The Little Details

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Same Ways to Say Different Things)

The same sentence can take on entirely different meanings, depending on its context.

“You’re a real work of art,” the painter said reverently as he etched her figure into the canvas.

“You’re a real work of art,” the officer said as he pulled the passed-out drunk to his feet.

Even under the same context, the same sentence can change, based on how the words are spoken.

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she affirmed softly.

 

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she rolled her eyes.

What is interesting about this example is that in the first instance I communicated her sincerity by describing the tone of her words directly, while in the second instance I said nothing about her intonation whatsoever, I only detailed her body language. That alone will be enough for the reader to recognize the dialogue as being sarcastic. In fact the reader is able to retroactively apply the sarcasm to the remark, and still maintain a coherent understanding as they go.

I could also try to communicate the sarcasm simply by how I italicize the words as well.

Of course you wouldn’t.”

It might work, but most likely some readers would not comprehend the sentence correctly. Though they might if the context of sarcasm had already been established.

“I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but it’s not true!” he pounded the table.

“Spoken with all the conviction of a liar.”

“I wouldn’t do something like that!”

Of course you wouldn’t.”

 

The Better Communication)

I believe most readers will agree that

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

is better than the more explicit

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically.

This matters a great deal, because a story is appreciated not only by what it says, but how it says it. Two drafts could feature the exact same plot points, the same clever twists and turns, the same characters and scenes, and even all the same words of dialogue, but if one takes the route of explicitly detailing each and every moment it will be appreciably inferior to the one which utilizes subtle implication.

But why? If the final interpretation is the same, why do we prefer one version over the other? Let’s see if we can figure it out from a different example, one that doesn’t involve any dialogue whatsoever.

The bad man pulled out his knife. He put it into the other man’s chest. The man who was stabbed bled and died.

There was a shriek of metal rubbing over metal as he flicked his wrist outwards, and a bolt of white steel reflected in the moonlight. It streaked through the shadows like a shot of lightning, and like lightning it buried itself into a larger body, burrowed deep until it found rich, red oil, and burst it out like a geyser. There was a surprised cry, and a life crumpled to the floor.

Though the first example communicates the events extremely clearly, which style would you rather read a story in? Perhaps the second one was too indirect for your tastes, but at least it doesn’t feel so juvenile as the first. And let’s pause to consider that word for a moment: juvenile.

 

Intelligent Descriptions)

When a story is over-communicated it tends to feel immature to us. It seems as though the author has no faith in their reader’s imagination, or else has no imagination of their own.

We find it immature when things are over-explained, because then there is no cognitive effort necessary on the part of the reader. Usually we like our entertainment to engage us, to suggest thoughts and ideas that extend beyond what is explicitly spelled out. If the way a story is written leaves nothing to the imagination, then we are put into an inactive state of mind.

This is why the line

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

works so well. It describes the eyes, but it suggests far more. It immediately kickstarts the reader’s imagination, for it is hard to picture her rolling eyes without also conjuring other images such as her arms crossed in front of her chest, a slight shake of her head, and of course that sarcastic lilt to her voice. The text isn’t ambiguous, we have explicitly spelled out that she is disbelieving, but the full portrayal of that disbelief is left to interpretation.

To instead write

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically

does not invite much imagination. It is possible for the reader to start thinking up little details that aren’t described, but they are not being pushed towards doing so in the same way as with the first sentence. Worst of all would be something that denied all imagination to the reader. Something like

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically. She further emphasized her feelings with a small shake of the head and her arms folded disapprovingly in front of her.

It simply paints too clear of a picture.

On Thursday I published an interrogation scene, and the suspect was extremely chagrined at the whole affair. I communicated as much with my short description of her: “She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.” From that point on I made only the occasional update on her posture and tone of voice, only to reinforce in the reader’s mind that her stance was uncooperative. Between those moments I literally let her words do the talking, absent any descriptions whatsoever. What I did do, though, was to make each of her statements extremely short and brusque. That abrasive staccato should be enough to push the reader into imagining the scene on their own.

In my next post I will return to the story, and it is going to feature two scenes that are quite emotionally charged. My intention will be to provide the readers just what they need to infer the atmosphere of the room, but not so much that they cannot apply their own interpretations to it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Absolutely Sensational!

