Today we’re doing things a little bit differently. Twice a week, I like to send out writing tips that will help you improve your writing, but I’m not the only one with knowledge to share. Jenn Gott is an indie author and a writer with Reedsy (a publishing company that connects new authors with the resources they need), so she basically spends all her time either writing books, or helping people learn how to write books. She firmly believes there is no writing skill you cannot learn with practice and the right guidance. At Reedsy, she contributes to a blog with writing tips for aspiring authors. It is my honor to have Jenn Gott share one of these tips with you today.
How many times have you heard people say that descriptions are “boring”? There’s a common misconception that it’s nothing more than tedious chunks of information a reader needs to get through to reach “the good parts”: dialogue and action scenes.As someone who loves descriptions, this hurts my heart. The truth is good descriptions aren’t boring or tedious — instead, they build tension and reveal character depth with seamless grace. In fact, the best descriptions will paint a picture in your mind so visceral you’ll swear you’re standing next to the characters.The key? Like everything else, you want your descriptions to connect with readers on a human level. So settle in and get comfy, because today we’re going to be talking about our feelings.Identify the mood of the scene
Before you can start using emotion to build your description, you’re going to need to do some prep work. The first step is understanding what moods you’ll be using. How are the viewpoint characters feeling at this point in the story? What kind of emotions are you hoping to evoke in the reader? Where does the scene fall within the structure of your plot — is it a high point or a low one? Are you building tension? Cooling off after an intense action sequence?Once you’ve identified the feelings you’ll be working with, give some thought to the language you might use to evoke those feelings. Words have a lot of different “flavors”, and sometimes things that look like synonyms on the surface elicit very different reactions in the minds of readers. Words like jab and stab, for instance, sound a lot more aggressive than poke or prod, which might be more appropriate if you’re going for an uncomfortable feeling.
Another thing to consider: what kind of sensory details do you associate with the moods you’re trying to create? Do certain colors make you nostalgic? Are there smells that make your heart ache? Gather up all these thoughts, images, and feelings, and tuck them into your mind for safekeeping, even if you don’t use every single one.
Look at where it’s taking place
Next, you’re going to want to look at where the scene takes place. Now, sometimes you don’t have a lot of choice in the matter — a scene might have to be in a particular location, or else the plot doesn’t make sense. But even then, there are factors that can play into how the scene will feel. Perhaps you can control the weather or the lighting, or the number of people in the scene. These are all important factors in changing the ambience of a room. A conversation taking place in a crowd is going to have a different vibe than a private talk, and depending on who’s involved, that may create feelings of claustrophobia, anxiety, anonymity, safety, or distraction.
If you do have flexibility in where your scene takes place, the choices get even more interesting. Take a look at the moods you identified above, and ask yourself what kind of places might evoke those feelings. Can any of the sensory details you thought of earlier be worked into the location? If sun and ice cream say “happiness” to you, and if you want a scene filled with joy, which would achieve that better: placing it in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, or placing it in a park on a bright spring day?
On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use creative juxtaposition. Sometimes a mood is better reinforced when you’re surrounded by the opposite. The right contrast is often more interesting and impactful than a simple mirror.
Tie description directly to your character’s mood
Now it’s time to get down to it.
At its heart, this method is really about understanding and using point of view to its best effect. Your narrator’s perspective is going to color each scene. The effect will be stronger with an unreliable narrator, but even a reliable narrator has biases. And of course, everyone reacts to things differently depending on how they’re feeling — why else would we have coined the term “hangry”?
As you bring the reader into the scene, ask yourself: how does the viewpoint character feel about this? Allow their mood to guide your description. This will be easier if you’re writing in a close perspective, such as first person or third person limited, but even a distant or omniscient POV can make use of this technique. At its heart, this method is really about understanding and using point of view to its best effect. (To learn more about how to do this, I recommend reading this guide to POV here: https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/
For instance, say you’re writing about two people in love. Half of the couple is going to notice different things about their partner than, for example, their partner’s brother. A character in love might wax poetic about the way the light hits their love interest’s hair. Even the language will be different, choosing words with softer sounds and more complimentary metaphors. (Not sure how to best handle metaphors? There’s a great list of examples here: https://blog.reedsy.com/
And this extends far beyond descriptions of people. How a character feels about the situation they’re in will impact what they notice about the world around them. Are they impatient, glossing over all but the most important details? Are they nervous, fixating on one particular object while ignoring the rest of the room? Are they bored and taking time to notice literally everything, until they get annoyed by this one corner of the carpet that keeps lifting up no matter how many times they smooth it out with their foot?
