HOW WORD CHOICE AFFECTS PACE, TONE, AND VOICE – This Boy’s Life
This is the second post in which we examine *This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff, from a writer’s point of view.
How does Tobias Wolff manage to draw us into his story? How does he keep us turning the pages while portraying the world through the eyes of a young boy? What word choices does he make to skillfully convey the reality and tone of that boy? These are the questions I attempt to address in today’s post, our 5th in the Read Like a Writer series. To do this, I decided to examine sections from two chapters: “Fortune” and “Citizenship in the Home.”
While reading “Fortune,” I discovered I was holding my breath as Wolff described how, alone in his apartment in the afternoons after school, he would dress in camouflage and aim his gun through the window at passersby. I wanted to take this scene apart to discover how the author kept the tension drawn so tight — and me, so on edge.
This first excerpt (pgs 24-26) begins right after Wolff, with Roy’s help, manages to convince his mother that he could be responsible with a rifle and use it only when his mother or Roy were present. The author presents the events through the reasoning of the young boy he was, using simple and straight-forward language.
For a week or so I kept my promises. But now that the weather had turned warm Roy was usually off somewhere, and eventually, in the dead hours after school when I found myself alone in the apartment, I decided that there couldn’t be any harm in taking the rifle out to clean it. Only to clean it, nothing more. I was sure it would be enough just to break it down, oil it, rub linseed into the stock, polish the octagonal barrel and then hold it up to the light to confirm the perfection of the bore. But it wasn’t enough. From cleaning the rifle I went to marching around the apartment with it, and then to striking brave poses in front of the mirror. Roy had saved one of his army uniforms and I sometimes dressed up in this, together with martial-looking articles of hunting gear: fur trooper’s hat, camouflage coat, boots that reached nearly to my knees.
In this first paragraph, we can easily imagine a boy giving in to the temptation to pull out and look at and polish his new toy. We see him dressing up in army uniform and strutting around the house with the rifle over his shoulder—a cliché image, but an image that would make a boy feel grown-up by imitating. At this point, his actions are nonthreatening and even endearing, had he stopped there. But we see a progression of actions that already have a life of their own as Wolff’s young narrator stretches his reasoning from, “I decided there couldn’t be any harm . . . Only to clean it, nothing more . . . I was sure it would be enough,” to, “but it wasn’t enough.”
The camouflage coat made me feel like a sniper, and before long I began to act like one. I set up a nest on the couch by the front window. I drew the shades to darken the apartment, and took up my position. Nudging the shade aside with the rifle barrel, I followed people in my sights as they walked or drove along the street. At first I made shooting sounds— kyoo! kyoo! Then I started cocking the hammer and letting it snap down.
In this paragraph we see Wolff’s progression take a dark turn as he pretends to be a sniper. It’s one thing to imagine a boy with an empty rifle marching around his apartment, another to imagine him pointing it—even unloaded—at people as they walk down the street. The tone darkens with descriptors such as setting up a “nest,” drawing the shades, and taking up a “position.” Using the verb “nudging” in the context of moving the shade aside with the barrel heightens the sense of excitement and secrecy. “At first” increases tension by informing us that the young soldier won’t stop here; there will be more. And then, “I started cocking the hammer . . .”
Roy stored his ammunition in a metal box he kept hidden in the closet. As with everything else hidden in the apartment, I knew exactly where to find it. There was a layer of loose .22 rounds on the bottom of the box under shells of bigger caliber, dropped there by the handful the way men drop pennies on their dressers at night. I took some and put them in a hiding place of my own. With these I started loading up the rifle. Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by— women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone—and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.
Wolff has given in to the thrill of his actions, and the next logical step is to load the rifle. The rounds of ammunition, are “hidden,” tossed carelessly into a drawer. So he takes them. And then Wolff gives us the most chilling sentence in which he describes the rifle loaded, hammer cocked, his finger resting on the trigger while he sights on women, children, anyone who passes by his window. He has allowed himself, step by step, to become dangerous. At this point, the reader can have no confidence in Wolff or that he will not do something irreparable. And it is this that makes me hold my breath: I do not know what this character is capable of.
The last sentence in that paragraph is interesting to me as a memoir writer, because it is a skillful insertion of adult reflection. It is highly unlikely that a boy that age would understand why he was so thrilled with his actions, other than than the fact of danger itself. The idea that he was in an ecstasy of power over others, and that their belief they were safe was “absurd and innocent” is clearly the author looking back, analyzing the emotion he had experienced, and naming it. But this analysis doesn’t stand out as such. In context, it is believable, provides insight into the mind of the boy, and enhances the tension in the scene, all at the same time.
