Writing stories is one of the best ways to get better at writing stories. Direct practice leads to better performance over time. However, there is another crucial practice that is necessary to more fully improve, and that is to take regular inventory of your work.
If all you do is write, then you will become more refined in the path that you are following, but you will not be able to correct any misalignments in that path. Your later work might be better than your first, but it will also be plowed deeper into your own personal rut.
Every one of us is going to have a personal rut in our work. We will have some tendency that is just wrong, an inherent weakness in our form. It is like running with an incorrect posture, and the more one practices running in that flawed way, the more entrenched in it they will become, the harder it will be to break the posture later on.
Sometimes the path forward requires taking a step back, then, and that is exactly what I intend to do now. I am going to take a step back from my work on Raise the Black Sun, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and consider how I would expand on it, if I were to turn it into a full-sized novel.
The Shape of It)
The main stand-out is the overall flow of my story, specifically the fact that its shape is so lopsided. The outline of the story can be summed up as follows: our main character is hired for a doomed venture, he embarks on a journey which is beset by numerous dangers, then arrives at a strange land and spends some time becoming familiar with the locals, he becomes enchanted with a young woman there, and finally witnesses the tragic destruction of his entire world.
Just from that description, it seems that this story wants to be an epic, a story of a long trek that takes the hero far from his home, both literally and in terms of character development. Readers should reach the end, and then look back at the beginning and be amazed at just how far they’ve come.
Given this, the correct balance would be that the bulk of the story (at least half) to take place in the journey that is beset by numerous dangers. Many changes of setting, many rises and falls in tension, and many hurdles to be overcome. Reaching the end should feel exhausting, allowing for a tapering tail until the climatic finish.
This is not the balance that I struck in my story, though. My story, when finished, will be eleven posts, each about two thousand words long, and for those eleven posts the layout is as follows.
Introduction: 1 post
Journey: 2.5 posts
Exploring the secrets of the Coventry: 3.5 posts
Conversation with Mira: 2 posts
Conclusion: 2 posts
As you can see, the journey portion, which should be the bulk of the story, is less than a quarter of the entire work! Now I’m not too surprised about this. When I was writing those portions I wasn’t expecting the scenes at the scenery to take more than another post or two. But I wanted to let things breathe as much as they wanted, and so the imbalance occurred.
This is a natural effect of writing a story without a clear structure in place. I don’t regret it, I enjoyed discovering the tale firsthand alongside my main character, but if I were ever to turn this into a full-sized novel I would now go back and expand the journey portion through more twists and turns until the balance was correct.
Let’s get a little more specific about this, though.
If I did decide to do a second draft of this story, then before anything else I would get my outline sorted out. I would write a brief summary of the story as it exists now, and then balance it out on that blueprint level, enhancing and expanding the journey section of this story. And I do believe the story is structured in a way that it could support a great deal of development there. We’ve already seen a few strange and fantastic things, and there could surely be more.
There is one thing that gets in the way of that, though, which is the fact that our Treksmen spend the majority of their journey unconscious. I like the idea of them surrendering to the Job’s Mind and becoming automatons, and I would still want to keep that to some degree, but they would just have to lose their foreman and awaken back to full consciousness aware far sooner in their journey. Like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor, I would want the audience to be keenly aware of where the party was in their world, and where they had yet to go.
Then comes the matter of how I would actually disrupt their journey. For this I would take note of the classic epic Odysseus, which laid a template for distraction and diversion that is still widely used today. As in that story, my journeyers would be pulled off on winding detours for every step forward they tried to take. Each of these diversions would be a self-contained adventure, leaving the main path, winding about, and then returning to it for the greater narrative to proceed. Sometimes my Treksmen would be returned closer to their destination than where they left it, and sometimes farther away.
And all this would play into the suspense of dwindling numbers among the Treksmen. Every side route would claim another soul or two. We would know more of these wanderer’s names, and as we said farewell to one after another, we would start to wonder if the company would make it to the end at all.
And that would establish the main theme of the journey: that the entire world was opposed to this small band, yet fate required them to prevail. The earth itself would be aware that these men were pushing to Armageddon, and would be a constant friction to stop them, but the undeniable pull of destiny would see Graye through to the end.
And finally I would want their journey to accomplish more than just provide scrying sticks to confirm what the Coventry members already know. As the story stands now, the end of the world would have still come, even if they had never arrived. I would want to change things so that the final sacrifice required their presence, and thus they would truly be the bearers of all destruction.
So that’s how I would rewrite this story if I were to rewrite it, but do I intend to ever do so? Honestly, I would love to, but I can’t find the time for it right now. I’m already working on another novel on the side, with a few more ideas already queued up behind that.
And I don’t want to stop experimenting with new short stories here on my blog to instead do an even longer-form production. But maybe I should? I don’t know. I like sowing new seeds to see what I like, but then I also want to take the good ones to fully maturity. I’m still trying to find the right balance between my creative desires and my time constraints, but perhaps for right now it is enough to know what I would do if I could. What do you think?
West Side Story was never going to end happily. We listen to Tony and Maria plotting to get away from all the rottenness in their world, and we long to see them do exactly that…but we can sense that they never are going to attain their happily ever after.
Why? Well, even if we didn’t know that their story was based on Romeo and Juliet, we would still feel that a happy ending wouldn’t fit after all the scenes of anger, misunderstanding, and escalating violence that make up the rest of the film. Even though Tony and Maria cannot appreciate the wheels of destiny turning against them, we can. We know that violence can only beget violence, choices must result in consequences, and Tony has a reckoning to face for killing Bernardo…just as Bernardo had a reckoning to face for killing Riff…just as Riff had a reckoning to face for oppressing the immigrant Puerto Ricans…just as…well, you get the picture.
There is a principle of logic called inductive reasoning. It states that if we perceive the transformation from one state to the next, then we can extrapolate what the next state after that will be, even before we see it, by simply applying the same transformation again. In West Side Story we are able to recognize the pattern of each succeeding scene, and can then extend that pattern out in our mind.
What is interesting is that even though the ending of West Side Story is therefore predictable, it still remains a satisfying tale. Having the expectation to feel sad at the end does not prevent our ability to be so when the time comes.
Of course, the ability to predict the end of a story often comes into play even before the opening titles show. There are recognizable patterns over whole bodies of stories, which we call genres, and we still enjoy them. Even though in most romances, westerns, and superhero tales you can predict the ending before you have even seen the beginning, we still consume them in droves.
But, of course, where there is culture, soon there will be counter-culture. This is nothing new. Art has established patterns and then defied those patterns over and over through the centuries, and will always continue to do so.
