Exercise #33: Writing Physical Action with Embodied Perception and Consecution
Brian Evenson, Cormac McCarthy, Garth Greenwell, James Clavell, Elvia Wilk, Norman Lock, Yan Ge
My July was thankfully low-key, spent making the most of the lull midway through my summer break: I put in some vacation time on a Michigan beach, worked on my new novel, read more books than in any other month this year. Now it’s August, which means it’s time to finalize syllabi for the fall. I’m teaching our capstone course for undergrad majors, where among other things I deliver a lot of the “how to succeed in the profession” material I have, like getting into MFA programs, querying agents and submitting work, and so on. I’m also teaching a new MFA course on plot, genre tropes, and “obligatory scenes” that I’m excited to get up and running. There’s a good chance an exercise or two from that one will end up here, sooner or later!
My only public event this month is a virtual Refuse to Be Done workshop, hosted by Detroit’s Pages Bookshop. This is the last one of these for a while, so if you’re interested, please join us while there are spots available.
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Shōgun by James Clavell. My vacation read was this doorstop 1975 novel I’ve been curious about for as long as I remember, in part because I had a strange Commodore 64 game adaptation of it when I was a kid. Turns out there’s a reason it was so popular in its time: it’s fantastically paced, full of great characters and interesting history, and for a time all I wanted to do was read it. (Good thing I was at the beach for most of that time.) It even has a great ending, which so few novels this long do. We’re also now binging the 1980 miniseries. I’m unexpectedly obsessed!
Death by Landscape by Elvia Wilk. I’m only two essays into this collection, but I’m loving it so far. The first essay is one of the best I’ve read in a long time, about, as Wilk puts it, “the literary history of systems novels, with this masculinist notion of humans and technologies and ideas and language making up a system that can be parsed by a fairly paranoid—usually white—man in the middle of the story.” She contrasts this with what she defines as “contemporary ecosystems fiction,” which she says “is sensitive to climate change, the workings of the world are not to be puzzled out or to be pinned down by the protagonist. The natural, artificial, technological, material elements all have their own influential leading roles, and this is not a conspiracy against the human actor.” It’s smart, thrilling stuff, and I can’t wait to read more.
The Ice Harp by Norman Lock. Lock is one of the most innovative and interesting writers I’ve read. (His Grim Tales was a big influence on me.) For the past decade, Lock’s been writing his American Novels, all published by Bellevue Literary Press: up next is The Ice Harp, a formally inventive take on Emerson’s last years, while the writer experiencing a form of dementia and losing his ability to use language as he once had. I haven’t read all of the American Novels yet, but this is one of my favorites.
Elsewhere by Yan Ge. I’ve written at least twice in other newsletters about how much I loved Yan Ge’s novel Strange Beasts of China. Up next from her is Elsewhere, a new story collection due out in Spring 2023. I had the chance to read the manuscript this week and loved it: put this one on your long-term radar.
Exercise #33: Writing Physical Action with Embodied Perception and Consecution
For the last few weeks, I’ve been rereading some early Brian Evenson books, Last Days and Contagion and Dark Property. He’s one of my favorite writers, and these are some of my favorite books of his, full of strange plots and odd happenings, always philosophical but almost never veering into extended digression or exposition. His characters think by acting and moving in the world, always trying to solve some problem directly before them; this constant contact with the physical world in all its strangeness (and other people, in all of theirs) is, I think, one ultimate source of the confusions and psychological dissolutions his characters famously experience. The weirdness in his books comes at least in part from his close attention to detail, and to his ability to move slowly through a scene, rendering actions closely until the action gives up something essential.
What makes his action scenes so compelling is, I think, what he calls “embodied perception,” rendered with what I think of as “consecution.”
There’s more than one way people use “consecution” in writing terms, but for my purposes here, I’ll define it as “consecutive steps of an action presented in sequence, with each individual step rendered in high detail.” In other words, instead of merely reporting that “Jack made a pie,” you would write a dozen or so sentences detailing Jack’s steps, making the dough, rolling it out, mixing the filling, putting it in the oven, etc. The same could be done for the steps Jack takes fixing a washing machine or shopping for groceries or burying a body. (Jack’s a complicated guy. This is also probably a good place for me to note that the first two block quotes below are both depicting or discussing acts of violence.)
What you are playing with here is in part time—you’re controlling how fast an action unfolds on the page, which is related to how long the reader lingers over it—and part attention: to go slower requires more granular detail, which in turn can bring the reader closer to the action. Going slower and deeper is not only more suspenseful, but can sometimes unlock the next level of perception or emotion or insight. (Anthony Doerr calls this “trawling through the texture of the dream.”)
Remember also that many a verb contains other verbs; these verbs are nesting dolls made of stacked actions, and sometimes interesting things happen when you unpack the dolls and line them up in a row. Finally, the more vivid the verbs in the sequence, the more action we see; we also see it more clearly. Replacing a mundane verb with a great one often allows you to cut extra clauses or sentences: the excess was there to describe an inferior verb, and now can go.
