Every great trick begins with a promise. Even before the magician takes the stage, there is an implied understanding that the audience is going to be shown something that is fascinating, but that they cannot explain. If both criteria are not met, however, the spell is literally broken.
Suppose the magician produced an elephant on stage, but it was obvious how it came to be there. It might be interesting to see, but it is hardly astounding. Or on the other hand, consider those terrible magic shows where the magician spends far too long repeating the same interlinking rings trick over and over and over. Even if you don’t know how such a trick is pulled off, it is impossible to be amazed by something so repetitive and mundane.
Indeed, a magician either makes or breaks their entire trick just in the presentation of it, and the best magicians know that they must therefore walk the fine line of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. Yes, that is a paradox, and the more paradoxical the magician can make it the better! In short, they want to make the audience slap their forehead with “but of course!” while simultaneously scratch their heads with “but how?”
This, of course, is also a trick utilized by the best mystery writers. At the end of every whodunit, the hope is that the audience will be left feeling that the solution is the only one that makes sense, but also wondering how they failed to see it then.
So how does a story pull this off? Well, the exact same way that the magician does. It distracts you along the way.
Sleight of Hand)
Magicians famously fool their audiences by showing them something in one hand, while the other stuffs a rabbit into the hat. Mysteries, of course, also utilize red herrings so that the reader is too busy drawing the wrong conclusions to notice the setup for the correct one.
But here’s the thing, the correct conclusion does need to be setup for. When a story unveils a grand conclusion that has not been previously alluded to, it is like a magician who puts his hat on the table, rolls up his sleeves, and then walks offstage to retrieve a white rabbit. We aren’t impressed in sleight of hand that takes place off-stage.
And yet that is exactly what far too many stories do, producing solutions that were never setup for. In fact it is so common a sin that this sort of off-stage gymnastics has been given a name: deus ex machina. Oh whoops, did I forget to tell you that the Detective happens to have a best-friend-elephant-tamer on speed dial?
But things can be taken too far the other way as well. If the conclusion is obvious, then there is nothing satisfying in its reveal. Magicians lull us into a false sense of security by presenting a world that works exactly the way that we expect it to. A card is just a card, a box is just a box, and everything behaves exactly as normal…until suddenly the world changes and the laws of nature are broken.
Good mysteries also present us with a world that makes perfect sense, and then suddenly pull the rug out from under. The reason why “Luke, I am your father” lands with such impact is because that up to this moment audiences felt that they already had a complete understanding of the world. We had a story about Luke’s father already, and it made perfect sense. His father had been killed by the enemy and needed to be avenged.
But then, suddenly, the tale shifted with the reveal that the villain actually is Luke’s father. Most importantly, this reveal somehow seemed truer than the previous arc. That is the key to every great twist in a story. It takes what already appeared true, but then makes it truer.
A story rings truer when it has greater catharsis. Luke’s need to avenge his father was certainly cathartic, but Luke’s need to save his good-turned-evil father was even more so.
In my story The Storm, we are told that a sailor lost his son when a friend took the youth sailing and the youth forgot to tie his lifeline in a storm. Later the twist comes. Actually the boy did tie his lifeline, and the friend later untied it by mistake, thinking the knot went out to the rest of the boat’s rigging. The loss of a son was already quite an emotional toll, but to have lost him at the blunder of a friend all the more so. As soon as I wrote the change into that tale I knew it was the true version of my story.
But of course Star Wars is not a mystery story, it is a fantasy. And The Storm was not what you would call a “twist” story, it was a drama. It turns out that creating an initial premise, but then upending it with a later revelation, is an essential part to all kinds of tales.
Strider being revealed as the absent King of Gondor is character development in Lord of the Rings, Ilsa revealing that her thought-to-be-dead husband is actually alive adds intrigue to Casablanca. Madame Defarge revealing that she was the girl who’s family was tortured by the Evrémondes bolsters the theme of cyclical violence in A Tale of Two Cities.
Last Thursday I posted a story where the conclusion was foreshadowed by the beginning: a King needed to plot an unforgettable revenge on one of his districts. This foreshadowing was followed by detailing each individual piece that would reside in that revenge. In spite of all that setup, I feel that the tale’s final revelation was still shocking, and that it revealed a deeper catharsis that rang more true and satisfying than any other moment in the story.
Every type of story can benefit by giving the reader one thing to believe, foreshadowing a later revelation, and through it uncovering a higher, more true story. Every story can use a bit of magic. Every author can benefit from practicing their sleight of hand, and figuring out the proper balance of obfuscation and anticipation.
I have been too nervous to write any murder mysteries on this blog so far. Those require a firm understanding of the end from the very beginning, and a very tricky balance of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. I write these stories under tight time constraints, and therefore don’t invest in careful, airtight outlines at the outset. Even so, I do love a good mystery, and I think the time has come for me to pay my respects to that genre. Come back on Thursday as we get started on my magic trick!
I mentioned last month that my family would be starting February with the birth of our second child, and that I wasn’t sure how much time I would have for writing my story. All of this month I have been on paternity leave, which is a great blessing that I am most grateful for, but having that dramatic shift to my surroundings meant that all consistency went out the window. I find it very demotivating to do projects unless I am able to fit them into a regular schedule, and so I decided to wait until March to get back to my novel. There were odd moments here and there where I could have written, but it would have only depressed me to tease at the story, never being sure when the next writing session could happen.
Anyway, things went perfectly well with the birth, mother and baby are doing wonderfully, and I really enjoyed the extra time with my family. I think it was very good for all of us. But here we are now in March, and tomorrow is my first day back to work and normalcy. I will start back up my goal of at least 30 minutes writing every weekday, for a total of 22 days.
I have missed this writing quite a lot. I did manage to maintain my blogs during February, due to their being more bite-sized, but it just isn’t the same as working through a big, meaty novel. It’s honestly been very encouraging to see that I miss With the Beast so much, rather than feel relieved to have had a break for it. Hopefully I’ll be able to go at it with that much more vigor then! I guess we’ll see when I give my next report on April 1st.
“Counselors Uni and Morath,” the servant announced, bowing low before the King.
The King nodded deeply, the long curls of his wiry beard touching to his breast. Then he waited as the two men shuffled from around the partition. Their ceremonial skirts were tight around the ankles, and made them walk with small and rapid movements. King Bal’Tath did not know the reason why tradition had chosen such preposterous dress for his counselors, but he appreciated that it kept them from ever feeling truly comfortable in his presence.
“We come to serve you, our Lord,” Uni clasped his hands above his brow as both men bowed low. Uni was senior, and as such, Morath would not be permitted to speak during this meeting unless he was first asked a direct question by the King. Until then it was to be assumed that he was in total agreement with whatever Uni advised.
“I am in need of being served,” King Bal’Tath returned. “Tonight I am in particular need. I am faced with a conundrum that I find most troubling. Indeed, I weighed a great deal as to which of my counselors I should summon for this evening. At last I felt that Uni and Morath possessed the mind of their Lord in this instance.”
It was tradition that also mandated that the King select only two counselors each night to help him reason through the troubles of the day. All the members of the Counselor Brotherhood had their different areas of expertise, which he took into consideration as much as their various personalities. He selected the knowledge and the proclivities that suited each individual problem, as well as his personal temperament.
Members of the fellowship were seen as an extension of the King’s own reason. Just as the armies were an extension of his strength. Just as every organization and member of the kingdom was an extension of the King in some way or another, various parts of one body. The King was the mind of the kingdom, the single driving source for the whole. It was his responsibility to see that the body flourished, that its every part was healthy.
And it was also his responsibility to cut out its cancers.
“What is the matter that so troubles the King?” Uni asked.
He most certainly already knew. All the kingdom knew what matter weighed on their sovereign’s mind tonight. Even so, before he answered King Bal’Tath turned to the listening guards that stood on either side of him. “Leave us.”
The two soldiers bowed and walked out beyond the partition, leaving the two deaf guards as the King’s sole protectors.
King Bal’Tath turned back to Uni. “You know of the matter of the Y’narro District?”
“I have…heard the rumors, of course,” Uni nodded. “So repulsive that I could scarce believe that they were true. But if I am hearing from the King himself that the reports are true…then I am deeply shamed to have ever known the place.”
“The reports are true,” King Bal’Tath said frankly. “As you know, their pedigree is…muddled with the fringe districts of the Kingdom of Talibath. Their children are halfbreeds, and among them was found one that proved as faithless as his blood. He claimed to be my own illegitimate progeny.”
Both of the counselors raised their wrists to their foreheads so that the drooping sleeves would hang down from their arms and shield their faces.
“My Lord, we are ashamed to hear such a pernicious lie. We can hardly stand to bear to be in the room of your wrath.”
“This is not the matter that concerns me so,” King Bal’Tath waved his hand dismissively. “A king anticipates such claims and is ever ready to respond to them. The man has been dealt with already. Our friends in the torturer’s guild made entirely new inventions for him,” the corners of the King’s mouth turned up in amusement. “But the district remains a problem. As I am sure you have heard, the lad had been gaining quite a following there. There are many in Y’narro that are discontent with the district’s status within the kingdom. There are even those that would rather take a higher place of power within a new order.”