So come the late-eighties/early-nineties, romantic films often followed a pattern of the guy and girl initially disliking each other, being forced to spend a prolonged amount of time together even so, until finally their walls were broken down and they found they had a great deal in common. This was Beauty and the Beast, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally.
Then this pattern of initial dislike and eventual love was swapped. Now the couple begins with a meet-cute, the relationship progresses promisingly, but then something comes along to break everything up. Things look pretty dire for a moment, but this is still a romance and needs to have a happy ending, so there is a triumphant moment of the couple coming back together at the end. We see this pattern taking firm hold in the late-nineties/early-2000s with titles like Notting Hill, The Notebook, and The Parent Trap.
But, of course, this pattern could not last forever either. Soon films were dropping the happy ending part entirely, and letting things end in that more dour break-up note. The couple may seem so right for each other at the beginning, but little quirks expand into major chasms, and eventually they can’t stand the person they used to love. They might come back together enough to have a mutual respect for one another, but that is all. And so in the mid-2000s-to-mid-2010s we were given 500 Days of Summer and La La Land.
Of course, patterns cycle. And so while 500 Days of Summer’s break-up finish might have felt revolutionary when it first came out, it was actually repeating another story told decades prior in Annie Hall. And the hate-each-other-then-love-each-other of You’ve Got Mail can be traced back entire centuries to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Tipping Your Hand)
But while the overarching trend of genres is one of subversion and defying the audience’s expectation, each of these films on an individual level still follows the rule of establishing a pattern and adhering to it in a predictable way. Especially upon a second viewing one is able to appreciate how the later plot points were being seeded early on.
For example, La La Land opens with our two would-be-lovers aggravating one another on the road. Significantly, each of them is trying to reach a destination related to their dream-careers, which they are chasing at the expense of courtesy for one another. Now, just from that opening, is it any wonder that their eventual relationship does not last, overridden instead by their pull to their careers? Later, when they have a moment where their dreams are in alignment, they are able to be together, but they were always going to drive apart again in the end.
You’ve Got Mail, on the other hand, opens with our two-would-be-lovers exchanging sincere and heartfelt messages, connecting remotely, while growing increasingly more disillusioned with their current partners. Sure, when they meet in person things do not get off to a good start, but already the film has established a tone of these two converging, bit-by-bit overcoming each element of opposition until nothing remains in their way. The ending, once again, is obvious.
And this is key. Yes, it is fine to try and disrupt the genre as a whole, and if you go against the grain you may surprise your reader in a delightful way. But… even if this is your intention, still your story must be true to itself. It should never disrupt itself. Defy genre conventions by all means, but do not make promises and establish expectations at your story’s outset, betray those later, and expect the audience to enjoy that experience. You will not come across as bold and unconventional, only as inexperienced. If a story begins as one thing and ends as another, then it simply appears that the writer was not skilled enough to establish a believable sequence of cause-and-effect to tie their intended beginning to their intended ending.
In the end, we look down on a two-faced story just as much as we look down on a two-faced person. We want our stories to know themselves and be themselves. We want them to have an identity, and to be consistent to it. And while we may want them to surprise us, we want them to do so in a way that feels fitting and authentic with what has already transpired.
In my own story I have sown seeds of somberness and doomed fate, and I have then tried to remain consistent to those throughout the whole. I am now fast approaching the end, and it is especially important to me that everything tie off in a way that satisfies every raised expectation. With this Thursday’s post, try and consider what ways I am answering the themes raised at the beginning of the story.
I have always found it interesting which character names I am able to remember, and which ones I am not. For example, I struggle to remember the name of the young boy in the film Up. He is one of the two central characters, I can picture him and hear his voice, yet I draw a blank on his name until Google informs me that it is Russell. On the other hand, I can tell you that the old man and his wife are Carl and Ellie. No question about it, I just know it.
Carl is the other main character, of course, but Ellie is hardly featured in the film at all. And yet I remember her, simply because her character hooked into me through one of the film’s deeply emotional scenes. The scene in question takes place late in the film, when Carl looks through an old photo album Ellie had been filling out before her death. He finds a surprise towards the end of the book, she had left a hidden message for him, urging him to go and find a new adventure. It was, I thought, the most charged moment of the entire film. And so I remember her.
We often speak of a hook relating to the beginning of the story as a whole, but it also applies to a character as well. Writing a bland character with a colorful name isn’t going to be enough, the character also needs to have something about them which makes a strong impression in your mind.
Darth Vader’s memorability is not due to having a unique name and being the “main villain,” but because of his wonderfully haunting portrayal. Black, glossy, half-machine-half-skeleton, with a strained, laborious breath and deep, rich voice. That appearance is so striking and vivid that one can’t help but internalize his image forever. From the very first moment he appears on screen he is like no one else in that move, and remains so throughout the entirety of the saga.
Sherlock Holmes could have just been “that detective with a weird name,” if not for how distinctive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made his introduction. In that scene Holmes effortlessly dissects even the minutest details of his new acquaintance, John Watson. Yes, that treat was then replicated so frequently that it lost its punch, but the first time you experience it, the effect is so novel and delightful that it will stick with you for a lifetime.
Oedipus has obviously come to be the punchline of an uncomfortable joke, the defining element of an awkward complex. But therein lies the evidence of how strong a hook he was written with. The uncomfortable nature of his relationship to mother and father has immortalized him, making his name long outlive his own story. For the masses have generally forgotten the narrative perfection of his tale’s irony, but the idea of Oedipus continues forever.
The Story of the Character)
Each of these characters becomes an icon of their story because they are, themselves, an entire story on their own. Even without telling the greater narrative of the one ring, I could regale you with the isolated account of Frodo leaving his beloved Shire to enter the wider world. I do not have to explain the international drama between England and France in A Tale of Two Cities to explain the aching beauty of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice. I don’t have to plot out all the twists and turns of Treasure Island to get you to appreciate the excitement of a young boy, Jim Hawkins, finding himself in possession of a Treasure Map.
Frankly these characters are sometimes even bigger than the story that contains them. Most people don’t know how the legend of Robin Hood ends, and those that do find it rather lackluster. But the idea of a brilliant archer traipsing around in a disguise, directly beneath his enemy’s nose, seeking to “rob from the rich to give to the poor” is so strong an image that his ending doesn’t even matter.
Thus these characters are immortal because their moments are immortal. Indeed, a character written well will not only survive longer than the knowledge of their tale, but even the lifespan of entire nations. Many governments have risen and fallen since the introduction of Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Juliet, Snow White, Aladdin, and Hercules, yet they continue to stand through every changing tide.
There is one other key element that defines all of these timeless characters. Each one of them is the definition for some idea or archetype. Robin Hood reinvented what it means to be an ordinary man standing against oppression for what is right. Any character that wishes to be as timeless as he, must reinvent that wheel in a way that somehow rings more true to us than his story does.