For an example, let’s turn to a short passage from Evenson’s Last Days, in which the one-handed detective Kline makes his escape from a mutilation cult that’s been holding him prisoner:
He was walking toward a guard with a gun in the place of a hand. The guard lifted his arm and tensed his forearm slightly and the gun rattled oddly and then fired. He felt his head jerked around and found himself lying on the ground, dirt and blood filling his mouth. There was a strangeness to everything, as if the separation between things and himself was much less distinct than he had previously supposed, as if he was blurring into the world around him. He had, he realized, a gun in his own hand, but not in place of a hand. He was lying on it, it was somewhere beneath his ribs. Could he move?
No. If he aimed at the guard through his own chest and squeezed the trigger would he be able to kill the guard before the guard shot him again?
The guard was coming toward him, footsteps heavy and slow. There was something odd about his footsteps, a kind of chiming to them, metal on metal. And they seemed to last longer than footsteps should. He made a tremendous effort to roll over enough to get the gun out from under him, and felt as if a knife was being stabbed into his eye. But it was enough: the gun was out and in front of him and he was squeezing the trigger.
You might notice first that this scene contains only two crucial actions, the only two that have to happen, plot-wise: the guard shoots Kline, then Kline shoots the guard. Everything else is an elaboration of those two beats; without the two gunshots, it would be a different scene.
See also how a single sentence can break an action down even further. Instead of “The guard fired” as sentence two, we have four distinct movements contained within that event, rendered as “The guard lifted his arm (1) and tensed his forearm slightly (2) and the gun rattled oddly (3) and then fired (4).” (Some readers are absolutely going to object that “The guard fired” is the superior, less fussy sentence. It might be, in a different story. Here what you’d gain in plainspokenness you’d lose in delay and suspense.)
Most of the sentences depict action without attaching interiority to it: I think that’s generally a good idea. Even when Kline is thinking about some object actually in the scene—like the position of the gun—he’s often doing it via future action: “Could he move?”, he wonders, trying to get his weapon out from under himself. Even if Kline isn’t in motion there, we see the potential motion he could take next.
The middle paragraph is entirely Kline’s thoughts, but they’re in-scene, actively trying to solve a problem: “If he aimed at the guard through his own chest and squeezed the trigger would he be able to kill the guard before the guard shot him again?” This thought is also the fulcrum upon which the scene turns from one important action to the next: the one where Kline gets shot, then the one where Kline shoots. The pause makes it easier to see the shootings as distinct events, each with their own component actions and perceptive moments.
Note too that the actual bullet that hits Kline is not depicted: the guard fires and Kline’s head jerks but the bullet isn’t there, on the page. Every time I read this paragraph, that gap jumps out: it’s a breakdown in the cause-and-effect of the sentence, which sharpens my interest: what’s happening here? You pay more attention afterward. In consecution, the steps you intentionally leave out can be as important as the ones you leave in.
I could speculate about how Evenson arrived at this tactic, but we can get a better glimpse of his possible thinking from his writings about how another novelist produces similar effects. In Evenson’s essay “Embodying Violence: The Case of Cormac McCarthy,” he spoke admirably of what he called “the palpability of [McCarthy’s] fiction, the way that it seems almost tangible in a fashion that the fiction of very few writers do, "saying that “where he’s particularly good… is when he focuses in closely on embodied perception.”
As an example, Evenson offers the scene from McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper where “McCarthy depicts Sylder’s one-armed strangulation of young Rattner’s father”:
I’m not going to detail all the specifics of the scene… but there are some remarkable moments in the depiction of the strangulation as McCarthy solves the problem on the page of how a one-armed man strangles someone. For instance: “Sylder let his hand relax and wander through the folds of the neck until they arrived at the throat” (38–39). Or: “He pushed the head back into the crook of his leg, straightened his arm, and bore down on the man’s neck with all his weight and strength. The boneless-looking face twitched a few times but other than that showed no change of expression” (39). Or again: “the jaw kept coming down not on any detectable hinges but like a mass of offal, some obscene waste matter uncongealing and collapsing in slow folds over the web of his hand. It occurred to him then that the man was trying to bite him” (39). Or yet again: “After a while the man did try to say something but no words came out, only a bubbling sound. Sylder was watching him in a sort of mesmerized fascination, noting blink of eye, loll of tongue. Then he eased his grip and the man’s eyes widened” (39).
The scene goes on for a little more than three pages, and in them McCarthy spends most of his time thinking carefully about what it would be like to be in this situation.
“Because minute attention is paid to… how one body reacts to what another body does to it,” Evenson writes, “it feels palpable and all the more seemingly real for it, almost as if McCarthy had gone out and one-handedly strangled someone just so he could write about it correctly.” He continues to say :
These sorts of embodied moments… are moments when the text slows down or the focus changes, when what have been long, run-on sentences become more focused, shorter, or break into authorial statement, where the speed of the text slows down to call attention to the details of the world… It involves an attentiveness to the dynamics of bodies and the dynamics of the world around them, a real curiosity about how everything connects at a basal level.
