Literary Lessons #2: Necksnapper, by Emma Alice Johnson
If there were such a thing as sacred commandments for writers, the first would be “Read a lot, write a lot”. If your goal is to express a new idea, or even an old idea in a new way, it’s of paramount importance to understand how others are expressing themselves. With this knowledge in hand, you can either adopt effective strategies, or avoid unsuccessful ones, elaborating and modifying as you go. There simply is no better way to improve as a writer.
It’s in this spirit that I’ve launched Literary Lessons, a series of articles aimed at analyzing works of short fiction that have made a particular impression on me. The goal is to move beyond a general feeling of “that was good” and state explicitly why, and to share those thoughts with others looking to improve their craft. Enjoy!
Today’s piece, Necksnapper, comes from Emma Alice Johnson. Her work has appeared in Dark Discoveries, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and one of my personal favorites, The Dark. She’s also won a Wonderland Book Award (twice), and has started several fiction ‘zines. Her bio describes her as “a nice, normal lady who writes not-so-nice, abnormal fiction.”
Abnormal is definitely the right word to describe this story. No, I take that back. I don’t think there’s an adequate single word descriptor for a story about a young girl killing one thousand crows on camera. The very premise raises more questions than are answered. Through it all Johnson weaves in bad parental relationships, low self-worth, and the twists and turns of abnormal sexuality. Not bad for a 2,000 word story.
Go on, click the link above and go give Necksnapper a read. You’ll be glad you did. Also, SPOILERS BELOW!!!
There are a few different ways to write a killer first line. In this case, Johnson relies on a lack of context to give the reader a “WTF?” moment:
Delayna snapped the first crow’s neck without thinking about it.
Those ten words do quite a bit of heavy lifting. First of all, it introduces us to the main character by name, which is nice. Second, it tells us what she’s doing — snapping crow necks. In case you weren’t paying attention, that’s fucking weird, and it makes the reader wonder why this is a thing that Delayna wants to do. Then Johnson throws in the word “first”, suggesting there will be more neck-snapping action to come (hey, that’s the title!). Finally, that last phrase tells us something about Delayna’s state of mind. Not everyone would kill an animal with their bare hands; rarer still to find someone who could do it without thinking about it. Who is this Delayna person, what are her motivations, and why is she so murdery? That induced curiosity is the hook that keeps us reading.
The rest of the first paragraph starts to fill in the blanks, explaining that Delayna’s parents “robbed and prostituted themselves out of her life” and into prison. We also learn that she may be on a path to joining them:
The weight of what she had done in the past had been too much for her. This though, this dead bird in her hand, it didn’t weigh much at all.
There’s a little bit of wordplay at work here, using the word “weigh” in both its metaphorical and literal meanings. It’s a great way to tell the reader about her past sins and their magnitude while tying them to the present.
We’re then introduced to the other character in this story, a man known simply as “the director”. He’s set himself up a little film shoot and Delayna’s the star. Her job? Kill one thousand crows for one thousand bucks. The reason for this murder-fest is still hidden at this point in the story, but by telling us more about Delayna, we get a hint:
She didn’t have the looks for traditional porn — chin too wide, forehead too short — but she had the guts for the out-there stuff, the whips-and-chains stuff, the oozes-and-eels stuff.
By discussing Delayna’s past and juxtaposing it with the events of the story, Johnson adds an erotic element to something that most of us find completely unsexy, if not outright repulsive. This will be addressed directly later in the piece, with the director telling Delayna, “This film, it is going to make some people feel very good, and these people have a difficult time feeling good.” Far from being jaded, as the first line would suggest, Delayna empathizes. She recognizes that for some people, crow killing is all they have. Her understanding in this moment is fueled by her own difficult relationship to sex:
Not that she had ever found much joy in sex. She blamed her mother for that, for showing her that whatever mystical power intercourse held was secondary to its monetary value.
This provides her with a motivation beyond needing the money; in fact, the money becomes a secondary concern. Throughout the story, her mind is on those poor souls who need films like the one she’s making. This moment humanizes Delayna, transforming her into a real person that we can identify with. This is necessary for the story’s success. Without that transformation, we can’t put ourselves in Delayna’s skin, and all the nastiness to come happens to someone else, not us.
You see, Delayna is in for a rough ride, and we’re going with her. This is where the author leans on her powers of description to create a visceral response, revisiting the moment of death over and over again in a slow build toward the story’s climax. At the beginning:
When she snapped the crow’s neck, she didn’t just hear it. She felt it. It echoed through her wrist[…]
Then toward the middle:
She would wrap her right hand around the crow’s head completely, covering those eyes and sealing the chomping beak. She would wrap her left hand around the bird’s body, clamping the weakly flapping wings in place. Then she would twist, like opening a bottle of warm beer.
A bird dropped into Delayna’s hands and felt like it belonged there, a feeling akin to sniffing her own shit and finding it pleasant. She didn’t like the feeling. Still, she tried to twist and snap slower, to turn the precise snaps of the birds’ necks into more of a crunch, then into a grind.
I need an adult.
If the job of the first line is to hook your reader, the final line should be about providing resolution. In this case, Johnson does a great job of highlighting the messy moral questions surrounding what Delayna has done:
And she wondered if it was worth it. And she wondered what was more important, what she would be judged by: the weight of her sins, or the quantity.
It’s a callback to the beginning of the piece, wrapping the whole thing up in a neat little bow by referencing the “weight of her sins” once again. But beyond the use of language, these final questions cut through the grotesqueries on the page to reach real world significance, as any decent literature should. By focusing on Delayna’s emotional plight, we forgive the weirdness of the situation, unconsciously recognizing it as a substitute for the moral failings we’ve all experienced. These final questions push us back out of her world and into our own, left to ponder the pile of crows dead at our own hands.
More literary critique and review:
Slow and Steady Wins The Race – Literary Lessons #1: Dark Warm Heart, by Rich Larson
Problem Solving on God Mode – An Honest Review of Ready Player One, by Ernst Cline