Flash Points: Dr. Magoo

FlashPoints3

Welcome to Flash Points. Every (ish) Monday we stick one of the previous Friday’s entries under a sparklyscope and tear it to pieces (in a good way). What makes writing “good”? Specifically, what makes great flash? Hand me the scalpel, and let’s get to work!

Prompt: Odd Fellows home

Word limit:   290 – 310 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Untitledby Dr. Magoo

I wasn’t born in the cage, but my birthday was the only day I ever saw the world without bars around it. Once a year, they’d retrieve the key from its hook in the Master’s office and open the tiny door. I’d wriggle out without too much trouble – even my bare ribs slipped easily through the opening, and I’d look up at the sky, sometimes blue, sometimes grey, and hope to see a bird flying overhead. They were so beautiful, the birds, even the scavengers, free to roam the skies. I’d hear their song in my cage and dream at night of what their lives must be like. But I’d never seen a lake, or heard the howl of a wolf, I’d never seen a flower or a mountain or the sea. So my dreams were as much a fantasy of what the world was as the possibility of ever being a bird.

I was thin, but strong – my cage was large enough for me to move around in easily, and I stood amongst the people without shame, my back strong and straight. My mother gave me a gift when she offered me to the people, to live amongst them but not of them. I got clean water, unspoiled meat, and my labors were few. The winters were mild in this place, and my skin was hard and browned from the summer sun. I saw others go off to war and come back bloodied, or maimed, or in a box. I saw children struck down by disease. But my solitude protected me, and I lived many years in my cage.

I died in the cage, one night between my evening meal and breaking my fast. The end was quick, although not painless. I did not cry out, nor was I mourned.

What works

I’ve featured a story by Dr. Magoo before, pointing out his worldbuilding skillz. And five months later he’s grabbed the spotlight again with a piece that demonstrates the same strength. Only better. 

Before I get to the worldbuilding, I want to point out that he’s broken a major rule of flash writing: tell a complete story. Flash fiction in its common guise is the microcosm of a novel: within a few hundred words readers should expect to see both character and plot thoroughly developed, except on a miniature scale. But anyone will tell you that a mark of a good writer is knowing when (and how) to break the rules. In this piece Dr. Magoo hasn’t told us a story; he’s delivered a narrative eulogy. It’s not a fleshed-out plot; it’s a synopsis. And more than that: the character delivers to us, in wrenching matter-of-factness, the story of his own life and death, textured by allusion to things he couldn’t possibly know about. (Just how many broken rules is that?!) 

Dr. Magoo’s touch, though, is light as a breath. In presenting this scene as a compressed, first-person memoir, he extracts the protagonist from the story. The character is able to tell his story in an objective, detached manner because he is detached from the story. This separation works to great effect as the objectivity serves only to heighten the stark nightmare of the character’s long imprisonment. It’s a marvelous manipulation, a complex but inventive approach in which the character’s relationship to his own story is used as a literary tool to incite pity and horror in the reader.

As for the plot itself, we know little. The unnamed protagonist has been offered by his mother to “the people,” who place him in a cage and free him only once a year on his birthday. He watches the years pass, isolated both from the inhumanity of his situation and from the humans who keep him caged; and eventually he dies. Why his mother gave him up, or what purpose his imprisonment serves, we aren’t told. Nor are we told what this world is, beyond its harshness: the regularity of spoiled meat (we know this because the prisoner’s unspoiled meat is appreciated), war, and plague/disease that strikes children. I love that the worldbuilding here is so subtle. Dr. Magoo’s dark hints make us want to know more. His refusal to tell us more, however, helps us identify with the character, because our understanding is as limited as the character’s was in life, and we share–or, rather, superimpose our own–outrage at the injustice.

Above all, however, it’s the ending that (quite disobediently) won’t leave me alone.

I died in the cage, one night between my evening meal and breaking my fast. The end was quick, although not painless. I did not cry out, nor was I mourned.

This is a terrible way to end a story. There’s no hope; neither is there despair, or rage, or sorrow, or any emotion. We are not given meaning or purpose or explanation. But this is not a proper story. Because he turned the rules upside down at the outset, Dr. Magoo can get away with this unorthodox ending. Instead of a plot, he has deftly created a painting, a powerful, emotional impression of a distinctly unemotional narrative. And he’s given us a character we’d give a great deal to know more about.

