Writing Through Cracks

Movement from the other side of the wall–an apartment away–drew your attention to something you hadn’t noticed before. A small crack in your own wall. Not small enough that it should have gone unnoticed. In your room now with the lights off, you can see light coming through the tiny hole. You peek, then realize the height is awkward, taking a knee to peer through.

The crack is long and narrow, but just enough for you to see a dressing table and a mirror in the corner of a sunny bedroom next door. The mirror shows a closet door, but not the bed. The closet door is slightly open. Your neighbor has gone out to work, you heard through the thin walls an hour ago. The closet door is open and it’s dark inside. Far darker inside than it should be, the closet door faces the window and you’d think it would be illuminated by the early morning light.

Something moves inside the closet. A heavy, violent twitch to the left.  Something in the gloom past the closet door jerked left. Large. Too large to be a cat or a dog secreted into a bedroom despite the apartment’s policy against pets. You watch as long as you can, the rush of blood drumming behind your ears telling you your body was responding to stress. You strain to see more, to make out a shape. Is it the size of a human being? An adult? A child? And either way, why no discernible features? Blinking, did some of the darkness shine? Shine like black plastic? Like a trash bag? You’re not sure. You strain more, seeking something, anything, a shape in the foreign shadow to explain the thump.  You’re looking through a crack into a bedroom through a mirror into blackness.

Nothing. There are no answers for you in the impossible dark.

As you might now, my partner and I have our Patreon going, where we’re making games, fiction, and offering aid to other designers and writers. It’s going better than expected so far and it’s allowed us to try out some more experimental things.

Currently, I’m working through weirdly focused collection of short stories and micro fictions set in an unusual apartment building in San Jenaro, the shared city of both my novel Reaching Out and Olivia’s #iHunt series. The Rising Palms Apartment building is a Golden Age of Movies Art Deco behemoth in the middle of Palo Verde and a spit from downtown San Jenaro. Its beauty in detail is sometime under-appreciated due to its girth. It takes up nearly a city block on its own. The Rising Palm has 13 12 floors. It’s on the bus line. It’s very near San Jenaro County Teaching Hospital and a lot of brilliant nightlife. Despite that, its apartments are very affordable. You’d think with all that going for it, the Rising Palms would have a waitlist for apartments a mile long.

And yet.

And yet.

Locals know better.

Life within the squat modernist tower is odd. Odd and perhaps, dangerous. Of course, the Rising Palm is a liminal space, from sub-basement to 13th 12th floor.

This collection of stories will take place within the building. I think we’re going to be experimenting with presentation. We think of storytelling as an oral tradition, and writing as what? Visual? Not really? Or at least not necessarily. I think it’s interesting to see writing as sometimes a visual art and sometimes not. Which is probably a post for another time.

Right now I want to focus on perspective, point of view, and narrowing the lens of your storytelling so tightly that it becomes a laser on your meaning, mood, or tale.

Note, I’m describing (a) technique(s) I’m using in this collection of stories. I’m sharing these thoughts with you not because I believe this is how all writing MUST be, but because it’s another trick you can put in your bag. I hope I can explain why and when you’d use it and maybe suggestions on when you shouldn’t bother as well? Let’s see how far we get before I get distracted by cat videos or whatever. You could call this a few things? Fixed perspective narration? That’s the closest thing I found on Google Scholar, but it isn’t quite enough. So at the risk of renaming a thing that’s probably already got a name, let’s call this writing technique through cracks storytelling. Why? I had to pick something.

I can give you a few examples of what I’m picturing here; a M.A.S.H. episode seen through the eyes of a patient, the moment in a Halloween when we become Jamie Lee Curtis looking through slats in a closet door, scanning the room for signs that The Shape has found us. I think you get the idea at least as far as film goes. In terms of writing, getting the feel of these moments is something else entirely. I want that feel, and I want to present it to you in this fiction collection as best I can. It may work, it may not work, but here’s the guidelines I’ll be experimenting with as I write.

Of note: The flash I put at the top there is a rough demonstration not perfection of the form. (Because I don’t know what that is yet.) I won’t be writing in second person for my collection, I don’t think. And you don’t have to either. I mean. You don’t have to do anything. I’m not your mother.

Keep it Short

Less than 5,000 words. Probably. Less than 3,000 is better.

