I also think it was the right choice to have Jack contact Ennis first with that initial postcard. Anyway, yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what this beat is all about. It’s about catching up.
[0:08:16.7] AH: Yeah. They go on to a confession of failure. Jack is talking about his unsuccessful rodeoing career and he seems to be confessing that he hasn’t done very well in the four years that they’ve been apart. Then we go on to complaints. I made a note here, “Jack likes to complain.” He complains a lot in the story.
In fact, a lot of what he says is just complaining. Here’s a big long complaint about rodeoing and how bad it’s been for him and how it doesn’t work out for him and nothing works out for him. That’s that beat.
[0:08:52.8] SC: Yes. I absolutely agree with you on that beat. I’m going to point out a convention that you may or may not agree with. This goes also to gender stuff. The complaining of Jack, it’s almost as if he is playing the victim in search of a rescuer. That’s an old chestnut, cheesy love story convention that is very perfectly delivered in this story, without it being obvious, or anything of that sort.
Jack looks to Ennis like, “When are you going to rescue me? I’ve gone through hell these last four years and I haven’t heard a word from you. I knew you love me. I sent you the postcard and you immediately got back to me. I just want you to know everything isn’t okay on my end of the equation. I need somebody to take control, save me from my misery.”
[0:09:59.3] AH: That’s amazing, okay? Because I read – I look this over fairly carefully and I did not get that out of it. How long does it take working with this, before an individual, me for example, gets better at seeing that larger picture? Because boy, I hear what you say, it makes perfect sense and it’s like, “Why didn’t I see that?”
[0:10:21.0] SC: Well, it’s just a different – we wear different glasses. We both have glasses, so it’s a good metaphor. My glasses are all about macro-story structure 24/7. You’re a writer. You’ve got to have where your writer glasses majority of the time. You’re more micro high-resolution thinker right now, as you should be, and that’s why when you can find a good relationship with an editor, that’s how you complement one another. It’s not that you didn’t see it, it’s that what you’re doing is you’re looking for the practical prescriptive solutions to your, “I’ve got to write a story like Brokeback Mountain problem,” right?
[0:11:11.9] AH: Yeah.
[0:11:12.4] SC: I don’t have to write the story. I get the opportunity to move my gaze in and out of the structure and think about global conventions and obligatory scenes, which aren’t going to be the main focus for you, because you’re going beat by beat. I suspect to answer your question that if you were working with a writer and you were working as an editor, you would probably pick that up, because your mind and your brain would be attuned to that subtextual, symphonic beat.
The other thing is that I’ve been concocting and thinking about this methodology for so long that it’s almost second nature to me. Coincidentally, I’m working on something that’s a love story, a love story scene, so I’ve had to dive deep into the romantic tradition, all of that stuff that we covered two years ago at the Pride and Prejudice seminar.
I wouldn’t worry about – You definitely have the facility. If somebody asked you, “Hey, can you come up with some of that convention stuff with the gender switching and the clarity of it?” Then you would have been attuned to it.
[0:12:30.0] AH: Yeah. Okay, maybe so. I hope you’re right. Moving on now, the next thing that seems to happen, I noted this next this passage. I guess we’d see it as a beat. As one of them is honest and the other one lies, one looks back and the other one looks forward, Ennis seems to be being perfectly honest. He’s saying, “Here we are. We both got wives and kids. I like doing it with women, but it’s nothing like this with you.” He asks Jack, “Do you do it with other guys?” Jack says, “Shit, no.” Then the narrator, the omniscient narrator comes in and says basically, “Yes, he has.” Jack’s lying. Jack’s covering.
[0:13:16.0] SC: I love it. He would been running more than bulls. It’s a great one.
[0:13:20.0] AH: Yeah, right? He was in bulls, not rolling his own. Great choices of language there. Ennis says, “That summer when we split up, it took me about a year to figure out that I shouldn’t let you get out of my sights.” I feel in this beat, Ennis is being more honest than Jack.
Jack keeps trying to look forward like, “We got to figure out what to do.” Ennis is saying, “There’s nothing we can do. I’m looking backwards. I built a life. You got your baby. Here’s what’s already happened. There is no future,” seems to be what he says.