Tom Sawyer personifies rowdy youth, Captain Ahab relentless vengeance, and Romeo youthful tragedy. We remember Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because of how well they speak to our sense of dual nature. William Tell sticks in the mind for the ingeniously cruel situation of only being able to save your son by shooting an apple off of his head.
Each of these characters takes an idea, and wraps it in a new invention: a story. Then, any time we think of that idea, we think of the character, we think of the story, and they become a shorthand for expressing the condition of human life.
With my latest story I have been trying to write an ode to impending doom, to inescapable fate, to incontrovertible destruction. My aim is to write something that captures the essence to such a degree that it redefines the term. I want my characters to live on as the personifications of these ideas. Difficult and arrogant? Absolutely. A story character only ever manages to accomplish this once in a very, very, very long while. But still it is the goal I always try to reach for. Otherwise, my stories and my characters are guaranteed to soon be forgotten.
It was an interesting thing getting to know my wife. Of course I didn’t know that she was going to be my wife when I first met her. At first her role in my life was simply that of “intriguing woman.”
But as I said, it was interesting getting to know her, and it was because of how quickly she became integrated into my story. It was only a short time later, just a matter of months, that I came to realize she was now one of the most important individuals in my life. I remember at the time finding that a very strange thing. I realized that some of the conversations I was having with her were already more open and honest than I had ever had with another person. I had spent my whole life around other people, and I had always thought that I was very close to them. But now she came, and in a matter of months, not decades, knew me better than they did.
Many of our bonds in life are formed slowly, over the long march of time. The individual strands are woven together, one or two each day, until a powerful cord is formed. But this is not true for all of our relationships. Some of them come out of the blue and get straight to our roots, and do so almost immediately.
I had a similar experience when I started meeting with a therapist and a recovery group. The transition from complete strangers to intimate friends was, if possible, even more jarring here. Literally the same day that I met these people, I was disclosing things that I hadn’t been able to say to anyone else. In some cases, things I wasn’t even yet ready to say to my wife.
Over the next weeks, as each individual shared more and more of their story, I found myself being inserted into their experience. They were inviting me right into the formative years of their childhood, and I was inviting them into mine.
We became fast friends, in fact I consider them to be my best friends. And not because we’re the best of buddies who share so many common interests. In fact, to be frank, most of these people were not the friends that I would have chosen for me under normal circumstances. We all had very different hobbies, demographics, ages, and life philosophies. Under normal circumstances I would have considered them a nice acquaintance, but nothing more.
But these weren’t normal circumstances. These people were part of my story now. I had no choice but to love them.
Closure and Final Acts)
I believe one reason why we are able to grow close to people who have only just arrived in, is because our future is unknown. Since we do not know the exact path of tomorrow, it is entirely possible that this new face is a hinge that we are about to turn on. If something about the situation tells us that this person is significant, we pay attention.
Most of us have years left to live, after all, and that is plenty of time for a new face to start mattering to us very much. At any point of life we might be about to discover a new arc in our story.
But this doesn’t work so well in fictional stories. When new characters introduce themselves in the third act, we’re usually keenly aware that it is the third act, and therefore know that they only are here to help resolve the previous arcs, not to begin any new ones.
And yet…there is a way to introduce a new character at the very end of a story, and still have them be significant to it. The secret is not to have them introduce a new arc that ends before it begins, it is to have them tie directly into an already-existing arc, one that has been running ever since the beginning of the tale.
Roots in the Past)
An example of this would be the introduction of Private Ryan in the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. The film goes on for a very long while before the character is revealed, with many twists and turns to get there. Indeed, by the time we meet him all of the characters have already concluded their arcs, or are ready to. The story doesn’t have time to raise any more questions, only to start answering them.
Thus it is that Private Ryan’s arrival ushers in the final act. Given how brief of a presence he has in the story, his own arc is very brief. There is only a small conflict that he must resolve, and the process of doing so is quite straightforward.
And yet, in spite of all this, Private Ryan does not feel like a tacked-on character who is only relevant to the finale. He feels absolutely integral to the entire tale that has transpired, even before he appeared on the screen. For even if his face has not been present, his shadow has been.
Because, you see, the entire film has been all about him, even without him there. The premise of the movie is that a squad is sent to find him and bring him home. Each adversity that they face to carry out that task, every loss they suffer, every companion who dies in the effort…all of it brings them back to the same question, over and over: is this sacrifice worth the saving of one man?
And the fact that he is an enigma through the majority of the film actually increases that tension, because they aren’t making the sacrifice for a friend, but for a complete stranger. So then it becomes a story about principles and morals, and whether those words have any meaning in the heart of a war.
Thus by the time Private Ryan shows up on the scene, we have already been discussing him a great deal, thinking about him a great deal, forming all manner of opinions about him. We feel that we already know him extensively, even though we’re just barely meeting him. He is a central character to the story, even if he graces it with his physical presence but for a moment.
In Raise the Black Sun I want to take this notion one step further. I am about to introduce a brand new character, one who I intend to feel interwoven with everything that has come before. Unlike Private Ryan she has not been spoken about by name, but she has been spoken about.
Because, you see, all throughout the story there has been a strong theme of a doomed fate. It has hung over every scene like a thick cloud about to burst. With the next section of my story I am going to introduce a young woman who will come to personify that theme to our main character. She will take everything that has been allegory, and put her face to it. So even though I have not spoken her name at any point previous, my hope is that it will feel like we were already talking about her the whole time, we just didn’t know it. Come back on Thursday to see if I’m able to pull that off.
The best stories permeate with character. As I suggested at the end of my last post, I do not mean “characters,” in the terms of protagonist, antagonist, etc. I actually mean that the story, as a whole, has a personality that is vibrant and consistent.
When one thinks of the works of Shakespeare one thinks of a sort of story. It isn’t just a story set in a Medieval setting, for there are many medieval stories that do not feel Shakespearean. It isn’t just a story that is old, for there are many old stories that do not feel Shakespearean. It isn’t just a play…well, you get the idea.
Yes, there are many similar qualities about each of Shakespeare’s works: the setting, language, and themes, but there is also this fact that they are told with a consistent sort of flavor. Shakespeare is often referred to as “the bard,” and one really does get the sense that each of these stories are being regaled to them by some troubadour in a low-lit tavern. And so consistent is the character of these stories, that we start to feel that we can picture the person recounting them to us.
He is verbose, in no hurry to rush through anything at all. He is poetic, finding lyrical amusement in the simplest of moments, ever ready to give a moment sharpest color. He is observant, finding equal importance in a scene of epic battle, as in a lone and private soliloquy. He is both cynical and romantic, having seen the weariness of the world he knows full that there are dark and terrible things within it, but he has also watched long enough to see that eventually good does triumph and righteousness prevails.
