I Was Expecting Something Different

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Feels A Little Off)

Recently my wife and I watched the anime series Death Note. Its basic premise is that a teenager obtains a notebook, and the name of any person he writes in it will die. The boy ends up with a flawed sense of justice, and determines that he should reign as judge over all the rest of the world, killing those that he deems unworthy without trial.

While watching the show I found myself strangely conflicted about the main character. He was clearly the villain of the show, and his methods ended up actively harming many innocents. He wasn’t even very likable, behaving manipulatively and deceitfully to those who cared most for him.

And yet, despite it all, I felt like I was supposed to be rooting for him. I wasn’t sure why at first, I just had this vague sense that the show wanted me to want him to succeed. So I spent a little bit of time examining why I felt that way, and I realized that I had had my emotions hijacked by the structure of the story. There are many little ways that storytellers give us silent cues as to what we are “supposed” to be feeling.

For example, imagine if a story opened with a scene of a single boy being chased and cornered by a group of four others. Even without telling us the reasons and motivations of the characters, we naturally assume that the single boy is our hero and the four others are our antagonists. We believe this to be the case, because we always expect the hero to be an underdog.

Or consider a story that begins with one central character. We follow her exclusively for the first third of the story, at which point the focus is handed off to another person. Even though the focus has changed hands, we still expect the first character to be our hero because we have spent the majority of our time with her. We firmly expect that this shift is temporary, and that the first character will soon return.

Well, it turned out that both of these elements were at play while watching Death Note. That boy who obtained the notebook was the character we spent the most time with, and he stood alone against an entire team of detectives trying to catch him. The fact that he was an underdog, and also the main focus of the story, created in me this sense that I was supposed to be rooting for him, even though his actions were deplorable.

 

I’ll Be Back)

There are several advantages that creating expectations in your reader allows for. One example is how it elegantly foreshadows upcoming plot points to them. This will provide the audience with a cathartic sense of satisfaction when fulfilled. They won’t even know why they feel so good, they’ll just say that the events “felt right” to them.

For example, consider the iconic “I’ll be back” scene from Terminator. In this the T-800 has tracked Sarah Connor to a police station and approaches the front desk to ask if he can speak with her. His request is denied, and he is told that he will have to wait until she has finished giving her statement to the police. The T-800 looks around, says “I’ll be back,” and walks out the front door.

And then, inexplicably, the camera remains at the front desk. The T-800 is the one driving the action, we should be following it, but for some reason we’re not. We’re staying in this boring, stuffy place. And then, silently, the anticipation starts to mount in the viewer. Slowly he starts to realize that this isn’t just an overly long end to a scene. There’s a reason why we’re staying here.

And right as that epiphany hits the car comes smashing through the front door, barrels down the desk, and the T-800 emerges wielding a shotgun and an assault rifle!

By utilizing the unspoken language of film the scene silently created the expectation, fulfilled it, and as a result created one of the most quotable moments in movie history.

 

Subverting Expectations)

Another benefit of giving silent cues to the audience is to then subvert the expectation that you have put in them. You can catch them by surprise and they won’t even know why they never saw it coming. Not always, but often a twist comes as a result of lying to the audience at some point or another. Some stories make the mistake of doing this explicitly. The characters straight up tell you one thing, and then later say “Ha! Just kidding, I lied! Aren’t you surprised?” And no, the audience isn’t surprised, they’re annoyed.

But if the lie was made implicitly, by planting an unspoken expectation in the audience that you then exploit, they won’t even know why they’re surprised, just that they are.

This bait-and-switch is perhaps most prolific in a mystery, such as when the author puts out a red-herring to distract the audience from the truth. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie famously moves its suspicion from one character to the next at a blistering rate. Each new suspicion has compelling reasons to buy into it, though none of them feel totally satisfying.

Then comes the final revelation: all of the suspects are responsible for the murder, not just one. Now why doesn’t this possibility occur to the reader beforehand, especially where the story was blatantly providing evidence against each and every character? It doesn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and readers know that in a murder mystery there is one killer and many red herrings. Agatha Christie understood that silent expectation and exploited it. In Murder on the Orient Express the red herring is that there was no red herring.

 

With Great Power…)

This ability to silently create expectations in your reader has to be given proper respect. It is a potent tool, and as such can cause much harm when misused. For example, subverted expectations only work so many times before the whole story starts to feel disjointed. If the plot is constantly misaligned with its subliminal messages then the audience will feel that something “is just off.” They won’t like your story because it simply felt wrong to them.