Also, don’t forget about the word choice we discussed earlier. The phrases you use here will guide the mood of your reader as much as the details you describe. Remember to choose language that reinforces the mood you’re building. After all, there’s a big difference between the dead branches of a tree reaching toward the sky, piercing the sky, or hovering ominously overhead, just waiting to break off and fall.
Reveal details at key moments
When your characters notice details is just as important as what they notice. Feelings, like good descriptions, are not created all at once, but built upon layer by layer. Since the last thing you want to do is create a boring info dump, you’ll need to work your descriptions in gradually. Make them flow with the action, rather than fighting it.
Let’s say a character walks into a room. That’s the perfect place for a small line about the way they carry themselves, the speed of their entrance, or the look on their face. Be sure to account for the perspective of our narrator, who is going to notice different things depending on their relationship with that character, why they’re meeting, and what they anticipate the conversation to be. That way, you’ll be able to add a layer of vibrancy to your writing that you won’t get through action and dialogue alone.Finally, don’t feel like you need to give readers all the details as fast a possible. Layering in you description is a great way to add tension to an otherwise straightforward scene — especially if there’s something your point of view character doesn’t notice until the moment it becomes relevant to the plot. Maybe they’ve been distracted by something else, and they fail to notice the way their rival keeps tugging at the cuff of her sleeve as if hiding something.
By focusing on your character’s emotions and how they feel about the people and the world around them, you’ll not only build a story that’s nuanced and colorful, you’ll also show us details of character development and relationships, reinforce your themes, and even control the pacing of your story — all without wasting words. I’d hardly call that boring!
Get $100 Off a Full Edit!
Hi everyone! Kami, here! Dave’s past assistant of seven years! I’m now doing freelance editing at my site FawkesEditing.com(where I work under an online alias, September C. Fawkes). I also run an award-winning writing tip blog, and you can see an index of all my tips here: https://www.septembercfawkes.c
Right now, I’m offering $100 off a full novel manuscript edit when you book with me. Offer ends October 19th, or until I am too booked up. Just mention you saw this in Dave’s newsletter or on his website.
My approach to editing has been described as “thorough, “precise,” and “kind. ” But you can learn all about me and my services at FawkesEditing.com. I’d love to help you take your manuscript to the next level!
Want to learn how to get writing fast and stay in creative focus? In this workshops we’ll help you resolve the most common reasons that people face writers’ block and give you some exercises to get you writing again. This workshop is $99 and will be on November 16th 2019 in Provo. If Provo is too far for a one day trip, the workshop is going be recorded live on Zoom. That way you can attend the workshop from the comfort of your own home.
This workshop can be found on my website at MyStoryDoctor.com.
“When a young filmmaker goes to China to shoot a film, he meets a lot of ‘little shady’ characters, but there’s only one ‘Big and Shady,’ and he’s got the whole world under his thumb.” This is a short story of mine called “Big and Shady”. You can find it and other short stories for $.99 on Amazon here.
Big and Shady
As Bronc began to take off his right leg for the night, the hotel window shattered, sending spears of glass firing through the curtains. A loud boom thundered through the walls and floor; Bronc instinctively threw himself to the bed.
Actinic white fire flashed just outside the window, then scintillating streamers of silver and ruby crackled, a beautiful cascading waterfall of molten light.
Chinese New Year celebrations had been in full swing for a week here in Shanghai. Bronc had nearly grown used to the nightly explosions as mortars pounded and shells burst outside his window on the 30th floor, while skyrockets whizzed below and firecrackers filled the streets with sounds of machine gunfire.
Bronc had known that it was only a matter of time until one of the rounds hit the hotel.
Not every soldier who has nearly had his leg blown off by an Improvised Explosive Device comes home from the war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Bronc had thought himself free of the affliction, but now he found his heart racing, his muscles clenching, his mouth going as dry as desert sand.
He tightened the buckle on his leg, lunged to the window, drew back the curtains, and leaned on the sill, trying to still his pounding heart.
Maybe it isn’t a matter of “if” you get PTSD, he wondered, just a matter of how badly you get it.
Some nights were worse than others.
Outside, the hotels and apartments of Shanghai rose up by the thousands, each thirty or fifty stories high. All through the city, fireworks were rising up in the alleys between the buildings, brilliant anemones illuminating an alien landscape.
The rats in the wall above his bed began to screech and chitter angrily, as if the explosion had been Bronc’s fault.