And now, at last, we have an idea of the character in Shakespearean dramas. They are told in a way that is verbose, poetic, observant to every detail, full of darkness, but still believing in the light. Whether or not these qualities accurately convey the flesh-and-blood man called William Shakespeare, they do convey the character of his stories.
Another story might have all the trappings of a Shakespearean drama on paper, and yet feel nothing like that. Similarly a story might be set in outer space, but have this very same Shakespearean style to it.
Of course, not every story has such a strong personality to it. A story can be uneven in how it presents itself, or it might be consistent in a meek and understated way. It might tell you what happened, but not tell you who it itself is.
Of course these qualities are fitting descriptions for people as well. Some people are inconsistent, hopping from one manic state to another. Some people are quiet and reserved, trying to speak as little as possible. Some people love to talk, and put out a great many words, but never give you any insight as to who they, themselves, are.
And, as has been frequently observed, these usually are not the sort of people that we are drawn to. We might say that it isn’t fair that some people are more likeable than others, but fair or otherwise, we still tend to gravitate to those that show a strong and vibrant personality.
And we tend to gravitate to stories that do the same as well.
In fact, there have been times where I am arguing against naysayers of my favorite films or books, and I find myself saying “yes, yes, you’re absolutely right, the plot plays fast and loose sometimes, the characters have a few wooden lines, and that whole sequence in the middle should have been cut out entirely…. but the story is so sincere, it’s so alive, I can’t help but love it in spite of its flaws.”
And on the other hand I have argued against stories that others have loved because “even though it was very well made, very high caliber, and very impressive from a technical perspective…it just seemed too full of itself and self-indulgent for me to like it.”
Now it took me a while to realize what was going on in these defenses and critiques, but finally I figured it out. My friends and I weren’t talking about books or films, we were talking about people. We were getting so passionate about these stories because each one of them was oozing personality, to the point that they felt like a real person. Thus we stood up for the movies that had the same personalities we appreciated in flesh-and-blood people, and we criticized the ones that matched personalities of people we found off-putting.
These aren’t just stories, then, they are friends and enemies! Is it any wonder, then, why we get so defensive when someone scoffs at our favorite movie of the year? It isn’t just a film, they insulted, it’s our bosom buddy!
Choose Your Companions Wisely)
So what does all this mean for you as a writer? Well, first and foremost, choose your story’s voice, and then let it speak out! One of the greatest frustrations in mass media today is stories that are unwilling to come across too strong. They are marketed for mass appeal, and therefore go to great lengths to not offend anybody, which means they don’t dare stand for anything significant one way or another.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t have a personality, they do, it’s just a wishy-washy, tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear, two-faced, spineless, people-pleaser sort of personality. That can help your story from making any enemies, but it will also make your story struggle to find any lasting friends.
When Dashiell Hammet decided to have his stories lean heavily into noir, and gave them the voice of a gruff and weathered detective, he ensured that some people would shake their heads and say “that’s just not my type of thing.” But he also ensured that many others would fall in love with his stories.
So what is the character of my own latest story, Raise the Black Sun? Clearly a character that is grim and somber, the whole story speaks in a very melancholic, very measured way. And some people aren’t going to want to spend their time with such a mopey companion, and that’s alright, I don’t blame them. It simply isn’t the most winning of personalities.
But I’ve accepted that limitation, because I, myself, would rather like to sit with it and hear what it has to say. I will continue to do just that with my next post for it on Thursday. After all, sometimes a friend who knows how to be sad is exactly what you need.
Do you write a story to express yourself, or does a story express itself through your writing? Many the creative soul has spoken of being moved to make things in a particular way, following the inspiration of external sources, inventing something that they did not fully understand when they began the work. Sometimes they still didn’t understand it after it was done. This creates a sense of creations that exist apart from their creator.
Michelangelo famously declared that he did not create anything in his sculptures, he only removed the excess stone until the already-existing figure was exposed for everyone to see. Thus, in a sense, even before Michelangelo did his work, the sculpture was already in there, still totally real, even if momentarily hidden.
Many authors also speak of their stories having “wants” like that of an actual person. You might start the scene where the the hero overcomes his flaws and comes to the rescue, but when you try to put together the words they just feel forced and ill-fitting. You come to realize that redemption doesn’t fit the character as written, it isn’t the arc that he wants to follow. He wants to take you somewhere else.
At Odds With Your Character)
This might present a problem, though, because where your character does want to go might not be very useful for the work as a whole. Perhaps it gives them a truer expression, but as a side-effect leaves your story without any cathartic resolution.
So what do you do? Force them back into the bottle? Make them go through that redemptive arc, even though it feels hollow? Try to add seeds of remorse for them in earlier scenes, knowing full well that they might feel awkwardly tacked on? I don’t know about you, but I believe I’ve read and watched many stories that did exactly this. Characters are developed in interesting ways, with very real personalities and interesting needs. And then, suddenly, all of that gets cast aside as the “story” robs them of their development, so that it can tack on a totally cliché ending.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen stories that indulge in their characters long past my point of caring. If a character is very strong, then it might be well worth following them wherever they might go, but honestly, most story characters are only serviceable to a point. I have dropped off of many television series when they seemed to forget their initial premise and instead became the “main character variety hour.”
A Question of Time)
One of the most common causes I have seen for mangling the desires of a story or the desires of a character is when the work is being shoehorned into a scope that does not fit it. For example, truly interesting characters take time to fully develop. When they are part of a film that is mandated to run for two hours and no more, then all too often character development gets cut short and leaves too many things unsaid.
On the other hand, an ensemble of one-dimensional characters is excellent for developing a tight, focused narrative that delivers on a single idea, and then bows out before it can overstay its welcome. But when this platform is dragged out in a long-running television series, the original focus has to become blurred into many pointless subplots, uninteresting character dives, and drama for pure drama’s sake.
A Sharp Focus)
So how do I approach this matter in my own stories? Well it depends on the format.
For example, I am working on a novel that I want to be a particular length (80,000 to 120,000 words), deliver a single moral at its end, feature only a select few themes on the side, and close out without any loose threads whatsoever.
Given how tight and focused I want this work to be, I didn’t write a single word of my first draft until I had my characters and settings hammered out thoroughly. Early drafts saw a cast of dozens, which I realized meant either I would bloat my story out much further than intended, or else I would have to cut off some threads prematurely. Instead I scrapped that setup and brought it down to a total of four characters.
Some of those characters were too shallow in their original design, and I realized they wouldn’t remain interesting for the duration of the tale. Others were too complex, which meant they might become more interesting than the final, central message, which was intended to be greater than any single individual. Thus I redistributed character qualities, taking complexity from the ones that were too sharply defined, and giving them to the ones that were softer.