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Sensationalism vs Realism)

There is a dichotomy between works of fiction, where they can be considered either as works of fantasy, or as works of realism. Stories featuring magic and laser guns are obviously fantasy, and dramas in true-to-life settings are realistic.

Although that doesn’t quite cover all of the options. Because even if a story is in a “realistic” setting, it still might not feel very realistic. Many stories take a familiar backdrop, but then paint a story on it that no one actually believes would occur in the real world. Satires exaggerate elements of reality to an improbable degree, westerns are populated by cartoonish caricatures, spy thrillers have heroes saving the world from end-of-the-world crises every other Thursday!

It is not only the characters and the situations that reach beyond believability, though, it is also the fact that the story elements always happen to fit the classical narrative arcs so perfectly. Real life does not usually recreate the classic three-act structure, with a lowly nobody thrust into the role of a hero, and a moral message upon which all that is good and true prevails.

Not that there is anything wrong with sensationalism. The vast majority of popular media is at least somewhat sensational, and even my own stories on this blog are most often steeped in it! But sometimes when a narrative tool is so universally applied, it is worth stepping back and asking oneself why. Otherwise one runs the risk of wielding that which they do not understand, and harming their work through ignorance.

 

Polished Escapism)

Every story, even the most realistic of the real, have to trim the fat of life at some point. Life is a fascinating thing to live, but a staggeringly boring thing to watch. Periods of sleep, trips to the bathroom, long commutes, conversations that say absolutely nothing…we usually go to stories to escape these exact doldrums! A story might hint at these grounding experiences, but by and large they are always going to distill the few significant moments and dispense with the mundane.

Since one has to polish life to only “the good parts” anyway, the question becomes how far do you decide to take that? Do you want to only cut out the fluff, but otherwise remain grounded? Or do you want to lean in to the artificiality and idealize your story as much as possible?

Currently I am writing a mystery story, which falls under a genre that almost never takes place in a fantasy setting, but which almost always is very sensational. The general idea is that so long as we’re cutting out the boring bits of detective work, like cross-referencing volumes of information and writing reports, then why not add a little spice to it as well? Sure, the killers could two average Joes…or they could be a one-legged man and his pygmy accomplice that shoots poison darts out of a blowgun. Neither one-legged men nor pygmies are fantasies, they really do exist, but they are relatively rare. And it was for that very reason of uniqueness that Doyle chose to make them the villains of his Sherlock Holmes case The Sign of the Four. It is more fantastic conclusion, even if not a more probable one.

Consider also the example of the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. In it we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters, who are thrown together seemingly at random. Charles Darnay, Doctor Manette, and Madame Defarge all begin the tale as complete strangers to one another. As the story progresses though, revelation follows revelation, and an intricate cobweb of surprising connections is made. It just so happens that Charles Darnay is the nephew of the cruel Marquis Evrémonde, whose crimes against humanity directly contributed to the current state of revolution in France. It also just so happens that Doctor Manette, who is Darnay’s father-in-law, was unjustly imprisoned by that very Marquis Evrémonde after he became a witness to one of those crimes. It also just so happens that Madame Defarge is the lone survivor of that crime which was witnessed by Manette, and she will use the Doctor’s testimony against his will to condemn Darnay!

Obviously the story could have been written without every character being so tightly coupled, and it arguably would have been more realistic that way. But then again, if you can make your story into an intricate work of art, then why not do it?

 

Why Not)

Because not every story should be sensational, and that for the very sake of sensationalism. For if every story was so slick and polished, then none of them would be. A Tale of Two Cities is an excellent and emotional drama and Sherlock Holmes is an excellent and exciting detective series, but each of them is benefited by a world that does not over-indulge in their patterns.

Every styling of story has its own strengths and weaknesses. Sherlock Holmes is able to command excitement and action, but it lacks in emotional impact. A Tale of Two Cities has emotional impact in spades, but it is deficient in relatability. A far more grounded story, such as the Emilio Estevez film The Way, gets right to the heart of relatable humanity, but lacks the exciting punch of Sherlock Holmes.

But that is alright, because each of these stories is strong in the area that they were meant to be strong. The areas where they lack are only the areas where they do not need any presence. Furthermore, they are made all the better at doing what they are trying to do by how they stand out in contrast from one another. It is important for authors to carefully choose the correct balance of realism/fantasy and grounded/sensational to fit the intended purpose of their tale. Also it is important for authors to be broad and diverse, so that the entire body of creative works do not lose their impact through over-saturation. Diversity in story-telling preserves depth of meaning in them all.