Bronc stood panting. He felt a sting on his temple. He tried to brush any glass away. His hand came away bloody.
His heart kept pounding, out of control
“Fear is the catalyst that makes learning possible,” Dr. Sparks had told him in that lazy Texas drawl during his exit interview from the Army. “Too much fear, and you end of up screaming in the night. But getting nervous at the sound of explosions is acceptable. It’s a survival mechanism.”
Bronc forced himself to watch the next fireball blossom into a giant violet chrysanthemum, hoping that in time his body would adjust to the object of his distress.
“There is nothing to fear,” Bronc told himself as his muscles eased. His cell phone vibrated in his shirt pocket.
What the hell? Robert Wu had given him the cheap phone on the day he’d come to China, three months past, and it had never rung here in his hotel. The reception was too lousy.
Yet last fall Bronc had stood two hundred miles from nowhere out on the drum sands of the Taklamakan Desert in far Western China, watching an Arab caravan make its way over the dunes, and his phone had worked great out there. But here in Shanghai, his crap phone apparently only worked when he stood inches from the window.
He pressed Answer, wondering who would call so late. “Nin hao?”
The deep voice of Robert Wu replied, “Mr. Bronc, your phone work tonight?” Like most Chinese filmmakers, Wu had taken an American first name. It was a fad among artists. Robert’s vocabulary was a bit lacking, but he spoke his words distinctly enough. He’d once lived in Hollywood.
“Yes, the phone works tonight,” Bronc said.
“I have call many times in past. You never answer,” Robert accused, trying to give him a guilt trip.
Bronc had complained about the piece-of-shit phone a dozen times, but Robert seemed to think that Bronc was lying. Now, the one time that it had worked, Bronc had made the mistake of answering. “How can I help you, Mr. Wu?”
“I have had Vision!” he replied, voice growing loud with excitement.
“In vision, I saw the god Chu Jung in pillar of fire, standing in corner of room. He say to me, ‘We are betrayed!’”
Oh holy crap.
Bronc knew what was coming next. Robert was the director on their current film, “Eye of the Dragon,” and he was a semi-functional schizophrenic. Every time that Robert heard a voice or had a vision, he had to include it in the movie script.
As the close personal friend to their sole source of funding, not to mention the son of China’s Minister of Propoganda, Robert Wu’s word was law, but Bronc didn’t know how much longer he could deal with a lunatic.
It wasn’t all bad. On rare occasions, Robert’s script suggestions were magnificent. Most of the time, they were magnificently vapid, and Robert lacked the artistic sensibilities to recognize the difference.
Bronc thought fast. “We already have a betrayal scene at the end of Act 2, remember? The wizard’s student Li Fong tries to make a deal with the dragon?”
“No!” Mr. Wu shouted. “This go much deeper! Fire god say we all betrayed. You come to office early in morning, maybe at 6:30 A.M. We must rewrite script by 10:00. Mr. Big will be fly in from Beijing.”
Bronc’s heart stopped. The more he’d learned about their boss’s underworld connections, the more alarmed he’d become.
Another fireworks shell exploded just outside the window, brightening the sky in shades of green and gold. Firecrackers clattered on the concrete below, snaking through the playground of the elementary school across the street.
Bronc’s heart began to hammer harder, and his stomach clenched in fear, not from the fireworks, but from the very real threat of having to deal with the twin threats of Robert Wu and Mr. Big.
He just stood staring out the window while shells exploded and the rats in the wall shrieked again and again. He wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight.
Mr. Big’s real name was Chen Cái. He owned an enormous movie studio in Beijing, along with four thousand movie theaters strewn across the country. For the most part, these weren’t well-maintained theaters like those found in the United States; they were seedy auditoriums that smelled more of piss than popcorn.
Robert Wu had first approached Bronc in Milan, at a global film marketing show, hoping that Bronc would help develop an American-style fantasy trilogy that would rival Crouching Tiger. Robert had promised financial backing from a major Chinese film distributor, two hundred million dollars to play with.
At the time Robert had refused to reveal Mr. Big’s name, worried that Bronc might try to contact his funding source and make his own deal. In the film business, one has to protect one’s contacts.
So Robert had referred to his investor only as “Mr. Big.” Before ever making a deal, Robert had flown Bronc to China, giving him a tour that took him from Mongolia to Tibet, and down to the borders of Thailand. Bronc had been a rising star among screenwriters.
But now it looked as if the money had just been a mousetrap, and Bronc was the mouse.