Creating expectations that are never confirmed or challenged will also be a source of frustration for the audience as well. Even if every narrative plot was tied up by the end, they’ll still have this sense that something was missing.

Of course the most common problem is to to have created silent expectations without even realizing it, and therefore having not ensured that each is resolved satisfyingly. Try reading over your work and pausing to ask what the story is making you think is supposed to happen. Then see if you handle that expectation elegantly or not.

 

In my next post I would like to share the first part of a story, in which I will intentionally create an unspoken expectation. Then, in the later posts, I will subvert it. Obviously my hope is to do it in a way that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Of course by telling you all these intentions upfront I’m already tipping my hand, but hopefully it will still be a satisfying read for you. Come back on Thursday to see the first half, where I will create the expectation, and then a week later I will implement the subversion.

A Big Something or Other

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Repeatedly asking the question “why” very quickly leads to things that cannot be explained. We can begin with the most grounded of subjects and the most basic of functions, but if we repeatedly ask why things are the way they are, things quickly venture into one of two domains:

  1. The metaphysical
  2. The unknown

Either the question doesn’t have an answer, or any answer exceeds our mortal comprehension. In either case, we have found the limits of our cognition.

 

Order and Chaos)

Now I have already discussed the ways in which stories have handled the metaphysical elements. I described how things like karma, fate, or God are often living characters within a story. They remain unseen, but they do have a very real influence on the characters in center stage. Thus they are not perceived, therefore, so much as felt, such as the karmic justice that drives the journey of Oedipus. And in some ways this makes a story feel more true. Many of us see patterns in the world around us, and by this believe that there are supreme forces maintaining a balance in our lives.

But what about that other domain? The pure unknown? Because while we see metaphysical order in life, we also perceive chaos and randomness. We don’t want to embody these forces, we want them to remain indescribable and formless, and yet they also need to have some sort of tangential effect on the narrative. As a result there are many stories where things “just happen.” Not really to move the narrative forward, not to center some cosmic balance, not for any discernible purpose whatsoever.

Consider the coin-tossing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the two characters begin a game of flipping coins, and find that only Heads comes up. Over and over and over and over again, more than a hundred times. Guildenstern does begin to wonder about external cosmic forces: some form of karma, a trickster god, time itself having ceased, etc. But he finds no answers, and neither does the audience. It just happens…and then it does not.

In Cael: Darkness and Light, we have a massive void that is visually perceptible, insofar as it impinges upon the world that it is swallowing up. Why it is here, where it came from, and what it will become after swallowing the entire world are never answered. Because in that story there are no answers about that void. It just is.

In this way I am trying to use Cael to portray both the metaphysical and the unknowable in one. That void seems like an all-powerful and malevolent force of nature, one with a specific purpose to fulfill: to destroy. However the origin, reasons, and methods of it feel like random chaos. And it is this strange synergy of both order and chaos that I feel rings most true. Because as I said, in life we seem to perceive both forces of order and random chaos.

 

Unnecessary Origins)

Sometimes the unknown isn’t kept a secret for any philosophical reason, though. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. Such as when we don’t fully explore a side-character’s backstory. We don’t need to know where the waiter was born and why he was so distracted as to spill coffee on our detective, all that matters is that it happened. Are these things knowable? Sure, we just don’t care.

Of course there are some things that the audience might think they want to know, but if they did the story would lose some of its magic. I had that experience when I tried to read The Silmarillion, an epic which gives the origin story of Middle Earth. Partway through I realized that really I didn’t want to know where elves came from, or how and why they built Rivendell. I preferred the magic of that city existing “just because.” I have never gone back to try to finish the book.

In some ways I feel that this selective exclusion also rings more true to life. The first time you visit a new city you always come to it in media res. It just exists, entirely outside of your understanding why. And while you could read up on its history and learn all about its origins, the actual experience of being in that city still only begins with the day you walked into it. For you, that will always be the origin.

I incorporated this sort of selective exclusion with Instructions Not Included. Here we have a box of strange objects with properties unlike anything else on earth. And while we eventually learn about the organization that planted the box, we do not ever learn how and why the objects came into being. Presumably it must have some point of origin, but knowing it would dispel the whole mystery at the center of the story. So I leave it unknown.