“So the rumors have suggested,” Uni nodded.
“And the rumors are true. We have received confessions that there were several of the district’s Elders who were in league with the Kingdom of Talibath!” King Bal’Tath continued, his voice now straining with anger. “There were secret talks among them of fomenting a rebellion, of building a movement around their new claimant, and of deposing me!”
The King’s veins bulged and his two counselor cowered deeply, unable to find words to express the devastated prostrations that the moment called for. So the King continued.
“Were it only the heads of that district that sought rebellion, I would still unleash my wrath upon those people. For surely once the head has turned, the whole body is soon corrupted. But our spies have ascertained that the Elder’s had the heart of the people. The seeds of this rebellion were driven by a few, but were understood by all.”
“The whole is as corrupt as the one,” Uni exclaimed. “All the people of your kingdom know that the people of Y’narro are a shiftless and scheming people. We have long felt that we would be best to get rid of them, it was only a matter of waiting for them to give a justification for their destruction. Therefore, if this youth had come with his lies of being an heir to the throne, and that was all, and if his majesty purged out the whole district for nothing more than that, not a one of your loyal followers would question your prudence in the matter. All would confess that you only did what was just.”
Morath nodded deeply, reflecting his consent.
“But this news of insurrection stirring among the masses…for this your people demand vengeance! We plead with you to hasten, and to not hold back, and to crush your enemies in as cruel a way as can be fathomed. And we cheer and champion you to the cause.”
King Bal’Tath smiled deeply, it was just what he wished to hear. “I knew, indeed, that you were the counselors that possessed my mind for this night. My thoughts are yours, now let my wrath be yours as well. Counsel with me, then, what shall be done with the people of Y’narro?”
“It must be an utter destruction,” Uni responded. “This treachery of theirs, it is ingrained in the bone. You cannot spare their youths, their women, their infants. They would only spread seeds of unfaithfulness wherever they were put. And do not consider making them slaves, either, for then their filth would be imprinted in all our buildings and grain. It would poison us all. And do not leave their homes standing for others to possess, for then their spirits will corrupt whoever rests there. The only solution is to take that land, and make of it a shrine to the Lords of Fire! Burn the people, the homes, the fields. Let your people see the scorch in the skies from one end of the kingdom to the next.”
Uni finished and bowed. Notably, Morath did not bow his consent at this moment. This was common. Junior counselors generally disagreed with the counsels of their elders. How else would they get to say anything in front of the King?
More importantly, King Bal’Tath disagreed as well. So much was evident from the way his brow furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned down. He sighed heavily, shaking his head from side-to-side.
“Uni, your heart is in the right place, but let me remind you of your own words. You counseled me to destroy these people ‘in as cruel a way as can be fathomed.’ The burning of these people is obvious. You describe a brief moment of destruction that lasts but for a night. The next day and the flame would be extinguished. Ten years after and the people would no longer speak of the moment with dread. Twenty years and they would hardly speak of it at all. Fifty and no one would remember that the event had even occurred.
“What I require is an act of cruelty such as will never be forgotten. One whose fame would immortalize my hate, and become the stuff of legend. Give me a punishment that will be logged in the annals of myth, give me the retribution that will chill all souls just to think of it, give me the vengeance that will redefine the term!”
At this point the King turned to Morath and cocked his head to one side.
“What of you, silent counselor? What would you have me do with these people? Can you take Uni’s counsel and delve still deeper?”
There was an audible swallow as Morath cleared his throat. He did not appear nervous, though, only anxious to speak his mind clearly.
“My Lord,” his high strain began, “since you ask it of me, I do indeed have counsel to give. Your expressed wish is mine as well. Death is the obvious choice for these people, but in that obviousness there lacks memorability. To do what is expected, even cruelly, can never spark the imagination as you desire. The secret to immortalizing one’s hate is to express it in a way that has never been done before. We must have a new invention, one that shows the world a darkness it has never before dared to dread.”
“Yes, this is right,” King Bal’Tath nodded eagerly. “This is exactly what I mean. And tell me, Morath, do you have the way?”
“I believe I do, my Lord. I begin by simply asking myself: what is a greater torment than to be deprived of that which one loves the most, their own life? And I answer to myself: to be made to choose between the two things that one loves the most, to have to destroy one for the other. And so I ask myself: what are the two great loves of us all? And I answer myself: the love of one’s own life, and the love of one’s children. And from this I find my counsel to the King.”
King Bal’Tath leaned forward eagerly.
“Send an army out to the district of Y’narro. Let it set camp immediately outside of their walls, and have it rest there a full week. Let the dread apprehension of death build within them all. Then, when they are ripe, send the people an emissary, and inform them that you have not come to destroy them, but rather, in your magnanimous mercy, have decided to let all the men and women live in peace…just as soon as they have delivered all their children to butchered in their place. And then you will give them three days to weigh their answer, three days to agonize between being slain together with their children, or else to live forever haunted by the betrayal of their own. They will choose the latter, and it will set the fires of torment within. Do as I have counseled, and the wrath of King Bal’Tath will not soon be forgotten!”
King Bal’Tath pressed his fingertips together and rested his lips against them, silently turning the suggestion over in his mind. Neither counselor dared interrupt their master’s contemplation. They would wait until he had something to say. King Bal’Tath stood and paced away from his throne, clasping his hands behind his back.
“You raise some very excellent points, Morath. To have to choose, to destroy your own to save yourself. To then have to live and reflect on that ever after. Compelling, to be sure.”
He paused and walked towards an alcove that opened into an outdoor pavilion. He stood there at the divide between his palace and the outside world, and stared into the night sky, seeking answers from the eternal black above.
“There is also merit in how your proposed solution fits the punishment to the crime. This is a nation of betrayers, and so you would make them betray their own.”
With the King’s back turned to his counselors, Morath allowed himself a slight smile.
“But…yet it is lacking. It is cruel, it is fitting,” the King turned back to the two men, “but it is not beautiful. And that is the one element you forgot which makes a moment become legend. For though this destruction must be most hideous, it must also be too fascinating for the world to look away.”
“I am sorry to have let you down,” Morath bowed his head deeply.
“No. Do not be. This is how counseling works, is it not? We mull it over together. Uni moved us in the right direction, then you took it to the next step, and did it very well. And now I know how to take the next. I have my answer, built off of the guidance begun by the two of you.”
“You know what to do?” Uni asked.
“Yes,” King Bal’Tath nodded deeply, then strode back and sat upon his throne. It was only appropriate that he would sit there while giving his revelation.
“We shall begin as Morath has recommended. Send our armies, besiege the town, and after a week require them to deliver their children or be destroyed. All this we shall do.”
King Bal’Tath leaned forward eagerly.
“And we will take their young ones, and they shall think that we have executed them, and will be tormented by that thought for a full decade, maybe two.”
“But we will not have?” Uni asked.
“No. And then, one day, they will look up from their fields and see the hills crowned with warriors in black. A new army of the King! Youthful soldiers thrust out by their own people, surrendered to the gallows, but secretly preserved for a single dread purpose.”
“The children,” Morath breathed.
“How those youths will have come to hate the parents that betrayed them,” King Bal’Tath grinned. “How those youths will be ready to slay the new children born to replace them. Then, then at last, we shall see the fires that Uni spoke of. Then shall the district of Y’narro be made no more. Though it will take me years to taste my vengeance, I shall have it, and it shall be the truest vengeance ever known. This is the right thing for the King to do.”
“This is the right thing,” Uni and Morath cried at the same moment, arms outstretched in salute while their eyes slid to peer at one another with grim terror.
On Monday I wrote about how stories often introduce a curiosity, and then pursue it for as far as it will take them. This can be in the form of exploring new fantasies, or in following a logical chain of cause and effect. With this post I introduced a thread of the King’s desire to punish his people. There then followed one step after another, following as each of the three men came up with increasingly cruel ways of carrying that action out.
In this way the story encourages the reader to continue to the next breadcrumb, but also tips its hand in what the final climax will be: the ultimate realization of cruelty. Thus the story is both teasing things to come, but also making the reader wait for the satisfaction.
That is a delicate balance to strike, as both too much obfuscation and too much tipping of the hand can each ruin the tale. In my next post I’d like to talk more about this idea of teasing and delivering when writing a story, and also of how to have the payoff be satisfying. Come back on Thursday to read about how a writer works these tricks.
The story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland opens with a girl who is bored. Thus it is an easy thing for her fancy to be captured when a white rabbit with a waistcoat and a pocket-watch goes running by! And when the rabbit disappears down a hole, she is all too eager to continue following this thread of curiosity. Thus begins her literal journey “down the rabbit hole.” And after the popularization of the story, it also became her figurative journey “down the rabbit hole” as well!
