Jack Reacher in The AffairWhat Authors can Learn from Jack Reacher's Gravel Rash

Some years back, I sat in an editing circle at a writers' retreat/workshop and listened while a highly experienced writing teacher gave feedback on a writer's work in progress. He read out an excerpt. "She swerved onto the shoulder of the road, coming to a stop in a shower of gravel." He looked at her. "On the surface, it may not seem that there's anything wrong with that. But I when read it I wondered if you had written those words without really thinking about it. Without really seeing it."

He went on to develop the point.

Was "a shower of gravel" the first expression that had come to the author's mind? (Yes, she admitted, it was. She just typed it and kept going.)

Could she clearly picture the road? The surface? The edges? The terrain? Did the sides slope down away from the road? Was there a rock wall nearby? Did the road shoot straight as an arrow through flat countryside? Was there gravel at the side of the road, or a hard-packed dirt surface, or soft dirt? Did grass grow to the edges of the road? Did trees overhang the road? (Um, well, she didn't know. She had just wanted to get the hero and heroine together in a situation based on conflict, so she decided he would be driving erratically and force her to swerve...)

This led to more questions about the characters as well as the setting, but the lesson that I carried away was this: the first thing that comes to mind is often somewhat cliched. If you do this a couple of times when writing a story, it probably won't make a big difference. If you take the easy way out all the time, it will make a difference. Your story will lack depth, and you risk sounding the same as a hundred (or thousand) other authors.

Take the time to research. Every time you put your characters in a certain setting or situation, do a mental walk-through yourself. If possible, go to a similar location and do a real-life walk-through.

Look around you. What do you see? What can you touch, taste or smell? Imagine your characters in this scene. How does the setting influence what they say or do? (For example, if one of them was in a car and swerved to the side of the road and came to an abrupt halt, would gravel spray into the air? Or would they end up with one wheel down in a muddy ditch?)

When you really know the setting, you have a much better sense of how your characters will interact with it. It's even more valuable to climb inside your character's skin and do exactly what you want him to do.

This was brought home to me forcibly when I read Lee Child's book The Affair, starring his popular hero Jack Reacher. In this scene, in order to figure out where the crime had taken place, Jack was trying to replicate a gravel rash noticed on the body of a girl who had been raped and murdered. He was doing exactly what many authors do: putting himself in the situation in order to get it right.

Here is the scene from The Affair:

The gravel pile itself had spread and settled during the idle months. Weeds were showing through the edges where it was thin. It was knee-high over most of its area, and up close it was about the size of a queen bed. The divots and the pockmarks in the top surface were like a Rorschach test. it was entirely possible to see them as the result of innocent children running and jumping and stomping. It was equally possible to see them as the result of a grown woman being thrown down and raped, in a violent flurry of knees and elbows and backs.

I squatted down and ran a fingertip trhough the tiny stones. They were surprisingly hard to move. They were packed down tight, and some kind of a dusty residue on them seemed to ahve mixed with rain or dew to form a weak adhesive. I made a furrow about an inch wide and an inch deep, and then I turned my hand over.

I pressed the back of my hand into the pile and held it there for a minute. Then I looked at the result. Small white marks, but no indentations, because there was no real flesh on the back of my hand. So I pulled up my sleeve and pressed the inside of my ofrwarm against the pile. I put the flat of my other hand on it and leaned on it hard. I bounced it up and down a couple of times and scrabbled it around. Then I looked at it.

The result was some small red marks, some small white marks, and a whole lot of dust, dirt and mud. I spat on my arm and wiped it on my pants and the resulting clean stripe looked both very like and very unlike the small of Janice May Chapman's back. Another Rorschach test. Inconclusive.

But I did come to one minor conclusion. I cleaned up my arm as well as I could, which was not perfectly, and I decided that whatever gravel patch Chapman had been raped on, she had not only dressed afterwards, but showered too.

Comment: The value of this scene is two-fold. Firstly, from the reader's viewpoint, it shows what the character, Jack, learned by going to a likely location and trying to reconstruct the crime. Secondly, from the writer's viewpoint, it shows what a difference small details can make - details that make the reader feel that this is real, rather than just words on paper. For example:

  • Jack found that the tiny stones were 'surprisingly hard to move' (most of us think of gravel as being loose) because a kind of weak 'glue' had been formed from dust and moisture.
  • He was able to replicate the kind of marks found on the body, but...
  • He also discovered that the body couldn't have been found in such a clean condition without being showered, which had implications for where she was actually murdered.

In every book you read, you will find lessons like this. Sometimes you'll learn what you can do to be a better writer. Sometimes you'll learn what not to do because it distances or alienates the reader.

In this example, Jack Reacher's inflicting gravel rash upon himself helped his character solve a crime - but it also showed writers how to write a believable scene.

© Marg McAlister


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