Making a List, Checking it Numerous Times

notebook
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Some Theoretical Lists)

Last week I mentioned that a story can often be broken into a series of lists. The most obvious of these is a list of sequential events, which give the scenes from start to finish.

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

Another set of lists would be that of character-arcs, which might show the gradual progression of simpletons into heroes.

  1. Our main character begins without any concern for the world at large
  2. The loss of his home and loved ones helps him to see that the broader strokes of the world are invading his life, whether he likes it or not
  3. He still needs a final push before accepting his destiny, which occurs when the old man urges him to stand up for what is right, but he refuses, inadvertently opening the door for that man’s death

At some point in the planning process an author takes each of these individual strands, and tries weaving them together in a story. At this point you might get more granular lists, such as the information that needs to be passed in a piece of dialogue.

  1. The hero comes to the conversation, trying to justify why he is running away, and why the old man should as well.
  2. The old man is nonplussed, says that if the boy has already made his determination then he ought to get a move on.
  3. Something is gnawing away at the boy, though: his conscience. He doesn’t just want the master to excuse him, he wants the master to absolve him of his guilt, which obviously isn’t going to happen.
  4. So the boy gets angry and reveals a hidden wound. He asks the old man where he was when the boy’s village got sacked. Where was honor and dignity then?

And as you see, we’re already well on our way towards a completed story, even before we’ve written a single word of dialogue or described any scenery. It is interesting to note that for all of the details we do have, this story could still exist in a plethora of different times and settings. All that we really have are the lists, a skeletal framework which could be covered in many clothes.

 

Making a List Interesting)

Of course, it is easy to write a list, but far more difficult to write an interesting one. And it is even more difficult to weave individual threads, even if they are good, into a cohesive whole. It takes time to get this foundation right, but if you do, it will pay rich dividends down the road. Here are two things to remember if your outlines are feeling a little flat.

Escalation)

Let’s consider the sample plot points I provided above. We began in a tranquil village, then we destroyed it, then we had the lone survivor awaken in a foreign environment. Each point escalates the boy’s situation and the list feels far better for it. If things were to start at the climax, and then moved towards flatness, things would feel off. Once our sense of suspense has been raised, we expect it to continue on.

The same escalation was also at work in the conversation outline as well. The boy begins by trying to justify himself, is denied the absolution he seeks, and escalates to wounded rage. Many scenes start in a quiet place, get agitated, and see the characters leave in a huff. This escalation does not necessarily capture the ebb and flow of real life, but it does result in a more arresting narrative.

Conflict)

With conflict I do not just mean war and violence, but rather weaving together different threads so that competing desires come to an impasse with one another. In the boy’s argument with the master we have the elder’s need to stand up for what’s right, and the boy’s need to run from his fears. Presumably the story would have already hinted at this tension in prior scenes, and this moment is where that conflict finally reaches a breaking point between them.

But also note that there can be conflict within a single thread as well. With my second list, that detailing the arc of just the boy, we can feel how he is of two minds about what he should do. The invasion of an army and the argument with his master are only personifications of his fighting with his own conscience.

 

Tension and escalation are key to writing a compelling story, and they should permeate even the highest level of an outline. The careful and intentional inclusion of them is one of the reasons why fictional narratives feel more vibrant and interesting than most historical summaries.

 

Dressing it Up)

Once you have a good skeleton, then you need to get some meat on those bones. Because in the end people don’t pick up a book to read a list, they want to read a story. Lists are rigid and artificial, stories feel organic and alive. One way to obfuscate the existence of a list is to make it too complex to recognize it as such. This should be a core consideration when weaving all those multiple threads together for your story. Is there enough variation that the reader doesn’t see the trees through the forest?

Another way to make a story feel more organic is to allow wiggle room within your rigidly defined structure. So let’s take my theoretical story from above. Remember that the master and young boy escaped to an idyllic village, which is then beset by the same enemy horde that destroyed the boy’s village. This leads to the confrontation between master and pupil, where the boy wants to run out of fear and the master wants to stay and help a lost cause.

All that is well and fine, but between the plot points of arrive at village and enemy horde comes to destroy it there could be any number of organic interludes. Perhaps the two are treated to a peaceful respite, where for a moment the boy is allowed to believe that his problems are behind him. Maybe he starts flirting with a street vendor’s daughter, which arc will be tragically cut short when the enemy horde arrives. Any number of things might happen, which serve to develop character, establish tone, and also to hide the transition from Plot Point A to B.