He’d been thrilled to discover that Mr. Big was the only child to a top leader of the Communist Party, and had all of the power to get a movie past the censorship boards so that it could get made.
But when Bronc went to Beijing to tour Mr. Big’s studios, he discovered thousands of acres of opium poppies growing as white as cotton in fields around the studio plots. Bronc quickly got second thoughts. The penalty for dealing in narcotics was decapitation.
Apparently, Mr. Big wasn’t afraid of the law. He lived above it.
So Bronc made discrete inquiries and discovered that like most Chinese businessmen, Mr. Big oversaw dozens of enterprises. He owned cell phone companies, television broadcasting studios, theater chains, gold mines in Brazil.
But there was a darker side to his empire. The government had granted him the rights for legalized prostitution in China’s thirty largest cities, and that was his main source of income. So he was into drugs, prostitution.
Bronc had asked Robert Wu, “I don’t understand. Is Mr. Big a businessman, the government, or is he the Chinese Mafia?”
Robert Wu had replied, “That great thing: in China, is no different. Government, mob, business: all same people!”
Bronc closed the curtains to his window and tried to calm himself.
Bronc realized that he had to confront Robert Wu in person. They couldn’t let the movie fail. There was no way that Bronc could do a rewrite in an hour and a half. Most likely, adding a single betrayal scene would have ramifications all through the script. It could easily take days.
That morning, when Bronc went to work, Robert had mentioned that he had a new idea to add. In the script, he suggested that some of the heroes should dig a tunnel underneath an enemy Mongol army, in an area that was known to be rich in “gunpowder mines.”
“Then,” Robert said, face flushed with excitement, “we have hero’s best friend, Zhao Sheng, light torch and blow everything up! We have entire Mongol army blown five miles into air. This big final scene! Very exciting. Everyone cry for Zhao Sheng.”
It would of course layer the multi-textured ending that Bronc had already created.
“There’s no such thing as a gunpowder mine,” Bronc had argued. “Gunpowder is manmade. It has to be manufactured.”
Robert had agitated, his eyes opening wide. He was a short man with nasty scars on his face where someone had hit him with a brick. He shouted, “I don’t care. Do it! Do it! I had Vision!”
Bronc had merely stared. He didn’t speak Chinese, didn’t even know how to contact Mr. Big, and the only way that he could save his film would be to go over Robert Wu’s head.
Bronc went to the restroom and flipped on the light, checked for roaches in the sink, but found none. The Happy Frog hotel was pretty decent by Chinese standards, but the shithole would have been condemned and demolished back in the states. The glowing endorsement written in English on the sign out front was about right: “Suitable for peasant families.”
There were plush hotels in Shanghai. Bronc would have loved the Sheraton. But this place was only fifteen dollars per day, and that was the most he could afford.
He looked in the mirror, spotted a couple of shards of glass lodged in his temple. He grabbed a bit of toilet paper, knocked them off, and dabbed at the blood. He didn’t dare try to wash the cuts with tap water. He’d found that if he merely tried brushing his teeth with it, he’d end up with the runs.
So Bronc used some bottled water to wash the wound, then stood gazing into the mirror.
How the hell did I get into this?
He was thirty-two, clean cut. Piercing blue eyes beneath thick brown hair, a Romanesque nose.
For months now Bronc had been waiting here for the film to fund. Robert kept telling him that Mr. Big promised that the money would come any day. Contracts had been signed, agreements made. Two weeks ago, Robert had announced that they were officially “in production” by Chinese standards.
A castle was under construction as a set where the River Li wound among green fields, while majestic stone hills rose from the mist. The castle was being built right into a karst limestone formation, one where the stone had eroded away, leaving a towering natural arch above the castle.
It seemed a desecration of nature to build a set in such a beautiful location, a place where ancient poets had captured the landscapes of mist and stone in watercolors, but Mr. Big felt that in future years the set would make a great scenic river attraction. People would pay to visit it.
Hell, the castle would even have a built-in canal that led inside, ramps that would take boaters through a thrilling tour. It was practically Disneyland.
Four million dollars was going into one set alone, not to mention the money spent on bribing local government officials to get the approvals.
Then there was another million for legal fees in the US, money spent to lock down agreement with distributors there, two million for bonding and insurance alone.
With an investment like that, this wasn’t a film that an investor could walk away from. Mr. Big was in it too deep.
But something felt off. According to Robert Wu, Mr. Big loved the script but hadn’t given final written approval. By contract, once Mr. Big gave that approval, Bronc was supposed to get half a million dollars in cold, hard cash.