As a result, today we use the term “down the rabbit hole” to describe taking a train of thought for as far as it will take us. Each branch of science is based on this idea of beginning with an initial question, and using it to find other deeper questions, following them one after another, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.
Like Hansel and Gretel.
In that story we have another fanciful tale, one about a brother and sister who follow a trail to get back home. But when that trail runs cold, they resort to another: that of their own curiosity. After wandering down that path for a while, they still make it back to their destination. There are many roads to get to where you want to go, though of course, as the Cheshire Cat says, “if you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”
Which might sound like a waste of time, but don’t forget Bilbo’s advice that “not all who wander are lost.” Because even if you don’t know your destination, you’re still sure to reach it “if you only walk long enough.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, Lord of the Rings. Clearly taking hold of a string and pulling on it to see where it goes is a common thread in storytelling.
I do apologize for that appalling pun, I assure you that I am very ashamed.
Perhaps there is no mystery as to why so many stories wander down the paths of curiosity. Many of these stories only come into being by that exact process!
Very often I begin a story with no more than a white-rabbit-in-a-waistcoat idea, which I then follow as far is it will go. Thus many stories uncover the next plot point at the same time that the author does, and the character’s epiphanies are really the writer’s. Literary heroes are very glad when the author finally figures out how to save the day, because only then can they do the same!
Uncovering the Next Level)
A story that ends at the same depth as where it began is not only dissatisfying to read, it is uninteresting to write. Alice moving from the White Rabbit to a Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter to the Queen of Hearts is almost as fun to read as it must have been to invent.
Sometimes a writer doesn’t know which caves of the mind will open up into wide ravines, though. Sometimes an idea looms promisingly at the beginning, but quickly dead-ends, or turns cycles back into a repeating loop. I won’t call out any specific examples, but I know more than a few tales that began with imaginative premises, only to pinch off into unoriginal conclusions.
So let us consider a more positive example instead. In the 1999 film The Matrix, Thomas Anderson is a lowly computer programmer who is more than a little bit like Alice of Wonderland. Just as she was, he is bored with life, and looking for something to chase after. As with Alice, fate intervenes, and introduces him to a hidden world, one that operates by rules entirely different from his own. It would seem that the filmmakers were quite aware of this similarity between their work and Lewis Carroll’s. They even wink at the parallel when Anderson’s journey begins by following a woman with a “white rabbit” tattoo.
When Anderson follows this lead, he discovers superhuman beings that are able to defy the laws of nature and physics. This is strange. Then it is revealed that nature and physics are themselves entirely artificial, able to be bent by those that recognize them as nothing more than parameters within a computer simulation. Stranger still. Then Mister Anderson breaks out into a world controlled by machines, where flying ships cruise dark tunnels, and humans jack into the simulation to fight the master program from within. A world that Anderson ultimately merges with, and becomes able to rewrite the entire code of at will. Strangest of all!
The film remains fascinating because each new idea goes deeper than the one that came before, while also remaining totally connected and relevant to the preceding moments. Curiosity is constantly piqued and then satisfied in repeating succession.
Another way of progressing down the rabbit hole is simply to follow from action to counter-action to counter-counter-action all the way to the logical conclusion. A story doesn’t have to be a fantasy to start pulling on a string, it can just begin with a choice that will yield a series of consequences.
The Iranian film called A Separation begins with a very volatile opening. A husband and wife are strained by being unable to agree on whether they should leave the country or not, and from this tangled outset the film follows many threads at once.
The wife is naturally frustrated, and decides to leave the home for a time. Therefore the man naturally has to hire a caretaker to watch his invalid father while he as work. When that woman neglects his father, he is naturally upset, and forces her to leave the premises…which may or may not have resulted in her falling and suffering a miscarriage.
Naturally the man is anxious to validate his innocence in the matter. Naturally the caretaker and her husband are offended at the suggestion that they lie about the cause of the miscarriage. Naturally follows naturally. Pride begets offense, offense begets defensiveness, blame goes round and round, all the way to the film’s sad, but all-too-real conclusion.
It is a tragic end, but we have systematically pulled the string length by length, so we buy its escalation completely.
Last Thursday I posted the last segment of a story, which delved deeper and deeper into the subconscious of a man processing trauma. On Thursday I will do my own take on following a rabbit hole of natural consequences. The story will open with a problem, and then propose a number of solutions to it, each delving into deeper and deeper levels of cruelty. The conclusion will be horrifying, but hopefully also fascinating. Come back then to see how it turns out.
Private Bradley passed the last hour in a dazed stupor. Though his veins still bulged with adrenaline, he could feel the exhaustion lurking beneath it. Though his eyes were open and his breath was sharp, he could hardly he considered conscious.
Men walked before him, but he did not see them. Voices spoke around him, but he did not hear them. A pair of hands guided him down the hill and into the back of a truck, but he did not feel them.
He had bounced around in the back of the vehicle a full five minutes before it even dawned on him that he must have been relieved. New troops must have come, and now he was on his way back to camp. Or maybe the enemy had come back and he was being led to a prisoner of war camp. He honestly couldn’t have said which.
But thankfully it was the first, and ten minutes later Bradley shuffled out of the truck and stood in front of his tent. Some officer’s voice was droning at him, probably giving him orders. Probably telling him to get some rest and then await further instructions.
Probably. But even if those weren’t the orders, that was what he was going to do anyhow. It was the only thing he was capable of doing anymore. Nothing else was possible. He was coming apart in so many ways, that it seemed to take all that he had just to remain standing in one piece. To do anything, to change anything, seemed like it might shatter him once and for all.
And now he realized that he was terrified even to go to sleep. In fact, he was so tired that he didn’t know if he had the strength to face it! It meant letting go. It meant trusting the world around him as he lay totally at its mercy. He had been clenching for so long, that now he wasn’t sure how to release.
But now the officer was finished with his droning, and marching away to other duties, and Bradley’s tent lay in front of him, its front flap waving invitingly in the breeze. Bradley didn’t think about it, he just moved forward. He wasn’t aware of his feet moving, indeed it felt as if he was levitating an inch off the ground. In a haze he closed the distance, passed across the threshold, and rotated down on his cot.
He didn’t bother to undo his belt. He didn’t try to pull off his boots. He didn’t unclasp his helmet and let it clatter to the floor. He certainly didn’t worry about getting out of his muddy clothes or taking a shower.
He just lay down, closed his lids, and let his vision turn inwards.
Bradley was unconscious. Not really asleep yet, but unconscious. What Bradley was putting to rest was not his body, it was the machine. He was powering it down. Its vise-like grip slowly unclenched. And now, at last, his mind and body had room enough to start going to work on themselves. Now, at last, all the things that he had been stifling inside began to worm their way out.
First came a series of shivers. They began across his brow, then worked their way down his body, all the way to the feet. They were involuntary shudders, earthquakes in his bones. It was his body loosening out all of the tension that he had so strictly maintained all these hours. Every inch of skin had to be shaken out and made to feel again.
Next came the sweating. Tension and strain had built up a lot of heat in Bradley, and it had to be cooled. There was so much hate and fear that had to be flushed out as well. So each of his pores opened and baptized his body with purifying water. All the grime that had been clogging him up was washed away.
Then came the crying. Bradley’s chest heaved up and down and tears tracked down his cheeks. His mouth opened wide, and through it he gave a series of long, shuddering exhales. No moans came with them, for when one wails audibly they are giving expression to their traumas, and Bradley’s mourning was too deep to be given any names. They could only be breathed, spilled out of him, a thousand at a time, in a heavy torrent.
At last the body had unlocked itself. Bradley’s survival grip was broken, and now he could feel again. Thus he finally realized how uncomfortable he was in his bed. His boots were tight and heavy, and he worked to take them off. He was still mostly unconscious, and unable to wake enough to take remove them properly. Instead he just idly swatted his hand at them every few minutes over the next hour until they were finally teased off an inch at a time. At last they fell to the ground with heavy thuds.
Then his fingers reached up to his chin and fumbled with the strap of his helmet. It too clattered to the ground. He rolled over and the lapel of his jacket dug at his wounded shoulder. He winced, and undid his belt, then shrugged the jacket away.
Now he was cold, and his hands found the blanket and pulled it up to his chin. His body curled up into the fetal position, and he reverted into his most primal instincts. Now his dreams began.
Strange, abstract shapes and colors came first. Black and red, jagged and sharp. They fluctuated and danced into one another without meaning. Then, slowly, they settled into something comprehensible. Bradley saw that they were a seascape of blood waves, reaching like teeth high into the air. So high that they pierced into the onyx tapestry of thunderclouds that made up the entire sky. And where the two bodies collided into one another there oozed out a thick mud.
Bradley was aware of himself in this space. He was soaring towards the horizon where the two dread masses converged into one. Would he be drowned in the waves or would he be dissipated in the mist? Either way, he would surely then be oozed out the dark mud between.
“Please, no!” he cried. “I fought, I won, I get to go home.”
