Charles Baxter came to Grinnell and, in addition to his reading, did a roundtable discussion for students yesterday. It was terrific. He talked about his realization that many pieces of fiction gain their momentum from a “request moment,” an interaction in which one character asks another character do so something urgently or within a limited time, and the second character either accepts or refuses the request. As soon as you hear this idea, you’ll see it everywhere. One of the first examples it brought to mind for me was this:

STANWYK: “I want you to murder me.”

FLETCH: “Sure.”

How’s that for getting a plot moving?

Then I read Coleridge’s “Christabel” for today’s class. Bingo: the action takes off when Geraldine makes a request of Christabel: “Stretch forth thy hand . . . And help a wretched maid to flee.”

Baxter said that his insight into this pattern came from Shakespeare, for example in Hamlet’s ghost coming to make requests of Prince Hamlet, and that comment made me realize how thoroughly the play is driven by request moments:

[pre-history] Claudius asks Gertrude to marry him, though she knows it’s too soon.

[pre-history] Claudius asks some of the men of the castle to stand guard, though they don’t understand why.

The guards ask Horatio to come talk to the ghost.

Laertes asks Claudius for permission to leave the country.

Hamlet asks Claudius for permission to leave the country; Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to stay.

Polonius and Laertes ask Ophelia (more or less) to break up with her boyfriend against her will.

THEN the ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his father.

Hamlet asks the other guards to swear their secrecy and allegiance.

Polonius asks Reynaldo to spy on Laertes; Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet; Polonius asks Ophelia to set up an observation of Hamlet, etc.

Holy moly. I’ve said to my students for years that the key phrase of the play may be Laertes’ description of Hamlet: “His will is not his own.” In these request moments, we can see why that phrase is so important: the characters’ wills are never fully their own, as they are always inflected and constrained by the demands placed on them by others, and the others often have a lot of structural or emotional power.

What other request moments come to mind for you? Or, I should say: Will you tell me—and soon!—of other request moments in fiction?

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2 thoughts on “There’s something I need you to do.

  1. The Christian gospels get a lot of their magic out of a missing or implicit request moment: God asks Jesus (or does he?) to take up the ministry, go to Jerusalem, die on the cross, etc. The main character pretty clearly seems to have an externally assigned intent and schedule, but the secondary characters and readers are mostly left in the dark about what they might be. Compelling.

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