Becoming better writers

Those of you who have followed something of the progression that my writing instruction philosophy has taken over the past few months know of my aversion to literary analysis essays in secondary school instruction.  I have to teach and assign them, however – four to my honors students and two to the rest – and I have spent much of the first quarter preparing my students for their first one.  The essay’s subject is Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game.”

We’ve learned many of the essay’s requirements, such as a good hook, a good thesis, and good use of evidence, through less threatening assignments – a personal essay and a movie review or sports column, specifically.  We’ve done a number of prewriting exercises, such as graphic organizers (for the think-before-I-write types) and freewrites (for the think-as-I-write types).  We’ve used wikis, online forums, topic blasts, and class discussions to get the juices flowing.

Still, I’ve made probably most of my students nervous by refusing to require a particular structure or a minimum page count, and by refusing to provide a writing prompt, though I’ve made various (and, I suppose, contradictory) suggestions along those lines.

As I was helping one small group with its topic blast last week, one group member suggested pointedly that I should try my own assignment.  I had forgotten that I had committed to writing every paper with my students, so I agreed.

I started that night.  An earlier freewrite gave me some direction but provided me with no copy.  I decided to start with the hook, and I spent an hour and a half in agony as I drafted about twelve different versions of it.  I almost bit my daughter’s head off over nothing before I gave up writing and fell asleep. The next day, I described my experience to my classes. I showed them my writing, and they laughed at it.  I hope that helped.

Then I read them the first two or three paragraphs of the following draft, which I wrote that morning before school.


Can I become a better person?  Whenever I believe in a dynamic character, literature gives me hope that I can.  But a story’s hope usually comes with a price: the dynamic character often lives out something like his worst fears before he changes.

I believe in Sanger Rainsford, the dynamic character in Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game.”  A world-famous hunter, Rainsford becomes hunted himself hours after telling his hunting companion that animals have no feelings. The short story’s shifts in setting, its nightmarish static characters, and its expiating action combine to make Rainsford’s late-story conversion believable.

“The Most Dangerous Game” has three distinct settings, and both transitions in setting involve sleep.  The story begins on a yacht.  Rainsford is traveling through the Caribbean to his next hunting trip.  Feeling drowsy on deck in a recliner one night, he hears pistol shots and races to the yacht’s rail.  He climbs on the rail in an attempt to see where the shots came from, but he loses his balance and falls into the next setting, the sea.  He swims toward pistol shots and barely makes it to the third and final setting, Ship-Trap Island. After Rainsford beats what the narrator refers to as “his enemy, the sea,” he falls exhaustedly “into the deepest sleep of his life.”  Because the story never returns to a previous setting, no other setting transition occurs.

But sleep returns at the story’s end to signal a more significant transition.  On the island Rainsford meets General Zaroff, a fellow hunter who has given up traditional prey out of boredom and has taken to hunting men.  Zaroff hunts Rainsford, who jumps from a cliff into the sea to avoid capture at the story’s climax. Zaroff and the reader assume Rainsford’s death during the story’s brief falling action, but Rainsford reveals himself in Zaroff’s bedroom at the end.  Zaroff frames the final struggle:

“One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds.  The other will sleep in this very excellent bed.  On guard, Rainsford.”

The reader infers Rainsford’s victory from the next line, the last line of the story:

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.

This final sleep is a waking up, a signal that Rainsford’s nightmare is over.  Given the setting transitions that sleep has signaled earlier, the reader may infer more than Rainsford’s victory from this final line.  Like Scrooge on Christmas Morning, Rainsford wakes up from his tortured sleep a different man.

Connell prepares us to make this final inference through his dreamlike setting transitions.  We’re never in charge in a dream, and Rainsford’s early comments about animals’ lack of feelings suggest his need to move from a journey he controls (the yacht), to one he does not control (the sea).  Like sleep, the sea is both amorphous and pervasive.  Only gunshots and breakers – hints of his coming dream – break through to Rainsford’s strained senses as he swims.  Eventually, the sea posits Rainsford on the island, just as the early stages of sleep eventually lead us to a dream.

To build on the dreamlike effects of his setting transitions, Connell stocks Ship-Trap Island with stock characters and dreamlike imagery.  For good reason, Rainsford first assumes that Zaroff’s pointy-towered chateau, surrounded on three sides by cliffs overlooking the sea far below, is a mirage.  Then, at the chateau’s front door, Rainsford meets Ivan, a deaf and dumb brute who almost kills Rainsford at first sight.  Zaroff’s own mixture of cruelty and Russian, aristocratic urbanity makes him a round character but also as static a character as Ivan.  Straight out of a B horror movie, the island and its characters do not seem realistic, but their lack of realism adds to the dreamlike effect Connell begins with his setting changes.

As Rainsford’s island nightmare progresses, Connell takes pains to associate Rainsford with a hunted animal.  Early in the hunt, this association is metaphorical. When Rainsford realizes that Zaroff spares him only to hunt him again, the third-person limited narrator concludes, “The Cossack was the cat; he was the mouse.”  But the association becomes stronger in Rainsford’s mind as the terror of the hunt increases.  As Zaroff approaches him for the final time, this time with his entire pack of dogs baying, the narrator says, “Rainsford knew now how an animal at bay feels.”  By experiencing the terror of a hunted animal, Rainsford pays for his callous feelings toward his own prey.

Once Rainsford’s association with his former prey is complete, he is in a thematic position to defeat his foe.  Rainsford’s confrontation with Zaroff in the bedroom may seem unnecessary from a plot standpoint.  After all, Rainsford might have taken the opportunity to slip off of the island aboard Zaroff’s sloop.  But from a thematic standpoint, Rainsford must avenge the game he himself has callously destroyed.  He confronts Zaroff and then rejects Zaroff’s meaningless designation of him as the winner of Zaroff’s game.  Rainsford also indicates that his association with the animals he once destroyed is complete.  “I am still a beast at bay,” he announces to Zaroff.  By killing General Zaroff, then, Rainsford stands in the place of his former prey and atones for his sins against them.

The story associates Rainsford’s atonement with the end of his ordeal.  From only a plot perspective, Connell might have chosen to reward Rainsford with the riches of the island or to put him back on the yacht where we first meet him.  Instead, to emphasize Rainsford’s conversion, Connell rewards Rainsford only with waking up.  Connell associates Rainsford’s atonement and the end of his nightmare in a spare, elegant fashion.  The reader infers from the extra line of space between the story’s final paragraphs not only that Rainsford has fed Zaroff to the dogs, but also that Rainsford followed his victory with a good sleep.  The sleep returns Rainsford from his nightmare, just as the sea delivers Rainsford to his nightmare earlier in the story.

I am thankful that Connell never simply tells us that Rainsford changes.  Claims of fundamental, personal change are not convincing.  Instead, the reader is able to infer Rainsford’s conversion by the nature of his suffering and by his strong association with his former prey.  The story’s expiating action effectively appeals to the reader’s sense of justice and atonement.

Some students asked me for a copy of my draft.  Of course, they ask not because they think it’s great, but because they assume I’d give myself an A for it.  So I say no.  They would only end up trying to write like me instead of discovering their own writing.  (I do have students pick up style and tricks from model writing, but not from mine.)

As I say, I read them only two or three paragraphs of this.  After they’ve written their essays, I’ll show my student writing group this entire draft and let them help me with it.  For now, I just hope my students choose to suffer enough to become better writers.  Writing is hard work, I tell them.