You fought, you won, this is your home a thunderous voice boomed from the heavens. Claim the spoils of your victory!
And then Bradley saw. He was the waves and he was the cloud. He was the squeezing, choking vise that must grind wayward sea explorers between his iron mills. He saw puny sailors rolling across his undulating belly, eyes wide and full of fear. He hated them for their smallness. Hated them for their fear.
Bradley sneered and swelled himself, rushing his two halves together and bursting the vessels apart like juicy grapes. He hated them for being weak enough to be consumed by him. Hated them for dying while he lived.
And though he would dare not admit it, he feared them too. They looked at him with such terror, but why? How did they not see that they had just as much power to kill him, too?
The dream turned. He was still a phantom of black and red, but now in a loose bodily form, and he was sprinting between the walls of an eternal labyrinth. One did not try to escape a place as this. Once consigned here it was your home forever. And your tomb.
Around every few bends he came across one of the dread, blue sailors. He screamed at them and burst himself forth, trying to drown them in his depths before they could crush him.
One of them rounded the bend and hesitated. That was his undoing, Bradley snuffed him out in an instant. Bradley rounded the bend on another and the two of them burst themselves on one another at the same moment. The blow of that other was strong, but Bradley bluffed a laugh through quivering lips. The sailor drew back at that, and believed that Bradley might have some hidden secret that gave him the confidence to laugh. That moment of weakness doomed him. The man succumbed to the momentum of his despair, and knelt down and hung his head. Bradley quaked him into the ground.
It was a game of chicken. The first to show fear lost. To flinch, to admit your terror, was your own undoing. If Bradley could make them believe he was more powerful than they, then it would be so.
This is all that magic and witches are, the great voice boomed again. A spell is only of effect when the victim believes in it. Make them believe their doom and it will be so.
And what if they were made to believe in hope? Bradley wondered. Did magic work that way, too? Was Sergeant a mage? Had he cast a spell on Bradley to make him believe that he could survive that last night? Made a reality of a fiction? Convinced Bradley of it, but then died because he did not believe in it himself?
Why did Bradley get to live while the others did not? Some days he would say that it was just a matter of dumb luck, but he knew that that was not the entire story. He really felt there was some truth to this notion of overwhelming the will of others to live with your own. That will to live was like a muscle, and in some men it was stronger than others. And why was Bradley’s will to live stronger than many others? He did not know. Maybe he was just born that way. Maybe he was bewitched by Sarge’s speech. Maybe a million things. He had it though, and it was his blessing. Or perhaps his curse.
At this point Bradley turned over and nearly awoke. A faint thought crossed his mind that he was starving, filthy, and in need of a doctor to examine his shoulder. Yes, alright, he would take care of all those things. But first a little more sleep. He had denied his body this rest for too long, and now the time had come to pay the tab.
So instead he ground deeper into his pillow, pulled the blanket tight with earnest, and muscled his way back into deeper waves of sleep. The dreams here were more erratic and fanciful than before. Every now and then a vision from the trenches would arise, such as one where he was laying traps a pack of wolves that was also hunting him, but more so they were abstract and bizarre, such as one where he was carving faces into potatoes to try and get them to speak to him.
All the while men came and left from the tent. Trucks rolled by outside. Orders were shouted and people scrambled to fulfill them. None of them could break his trance, though, and everyone knew better than to wake the men that had come back from the line.
How much time passed was impossible to tell. Bradley had missed two full nights of sleep, and he more than made up for them now. When at last his eyes opened there was sunlight outside, so that he mistakenly thought that it was still the same day as when he had first laid head to pillow.
For a full hour he laid without any more movement than the occasional blink of his eyes. Indeed when he first opened them he did not realize that they were open. He just stared blankly ahead as the room slowly swam into conscious focus. He stared, and he listened. And at first the sounds seemed far-off and random, totally devoid of any word or meaning. But as his hearing also came into conscious focus he realized that there was an unusual rhythm to what he heard.
The camp had always been a busy place, but somehow it was even more so now. Trucks were rumbling by in a constant procession, voices were ringing over one another in a chorus of commands. Feet were running every direction at once. What on earth was going on out there?
Bradley rose to his feet, waited a minute for the resultant light-headedness to pass, then stepped out into the sun. If things had sounded active, they looked even more so! Most of the tents were being disassembled, the large medical pavilion was being brought down even now. Everything was being tied down, bundled up, and thrown into the back of trucks.
“Our line’s been broken!” Bradley hissed in horror. “We’re retreating!”
But even as he said that, he realized that couldn’t be right. Because even with all the hasty hustle and bustle, the men were smiling and laughing, clinking together glasses of champagne scurried up from who-knew-where.
“What is this?” Bradley caught a soldier by the arm as he passed by.
“Oh you’re a mess,” the man said, looking up and down Bradley’s filth-caked clothing. “And we’ve just taken down the showers, so you’ll just have to sail that way!”
“Sail? What are you talking about? Where is everyone going?”
The man cocked his head in utter bewilderment. “Do you really not know? You haven’t heard?”
Bradley shook his head.
“The war is over man! The old men back home have signed a treaty!”
Bradley released the man’s shoulder and stood with mouth agape. Could it be? He looked about himself in a stupor. It seemed too much to believe…yet here was his entire company beating a joyful march back home.
Two airplanes buzzed overhead, and Bradley watched them soar by. They were followed by a dozen more, all making way for the coast.
Bradley smiled and shook his head. He had slept clean through the end of the war. “So you were right all along, Sarge,” he muttered. Then he turned, and followed the procession away from that place.
And that brings us to the conclusion of The Soldier’s Last Sleep! On Monday we discussed the idea of a final act prolonging the themes of the story’s climax. Previously we experienced the rousing apex of action where Bradley defended the trench through the last night of his shift. That sequence concluded, and today I sloped the story into a long tail before the finish.
In this final act I have used Bradley’s subconscious to reiterate the themes of my story to the reader. Even as his subconscious is trying to process the events within him, I am doing the same thing for the audience. Through this I emphasize the ideas of force of will, of trying to control oneself with a vise-like grip, and the toll, physical and mental that comes with that. I speak of tension and release. I point out the idea of men overpowering one another by a show of strength, or more accurately by a facade of strength. I finish up with a discussion of influence and inspiration, which suggests a more gentle way to impose one’s will upon another.
And then, to cap it all off, I talk about the calm after the storm. For after each charge of the enemy came respite, after the fog came clear skies, and after the war there must come peace. Which was meant as a meta-commentary on the calm-final-act-after-the-climax-of-a-story theme from Monday.
This dream sequence that I concluded with also allowed me a pleasant opportunity to delve deep into the rabbit hole. Throughout the story I presented the story with dramatic prose, painting the scene of war as some sort of exaggerated fantasy. That same idea is more deeply explored in Bradley’s unconscious visions, where fantasy finally becomes his reality. With my next blog post I’d like to go deeper into this idea of going deeper. I want to consider how a story can present an idea, and then really dive into the meat of it. Come back Monday to hear about that, and have a wonderful weekend in the meantime!
Last Thursday we saw the apex of action in The Soldier’s Last Sleep. Since the very beginning of the story I have been teasing a close-quarters battle between the two sides, but I had to wait for the right time to let them loose on one another. And so that teasing returned multiple times, festering and building, escalating until the eye of the storm was a raging torrent. Then, when the timing was finally right, I let it loose in a single, great deluge!
But every storm concludes with a remarkable stillness in the air. A heavy rainfall leaves the atmosphere clear and crisp. A raging wind is followed by a deafening calm. A loud clap of thunder always finishes in a long, drawn-out tail.
If a story is not given a moment to breathe after its frantic climax, it will feel abrupt and jarring. After we have seen our heroes through their darkest hour, we also want to see the light begin to shine on them. That moment of release does not have to last terribly long, just far enough that we can safely say that “they lived happily ever after.”
This is why so many fairy tales end in a wedding. Truly the darkness has been dispelled if the good people are able to make themselves happy again.
The Right Flavor)
For my first example we’re going to one of my personal favorite stories, and a mainstay on this blog. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits, who compel him to live with charity for his fellowman. He is a stubborn, old man, and their tactics range clear from sentimental memory to frightful threats. It is the latter strategy which finally breaks him, and in a moment of tearful repentance he pledges to live a better life.
Now this is the climax of the story, the moment where Scrooge’s wall breaks in a cathartic torrent. No other moment can match this for emotional release, but if the story immediately ended with this pledge, it would feel off-kilter. The evolution of Scrooge’s character is triumphant, but this turning point is extremely tense, full of fear and regret. It would not fit thematically with the overall message of the tale to end things here. In a story such as this, the reader expects the final course to taste sweet.
Which, of course, it does. Because after the story’s great climax, we are then treated to an extended look at Scrooge’s next day, wherein he joyfully goes about the city and makes a great many people happy.
In all he improves the lives of a young urchin, the poulterer, the two gentlemen seeking contributions for the poor, his nephew, the Cratchits, and the occasional stranger along the way. And he does it all with a great deal of chuckling, smiling, and wide-eyed wondering.
