Posts Tagged ‘See What I Have Done’

You know, for a little while now, I’ve been pondering something. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to certain stories as “slow burns.” Heck, I even called my friend/colleague Pat Bertram’s book Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare a slow burn mystery when I reviewed it on Amazon (and I highly recommend you read it, BTW). But what exactly makes a story a “slow burn?” Sadly, searching in Google didn’t pull up a lot of information, and I needed a short break from working on Rose (which is going great, BTW), so I thought I’d share my observations on the matter.

So what is a slow burn story? Well, to put it simply, it’s a story that doesn’t try to rush itself or keep escalating things as the story goes on. Instead, the story takes its time getting to the story’s resolution, using an intriguing set up, good characters and character development, and little bumps in the excitement levels to keep readers invested in the story. A good example of a slow burn would be a romance that, instead of having the characters hook up within the first half of the story and then showing them struggle to stay together, or having the characters finally confess and kiss at the end of the story after a number of travails, the story takes its time establishing these characters, the development of their relationship, and then showing the hook up, all without any big drama or too huge plot twists.

Getting an idea for them yet? And you’re probably familiar with a lot of these stories, even if you don’t know it. Many of these slow burn stories are pretty calm for up to the first two-thirds, with little intervals during that time that ramp up the excitement for a brief period, before they have an explosive final third (not always but often). A good example of this is The Shining, both the book and the movie. Unlike other King stories like It, where things are big and scary from the very beginning, The Shining takes its time building things up. It lays the groundwork, showing us these very real characters and their struggles, the isolation they feel, and the true nature of the Overlook. On that final one, King really takes his time. We get brief glimpses of the truth of the hotel, and each glimpse gets nastier every time, but it’s not until the final third that things really hit a head and things become truly exciting.

Another facet I’ve noticed about slow burns (the ones I’ve come across, anyway) is that there’s a sort of reluctance on the parts of the characters. In The Shining, none of the three main characters want to be in the hotel, but they all have to be so they can survive as a family, and it’s with a certain reluctance that the characters, especially Jack, acknowledge that there’s something seriously wrong with the hotel they can’t handle and that they have to get the hell out of Dodge. Dracula is often described as a slow burn, especially in the novel and in the Nosferatu adaptations, and without a doubt the characters are reluctant to be in the machinations of a centuries-old vampire. And in Pat’s novel Madame ZeeZee, the first-person narrator is very much reluctant at first to look into the strange events that occur at the titular character’s dance studio. It’s only as things progress that she finds herself really looking into things.

So that’s slow burns for you. But how do you write them? If I had to guess, I’d think it would have to do with moderation, specifically moderating the amount of excitement in the story. With most other stories, the norm is to build the excitement until the climax of the story when things get really explosive. But with a slow burn, it’s more like you’re doing a mostly flat Richter scale graph with only slight bumps here and there until the very end when things get super exciting (if you decide to write the story that way, that is). Doing that might take some practice, however, so I would recommend doing that practice and just allowing yourself to get good at them. Don’t get upset if you’re not good at it at first; we all start somewhere, don’t we?

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some good slow burns to get a good idea for them, here are some of the ones I’d recommend: The Shining by Stephen King; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (see my review of that novel here); HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (see my review of that here); Final Girls by Riley Sager (see my review for that here); and of course Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare by Pat Bertram, which I reviewed on Amazon. All of them are excellent slow burns, and I can’t recommend them enough. Definitely check them out if you’re curious.

What observations have you made about slow burn stories?

Which slow burns have you read recently? Would you recommend them?

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Ever since I stayed overnight and experienced paranormal activity at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast back in July, I’ve kind of become a bit obsessed with the case and the hauntings that occurred because of the murders. The latest manifestation of that obsession is reading the latest fictional retelling of the events (of which there are several, believe me), See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, who says she was inspired to write it after recurring dreams of Lizzie’s spirit visiting her. I first came across a review of this in Entertainment Weekly, and as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to read it.

SeeĀ is a fictionalized account of the story of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 was accused of murdering her stepmother and father with an ax and was acquitted due to lack of evidence and investigator bungling. The story is told from the perspectives of Lizzie herself, her elder sister Emma, their live-in maid Bridget, and a violent drifter named Benjamin, all of whom tell what they were up to on a hot, fateful day in August 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts.

I have to say, See is not the usual sort of historical fiction I read when I delve into that genre.

Firstly, the four narrators are each given a unique personality and desires, so that it doesn’t entirely sound like just one person narrating four different people. Lizzie is a spoiled youngest child with a hell of a lot of quirks (to say the least); Emma is an older sister who has become constricted by her responsibility as Lizzie’s older sister and as a Borden and wants to run to a new life; Bridget is overworked, and is trying to leave for her homeland of Ireland, despite Mrs. Borden’s attempts to keep her; and Benjamin is a man who sees the whole world as his enemy, and can’t wait to take a swing at the world. Working with one first-person narrator and making them unique is hard enough, so it’s great that for a debut novel, Schmidt distinguishes them so well.

I also liked how flawlessly she manages to weave these four narratives, especially Lizzie, Bridget and Benjamin’s narratives, together on the day preceding and the day of the murders. Telling overlapping storylines, where several characters are in the same place and experiencing things at the same time, has always struck me as a monumental task which requires skills I’m not sure I have yet (if it’s actually easier than I think, let me know in the comments below). Schmidt did it like a pro, to which I applaud her.

But my favorite part is the descriptions Schmidt has her characters use. I’ve never seen descriptions like what she uses. She turns nouns like “termites” or “critters” into verbs (is there a word for that?), and…you know what, let me quote from the first page:

I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth…My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop, as I looked at Father again…Pear skin crisped in my mouth…

How different was that? I have never heard any of these things described this way in fiction, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear. And Schmidt does this throughout the book, particularly with food. She goes all out to describe the food and the sensations of eating in a variety of ways. You really have to read it to believe it.

Now was there anything I disliked? A few things. I was kind of hoping going in that this would be a thriller of sorts that revealed an interesting take on an old theory or even better, a new scenario for the still-unsolved murders. What I got was more of a dissection of the Borden family, showing through several different eyes how grating these people have become on each other, and how it might have been a factor in the murders. And while the portrait painted is beautiful and quite telling of both the author’s vision of and what the family might’ve really been like, I thought the ending where the killer is revealed rang a bit hollow. Like I said, I wanted a new scenario or an interesting take on one of the standard theories for the case, and the way it was eventually portrayed fell a little flat for me.

And as much as I liked the unique descriptions in the book, some of them are used repetitively throughout the novel. I can’t count how many times things, especially fingers, are described as sticky, or how many times heat “itches” at someone. To quote some of my editors, variety in words and phrases throughout a story is important.

And what was up with the dislike for Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John? I get why Abby and Andrew Borden dislike him, he’s probably a bad reminder of Lizzie and Emma’s deceased mother, but why do Emma and Bridget dislike him so much but Lizzie adores him? There’s a lot there that I would’ve liked explained.

But all in all, See What I Have Done is an excellent debut for a new novelist. Putting a score on this book on a scale of 1 to 5 was difficult, but my head kept coming back to a 3.8. Engaging, atmospheric, and full of wonderful prose. Check it out, and ax yourself if you’re ready to dive into Lizzie’s madness.

And yes, I intentionally made that pun. And I stand by it. Goodnight, everybody!