So he’d stayed here, rewriting and rewriting the damned script every day for three months, trying to meet with his boss’s approval. Every day he got poorer and poorer.
Now he didn’t even have enough money to fly home and say to hell with it all. Even if he could get home, he had a wife and two kids to feed. In a lousy economy, his disability pay couldn’t cut it.
Nothing made sense. Robert Wu was a lunatic. In any civilized country, they would lock him up. But here in China, they had put him in charge of the most expensive movie trilogy in the country’s history.
If I were the investor, Bronc thought, I would run from this project. Every day promises some new disaster.
The whole movie was going to hell in a hand basket.
Bronc had learned a few years ago that he did his best thinking in his sleep. While his left brain rested, the right brain often remained awake, struggling to solve problems.
He turned on the television to CCCTV’s English Channel and listened for news, hoping to relax. The previous day, the Chinese had pulled “that greedy movie Avatar” from the theaters. In part they had pulled it because it had nearly overshadowed a Chinese film as the bestselling movie of all time, bringing in a hundred million dollars in less than thirty days.
But there was more to it. According to one Chinese journalist, the movie’s theme dealt with the poor treatment that the government showed to the people of China’s Western provinces, where wealthy businessmen kept the locals as virtual slaves. So the government had pulled the movie. Now the newscaster, a young woman, told how, “In protest to the government’s shutdown of that greedy movie Avatar, two people immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square.” She went on to speak about China’s great economic progress.
Bronc wondered if people here would love his film enough to burn themselves for it.
His hotel phone rang. He picked it up. “Wei?”
“Bronc? This Alexandra,” a woman said in a shy voice, as if she did not feel worthy to even talk to a man. Bronc had only met her once. Mr. Big had brought her on as a producer, flying her in to live in a penthouse somewhere near the French District. In a shaky voice she said, “Robert has had Vision.” She sounded as if she were on the verge of having meltdown.
“I know,” Bronc said softly, trying to comfort her.
“And Mr. Big is coming,” she whispered. “I very worried.”
“What does he want?” Bronc asked as another mortar shell exploded, rattling his windows.
“I told he’s lawyer what going on,” she said. She suddenly grew more confident, almost angry. “I told him ‘Robert’s going ape-shit crazy.’” Bronc laughed. “After you left office tonight, I went up to studio to watch Robert film. It was disaster, Bronc! You should have seen!” Words began tumbling from her mouth, like waves cascading through a mountain freshet, as if she couldn’t speak fast enough. “Robert had some boy dressed in costume to be fire god Chu Jung. They doused him in liquid and set him on fire, over and over again, then had him flailing his arms as if he were in fight, while Robert Wu fooled around filming close-ups in 3D.”
Bronc tried to laugh it off, but couldn’t. The footage would actually be of some use, months down the line, when they went into editing.
“You know how thick the walls of studio are?” she continued. He knew. The building had originally been built in the 1950’s as a munitions plant. Later, the concrete walls had been reinforced to withstand a nuclear blast. As a result, when the government had abandoned the place, Robert had bought it. Few studios in Shanghai were as soundproof.
“So,” Alexandra said, “after they light kid on fire a dozen times, room get so hot, it had to be 115 degrees. Suddenly, boy gets woozy and he fall down, and Robert’s assistants grab him and start opening back of his suit so that he can breathe. And do you know what Robert did?”
Bronc couldn’t even guess.
“Robert kick his cameras over. He shout, ‘No air for him! No air for him. He bad actor!”
Perhaps at another time, it might have sounded funny, or it might have shocked him into silence, but right now it just filled him with sadness. For months Robert had done nothing at all. Now he was trying to kill child stars. Not for the first time, Bronc wanted to hop on a jet and fly home, give it all up. But in Hollywood, dreams die hard.
“What can we do?” Bronc asked.
“Mr. Big is coming,” Alexandra said softly. “You not go to office tomorrow. I will go . . . after.”
“Do you think he would fire me?” Bronc asked.
“Maybe we all get fired,” she said. “Maybe if we lucky, he just beat us up and throw us in river. . . ” She considered a long moment. “No. In China, you most important person to film. To be writer, you must be verrry courageous. If writer fuck up, in old days he can be send to reeducation camp, or maybe he just disappear. So in China, the writer is called ‘Big God of the film.’ Director is just ‘Little God of film.’ You not be fire, I think. Robert be fired.”