By adding this final act, the story’s final act is given a double duty. It does not only exhaust all of the built up frustration and angst that preceded it, but also propels all of the joy and goodwill that follows it. The ending of the story isn’t about softening into silence, it is about pushing forward towards further horizons.
It is also worth noting the fact that many of Scrooge’s interactions in this final act are to directly redress the previous harm that he had made. Hard words are apologized for and old grudges rescinded. Each dis-likable thread has its frayed ends mended, and there are multiple miniature cathartic releases occurring even after the story’s main climax. Thus that initial high point is prolonged it into a series of high points.
The Extended Conclusion)
There is another story that continues its final note past its high-point, though in a much more dire fashion. In the Maltese Falcon we meet Sam Spade, a Private Detective who gets embroiled in the hunt for an invaluable relic. From the very beginning things are not as they seem, and the double-crosses stack up thick and heavy. Spade even loses his partner, and gets pinned for the man’s murder.
Then, at the story’s climax, he has a standoff with the main thugs and the relic is revealed to be nothing more than an elaborate fake! After all the deaths and deceit leading up to this moment, the story’s titular black falcon is but another red herring.
This is the point where the high action ends, but there are still threads that need to be tied off. More importantly, there is a need to let the shock of disappointment sink even more deeply in the reader.
And so the final pages disclose how the woman Spade has grown to love is more involved in this whole plot than she has let on. She is a murderer, and the one that killed Spade’s partner. Now he must turn her over to the police, for if he doesn’t he will be left to take the fall for her crimes.
No one gets what they want in this story. After all is said and done, Spade still continues his detective work, but without a partner, without a love, totally alone and a bit more pale than when things began.
As with A Christmas Carol, the Maltese Falcon uses its climax to not only release tension, but also to propel the action a bit further. It does not want that moment of shock to be a lone note in the rousing finish, but only a keystone piece in an entire chorus. The climax, combined with the extended finish, fully sell the theme of the story. A theme of disappointment being the norm. Sam Spade survives, but he does not thrive. He might not be anyone’s sap, but that doesn’t mean he will ever find riches or love. He ends things the same as where he began, though perhaps just a little worse.
And so, a skilled author uses the final act to tease out the themes of the climax long enough for them to really settle in the reader. The climax remains as the single high point, but it is backed by a tail that echoes its ideas a few times over. Last Thursday I published the climax of my latest short story, and next I am going to tryto follow it up with a reaffirming final act. I’m a bit anxious that it will be overly long, and that it might not echo the climax’s themes well enough. I’m going to try my best though, and if I succeed, I think the story’s messages will live on in the reader’s mind for that much longer. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
The first three shots resounded in empty air. Private Bradley grit his teeth, cleared his mind, and went back to his basic training.
“Hold the gun firmly, but don’t clench it,” he muttered to himself. “Breathe slowly….Now exhale…” he fired and an enemy soldier’s helmet went flying through the air, exposing a startled face underneath.
Private Bradley had always been one of the better shots in their squad, he had just momentarily forgotten it while living and breathing the machine gun’s exhaust for the last few days. Now he set to work, picking his shots, following through, moving on to the next. It wasn’t a question of hitting the enemy, it was a question of how many he could drop, and whether it would be enough.
There was a sudden rise in the voices of the chargers fifty yards to the right. Of course the chargers were always shouting, seemingly in one unending cry, but there always came a sudden swell such as this when they reached the trench and leaped down to the murder. So the line has suffered its first compromise Bradley thought, then picked off another man.
The pitch in the enemies’ voices raised an octave again forty yards to the left and at another point twenty yards beyond that. Two more breaches in the line.
Private Bradley’s breath exhaled a bit more ragged than usual and his next shot went wide, two feet from its mark. He grit his teeth, furious that he had let the pressure get to him. He made up for it by firing his next round through two men running in file.
An entire chorus of waves broke up and down the trench-line, too many new breaches to count. There would be no routing the charge this time. Each squad had run out of machine gun ammunition, just as Private Bradley’s had. Without those pounding guns there had never been a chance of turning the wave. In the next fifteen seconds it would crash upon Private Bradley and his squad, too.
“NOW, BRADLEY, NOW!” Sergeant roared, pulling the rifle out of Bradley’s hands and putting the handles of the machine gun there instead.
Private Bradley grit his teeth and let loose ball and flame. The trench’s last fully automatic rang through the air like an awakened lion, bursting through men at more than twenty-five death-knells per second!
There was no easy stroke, stroke to how Bradley spun the weapon now. The enemy was so close and so dense that jerking it as quickly as he could from side to side was the only option left. For the briefest of moments the charging men’s eyes widened in shock and horror. And then those eyes went glassy and expressed nothing again forever. The men that stood next in line to catch a bullet came to a full halt, glancing side to side for an escape that wasn’t there. If they turned and ran now, they would only succeed in being shot in the back instead of the front. As they paused to consider that fact the decision was made for them.
Meanwhile Bradley’s compatriots made short work of what forces his gun happened to miss. Bradley thinned the line, and the riflemen finished it. Each following line was more dense than the one before, but each looked more timid and unsure as well.
And then, all at once, a clear hill opened to view before them.
Bradley blinked quickly, disbelieving what he saw. They had done it? They had cleared their section?
Yes, they had. Sergeant’s timing had been impeccable. Glancing downwards Bradley saw seven bullets remained on the belt. Just barely, but they had stopped the breach in their sector.
If only that had been enough.
Though no more enemy forces stood on the hill, the trench still crawled with them. In fact the squad directly to the left of Bradley’s had just finished being entirely overrun by the invaders, who were now lashing out in each direction for fresh kills!
Bradley spun to face the assailants, reaching for the firearm at his side. They leaped at him and he leaped back, firing into the heart of their pack.
“Move over here!” Private Holt shouted from his elbow.
“Pull in close,” Sergeant ordered. “We’re still on the defense!”
It was good advice. The natural inclination was to try to push the enemy, but that sort of over-extending had been exactly the downfall of many of their allies. Better to play it cool and wait to see which side had the numbers. Right now things were too muddled to tell.
Bradley’s squad pulled tight to one another, and stood back-to-back, some of them facing down the right side of the trench, some of them facing down the left. They all shouted and fired furiously into the ranks of the enemy. Half of the time the other side charged at them haltingly, and half of the time they tried to take a stance and fire back.
Such half-measures would not suffice. Bradley and his men were tight-packed and focused. They fired in controlled bursts, calling out their shots, and working as a team to drop one soldier, and then another.
“Stand firm,” Sergeant directed them. “Stand firm and they won’t charge you, no matter how many more of them there are. None of them want to be the first to meet a firm knot!”
But that knot was being untied. Rather than charge, the enemy had finally decided on taking quick shots at the bundle of men. It was dark and shadowy in the trenches, and hard for them to pick out man from mud. Even so, every now and again a lucky shot hit its mark.
A sting burrowed into Bradley’s left thigh. Another grazed over the skin of his right arm. A dull groan sounded against his back, the last complaint that Private Dunny would ever make.
Other shots sang past Bradley’s ears. He instinctively recoiled, and as he did so forgot to keep pulling the trigger. The fire from Bradley’s squad became uncertain, erratic, stifled in the storm raining around them. Then, like predators waiting for their prey to show a weakness, the other side swooped in for the kill.
Bradley caught the first man by the lapel of his jacket, and drilled with his knife until he found oil. He threw that one to the side, and barely raised his arm in time to catch the downward stab of another. His forearm seared in pain, but fortunately Private O’Malley surged forward to take that foe down for him.
No one was there to cover O’Malley, though, and a hot barrel blasted at point-blank range, blasting O’Malley backwards. The man fell right into Bradley, and the two of them fell together. Bradley’s back hit the floor of the trench and O’Malley fell across his legs. Bradley started to thrash to get back up…but then paused.
What if he didn’t? Here in the dark, who could tell a dead man from a man only pretending to be dead? There was a chance that he might be entirely overlooked. Perhaps it was a slim chance, but it was there all the same.
But no. That would leave the backs of his still-standing squadmates unprotected. That would go against his oath, that the enemy would have to cut him down by force. That would invalidate him for Sergeant’s promise of self-purchase. He had to fight his way through the night.
A dark blur passed over Bradley, an enemy making another charge. Bradley turned his gun upwards and fired, cutting the man down entirely unawares. Then, from some long-forgotten coffer, Bradley found the strength to fling back onto his feet in a single, swift motion. He held gun out in one hand and knife in the other. He fired, he cut, pushed, he grit.
The trench was narrow, and the enemy came single file to avoid crowding one another as they danced around the littered corpses. So it was an even match-up, one against one, over and over, and the only question was how long a man could stand down the tide.