 

Beyond Register)

And sometimes we know what the thing is, but we lack the words to describe it. Not because we need a larger vocabulary, but because things that go “off-the-scale” will, by definition, defy any description. Sometimes you don’t just want to say that your character is angry, you want to say that he is so angry it cannot be fathomed. But if it cannot be fathomed, then the words cannot be written to properly detail it. Raging, fuming, frenzied…all these words fall short of describing an indescribable rage.

I have mentioned in a previous post how 2001: A Space Odyssey dealt with this exact problem. Here we had a constant escalation that needed to climax in a sequence that defied comprehension. David Bowman is supposed to be witnessing things that are beyond all understanding. The film handled this by showing strange, meaningless patterns and colors to the viewer, ones intended to be baffling. In the book it merely describes him seeing many diverse races and cultures, which makes for considerably less impact.

There is undoubtedly a paradox here. Visual and aural mediums are quite capable of creating experiences that cannot be  captured by words. But a written story, by definition, must be captured with words.

In Once Among the Clouds I decided to take a stab at this problem by way of metaphor. Throughout the tale I describe an escalating conflict and an abundance of violence and destruction. Then, at the very end, all is overwhelmed by a towering, dark rain cloud that washes everything away.

While I was able to describe the rain cloud in detail, I did not explicitly spell out that it was meant as an embodiment of all the hate and strife. I could have, but I expect that the reader’s subconscious will make that interpretation already, and that which is perceived subconsciously often feels more legendary to us. My hope is that this round-about form of expression will therefore make the magnitude of hate and violence seem inexpressibly deep to the reader. Whether or not I succeeded is a matter of opinion, but I found it interesting to try.

 

I would like to conclude this series with a short story that attempts to weave in all three of these types of monolithic entities. I will start with a creation of unknown origins, one that becomes a being of chaos, and by that chaos establishes a skewed sense of order, which contrast will hopefully imprint an idea on the reader that feels larger-than-life. It’s a tall order, and I’m very anxious to see how it goes. Come back on Thursday to see.

Influencing and Inspiring

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Overflowing Personalities)

Some people have essences so strong that they cannot be contained within themselves. Instead bits and pieces of their soul seem to permeate into our own and change us. Charismatic leader compel us to share their vision,  spiritual giants motivate us to adopt their morals, and creative artists inspire us to imitate their ideas.

This transference of the self can even occur with both parties being unaware of it. One does not have to be conscious of the fact to either influence or be influenced. In fact may times the influencing happens even when the two parties never meet, such as when an artist is not appreciated until after their own death. Though they are not present to propel their ideas, the ideas move forward on their own.

To be influenced means to have ones actions directed by another. Sometimes this takes the form of imitating the example of another. Other times it is coming to a personal interpretation of another’s work, and creating something new from that.

 

A New Seed)

Both forms of influence have their value, but in the case of art the second is better. Directly replicating the work of a master is ideal in moral discipleship, but in the arts we we call that plagiarism! Instead the influence of the master artist should be akin to a tree that creates a seed, which then yields a new tree that is its own creation.

Indeed, whenever I read or watch or listen to any work, one of the metrics I measure it by is whether it instigates new thoughts and ideas in me or not. An average creation might entertain me, but a powerful one will bring possibilities to my mind that I had never conceived of.

With this understanding, I would like to offer two simple definitions that encompass my entire philosophy of art.

I consider the word “art” to simply mean the expression of something new. That expression can be in any medium: word or image or sound or any other means.

I consider the word “masterpiece” to mean art that transplants its ideas into the minds of those that consume it. It imbues in the recipient the mind and feelings of the creator, and in so doing it is planting a seed in new soil that can spring up as new creations.

 

Being Receptive)

Of course, the burden of influence does not fall solely on the creator. The greatest symphony cannot move a heart that is dead. Transference of ideas is a mutual effort, and requires both a skilled creator and a skilled receiver.

To get the most out of a story you have to be receptive to the ideas that are coming from it. You have to have a fertile imagination, or else that seed won’t be able to grow. This fact explains why so often the greatest artists are also the greatest audience to others’ art. They take in the work of others, are deeply impacted by it, and from that germinate terrific ideas of their own.

Now our society tends to not like the idea of being “influenced.” We are wary of being duped or brainwashed, and want to assert that we can think for ourselves. This is all well and good, independence is a positive thing.

But we can take it too far and turn it into a sort of fashion: suppressing any thought or feeling that we feel might have originated in another person. Of course if one feels compelled by society’s trends to maintain an image of not being influenced…one is living a humorous oxymoron.