 

In my current story I am writing a mystery that is intentionally divided between being grounded and sensational. On the one hand the case procedures are very down to earth. There is considerable time spent talking about the less exciting parts of detective work, such as being detectives being bored. To be sure, there will not be any one-legged men or pygmies showing up at the end!

But on the other hand, the story’s dialogue also has an element of slick refinement to it. Consider in the last section how Daley effortlessly puts down his partner with exactly the skewering finesse we all wish we could manage in the heat of the moment.

The reason for this duality of styles in my story is because of the different situations that Daley and Price are in. Price is still chained to the doldrums of working on the force, Daley is free of the burdens of “real life,” and chasing his curiosities without restraint. To Price the job is still “by the books” while Daley is finally able to taste the “thrill of the chase.” Consider the paragraph where I describe their trip to Mexico. Daley rides first class and breezes through customs, Price sits in coach and has a long talk with an official. Daley is living the polished, idealized life, and Price is stuck in the rut. The different dynamic for these two felt like a perfect story to marry grounded realism with fanciful sensationalism, and then watch the friction build between those two halves. Come back on Thursday as we see whether Price and Daley are able to resolve this fundamental difference or not.

Let Me Interrupt You There

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Talking It Out)

Being interrupted is one of the most hated parts of communication. Every idea that we speak of comes with it a desire to be completed. To be stopped short of doing so is like feeling a sneeze that never comes to fruition. Understandably, interrupting another is therefore considered bad manners, and yet sometimes we feel the need to do it even so.

Conversations are not lectures, and the purpose of them is not to have one person express their opinions only. Each side needs to feel understood, and will therefore pull the conversation into a different direction as needed for them to be able to attain full expression.

A poor conversation will therefore become a constant war of jerking the focus back and forth. Each individual sees the other person’s expression and their own as being mutually exclusive, thus only one perspective can be conveyed, and so it must be their own. These sorts of conversations are called arguments, and they represent the worst possible form of communication. The inevitable result is that neither side receives full expression and both leave dissatisfied. This might occur by each escalating until they are shouting over one another, or else one turning submissive and just tuning out the ranting of the other.

That type of conversation is combative, whereas the ideal conversation would be collaborative. In collaborative discourses each side is actively trying to help one another to express themselves. They are each seeking to understand the other, as well as together uncover a shared middle ground. Each side leaves not only feeling fulfilled, but also larger in insight. Where argument shrinks you further into your own perspective, healthy discussion broadens it.

Interestingly, though, interruptions still occur in healthy conversations, they just take a different form. Instead of being competitive such as “oh never mind that, listen to this…” they become clarifying statements such as “hang on, I didn’t quite understand you there, did you mean…”

Positive conversations can also use gentle interruptions to cue where you think greener fields lie. They are a succinct way of asking “can we talk about this other matter now?”

 

Isn’t This a Story Blog?)

Thanks for that friendly interruption, guess I got a little off track. Because yes, all this does relate to story-telling, and I was hoping this conversation would steer towards that at some point!

In the end, a story is made up of many different parts, all of which need their say in the overall conversation. Plot needs to be thickened, characters need to be arced, tension needs to be built. A sloppy writer will slap these things back-to-back with no thought for how they gel together as a whole. It will make for a story that feels like it is combating with itself, each scene being a rude interruption to the one that came before.

But a skilled writer will let each scene seamlessly transition from one to the next in a way that collaborates in a cohesive narrative. Just as how two courteous conversationalists will take the last statement of the other as the launching point for their own piece, the next scene in the story will wait for a lull in the action of the current, segue on a shared theme into the new premise, and then proceed to express itself more fully. Even if the new scene is thematically contradictory to the prior, it will still feel like the two belong together and form a shared message.

Consider how this is accomplished in the example of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Two of this book’s voices are quite opposite to each other: one being that of rousing, epic action, and the other being of calm respites with fanciful fantasy characters. Are these two halves of the story breaking the overall narrative? No, they actually support one it together.

