Craft Capsule: Vertigo

Blair Hurley

This is no. 108 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

At least once a year my mother would be laid up for a day or two, unable to get out of bed because of titanic waves of dizziness. These bouts of vertigo were infrequent but severe—and frightening because absolutely nothing could be done to diminish their magnitude. My grandmother had the same condition, and both she and my mother would describe the experience as, ultimately, indescribable. Lying in bed, afraid to turn her head, my mother tried so hard to explain what it felt like, to doctors, to family members; it seemed important for someone else to feel the unfeelable thing, to understand the swaying seas inside her head.

I’ve experienced the affliction of vertigo myself. It is both miserable and, I realize, increasingly essential to my understanding of what makes good writing. More than anything else I want my readers to feel the feeling it gives me—an utterly humbling disorientation. The first time I experienced it, I was in my twenties, standing in my kitchen preparing dinner after a long day of teaching and commuting on two trains and a bus and back again. While stirring some peppers in a pan, suddenly it felt like the space between my ears expanded. The room simultaneously shrank and grew. It felt like I could feel the earth rotating in space and I was left behind.

I felt a spark of recognition a few years later when I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie Vertigo. The plot is twisty and incredible, one of Hitchcock’s more bizarre; it involves a doppelgänger, a faked murder, reincarnation, and a man with a fear of heights. The film also introduced viewers to the disorienting Dolly Zoom or Vertigo Effect, in which the camera zooms in while moving backward. I found the story captivating and the sensation of strangeness, the encounter with the uncanny, unforgettable.

There’s something literary about the experience of vertigo. A writer friend once asked me what emotion I most wanted to feel when reading a great short story, and I said, “unsettled.” I want that feeling of strangeness and otherworldliness, the sense that something is vaguely wrong—what precisely I cannot say. I love stories where the trains don’t run on time or people take wrong turns down blind alleys, ripping open unexpected doors in the story. For a story to give a reader a truly memorable experience, we need that shift in the third act, when the story we think we’re reading goes deeper and darker and becomes something entirely different.

The best depiction I’ve seen in pop culture of vertigo is the horror movie Get Out’s chilling invention “the sunken place.” After being hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother, the protagonist finds himself in a black field of stars, falling forever in time, loose from any gravity or tether or friendly solid ground. The world only visible as a distant keyhole of unreachable light. The feeling of being divorced from yourself, or the narrative you had for your life.

In my classes on plot structure I tell students how stories tend to follow binary paths: either A or B. The good guys win or the bad guys do; the couple breaks up or stays together; she is fired from her job or the boss shows mercy; the abuser does the terrible act or abstains. But what we’re searching for as writers is that elusive third option: that pathway unforeseen at the beginning, surprising and yet apt, natural and uncanny. In a Murakami story, a character on a Ferris wheel sees herself in a distant apartment window; a character in an elevator stops between floors and enters a new world. In an Alice Munro story, a woman who has begun a tentative flirtation with a man suddenly learns that his child died in a terrible accident of his doing; a woman in a decades-long affair, who believes a maid has been blackmailing her for years, learns it is actually her lover doing the blackmailing. Reading these swerves in Murakami and Munro’s fiction, I feel the thrill of disorientation in these revelations, when a story forces me to reevaluate everything that has gone before.

But how do you come up with the twist? How do you send your characters wheeling and catapulting into the sinkholes and empty spaces lurking at the edges of their lives? Like Murakami and Munro, try drawing closer to your character, and consider what is most fragile about their lives. What if you removed one card from this house? What would shift, what would fall? What is the card you can remove to do the most damage? What is breakable about your character’s life? What would they reach out to for solid ground?

Like Dostoevsky’s seizures or Hildegard von Bingen’s migraines, I suppose, my brief episodes of vertigo remind me periodically of the limited, shattering experience of living in a body, and they remind me of how fundamentally unstable the earth under my feet can be. They prepared me for other, less literal but equally potent bouts of vertigo in my life: When my mother died, a profound disorientation came into my universe and has never really left. I’m teetering along the rail of a narrative that I never expected to be riding on, full of fraught memories, melancholy Christmases, moments when I wonder how it could be possible that I’ve gone six, seven, eight years without hearing her voice. I think for many people, life is a process of shock and disorientation and finding your footing, again and again.

I try to remember that in the stories I tell. To show how a relationship, a job, a dream, a romance, are all fragile things that do not belong to us and can be taken away. But there is a person who remains. The sinkhole opens, and a window into character is opened too. After the sinkhole opens, how do I reevaluate the story, character, and form? Who is the person spinning out into space?


Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted (Norton, 2018), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her writing can also be found in Electric Literature, the Georgia Review, Guernica, Ninth Letter, the Paris Review Daily, and West Branch, among other publications. The recipient of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, she received her BA from Princeton University and her MFA from New York University.

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