A foe grabbed Bradley’s wrist while also swinging wide with a shovel. Bradley leaned back so that it cut fat air and lodged itself in the trench wall. Bradley grabbed the handle with his free hand, just above the blade, and pulled firm. The soldier, still attached to the other end, lurched forward, and lost both of his grips, the one on the shovel and the other on Bradley’s wrist. He fell to the ground at Bradley’s feet. Bradley swung the shovel around and with it dug the man into his grave.
One could not remain a man in such work as this. One had to give himself over to the machine. This was no trench of men, it was a chute on a dis-assembly line. Bradley was the mechanical arm that took the subjects apart one at a time.
Another man lunged forward with a knife. Rather than try to dodge, Bradley gripped the man’s wrist and pulled, ever so slightly shifting the angle of the thrust so that it slid in the crook between his arm and torso. He clinched down and twisted. Something snapped, metal or otherwise.
Bradley-the-machine’s limbs were creaking and sore. No matter. A machine did not complain about such things. A machine just kept at its work as bolts fell off and screw threads stripped and motors spun out of socket. Perhaps he would shatter apart, but he wouldn’t even know it. He would just keep going.
The next soldier made like he was going to lunge at Bradley, but at the last moment pulled back and fired from the hip. It was clever. It caught him off guard. Bradley felt a hole open in his shoulder and he fell onto his back.
What was less clever was that the man paused to see if Bradley was dead, giving him the opportunity to fumble his gun over from the wounded arm to his other. A crack of thunder and the assailant was down.
It was his ability to separate his mind from his body that made Bradley so adept at this work of separating limb from limb. First one had to stifle the life in himself, then he could do it in others. And so a man was always his own first casualty. It was the only way to live.
Two more soldiers advanced down the trench. Bradley was still prone and his vitality was quickly seeping through the wound in his shoulder. This was it. The fight in him was gone.
The first soldier reached him and held out his hand.
Only now did Bradley recognize the uniform of his allies. Bradley tried to offer his good hand, but it still held his gun. He dropped the weapon and let the friend pull him to his feet.
“Good to finally see a friendly face,” the soldier said. “The trench is all secured back this way, how about down past you.”
“I’m not sure,” Bradley said. He started to twist to look that way, but winced at the searing pain that came from his shoulder.
“You’re hurt,” the soldier observed. “Don’t worry, I’ll move down the line and see for myself. You stay here and Private Bailey will see to your wound.”
The man was clearly some sort of officer, though of course it was far too muddy and dark to make out any insignia.
The second man came up and Bradley showed him where he was hit, then leaned back while the man bound him up.
“You’re lucky, the shot passed clean through, I don’t have to dig it out of you.”
“A life of my shoulder always aching and never working right? Hardly seems lucky.”
“At least it’s still a life. That’s more than most of our men can say tonight.”
It suddenly occurred to Bradley to check and see if any of his squad had survived with him. One glance along the trench floor, though, and it was clear that they had not. One-by-one he could pick out each of their bodies interwoven with those of the enemy. They looked so strangely peaceful laying side-by-side with the very men that they had fought to the death against.
Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. They had killed each other, hadn’t they? And what feud could possibly be left unresolved after such a measure as that? What more could be gained by disputing the matter any further? Here, in mutual death, they were finally all square with one another.
Of course Bradley gave his men a closer check once Private Bailey finished dressing his wounds. The two of them crouched down and felt each man’s lack of a pulse. They truly were all dead. Dunny, Holt, Yates, O’Malley…
“You too, Sergeant?” Bradley sighed. “After that speech you roused us all with? You too?”
By this point it was clear that the battle was over. The scattered din of gunfire up and down the trench had slowed and finally come to a stop. The line had been held, though with extensive casualties. More than fifty percent. Their forces were so diminished that they couldn’t hope to repel another attack. Reinforcements would have to come replace them now.
But then, of course, the enemy needed reinforcements of their own, too. All of their fresh troops were dead, and they would have to send up a new regiment before the onslaught could continue.
Sergeant had been right. Surviving this last charge had been enough. Private Bradley had earned the right to stay alive. Massaging his shoulder he turned to the East. There, searing a line of red across the green hilltop, the dawn was approaching.
On Monday I discussed how a story is composed of several arcs, which each take their turn in the light, thus creating a natural rise and fall in the plot. I also mentioned how each arc escalates in their own way, combining to make a climatic finish.
In today’s post we saw the culmination of the increasing tension in this story. With each preceding charge, the enemy came closer and closer to breaking the ranks of Bradley and his men. That constant teasing was meant to build up anticipation in the reader, anticipation which was finally satisfied in the rousing action of today’s entry.
When a story has pent up enough conflict and turmoil, then it is a simple matter to let it loose in a stream of cathartic release. But another essential element of pacing in a story is the sigh of relief after the action subsides. Though the hard-run race may be won in a moment of intense effort, the experience is not over until one is able to fully regain their breath.
This next Monday I will examine this idea of giving a story time to release its tension after the climax of its action. Then, next Thursday, we will see this in play with the next entry of The Soldier’s Last Sleep.
For nearly a year I’ve been working in earnest on my own novel, and much of that time has been spent in just getting the outline to the point that I want it at. And if I’m allowed a moment of pride, I’m genuinely very proud of how things are looking in that regard.
But obviously a great outline is not enough. And so I have moved on to writing the actual first draft, and I’m constantly afraid of not measuring up to the quality of the outline. I keep worrying to myself that no one will be able to see that the original idea was any good, because they’ll be too hung up on awkward bits of dialogue and uninspired scenery descriptions.
I have walked out of my fair share of movie theaters where I thought to yourself “well that was probably a great idea on paper, but in execution…” This is exactly the fear I have for my own work.
Of all the elements that I find most difficult to translate from outline to draft, it has to be the pacing. When my story was just an outline, every bullet point took the same amount of time to read. But when actually fleshed out, some of those list items are going to remain lean, while others carry on for a few thousand words or more. The result is that the rhythm I felt while reading the outline is not the same as in the actual draft.
Another problem with pacing is that writing something can feel much more epic than when reading it. More than once I have spent ten minutes hammering out a paragraph of intense emotional depth. By the time I get through typing every tear-jerking adjective I’m practically dabbing at my eyes, and wondering how I became such a master at expressing the deepest feelings of the heart.
Then I read through the completed paragraph, and the experience lasts all of twenty seconds, landing with all the emotional profundity of a soggy pancake. I read much more quickly than I can write, and so it is difficult to gauge the experience of one from the other. Or in other words, it is very easy to write a story so that it is written at a perfect pace, but far more difficult to write one that it is read at a perfect pace.
When I run into these issues of pacing, I like to consider how well I am adhering to the basic principles of the art.
Lulls and Rises)
Most stories do not want to begin at the same pace that they finish with. If there is no change in a story, then it will become monotone. A story that is all sad, or all sweet, will soon lose its sense of sadness or sweetness by over-saturation.
Therefore, most of our favorite tales feature a quiet beginning, and then build towards a rousing climax. This means that the story must grow increasingly more energetic as it moves along.
But again, if all we do is escalate, then even the escalation begins to feel flat. It either ceases to be impactful, or else it is exhausting. A common counter to this, then, is to overall escalate the story, but to have calming interludes along the way.
Think of Frodo Baggins taking the ring to Mount Doom. He is always growing closer towards the heart of darkness, and the chaos around him is constantly becoming more intense. But even so, he still finds time for respite in the abode of Tom Bombadil, and in Rivendell, and at Lothlorien. Notably, each of these resting points immediately follows a moment of intense action: nearly being crushed by Old Man Willow, Glorfindel chased across the fields by the Nazgul, and the party losing their leader in Moria.
As the series continues, these respites become fewer and fewer, and the action between becomes more and more prolonged. Thus we feel the increasing heights that we are climbing, and it makes for a dramatic climax at the end.
Bouncing Between Dramas)
So should we just shoehorn quiet moments into our story? Obviously not. A quiet moment should never exist only for the sake of only being a quiet moment. The perfect lull in a story not only occurs right where it should for perfect pacing, but also right where it should to develop a needed plot thread. It takes skill to hone a story that way, but that’s why we remain in awe of the authors who pull it off so well.
An important thing to consider is that even if a scene is quiet in nature, it still might be an escalation of a sort. One might feature visceral, physical action, and the next might feature a character coming to a profound epiphany. The scene of character development might not spike the reader’s adrenaline, but it will still satisfy their desire for progress and climax.
Therefore a skilled author knows that they can swap between progressing action, character, emotion, and plot. Each will feel fresh in its turn, each will overlap with one another’s escalation, and so the story will continue to be rousing as a whole.
Consider, for example, the film Master and Commander. In this film, a British naval vessel has been tasked with taking down a superior French Man-of-War. The film certainly has its fair share of action, where each encounter with their quarry introduces the crew to greater and greater danger.
But in between those battles, there is also an arc of the sailors coming to mistrust one of their own, and labeling him as a curse to their cause. There is the arc of a youth that lost his arm in battle, and now must relearn how to be a man. There is the friendship between the Captain and the Doctor, which becomes strained as the Captain pushes his crew harder and harder, just as he pushes the ship to its physical limits.