This is because one of the story’s overall themes is that good things are worth fighting for. The heroes of the story are convinced that there is a beautiful world which is deserving of their sacrifice to be preserved. In order for us to be convinced of this point as well, we need to spend some time in those beautiful places. And so an extended deliberation among Ents provides essential depth to the world and making the stakes of later conflict feel like they truly matter. We are intrigued by the odd mannerisms of the passive creatures during their entmoot, and then invigorated to see their race rescued through the rousing battle at Isengard. Each of the two sections combine to form a satisfying arc for the species.

 

Characters Arguing)

There is an example of interruptions in story-telling with my last entry of Washed Down the River. Here I had one character pick another up in his car, and then the two of them discussed the details of the case they were working while driving to their next lead. As they went, the discussion of the case was suddenly interrupted when Daley suggested doing something rash in regards to it. This derailed everything, and soon the two men were arguing about Daley’s aloofness to his friends, family, and life. Each of the two interrupted the other, and each tried to force their own perspective on the other, much like how the narrative forced this scene of conflict out-of-the-blue upon the reader.

Of course neither character was left satisfied by the conversation. Each became more entrenched in their own perspective. Then, right on cue, the two men arrived at their destination and the argument was put on pause as the case interrupted into the fore.

The sudden transition from case to argument and back to the case might seem disjointed, but it was so intentionally. The staccato of quickly moving pieces was meant to reflect the tension playing out in those scenes. At the same time, necessary housekeeping tasks were accomplished, such as reminding the reader of other threads that are a part of the story, and also of providing a distraction while loading in the next scene.

In the end I think I wrote scenes that feel chaotic and disjointed when taken individually, but which smooth out the overall narrative when viewed as a whole. One might say that I am trying to take many jagged parts and fit them into a unified mosaic.

With my next post we’ll be continuing that process, and along the way I will try to utilize each transition in as effective of a manner. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Divided Attention

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I am currently writing a mystery story, and this type of tale presents a most unusual dilemma. In most mysteries the author must hold the attention of the reader, but at the same time the author must distract them as well. In fact the author must primarily be calling the audience’s attention to the distraction, getting them to focus on the wrong thing on purpose.

Though not entirely. For if you have all of their attention pointed towards the false conclusions, then they won’t be able to recognize the right one when it does come along. So you need their full attention to your story as a whole, but part of it must be divided towards the truth, and part to the lies.

Thus, in the same moment the author must be the teacher that is lecturing, and the goofball that is shooting spitballs, and they must be able to gauge just how interested the reader will be in each of these conflicting voices at each beat of the story.

There are a few different ways that mystery writers can approach this balancing act. Here are the most common.

 

Revelation at the End)

The easiest way to ensure that your reader has the right amount of information and misinformation is to give it to them explicitly. If you want them to have caught on to something, you show it to them. If you want them to not have caught on to something, you do not show it to them.

In the Columbo episode Suitable for Framing, the detective knows that the murderer has stolen a priceless painting. Columbo is convinced of who the guilty party is, an art critic named Dale Kingston but he needs a way to prove it. At one point he approaches Kingston, who is walking with a large brown bag which contains the stolen paintings. Columbo grabs at it, asking if he can see what is inside, to which Kingston refuses. Kingston then scurries away to plant the paintings on an innocent woman, intending to frame her for the murder instead.

Up to this point the viewer feels that they are right-in-step with the detective Columbo, but then comes the climatic finish which reveals he was just a little bit ahead. The paintings are revealed in the custody of the framed woman, and Columbo insists that they dust it for fingerprints.

Kingston laughs at that. He is already known to have been in contact with that painting under innocent circumstances. If his fingerprints show up on the piece it won’t mean a thing. Columbo says he isn’t looking for Kingston ‘s fingerprints, he is looking for his own. When he grabbed at the brown bag that Kingston was carrying earlier, he intentionally poked his fingers inside and pressed them against whatever was in there. Columbo makes the case.

Now a mystery whose solution depends on secret information is usually frustrating because it doesn’t feel like the story is playing fair with the viewer. The episodes of Columbo gets around this issue, though, by flipping the script.

You see in Columbo you aren’t trying to figure out who the murderer is. You know right from the beginning who the guilty party is, and even seen how they have covered up their tracks. Rather than having our perspective behind the detective’s shoulder it is behind the killer’s. And so it makes sense that we only know what the killer knows, and not necessarily what Columbo does.

