Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dissecting the Short Story: "Hostage Situation" by Dave Zeltserman

This is the first of a series of posts (introduced here) which will appear once every two weeks on the blog. In this series, a short story from a recent major digest will be analyzed in detail, to see what we can learn about how the author approached creating the story.

"Hostage Situation" by Dave Zeltserman
Published in: 
September/October 2011 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Approximate Length:
2000 words
Chronological Narrative, Third-Person Limited
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
A bank patron, Lawrence Talbot, is present when a robbery occurs is distressed at the timing of the event. There's somewhere he needs to be, and when the robbery turns into a hostage situation, his worry only increases.

He tries to get the robbers to release him as a sign of good faith, but they aren't interested. His attempts alienate the other hostages who view him as having been cowardly. The hostages are confined in the bank's vault by the robbers. After hours pass, Talbot beats on the door of the vault and makes another attempt to be released. The lead robber suggests that rather than release a hostage, he'd prefer to shoot one to show the police he was serious. He asks if Talbot would be as eager to volunteer for that role and is surprised when Talbot agrees.

The robbers lead Talbot out of the vault, at his suggestion, so the police can witness him being killed. Things don't go to the robbers' plan, though. The full moon has just risen, and though it isn't in view, Talbot transforms into a werewolf and slaughters the robbers, whose weapons had only conventional (not silver) bullets.

General Analysis:
This is a rather straightforward example of the "twist ending" short story, a popular variety, particularly for stories such as this one at the shorter end of the spectrum. This story feels like it could easily have been made into a teleplay for a 30-minute anthology show such as The Twilight Zone.

It's not a character-driven piece, and none of the characters have particularly notable attributes other than the main character's desire to be out of the bank. The way he's written doesn't give a particular impression of strength. This apparent weakness is enhanced by the reaction of the other hostages and the robbers, who repeatedly suggest that his desire to leave is motivated by cowardice.

The reader's primary interest throughout the story is most likely going to be wanting to find out why Lawrence Talbot is so concerned about being somewhere specific later that day. This question is introduced in the first paragraph:
"It was two-thirty in the afternoon, and if everyone cooperated and the police didn't show up, he could still be where he needed to be by six, seven at the latest, even if the police spent hours questioning them. Today of all days this had to happen!"
Variations on this concern of Talbot's are repeated throughout the story. "Lawrence couldn't be there that night. Not this night. Not with what he had to do." "This hostage situation could go on all night, which Lawrence simply could not allow to happen." Before raising the ruckus that leads to him getting out of the vault: "He knew that he didn't have much time left. That it would be too late soon." The character also expresses his need to leave in conversation with the robbers and other hostages.

Even with only a few paragraphs left, the reader is still in the dark. The chief robber, "Dawg," asks the question the reader is supposed to be wondering: "'So, hotshot, where was it that was so important for you to be tonight?" Talbot replies "Anywhere away from those other hostages" just before his transformation begins.

Detail (Word choice, etc.) Analysis:
Zeltserman sprinkles clues throughout the story for the reader. A huge clue is the main character's name. Lawrence "Larry" Talbot is the main character in The Wolf Man, its sequels, and the remake. The main character's full name is only given at the very beginning of the story and the association didn't trigger for me until when I went back for a second read. Still, for monster-movie buffs, I could imagine that name having an instant linkage to werewolves.

The main other clue (besides the character's concern with being gone by what proves to be early evening) are references to enhanced senses. Talbot was the first to notice the robbers, lowering himself to the floor "not waiting for the men to brandish their weapons and shout out their orders." He's also able to very quickly take an inventory of the three bank employees and five other customers while going to the ground. Later, he's the first to hear the approaching police sirens . Finally, while they are in the vault, he's able to get some idea of what's going on outside.
"It was doubtful any of the other hostages heard any of it. Most days, Lawrence wouldn't have been able to hear it either, but that day he could."
A couple of minor hints could also lie in some word choices. The lead bank robber is known as "Dawg" -- dogs are related to wolves. The Talbot character also "prayed" everyone in the bank would cooperate and later "prayed" that the robbery would be finished before the police arrived. There's a famous poem in The Wolf Man which goes:

Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright 

Did The Story Work For Me?
It did. I was curious as to where it was going and -- having missed the big Lawrence Talbot clue -- I genuinely had no idea. The placement of the story in EQMM may have also helped with this. In a fantasy or horror magazine, I might have been thinking more along lines which would have led me to guess the conclusion early. In a mystery magazine, I was expecting something more like that he was part of a different bank robbing crew which had a job planned for that evening, or that he was a hitman or something.

I'm not sure how well the story would work if the reader tipped to the twist very early. That's always hard to judge; sometimes seeing how the twist is being obscured throughout can be entertaining in its own way. That was the experience I had with the movie The Sixth Sense -- I'd deduced the twist from some reviews I'd read, but still enjoyed seeing how the filmmaker played fair with the audience while leaving the truth hidden.

Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this piece. I hope that it was as informative for you to read as it was for me to write. If you've read this story and have comments, I'd love to hear them. I'd also be very interested to know what you might like to see done differently in future installments of "Dissecting the Short Story."


  1. Greetings from a fellow campaigner!

    Nice job with the summary. I haven't read the story myself, but your description made that unnecessary for the purpose of your analysis, as far as I could tell.

    I'm interested in knowing more about the structure of short stories. Are they composed in three acts like screenplays? I admit I'm not terribly familiar with the form, but I'm interested in potentially using it for short pieces that complement my novels.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Daniel.

    I hadn't really thought of short story structure in "act" form before. Thinking off the top of my head, I would say that *longer* short stories might, particularly once you get into the novelette and novella realm beyond the short story but shorter than novels. Stories of the length of this one (about 2000 words) probably tend to mostly have a rather direct start-to-finish flow.

    Looking forward to chatting with you more throughout the campaign!