Bronc wasn’t sure that he believed that he was the ‘Big God’ of this film. Back in Hollywood, writers were nothing. The grips got credits for their work, but writers almost never did.
Even here in China, Robert Wu seemed to have all the power. Bronc wanted to prepare his wife in case he got kicked out of the country. He tried to call her on Skype. Candace normally got up at six to exercise, and she’d be sending the kids off to school in a couple of hours. But when he called, the phone just kept ringing.
This had all started out so well. Robert Wu had assured Bronc that, “My father is Minister of Propoganda. He will approve your screenplay.”
He’d been right. When Bronc had sent in the screenplay, it had been approved in fifteen minutes, getting the official crimson seal from the Department of Censorship. In fact, the script had gotten a double approval. Not only was it approved to be shot in China, it was pre-licensed for distribution to movie theaters, too. That had happened only once in all of China’s history.
Now the whole damned movie was about to unravel.
Bronc couldn’t let that happen. He decided to reason with Robert Wu. He could have waited for morning, but something told him to go tonight. Robert worked in spurts. Usually he’d wander into the office at noon, then work until three in the morning. Sometimes he would work for three days straight, then sleep for two.
Tonight Robert would most likely stay late in the studio. He was creating some big mockettes, sculptures of his monstrous warriors made of black material. When they were finished, he planned to put the statues outside the theaters for the movie debut, lining them along the red carpets.
Bronc pulled on his overcoat, slipped on a stocking cap, and headed down the elevator. The lobby was full, lots of shaggy tourists down from Mongolia.
Firecrackers exploded as he stepped out the door. He jumped. Half a dozen kids raced away, laughing. The parking lot was full of locals. The hotels and apartments here formed a man-made canyon, and any parking lot served as a launch pad for the rockets. Bronc strode through the crowd, tasting the night air of Beijing, always a hint of quivering mist, so alive, mixed with dust from construction. But tonight the air also carried the acrid odor of explosives. He went out to the curb and raised a hand to hail a taxi.
Two bicycle lanes lined each side of the highway, along with four car lanes in the middle. A concrete divider separated the eastbound and westbound lanes.
In thirty seconds, a cab swerved from the far lane, honking as it veered into the bike lanes. In Shanghai, the rule for driving was “the biggest vehicle wins.” An old woman veered up onto the sidewalk to escape the cab.
Bronc hopped in. He handed the driver a card with the address to the studio, but the fellow just shrugged and handed it back. Most likely he was illiterate.
With grunts and gestures Bronc led him down busy streets, past the World Expo Center, until they reached the turnoff.
The long driveway into the industrial complex was dark, the streetlights out. By day the guard shack to the complex was manned, but this late at night, it was empty.
Buildings hunched, giants in the mist and darkness, until the road ended at the old factory, a shapeless monstrosity with one dim light shining from a third-story window.
The taxi driver stopped, and Bronc paid him twenty-five yuan, then stepped out; the driver flipped a U and sped away. Bronc headed toward the door, and spotted movement under a stairwell—black against the shadows.
Lights suddenly flashed like gunfire, firecrackers rattling in bursts of light. Four men could be seen—all dressed in black. They stepped into the shadows, moving steadily away.
Something about them alarmed Bronc. All of them looked to be in their late thirties or early forties. All of them were muscular. But there was a litheness to their movements, a precision, almost a dancer’s grace.
He’d seen men like them before. In a land where guns were illegal, the most lethal of men learned to kill without weapons. He’d seen them in dojos, where they worked out in gardens lined with bamboo hedges.
The men raced past the stairwell and turned, heading behind the old munitions factory into alleys that Bronc had never explored.
He felt something sinister in the air.
There had been a break-in at the studios four weeks ago. With all of the neighboring businesses closed for the holidays, now was the perfect time to repeat such activities.
And the firecrackers. Those men hadn’t looked like the type who would get a thrill out of kid’s toys.
Bronc recalled his time in Fallujah, where every street corner was disputed territory, and every seemingly innocent bystander might be a lookout.
He cautiously walked to the big iron door on the side of the building, inserted his key in near total darkness, and made his way to the freight elevator, then rode it up. On the third floor, lights from the offices shone dimly through a window.
By day the officers were usually filled with workers—animators in one room, sound designers in another, film editors in a third. Now the computer terminals were dark.
Bronc found the inner doors to the office wide open.
He passed a maze of cluttered desks to Robert’s office. The office was dark, but Robert kept a dozen monitors on the wall so that he could watch every room in the building.