 

The Quicker Mind)

But many mysteries do take the perspective of the detective, and therefore should not conceal the sleuth’s information from the audience. So what can a mystery such as this do to make the final revelation still a surprise? They can give the audience all of the information necessary to solve the case, but all the pieces are so convoluted that they require some time to straighten it out. Before the audience has done so, the detective has beaten them to it.

This is how things play out in the recent film Knives Out. This movie is recent enough that I won’t go into details that spoil the outcome, but just know that the film will give you everything necessary to solve the case yourself, but it will be unlikely that you will piece it all together before Benoit Blanc does.

I guess, to be fair, one of the clues is only explicitly disclosed during the final revelation, but based on the context the viewer already knows what it must be, and it only has to be spelled out as a formality.

Mystery stories like these play fair in that they don’t withhold information from the audience, and they also present a sort of challenge to the audience: can you solve it before the detective does? And as it turns out, some people really do work out these solutions faster than the story does, but if anything this only adds to the enjoyment. It is pleasant to be hoodwinked, but it is even more pleasant to avoid being so.

 

Step for Step)

The final approach for these mysteries is to have the audience discover the truth side-by-side with the detective. There is no secret revelation at the end, no mental gymnastics to tie all of the threads together, the ending comes plainly and predictably. Mysteries like these embrace the pleasure of the journey, rather than of the climax only.

A classic example of this is the Sherlock Holmes case The Hound of Baskervilles. Here the villain is identified several chapters before the end, but without enough evidence to convict him. And so the climax of the story has us observing how Holmes and Watson lay a trap to get that man to implicate himself, which necessarily requires putting their client at mortal risk!

Even though there is no surprise twist at the end, it is still a satisfying game of cat and mouse, and it has since become the most recognizable case of the most recognizable detective. Sometimes an audience just wants to go on an adventure with a detective, and don’t need to be tricked into enjoying it.

 

With my own story I have been trying to weave all three types of mystery-story-telling into one. At the end of the last section Daley interrogated a man, based entirely on a conjecture that he had made up in his own mind, and which conjecture had not been disclosed to the audience. Thus there was something secret that gave him an upper hand in the case.

But on the other hand, his secret was simply a conjecture, which it is possible some of my readers had already made up in their own minds as well. Thus we see this situation is blended with the second pattern of mysteries, the one where it is a race between audience and detective to reach the same conclusion.

This pivotal moment of interrogation represented a shift in my story, because up to that point I had remained firmly in the third pattern: that of keeping audience and detective perfectly in sync. In fact I took some time to explicitly spell out every clue that stood out to Daley, what he was thinking about them, and what elements yet remained unknowable. Thus I ensured that everyone was on the same page.

On Thursday we will continue with the investigation, and in this segment I will once again pause and ensure that reader and detective are walking side-by-side. Then we will continue on to the next wrinkles of the case on equal footing.

 

 

Stories Are Like Onions

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A Story of a Story)

There is an account in the Old Testament of the prophet Nathan coming to King David and relating a story to him. Nathan told of two men: one was wealthy, while the other had nothing but a single sheep. The poor man loved that sheep, though, and cared for it like a daughter. He let the creature eat from his own plate and drink from his own cup.

The rich man had a great deal of livestock, but one day, when traveler came to visit with him, the wealthy magnate saw an opportunity to take the poor man’s sheep and serve that for dinner instead. For whatever reason, he would gladly take all that the other had, if it meant not having to give up any of his own.

When King David heard this story he became incensed, and declared that the rich man would pay for his crime, would even be put to death! Then Nathan revealed to the King that David was the man. Nathan revealed that the Lord knew David’s secret: he had arranged for the death of Uriah, all so that he could take the man’s wife for his very own.

Even without the revelation, this story is compelling for how effectively it fires one’s sense of indignation. The account of a man’s love for his sheep delights us at first, but all of that energy is funneled into rage when another sunders that joy.

But then the story goes from compelling to unforgettable when it is shown to be just one layer in a deeper tale. David has been tricked into betraying his own conscience, and has pronounced the same wrath that will be poured out on him. As a reader there is a deep catharsis to this, a sense of balance, a rightness in the wicked impaling themselves on their own swords.

 

Fifth Business)

This sort of multi-layered story reminds me of another, that of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. In a casual moment the story recounts the several key archetypes in a story: a hero, a villain, a confidante, a heroine, and “fifth business.” Then the memory of that offhanded conversation returns multiple times when the reader realizes that the book’s characters are being cast into those exact same roles.

