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The Formative Power of Brevity – Border - Reading as a Writer

I recently watched a film called Border based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The film made me buy the short story collection, “Let the Old Dreams Die”, which I finished yesterday and absolutely loved. Another book I read this year, “Howards End is on the Landing” by Susan Hill, extolled the virtues of slow and meticulous reading to get to grips with why good stories work. This morning I started re-reading “Border” line by line and it is a revelation. I thought I’d share what I gained from the experience of reading ten pages in this way. It is powerful.

First the opening line -

As soon as the man appeared, Tina knew he had something to hide.

Appeared, knew, hide – these words evoke mystery, magic and suspense. Let’s look at each in turn.

Appeared – it’s a mysterious and magical verb, don’t you think? Arrived might have been a more natural choice, perhaps, but appeared, as if from nowhere, gives the story a fairy tale feel.

Knew – Tina doesn’t suspect, she knows. How does she know? Who is Tina and why does she have the power to know the man has something to hide? Who is the man? Where are they?

Hide – another word full of mystery and hints of conflict. The first line sets Tina up as protagonist and this man as antagonist. It introduces us to theme, character and suspense.

A few lines later we get this -

The man heaved a small case up onto the counter.

The juxtaposition of heaved with small opens up a myriad of questions for the reader. Why is the small case heavy? Or is the man weak or sick? Is he struggling the the weight of his guilty secret rather than the case itself?

We are now aware of the surroundings of these two characters. The are at a border control and Tina is a customs officer. As he heaves the case she presses a silent alarm, and guards gather to watch. She wonders whether the man is armed.

We still don’t have a physical description of Tina (and I wonder whether this would bother me if I hadn’t watched the film first and knew about the physical similarities between Tina and the man). We do, however, have a clear image of the man.

[A]ngular face, low forehead. Small, deep-set eyes beneath bushy eyebrows. A beard and medium-length hair. He could have played a Russian hit man in an action movie.

Hyper-masculinity with a threat of violence. A low forehead frequently represents low intelligence. He seems shadowy and villainous. Unattractive. We have a perfect portrait in under 30 words.

What Tina finds in his case is a metal box with a dial and wires. We witness the man’s calm amusement in contrast to Tina’s knowledge that he has something to hide. All of this tension has been built in less than two pages before we suddenly zoom out and are told about Tina’s wider life and job.

The following two pages show examples of Tina knowing when people are hiding things and becoming somewhat famous for her talent, in demand. It also places her firmly in the Swedish port in which this story is set.

Before we return to the villainous, shadowy man, the box, and Tina’s unshakable conviction that he’s hiding something. They search him and find nothing. The man remains calm and polite throughout. There is an odd conversation in which it is revealed that the stranger somehow understands Tina. We still don’t know they look the same, but we get the strong suggestion that these people are the same on some deep level. The beginnings of a love story seem to unfold.

“My apologies for the inconvenience.”

Tina uses a standard line as armour, hiding her interest behind a coolly professional dismissal. The man’s reaction is surprising.

“Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

Then he kisses her. His reaction is the antithesis of her professionalism.

“What the hell do you think you are doing!”

Tina’s shock makes her defensive as she tries to return to normal social interactions. The man raises his hands to show he isn’t a threat and says excuse me in German. So much has happened and we have only reached p.6. I love this way of reading. Thank you Susan Hill.

In the next scene Tina returns home. She leaves the work environment that she controls (to such an extent that the interaction with the man shocks her) and goes home to a place that is shown as unsafe and chaotic with fighting dogs that hate her and a “partner” who is shown as emotionally distant but preferable to being alone.

A flash back to her last day at school and a boy that tells her -

“I wish I could meet someone who’s exactly like you, but who doesn’t look like you.”

Flash forward to looks of revulsion on the faces of people who meet Tina for the first time. At last we have some sort of physical description for Tina. She’s so ugly that her body is her prison and she’ll accept and want the company of anyone who shows interested however ill suited.

The man – the kiss – a love story! We the readers want this!

This brings us to the end of p.10. Whatever happens after this point (I know what happens as this is my second read through) we are already invested in Tina’s happiness. Tina represents our own loneliness and pain, the unrequited loves, the rejections. She’s the monster we catch sight of in our own reflections. The fact that we still have no physical description of Tina beyond “ugly” means we can wrap ourselves in the blank canvas of her flesh and become her. Just ten pages and already I’m a lonely, ugly woman who knows when people are trying to hide. That’s powerful writing.

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