 

On Thursday I’ll be posting the next entry in my short story The Soldier’s Last Sleep. Try to pick out the list structure for how one event follows another in the trenches. Watch for how there is an escalation of danger, as well as how Private Bradley and the larger military organization feel the tension of clashing priorities. Last of all, take a look at how I smooth the shift from one point in the plot to the next. I hope this is helpful, and I’ll see you there!

Update on My Novel: Month 9

black pen near white printer paper
Photo by lalesh aldarwish on Pexels.com

JANUARY STATS
Days Writing: 18
New Words: 6,360
New Chapters: 1.5

Total Word-count: 33,297
Total Chapters: 9

January had me writing quite a bit more than in December, so that was nice. Of course my goal was to write for 22 days, and I missed four of them, so not 100% but I’ll take it. I did complete the chapter that I was working on in the middle of in December, as well as write out one more. Chapters 8 began the transition from the first act into the second, and Chapter 9 concluded that switch. It feels very good to have that part down, and be off to new things.

I have now spent three-fourths of a year diligently working on this book. It took a little bit to find my cadence, and I obviously haven’t hit every goal, but I am consistent and dependable overall. At last I really have a sense of confidence that I will complete this story, and that is a very empowering thing to feel. In the past my writing was a fling that would come and go, and I was always frustrated at my inability to finish anything. Now I know that I will get this done, even if there are momentary disruptions….

Speaking of disruptions, let’s take a look at February, shall we? Right now, my wife and I are less than 48 hours from the induction for the birth of our second child.

Hello disruption!

I have no idea what I’ll be accomplishing with this novel during the month of February. I have no idea how whether I’ll even be able to keep up with the regular postings on this blog. But I do know that when we piece back together the new normal for our family, that writing and this story will be an ongoing part of that plan.

So I won’t be making any goals for February, I’ll just get done what I get done, and I’ll give you an update on March 1st for how the month went.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Two

grayscale photography of trees
Photo by Dương Nhân on Pexels.com

Part One

It was a dense and gray thing, utterly impenetrable twenty yards in. The morning light was a cool gray, diffused through the fog until it became ambient volume. The illumination didn’t appear to have a single source, seemingly emanating from every direction at once, so that there weren’t any shadows to be seen in any direction. It made the setting dream-like, ethereal and tranquil if not for the knowledge of what was coming. It was a single, mutual death-shroud, draped across them all.

“Fog? How can we have fog way up on this hill?” Private Holt asked incredulously.

“You’re from Minnesota, Holt,” Hastings drawled. “Not all fogs are mists sprung out of a lake, you know, some of them are clouds dropped down from above.”

“They wouldn’t charge in the fog, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. It was still early when the shelling stopped, and then it didn’t take long to hear the churning of boots. But of course no matter how hard you peered into the gray no forms could be made out. Even the sounds were muted and diffused through the mist, seeming to come at them as a formless wall, impossible to make out distance or direction.

Private Bradley pulled his rifle close to his cheek–Hastings was still in command of the mounted machine gun–and had a brief fantasy that there was no army coming. They existed behind a curtain, and that curtain might as well be an entire world. Yes the enemy marched, but only in his dreams.

“Ready! Fire!” another Sergeant some forty feet away called, and then all the other squad leaders echoed the call, their voices running on each other like the lapping of a brook. All at once the crack of gunfire rang out, and streams of bullets fired into the mist.

Though they fired blindly, sharp cries of pain rose up to mingle with the steady rhythm of marching. Of course Bradley never knew if he had been the one to hit his foe, or whether the man next to him had. So each successive shot was just as much a roll of the dice as before.

Fiery tracers scorched further into the great marshmallow than the other ammunition did. Sometimes they would make it eighty yards before their ember was snuffed in the soup. And then, all at once, one of those tracers from Bradley’s own rifle made contact with an enemy helmet, eliciting a bright shower of sparks against the void of white. Just like that the trance was broken and the threat was real. It had been seen!

Bradley fired again and again. At the end of each clip, as he rammed in the next, he would glance to the side where Hastings manned the big gun. Was Hastings sweeping the gun at the right height, Bradley wondered? Was he taking down enough of their foes?