The better balance is to have one’s independence, one’s capacity to think for oneself, and then intentionally choose the influences one will derive inspiration from. Reject those that are shallow, choose the ones that are worthy, and then drink deeply.

 

Combining Sources)

And choose a set of varied sources. Though inspiration comes to us in separate streams our minds are wonderfully designed to combine those individual ideas into one. One of the brain’s core functions is to discover connections, even where no connection was originally intended. Stirring pieces of classical music can therefore be combined with scenes of film and television to great effect, even though that application never occurred to the composers when they wrote them.

Many of our new creations are nothing more than this marrying of separate ideas into one, each half unoriginal, but the fusion being entirely novel. That was my pattern most recently with Once Among the Clouds.

That story has two origins. The first took place when I was reading comic books as a boy. I had an issue of Spider-man, the one where he first meets the Sandman. I was fascinated by how that villain’s form was so fluid. He could reform himself at will, change his density, and grow and shrink as well.

It was an interesting idea in and of itself, but it wasn’t fully fertilized until I made an unexpected connection to it another day, about a decade later, when I was serving a mission in South America. I was in the country of Guyana, which happens to be an incredibly flat piece of land. Not only that, but the country also happens to border the Atlantic Ocean. These combine to provide some of the most stunning cloud formations I have ever seen. They appeared like billowing mountains, stretching from one horizon to the next, constantly combining and dividing with one another at will.

And one day I looked at those clouds and I made the random association of how they were like that fluid character Sandman. And then I started thinking of entire armies of fluid cloud-beings, wrestling for sovereignty in the sky. Which, to my knowledge, is an entirely original invention, though derived from two unoriginal sources.

 

So, in summary, I believe one of the sacred elements of creativity is the way it inspires the same in others. It is a self-perpetuating power, one that ripples through all of humanity. Out from one source, across us all, and then back again, like one species-wide heartbeat.

I believe that everyone has the power to be creative. Perhaps some are born with more of an inclination for it than others, but in the end it is merely a muscle which anyone can exercise. If one wishes to do so, they may begin just by looking for beauty in the creations all about them. See what works resonate with you, what new ideas come to mind from them, and let them move you to make your own.

On Thursday I will post the second half of Once Among the Clouds, where I will combine the cloud-combat that I have already employed with other elements: the wind and rain. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Eating Things

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Agents of Destruction)

Monsters. They come in all shapes and sizes. Amorphous blobs, oversized insects, scaly reptiles, hairy beasts, underwater phantoms, undead humans, shape-shifting tricksters, killer robots, and hodge-podge creations. Some of them come straight at you, slow and meandering; some of them lurk behind you in the shadows, and still others fester right inside your mind.

Clearly there is a great variety in our literary depiction of monsters, yet there are a few things that remain consistent. Or at least mostly consistent. Each of the patterns I am about to mention surely have their exceptions, but they do hold as general rules.

  1. Monsters are mindless. It isn’t just that you never see a monster making a painting or working through a mathematical equation, it’s that they seem incapable of any sort of creative expression. They might be cunning, it is true, but never for the purpose of inventing something new or advancing their understanding.
  2. Monsters are evil. A villain can be sympathetic, but a monster cannot. To be a monster means that it serves no virtuous purpose. It is never engaged in an act of compassion or kindness, even to others of its own kind. A monster is commonly described as “menacing,” by which we mean it has evil and violent intent.
  3. Monsters want to destroy you. The two above principles combine into this one. We began by saying that monsters are mindless, but perhaps we should instead say that they possess a single-track mind: one of violence. They want to destroy and that is all. And it is that monomaniacal thirst for destruction that makes us identify them as evil.

Monsters are therefore the antithesis of ingenuity and creation. They are pure agents of destruction. They are often used as an archetype that stands opposite to the creativity of the hero, and most often are defeated by that creativity. Think of Jaws, where the titular shark is defeated by the ingenuity of the hero using a tank of compressed air as a bomb.

 

Grim Reapers)

Monsters are, of course, also associated with a specific form of destruction: death.

In the animal kingdom we have two states that define the endpoints of a creature’s life. There is the birth, which is an act of creation. Then there is the death, which is an act of destruction. We rejoice in the first, and assign to it feelings of love and peace. We agonize over the second, and assign to it feelings of hatred and fear.

