Five Ray Bradbury Stories That Tell Us Everything We Need to Know About Writing.
Fiction traffics in a tension between the impossible and the possible, and no writer walked this line with more guts and style than Ray Bradbury. Conflict—between or within characters—is at the heart of fiction, but in these five stories (he wrote more than six hundred of them) Bradbury shows us how only an escalating tension between style and substance—between what a story is trying to say and how it is trying to say it—can give fictional struggles the power to truly move us.
1. “The Illustrated Man”: Need v. Want
The conflict within character is at the heart of fiction, but its soul lies in the struggle between what the story wants and what it needs to be. After three years of rejection and revision, Bradbury finally published “The Illustrated Man” in Esquire Magazine in 1950 (the titular character would reappear as a framing device in his 1951 collection of the same name). William Philippus Phelps is an obese freak show burn-out covered in prophetic tattoos as a result of a deal he makes with a witch in order to hang onto his wayward wife. The plan backfires when the wife rejects him and he attacks her, fulfilling the prophecy of an illustration tattooed on his heart. Another tattoo drilled onto his back remains a mystery until the end.
“The Illustrated Man” wants to be a dark fantasy replete with astonishing description, Faustian dread and Grotesque characterization. It wants to be a story about love and hate. But what it needs to be is a story about a man who loses himself in the crowd. An outsider whose need for acceptance multiplies and consumes him, making him as impossible to himself as he is to others.
Bradbury’s set-ups continually floor me. None so loaded, so incendiary as in "The Illustrated Man." It opens with the call of the crowd to get a load of the freak. There he stands on the platform, all sweating three hundred pounds of him, tattooed from head to toe with nipple-eyed dragons and drooling pit-monsters, “an entire civilization.” The crowd jeers and the calliope screams, but because Phelps is not, after all, an entire civilization, but only a man, he only has eyes for his wife. There, “across the sawdust meadow” she moves, tearing his manhood asunder like so many sideshow tickets— “staring at the silver belt buckles of passing men.”
The first scene, in other words, goes straight for the jugular. Opens a vein between the wayward flesh and the wild at heart, between the lonely one and the carnivalesque many. Love lies bleeding, people. Best get out of the way. Yet “The Illustrated Man” remains one of Bradbury’s most dramatic yet unified works, its end foreshadowed in the beginning with the real monster—the crowd—in whose shrivelled heart and countless watching eyes, lies the Illustrated Man’s true destiny.
Bottom Line: A tight set-up paradoxically makes room for a story to contain the whole world. It shows us that the end should always be prefigured in the beginning and that a character’s final actions should shed an unforgiving spotlight on the story’s unanswerable questions.
2. “February 1999: Ylla”: Time v. Space
Setting is desire, according to Dorothy Allison, your character’s search for a door. “Ylla” is a story about a loveless marriage on Mars, and the earth astronaut who disrupts it. Bradbury creates tension with every colliding detail. Yll sits in one room, stroking his iPad (really), and donning medieval drag to meet his futuristic rival. On the other side of a triangular door, Ylla waters her “caged flower," looking out on the arid terrain and humming an Elizabethan song that comes to her in her dreams—a poem about unquenchable sexual thirst.
What elevates this bizarre sci-fi set-up into something humane and moving is the tension between disparate and disjunctive details. Even on Mars, time is fatally out of joint. After Ylla’s dream lover comes to her, Bradbury makes sure that her gaze is never where it “should” be, never where her husband wants it to be. Instead of looking at him, or at his ancient, dying land, Ylla’s eyes are firmly on the stars. That longed-for flash of metal from the future. Tellingly, in a story about the tensions between female desire and male control, Bradbury shows Ylla trapped in her own moist glistening oasis of desire, slick with running streams and phallic pillars spurting cooling mists! A place achingly at odds with the Martian boneyard towns and dead seas, just as her desires clash with her husband’s ancient and hypocritical rage.
The devil of place, in other words is in the detail of time.
Bottom line: “Ylla" demonstrates that the success of setting in fiction is to structure it in terms of colliding psychic dimensions, as a way of representing characters unable to reconcile where they are with what they want.
3. “That Woman on the Lawn”: Possible v. Impossible
In the 1951 story, “Fog Horn,” the protagonist insists that the dinosaur in love with their lighthouse, is impossible. The captain says:
“No Johnny, we’re impossible! It hasn’t changed. It’s us and the land that’s changed, become impossible. Us!”
The tension between the impossibility of one world and the possibility of another is the runaway truth of all fiction. In “That Woman on the Lawn,” an old man meets the lost ghost of his mother as teenage girl, or a lost girl meets the ghost of her future son as a very old man. The paradox of who is the real ghost is never answered—how can it be? Each mistakes the other as the answer to their question and misreads their own dewy footsteps on the moonlit lawn as those of the longed-for other. But only when the son, Will, matches the uncannily beautiful face of the ghost to old photographs of his mother, does he realize that if he doesn’t save her from herself, he will never be. The paradox that Will’s very existence removes the need to ensure it through time travel in the first place is not only unresolved but allowed to shimmer in the beautiful idea that:
“It comes to me to imagine then that there are special ghosts in the world. Not ghosts of dead people. But ghosts of want and need, or I guess you might say desire….The ghost of wanting so much it kills but doesn’t kill you, shakes and almost breaks you.”
