Imitation of Joyce Carol Oates

 



Write an Imitation of Joyce Carol Oates 

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

 

We’re going to start in the middle of the story this time, and hone in on the first moments that Connie is talking to Arnold Friend outside of her house. What happens here is largely given to us through dialogue:

 

"You wanta come for a ride?" he said.

Connie smirked and let her hair fall loose over one shoulder.

"Don'tcha like my car? New paint job," he said. "Hey."

"What?"

"You're cute."

She pretended to fidget, chasing flies away from the door.

"Don'tcha believe me, or what?" he said.

"Look, I don't even know who you are," Connie said in disgust.

"Hey, Eddie's got a radio, see. Mine broke down." He lifted his friend's

arm and showed her the little transistor radio the boy was holding, and

now Connie began to hear the music. It was the same program that was

playing inside the house.

"Bobby King?" she said.

"I listen to him all the time. I think he's great."

"He's kind of great," Connie said reluctantly.

"Listen, that guy's great. He knows where the action is."

Connie blushed a little, because the glasses made it impossible for her

to see just what this boy was looking at. She couldn't decide if she liked

him or if he was just a jerk, and so she dawdled in the doorway and

wouldn't come down or go back inside. She said, "What's all that stuff

painted on your car?"

 

Even though the conversation is seemingly innocuous, there is a subtle build of tension in it, largely given by the context. Notice how Oates writes the dialogue in a way that people actually talk. Instead of having each character react directly to each thing that the other person says, there are natural silences, refusals to answers, jumps ahead in the conversation. She uses the word “said” as an invisible speech tag, applied even to questions, instead of trying to find flashier speech tags like “mumbled” or “explained” or even “asked.” Every few lines the dialogue is broken up with action.

 

Now let’s try to imitate this:

 

First, let’s come up with a situation that holds at least a small bit of tension between two characters and will require a conversation. (If you can use your current short story here, all the better.) Or, if you are still working out what your short story is going to be, come up with 3 ideas, rapid-fire, and pick one.

 

Examples:

 

Emily and her brother Peter who haven’t really interacted in years, discuss whether or not their recently-deceased mother should be embalmed and buried or cremated.

 

Annabeth and Dillon, high school sophomores, discuss whether or not they are too young to have sex.

 

Amy and Dave, a married couple who have recently discovered that Amy is pregnant, discuss whether to move to a larger house.

 

 

Once you have your situation, pick which of the characters is going to carry the point of view. We are going to be writing in third person, close, so the camera is going to stay close to only one of the two characters and we are going to be allowed to only see the thoughts of this character. Let’s label this main character, Character A, and the other character, Character B

 

And off we go. We’re going to build this sentence by sentence:

 

1. Write a sentence in which Character B asks Character A a question, ending with “he/she/they said.”

 

Example: 

“How much will it cost to bury her?” Peter said.

 

2. Follow this with a new paragraph (all new sentences will be in a new paragraph from this point out, unless stated otherwise) and a sentence which describes Character A’s facial expression and a small action.

 

Example:

Emily frowned and folded her hands into her lap.

 

3. Follow this with a new paragraph and Character B asking another question, followed by a three-word statement, followed by “he/she/they said,” followed by one word.

 

Example:

“Did you hear I got a new job? Paint department,” he said. “Stop.”

 

4. Follow this with Character A asking a one-word or two-word question, no speech tag.

Example: “Stop what?”

 

5. Follow this with a short declaration from Character B.

 

Example: “You’re not better than me.”

 

6. Follow this with an action from Character A, trying to stick to Oates’ rhythms.

 

Example: She pretended to inspect the brochures the funeral director had given her, shuffling through them.

 

7. Follow this with another question from Character B.

 

Example: “You know I’d chip in anything if I could afford it, don’t you?”

 

8. Follow this with a statement from Character A that ends in “(name) said some kind of emotion).

 

Example: “Look, this isn’t about money,” Emily said wearily.

 

9. Follow this with two sentences of dialogue from Character B, then an action, then a sentence of perceiving something through one of the senses from Character A’s perspective. Then write one more sentence interpreting this perception.

 

Example: “Hey, I agree there should be a funeral. She would have wanted that.” He paced across the office and opened the door to call the funeral director back in, and Emily could hear music from a room across the hall. It was a power ballad from some heavy metal band.

 

10. Follow this with a short question from Character A that ends with “he/she/they said.”

 

Example: “Guns and Roses?” she said.

 

11. Follow this with 2-3 lines of dialogue from character B, ending with an opinion, no speech tag.

 

Example: “I learned that song when I was playing guitar in high school. November Rain. Mom liked it.”

 

12. Follow this with a line of dialogue from Character A in which he/she/they agree with the previous statement, ending with “(name) said, (adverb).”