It seemed that more bullets than usual were raining around Hastings, and the thought occurred to Bradley that the machine gun’s muzzle was probably the only one bright enough for the enemy to see. He was about to say something to that effect when one of those bullets cut Hastings down without so much as a whimper.

“Oh–” Sergeant began, but before he could even process what had happened Bradley dashed over to take the gun. He didn’t even pause to check whether Hastings was already dead or not. He knew.

The familiar rumble of the gun’s handles reopened the blisters that had been forming on his hands since last night. He grit his teeth, pressing his helmet tighter on his head, so that there only existed the narrowest slit between it and the top of the trench for his eyes to rove behind. Ricocheted bullets clattered against his skull like a haymaker, and flecks of rock and mud kicked into his face.

The enemy was shouting now, and Bradley kept expecting to see them burst onto the scene, a thousand men right in front of them all at once. His hand was shaking, and his grip on the trigger slipped. He clutched back on to it, and pressed his elbow against the earth wall for steadying support.

Through his narrow line of sight he could see the first evidences of the approaching enemy. It was grayish patches against the wall of murky white, oversized forms, not yet recognizable as human. But as the soldiers that cast those shadows drew nearer, the forms grew smaller and more like a man’s, so that when at last they did burst out of the mist it seemed as though the shadows had given birth to flesh and blood.

Which blood flowed in stark ribbons of crimson against the pillow of white. Bradley kept his gun on its steady swivel. His arms ached, his fingers bled, and he ground his teeth together to keep his aim straight. He held the line, not out of loyalty, but out of purebred terror. Vaguely he sensed the enemy flowing into the trench just twenty feet to the left. No matter, he couldn’t worry about it. They would have to deal with it there, just as how his squad had to deal with the soldiers leaping in front of them.

Another foe burst out of the mist after another. Three of them all at once. Bradley cut them all down, but in the meantime another five had sprung out.

He took four of them and Sergeant took one.

Another seven appeared.

All seven were cut down by their joint effort, but now there were nine, and they were already half of the way from the fog’s end to the trench.

Then Bradley knew that there would that there would be fighting in the trench for his squad, too, and the only question was how long he held to his machine gun before turning to his knife.

Could he let go of his gun at all? For if he paused to cut down a man beside him, the benefit of it would be undone–and then some–by the greater number of foes that would make it to their line a second later. He would have to hold to his station, and hold to it until he was cut down. It would be up to his comrades to–

Click!

The belt ran out again, and there was no more Private Hastings to replace it!

Mad with terror Private Bradley kicked open the box of ammunition and seized a fresh line. He felt the forms of four enemy soldiers spilling into the trench. His comrades fought them while his back was turned. He raced the belt up to the top of the gun, opened the top, threw the bullets across, closed the top, pulled back the ball, and…

There was no one before him. In those critical moments without his aid, the enemy had still made their retreat. His knees buckled before he knew anything, and his arms threw into the muddy wall for support. His face pressed into the moist earth, cooling his feverish brow as his air exhaled in great gusts, as if it hurried to escape him for want of a safer host.

“Up! Up!” the Sergeant cried. “Shoot them as the run! Don’t let them think about turning around now!”

It was the only notion that could have roused Bradley back onto his feet. Fresh fear pumped through his veins, and gave him strength to stand and shoot another five minutes until they were truly sure that no more specters would emerge from the cloud.

“Why–why haven’t they started shelling again?” Private Dunny asked after another quarter hour had elapsed.

Strangely enough, the sound of shells had become a relief to them, as it had proven the final confirmation that no more waves of enemies would approach them for a few more hours.

“You men better stay hot on your feet now!” Sergeant ordered.

In his head, Private Bradley knew that this was probably just a mind-game from the other side. Save their shells, but send no men. They knew the prolonged terror that would evoke, constantly staring at the fog, straining one’s ears for an approach, and unable to rest the nerves because of it.

But what else could Bradley and his men do? The entire value of such a tactic was to leave the trench-defenders exhausted, so that they would be easier overrun when the assault finally did come. And so the assault would come, sooner or later, and a constant watch had to be maintained for it.

Or maybe the artillery had broken apart. Or maybe they really were trying to mount another charge right now, before the fog had wholly lifted.

What else could Bradley and his men do other than wait and watch?