Death can come peacefully, but inherent in all of us is a fear that it might not. There are few things that terrify us more than a savage end. A fear we not only share universally as a people, but with the entire animal kingdom. Every creature shows intense fear for its own demise. It is not a vain fear either, nature is full of those that seek to bring early and violent ends to every form of life. Nature is full of hunters. Which brings us to our next point: in the world of nature, death is almost always followed by eating.

 

Many Teeth)

Almost every monster we conceive of has some fascinating mode of ingesting others. In fact some of the most common characteristics among them are many pointy teeth and oversized mouths.

This act of a predator eating its prey is a true horror, but also a fascination. It couples something we dread with something we enjoy. Eating provides us our daily sustenance, after all. It is an experience we take sensual pleasure in. Psychologists have long been aware of the satisfaction of hand-to-mouth movements. To not eat would be to die.

Eating, then, is the nexus by which one entity’s death becomes the life-sustenance in another. Moments of contrast, such as this, are always the ones that grip our curiosities most strongly. It creates in us a strange mixture of feelings, one where we find pleasure in the very thing that horrifies us. We don’t want to watch…but we do want to.

 

The Loss of Self)

But what exactly gets eaten? Certainly the body in the simplest of cases, but our imagined monstrosities have become incredibly complex over the years. We have invented monsters to feast upon any component that we feel defines us. So the dementors swallow the soul, the zombies feast on the mind, and the one ring consumes the will. The soul, the mind, and the will; these are all things that we define our individuality by, and therefore things we fear having taken from us. Perhaps that part of us is destroyed, or perhaps it is assimilated against our will. In either case that core life force is taken from us and given to another.

Which leads to another interesting correlation between monsters and their preferred food. Many times the creature wishes to eat that which they are forever absent of, meaning they are an abyss that can never be filled. The dementor that sucks out the soul has no soul of its own. The zombies are defined by their own lack of any rational mind. The one ring is an inanimate object, and so has no personal will. Their sole function is to take what they cannot have, a ravenous hunger without end.

I tried to follow this pattern with my “void” monster in last week’s story Cael: Darkness and Light. Here the monster was a massive, undulating cloud, devoid of any specific form or definition. It crept forward and consumed all forms that it encountered indiscriminately, folding them forever into its nothingness.

Now I would like to that same idea again: create an entity that is devoid physical form and have it consume all other things that are better defined. This time, though, I am going to incorporate one final theme of monstrosity into it.

 

We Are Our Monsters)

A common interpretation of monsters is that they are our own worst parts, which if not kept in check will consume/ingest the good. Dr Jekyll gradually has all his kind qualities overtaken by the cruel Mr Hyde, and eloquent Larry Talbot transforms into the drooling werewolf.

In some ways this might be the loss of self that we fear most of all. And we feel it is not a quiet, peaceful loss either, one that can only occur by our worse nature violently taking the reins from our kinder spirits. Once that defeat occurs, all the goodness we once knew becomes fuel for the ravenous beast to grow on.

On Thursday I will present the first half of a story where damning character flaws create a conflict. Then, in the second half that conflict will give rise to a mindless entity that represents karma and reciprocal cause and effect. The actions of the main characters will lead to its perpetual increase to the literal point of bursting. Come back then to see how it turns out.

 

On Being Finite

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On Thursday I concluded a short story, though really that “story” was more like the first act of a much bigger piece. I’ve had a few posts on here that fit into that category: Power Suit Racing, Phisherman, Network Down, and Imposed Will. These examples are different from my other works that have featured open endings, but still felt narratively complete.

For each of these “first-acts,” I don’t actually know what the rest of their story would look like. There are obvious conflicts and themes that their beginnings suggest, but I never figured out what the final implementation of those would be. If it were possible, I would like to give full expression to all of these incomplete ideas. As you might imagine, I write the sorts of stories that I would like to read, and these beginnings leave me hungry to discover their end.

And maybe I will complete some of these one day, but I’m certain I never will finish them all. There simply isn’t enough time. This has been a difficult reality to accept, but eventually I managed to do so. Not only that, I’ve come to see a beauty in it.

The Imagination Exceeds)

What it all comes down to is that my imagination is greater than my ability to produce. I have made mention of this trend in a previous blog post. There I mentioned that authors commonly hold a very clear vision of what they want their stories to convey, but when they write it out the result is far from that mark. So they rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it again. Each time they might get closer and closer to that original vision, but never quite there. Our reach very easily exceeds our grasp.