[0:13:58.3] SC: Yeah. The dealing with truthful reality – factual, I would say factual reality, because there are two kinds of looks at truth. The first one is objective fact. If it’s 86 degrees outside, that’s an objective fact. Objects and objective facts are about matter, what is. Now subjective truth is more story-driven.
That’s about what matters. We attach value to objects. That’s what the difference between an objective fact and a subjective truth is. Objects are scientifically derived. It doesn’t matter if I measure the temperature outside, or you do, we’re both going to get the same number.
Whereas, whether or not the weather bothers us, that’s a subjective interpretation. For me, it might be really blistering hot, I can’t stand it, and you might be like “Yeah, this is fine.” That is the difference between objective fact and subjective truth. Ennis is an objectively factual person. That’s how he speaks. From Ennis’s point of view, it seems as if he’s telling honest truths, because he is an objectively factual person.
He says things like, “I like doing it with women.” That’s a subjective truth. Whereas Jack, Jack is more about the subjective truth. Is it factual that he has slept with other men and not Ennis? Yeah, that’s objectively, factually true. To Jack, it’s not subjectively true, because it wasn’t like a betrayal of their love, according to Jack.
What you have in these passages about the statements of the way they see the world. This is a brilliant way to clearly get the reader to understand the world views of Ennis and Jack. Ennis is just a realist and Jack is a romantic.
[0:16:21.9] AH: You could also say that Ennis lacks imagination and Jack has a lot of imagination.
[0:16:27.2] SC: That’s right. That’s right. Maybe Ennis has imagination when it comes to some craft of horse craft, or shepherding, or whatever. Yeah, Jack’s a dreamer and Ennis is a realist. The two, you need – From the Jungian point of view, you’ve got half of one person and the other half of one person, then they’re together, right? That’s the beauty of the love story is that it brings our one persona that we have chosen to identify with.
We are attracted to the opposite in some ways and it never does she writes something as stupid as he found Jack to be just the opposite of himself, which she never does anything on the nose, but this is the way she handled getting that information to the reader, right? “Oh, I’ll just have these two guys have a conversation about what’s been going on. Ennis will speak very factually and Jack will speak truthfully from his subjective worldview, which is, ‘You’ve got to rescue me man. This is no good. I’m breaking my body in the rodeo and I had to marry this woman. Yeah, and maybe we have a little bit of money, but it’s meaningless to me.’” Here we go, another 400 words tops, and she gets all that done.
[0:17:55.8] AH: Yeah. The next section where Ennis is explaining about the punch; he talks about how he grew up under his 3-year-older brother and learned to hit his way out of problems. I identified this as an actual seen type that one has seen in other stories and it’s a childhood story to help explain the present. A character tells something about their past, trying to explain how they are in the present, “Here’s my past trauma.”
[0:18:23.2] SC: It’s so great. That’s really a great analytical point. The other day I was answering questions from some students and they were asking, how do you handle flashback? Every time I hear the word ‘flashback’, I want to jump off a bridge, because it’s so cheesy; flashback. How does Annie Proulx handle it? She uses it as ammunition, right?
As you say, he’s telling a story about his past which informs the reader the exposition of his past, but he’s telling Jack for a specific reason. He’s trying to get Jack on his side. He’s trying to get him to understand what it was like being a young Ennis. He’s explaining himself to a the person that he loves.
[0:19:16.5] AH: Well, and the choice to put it in these conditions of pillow-talk intimacy makes it believable that Ennis might finally be able to come out with this story of his traumatic past, where he wouldn’t if he was on horseback up on the mountain doing his job, being a man, right? In this intimate setting, he can let go and reveal some of this.
[0:19:36.7] SC: Yes. What does it do? It builds the intimacy between the two characters after they’ve shared physical intimacy. This is how people grow close. Yeah, you you’re not going to reveal stuff like that about yourself on a one-night stand with somebody.
That’s what Brokeback Mountain was the beginning of. It was just a one-night stand physical attraction. Then it became much larger. How she’s building this in the middle build is she’s putting some wind, meaning she’s allowing herself more room to get these beats across, because yeah, these guys are tired. They’re just shooting the shit.
[0:20:23.1] AH: Yeah. Defenses are down and walls are down.
[0:20:27.1] SC: Yeah. I love that notion of the beat, which is a childhood story to explain the present. The one thing I would advise people when you do use that in your own work is to take the lesson from Annie Proulx and don’t go on and on and on. Just boil it down to its essence and then move on.
