Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s short, emotionally resonant, masterfully crafted, and fresh.
Read the story here. If you really want to get a lot out of this, read the story twice. This is important because the first time you read anything, you’re going along as a reader. It’s only on the second read, when you know what’s going to happen, that you can start to see the structure of things.
I know it sucks, but writing is work. If you don’t want to put in the work, you won’t make it.
Every story starts with the inciting incident. In short stories, the inciting incident often, but not always, occurs within the first paragraph of the story. This is because short stories are… well, short. In novels, it’s not uncommon for the inciting incident to occur within a chapter or two. But it’s where the story really begins.
The inciting incident is the first event that makes this day different from all others in the eyes of the protagonist. It sets off a string of events in an escalating causal chain that come to form a story. A causal chain simply means that one event leads to another.
Enough jargon — lets apply these ideas to the story. The inciting incident in this story despite its short length, occurs kind of far into the story. Tobias Wolff is an amazing writer, and he is able to do this because even without the inciting incident, there is conflict and escalating action throughout the beginning of the story.
Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.
This is the first sentence of the story and it introduces a problem that, while not the meat of the story, is enough to keep the reader interested, especially because of the strong language: loud, stupid, murderous.
This is important to note. If, at any time, the reader does not understand what a character wants and sees them struggling to get it, they won’t be as interested in the story as they could be. It doesn’t mean a story is bad. It just means that it might not be as strong as it could be.
Everything anyone tells you about writing should be thought of on a spectrum. If your characters aren’t interesting, it doesn’t mean your story will fail. It just means that on the spectrum of pleasures one usually gains from reading, this one is absent, and you need to compensate for that in some way if you want people to read what you wrote.
The story moves briskly along, each sentence heightening the action between Anders and the women in front of him.
Then, it happens. The inciting incident.
Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door.
This is the beginning of Act 1, the initial conflict. Many things usually happen in the first Act, but the one thing that ALWAYS happens is a transition to Act 2, the meat of the story. This sounds stupid and obvious, but it’s the only real rule for Act 1. Many things usually happen in Act 1, such as the introduction of other characters, but they aren’t necessary and aren’t part of the story here.
Note the continued escalation of action. EVERY sentence has a purpose, and every time something happens, the stakes are raised. This begins with Anders making fun of the language of the robbers. The robber doesn’t hear this, but the action is still escalated when they put the guard to gunpoint. This shows the robbers mean business.
The robber decides to rob the woman who had gone on break earlier, the same woman that the woman in front of Anders remarked on, causing Anders to expunge his vitriol.
Now, when Anders rubs it in, the robber hears him.
Two other things to note. First, notice the causal chain. If the woman in front of Anders hadn’t said anything, then Anders wouldn’t have said anything here and there would be no story. This is an almost invisible event, yet it’s CRUCIAL to the story because it makes the story all about Anders and his decisions. There is no puppeteer behind the scenes, moving paper-thin characters around.
This is Ander’s story.
The conflict between Anders and the robber continues to escalate until, keeping true with his character, Anders sees something that a literary critic would think is funny — the literary equivalent of blasphemy in a painting of Zeus and Europa.
Anders laughs, and the stories goes into Act 2 when he’s shot in the head.
People will always tell you that story is about character, and they’re right. Up to this point, Anders is an unsympathetic narrator. He’s angry, caustic, and rude. We’re interested in seeing what happens to him, though we don’t care about him as a character.
Act 2 starts with one, simple premise: what Anders remembered before he died. It’s a powerful thought, enough to keep us reading even if we don’t particularly care for the narrator.
But Wolff, in a stroke of genius, tells instead what Anders did not remember (ironic, also, because it can be said he must not have remembered these things in life either). The Act 2 is shorter than normal here, but that’s because it occurs with such ruthless efficiency. Each sentence comprises an event, and each event is a puzzle piece that fits together to form Anders’ life.
Each event here is unexpected, and keeps us reading. And each event is so unlike the character of Anders that we’ve seen, we also want to keep reading. We have to know what happens. We have to mesh the Anders we’ve seen with this new, sympathetic Anders.
In three masterful paragraphs, we see Anders’ life. We see how the world, once wonderful and romantic, slowly reveals itself to be anything but. And we see how eventually the poetic magic that once infused Anders’ life is snuffed out. When everything becomes monotonous, and the same, and the bottomless well of rage and indignation created at this.
THIS is what life is for? THIS is what I waited for, what I put in all those hours for?
It’s a very powerful thought, and just as we’re digesting these things, Wolff drops the bomb: Act 3.
This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.
This is the most important point in the story, and as I’ll explain in a later post, because it is the most important point in the story, it needs the most description. We’re no longer being told events — we’re living Anders’ last memory.
And what a memory to end with. Alone, without the story behind it, this scene would be meaningless. But without having to say it, Wolff shows Anders at his best, when the world was full of wonder and magic. When a boy saying two simple words was enough to set his imagination aflame and fill him with the magic and wonder of life.
Any questions, clarifications , or objections to anything above, leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them ASAP.