And so they stood there, peering out into the whiteness, each minute feeling like an hour, and going past one-by-one until actual hours had elapsed. Then the deep exhaustion began to set in. This was no run-of-the-mill fatigue, either, they could feel the weariness deep in their bones. Every muscle was at least doubly-expended, every nerve had been fired to the point of burning out. There was nothing left to give.

Still they didn’t dare lower their heads, but they stared forward with blank and vacant expressions, unseeing though with eyes wide open. No words escaped their lips, neither idle chit-chat nor irritated grumbling. They did not live in this moment, they merely occupied a physical space for a time.

They did not even stir when a courier came down the line, passing a message along to each Sergeant. Though words were spoken audibly enough for them to hear, they did not process them.

“I’m sorry,” Sergeant said to his men. “It seems we won’t be getting relieved today. More fighting off to the East and they had to take our reinforcements down that way.”

“Mm,” Private Bradley said. Really a part within him felt very sad about that, but he just didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.

There was only one sound that could pull them out of their reverie, and at last they heard it: the stomping of boots in the distance.

“How are they able to keep sending men at us?” Private Dunny asked. “It can’t be the same ones over and over, they couldn’t possibly get anyone to do that fool charge more than once!”

“Oh no?” Private Holt replied dryly. “Yet how many fool charges have they been able to get you to repel?”

Now there was no more discussion to be had. Once more the trenches came alive in a row of fire, a thousand burning bullets streaking into the mist, lost from sight, to puncture bodies and kick up mud in another world. Another world that was invading on their own, and growing closer every moment to breaking upon them.

Private Bradley’s hands protested as soon as they touched the rough iron of the machine gun’s handles, his blisters burst in bloody fountains immediately, knowing it was vain to try and hold out against the constant chafing of the machine rattling back and forth a million times per second. But there was nothing for it. Private Bradley couldn’t leave the line, so his hands couldn’t leave the gun. Both of them just had to see the ordeal through.

And the worst part was knowing that as much terror as he felt now, this was only the beginning, and that even if they made it through this charge as well, that success wouldn’t be achieved for another eternity. He would have to swallow an entire epoch of trauma, much too large for any man to stomach, just as he had each time before. Each time he had known he didn’t have it in him to see this through, and perhaps this time he would be right.

Even so, that inconvenient instinct to cling to life still persisted, and somehow made him shoulder the burden of his own survival. If he was going to fall, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying to stand. They may cut him down, but that is what they would have to do: cut him down. No one would walk by him easily.

Suddenly the cloud burst apart in a thousand warriors all at once. New troops, fresh troops, ones that had sprinted all the last fifteen minutes to catch the trench-men unawares!

“Oh no!” Private Dunny screamed beside Bradley.

And then, there came the most horrible miracle that Private Bradley had ever witnessed, a blinding yellow light blossomed at the feet of those men and heaved them into pieces. A terrible shockwave rent the air, and spat mud and dirt like shrapnel into Private Bradley’s squad. They were all flung backwards in an instant, nearly buried in the avalanche of filth.

And then another shell pounded into the turf. And then another.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I mentioned last week how I wanted the audience to feel the depth of Private Bradley’s struggles, and how I was attempting to accomplish that by presenting a detailed description of all that occurred to him. We’re now several thousand words into his experience, and still going strong. I personally feel that all this material is interesting in its own right, and so I don’t mind that it’s taking its time.

This ability to stretch plot points into full and interesting narrative requires an unusual skill that I am still trying to develop: that of making lists interesting. When you get right down to it, everything that takes place in stories can be reduced into a series of lists. The overall outline is a list of plot points, the dialogue is a list of information to be exchanged, and even character arcs are a sequential list of changes that happen over time.

In the initial stages of developing a story you have to review those lists, fill in the ones that have holes, and make sure that each item logically follows the one prior. And then, after you’ve gotten everything into a nice and tidy list format, you then need to relate them to the reader in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like they’re just being read a list!

On Monday we’ll discuss a bit more of how lists work in the structure of a story. We will also consider what makes the difference between a “good” list and a “bad” one. I’ll see you then.

…And Then the Hero Stalls For Time

doodle comic art sketch
Photo by khairul nizam on Pexels.com

Talking to People)

In my life I have spoken to people, and as such, I have listened to my fair share of life stories that dragged on and on with no end in sight. People, myself included, are desperate for whatever attention they can get, and deeply reluctant to let go once they have it.