[0:20:49.7] AH: Good advice. The next beat, actually as I look at it, it’s not all that much different from when Mr. Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s like the premature declaration. Jack’s moving too fast. He starts to talk about getting a ranch together and it’s too much for Ennis.
[0:21:10.9] SC: That’s really great. That’s exactly right. It’s too much, too soon. It’s the too early declaration of love, which is a convention in the love story.
[0:21:21.4] AH: Yup. All in a tiny bit of dialog. I love it so much.
[0:21:27.3] SC: I know.
[0:21:29.3] AH: In response to that, we introduce the necessary conflict. I identified it tentatively as it can’t be that easy, because Ennis doesn’t believe it can be that easy. It also introduces the life-and-death stakes involved in there, having an ongoing live together relationship.
[0:21:49.0] SC: Yeah, absolutely. It’s also, I don’t know if how deeply I want to get into this, but there’s these two philosophical ways in which human beings have lived in the world and pre-Bronze Age, when the Greeks and the Israelites came online and India and China and all those places. The way you lived in the world, you lived in a loop, you lived in a cycle of the natural world.
When Ennis says, “Caught in my own loop,” that loop is you have to follow the seasons, you have to follow natural movements of the universe. The way Jack looks at the world is what happened, it’s called the axial – what’s it called? The axial revolution. Karen Armstrong wrote a great book about this. That’s the two world-world and that’s where Jack lives.
The two worlds are the everyday, normal reality that doesn’t seem to make any sense. Then there’s this spiritual higher ground, where things are really real. If we can just get our act together, we can get up to that place through transcending our own humanity in a way. That’s a romantic vision.
The notion of this loop is a really great drop-in, because it accused these very deep cultural understandings in all readers, whether or not you know all this stuff about the Stone Age, look at the worldview and the axial revolution, it doesn’t really matter, because that’s the way all of us are trying to negotiate that worldview. A person like Ennis is not going to say, “Oh, well. I’m going to plan for the future, because the future if I can transcend myself, then things will be great.” He’s like, “No, man. I’m caught in my loop. I love you man, but it’s not in the cards.
It’s 1963, two guys can’t live together on a ranch, or they’re going to get killed bro. Let’s just face facts here, buddy. I love you, but I’ve got a wife and kids and you’ve got a wife, so let’s just keep moving forward and have our efficient trips.” It’s the confrontation of those two philosophical ways to navigate the world. Again, five sentences.
[0:24:14.1] AH: Also, in choice of words here, she could have said, “Caught in my own circle or something,” but the word loop takes us back to his – he’s a cowboy and he ropes cattle and stuff, so there’s that loop idea there, that just every word choices. Spot on.
The next beat we move to is negotiating down. They negotiate for a medium as an acceptable medium between the must and the can’t. That ends the scene. It ends on a hollow ringing began in the next room. It’s not a great solution, it’s hollow, but it’s the best they can come to at the time.
[0:24:52.5] SC: It’s a best bad choice, your reconcilable good. It’s Story Grid 101.
[0:25:02.3] AH: It only took us 30 minutes through this one scene. Should we move on to scene 11?
[0:25:08.6] SC: Yes.
[0:25:09.8] AH: In the beginning of this scene, we have a long transition several paragraphs covering about nine or 10 years and describing major life changes, because Ennis and almost marriage dissolves. It’s just a long description, leading up to – zooming in on a moment where time slows down and expands. They’re at Thanksgiving dinner.
The next scene where a bit part of the scene, where Alma takes Ennis to the kitchen; he’s come to Alma’s new home for Thanksgiving, and she draws him off to the kitchen. To me, this scene is like a courtroom scene almost. She’s accusing him and he’s defending and it’s a truth will out trial scene.
[0:25:54.3] SC: Yeah. I would definitely say the same thing. Yeah, it’s a bit of an interrogation, just to let him know that, “You didn’t fool me. I know what’s up with you and Jack.” It’s assertion of power. She’s letting him know, “I’ve got something on you and you better continue to behave in the way I want you to, or I’m going to call you on it in a way that can get you killed.”
[0:26:21.0] AH: To which he acts out violently.