But this isn’t all. The book also discuss Jungian archetypes, and again we realize that the characters of the story fit them perfectly as well, even literally in some cases.

At another point it discusses the value of myth and allegory, and how these fantastical tales are projections of our very real-life dramas. Then, once again, the memory of that conversation returns when we see how the characters’ ordinary lives are replaying the legends of Oedipus, of David and Goliath, and of Gyges and King Candaules.

And so the story is a layer upon a layer upon a layer, and all of it builds to the story’s core theme: that we ignore myth and archetype at our peril. It claims that in the quiet and seemingly mundane things of life there are the seeds of legend, that the stories of gods and giants are not meant merely to entertain, but to serve as signposts to the reality of what it means to be human. If we do not realize this, then we both fail to learn from hte lessons of the past, and we might fail to recognize the truly significant things which are happening to us.

Which, of course, is exactly what happens in the story. For this is yet another conversation that is played out by the characters. Boy Staunton does not remember a boyhood act of cruelty that destroys another. It was too little a thing for him to hold on to, especially when “more important” things like money and politics came into the picture. For his ignorance of the myth and legend lurking in his own life he is eventually killed, becoming a tragic legend to those who knew him, and another layer on top of an already many-layered story.

 

Meta-Commentary)

Especially fascinating is when the upper layers of a story are able to break out of their fictional confines and into the real world. Consider for example the story of The Shootist. This tale exists both as a book and as a film, but it is the film that is truly exceptional for how its themes bleed into the real life of its leading actor: John Wayne.

The story of The Shootist is that of an old gunslinger, J. B. Books, who finds himself at odds with the world changing around him. The days of the Old West are all in the past, technology and civilization have spread everywhere, and the world simply does not have a need for him anymore. Compare this to the life of John Wayne, a man who made much of his career in Western films. He was iconic as the confident, square jawed, no-nonsense cowboy who could never be beaten in a fair fight. But then…Westerns were dying. The times were changing, and like the cowboys he had represented, he was old and being left behind.

It isn’t just that J. B. Books has outlived his time, though, it’s that he’s almost outlived himself. He has a cancer, and he knows he’ll soon be lost, along with all the memories of his glory years. As such, he decides that he wants one final hurrah. He calls out all of the criminals left in town and guns them down in a final blaze of glory. Once again, compare this to John Wayne as well. That man also had cancer, and this would be the last film he would ever make. One last hurrah, and then he passed away three years later.

There are small elements of the film that further blur the lines between J. B. Books and John Wayne. Books takes comfort in the presence of an old friend, played by James Stewart. Stewart was a former co-star in previous John Wayne films, and agreed to this last project together as a favor to him. The horse that Books rides is played by the exact same horse that John Wayne had ridden in six other films. They even changed the name of the horse in the film to be the same as in real life. And what does the J of J. B. Books stand for? John.

All of this combines to make a movie that pulls on the heartstrings for two completely separate reasons. Or is it for two reasons that are wound together inseparably?

 

In my mystery story I have introduced a former detective who is hiding behind a bevy of unanswered questions. Even as he tries to unravel the knot of an unusual suicide, his partner is going to be trying to unravel the knot of his friend. On Thursday we will tease at those tangles a bit more, though of course we will have to wait until the end to see the entire mystery laid bare.

The Magic Trick

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The Paradox)

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.

 

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!

Down the Rabbit Hole

ball shaped dark grass hole
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Wandering Thoughts)

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.

 

Further Measures)

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.

The Quiet After the Storm

island during golden hour and upcoming storm
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Releasing Tension)

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.

Putting a Story Through Its Paces

athletes running on track and field oval in grayscale photography
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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.

Making a List, Checking it Numerous Times

notebook
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Some Theoretical Lists)

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.

  1. Open on an idyllic village
  2. Villain comes and lays waste to it
  3. One character escapes, but collapses out in the desert
  4. He awakens in a strange home, having been rescued by an old sage
  5. After he has recovered, that sage takes him for refuge to a foreign village
  6. 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.

  1. Our main character begins without any concern for the world at large
  2. 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
  3. 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.

  1. The hero comes to the conversation, trying to justify why he is running away, and why the old man should as well.
  2. The old man is nonplussed, says that if the boy has already made his determination then he ought to get a move on.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Escalation)

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.

Conflict)

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!