And only after I had all of my characters fully established, and in harmony with the scope or the overall tale, did I start to actually write my first draft. Undoubtedly some possible diversions were lost in managing them so closely, but that’s alright. I didn’t want diversions. I want this story to be what I want it to be, and I will do my more freeform experimentation elsewhere.
Specifically, I will do it here. One of the main points of this blog has always been to invent characters and situations that are as imaginative and complicated as I please, and then turn them loose to see what comes of it. Sometimes the well runs dry very quickly, and I don’t try to artificially extend things. Sometimes it keeps going on, week after week, because the story refuses to be wrapped up quickly. That’s fine, too.
As it turns out, my most recent story falls firmly into that last camp. When I first conceived of Raise the Black Sun, I figured it would run for about 4,000 words, maybe 6,000. It has now passed 10,000, and still going strong. The reason for this is because I come into each of these short stories with only a loose outline, and then let the work roam freely between each checkpoint.
And yes, sometimes they roam outside of their boundaries, in which case I change the plot to accommodate where they want to go instead. It is incredibly indulgent, and that’s entirely the point. Being able to cut loose like this once in a while has led me to some very promising discoveries, and I will always want this outlet in some form or another.
Admittedly, this does run the risk of alienating readers with its indulgence, and while I hope people aren’t bored with how long some of these stories have run, I do acknowledge that that is entirely a possibility. Let’s just say that there’s a reason why I make this stuff available to you free of charge and without any advertisements!
(Actually, if you subscribe to my blog, please let me know if there are advertisements at the bottom of the emails that come whenever I make a new post. There shouldn’t be, but I haven’t been able to verify whether that is the case.)
Anyway, if you are not sick yet of my ambling through Raise the Black Sun, feel free to come see what new forays await us on Thursday! And if you are sick of Raise the Black Sun, don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have it wrapped up in another post or two.
Life seems to occur in chapters. We many times come to a major juncture where we realize that life for the past several years has fit within a single theme, but now a new trajectory is about to take place. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but almost always never in the way that we had anticipated. For though we try to exhaustively outline every chapter of life ahead-of-time, we always seem to go wayward in the actual writing of the work.
I had one of these moments just recently, with the birth of my second child. Something about changing from a family of three to a family of four opened a whole new reality in our home. This one change is substantial enough, but it also proved to be the catalyst for other changes that were past due. We are going to start looking for a new home, we have purchased a car with more seats in the back, and we are changing jobs to be able to afford all of these changes.
Thus a singular event grew wider and wider, causing a ripple of side effects, each of which came with their own set of ripples as well. Of course eventually these life changes tend to stabilize. Eventually you finish ramping up, or downsizing, coming together, or moving apart, and then the complexity of life starts to contract. The chapter of life starts to wane.
But the thing about life is that once things start to feel normal, there is sure to be a fresh disruption to expand things out again. If nothing else, we just get bored and start talking about “needing a change.” If life does not compel a new chapter upon us, we instigate one ourselves.
The Ebb and Flow)
In case you didn’t know, a central theme of this blog is how the nuances of life invariably find their way into the structure of our stories, and this matter is no exception. We not only have learned to imitate life in how we divide our stories into thematically consistent chapters, we even structure those chapters with the same pattern of expanding and then contracting.
Think of the quest of Frodo and Sam in the Fellowship of the Ring. Things start off pretty simple in the Shire, but all at once everything expands dramatically with the arrival of the ring and the charge to carry it to Bree. This leads to the further expansion of the little hobbits’ world as they discover new locales, witness amazing feats of magic, fall into danger, meet all sorts of colorful characters, and even recruit some of them to their party. Finally they arrive at their destination, and the world of wonder starts to contract as they enter a small and cozy village.
But then…a new “chapter” of the story begins. For things don’t go according to plan and a new leg is added to their journey, carrying them back into the wider world. That chapter leads them to Rivendell, but of course things don’t come to their final rest there, either. The pattern continues, through the Mines of Moria and to Lothlorien, past the breaking of the fellowship, and still continued into the other books of the series.
If you look for the pattern, you will soon recognize that each chapter of the trilogy introduces a change, either of status or intention, widens off of that idea, and then draws to a close around it. Yes the larger plot of destroying the ring ever continues, but along the way the characters resolve the chapter of Isengard, the chapter of saving Rohan, the chapter of traversing Mordor, etc.
In fact, each of these chapters is nothing more than a miniature story in its own right, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. A more explicit example of chapters-as-their-own-stories can be found in the idea of the television series, where each episode is usually comprised of its own complete arc, though usually with an ongoing narrative that continues over an entire season, and even the entire run of the show.
Sometimes it can be hard for a show to walk the line between the two. It might lean too heavily towards developing the overarching narrative, resulting in the occasional “bridge” episode that lacks its own, complete arc. Or the show might lean too heavily on making each episode a complete experience, and as a result avoid meaningful character development, for fear of alienating new viewers who aren’t up to speed on the latest micro-drama.
One show that was very compartmentalized in every episode was the Mission: Impossible series. Bruce Geller, who was the original producer for the show, even insisted that the writers not include any character development in their episodes, having the agents come and go freely without explanation. Each episode is so autonomous that you can pick up just about any one and not miss a beat.
A better balance was found when the series was later expanded into theatrical films. The Mission: Impossible movies pay homage to their roots by featuring a series of set pieces, each one of which feels like its own episode of the show, but each of which also leads into the next step of the overarching plot.
In fact, every major secret agent or spy film seems to follow this pattern. James Bond and Jason Bourne also travel to a new destination, with a specific objective to be accomplished there. Things go wide as they gather intel, are acquainted with the relevant characters, and prepare for their operation. A climax of action occurs, the objective is either accomplished or failed, and the target moves to another location, repeating the same process over and over until the greater narrative comes to its close.
Composing your story of several diamond-shaped micro-stories is beneficial to you as an author, and also to your reader.
For you, it takes the gargantuan task of writing a large narrative, and breaks it into much more manageable miniature tales along the way. It is an easy template to follow of Introduction, Expansion, Climax, and Resolution.
And for the reader, it helps the story from becoming stagnant and disinteresting. There are many high points to look forward to along the way, and the final climax feels all the more epic for the many rises and falls that were experienced just to get there.