This tendency naturally leads to “embellishing the facts” and making one’s story as grandiose as possible. Because if you can entertain everyone with what you’re saying, they just might let you keep the spotlight for a little longer. Its one of the greatest rewards we bestow as a society, and defines the function of a celebrity.

In my post from a week ago I broadly covered the element of exaggeration in story-telling. Today want I want to focus on a very specific element of it. Not exaggeration where we say something in an extreme way, but where we say something an extreme number of times.

Going back to the painfully-familiar example of listening to overlong life stories, I have often noted how an amateur will try to really, really, really sell the magnitude of their experience by just saying the same thing over and over.

So I doubled up, because I was in so much pain. Like, I’m serious, it was bad. Really bad. Like think of whatever the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced is. Okay? And now multiple that by a thousand and you’re just starting to understand how much I suffered. You get what I’m sayin’ here? It hurt really bad. So much. A lot. Tons…

You can go through the thesaurus and just repeat every term for pain that you come across, or you can try to say it in a way that is succinct, yet expressive.

Let me tell you, I’ve passed kidney stones like the Rock of Gibraltar, and they weren’t nothing compared to this!

So here we’re exaggerating facts more than repeating words, and achieving the same effect more succinctly.  Or are we? Because here’s the thing, sometimes you really would rather have more words than fewer. Or better yet, have more words, but make them each of the quality of the fewer. Be clever and expressive, but also long-winded by design.

 

Letting a Scene Breathe)

Why? Because words can take time to sink in, and even well-written ones can be glossed over if the listener is too quickly ushered on to new plot points. Sometimes you just want to pause in a space and let the audience feel it for a little while. Consider this famous soliloquy from Juliet:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

And right here it could stop. We’ve established her conflict and her resolution. Romeo hails from the worst possible of families, and it would be far better for her if he renounced his heritage. Yet even if he does not, she would renounce her own to be with him. Yet the soliloquy does not end here…it continues, repeating the same basic ideas a few times over.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

And though nothing has been added to the story’s outline, yet the atmosphere of her tormented longing is more complete.

 

Making Long Things Take a Long Time)

Another reason for letting a moment breathe is so that the reader has an appropriate appreciation for its magnitude. The Lord of the Rings is known for its frequent and rich descriptions of the countryside that the fellowship travel through on their epic journey.

Now the story could have said “and Mount Doom was very, very far away, over a few mountains even! And so the fellowship trekked over hundreds and hundreds of miles to get there.” But even though the words literally communicate a vast distance, the fact that they can be described within a couple of sentences subconsciously signals to the reader that this must have been a pretty unimpressive stroll.

It isn’t necessary to make a 1-to-1 translation, where every single hour of the fellowship’s journey is accounted for by an hour’s worth of reading material, but it is important that reading out the details of their expedition does take some time. And that is why you get many, many long descriptions of the scenery, such as this:

Northward the dale ran up into a glen of shadows between two great arms of the mountains, above which three white peaks were shining: Celebdil, Fanuidhol, Caradhras, the Mountains of Moria. At the head of the glen a torrent flowed like a white lace over an endless ladder of short falls, and a mist of foam hung in the air about the mountains’ feet…

And so it continues, for more than five times as long in this particular example, with only the briefest of interruptions where one character or another comments on what they are seeing. After reading all that, the audience feels like they have gone on the journey with the fellowship! They have invested time and mental energy, have seen the landscape slowly shift and slide, have measured for themselves how epic an undertaking this really is.

This was my thinking when I exhaustively detailed how Private Bradley’s defended his trench in the latest entry of my short story, and how I will continue to do so in the next. I could have abbreviated this period of fighting, and skipped straight to the moment when he retires to bed. But had I done so, the reader would only have been hearing about his exhaustion, they would not be experiencing it with him. Really I want the reader to be able to sense his fatigue directly, and the best way to do that is to make them stand through a volume of words, even as Bradley stands through a volume of foes.

Hopefully this volume of words will be interesting for my readers, though, and they won’t think I’m just rambling on and on, hogging all of the limelight when I ought to shut up and give it to someone else….