All the rooms were empty and unlit but one: Robert’s sculpting room had the lights on. The camera showed him laid out on the floor, on his back, his neck tilted at an unnatural angle. Bronc had seen enough corpses to know at a glance: he was dead. The urine stains on his khakis suggested that he’d died of strangulation.
Suddenly Bronc spotted movement on another monitor: a man in black raced past a stairwell into the women’s restroom.
Bronc’s heart pounded.
Suddenly he remembered Robert Wu’s words, “We’ve all been betrayed.”
With creatives, often the right brain—the artistic side— can comprehend truths that the logical mind cannot apprehend. That is the secret behind prophets and wizards, seers and sorcerers.
Alexandra had warned Mr. Big that Robert was screwing up.
And Mr. Big was not the kind to watch money go pissing down the drain.
Bronc didn’t even know how to notify the police in China. By day he had had Wu’s interpreters and secretaries to handle such things.
But he knew where the murderer had gone.
Bronc wasn’t a coward. He was ex-military, and even though he hadn’t hit the gym in three months, he was in decent shape.
Bronc grabbed a heavy stapler off Robert’s desk and raced around the corner of the offices, out the back hallway, and burst into the women’s restroom. He flipped on the light, and spotted a man’s feet under one of the stalls.
He hit the door with his shoulder, putting his full weight behind it, and knocked the killer backward.
Suddenly he was struggling with the stranger, a surprisingly genteel-looking Chinaman with big plastic-framed glasses—and powerful muscles, and a trained killer’s grace.
The fellow grabbed Bronc by the shoulders and whirled him around, threw him backward so that he fell on the women’s toilet. The seat cracked under Bronc’s weight.
Bronc struggled to rise, and the man pulled a pistol from his coat pocket—an old Russian Marakov 9mm.
Bronc lunged, and the gunman fired into Bronc’s right kneecap. The patella should have exploded, sent fragments of bone blowing through the air, driving lead into his ganglia. The shot should have sent Bronc to the floor, screaming in pain. Instead it just pissed him off.
“Wrong knee, douchebag,” Bronc said, slamming the stapler into the killer’s nose, so that it broke with a crunch. He followed up by driving his titanium knee into the man’s groin. Suddenly the killer dropped the gun and went limp in pain, tried desperately to cover his face with his hands.
But there was that strength and that killer’s grace. Suddenly the man leapt into the air, sent a high kick into Bronc’s solar plexus, and the lights went out.
When Bronc awoke, the killer had him. The killer dragged him face-down across the floor, into the office, and to the back room where Robert Wu had been murdered.
Bronc thrashed a bit, found that his hands were bound behind his back with some kind of plastic ties. He kicked, but could get no purchase.
Bronc couldn’t imagine fighting the killer with his hands tied, but he couldn’t just give up. He kicked again, and the killer threw him face-first to the floor, then just stood with one boot in the middle of Bronc’s back.
The doors to the room opened, and four men came through. They all wore black and walked with the grace of panthers, on the balls of their feet.
Silently, they went to the windows. This was Robert’s sculpting room, and since he carved his statues from giant blocks of polystyrene, the room was filled with the acrid scent of foul chemicals. Robert had broken out some small windows, in order to make sure that the room always stayed ventilated.
Now the men used duct tape to put plastic over the windows. The killer went to Robert, then twisted his neck so that it wasn’t at such an odd angle. He posed the body, to make it look as if he’d been trying to crawl toward a door when he passed out. The men began wiping down the room for fingerprints.
Bronc could tell what they were up to. They would turn on the blowers that Robert used to make his polystyrene blocks, and leave them on, make it look as if he had suffocated.
But they can’t make it look like we both died by accident, can they?
Suddenly there were shuffling sounds at the door. Bronc craned his neck to get a better view. Several men stood staring down at Robert Wu’s body.
Bronc recognized Mr. Liao, a handsome man with an impeccable bearing, the most trusted lawyer to Mr. Big.
To his right was someone who could only be Chen Cái. He was large, perhaps six-two, with the weight of wealth, eyes heavy-lidded. He had to be fifty, and his body was of the classic Han style, large of belly. He wore a business suit of fine black cloth, with a gray shirt and black tie.
He stared down at Robert Wu impassively, not like a disinterested party, but with a predatory gaze. He did not smile, did not seem excited. He had not come to torture his former friend, to celebrate his death, or to mourn him.
He’d come only to witness.
The same expression could be seen in the eyes of every other man in the party but one: to the far left of the group stood a timid fellow, an elderly man with a thin black moustache and graying hair.