In my current short story, Raise the Black Sun, I just brought to a close one diamond-shaped-sequence, that of the caravan traveling their final leg to Graymore Coventry. It opened right after I closed the sequence with the witch, and was initiated by the problem of the Treksmen falling into despair. It expanded in its sense of intrigue as we watched their numbers dwindle towards doom, found a new wrinkle as the few survivors bonded around their shared hardship instead, and then started to narrow back down as they approached their destination. Finally there came a sense of resolution in their solving the mystery of the end of the horizon, and now they go to the entrance of Graymore Coventry, literally closing the door on the previous chapter, and opening it into the next. Come back on Thursday to see how that chapter move forward!
My very first blog on this site talked about how authors should consider leaving some elements unsaid. That by merely hinting at things, and then letting the reader fill in the gaps, they encourage a more active investment from their audience. The trick, of course, is to not overdo it, and make things so obfuscated that no one has any idea what you’re even talking about.
With the most recent entry of Raise the Black Sun I found myself wondering which side of that line I had fallen on. Specifically I am referring to a scene where the protagonist is fighting with a witch. He and his companions had fallen victim to illusions that she presented them, but when he broke free of these delusions she grabbed him from behind and started to choke him.
Then, in a moment of epiphany, he realizes the way the witch’s magic works is that she suggests a reality to you, and then, once you start to believe in it, it start to become real. With that knowledge he realizes that if he can convince himself that he is holding a dagger in his hand, then her magical aura would make it so. And because he knows that her magical aura will make it so, it is easy to convince himself that there is a dagger in his hand. His cyclical logic manifests in the weapon, and he uses it to defeat the witch.
Knowing More Than I Said)
I thought it was a neat little sequence…but I didn’t actually write it out that way. This is a story of desperation and fear, and it is told by a somber, haunted soul. It just didn’t feel right to have him giddily narrate his epiphany to the reader, so I cut that part out. Instead the dagger just appears in his hand, with only some slight suggestions as to how it even got there. I rather suspect that some–or all–of my audience was left thinking some form of the following:
“Wait, what just happened? Did he have the dagger on his belt all along? But why did it disappear after she died? Did she make it then? Why would she do that?”
I thought about this lack of information a good deal before pressing Publish on the piece, but ultimately decided that a little bit of confusion in the reader would actually be entirely appropriate for a story like this.
It is a story about a young man caught up in something much larger than himself, and a major theme of the entire work is his inability to understand the wheel that turns him. I thought it would be fitting, then, for the reader to have a moment of not being sure how the world was working either.
I enjoyed this little exercise in selective obfuscation, and I think this sort of process has a lot of potential for certain story types. But I would definitely urge extreme caution in choosing to utilize this particular trick. While it may work in some situations, I believe in most cases it would only be frustrating to the audience.
As such, I decided that if I was going to go ahead with this exercise, I was going to adhere to a couple rules that would ensure I was playing fair with the reader. It was important to me, for example, that there be an actual answer as to what happened. I didn’t want to be cheap and write something that was completely unfounded. It’s easy to confuse people if you just write things without any personal logic for them, and I didn’t want to be guilty of cheating the story in that way.
Thus I developed a complete, logical explanation for what had happened, and from that selected which parts to actually share. My hope is that each reader will either be able to tease out what actually transpired, or at the very least be able to see enough breadcrumbs to convince them that the answers are there, even if they cannot work them out.
More Unexplored Ideas)
There was something else I wanted to accomplish in the witch’s scene, something that I have been trying to accomplish throughout all of this particular story. I have sought to introduce numerous ideas to the reader which are then intentionally abandoned before they can be fully developed on.
All of my readers should be able to understand that the witch uses illusion and trickery to project something that is false, but that if she can get someone to believe in the illusion, gradually it actually becomes real. It’s an interesting idea, and one that seems like it could be iterated on quite a good deal further. I like to hope that readers would like to see a few more examples of this in play, that they would like to know more about why the witches even do this, and how they come about their power, and all manner of other questions that will never be answered in this story.
I had similar hopes with the Scrayer, whom I introduced in the second part of this story. I hope the image of a giant of a man, draped in black and wielding a weapon that literally dissolves men into powder makes a sharp impression on the reader. I hope it lodges into the mind and makes them wonder about what else is hiding just behind the curtain of this world.
I hope the story of a doomed caravan driven a thousand miles by men that have surrendered possession of their own hearts stirs somber wonderings within.
In short, I am trying to write a story where so very little is said, but so very much is implied. A world that seems to be made of a thousand folds, of which we are shown only a small slice, rife with unfinished turns and incomplete ends.
This is my approach. It is possible that audiences will not like it, that they will feel too much was left unsaid, and will be left with a sense of frustration. It is possible…and to write this story I had to decide that I was okay with that possibility. I am okay that this tale might be frustrating. Because regardless of all else, I think it makes for a better story. One which I genuinely feel has a lot to offer, with even more than is contained within its words. It may not be for everyone, but I think it is a stronger experience for those that it is for.
On Thursday we will see yet another partial disclosure of this story when our Treksmen arrive at their destination. As with everything else, what they see will be but the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it will be enough to suggest an ancient and storied lore, one that can be sensed and breathed, even if not heard and seen.
It occurred on a day when I was deep in thought about those three Treksmen who had been in line behind Yanni. Bil-Lyew, Zafrast, and Obasi. Why had they had been able to witness Yanni’s death and quit this dread journey before it was too late while I had not? Why had I stood immediately before Yanni and not immediately after? I had been the very last Treksman to get through the Pledge and be chained to this doomed venture.
“This was always to be your fate,” I whispered to yourself. “Perhaps all of us walking here were chosen. But you, Graye, you were chosen especially.”
Why, though? I was of absolutely no consequence. Did I have a special part to play? That seemed unlikely. There was nothing that I was likely to do which my companions were any less likely to do themselves. Perhaps I was guilty of some special sin that I had forgotten and had to be punished for?
Of course, I had sinned, I do not deny as much, but more than Bil-Lyew? More than Zafrast? Certainly I couldn’t have sinned more than Obasi had!
“It doesn’t matter,” I sighed to myself. “Who are you to question the turning of the wheel? Your fate awaits you at Graymore and that’s all there is to it.”
“No, your fate is with me,” a silky voice called out. I looked up and looked about, unable to see any who it was that had spoken.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“See me,” the voice came back, soft but earnest, and definitely female.
My mind imagined a person to which such a voice might belong, and all at once I saw the very likeness before me, standing just off the side of the road. She was incredibly pale, with a tall and thin face, perhaps the most beautiful and enchanting I had ever seen. Her hair was deepest black, and I could not tell how long it was, for its color perfectly blended in with her clothing, which swathed around her tightly, all the way to the top of her neck.
“What are you?” I asked the phantom. I felt an intense desire to understand her, for everything about her was a complete enigma to me. The more I stared upon her, the more unsure of anything else I seemed to be. All the world slipped out of my periphery and there was only her, but even she was still somewhat out of my focus.