I’ll stop talking now.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part One

action aim armed army

Private Bradley was tired even before he got to the trenches. He had spent the two days previous running up and down the medical tents, assisting wherever possible. He had no medical training whatsoever, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t deliver messages, fetch fresh bandages, remove bedpans, push beds into new wings, restrain comrades during impromptu surgeries, and carry bodies to the grave-site.

The entire camp was overrun by the tides of wounded being brought back from the front. Either you sat in the trenches getting shelled, or you took care of those that had been shelled, while waiting for your turn to go take their place. Having two days to see the effects of where they would soon be deployed was a great cruelty to Private Bradley and his squad.

Eventually the orders came, as they knew they must, and Private Bradley left the medical tent, wondering in what manner he might return to it. He grabbed his gear, stepped into the back of a truck, and jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with his squad over muddy potholes as the sound of artillery bursting grew louder and louder up ahead. Then the truck stopped and they were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way, as the road now became too steep for vehicles.

So they crawled up the muddy incline, slipping on their bellies, and sloshing back to their knees, over and over, until by the time they reached the top of the hill they were already in full earth-camouflage. The squad were led to the fifteen-foot stretch of the trench for which they would be responsible, about a quarter mile East, and firmly in the middle of the hilltop.

“Here, you hold this,” their Sergeant said, pulling Bradley’s hands onto a machine gun that was propped on top of the earth-wall and pointed in the general direction of the enemy lines.

“I haven’t handled anything like this since basic training, sir,” Bradley said.

“Luckily for us, the enemy is not aware of that fact. So if it’s alright with you, we’ll continue as ordered, Bradley?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Just be sure to keep it clean, loaded, and pointing down that line. You’ll know what to do when it comes to it.”

“Are we going to be seeing a lot of action, sir?” Private Dunny asked.

“You saw the men brought back from the line just as well as I did,” the Sergeant returned. “It isn’t going to be any picnic, men, that’s for sure. I’m told we shouldn’t expect any heavy artillery or armor, the mud is too thick for either side to field much more than infantry. But there will be plenty of that, and apparently they rush our line a few times every day. Our orders are simple, do not let them through.”

It was a simple affair, but also a grueling one. The light artillery kept up a constant barrage, but it was less of a threat than a nuisance. It was too small to actually reach their line, and so it burst peacefully over the middle of the plateau. Its main effect was to produce enough noise that no one could get any sleep. When it finally stopped, that was the worst of all, because then you knew the enemy infantry was marching forward.

Thus the silence hit like a deafening roar, and instantly every man seized his gun and waited with bated breath, watching the plateau for dirty mounds that moved. On occasion a tumbleweed would blow past and a nervous infantryman would open fire, which would set off a half dozen of his neighbors until the Sergeants shouted at them to get a grip.

Sometimes there was no approach, the enemy had just stopped shelling to mess with their heads. Or maybe something had gone wrong with the artillery and they had to replace a part before carrying on.

Most times, though, the enemy came. Like a swarm of overgrown ants, rushing over one another, pounding for the edge of the hill. Then all the guns came alive, and bodies started dropping here and there.

Private Bradley pulled the trigger and his machine gun vibrated hard against his hands. It was difficult to aim, and he tore up more clumps of grass and soil than he did of flesh and bone.

Still, every now and then he managed to drop one of the charging horde. Then another, and another. Yet on the enemy would press. Three hundred yards, two hundred, one hundred. They started to drop more quickly, and now came the great test. Would enough of them fall to break the charge?

They were near enough now that you could hear their own commanders screaming the men forward with foreign threats. Those commanders knew that they did not have to chase their men all the way to the line, only near enough that turning and running was as sure a doom as pushing forward to the trench. Where was that point of no return? Thirty yards? Fifteen?

Private Bradley’s Sergeant knew this game, too, and he hopped up and down, shouting at his men to hold to their terrible contest.

Seventy-five yards and you could start to see holes in the enemy’s line.

Sixty-five and their barbaric shouts were starting to tremble.

Fifty-five and a few of them were starting to pull back, but the main mass had not yet noticed.

Forty-five and they flinched in unison, covering their vitals with their arms, turning, and sprinting away as fast as possible.

Private Bradley’s squad had earned the right to live another few hours. They gripped the top of the trench for support, their knees shaking beneath them as cold sweat broke across their brows. They watched to be sure that the enemy really was gone, then collapsed to the ground one at a time.