 

Example: “She loved your playing,” Emily said cautiously.

 

13. Follow this with 2-3 lines of dialogue from Character B, no speech tag.

 

Example: “I could really play back then, even though I couldn’t read music. I was great.”

 

14. Follow this with an action from Character A, and then an explanation for the action. Then give us a sentence of Character A’s interior (what is being thought or felt), and then an action or non-action. Then a question of dialogue that starts with He/She/They said,

 

Example: Emily bit her lip, because she wasn’t sure if Peter was leading up to volunteering some impromptu hard-rock guitar performance during the service. She couldn’t decide if she wanted him to be involved in this planning or not, or whether or not her mother would have wanted him to, so she didn’t argue. She said, "Did you know that Mom believed we all will come back to our bodies? In the second coming, or something?"

 

 

Now let’s put the scene all together and tweak it to have better flow and form.

 

“How much will it cost to bury her?” Peter said.

Emily frowned and folded her hands into her lap.

“Did you hear I got a new job? Paint department,” he said. “Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“You’re not better than me, just because you’ve had it easier.”

She pretended to inspect the brochures the funeral director had given her, shuffling through them.

“You know I’d chip in anything if I could afford it, don’t you?”

“Look, this isn’t about money,” Emily said wearily.

“Hey, I agree there should be a funeral. She would have wanted that.” He paced across the office and opened the door to call the funeral director back in, and Emily could hear music from a room across the hall. It was a power ballad she recognized from some heavy metal band.

“Guns and Roses?” she said.

“I learned that song when I was playing guitar in high school. November Rain. Mom liked it.”

“She loved your playing,” Emily said cautiously.

“Yeah, I could really play back then, even though I couldn’t read music. I was great.”

Emily bit her lip, because she wasn’t sure if Peter was leading up to volunteering some impromptu hard-rock guitar performance during the service. She didn’t trust him not to get drunk and humiliate them all, but she knew her mother would have wanted him involved—she always forgave Peter, again and again, so Emily didn’t try to leave him out. She said, "Did you know that Mom believed we all come back to our bodies? In the second coming, or something? The end times?"



If you're comfortable with the rest of the class seeing what you came up with, leave your exercise in the comments section below.

Comments

  1. “Just got off the path?” the man said.
    Lowman attempted to mask his confusion.
    “I myself was throttling for firewood,” he said. “Nice catch.”
    “Huh?”
    “The buck.”
    He points to the antlers sticking out of the bed.
    “9 point catch ain’t nothing to scoff at, friend” he said.
    “Look, I’m just stuck and I need to get pulled out of the ditch,” Lowman finally settled on.
    “Hey Phil, this guy’s lookin for a tow!” He gets out of the truck and scratches his right side, lifting a shirt haphazardly as his fingers graze the handle of a magnum. It looked like an anodized 1911 frame.
    “Custom?” Lowman said.
    “Traded for it. Ain’t she a beaut?”
    “Looks mighty fine,” Lowman said with faked enthusiasm.
    “It cost me an arm and a leg, it better be damn fine.”
    Lowman looks up at him and pulls his own hat down, the brim shrouding his scouring eyes. He looks at the other man in the truck, his hands fiddling with nothing. He feels like how the man in the other truck feels. “Firewood, huh?”

    - Tomio

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    Replies
    1. There's so much implied tension here, which is great. I was a little confused about who was speaking, but as it's mid-scene, it'd be clearer in the entirety.

      Delete
  2. “How long do we have to present for?” Jack said.
    Aaron scrunched his eyebrows and recommenced with the leg bouncing.
    “Did you look at the rubric?” he said. “Look.”
    “Look where?”
    “It’s not that hard to find.”
    Jack turned his attention back down to his computer and desperately looked for where the teacher had hid the rubric.
    “Did you find it?”
    “Not yet,” Jack said quietly.
    “Look under assignments and click on ‘Myth Group Presentation.’ The rubric will be at the top of the page.” He adjusted himself in his seat and continued to add to his presenter notes. Jack felt the floor rhythmically bounce. Most likely due to his anxious partner he figured.
    “20 minutes total, so that means we’ll each be presenting for 5 minutes each?” he said.
    “Give or take a few for the intro and the conclusion. I don’t think they’ll take more than one minute each.”
    “That sounds about right,” Jack said confidently.
    “That being said, we should really focus on getting each of our slides as close to 5 minutes. I heard from someone in another group that they lost 10 points for going 6 minutes over.”
    Jack rubbed his lip with the tip of his thumb nail. He hated being restricted by a harsh requirement. Whenever a professor would give a set page number or time he rarely had been able to achieve it. Especially if he was passionate about said subject. 3 pages to talk about how influential Tetris is as a game wasn’t nearly enough. He needed at least 6. 5 minutes to talk about one of his favorite heroes wasn’t enough.