“I am the fate that has been chosen for you.”
“To love you?”
“Or to fall to me. Whichever you would choose.”
Both sounded rapturous to me.
“But what of Graymore Coventry?” I asked. “It has already claimed me. I cannot turn away from it or I will die like Yanni.”
“Die to me. I may yet rennervate you. Thus you will give full due to your pledge, and yet achieve a second fate.”
“Die to you?”
“Yes, give yourself over.” Her eyes flashed brightly and she seemed to draw nearer, though she didn’t walk a single step towards me. She did raise her hands, though, and as she did the wide sleeves fell back and laid bare her ivory arms. Carved marble they seemed to me, and one of them was raised to caress, the other to strike. All my heart thumped with desire to drop to my knees, lean against her bosom, and feel which one she would lay upon me.
The more I spoke with more, the more I focused on her, the more she seemed to take definition, the more real she seemed to be. I felt like she could be entirely real if I wanted. I just had to believe wholly in her and she would be.
One of my last fingertips left the handle of the wagon, and my heart thumped painfully.
I looked down to my side. Now only the two small fingers on my right hand remained touching the wood. I had been letting go without even realizing it. Of course a Treksman can let go of his handle as the need permits, but the Job knew our hearts, knew that I was not just letting go as a matter of course. I was letting go to abandon my station, and it was about to claim my life for that betrayal.
“See me!” the woman exhaled sharply. My eyes snapped to her and I saw the utmost ferocity in her eyes. But what was that ferocity? Was it anger for my hesitation, or desperation that I give my love to her? The uncertainty of her seared my heart with greatest desire.
My eyes shot back to my hand, where now only the smallest finger remaining to task.
“What are you?” I interrupted her.
“All that you desire, all that you fear.” I mouthed the words with her even as she said them.
“The two are one and the same” the voice continued, but now I became aware that it was my voice speaking. My voice and someone else’s. But not the woman’s. Another woman’s. Another woman that was yet unseen.
I was just as confused at this realization as you might imagine, but strange as those words are to write and strange as they were to feel, somehow I knew they were true. I realized that there had been some sort of trance, one that had linked me with another person that I could not see, and by our unison this phantom woman that I did perceive was given voice and thought.
I felt a sensation like waking up, the gray of my periphery began to be washed again in color, and I saw anew my caravan and my companions. All the seven who had been conscious with me had all come to a halt. Four of them were staring off in their own trances and muttering their own nonsenses. The other three lay dead.
There wasn’t a single mark upon them, each had fallen just outside the reach of their wagon handles, no doubt having forsaken them in just the same manner that I had been about to.
Out of the corner of my eye I could still see the strange woman, but she was far less defined than before. Indeed with every passing moment where I did not believe in her, she seemed to be become more and more unmade.
“What do you mean?” Boril’s voice rang out, and my eyes snapped to him, three wagons ahead of me. He, too, was staring off into nothingness, and his tone was shrill and vehement, like he was trying to hide his fear. “If my own hand is not my own, then what would it be?!” He mouthed an answer to that, I did not hear what, but his eyes went wide at the message that it conveyed.
“No!” Boril said disbelievingly, and looked down at his hand, which appeared absolutely ordinary to me. But his face contorted in horror and he flexed his fingers in an erratic, painful-looking way. “Get it off! Get it off!” he shrieked, fumbling with his other hand for the cutlass at his side. And as he did so I saw that his hand was beginning to shift. It was starting to turn black, with the hairs on its back standing on end and elongating, and the fingers starting to move with the scuttling rhythm of spider-legs.
“Boril! No!” I shouted, rushing forward and catching the arm that held the cutlass, just as he raised it to to chop off his own limb…or whatever he had been bewitched into thinking it had become.
Bewitched! I thought. That’s it.
Boril struggled against my grip and I heaved backwards, pulling him to the ground with me, continuing to wrestle his arm and shouting at him that his hand was perfectly fine. It took a great deal of shouting for him to hear me over whatever voice echoed in his head, but at last he seemed to see that what I told him was so. For the more I told him that his arm was fine, the more he seemed to doubt whatever he had seen previously, and the more his hand truly came back to its ordinary form. Once he stilled himself I let go, and sprang to my feet, eyes glancing about madly for our foe.
“Where are you witch!” I demanded. “I do not believe in your spells anymore!”
Two arms, thin and bony, wrapped themselves around my neck from behind. There was a surprising strength to them, and they pulled me firmly against the shoulders of a lithe and wiry woman.
“To live without belief is to live without air,” she hissed as her forearms contracted against my throat and began to choke the life out of me.
“Boril–” I gasped, reaching my fingers out to him. But to my dismay he was once again staring at some unseen phantom, once more caught up in his delusions.
The witch tightened her grip further, and the blood was cut off from my head. I was getting dizzy, and starting to lose my focus.
“Fool,” she simpered sweetly. “You do not have to believe me to still be under my power. You might have had anything you wanted in your final moments, your ignorance gave you every possibility. But now you know, and so you die, powerless. You ought to have believed.”
Darkness was crowding around my eyes, and I was about to concede to my fate…but then, I realized that this was most certainly not my fate. My fate was to go to Graymore Coventry and there lose my soul.
The witch was wrong. I believed all too strongly.
With the last of my strength I flung my fist backwards. With my fingers having grown numb it was not difficult to convince myself that they held steel. And having convinced myself of that, it became true.
I heard a terrible shriek. It seemed distant and faint, and then rushed forward at tremendous speed until it echoed right beside me. At the same time the pressure on my neck laxed and I gulped down cold air.
Behind me the witch writhed in her death agonies. Only a few moments more and her last grip on life broke, and with it all traces of her bewitchments dispersed. Even the knife I had conjured by her own magicks to stab her.
“Get up, Boril,” I wheezed out. He was still kneeling on the ground, snapping his neck about in every direction, faced painted with utter confusion.
Of the eight of us who had been keeping watch, three had died before I came to my senses, and another one during my fight with the witch. Only four of us remained, and we of course had to wake all the others. This path was too treacherous, and though it was an agony to remain awake, we could not dare proceed with partial strength. We must all press forward together, dejected as we were.
We were thirty then.
It seemed a wise choice at the time, but it brought us to the worst adversary we had faced yet: our own broken hearts. For though I had felt dejected during all the time I had kept watch with the seven others, we had been few enough that I scarcely caught sight of their faces. Now, though, at every turn of the road, at every lifting of a wagon wheel out of a rut, at every stop to setup camp…at each of these moments I was required to stare into their gaunt and hopeless visages. And then what despair I had started to feel in myself was only pressed deeper.
For when one is full of sorrow alone, one might yet take comfort in the thought that there is still light and good elsewhere in the world. But when all one sees is the same bleakness in others, it becomes easy to believe that this is how it is everywhere, and forever will be.
