Gorillas in the Phone Booth

One of my favorite writing resources is Writing Excuses. It’s four writer friends hanging out and talking writing in a way that is accessible and encouraging and just overall wonderful. If you write, please check it out. Over the years they’ve developed their own jargon, which they are pretty good at explaining for newcomers. One of my favorite phrases of theirs is “gorilla in the phone booth.” It is for those cases where a writer accidentally puts in something, as an aside, that is so unusual and interesting that the readers halt and demand an explanation. If in the middle of a chase scene the characters ran past a gorilla using a phone booth, everybody in the audience would say “hey, what’s up with the gorilla?” and be highly disappointed if they never got an answer.

I’ve realized this is one of the many problems that confronts writers who aim to represent human diversity. For example, an earlier draft of the novel I’m currently working on had an asexual protagonist. The story wasn’t about asexuality, nor did it contain any romance or sex of any kind, but the character had an asexual vibe to me, so in my head she was asexual. I wanted to make that text instead of subtext, but every time I tried, the story ground to a halt. I couldn’t bring any explanation of asexuality into the story and make it seem natural.

Right now, unfortunately, asexuality is a gorilla in a phone booth. It’s real, but even those who have heard of it probably don’t really understand it. I couldn’t put it in a story without explaining, and I couldn’t explain in a way that was natural to that particular story.

As portrayals of a given minority become more common, it becomes easier for all other writers to write them. It’s almost like there’s an assembly line. First a type of person is never represented, or actively demonized. Then there are the stories that double as PSAs, and for a while this is a relief. Then the demand comes for that type of person to be an integral part of the cast. If that demand is listened to, eventually the old strange becomes the new normal. I don’t have to halt a story with a love story between black and white characters to explain why no, this is totally a fine thing to happen. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner already broke that ground for me, along with countless other portrayals of healthy interracial relationships.

Eventually I actually changed protagonists altogether. My current protagonist is mildly schizophrenic, which ties in well with the themes of illusion, secrecy and how to know what is true. I can debunk myths about psychosis in a way that enhances the creepy psychological thriller that forms the main plot. Meanwhile, my asexual character waits in my head for a new plot. I have every intention to use her, when the right story comes along.


1 thought on “Gorillas in the Phone Booth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s