In pulling this effect off, however, he got one major thing wrong. The character says,

nor was I mourned.

Yes, actually (break my heart). You were.

Your turn!

Have you ever broken writing “rules” before? Which ones, and why? What about this story works for you?

13 thoughts on “Flash Points: Dr. Magoo

  1. You mention the breaking of rules in writing, but I would argue that really, there should be no rules. My job as a writer is to create how I want to create, with the voice that I want to create it with. I would argue the most imaginative pieces, the things that grab our own imaginations the most and the writing with the highest creativity is that which breaks the rules. (Or at least has very little regard for them.)

    Wait – is Penname advocating anarchy? What about our expectations? What about decency and grammar?

    Yes, I believe these things are important. But, yes, also, in a way I am advocating anarchy. Go out there and try all sorts of crazy ideas, think outside the block. Set your story in a world where there is no setting, just a blank white page, or have characters that find morality in immorality. Or whatever, go crazy, writing rules are there to be broken.

    In the end, though, we do still have a responsibility to our readers. If our readers do not like where we are taking them, we should rethink our approach, or we may not have readers any longer. Then again, many writers and painters and other artists who broke the rules were not appreciated (or appreciated by few) in their lifetimes, and it is only after time has passed that we have come to see their creativity and genius.

    So, go crazy, but temper that with keeping your audience in mind, remembering always that we are never really sure where the next superhero of writing will appear.

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    • Ah, but without rules there is no rule-breaking! I don’t say that entirely tongue-in-cheek. Yes, there is beauty and poetry and soul to be found in e.e. cummings and James Joyce and Faulkner… but what if all writing were stream-of-consciousness? what if all poetry were free verse?

      In one sense, isn’t it the beauty of form and technique–the well-structured tale, the carefully metered rhyme (take the buttery richness of the sonnet, for example!), the enormous satisfaction of a piece of writing whose conclusion delivers on its introduction’s promise–that gives the rule-breaking pieces power?

      There is, too, a sizable difference between knowingly “breaking rules” for art’s sake and sloppy work due to ignorance of the rules. Dr. Magoo’s piece here works in large part because eschewing the traditional story-form allowed him to achieve an overarching artistic effect, not because he didn’t know how to write a complete story. (Note: I am also one who loves modern art and does not think my children could have painted the same thing.)

      So in the same vein, here is another question (not rhetorical): can powerful writing be accidental?

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      • Yes, excellent points. I had actually been thinking of posting an addendum to what I had written, speaking somewhat to that effect.

        If you are writing without quality, then you are not really achieving what I was indending. I, for one, am a huge fam of most of the rules. I am a grammar nazi, I hate it when people misspell words (I have done peronsal rants against business because they think they are being cute by calling themselves the “Kuddly Korner Pet Shop”) and good story stucture can be essential to providing a rewarding experience for your readers. Rules help us achieve these things.

        And therefore, you should have a pretty good handle on good writing rules before you attempt to break them. There is that old example of the counterfeit spotters, who are not taught to see the counterfeit by looking at counterfeits, but by constantly studying the real thing until they know that inside and out. Or the actors who study and examine and memorize their lines backwards and forwards, and then “forget” them and be in the moment acting onstage.

        Until you really know good writing principals, it probably isn’t safe to break the rules. But once you do, I say — go for it. Because your reflexs are good, you will be knowingly breaking the rules for effect and purpose, and not breaking the rules where it is appropriate not to.

        So, both/and. Which is probably what you were saying in the first place.

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    • As I was saying to Rebekah elsewhere, I don’t write with rules in mind (other than grammar and spelling, which I will violate when they serve the story, but only then). When the story comes to mind, I write it, and don’t always know where it comes from or where it’s going. In this case, I saw a cage in front of this enormous gothic building, and set about writing a story about the person who lived in the cage.

      One of the great things about flash is that you have to trim, and it’s the parts you leave out that are often the most important. In 1000 words, I probably would have given him more of a backstory, or developed the society. And maybe that would have worked. But it wouldn’t have been the same.

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  2. Hi Rebekah,
    I most certainly have broken rules several times. I never follow a formula. Having read voraciously, and having analyzed literature obsessively, I have come to a conclusion that the rules are derived from the masterpieces and not vice versa. In my humble opinion, no one can write a master piece based on a prescribed formula definition of fiction. (or poetry for that matter.)

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