For as prickly as their Sergeant could be, he allowed them these moment to unclench. He himself clambered out of the rut, crouched down, and kept watch for another wave. He had to crouch, because his own legs were shaking just as much as the rest of them.

The relief was not allowed for long, though. As soon as Sergeant was sure that the enemy was not returning he ordered his men out of the ditch. “Move those bodies! Can’t have them blocking our sight-lines for the next time they charge.”

And so they lumbered about in the mud, one man grabbing shoulders and another grabbing feet, and hauling them one-by-one to a ditch at the end of the hill. It was long, slow work, and all the longer and slower when they were more effective in their shooting. They did not clear out all of the bodies of course, there was no time for that, but any that had fallen within the nearest hundred yards.

One nightmare concluded, only to repeat again before a quarter-day had passed. And as it turned out, the first assault had been one of the less successful ones employed by the enemy. Most times a crest or two of their wave would break into the trenches, where a vicious struggle would leave many of the men dead on both sides. How many charges could there be, Private Bradley wondered, before it was his squad’s turn to be overrun by the invaders? And what if it was not their squad that let the enemy in, but the one right beside them?

Bradley wished he hadn’t been assigned the machine gun. With its greater firepower, he felt that so much of the burden fell upon his own shoulders. Though at the same time, Bradley would rather depend on himself than upon any other. Sergeant never offered to let another man take a turn, and Bradley did not ask him too. He just silently added the crippling pressure of it to his bag of traumas.

Eventually night came.

“They wouldn’t charge in the night, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. About an hour after midnight the next wave came, and this was a new terror in its own right. One could hear the enemy thundering towards them through the mud, yet not see them to shoot properly. Only one shot in a hundred was any good now. So flares were fired into the air, and the black emptiness was suddenly illuminated as bright as day. It was a scene so strange and fantastic, that it seemed lifted straight from the pages of some ancient fairy tale.

The pink-purple tail of the flare arcing against the ink-black sky, the burning zenith like a star of glory overhead, and beneath it all thousands of shifting, black bodies, tumbling over one another, driving to spill their blood in the trench.

And then blackness again and shooting where the bodies had been, and then another flare was shot up and the dark tide was closer. Again and closer. Again and closer. And then they were so near that Bradley could see them even without the flare. Bathed in the cold moonlight they appeared less like black demons, and more like pale ghosts, and only a dozen paces from where he and his squad stood now!

Bradley forgot how chafed his hands were and gripped the machine gun all the more tightly, wildly swinging it left and right in a wide arc, cutting the men through at the chest as he had been taught in basic training. He was getting quite good at it now.

Click!

His belt ran empty and he cursed at Private Hastings to put another in while he drew out his pistol and fired at the nearest phantom of them all. Two of the enemy spilled into their ranks, but closer to Bradley’s comrades, who dealt with them as Hastings snapped shut the top of the machine gun.

“Ready!”

Bradley grabbed the gun and began harvesting souls once more. His heart heaved within him and intoxicating blood pounded through his veins. He slipped into a death-trance, waving the gun in an unfaltering rhythm as a constant shout echoed through his dry throat.

The next thing he knew his men were crowded around him, prying his hands off the weapon.

“Save the ammo!” Sergeant was shouting. “They’re already gone!”

Hastings was given command of the machine gun and Bradley was told to get some rest.

But there would be no rest. How could he lay down with the promise of another charge in only a few hours more, and with the bursting of shells resuming in the air, and with the memories of ghostly warriors running down every time he closed his eyes? No, Bradley sat in a stupor, but he did not sleep. Though his bones were creaking and his knees were shaking he could not relax the racks in his mind.

When his brain had cooled enough to think, he at least comforted himself with the knowledge that at least things could not get any worse. He was quite wrong, though, for he had not accounted for the fog that rolled in the very next day.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I explained in my last post that I wanted to write a story about being totally and deeply exhausted. The idea for this story began a little while ago, with a moment of imagination. I was coming to bed at the end of a very busy day, and I felt absolutely dog-tired. Not long before, my wife and I had been watching episodes of M*A*S*H, and in that show there are a few times where the doctors stumble into their barracks after more than 24 hours of surgery. They collapse on their beds, sometimes dead to the world before they can even take off their boots.