That is not all. The story even interweaves secondary plots, such as the ship’s Naturalist constantly being frustrated in his attempts to examine a rare species of cormorant. Though this aside is more light-hearted, it still has its own sense of escalation and payoff.
On Thursday I pointed out that I have been shifting between various escalating arcs in The Soldier’s Last Sleep, such as the ones dealing with life in the trenches, the soldiers’ physical deterioration, and the chaos of military administration. Each of these comes in turn, and thus provide a natural rise and fall to the story’s cadence, while also heightening the overall tension in their own way.
On the surface it may seem like the story only escalates with each new wave of the enemy attacks, but each of those attacks feels all the more dire because of the quiet discontent that is mounting between them. Thus as the story has progressed, the chasm between its chaotic and calm moments has become smaller and smaller, the reprieves have seemed less and less restful, until now the plot is ready to conclude in a single climax.
Come back on Thursday to hear the end of that long, loud note, after which we will examine the fallout that comes after a story reaches its peak.
Some of the mortars fell directly on the trench, and some of them landed a bit before it, right in the midst of the enemy forces. All was chaotic disarray!
The enemy line scattered in a thousand different directions all at once. Some of them ran for their lives into the trenches, trying to surrender before they were butchered. Some of them ran back towards their own camp, ducking and weaving like mad, as if the dropping shells were less likely to hit them for having moved randomly. Some of them stood frozen in place, too shocked to commit to any action at all.
Meanwhile Private Bradley and his comrades swam through the dirt, beating a hasty retreat away from the explosions. Some of the commanding officers screamed at them to hold position, but to no avail. Up and down the line, where the bombardment was not striking, the allied soldiers just stared dumbly at the hole broken in their line.
In all, the shelling lasted for a one-minute-and-forty-seven-second eternity. Evidently those in charge of sending the enemy infantry out had gotten in touch with those in charge of firing the artillery, and made them aware of their scheduling error.
Of course by this point the field was long clear of any living enemy soldiers. They had all either surrendered, retreated, or died as suited them best. And so the trench-men began reforming their line where it had been broken up. It was very nerve-wracking work, for each man wondered ‘how long can it be before the shelling reoccurs?’ So each man furiously dug with his shovel, and when any sudden sounds came they would flinch, clap their hands over their heads, and make as if they would run from the spot.
Even during all that stress, though, the men spoke among one another, and hashed out what must have just happened. Clearly the enemy line had been replenished. They received fresh troops, probably an entirely new regiment, and along with it some new artillery. And not just any artillery, either. At long last they had found a way to bring the big guns through the mud, ones that actually had enough range to reach their line.
The only saving grace had been that with the fresh resources had also come fresh command units, ones that were not coordinated properly with one another. This had resulted in the blunder of the enemy shelling their own men. But right this moment they would be straightening out their agendas, and then the shelling would recommence, blast the trenches to smithereens, and the fresh troops would be sent marching over the ruin, down the hill, and into the camp below.
They would have to be pulled back now, it was the only possible outcome. And yet the orders to do so had not come yet. Every man on the line knew it had to come, so why hadn’t it come already? Why were they instead trying to repair the trench? It was pointless!
The answer to that came less than a quarter hour later. To the South they could hear the dull hum of propellers churning through the air. Every man turned and watched six bombers lumbering towards their position. They passed overhead, low enough for the infantry to make out the bomb bay doors opening as the aircraft proceeded across the field and towards the enemy lines. A chorus of gunfire and explosion resounded through the air.
“Well that’s that for the new artillery,” Private Holt observed.
“Why just the artillery?” Private Dunny said hopefully. “Surely they’re going to smash the entire camp as well!”
But they were not. As soon as the big guns were reduced to smoking, twisted metal, the planes turned on the spot and lumbered back away as uneventfully as they had come. Balance had been restored, and now it would be left to the two infantries to continue their murderous tug-of-war for the hill.
The sun was nearly set, and with it came fresh waves of exhaustion. Even if one did not look at the orange and pink streaks extending across the sky, one could feel them in his bones. The body knew that the day was retiring, and for years it had been trained to anticipate its own retiring in these hours. It was ingrained in all of the men that they should sleep now, and facts like there not being any reinforcements until the next day made no sway on the pull of nature.
“Stay alert men!” Sergeant shouted, then yawned deeply, and momentarily lost his balance where he stood.
Even worse than the fatigue was the knowledge that the enemy lines had been refreshed. If it hadn’t been for the shells breaking their charge, these new foes would have been cooling their heels over the corpses of Private Bradley and his squad right this very moment!
Fate had intervened once, but it was too much to ask her to do so again. This next charge they would have to figure things out on their own.
“Listen to me, men,” Sergeant wheezed through a dry and raspy throat. “The sun’s already on its way down, so it’s a sure thing that the enemy is going to wait until the dark of night for their next assault. One more charge in the middle of the night and then it’s morning. I’ve just received the latest word, and it says our reinforcements for sure arrive first thing in the morning. We just have to hold on until then. Just one more charge. We can make that, I know we can.”
Sergeant clasped his hands together, as if he was praying to his men.
“We’re not fighting for army, nation, or family this time, boys. This time it’s for us. Every charge before this earned you badges and medals and who-cares-what-else. But ride out this last charge…and you earn your very lives! No one earns themselves except by weathering the last charge. If you can survive this time, this one, lasttime, then you’re free men. You’re self-purchased through and through. Not even your own mother who birthed you will have any claim on you. No one will. This is the last night you’ll ever have to stand through, but you do have to stand through it. This is your whole life here and now, so what do you say men? It’s just one more charge!”
Not a one of them cheered. They were moved, though, and wept openly, fresh streaks burning down their dirty cheeks. It rang too true to them, and they wanted to believe every word. But at the same time, even if the promises were true, it would seem all too fitting that after the close calls and narrow escapes, that they would now trip at the finish. Such an irony as that would be the perfectly summation of their military career. They had been so tired and beaten, yet they had somehow come through time and time again. But this time? Here where it mattered most? Was there anything even left to give anymore?
Why couldn’t the soul just let go easily? Why did it have to cling to life when it would be so much easier to lay down and die? Yet it did. And in spite of all cynicism, each of the men pledged that at the very least they would try. As with before, they resolved to stand and fight and make the enemy remove them from this place by force. If what the Sergeant said was true, then let this be the final measuring. They would not be overrun while leaving any drops of blood unspent. They would give all that they had. And if it was enough it would be enough, and if it was not it would not, but in either case nothing would be held back.
And so they looked hard into one another’s eyes, then took their places in the trench. They had repaired it pretty well after the shelling. It did not extend quite as high as before, and the earth was a bit fresher and looser, but it would have to do.
Each man held his gun, locked his knees, and stared down the line for the coming reckoning. None of them expected the charge for a few hours yet, but trying to rest was unfathomable. If once their eyes were allowed to close, it was doubtful whether Armageddon itself would be able to rouse them. The body yearned for it, but the body could be denied. It already had been so many times before.
“Counting off one,” Sergeant said.
“Counting off two,” Private Dunny said.
“Counting off three,” Private Bradley said.
“Counting off four,” Private Holt said.
“Counting off six,” Private Yates said.
“No, Private Yates, five comes after four,” Private O’Malley corrected.
“Thank you, O’Malley, counting off five.”
It was a ritual Sergeant had invented to keep them awake on exhausting nights such as this. They had to count, and once every so often, one of them would intentionally say the wrong number. So you had to be listening and paying attention to call them out in it, or else you were falling asleep and every man in the squad would kick you.
Minute after minute slipped by. Time was the first enemy that they had to best. Each man’s voice was already croaky when they began, and within an hour they rasped like a metal rake over a tin roof. They took swigs from their canteens, but it wasn’t water that their throats were thirsty for.
About halfway through the night they were given a boon. At long last the fog fully dissipated. It had been teasing a retreat since evening, but at long last the final tendrils of it were flowing away.
“There you go men,” Sergeant grinned. “You stood out nature itself!”
Time was bested, nature too. Now one more enemy force to go.
“They must be kicking themselves for having missed one more charge with the fog,” Private Dunny said excitedly. “And now it’s a clear night with a full moon….maybe they won’t–”
“No, Private Dunny,” Bradley spoke over him. “You know that they’re still coming, just as sure as the rest of us. It’s how it works.”
Indeed it was. Bradley had learned long ago to stop trying to bargain with the fates, nor to look for reason in what the military might do or might not do. Fates and the military didn’t work like that, not on their side and not on the other. They just did what they did, and anyone that tried to suggest a reason behind it was a fool. The enemy wave would come because they would come, that was it.
And they would come soon.
The squad stopped counting off, and a breathless hush fell over the entire line at the same moment. There was a cool weightiness in the air, one that carried sound for miles. And while there was no sound on it now, somehow all of them knew: this hour. It was like hearing future-echoes, the pulsations of rhythms soon to be played.