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  3. “How long have you been alone?” Lilah said.
    Mack furrowed her eyebrows and turned away.
    “Did you like coming to my house? I did,” Lilah said. “Mack.”
    “Why are you so perfect?”
    “I’m not.”
    Mack kicked a rock in front of her, watching as it rustled through the leaves.
    “Do you really think so little of yourself?”
    “Everyone else seems to,” Mack said defeatedly.
    “I don’t think so. I’ve liked you since the moment I met you.” Lilah came up to her and laid her hand on Mack’s shoulder, and Mack felt the warmth through her shirt. It made her realize how cold she was.
    “Really?” Mack said.
    “Yeah. When I saw you laying on the grass after school I knew you weren’t like anyone else. I like that about you.”
    “I am different,” Mack said softly.
    “I want to be around you because you don’t follow the crowd and you’re unique. I want to be like you. Not for any other reason.”
    Mack turned around and hugged her; she felt such a surge in happiness and affection that she couldn’t contain it. The feeling of Lilah’s arms around her filled her with emotion and tears escaped her eyes. “I’m so glad I have you.”

    -Bailey

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    Replies
    1. Great use of the exercise toward what I can feel is an existing story already.

      Delete
  4. The CEO of a company discusses a lawsuit with one of his lawyers:

    “How badly is this gonna hurt our public image?” Mr. Clarkson said.
    Mr. Levitt hid a frown behind a stoic expression in the way only a lawyer could.
    “Let me rephrase; how much can the truth be...manipulated? I don’t know,” he said. “Wait.”
    “What is it, sir?”
    “Let’s dig up some buried controversy from the old hag’s past.”
    “ ‘Buried controversy’? Sir, now is hardly the time to put our chips in on conspiracy theories-”
    “Who said anything about conspiracy? I said I wanted controversy, Jack, not conspiracy.”
    “Sir, I know things aren’t looking too good for the company right now. But as your lawyer, I feel it’s my responsibility to warn you that this mess is already sticky enough without throwing baseless rumors into the mix.” Mr. Levitt fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair, and Mr. Clarkson heard the clicking sound of the ends of his shoelaces tapping against his department store shoes.
    “You’re sure your guys can’t find anything on the old lady?” he said.
    “Sir we’ve already looked into it, by all accounts Ms. Anderson seems to be one of the few people today to have come into her fortune legitimately. We couldn’t even find a parking ticket to her name. In my professional opinion, sir, she’s got an unimpeachable record.”
    “Well Jack, I suppose you’re right. I guess that’s why you’re the lawyer,” Mr. Clarkson said reluctantly.
    “We could try bringing a rumor or two to the stand to stall for more time, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Honestly, our best course of action would to be to take full responsibility, pay off Ms. Anderson and focus on rebuilding public trust.”
    Mr. Clarkson sank back in his chair, the gravity of the situation hitting fully hitting for the first time. He couldn’t believe it; the old witch had him cornered. Suddenly, he shot up in his chair. He said, “What about her kids?”

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    Replies
    1. Ooh, that punch at the end. Good maintenance of the tension here. I wanted to keep reading.

      Delete
  5. “What are you doing in my room?” The ghost said.
    Dave’s mouth opened wide in surprise, but he silenced it by stuffing a sheet into it.
    “Well, what’s the matter with you? You should run,” it said. “Boo.”
    “Why’s that?”
    “This is my room, my house.”
    Dave inspected the blankets strewn across the bed, smoothing the wrinkles out.
    “You could always feel you didn’t belong here, right from the start, right?”
    “It’s pretty late,” Dave said, yawning.
    “Listen, I didn’t use all this energy for you to just sit there. Now is the time for you to get up and leave. The ghost leaned forward and put his hand on the footboard, but Dave could see that the blue hands were actually phasing through the wood. The specter was trying too hard to look like it was physically capable of interacting.
    “Aren’t you dead?” he said.
    “The bed used to be over in that corner by the window. The rain sounded like a music box from there. Hated the draft though.”
    “That’s why I moved the bed,” Dave said knowingly.
    “The light through the window on an autumn evening was more golden than anything they look for in the ground. Never needed to light a candle on those nights. In fact, it would have seemed wrong to.”
    Dave got up out of the bed and put on the pants thrown on the floor, because he figured the ghost didn’t need to see that. He wasn’t sure what it was like to be dead, or if there was anything that could be done for such a situation, but he began pushing the bed. He said, “You’re aware it’s spring, right?"

    -Logan O

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    Replies
    1. I really liked this. The detail about the rain as a music box was particularly good, and that section dates the ghost more than anything you could have told us.

      Delete

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