One can live in denial of that limitation or they can accept it. Indeed, one of the surest signs of an amateur is the unrealistic expectations they still set for themselves. “There’s no way this story will take me more than a year to write…year-and-a-half, tops. And it’ll be a masterpiece!” The imagination is nothing if not ambitious!

Though the first doses of reality might taste bitter, they really are the cure. The sooner you make peace with your limitations and accept them, the sooner you can put together realistic plans that account for them.

 

Choosing Which Story Matters Most)

Once you come to terms with the fact that not all of your ideas can be brought to life, you will naturally come to the question of which ones should be. The most obvious answer is whichever one is the most exciting to you.

That might be the best option, but I recommend pausing to be sure. Because again, since we are being realistic now, crafting that tale is going to take a long time. So maybe this idea is really exciting to you right now, but is it going to remain so? Sometimes the most profound of ideas sound ridiculously immature a couple years later.

We have a severe disadvantage here, because any answers will be mere conjecture. We cannot read the future and we do not know what sort of life experiences are going to fundamentally shift our paradigms. We can only reliably measure the past.

For that reason, I would recommend using the past to try and gauge the future. When I decided which novel to focus on I chose With the Beast because I had been continually circling back to it for five years already. The fact that I was still finding its underlying concepts important suggested that it really did matter.

Even if you don’t have any story ideas that extend back that far, you probably have interests or beliefs that do. What ideas have consistently mattered the most to you over the years? Could you develop a story about them?

 

It’s Better This Way)

Now I mentioned already that I have not only made peace with my imagination exceeding my capacity to write, but that I have found a beauty in it as well. Indeed I truly see it as a blessing, because the alternative would be far, far worse.

To live in complete fulfillment of one’s fantasy would leave one nothing more to dream of. I would rather finish my life with songs unsung, than to have not had enough to fill my life. And the day I write a story and find nothing to improve is the day I stop growing as an author.

It may not seem like a great blessing at first, but truly this is the proper order of things. To forever chase after that elusive ideal, and by so doing traverse many miles. Perhaps in heaven we will attain the full expression of our imagination, but so long as we were on earth let us have an endless chase.

 

For now my novel writing is entirely focused on With the Beast. Whatever I write after that I will determine then, but I certainly have many options to choose from! On Thursday I would like to share a glimpse into just one of those options. It is a pairing to two mood pieces, one on the subject of darkness and the other on light. There are characters mentioned in them, but both pieces were originally written in isolation, with no greater narrative in mind. As I suggested above, though, ideas that matter to you might provide an excellent foundation for weaving a story around. That was my experience with these pieces. Their moods continued to haunt me, and soon I found myself wrapping an outline over them. On Thursday I won’t be disclosing that plot, but I will share the two scenes that seeded that narrative.

Hopefully one day I will have time to write out that story. And hopefully if I do, I will be able to decently evoke the scenes that I envision for it. Regardless, I am happy just to think of such things and grateful to share some of them with you.

Choosing Your Scope

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Last week I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the things that stood out to me was that is a long film. It reminded me of how long watching Avengers: Infinity War felt last year, and as it turns out, those two films have almost exactly the same runtime.

But while these two films share the same length of time, their scopes are drastically different. Avengers features a central cast of nearly thirty and thousands of extras. It is peppered with constant dialogue and frequent set changes. 2001, meanwhile, features four main characters, and maybe two dozen extras. It has very few sets, and extremely sparse dialogue. Avengers seems more expansive, but 2001 seems deeper.

Neither film is wrong for its approach, they are just trying to accomplish different things. Each of them are epic in their own way. Avengers makes you feel like you’ve hurtled across multiple galaxies. 2001 invites you to sit in an environment, and gain a real understanding of its weight and feel. Avengers weaves together numerous points of conflict to ratchet up tension, 2001 accomplishes the same thing by making you witness the slow, methodical betrayal of a single AI.

The idea of choosing a scope is common to all forms of creativity. In the same canvas a painter could either create a sweeping landscape, or a closeup on a pair of hands. Both option has its own intrigue and beauty.

These perceived differences are not random, there is a direct correlation between time spent on a moment and its perceived weight. An author planning out their next work needs to be aware of this fact, and leverage it wisely.

 

The Amount of Time Matters)

It is true that one author might evoke powerful emotions with fewer words than another, and there is no simple formula that can tell you X number of pages will result in a particular level of emotional connection. That being said, we generally tend to give the most value to things that last a significant amount of time. We do this in life itself, but also in the stories we read.