If I could have believed that my memories of laughing children and playful men and charming women were true, that they were not but dreams, then I would have been encouraged in the burden I had to bear. Then I might have told myself that the innocent parts of the world were still able to live and laugh and love because I bore the trial for them. I would have thought to myself that there was a certain taxing of darkness that had to weigh on the world, and if enough martyrs took it on them then the rest of the world would still be free to feel the joy, and I would feel a quiet pride in facilitating that.
Instead, these encouraging theories were squashed out by the darkness that crammed in from my fellows. Our bleakness seemed too infinite to believe that it did not reach into every corner of the universe. Each one of us silently took our heartache and heaped it upon each other, multiplying our woes again and again, until it became exponential, and each new day was a hundredfold more painful to bear than the last.
I would rather be consigned to my doom alone than to have been put in this company of the damned.
Bahnu was the first to give in to the despair totally. One day he simply let go of his handle, took four steps off of the road, and then died for abandoning his contract. He didn’t say a word through the whole process. He just left.
The next day Ra-Toew and Sinfarro walked away. Not together, each at different hours and in different directions.
The next day was three more. The next it was four.
We were twenty then.
Regular practice is for the caravan to return with all of their empty wagons at the end of their journey. But we now lacked enough hands to push them all, and so the unpacked vehicles were left behind, a pile of empty vessels, laid out haphazardly beneath the cold sun.
On Monday I discussed the way that a story reflects the thoughts and feelings of its writer. The more that I’ve written stories on this blog, the more I’ve realized how difficult it is to write a lie.
You can project anything in a statement on social media, you can say the words when looking another person in the face, you can pretend something in any of the usual forms of communication. But, as I say, it is a very difficult thing to tell a story that you don’t believe in.
For even if you force yourself to write dialogue and themes that state the lie, you still betray yourself by how hollow your work will feel. Those that are perceptive will read it and say “your heart clearly wasn’t in this.”
I don’t believe that this is exclusive to writing stories, either. I believe it applies to all of creativity. The thing we make cannot come alive unless it is true to us. Just try to play a rousing ballad on the guitar while inside your heart yearns for a a tragic melody on violin. The right notes might be played, but they just won’t resonate.
Publishing this piece was fairly unsettling for me then, because it is quite true to my own recent experiences. The themes of despair and hopelessness are ones drawn from a very personal space.
For this and other reasons, I have wondered if I ought to have made this blog private. But whether I should have or not, the fact is that now I have already become comfortable with sharing myself in this way. I feel that those who care enough to read my work have earned the right to know me sincerely.
I am well aware that I don’t talk about myself personally on here very much. While other blogs detail their homes, their families, their day-to-day experiences, I share myself in a different way. You may not always know what is going on in my life, but you do see what is playing out in my heart. This blog is really just a personal journal, only one that logs its daily entries through story.
I once told a friend about my outlet of writing stories. He smiled and knowingly said “the thing about writing is that you couldn’t hide yourself, the work reveals you.” I’ve found that there is a lot of truth to that statement. There are times when I have tried to write about things that didn’t matter to me, and it was torture. Every word had to be dragged out slowly, and it made for some of my worst work ever. Things can only ever flow when I find the themes that match with my heart.
In short, you either write about your authentic self, or you quickly burn out and do not write at all.
Every now and then I pause, look back at what I have recently written, nod my head, and say “yeah…that really is what I’ve been feeling for these past couple months, isn’t it?” Sometimes a theme only lasts for a single story or two, representing a very minor infatuation of my life. Other times the themes will permeate through entire months of work, signifying a much more significant obsession.
Recently I took a look back at the work of this current series, and the consistent thread through them all caught me off guard. Each is very tense, dark, and ominous. The Soldier’s Last Sleep is about a Private in the army trying to hold onto his life through one crushing wave of the enemy after another. The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath introduces a king trying to punish his subjects in a way that redefines the very meaning of cruelty. Washed Down the River follows two detectives solving the case of a man so miserable that he tries to fake his own suicide, but then inadvertently succeeds in it. Slow and Easy, Then Sudden features a protagonist who begins warm and kind, but by the end reveals himself to be a cold-blooded killer. And to top it all off, my latest story, Raise the Black Sun, has been about a doomed voyage that will ultimately culminate in the end of a world.
I honestly had no conscious intention of weaving such a somber tapestry when I set out on this series, it is just the way that my natural expressions pushed me. As I considered all of these facts I couldn’t help but nod my head in understanding, because frankly it reflects my mental state all too well. The fact is that I have been in a dark and depressed state lately, and I think it was inevitable that that this was going to bleed through into my writing.
A Written Dialogue)
Of course this depression is hardly too surprising. It is at least somewhat due to the sense of isolation brought on by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the self-isolation that we all have been working through. Obviously I am not the only one that has been feeling pretty down, in fact there are many who I am sure are feeling much lower than I.
I do wonder if any of my readers have found that this more heavy material has reflected their own feelings at all? Perhaps this way that I have been expressing myself can be a vehicle for a mutual commiserating of our shared situation.
Or…maybe it is irresponsibly fanning the flames and creating a deepened sense of despair in others?
At this point we’re not just observing story-telling as a mode of self-expression, but also as a mode of conversation. I am telling you about myself, and you are having a personal reaction to that. Is it a healthy reaction, or an unhealthy one?
Well that’s a tricky line to walk, even under more traditional forms of dialogue. There’s no doubt that a lot of good can come about by being able to share our feelings with like-minded others. Support groups are based around the idea that you finally have found a safe place to express the shame and darkness within you to others who really “get it.” Being able to talk through traumatic experiences together can help heal them together. Ever since we were small children, one of the best ways to get past a bad day is to tell someone how sincerely miserable you are feeling.
But there are other types of conversation, too. Where support groups provide an opportunity to share a burden and feel lifted, self-pity groups tend to only stack more weight on top of each other. They do not spread the original weight out for all to help bear, they clone the weight, and now everyone has to carry the whole of it in on their own.
I believe the difference between these two types of communication has to do with the intent of the speaker and the hearer. In a healthy dialogue the speaker states “I felt sad,” and the takeaway is an understanding of the person. In an unhealthy dialogue the speaker states “I felt sad,” and the takeaway is the emotion only.
It is less important that we understand what was felt, than that we understand the person who felt it.
And that has what has brought me to making this post today. My hope is that by calling out explicitly what is going on I will spark a certain level of self-awareness in us both. I do not wish that when you read my latest stories that you will take my sadness onto yourself. Rather I wish that if you have been feeling lonely you will read my stories and know that I felt lonely, too. I know how that is. I understand that part of you.