Finally, let’s turn to the second-to-last scene of “The Frog King” by Garth Greenwell, a fantastic piece of writing and another good example of the relationship between consecution and embodied perception. The scene is one paragraph several pages long, depicting the narrator seducing his boyfriend R. on the last night of a New Year’s vacation in Bologna. It begins:
We watched a movie sitting side by side on the couch, I don’t remember what it was, something lighthearted, romantic, though he hardly laughed. We never really watched movies together, it was always a pretense, we would kiss and touch each other and then forget the movie, but now it was all I could do to get him to kiss me back. Finally he let me pull him up from the couch, I folded the computer shut and led him half resisting into the bedroom. He resisted less there, standing beside the bed, he opened his mouth to me, he let me draw him close and press my pelvis against his. He raised his arms for me to pull his shirt up and off, and I felt the mood shifting already, it lightened as his passivity became a game almost, his passivity and my insistence as I struggled with the buckle of his belt, the button on his jeans; I could feel him almost smile as I kissed him, as he answered me back more in his kisses, his tongue pressing against mine. I pushed his jeans and underwear down, breaking our kiss to kneel and hold them at his ankles while he lifted his legs free, kissing his cock, which wasn’t hard yet, just once before I rose again. He moved to kiss me again but I leaned away, then shoved him back, not hard, he could have resisted but he didn’t, he fell backward onto the bed. Onto our bed, I thought, which was what it had become in those days, not a lonely place but a place that belonged to both of us, a loving place; it was something I could think to myself but not say out loud…
There’s a lot more where this came from, and it’s worth reading the whole passage to see how it builds. Even in this short dose, you can see Greenwell’s devotion to action and reaction, as seen through the precise movements of the two characters’ bodies. Note also how interiority works here: the narrator has a busy mind, but once he and R. move to the bedroom, all of his thoughts are prompted by what’s happening in the moment, with the syntax of Greenwell’s sentences keeping thought and action bound up together.
In fact, it seems to me that the closer the narrative hews to the action, the more honest the narrator becomes: “it was something I could think to myself but not say out loud,” he tells us, here near the beginning of the scene; as the scene goes on, the couple’s responsive physical movements continues to unlock other thoughts and feelings, some of which are finally said aloud for the first time. It’s a fantastic example of two characters feeling on the page, through their bodies, in concert with each other; I’d argue that its the incredibly close attention Garthwell gives the reactions of their bodies to each other’s actions (and the way those reactions make next actions possible) is what generates all of that feeling, or at least what makes it feel real.
One last thing: At the conclusion of his essay, Evenson calls McCarthy’s sentence-level techniques “a kind of violence to the reader, one that demands a palpable engagement with the text.” To me, this acknowledges how McCarthy’s style of action (like Evenson and Greenwell’s) don’t allow you to ever read passively: consecution and embodied perception are tactics that force us to remain in contact with the physical world, with the wants of other people as they’re expressed by the body, and with the kind of sensuous or epiphanic perceptions that come from close study of minds and bodies moving together.
Your exercise this month is to write a scene (or a complete flash fiction) depicting a single activity from beginning to end, using consecution and embodied perception to stay close to the action. The activity can be anything you'd like, as long as it has physical steps that exist as actions in the world. It could be a character cooks a meal. It could be a character knits a sweater. It doesn't need to be more exciting than that, but it certainly can be, as in the examples above.
But honestly? Maybe the more mundane the better. The unnoticed steps of the actions that make up our lives are our lives: writing about our most ordinary actions is one way to make sure we see ourselves.
Once you’ve chosen the action you’re going to write about, you’re ready to write. Some things you might keep in my mind:
Practice staying with each action, going inward rather than moving on to the next one. If you can go still deeper before you go forward, do.
Think about how you can manipulate story time and discourse time: no matter how fast something happens in real life, you can usually make it go slower in prose.
In writing methodically through the physical steps of an experience, you may unlock the emotion or memory or thoughts associated with it. These may surprise you, which is ideal. Don’t start with thought or feeling; write the thoughts and feelings that emerge from the action. As interiority creeps in, attach it to the physical action that produced it, or to the one that follows. If every physical action begins in want or desire, the steps of your chosen action will carry that want/desire forward—as long as you don’t leave the action behind entirely. For this exercise, try not to have sentences that contains only thought or emotion or memory; overall, there should be more action than interiority.
When you’re done, go back through and try to find an action you could remove for effect, if you wanted: something like the “missing” bullet from the Evenson example above. If you were to put a gap into your consecution, where would that gap have the most interesting effect?
Good luck! See you next month!
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
Thank you. I did this exercise to satisfying results.
This is great, thank you Matt!