[0:26:22.9] SC: Completely in character, right? That’s exactly what he tell Jack. That’s the way I was raised. If somebody starts to assert their power over you, you got to fight him physically. There you go.
[0:26:37.0] AH: That’s scene 11. I identified three beats in scene 11.
[0:26:41.6] SC: It’s also thematically, he’s losing his power. He’s getting older, time is flying by, he had an opportunity, didn’t he? His wife left him. He has a good relationship with his daughters, as good as you can if you’re not around them. He had an opportunity. He didn’t do anything about it. Now he’s losing his power and his ex-wife is like, “I’m more powerful than you are now.” That’s why he lashes out violently. It’s a great shift and it’s also thematically about him growing older.
[0:27:19.6] AH: Yeah. It’s passive aggressive in the end. It says, he didn’t try to see his girls until they grew up enough to come and see him. “Okay, you’re going to treat me like this. I’m taking myself away from my daughters and I’m just going to walk away.”
[0:27:35.3] SC: Yeah. It’s a moment of deep – I don’t think it’s guilt. It’s shame. Usually when you live in shame, the collateral damage is really extensive. What did he do because he was ashamed of himself? He denied his daughters a father. Not cool.
[0:27:55.0] AH: Right. Right. In scene 12, again we have another long transition passage of time, using phrases like years on years. Basically, this transition tells us that they cover a huge amount of geography, but they never return to Brokeback Mountain. Then it moves into a beat where it seems to be showing how their differences, Jack and Ennis’s differences are growing greater. I identified these as class differences. We talked about this in an earlier episode, where Jack is doing better financially and he has his teeth fixed and his accent is changing and he’s becoming a different person. He’s changing and Ennis isn’t.
[0:28:42.3] SC: Yeah. That goes back to that – the loop concept, where you don’t leave the circle. Because if you leave the circle and you change your future, it destroys your past. People who believe in that natural flow of life – It’s true. The minute you aspire, or have ambitions to do something interesting, or new, or fresh, it separates you from the people that you grow up with.
[0:29:14.1] AH: Yeah. I have a question about the next beat, which I identified as a false alarm. They run into the bear. I cannot figure out what that beat is in there for.
[0:29:24.8] SC: Oh. Well, it’s foreshadowing of inevitable trauma and terror.
[0:29:30.8] AH: Okay. It’s very vivid. Interestingly, in the movie they move it to a different part of the story. They do have a bear scene in the movie, but they shifted it to a different place in the story. In the movie, it passes by, so it’s interesting and exciting and there’s action in it. Here, I really found myself wondering, “Why did they need this alarm, this false alarm?” Turns out to be nothing, right? The bear wanders off without any effort on their part.
[0:29:56.0] SC: Well, they’re living in a dangerous world and there are great powerful things that are aligned against them. That’s what the bear is. Now the purpose why she put it in there is it foreshadows the death of Jack in a way that isn’t obvious. Having the bear there is this moment of tension that the reader, “Oh, my God. What’s going to happen? Suspense, suspense. Whew. Thank, God. They avoided that.”
Then later on, it’s a setup for the payoff of Jack’s death, so that when Jack does die, there’s five or six moments prior to his death that she plants there, so that it’s not massively – it’s like, “Oh, yeah. It was only inevitable. Jack, he slept around, he has a big mouth.” Then all that evidence just supports the fact that Jack was – he was a pioneer. He was a revolutionary force.
What happens to people like that is they get killed. He was a rebel. He was who he was and he wasn’t ashamed of who he was. He didn’t think that there was anything wrong with being who he was. People like that before other – things don’t end well for them. That’s why she has this bear scene, is to foreshadow that moment of death, I think.
[0:31:26.7] AH: That’s interesting. I’m also now thinking that the bear might also be symbolic of their relationship, because she ends this beat with, “The startled bear galloped into the trees with the lumpish gate that made it seem it was falling apart.”
[0:31:42.2] SC: Yeah.
[0:31:43.7] AH: It’s like every word does four jobs. It’s just amazing. I’ll keep being amazed. Then the final beat of this scene, I identified as somehow love endures. Things are getting ragged around the edges here. It’s falling apart, but they managed to end this moment on they’re together, they’re having a bottle of whiskey together and Jack says, “The whiskey is one of the two things I need right now,” and tosses the bottle to Ennis. You feel like, okay, maybe they’re going to stick together, one way or another. I mean, they still love each other.
