Notes Left Behind


By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999)

A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck.

Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.” I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window.

I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could understand it I would be in possession of something profound.


description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge) use of motion

introducing characters (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or action,

description or inner response that identifies the opposition

dialogue: summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden

                   dialogue (subtext)

                   Dialogue “do’s and don’ts


                        1.         point of view for each character (attitude)

                        2.         impression of natural speech

                        3.         use  structure to shape the sequence of what is said                


                        1.         let characters make long speeches

                        2.         put in dead dialogue

                        3.         write dialogue in which nothing is left unspoken (no subtext)                       

 developing characters:  pick minimum characters to convey scene                

events trigger action, action leads to discovery



John Lehman pretending to be David Mamet

     The story may not be credible to someone who has gone blind but the subject is the realationship between the husband and wife and that dynamic seems true. In order for something to be dramatic there needs to be a tension between people in a scene that makes the audience wonder “Who is going to win, who is going to lose.” The characters (author) uses whatever they have to get their way. Tone of voice, body language, facial reaction. And readers hang on these elements as clues to the outcome.

     One of my favorite books for writers isn’t even directed to them. It is called “Handbook for Actors” by NYU students of the playwrite David Mamet. Now he has written numberous books about writing and about the theater, but this one by people he was teaching cuts to the chase in a way his other explanations don’t. The book lists some terms for creating drama on stage that I think work just as well on paper. Here they are. We will talk more about them and apply them to some examples in upcoming posts. But first read through the list and think about what these mean in terms of your own writing.


action:  The physical pursuance of a specific goal. 

analysis:  The process whereby the action of a scene is determined.  It is derived from  these three questions.

1.   What is the character literally doing?

2.   What is the objective of what the character is doing in the scene?

3. What is the action like to me?  It’s as if…

 as-if:  The answer to question 3 of the analysis. It is a simple projection that makes specific for you the action you have chosen in step 2 of the analysis; it is a device serving to bring the action to life for you.

beat:   A single unit of action.  A scene (chapter) may have one or more of these. 

beat change:  The point during a scene where a new action begins. It occurs when a new piece of information or an event takes place over which the character has no control and which by its very nature must change what the actor is doing. 

cap:   The event or condition indicating that an actor has succeeded in his action.

 character:   The illusion created by the words and given circumstances supplied by the writer and director combined with the actions and externals of the actor. 

given circumstances:   Any piece of information or activity written into the work or demanded by the director comprising the imaginary framework within which an action is performed. 

living in the moment: Reacting impulsively to what the other character(s) in a scene does, according to the dictates of your action. 

objective:  The single element that defines what the character is doing in a scene, without which the scene will not work. 

subtext:  What is going on underneath the text. For example, if on the day your husband ides, you are buying a pair of gloves, the subtext of his death would greatly affect the way you felt, even if the action of buying gloves is everyday. Nothing of the subtext is ever going to occur unless the actor puts it there. 

through-action (goal):   The single overriding action that encompasses all the actions an actor pursues from scene to scene, from the beginning of a play to the end.



"Damn this is good!"



      A.         Choosing and developing characters 

  1. pick minimum characters to convey scene
  2. use the questions from the characterization, Exercise 3

(subtext). What is going on underneath the text.  For example, if on the day your sister dies, you are buying a pair of gloves, the subtext of her death would greatly affect the way you felt, even if the action of buying gloves is ostensibly everyday.  A good autobiography is a mirror of the way human beings behave.  The writer’s job is to provide what is also underneath the behavior of human beings. 

  1. give each a purpose in a scene
  2. remember events trigger action, action leads to discovery
  3. use narrative summary sparingly—it is a connector or a door into a scene, never the substance—see your life as a movie (dramatic scenes linked by narrative summary)

    B.         Dialogue “do’s and don’ts


                        1.         point of view for each character (attitude)

                        2.         impression of natural speech

                        3.         use dramatic structure to shape the sequence of

                                    what is said


                        1.         let characters make long speeches

                        2.         put in dead dialogue

                        3.         write dialogue in which nothing is left unspoken

                                    (no subtext)

     C.         Composite voice of autobiography (the person you are today versus the person you were then–both are critical)

     D.         Other techniques worth exploring through your reading of others

                        1.         foreshadowing

                        2.         incorporate external events

                        3.         stretching and condensing        

                        4.         composite characters/scenes

                        5.         changing vantage points

  1. flashbacks (juxtaposition)
  2. altering order to build drama 

 E. Disclaimers (to give you more freedom to tell the truth)

Some names and biographic details in this book have been altered.


    This book is fiction though based upon events that really happened.


 Pick one of your scenes (initial or interim).  Choose a setting that reflects theme and one–like Getting Closer–in which they are physically doing something.  Who are the characters you will use in the scene?  What is the subtext?  What is each striving for? 


 Write the scene.  It helps if the people in it are involved is some kind of activity other than just talking (such as cooking in Getting Closer).  This is a first draft, it is more important to write continuously than “correctly” or artistically.  Write from your feelings, creating a scene that kindles them for you.  Be brutally honest.  You can go back later and polish the result, what you are after here is the raw energy and sharp detail that can’t be added when you edit. 


             “If you tell the whole truth, the complete picture, if you include all sides of a person, the dark and the light, then it is possible to tell even ugly truths about someone without committing character assassination–if your motive is not to condemn but to understand.  It is not the objectivity of the reporter you should strive for, but a human treatment of the truth, a feeling for the vulnerability of human beings.

            “Autobiographic narrative is more than simply remembering on paper.  it is a second chance, a chance to get it right.  Not that you change events, not that you don’t write about helplessly watching your sister drown with all the pain and guilt you experienced, but that this time you are on your own side, even in pain and failure.  Now you can tell the story with insight and find the meaning of the single experience within the context of your whole life.  Remembering one’s suffering from the perspective of acquired wisdom is different from simply replaying it.

            “Autobiographic stories don’t require happy endings, but they do require a reason for being, a purpose, Knowing the end of the story means that even if a painful memory temporarily casts a pall over your present while you are writing it–and it well may–it is only a point in the story, not the entire story.”

                                                                                                –Tristine Rainer