Mr. Liao spoke, a precise voice with a slight English accent. “Bronc, we are so sorry to inconvenience you this way.”
Bronc didn’t speak, but the lawyer went on. “As you can see, there has been a tragic accident.” He paused, as if considering his words. “Or perhaps, it is a happy accident. Robert Wu was not working well as director. We will be sorry to lose his services. . . . Fortunately, you introduced us to an interesting Western business practice: key-man insurance. We made sure that Robert was amply covered, to the tune of five million dollars, and because of this, our movie is now fully funded. You will be receiving payment for your script very shortly—one million dollars.”
Bronc growled, suddenly outraged. He couldn’t possibly let him live, not after what he’d seen. “It’s only half a million dollars.”
“Is that what Robert told you?” Mr. Liao asked, cocking his brow, and then said flatly, “He lied. He must have planned to keep some of your money. To prove it, I will make sure that you get payment immediately, in cash.”
Mr. Liao snapped his fingers. The killer drew near and Mr. Liao mumbled into the man’s ears. He took some car keys and headed out.
Bronc could see the reptilian logic of it all—hire a man to make a movie, buy insurance on him, kill him, use the profit to make your movie. But he couldn’t quite believe that it was really happening.
“I don’t get it?” he said. “Why kill him?”
Mr. Big said nothing, only stared at Robert. Mr. Liao answered, “Who was the worst director of all time?”
“Ed Wood,” Bronc answered without hesitation. He knew that it was popular in Hollywood to heap abuse on contemporary directors like Michael Bay and Uwe Boll, but Ed Wood transcended the first rank of shoddy filmmakers. In Glen or Glenda, he somehow managed to combine ground-breaking inanity with depravity in one man’s love affair with a cashmere sweater. And in Plan 9 from Outerspace, he’d at once defined and perfected schlock movies, perhaps never to be surpassed.
The lawyer said, “This name, is not known in China. But if given a chance, Robert Wu might have become your Ed Wood. Bad director, no air for him.” Mr. Liao smiled at the poor joke.
Bron realized that Robert would not be missed. Not by the public, not even by his fifth wife.
“Tonight,” the lawyer said, “I would like you to meet our replacement director. He is huge talent, China’s very best. Mr. Zhong Anguo. Fortunately, we now have the money to pay his sizeable fee.”
The small fellow stepped forward shakily, and could not take his eyes off Robert Wu. He bowed deeply to Bronc, trembling, and now Bronc knew why the group had come: it was so that the new director could see what became of screw-ups.
Mr. Liao smiled at Bronc. “Whoa, did you see that? He nod the head to you. Very respectful. You see, you are the Big God now.”
Bronc couldn’t believe it. The killer took his foot off Bronc’s back, leaned over, and with a snick cut the plastic bonds that held his hands.
“What?” Bronc asked. “You’re going to let me live?”
“Of course,” Mr. Liao answered. “We need you. We saw how the script was getting worse day by day. You must restore it, prime it for a global audience, consider how to optimize its expansion into merchandising. The last Star Wars movie made seven billion in merchandise alone. With the right touch, this franchise is just as valuable.”
The killer entered the room with a large suitcase. He unsnapped the lock and poured its contents to the ground: a million dollars, in stacks of American $100 bills.
Payoff money. The sight of it made Bronc giddy, eroded his common sense.
With shaking hands, Bronc pushed himself off the floor, got to his knees. He felt grateful to be alive when Robert was not, grateful to provide for his family, and at the same time he was in mortal fear, caught between the carrot and the stick.
“So work hard, Bronc,” Mr. Liao said. “Your family is depending upon you. We’re depending upon you. And if you fail us, just know that we have key-man insurance on you, too. Make sure that you are worth more to us alive than dead.”
Mr. Big turned silently while his retinue of businessmen and killers followed at his back. He was like a barracuda eeling through the night sea.
That was it. They’d let him live, for now. Mr. Big was not afraid of the law. He lived above it.
For a long time, Bronc stood in the shadowed loft, peering down at the stain on the floor where Wu Robert had left his drool. Bronc’s nose became numb to the biting smell of the polystyrene chemicals, to Wu’s urine, to the dirt that clung to the air of the old munitions factory, and indeed, the dirt that clung to the city as a whole.
Until at last, in the semidarkness, a dull thud pounded through the concrete, making Bronc jump, as at three in the morning, more fireworks began to fill the skies above Shanghai.