A character that is introduced three pages prior will not be missed like one that has been present through the bulk of a novel. A daring rescue that takes a mere page to perform will not have as much tension as one that spreads across three chapters. Merely using words to suggest extremes are not sufficient. Telling me that the situation is “very, very dire” will never impact me so much as spending a significant amount of time in an oppressive atmosphere.

Also, the amount of time spent on one item relevant to another matters. Not everything in your story can be the most important. You want to direct the reader to the things that matter most by breezing past the unimportant and dwelling on the significant. Thus a waiter that takes the main character’s order should be limited to a sparse description, whereas the main villain would be etched out in detail.

In the example of Avengers, it is an extremely fast-paced story throughout, except for the rare moments where it pauses in scenes that are intended to convey the deepest emotional impact. Just by pausing to let us breathe in that space makes them all the more poignant as a result.

 

Breadth vs Depth)

I mentioned above that 2001: A Space Odyssey felt deeper than Avengers: Infinity War. I chose that word deliberately. The viewer feels as though they are being lowered into its atmosphere and having it permeate them to the core. Every setting in 2001 feels more real because of all the meticulous detail that is in them. The viewer feels like they are inhabiting a place that actually exists.

Avengers, on the other hand, is broader than 2001. Where 2001 evokes only a few powerful emotions, Avengers runs the entire spectrum from joy to despair. Its people and places may feel more pretend, but they have a sense of extending out of the periphery and into the infinite. There is a sense that there is always something more happening just around the corner.

Breadth and depth are mutually exclusive. One cannot write both of them into a scene at the same time. The moment we pause to focus on a detail, immediately we have narrowed the scope of that scene. It is possible to transition between the two, such as having a broad montage that changes to a single scene described in detail, but where one begins the other will end..

 

Finite Scope)

The last thing to consider about scope is that it is limited by its bounds. A common consideration when writing a story is how long it will be. Once that length has been determined, there remains a great variation in what it can cover, but there are some practical limits.

For example, trying to cram an epic into a 500 word short story would test that format’s limits, as would employing a 500,000 word trilogy to cover the events of a single day. Frankly, I have been on the wrong side a few times of fitting a scope to a story’s length. Even my most recent work, Instructions Not Included, is already pushing out of its boundaries.

I am currently writing the last segment of that story now, and I have found that it isn’t large enough to elegantly tie off all of the threads that I began. So instead of having complete closure, I have had to settle for completing the first act. That inflection point brings some sense of resolution, but also begins new arcs that extend beyond the length of my short story.

I’ve run into this issue with my short stories before. Without meaning to, this blog has been a place where I can test-drive longer form stories, and see which ones I remain interested in after the first ten thousand words. Sometimes you need to start writing a story first, until you understand what it wants its scope to be. Then you can select the length that will accommodate it. In any case, come back on Thursday to see the conclusion to Instructions Not Included, and I’ll share a little more about what I think its scope and length should be. I’ll see you there!

Or I Could Just Ramble On and On

cable rope loops
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Triple Writer’s Block)

It seems that every part of creating a story is tricky. Knowing where to begin is tricky, maintaining interest through a middle is tricky, and ending it all is tricky. In different stories, though, one of those three parts will be harder to pull of than the other two.

Beginnings are usually hard when your outline started with something vague like “there is a conflict between two families.” Perhaps you wrote that because you knew that your hero needed a background of strife to emerge from, but now you struggle to define just what the nature of that strife is. The beginnings of a story are usually used to establish the tone and atmosphere of a tale, something difficult to do when all you had accounted for was events and dialogue.

Middles are difficult when you know where your characters come from, and you know were they wind up…but not how they get there. This is an easy dilemma to get into, because the first ideas for a story are often based around an interesting contrast. Something like “a man wakes up with awesome power, but eventually he learns to relinquish it for love.” That’s great, there’s a beginning, an ending, and an interesting voyage suggested in between. But now you have to turn that “suggested” into something more concrete.

And finally, endings are difficult when the initial motivation for writing the story was to explore an atmosphere or concept. Writing is a very meditative exercise, and sometimes an author simply wants to hash out an idea that’s weighing on their mind, to slowly walk within themselves and process what they find. Such sojourns can be quite fruitful, leading to an entire gold mine of new discoveries. That is all well and good for a beginning and a middle, but now how does one cap off such a wistful wandering in a way that is satisfying?

Today we’ll focus on just this last quandary, how to end a story that doesn’t want to finish.

