Learning from Kelly Link: The elements of intrigue

Kelly Link excels at injecting relatable characters and scenarios into surreal landscapes, and “The Summer People” from her short story collection Get in Trouble is no exception. She’s also an expert wordsmith, building evocative worlds out of concise, carefully crafted sentences. In my deconstruction of this story, I will focus on description and character development, starting with the opening lines.

Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister. “Fran,” he said, spritzing her like a wilted houseplant. “Fran, honey. Wakey wakey.”

First, the story immediately hooks you. The comparison of Fran to a wilted houseplant is an unusual one, thus getting our attention, and the question arises: Why is her father spraying her with water to wake her up? The alliteration of the “w” creates a pleasing cadence, forcing us to slow down and savor each word. Even the juxtaposition of “wielding”—a verb typically reserved for weapons—and the benign “mister” is strange enough to compel us to continue reading, if only to satisfy our curiosity.

Fran had the flu, except it was more like the flu had Fran. In consequence of this, she’d laid out of school for three days in a row. The previous night, she taken four NyQuil caplets and gone to sleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives. Her head was stuffed with boiled wool and watered-down plant food. “Hold up,” she croaked. “I’m awake!” She began to cough, so hard she had to hold her sides.

Link takes a topic familiar to most readers—the flu—and throws us off balance with a reversal—“it was more like the flu had Fran.” This is more than just clever wordplay; it also works on a logical level. After all, when you’re sick, it does feel as if the sickness has taken over your whole body. While “boiled wool” is not the first image that comes to mind when you think of the flu (making it all the more arresting), it makes sense when you think about it.

This passage represents the power of Link’s writing on a larger scale—she takes a familiar topic and twists the dial regulating her narrative universe ever so slightly until you notice something is off but can’t quite place your finger on it. By the time her stories veer off into all-out weird territory, you’ve become so immersed in the characters that the progression feels natural.

The phrase “gone to sleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives” creates a dynamic simultaneity by pairing two actions on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Her daddy was a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes. The bulk of him augured trouble.

Here the alliteration of the “d” indicates a tonal shift. She also integrates a suspenseful element—why would the “dark shape” of her father “augur trouble?”

As the story unfolds, we learn more about her father—he’s an alcoholic infamous for his bootleg liquor, the “sweetest in town.” Occasionally the voice of God intervenes, compelling him to abruptly destroy all the liquor before delivering it to his clients—not surprisingly, this doesn’t make them too happy.

Whether it’s to escape the wrath of his clients or to repair his conscience, he often leaves town for religious conventions, which is where he’s headed now—never mind that his teenage daughter is sick with the flu. We learn all this in a few succinct sentences:

When he wasn’t getting right with God, Fran’s daddy got up to all kinds of trouble. Fran’s best guess was that, in this particular situation, he’d promised to supply something that God was not now going to let him deliver.

Rather than take us out of the narrative with a long backstory about her father’s troubled past, Link gets right to the point.

A master at character building, she uses a few carefully selected details to reveal relationships and motives.

We learn that Fran has a lifetime obligation to the mysterious (and needy) “summer people.” Since their sole form of communication is through voices in her head, it’s hard for her to put off these obligations for long.

With her dad gone, she asks the rich, shy Ophelia to help her out by giving her a ride, knowing the eager-to-please Ophelia will say yes.

…somewhere between the school lockers and the Robertses’ master bedroom, Ophelia seemed to have decided that the ice was broken. She talked about a TV show, about the party neither of them would go to on Saturday night. Fran began to suspect that Ophelia had had friends once, down in Lynchburg. She complained about calculus homework and talked about the sweater she was knitting.

One interesting thing about this passage is Link’s decision to reveal their conversation through paraphrase rather than direct quotes. It makes the exchange move quickly both on the page and in the story’s action. We learn that Ophelia and Fran are not super close, that neither of them are popular, and that Ophelia is so lonely that given the chance to converse with someone, the words pour out of her with the reckless fervor of a starving person at a buffet.

When Ophelia drives up to Fran’s house, Fran reveals her home’s backstory:

“It’s old,” Fran said. “Needs a new roof. My great-granddaddy ordered it out of the Sears catalog. Men brought it up the side of the mountain in pieces, and all the Cherokee who hadn’t gone away yet came and watched.” She was amazed at herself: next thing she would be asking Ophelia to come for a sleepover.

The last sentence reveals crucial information about Fran’s character as well as a key shift in her relationship with Ophelia. Normally guarded and terse, with a disdain for Ophelia’s sugary sweetness, Fran feels herself opening up to Ophelia despite herself. This suggests a burgeoning of their friendship and also hints that Fran craves companionship just as much as Ophelia does.

Finally, after Ophelia undergoes a dangerous mission for Fran, braving the house of the summer people (who hold war re-enactments with real guns and cannons and have a mysterious room that, in the tradition of “Bluebeard,” must never be entered) to retrieve flu medicine for Fran, their friendship is solidified:

“I think I’m going to be much better,” Fran said. “Which is something you done for me. You were brave and a true friend, and I’ll have to think how I can pay you back.”

In just a few pages, then, we have a complete character arc and a classic hero’s journey. By deconstructing Link’s language, dialogue, and decisions on what information to reveal (and not to reveal), we can learn how to make our own writing more intriguing and captivate our readers.

 

 

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