Stay Where the Story Takes Place

Through cracks requires a very limited setting. You can’t peek through the curtain’s of a neighbor’s house and see everything. You only see the kitchen. Or the bedroom. The reader can only see the fixed point you the author decide to set them in. Imagine the space clearly in your mind before you write. Sketch it on a napkin. Since the whole of your story is set in one place, being sure you know where everything. This will help later as you’re avoiding bland dialogue, controlling what’s unsaid and staying out of characters heads’ which are all important parts of through cracks writing. But most importantly, if you know what the narrow space looks like, you know exactly where your reader is relative to what can be seen and control the limits of what they know. You are in control of all the reader sees. A window as mentioned already, the image slightly blurred by dirt on the glass. Through a keyhole. Of course everyone knows you see ghosts through keyholes, so be careful with that. Stories through cracks would need to take place, probably, in one room. If you’re using through cracks only as a smaller element of a larger story wouldn’t have to be so limited, of course. (I’m currently planning for single-room stories in my current experiment, but admittedly I’ll be playing with that rule my ownself, so of course you should as well.)

No Thoughts, No Projection

Note: In editing the first formal piece for this project, let me tell you. This is really hard.

Through cracks lets the reader see what there is to see, hear what there is to hear, and maybe feel what there is to feel, but nothing more than that. Brace yourself, because this is where it gets really challenging depending on your existing writing style. The audience is never, ever directly told what the characters are thinking or feeling. Remove any ‘ly’ words that give emotional context to an action or a statement. That’s not to say it’s bad to do those things. It’s often great in great writing. But for this technique, it is tipping your hand too much. The reader needs the feeling that they are limited in what they’re seeing and understanding. It’s GOOD that they feel things are up to interpretation. Your job is to give them the clues and information necessary to bring about 85% of your audience to come to the same basic conclusion while still harboring those delicious absurd fan theories. If it’s important, broadcast it through sensory details or dialogue. If you’ve ever read some fiction and found yourself wondering, “how do we know this?” than you know what needs to be cut with this technique. While I’m not 100% an advocate of always show and never tell, in this experiment, we’re leaning hard on show  over tell. Perhaps it’s extreme? Let’s see how it goes.

No He Said, She Shouted – Only Stage Directions

This is loosely related in the now show or tell end of things. Don’t use “she said.” Skip “he asked.” And certainly don’t  “he ejaculated!”  No real need to use replacements for the word “said.” If not said or asked or laughed or grunted or whatever, what do you do instead?

Nothing. I mean, not nothing. But default back to see what can be seen and hear what can be heard.

One, these should be pretty short scenes with minimal characters. How many people can you fit in a small apartment bedroom? Not that many I hope. A back and forth with strong characterization right in the dialogue should tell you a lot. If it feels like it’s lacking, I’ll refer you back to showing the reader what they can see. Where is Wade while he’s talking to Sara. What is he interacting with. At what point exactly did Sara start frowning. Imagine a white room where two actors are reading a set of lines to each other. Maybe they’re reading with emotions, but if they’re simply standing perfectly still not interacting with their space, using no facial expressions, those moving words still feel disconnected. What do they touch? Where are their hands? Are they not smiling when they should be and what does that imply? At what point do they stand up, or shift in their seat. Human beings don’t actually hold very still for long stretches of times. When used subtly, stage directions like this will broadcast loud and clear both who is talking and what they’re feeling without getting inside their head.

Don’t Apologize for the Unsaid

What you can see or otherwise detect with your senses are important. Where the fun work comes in, for the writer, is what cannot be seen or heard or understood. Do not apologize for what’s left aside and goes unspoken. A pile of puzzle pieces is interesting to many readers, but a mostly finished puzzle with a few oddly shaped holes are even more tantalizing. In this case, the reader can make out the picture on the puzzle on their own and leave it at that, but they’ll think about those holes. The missing spaces. The whys and but hows that linger so long as you don’t point out what’s left unanswered by explaining it isn’t there. Sometimes you see this referred to as fridge horror. The spooky part of the story that doesn’t catch up to you until after you’ve finished reading, get up, go to grab a snack, and stand at the fridge door and say ‘omigod’ to yourself when you get what’s implied rather than laid out. This idea might be a little much for the sake of this introductory essay, but I can get into it more down the road. I can’t lay out how to do that in a hundred words or whatever, but I can say it’s a goal in through cracks writing, and then I’ll try to unpack it more for you later.

The most important thing I can suggest you keep in mind for now is that ambiguity works best when you have something in mind for it. We’re not writing Lost here. Unless you want to have a big mess of a story that’s all red yarn on a cork board, you need to be mostly sure of what’s in your blank spaces even if you’re answer could be more than one thing. You need to know what the ending implies. Or at least one of the things the ending implies. What you don’t show the audience, you should at least know what shape it is, so to speak, so that you can plant clues and physical details to keep your mystery grounded in as much reality as it needs. But not too much. That’s how you lose your mystery and end up apologizing. If it seems like these suggestions are counter intuitive, that’s kind of part of the challenge. Good luck!

