In this sequence of posts, I’m going to choose a specific writer and offer an analysis of their writing and how it impacted me.
For this post I’ve chosen T. C. Boyle’s Greasy Lake.
Focus: Metaphors and Diction
Boyle is a master of metaphor. I myself, as I’ve mentioned before, love metaphor and used it too heavily in my early writing.
Metaphors are powerful. They typically develop a personal, vivid image in the reader’s mind to include several of the senses and emotion.
However, Boyle also has exceptional word choice, diction. This diction is key to understanding his writing and characters.
If you haven’t read T. C. Boyle, you should. If you want a great place to start, start with Greasy Lake.
Greasy Lake: Summary
In Greasy Lake, several young kids just out of high school, in the 80s, are on a drunken, drug-strung, night of defiance where they anger some bruiser in a car, get into a fight, and the POV character drags out a tire iron to end it.
“Digby poked the flat of his hand in the bad character’s face and I came at him like a kamikaze, mindless, raging, stung with humiliation—the whole thing, from the initial boot in the chin to this murderous primal instant involving no more than sixty hyperventilating, gland-flooding seconds—I came at him and brought the tire iron down across his ear. The effect was instantaneous, astonishing. He was a stunt man and this was Hollywood, he was a big grimacing toothy balloon and I was a man with a strait pin. He collapsed. Wet his pants. Went loose in his boots.
A single second, big as a zeppelin, floated by.”
Written in first person, each word, the structure of the sentences, and the descriptions are intended to be from the mind of the POV character. David Jauss would call this Direct Interior Monologue. (I covered this in my Kill Your Darlings, Part III: Point of View and Debasing Your Language post.)
There’s a lot of imagery in this excerpt that’s very visual. However, there’s a lot of emotional imagery. This characterizes.
The kids have become monstrous. They’ve devolved. Time is slowed and bloated. The horror of the moment is watered down into a media-induced separation from the violence which makes the imagery all the more grotesque but also characterizes, giving the reader personal insight into the mind of the would-be murderer—one influenced by the shows or movies he’s seen, specifically action films.
This is the POV character’s perception of this grim reality which in turn makes the details universally relevant within the context of the story. He even refers to his opponent as “the bad character[…].” Character. Not a person. That’s awesome. Awesome because this entire excerpt is in essence an extended metaphor intent on enforcing the movie-scene mentality of the narrator. This person isn’t seeing this moment as pure reality, it’s a slow-mo shot where the hero takes on the bad guy.
So, what’s the point of all this?
Some of the writing that I find most engaging, most effective, is the Direct Interior Monologue or my personal favorite, Indirect Interior Monologue. In these styles, the writer uses diction specific to the POV character: The writer debases their language. (I covered debasing language in my Kill Your Darlings, Part IV: Debasing Your Language post.)
Ultimately, what I want to point out is that diction—word choice—is key in creating a convincing narrative. Deviate your word choice from what a character may use and the narrative becomes unconvincing or you’re taking on the Distant Omniscient POV. Even a single word can impact the narrative. In the case of Greasy Lake, it’s the use of “character” as noted above and the Hollywood stuntman metaphor.
That word and phrase are key to understanding the character. The reader enters the mind of the character, and it’s an exceptional way to engage the reader, to make the reader sympathetic to the character. And that’s a key factor in keeping a reader reading your work.
My Next Post
In my next post, I’ll analyze Joyce Carol Oates’s Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?