One afternoon I pulled the trigger. I had been aiming at two old people, a man and a woman, who walked so slowly that by the time they turned the corner at the bottom of the hill my little store of self-control was exhausted. I had to shoot. I looked up and down the street. It was empty. Nothing moved but a pair of squirrels chasing each other back and forth on the telephone wires. I followed one in my sights. Finally it stopped for a moment and I fired. The squirrel dropped straight into the road. I pulled back into the shadows and waited for something to happen, sure that someone must have heard the shot or seen the squirrel fall. But the sound that was so loud to me probably seemed to our neighbors no more than the bang of a cupboard slammed shut. After a while I sneaked a glance into the street. The squirrel hadn’t moved. It looked like a scarf someone had dropped.
In this final paragraph, the first sentence is both inevitable and surprising when it comes. Horrible, when followed by the next sentence in which he describes following a slow-walking older couple until, “my little store of self-control was exhausted. I had to shoot.” One imagines he pulls the trigger while aiming at the couple. Instead, he shoots at and kills a squirrel, which by this point feels a relief to the reader, but not to the young narrator, who pulls “back into the shadows and waited for something to happen.” He is surprised by his own action, and reveals that surprise when he describes the squirrel as looking “like a scarf someone had dropped.”
At the hands of Dwight, from the Chapter, “Citizenship in the Home”
Now let’s look at how Wolff keeps tension while significantly slowing the pace of the story.
Dwight made a study of me. He thought about me during the day while he grunted over the engines of trucks and generators, and in the evening while he watched me eat, and late at night while he sat heavylidded at the kitchen table with a pint of Old Crow and a package of Camels to support him in his deliberations. He shared his findings as they came to him. The trouble with me was, I thought I was going to get through life without doing any work. The trouble with me was, I thought I was smarter than everyone else. The trouble with me was, I thought other people couldn’t tell what I was thinking. The trouble with me was, I didn’t think. (p. 95).
Except when Dwight had other plans for me I shucked horse chestnuts nearly every night, chipping away at them through most of the winter. I could have finished them off earlier but I slipped into daydreams and sat frozen like a kitchen boy in a spellbound castle, a nut in one hand, a tool in the other, until the sound of approaching footsteps woke me up and plunged me, blinking and confused, back into time. (p. 96).
What stands out for me in these paragraphs (and the book as a whole) is Wolff’s matter-of-fact tone. He uses language that minimizes rather than heightens the abuse he experiences, while communicating his dissociation with reality—a common coping mechanism of the abused. Time slows and sometimes stops. In the first paragraph, Dwight deliberates while doing other things, reminding me of a cow chewing its cud, ruminating on the blue sky. Only it is Dwight, ruminating on the faults of his charge and constantly finding ways to criticize him.
In the next paragraph, the choice of verb, “chipping,” conveys a sense of helplessness, while “through most of the winter,” tells us how long a period of time Wolff shucked those horse chestnuts. He “slips” into daydreams and sits “frozen like a kitchen boy in a spellbound castle,” evoking fairy tales of orphans locked away in troll castles and toiling ceaselessly for their next meal. As we read, imagining the pure awfulness of Wolff’s situation, time slows and stops for us as well, until we imagine waking, “plunged . . . blinking and confused, back into time.”
Using distant language with very little emotional context, Wolff summons empathy in the reader for the boy’s circumstances without ever using the language of self-pity, hurt, or anger.
Wolff’s control of pace, matter-of-fact tone, and voice of a young boy is accomplished through the use of simple, direct, and non-emotional language.
I leave you with this question: When might emulating Wolff’s methods be appropriate in your own writing?
Please add to the conversation: What is your take on how Tobias Wolff’s choice of words affect pace, tone, and voice?
If you haven’t started yet, This Boy’s Life is *available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.
My gift to you . . .
To help you start a book journal of your own, I’ve created a Book Journal template I’d like to share with you. If you prefer to journal by hand, download the PDF version, print, and place in a binder. If you like to journal using your computer and you use Microsoft Word, download the Word version so you can make your entry directly onto the page.
Excerpts in this post are from: Wolff, Tobias (2007-12-01). This Boy’s Life: A Memoir Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.