Careful How You Peek

Through cracks is inherently voyeuristic, and can therefore cause the reader to be implicated in the events in the story. This a powerful aspect of the technique and not something to be used lightly. Carefully, you can titillate, compel or lure a reader deeper into a story. Carelessly, you can make your reader uncomfortable and distract from the story you’re trying to tell. Consider where you aim your camera and where you linger in your description. In some ways, the things that you give detail says “this is what I think the reader is staring at.” Or at least “this is what I think the reader needs to pay attention to.” The last twitches of a finger connected to an-out-of-sight body? Linger there if it’s telling the reader something. Scanning the curves of a naked ass of your young hunky main character is probably cool? But what are saying about the reader? Depending on your description, you are saying “the reader of this story is going to be engaging in an invasion of privacy for the sake of amusement, and is using this man’s ass for their own excitement.” Not all descriptions of a naked person are lude. And even detailed descriptions of a naked ass might be appropriate, but because of the intimacy of through cracks, (now it’s a naughty pun) it is harder to pull back, as a reader, and distance themselves from what they’re reading. I mean, ideally. Any reader can skim past loving details of how a lady fills out her t shirt, but when our view is narrow as it should be in this technique, and the story is short and dense with important details, they may feel that skipping the passage makes them miss details they need to fill in blanks later. And it SHOULD! So you need to find the balance between important details being packed into every paragraph and forcing the reader to spy on some part of a character they might feel uncomfortable spying on. I default to sex in this because that’s easy to do as an American. (We have issues.) But this is just as important to keep in mind if we’re peering in on violence and abuse if for very different reasons. I’m not saying you can’t show a person putting a frying pan through someone else’s skull. I’m saying do it on purpose and really consider if that act of violence is the focus of your story. Is it just as powerful to hear a sound, a crack, not see the swing and the brain matter, and show like through a camera lens, that hand fall into few, fingers twitching their last. Is the important part the death or the violence? Is the important thing the characterization or the sexy shot of ass? Do you have time to describe ass and give us characterization? Do you have time to describe domestic violence and get to the horror of your story?

Note: I tend toward horror or scary. You don’t have to. Just tossing that out there.

Nothing That Doesn’t Matter

Anyway. That all brings me to the last point and I hope I can keep it short. Don’t spare a word. Don’t spare a breath. Don’t spare a sentence. No excess. No filler. No car parking scenes unless there’s doors slamming and hearts pounding. I’m not following my own advice here. So let me pare it down. If an event or an object or a person you describe isn’t packed with information the reader needs to build the mystery or unpack it, cut it. If you tell me there’s a bookshelf, that bookshelf better matter by informing character or informing the events to come and probably both. In real life, we have random shit in our lives that means nothing. Or does it? There’s no significance to the neat plastic bag of trash across the room from me right now. Or is there? If it’s important to the story, I could frame it as reflecting someone who has their shit about half-way put together. She’s the sort of writer who cleans but then doesn’t finish the job. Maybe it just needs to be there for me to trip over when trying to escape my bedroom at a dramatic moment AND it tells you I’m a shit-half-together type.  If you’re judging me right now, then that means it’s working and you’ve formed an opinion on me. If you’re not judging me but sympathizing, again, nice. Good job Mena!

I think sometimes as we’re fleshing out longer story writing format, we want to fill our white rooms with details and description. The scent of the wild flowers outside, the record player sending distant waves of Miles Davis through the thing floor. That’s all great. As long as it matters to the characters and events you’re going to tell. And yes, building tension is a thing that matters here. But in the end, don’t fill the space to make it more real. Describe what matters to who lives in the space and what is about to or has just happened to them. Leaving nothing in a room ‘just because.’ And this ties back to knowing what is and isn’t in your mysterious gaps, right? A spooky book an a desk because these stories should have a spooky book is a waste of your time. A spooky book because the story focuses on reading something you’re not supposed to, okay sure. Or because the character is an over the top goth kid, again, valid. This goes triple for any other tropes you might be used to in horror.

Why is there, on-screen a tall skinny monster with sharp nails and no face? Is it there because that matters or is it there because you feel like a scary story needs a monster reveal? Is there a bit where the character ‘descends into madnesss’ or whatever trite bullshit and does something super irrational because that’s what happens in scary stories? Yeah, no. Nope. Don’t do that. Don’t add ingredients from other types of scary stories because you think something is missing. Some things SHOULD be missing when you’re writing through cracks.. It’s just that you need to have an idea or three of what fits in the space. Which I guess is what it comes down to. A clear mental picture of what the reader sees and what the reader can’t see from where they sit and a keen mind for what’s necessary to be in view and what’s better to be left out of sight.

I didn’t say this would be easy. It’s going to be hard as fuck for me as well. That’s why it’s a challenge! Let’s fail together!

If you want to get a super FANCY version of this essay in PDF with visual elements that looks pretty cool, stop by this post on our Patreon. You can download it for free!

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