From our reading list: "Stone Mattress" by Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood.
Look at the opening paragraphs. What happens to you as a reader as you move through them?
At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple. Take a breather, do some inner accounting, shed worn skin. The Arctic suits her: there’s something inherently calming in the vast cool sweeps of ice and rock and sea and sky, undisturbed by cities and highways and trees and the other distractions that clutter up the landscape to the south.How's that for anfirst few lines? Prolific suspense author Lee Child has a great essay in which he reveals the simple secret to getting readers to keep turning pages.
What is it?
Pose a question, and make the reader wait for the answer.
That's it. He makes the point that it doesn't even matter whether the reader is personally interested in that particular question: just not knowing will drive them crazy. In Atwood's story, the first line tells us Verna is going to kill someone. Now we want to know: Who? When? How? The next paragraph brings some clues:
Among the clutter she includes other people, and by other people she means men. She’s had enough of men for a while. She’s made an inner memo to renounce flirtations and any consequences that might result from them. She doesn’t need the cash, not anymore. She’s not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself: all she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money, so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her. Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal.
But old habits die hard, and it’s not long before she’s casting an appraising eye over her fleece-clad fellow-travellers dithering with their wheely bags in the lobby of the first-night airport hotel. Passing over the women, she ear-tags the male members of the flock.
What do you pick up here? Do you think she has killed before? What clues do you get about the kind of person she is?
Look at this sentence, how many surprises it contains: "She's not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself: all she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money, so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her. Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal."
She's not greedy . . . .but then we learn how much money she requires: "layer upon layer." That sounds like a lot. "So that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her." That actually sounds like an impossible amount of money. "Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal." And yet to her it seems only a "modest" accomplishment--she's accumulated all that money, and yet somehow, we sense, she's not quite satisfied.
And oh my god, how did she do it . . . what does this have to do with the killing that's been mentioned, the flirtations? What's it beginning to suggest to you?
"But old habits die hard . . . she ear-tags the male members of the flock."
And now we're on the ride. She's a practiced predator: one of these men will be her prey. This alone would impel me through the story: Who will it be? How will she kill him?
But Atwood doesn't stop there: every paragraph offers a new surprising information about Verna: her methods, her motivation. When she runs into someone she recognizes, her past collides with the present. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, this story plays with our expectations and raises the stakes at every turn.
Bonus: Notice the use of flashback here. Everyone hates flashback: it slows the story down, yet as writers, we often feel we need it to explain what's going on. We're constantly putting it in and cutting it out. But Atwood deploys it expertly. Pay attention to how she uses it to 1) tell a story with its own arc--with a question posed at the beginning, so we crave more flashback fragments to get the answer; and 2) contribute the building the stakes, the suspense in the present-time story of Verna on the ship.
Bonus Bonus: I just realized "Stone Mattress" has a twin in this story, which was assigned to me years ago by my favorite teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Deborah Eisenberg: "The Tattooer" by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. Both are about sex and power, and reversals of power. The Tanizaki is spare and beautiful and catches fire at the end; the Atwood floors me with its mastery of craft. What's your response to these two stories?