[0:32:19.5] SC: Yeah. Yeah. It’s bittersweet.
[0:32:22.7] AH: Yeah. The whole thing is bittersweet. A friend of mine is listening too. There’s an audiobook version of this story out there and she is listening to it. She hadn’t read it, or seen the movie or anything before. She texted me, just a text with a flood of tears emoji [inaudible 0:32:40.9], because that’s how you feel in this story.
Going on to scene 13, which overall identified as time is passing and there’s both stuck in this loop. There’s another transitional beat, where she has some time pass on the third morning. It’s not years, it’s days in this case. Then I have another question here. Right after that, Ennis said he had been putting the blocks to a woman. He’s telling Jack that he’s been hitting on this gal in town, right? I don’t again, quite understand what that beat is about, unless it is merely to show that Ennis is determinately the path that he was raised to believe he has to pursue.
[0:33:22.5] SC: Yeah. It’s letting someone down easy.
[0:33:25.6] AH: Oh. Okay, that makes sense.
[0:33:28.0] SC: It’s just like, I know the big white elephant on the prairie is when Jack had said, “Let’s you and me get a place together.” That subtext is always around the two of them now. Ennis does things like this, just to keep reminding Jack still feel the same way, not going to get a place with you. The purpose of this beat is to justify Jack’s going with another man, which he does.
[0:33:58.8] AH: Yeah, which she does.
[0:34:01.8] SC: If you don’t have this, you love both characters and you love both characters, because they’re so fully formed and human, that you can relate to both sides of their worldviews. We can understand what Ennis is thinking. We can understand what’s Jack’s thinking, and we don’t damn Jack for “betraying or cheating” on the relationship.
[0:34:26.0] AH: No, not at all.
[0:34:27.2] SC: No, because Ennis is just – he can’t have that intimacy. It’s the tragedy of his life. He doesn’t leave his loop. He’s not going to change himself. He’s not going to think of a future that would include happiness.
[0:34:45.5] AH: What you just said about that beat, he’s breaking it to him gently, or leading up to breaking it to him gently. That makes sense now, because in the next, scene 14, my idea of the opening beat here is he’s breaking bad news in a cowardly way. Ennis finally comes out and says, “I can’t get away. I can’t be with you until November again.” He’s waited this whole time, this whole camping trip together to tell him what he’s known all along. It’s pretty cowardly.
[0:35:15.3] SC: Yeah. It supports the action that Jack takes after getting this information.
[0:35:20.8] AH: Right. Then what follows is what I’ve identified as a thrust and parry. It’s almost like a sword fight, only it’s verbal. There’s an accusation and a counter accusation. I defend myself and I’m going to accuse you. It winds up – well, she says it at the end of the paragraph that ends this beat, “Nothing ended, nothing begun, nothing resolved.”
[0:35:45.9] SC: Yeah. It’s like a marital spat that devolves into just two people separating and going their own way. This is the slow degradation of their intimate relationship that was described in the middle build scene after they had sex, when Ennis was telling Jack about his childhood and the reasons why he is who he is. Now these guys are just going to their separate corners now.
[0:36:15.5] AH: Right. It’s a draw. Nobody wins. They both lose. Then what follows is so interesting, because it parallels Ennis’s confession of this is what happened to me in childhood, is like looking back and explaining his present by a bad thing in the past. This one is a golden memory that Jack has, this pure omniscient narrator telling us what he thinks and remembers, right? His flashback is to why this relationship was so beautiful to him and how much he’s losing as a result of it. It’s similar in remembering an earlier time and using it to explain the present.
[0:36:55.1] SC: Yeah, I’d agree with that.
[0:36:57.4] AH: It’s beautiful. Just beautiful.
[0:37:00.6] SC: Really is.
[0:37:01.8] AH: Should we push on? We’ve got two more scenes. I think we can get there.
[0:37:04.2] SC: Yeah, let’s do it.
[0:37:05.2] AH: All right. Well, scene 15 brings us to the ending payoff. It starts out, bad news brings shock and grief. He gets the postcard back saying, “Deceased.” He has to deal with the shock of what happened. He deals with it by calling Jack’s phone number and ending up talking to Lureen, Jack’s wife, widow. I don’t need to go into the details of it, but he’s dealing with his shock and grief there.
