Author Archives: admin

Dak’s Law

“Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself.”

Recognize that quote? Of course, you do. Dak [or Dack, depending on the source] was Luke Skywalker’s gunner in the battle scene early in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The moment he uttered those fateful words, every thinking being in the theater knew that he was toast.

As a writer and as a viewer, I am irked when I am aware of the writing — which is to say, when I am aware of the open manipulation of my sympathies. When this happens, it creates the opposite effect. Instead of being sympathetic, and later saddened at the sudden and wholly unanticipated demise of said sympathetic and startlingly wrongly optimistic character, I sit there thinking, “Really? They’re doing that?” And the inevitable demise has no impact whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing is manipulation. But good writing doesn’t let you know it’s happening. The use of this particular cliché undercuts the surprise, the shock, the pathos. Maybe I am oversensitive to it, but my resentment is at the clumsiness of the attempt, of the contempt of the writer for his/her audience. [I await the comments of any of my readers who wish to point out instances of my doing exactly this. Never said I was perfect.]

What brought this to mind was the mini-series “Fargo,” set in the same world as the great Coen brothers movie. Dominated by the brilliant performances of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, the plotting and writing have been gleefully perverse, giving me a great deal of pleasure in the twists, never mind that the three hitmen and the one amateur murderer have been exceptionally careless in leaving behind video evidence, fingerprints, witnesses and so forth.

But along comes Episode 9, “A Fox, a Rabbit and a Cabbage.” Lester’s approach to Malvo is both dangerously stupid and extremely out of character, forcing the plot points, but that’s just bad plotting. The invocation of Dak comes from the monologue of Lester’s new wife, Linda — a sad story of her sad childhood, and how her hopes that her Prince Charming would come and here he is in the form of Lester and isn’t everything going to be wonderful. And we immediately know that she is doomed.

It happened in “Dexter,” on Rita’s last episode in Season 4. She expressed her hope in the future and delight that everything seemed to be working out well for them at last, and I felt sadness at the termination of Julie Benz’s contract. Robert, my son, said he saw her death coming from the first episode of that season. Somewhere, Dak was yelling, “Girl! Get out of town now!”

So, here endeth the lesson. If you want to surprise your viewer or reader, don’t tell them the character is going to die. We may still like the character — but we’re not going to respect its creator.

Tell Me a Story

“Tell me a story, Vince.”

That was the first line of my first published short story, “A Dry Manhattan Story,” in the April, 1991 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  I have always loved the voice in fiction of one character telling a story to another. It gives life to both the teller and the listener, allowing for narrative and commentary simultaneously. It is best done on a journey or by a roaring fire. (I have used both in The Widow of Jerusalem and An Antic Disposition,and arguably those are my two favorite books among those that I have written.)

Fiction writers have it easy in one sense. We are limited only by our imaginations and our talents. We can set a story anywhere, anytime, restricted only by what our aesthetic dictates. Selecting the restrictions and imposing them is part of the fun.

But what if someone else imposed the restrictions? What if they were the following: A. The story has to be told orally, not in writing. Okay, I know how to talk. B. The story has to relate to a one or two word theme that will be given to you. No problem—that can trigger my imagination in interesting new ways. C. It has to be five minutes long. Uhh, tougher. Sometimes getting me to shut up is more difficult than getting me to write. D. The story has to be true, drawn from your own life.


Enter The Moth. Founded in 1997 in NYC by George Dawes Green, The Moth holds story-telling evenings, open to all. Hundreds of people jam into a café or bookstore for the weekly StorySLAMS, and a few dozen intrepid (or narcissistic) souls drop their names into a bag. Ten are selected at random. An emcee, usually a comedian, holds forth in between the tales, and panels of volunteer judges score the tale-tellers on a scale of one to ten. The highest score earns the teller the right to compete against other winners in a quarterly event called the GrandSLAM, held in an even larger venue. The winner gets—nothing but bragging rights.

The program has expanded across the nation, adding events with longer stories and a radio show on NPR, earning a Peabody Award along the way. It remains one of the best bangs for the buck anywhere. And it’s a rush, as I can attest from experience.

I had been approached early in The Moth’s history about participating, but felt that my talents were better suited to fiction. Two years ago, however, I thought of one story from my past. I came in, was picked—and won on my first time out. Since then, I have been in two more StorySlams and two GrandSLAMS.

I have found that it takes a different set of gears for true life tale-telling. The narrative voice belongs to a character named “Alan Gordon,” who is an aspect of me slightly larger than my daily persona. The Procrustean nature of the time limit becomes a major factor—do I stretch or do I cut? I usually shape it in my head rather than committing to paper for the freedom to improvise if inspiration pops up mid-performance, as it frequently does.

My second StorySLAM win was for a theme that you’d think would be in my wheelhouse: Mystery. But mysteries in fiction are common. Mysteries in real life—not so much. Yet it was musing upon the paradox of a mystery writer lacking mystery in life that led me to the winning story, which I literally composed on the subway ride from Queens to the Manhattan venue. What was it? Well, it’s a tale best told out loud—and it will be. It’s going to be featured on the radio show and podcast sometime in 2014. The details will eventually be posted at Until then, you can check out the site for events near you, the radio schedule, and current podcasts. And if you have a tale to tell, come on down and give it a try.

But remember—you only have five minutes. And it has to be true.