In other words, the impossible life you save could be your own.
Bottom line: Resist the urge to explain. Silence opens up a space in fiction for wonder. Don’t say too much in your story, or you’ll make the characters disappear, and you’ll be left alone, an impossible author.
4. “Kaleidoscope”: Story v. Plot
“Kaleidoscope" appears at first to be either a story without a plot, or a plot without a story. A rocket explodes. Five astronauts plunge to their deaths. The end. No survivors washing up on steamy shores in their scanties. No alien rescue. No worm holes. Nothing. But what makes this story explode off the page is the sickening tensions between the Captain and his men, and how death is the sickest joke of all, a “black butcher” slicing off chunks of time, of space, of story.
Through colliding disembodied dialogue and unverifiable histories, Bradbury tangles several lifelines into the short dark knot of this ironically titled story. The men drift apart, betrayals surfacing across the intercom, confessions made and silenced, jealousies erupting in violence. Careening meteors slice off Captain Hollis’s limbs one by one and as each of his men disappear into space, he must face up to the fact that he was even less of a captain in life than in death, even less of a man.
With what’s left of him about to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere, all Hollis wishes for is one good thing he can do “to make up for a terrible and empty life.” Instead of letting this fizz into a cautionary, platitudinous tale about living every day as if it were your last, Bradbury turns it into a fireball. Sears the soul. The captain must burn, yes, but at the last moment, Bradbury pulls a POV sleight of hand and plots a final twist. Something utterly unexpected and impossible that grabs the reader by the heart and won’t let go. Something wondrous.
Bottom Line: Plot exists in the most unlikely scenarios. A character trapped in stasis, doomed or fallen, unable or unwilling to act beyond a kind of desperate vision or incendiary dialogue, can be the set-up for some pretty twisted plotting (preferably without flashbacks!). Remember: a story doesn’t have to have a plot, but it usually wants one.
5. “Heavy Set” : Action v. Character
Action is character, the mantra goes. We are what we do. Show your character in action, and this will tell us what s/he wants. But what if we don’t know what our characters want? Humans routinely act in ways that conceal who we are, especially to ourselves—so rather than close down the possibility for characters to be more than the sum of their actions, Bradbury uses action to make the world a bigger place, a place beyond words.
“Heavy-Set” is a Halloween story. A repressed thirty-year-old man called Leonard lives with his mother, and like his namesake Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, doesn’t know his own strengths. He can’t understand, or act on, his own desires. “Fly away,” the mother says soundlessly, before he goes off to his party, but what is it she really wants?
Maybe she does want her big bird to fly away, maybe she is afraid that he will. “What then?” she asks, fearful of and for him. Her actions betray her. She smiles at him, laughs at him, or with him. It’s impossible to say. They go to shows together on Saturday nights. She tries to imagine him gone, she tries to make him disappear, but where would he go?
“No!” she thought. There’s no one, no one there, no one anywhere. There is just this place. This is the only place.”
Maybe what the mother wants is not to fear.
Leonard likes to squeeze steel springs to strengthen his hands. Bradbury tiptoes through the unsettling possibilities. He respects the space of heartbreak, careful not to trample fears. Leonard “toddles” about in his Buster Brown costume, grotesque and heartbreaking. Bradbury’s choice of verbs—“drubbing,” “pressing,” “wrestling,” conceals as much as it reveals. Teenage boys put their hands on Leonard, yet he rides his surfboard, waxed “smooth as girl’s cheeks,” out alone, and when he stands on the shore, he looks like “a visitor from another world.” The story works because with every action, Bradbury adds to the sum total of what is impossible for us to know. Trick? Or Treat.
The ending of “Heavy-Set” is one of the most haunting and saddest I have read anywhere. And as with so many of Bradbury’s stories, it leaves us with a question, unanswerable except in our darkest, most unspeakable dreams.
Bottom line: The power of fiction is to pit who a character is against what they do. This is not so simple, say, as giving a single mom a secret life as a one-legged international mud-wrestler, but infinitely more complex. Give her an impossible care.
In a Paris Review interview before he died, the self-taught Bradbury confessed that, at the beginning of his career, he clipped passages from his favorite authors and stuck them onto his manuscript
“because I couldn’t do it, you see. I was so frustrated! And then I’d retype whole sections of other people’s novels just to see how it felt coming out. Learn their rhythm.”
For the record, Mr Bradbury, I’ve done the same with your work. It shows us that only by pushing fiction’s inherent tensions to their limits can something new be born. Something wondrous.
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