Now came the click! click! as every man made sure he still had a bullet ready in the chamber. Now the shuffling of feet as each man shifted from a watching stance to a fighting one.
A small cloud passed across the naked moon, and it sent rippling shadows coursing across the ground, moving from the enemy’s side of the hill towards their own. Each dark patch that shimmered over them felt put a tremor in the chest.
The cloud cleared away…but the shadows still streaked across the ground.
“FIRE!” Sergeant yelled, and the line exploded in a burst of noise and flame.
Private Bradley squeezed the handles of his machine gun and pulled the trigger tight. His hands did not protest anymore, they did not feel a thing. Molten lead burst out the barrel, round after round, tracing out lines that for the briefest of moments–moments no longer than a crack of lightning–connected him to the lives he reaped.
The men on Bradley’s line fired true, and it seemed that they dropped a score of their assailants every second. Yet there was more of the enemy tide than they had ever seen before. The horde was first visible as they crested a sudden rise in the land about a half-mile distant, and this night the ranks seemed to flow continuously over that lip like a river. Like one pack of night wolves after another, over and over.
“SWEEP! SWEEP!” Sergeant clutched Private Bradley’s shoulder. Bradley already was, of course. Rhythmically twisting the machine from left-to-right-to-left. He had his perfect cadence now. Just by looking at how distant the enemy line was, he knew exactly how quickly to turn the gun so that each round fired no more than two feet apart from the last. It formed the ideal spread for catching the most chests possible.
And then, of course, the belt ran dry. But Private Bradley had learned the timing of that as well. He would count off in his head, and as soon as he got to “thirty-seven” he would snap at Private Holt that he’d better shoulder his rifle and get the next run of bullets ready.
“Okay, this is the last one.”
“WHAT?!” Private Bradley shrieked. Sergeant shrieked something a bit stronger. Of course new ammunition, just like reinforcements, were not due until the morning.
“Save that last belt,” Sergeant ordered. “I’ll tell you when to let ’em have it.”
Bradley let go of the handles and awkwardly fumbled his rifle to his shoulder. How had he become so unacquainted with it so quickly? It felt like hugging a stranger, bony and awkward. His blistered hands were too large to hold it correctly, and his calloused fingers gripped it too tightly.
“They’re nearly on us!” Private Dunny announced unnecessarily.
“There’s no more coming over the rise!” Private Yates announced, far more helpfully.
So this was it. Both sides were entirely fielded in less than a half-mile’s space. This was the wall they had to sledge their way to the other side of. Private Bradley pulled the stock flush to his cheek and fired.
Well I didn’t plan this episode to resolve one battle, only to then leave right in the middle of another. It feels like I’m writing an old black-and-white serial that ends each week’s chapter on a cliffhanger. Maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing, though, it means the story is pacing through natural rises and falls. After all, even without careful pacing a story can be well-intentioned…but it can’t be interesting. Or put another way, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say if you aren’t saying it in a very good way. This is an idea I’d like to examine more on Monday, and how one can achieve a well-paced story.
Before that, though, let’s touch briefly on what I wrote last Monday about listing out the individual pieces of your story, to ensure that they hold a natural tension and escalation. Today was the moment where all of the tension of The Soldier’s Last Sleep escalated to its maximum, and now all that build-up is releasing in the story’s rousing climax!
There are several threads that I have woven together to achieve this effect. Obviously the first of these is the enemy assaults, which have incrementally pushed closer and closer to overwhelming Bradley and his compatriots. Then there is the thread of physical and mental deterioration, where I have listed out the deepening states of chafing hands and racked minds. There has been a thread about administration becoming more and more chaotic, where each new day denies them the relief that they so desperately need, while the other side inadvertently shells its own men! All of these threads has escalated in their own right, let alone when twisted all together.
There we have it, a list of lists that make up a story! And not only do they escalate, but each one creates tension by being at odds with the others. Bradley wants to live, his body wants to give up, the enemy horde wants to kill him, and the administration seems to want the struggle to continue endlessly. Not all sides can win this fight, and so the conflict heightens as each pushes its own agenda. Next week we’ll finally see which thread emerges as the victor!
Last week I mentioned that a story can often be broken into a series of lists. The most obvious of these is a list of sequential events, which give the scenes from start to finish.
Open on an idyllic village
Villain comes and lays waste to it
One character escapes, but collapses out in the desert
He awakens in a strange home, having been rescued by an old sage
After he has recovered, that sage takes him for refuge to a foreign village
Once more, the enemy forces arrive to sack the city
Another set of lists would be that of character-arcs, which might show the gradual progression of simpletons into heroes.
Our main character begins without any concern for the world at large
The loss of his home and loved ones helps him to see that the broader strokes of the world are invading his life, whether he likes it or not
He still needs a final push before accepting his destiny, which occurs when the old man urges him to stand up for what is right, but he refuses, inadvertently opening the door for that man’s death
At some point in the planning process an author takes each of these individual strands, and tries weaving them together in a story. At this point you might get more granular lists, such as the information that needs to be passed in a piece of dialogue.
The hero comes to the conversation, trying to justify why he is running away, and why the old man should as well.
The old man is nonplussed, says that if the boy has already made his determination then he ought to get a move on.
Something is gnawing away at the boy, though: his conscience. He doesn’t just want the master to excuse him, he wants the master to absolve him of his guilt, which obviously isn’t going to happen.
So the boy gets angry and reveals a hidden wound. He asks the old man where he was when the boy’s village got sacked. Where was honor and dignity then?
And as you see, we’re already well on our way towards a completed story, even before we’ve written a single word of dialogue or described any scenery. It is interesting to note that for all of the details we do have, this story could still exist in a plethora of different times and settings. All that we really have are the lists, a skeletal framework which could be covered in many clothes.
Making a List Interesting)
Of course, it is easy to write a list, but far more difficult to write an interesting one. And it is even more difficult to weave individual threads, even if they are good, into a cohesive whole. It takes time to get this foundation right, but if you do, it will pay rich dividends down the road. Here are two things to remember if your outlines are feeling a little flat.
Let’s consider the sample plot points I provided above. We began in a tranquil village, then we destroyed it, then we had the lone survivor awaken in a foreign environment. Each point escalates the boy’s situation and the list feels far better for it. If things were to start at the climax, and then moved towards flatness, things would feel off. Once our sense of suspense has been raised, we expect it to continue on.
The same escalation was also at work in the conversation outline as well. The boy begins by trying to justify himself, is denied the absolution he seeks, and escalates to wounded rage. Many scenes start in a quiet place, get agitated, and see the characters leave in a huff. This escalation does not necessarily capture the ebb and flow of real life, but it does result in a more arresting narrative.
With conflict I do not just mean war and violence, but rather weaving together different threads so that competing desires come to an impasse with one another. In the boy’s argument with the master we have the elder’s need to stand up for what’s right, and the boy’s need to run from his fears. Presumably the story would have already hinted at this tension in prior scenes, and this moment is where that conflict finally reaches a breaking point between them.
But also note that there can be conflict within a single thread as well. With my second list, that detailing the arc of just the boy, we can feel how he is of two minds about what he should do. The invasion of an army and the argument with his master are only personifications of his fighting with his own conscience.
Tension and escalation are key to writing a compelling story, and they should permeate even the highest level of an outline. The careful and intentional inclusion of them is one of the reasons why fictional narratives feel more vibrant and interesting than most historical summaries.
Dressing it Up)
Once you have a good skeleton, then you need to get some meat on those bones. Because in the end people don’t pick up a book to read a list, they want to read a story. Lists are rigid and artificial, stories feel organic and alive. One way to obfuscate the existence of a list is to make it too complex to recognize it as such. This should be a core consideration when weaving all those multiple threads together for your story. Is there enough variation that the reader doesn’t see the trees through the forest?
Another way to make a story feel more organic is to allow wiggle room within your rigidly defined structure. So let’s take my theoretical story from above. Remember that the master and young boy escaped to an idyllic village, which is then beset by the same enemy horde that destroyed the boy’s village. This leads to the confrontation between master and pupil, where the boy wants to run out of fear and the master wants to stay and help a lost cause.
All that is well and fine, but between the plot points of arrive at village and enemy horde comes to destroy it there could be any number of organic interludes. Perhaps the two are treated to a peaceful respite, where for a moment the boy is allowed to believe that his problems are behind him. Maybe he starts flirting with a street vendor’s daughter, which arc will be tragically cut short when the enemy horde arrives. Any number of things might happen, which serve to develop character, establish tone, and also to hide the transition from Plot Point A to B.
On Thursday I’ll be posting the next entry in my short story The Soldier’s Last Sleep. Try to pick out the list structure for how one event follows another in the trenches. Watch for how there is an escalation of danger, as well as how Private Bradley and the larger military organization feel the tension of clashing priorities. Last of all, take a look at how I smooth the shift from one point in the plot to the next. I hope this is helpful, and I’ll see you there!