 

See What Your Story Wants to Be)

My story Does What He Must actually began with no particular ending in mind. My notes simply stated that I wanted a character who did increasingly impressive feats one after another, always rising to the occasion to do what had to be done. And then he was supposed to face some penultimate and impossible task, something the audience would feel he couldn’t do because it broke the laws of physics or something like that. But then, to their surprise, he would simply grit his teeth and do that impossible thing, simply because that was just the natural continuation of his arc. And that was as specific as my notes on the story were.

So I just started writing. I came up with his background at random, and started working through a series of escalating challenges for him. All the while I was trying to figure out what this nebulous “penultimate and impossible task” would be, but nothing came to mind. I simply continued writing until I reached the point where the final act should go, and then I paused.

At this point I reread everything I had written, looking for some subconscious arc that I might have imbued into the tale. Much to my delight, there absolutely was one. I realized that the whole piece had been very family-centric, and so the ending should maintain that theme. I also realized that I had shown my main character performing miracles for his wife, his friends, his brothers in arms, and even strangers, but still had not done one for his son, who was the narrator of the tale. And thirdly I realized that this Old-West-Tall-Tale format practically begged for him to become a legend whose influence extended beyond the grave.

As I made note of all these points the only proper ending was obvious. I needed for my character to die in one of his miracles, but then still come through as a ghost (or an angel) for his son. This end fit with all of the themes I had been writing, both conscious and sub-conscious, and it made the whole experience complete.

 

Fictionalize Your Epiphanies)

As I mentioned at the top, a most common reason for beginning a story without an ending is because you just want to explore a concept that you are curious about. It might be a new technology, a strange setting, a philosophical question, or a real-life drama. You want to wrap your head around it, and writing gives you time to walk around in that concept and get a real feel for it.

In these situations, the answer to how to end your story might be staring you in the face. The fact is, people that spend enough time exploring an idea often find out something about it, something that wasn’t obvious from the outset. Though it is easier said than done, all an author needs to do to close their story is have it teach those same epiphanies.

Currently, I am trying to find a way to take this same approach for Instructions Not Included. I began that story with the desire to explore a simple notion: the process of scientific research and discovery. I thought it would be fun to take an idea that is usually so stiff and prickly, and turn it into something fun and playful. As I did so, I found my mind coming to rest on an important principle of inventions: creativity is a great power, and he who wields it is responsible to employ it well.

Like I said, turning an epiphany into a plot point is easier said than done. I’m still trying to figure out a way to actually implement this idea in my story, but I do have hopes that I’ll figure something out by Thursday!

 

Let a Meditation be a Meditation)

If the above approaches fail for you, then my last recommendation is that you perhaps just let your story be what it is: endless. I think stories with rich endings are wonderful things, I think they are important, I think humans depend on this structure to learn some of life’s greatest truths.

But none of that means that every time a pen touches a page it has to create a story with an ending. There’s no need to be so limiting in our idea of literature. Not everything has to neatly fit into categories like story, research paper, or instruction manual. Some things can just exist within their own sphere without having to justify their existence.

One of my favorite short pieces on this blog is Deep Forest, and that particular piece really doesn’t have a proper ending at all. I began writing it by wanting to explore an atmosphere that was so ancient it had become timeless. I wanted to capture a deep and heavy nature, one that knew no civilization or history. I had a lot of fun writing it, but when it came time to finish I didn’t have a proper ending in mind. I couldn’t see any arcs that needed to be concluded and there weren’t any epiphanies that it had to offer, it just kind of was what it was and that was it. So I posted it anyhow.

In hindsight, I realize it would have simply been wrong to tack an ending onto an exercise in timelessness. The fact is the only way for that story to have ended was without an ending at all. Though I did not realize this at the time, I am glad I went with my instincts.

 

All of these solutions come down to the same root though, that first idea of letting your story be what it wants to be. If you’ve written your tale properly, then it has its own ambience and tone, its own themes and styles, its own wants and desires. By knowing your story thoroughly, you will naturally gravitate to the end that is right for it.

On Thursday we’ll see what sort of ending I come up with for Instructions Not Included. Presently my hope is that I’ll be able to incorporate that epiphany I mentioned earlier, thus giving it a sense of thematic closure. At the same time I want to leave it with a sense of ongoing adventure, and so I will want to leave the plot somewhere more open-ended, as I did with Deep Forest. But more than anything else, I want to give it an ending that feels right with its personality. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!