Paragraph Packing: A Short Example

Scream When You Burn.

If that were a writing prompt for a short story exercise, what would you write?

Image by Aziz Acharki https://unsplash.com/search/burn?photo=HsXgRlIr4Ls

Don’t actually burn

 

As it happens, Bukowski already wrote a short story with that title. While preparing Monday’s post featuring a dialogue sample from his Hot Water MusicI came across an excerpt that I’d highlighted in his Scream When You Burn. I thought the excerpt overwritten, and had marked it for analysis; I cite it below, as today’s Quote.

My impressions was that it repeated sentiments, and that not all the sentence were needed to retain meaning and impact. Take a look. What, if anything, do you think is redundant in the Quote?

The Quote also explains the title of his story—if you’d thought of your own story idea to match the prompt, you can compare how he justifies the title with how you would do it.

Quote:
He picked up Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death…read some pages. Camus talked about anguish and terror and the miserable condition of Man but he talked about it in such a comfortable and flowery way…his language…that one got the feeling that things neither affected him nor his writing. In other words, things might as well have been fine. Camus wrote like a man who had just finished a large dinner of steak and French fries, salad, and had topped it with a bottle of good French wine. Humanity may have been suffering but not him. A wise man, perhaps, but Henry preferred somebody who screamed when they burned.

(The ellipses in the Quote are present in the original text; I have not omitted anything.)

Quick observations:

  • Banal but useful: an interesting phrase from the text, such as somebody who screamed when they burned, can be slightly altered to produce an even more interesting and dramatic title, such as  Scream When You Burn.
  • Scream When You Burn is used as a metaphor for human suffering; it takes Bukowski (just, or as many as?) one hundred words to build up enough context for the metaphor to make sense.
  • Whether you have read Camus’ work doesn’t matter: if you haven’t, you get a summary meshed in with the character’s opinion; if you have, you may agree or disagree with the opinion, but that’s irrelevant because Henry is fictional so anything goes.
  • Polysyndeton, or the use of many conjunctions, helps get across the weight and importance of Camus’ subject; if Bukowski had written anguish, terror, and the miserable conditions of Man, the list would have appeared too neat, too easily grasped.
  • One got the feeling that is an opinion hiding a simile: you could have replaced the phrase with as if. Conversely: Camus wrote like a man etc is a simile hiding Henry’s opinion on how men who had large dinners wrote. That’s something to bear in mind: The choice and application of simile reveals opinion.
Image by Marcu dePaula https://unsplash.com/search/text?photo=tk7OAxsXNL0

Cutting words

 

Now to the unkind cuts. What would you delete, if anything?

Short summary of paragraph with sentences labeled sequentially:

  1. Read Camus.
  2. Camus talked about the miserable condition of Man but in a flowery way as though nothing affected him or his writing.
  3. As though everything were fine.
  4. Camus wrote like a man after a large dinner.
  5. Humanity may have been suffering but not Camus.
  6. A wise man perhaps, but Henry preferred those who scream when they burn.

Analysis:

  • 1 Statement of fact, cannot be removed.
  • 2 is stated in the negative, 3 in the positive; 2 is specific, 3 a summary of the second half of 2.
  • 2 and 4 are both about how he talks/writes and contain details; 2 elaborates both on subject and on language, 4 is a prandial simile about his writing.
  • 3 and 4 could be seen as saying the same thing, where 3 is a general statement, and 4 is elaborating the point.
  • 4 implies Camus wasn’t suffering; 5 includes this fact, but reminds us that Humanity may have been suffering while Camus was eating.
  • 6 opines on Camus wisdom, and states Henry’s preference for those who scream when they burn.
  • 5 is a transition to 6, so if you want to keep 6, you need 5.

Neatened summary:

  1. Read Camus.
  2. Subject of Camus’ writing and opinion on Camus’ language.
  3. General simile about Camus’ language.
  4. Prandial simile about Camus’ language.
  5. and  6. Henry agrees that Camus may be wise about subject and language but Henry prefers another kind of man.

Since similes are opinions, it appears 2, 3, and 4 talk about the same thing.

Here are some options for what to remove, or rather what to keep.

Disclaimer: I am not trying to edit, improve, or claim any version of Bukowski’s writing as my own; this is purely an exercise.

Keep 1 2 :

He picked up Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death…read some pages. Camus talked about anguish and terror and the miserable condition of Man but he talked about it in such a comfortable and flowery way… his language … that one got the feeling that things neither affected him nor his writing.

Gets the message across, but not memorable and lacks title. Assuming you want the title to work, would have to keep 1 and 5-6. As the most general statement 3 can probably go.  The 2 and the 4 look almost interchangeable.

Keep 1 4 5 6 :

He picked up Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death…read some pages. Camus wrote like a man who had just finished a large dinner of steak and French fries, salad, and had topped it with a bottle of good French wine. Humanity may have been suffering but not him. A wise man, perhaps, but Henry preferred somebody who screamed when they burned.

Alright, but lacks summary of what Camus talked about, anguish and terror and miserable conditions of Man are much more memorable that suffering in general.

Keep 1 2 5 6 :

He picked up Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death…read some pages. Camus talked about anguish and terror and the miserable condition of Man but he talked about it in such a comfortable and flowery way… his language … that one got the feeling that things neither affected him nor his writing. Humanity may have been suffering but not him. A wise man, perhaps, but Henry preferred somebody who screamed when they burned.

Acceptable completeness of conveyed message, at the cost of diminished emotional impact. Having a hearty dinner, with the “French” details, while the world suffers is a gross and memorable contrast. I’d put 4 back to get those visuals. Then, syntactically, it’s more balanced, more flowing, and more pleasing to have 2 (long sentence), 3 (short sentence), 4 (long sentence), where 3 is the bridge that connects the general opinion of 2 and the concrete simile of 4.

In other words, I don’t think there was emotional or syntactic redundancy, even if the messages overlapped in the middle.

Conclusion: Bukowski needed all 110 words to get his metaphor to burn bright in the reader’s mind.

Do you disagree?

Image by Alexander Csontala https://unsplash.com/search/burn?photo=HsXgRlIr4Ls

After the fire?


Reading Recommendations

  1. Hot Water Music, Charles Bukowski. Because all his stories are well-written (if brash and cynical). It’s a skill.
  2. The Stranger, Albert Camus. Because Camus’ Meursault couldn’t be farther from Bukowski’s characters.
  3. My other posts on Bukowski and on Camus.

8 responses

  1. I liked it all in. But if I had to take some out I would have lost ‘ but he talked about it in such a comfortable and flowery way…his language…that one got the feeling that things neither affected him nor his writing.’

    Liked by 1 person

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