Then in the phone call, I get another beat where for one thing, it’s a phone call scene, which just has its own interesting limitations for a writer, but someone fills in the missing pieces. He’s talking to Lureen and she gives him some of the puzzle pieces. Some truth starts to come out. It’s a very difficult conversation.
[0:37:52.0] SC: Its exposition is ammunition, because it’s brilliantly done in a way that we get all this stuff from – because you’re so locked into this, “Oh, my gosh. He’s talking to the wife of Jack. What’s this going to be?” Then she drops in all this exposition, because you’re really engaged in that conflicting battle between the two people. It’s the love triangle, right?
The love triangle is driving the narrative drive of the telephone call, which is as you say, it’s a very difficult thing to pull off, but it’s appropriate here. This is not going to go to Texas. Does he go to Texas?
[0:38:32.2] AH: No. He never goes farther than Lightning Flat.
[0:38:34.9] SC: That’s right. That was a big thing for him to do. I also want to say is that it’s very, very difficult when you k now that your ending payoff is going to be the death of one of the two characters in the love story. It’s very difficult to set that up in a way that it’s a solar plexus punch to the gut of the reader. The way she did this and the choice of getting up – what did he get? A postcard that –
[0:39:02.4] AH: Stamped, “Deceased.”
[0:39:04.6] SC: Deceased. Guess what that is? That’s an objective fact. You know what? You get what you live. If you want some objective facts, here you go brother. That’s the writer’s choice. It’s all consistent in character. He didn’t get a phone call from Lureen. No, he has to call her to get the expository information.
That big moment really, really works, because it works at the character level, it’s been set up about nine times in a way that was very, very light, so that when it does happen it’s a shock, but your mind trickles back to the rest of the story. You go, “Well, of course he got killed. He was sleeping around.” He’s in freaking Texas in 1963. Of course, he’s going to get killed.
[0:39:58.0] AH: She builds that up. The penultimate scene of the story is when Ennis visits the Twists, Jack’s parents and learns basically the whole truth. There’s another transition, a landscape description followed by what I called the meeting the parents beat, only tragically inverted. It has a lot of the same awkwardness of any meeting the parents, like meeting your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents, but it’s obviously tragic and terrible and full of subtext and silence, but still fits the mold of that type of scene with absolutely zero humor in it.
There’s some posturing between Jack’s father and Ennis. Then there’s what I identify as a brief beat of subversive act of kindness. Jack’s mother passive-aggressively is kind to Ennis, where Jack’s father is basically busy proving to Ennis, Ennis’s own beliefs anyway, right? Jack’s father is one of those guys who would have killed the two ranchers who lived together.
[0:40:56.1] SC: Exactly.
[0:40:57.0] AH: Then there’s another truthful out scene, where Jack’s father reveals pretty clearly what Ennis has only suspected so far, that Jack had a thing going on with somebody else. Now he knew it had been the tire iron. Sorry.
[0:41:19.1] SC: No, no. I was just having a emotional reaction.
[0:41:25.5] AH: Yeah. Then we have a nice, long very beautiful beat of what I can only identify as discovering an old memento. I know I’ve seen this scene. A very similar scene happens in say The Bridges of Madison County, for example, where after one of the people has died, we watch a character, or read a character discovering something about the dead lover, an actual physical memento, which in this case is the shirts.
That that winds up scene 16 and brings us to the final scene 17, where Ennis makes a memorial to Jack. I didn’t really break this down at all. That’s basically the whole scene. I mean, the beat – there’s a beat. It’s a scene. He makes a memorial to Jack. There’s some sub-beats in it where, he picks out a postcard, but I didn’t know how to break that down any further. Do you have any thoughts on that?
[0:42:17.2] SC: No. I think you just go with the flow of however the micro-events that have to occur to make that happen. It’s so unbelievable how well done this story is, because now he’s out of his loop, isn’t he? He’s living for a future. That future is when he’s dead and it could be with the guy he loves.
He has a very, very deep change and it cost him everything, everything. The character arc is very clear for Ennis here. That’s why he’s the protagonist. He’s someone who saw the world in one way and now he sees it differently. He’s living for the future time in some other nicer galaxy, where he’ll be with Jack again. They’re going to be back in Brokeback Mountain is where they’re going to go.
[0:43:18.8] AH: Right. Until then, you can’t fix it. You got to stand it.
[0:43:23.8] SC: That’s right. He says, “I swear.” He swears. He’s swearing to God, that we’ll be together.
[0:43:33.1] AH: She makes a point of calling out that Jack had never asked him to swear anything. They never made a commitment, and he was not himself the swearing kind. The word ‘swear’ appears three times in one sentence. I think that’s really, really important.
[0:43:47.1] SC: Yeah, yeah. He’s not a deeply religious person.
[0:43:51.9] AH: Well, it’s also – almost a belated way too late tragic wedding vow, in a way. Taking a vow, swearing.
[0:43:58.8] SC: Yes, it is. He’s built a shrine to romantic love.
[0:44:04.0] AH: Right.
[0:44:06.4] SC: Wow, this it’s going to be pretty easy to just bang this one out.
[0:44:14.3] AH: Oh, man. Scrolling back to the scene, the motel room scene, there’s one line in there that I just wanted to – it really stuck out to me. She has Jack say, “Look over that chair.” Then she says, “On the back of a soiled orange chair, he saw the shine of a buckle.” That’s the rodeo bull riding buckle, right? He saw the shine of a buckle. Now I would have no doubt said, “He looked over at the chair and Jack’s jeans were draped over the chair and there was a belt with a buckle.” I mean, she just seals it down to the – not even the buckle itself, just the shine of a buckle. It’s like, “Oh, my God.”
[0:44:57.9] SC: It’s very imagistic, right?
[0:44:59.9] AH: Well, it is and it’s so distilled. I just wanted to pull that out, because I tend to write way too many words as you know. This is going to be really hard for me to narrow it down like that.
[0:45:12.5] SC: The great thing about writing too many words is that it’s so much easier to cut than it is to get somebody to come up with something whole cloth. That is not a liability in any way. I suspect, she probably threw away 40,000 words to get down to this. That’s a great trick though to remember, can I get the description down to one salient visual that the reader will meet – it’s like, don’t think of white elephants, right?
The shine of a buckle, bang, there it is. It’s in your head. We’ve all seen something shine, and so you see the flash and the glint of sunlight off of a metallic surface and there you have it. It’s a great trick to remember is can you boil down the essence of a particular setting into a very specific visual image? That’s what she did there. It’s another little trick to put in your toolbox.
[0:46:22.3] AH: Yeah. Well, it’s in there now. I’ll see if I can make use of it. What’s next?
[0:46:29.5] SC: I think what we ought to do is why don’t you just start – why don’t you go through the prologue and a couple of scenes, however long you feel comfortable doing, probably a 1,000 to 2,000 words and just shoot it my way, and then we can go over it next week.
Then after we go through those first couple of scenes, I suspect you’ll have momentum. This first beginning, we should probably take it a little slowly, just so that we can get in a groove of you show me your stuff and then I’ll give you my thoughts, then you can take what you want and then you can move on to the next bit of business.
[0:47:07.5] AH: That sounds great.
[0:47:08.7] SC: Yeah, let’s just stop there.
[0:47:11.7] AH: See you next time.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:47:14.1] AH: Well, we ran into a little technical problem there and had to stop suddenly. That was a wrap for Episode 6 of the Masterwork Experiment. You’ll find links to my foolscap in the show notes, along with my scene spreadsheet, and a new crosswalk document where I line up the beats of Brokeback Mountain in one column and the text of my draft scenes from my Regency counterpart in the other.
As usual, we include a link to the New Yorker edition of Brokeback Mountain, so that you can easily read it and follow along. This week, thanks to one of our great Story Grid Ground Your Craft students. I’ve also got a link to the prologue that was missing from The New Yorker version, so be sure to check that out.
For everything Story Grid related, visit storygrid.com. Be sure to pick up a copy of the book The Story Grid and sign up for the newsletter to get a weekly notice of all the wonderful things we are constantly busy with in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to learn more about me and my work, you’ll find me at annehawley.net, where I’m writing about the process of working with Shawn and the challenges of writing to specifications set by someone else. I’ve also posted a couple of my trial scenes there, so check that out on my blog.
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Join us again next week when I submit my first couple of scenes and silently freak out while Shawn reads them aloud line-by-line. It’s fun. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.