Well I felt tired now, too, and I fancied myself as a soldier, returning back to camp after spending more than 48 hours holding the line under the most grueling of situations. Such an extreme tiredness I thought that must be, such a complete level of fatigue. Just by imagining myself in those shoes I felt all the more tired, and it did not take me long to fall asleep.

Now I know that that is silly, but such is the nature of imagination. It takes one’s situation, no matter how mundane, and then magnifies it to the most epic proportions it can conceive of.

The fact is, all of us want to believe we are the hero in a most wonderful story. And so our first crush is not just some puppy love, it is the greatest love story ever told, right up there with the likes of Romeo and Juliet! Being turned down for a job is not merely an unfortunate setback, it is an outrageous discrimination, so severe that it is criminal!

Some may call it romanticizing life…and some may call it having an overwrought ego, but there it is all the same.

My own little going-to-bed fantasy returned the next time I went to bed exhausted. I imagined myself in the boots of a soldier returning from the trenches, but instead of exploring my sense of self-indulgence, I found myself curious now to know who this man actually was. What had happened on the trench that he had just come from? What was his experience as he slept? Did he get his fill of sleep or was he interrupted? What exactly did he awaken to?

This story is my way of answering those questions, and thus far I am certainly taking my time with the very first one. On Thursday I will be continuing with his adventures in the trenches, and probably won’t even let him get to his cot until a week after that! To really sell the fatigue that he is experiencing, I wanted to take my time in the grueling work of war.

To accomplish this, I simply came up with a handful of different experiences that he would have in the trenches, but then weighed each of those moments down with a gravity of words. I’d like to take a closer look at this concept: how we give space to the moments in our stories, and do so without becoming wordy and redundant. Come back on Monday as we consider this feat, and until then have a wonderful weekend.

I Swear, the Fish Was This Big!

white and black koi fish
Photo by Nika Akin on Pexels.com

Well That’s Overdramatic)

Moby Dick is a lot of fun to read. The prose is grandiose, and the wordplay is incredibly imaginative. If I’m being honest, sometimes the text is so rich that it washes over me thicker than I can understand it…but I still feel encompassed by the intended atmosphere even so. One of my favorite examples of its passages reads as follows:

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

What wonderful imagery: a chest for a cannon and a heart for a shell! But is there a reason to such thick poetry? Could this have been expressed in a more straightforward manner?

Honestly, it seems a hard thing to do. What sort of succinct, easily comprehensible sentence would have captured the same meaning as the original?

Ahab was extremely angry, so much so that he felt as if his heart might burst right out from his chest.

For one, I still ended up using a hyperbole, that of a heart bursting from a chest, though I wrote it in a far more common form. But even so, it just does not have the same punch as what came before, and no matter of adding verys (Ahab was very, very, very…angry) would ever make the second form as impactful as the first. It isn’t really quantifiable, there is just something about poetry that hits a depth of emotion that can’t be captured otherwise.

 

Truth Through Untruths)

This is a key misunderstanding between father and son in the novel and film Big Fish. Edward Bloom has only ever told his son stories from his past in the form of tall tales. He refuses to ever give a straight answer, always spinning impossibly fantastic yarns instead. It get so that when the son grows up, he feels that he doesn’t know his father at all.

As frustrated as the son is with his father’s style, Edward feels just as frustrated with his son’s more practical approach to sharing events.

He would have told it wrong anyway. All the facts and none of the flavor.

Because when Edward Bloom tells you a story, he isn’t trying to explain the events in the way that a surveillance camera would have captured them, he wants to explain them in the way his heart felt at the time. As the title suggests, it is the same impetus behind all “big fish” stories. No, the trout I caught wasn’t really 200 pounds, but it felt that way when I was tugging on the line.

When two lovers break up, they probably don’t really think that they will never be happy again…but in this moment that is how it feels. We resort to hyperbole to communicate the truths that actually true statements cannot.

 

Quality Prose)

Of course, not just any hyperbole will do. It is one thing to know that the stirrings of the heart can only be communicated by the alchemy of a poet, and it is another to actually mix that concoction together! I desperately wish I could have seen the past drafts of Herman Melville’s novel. Did the idea of chest as a cannon and a heart as a shell come to him immediately, or did he try to evoke that sensation many times before finding one that actually captured it well?

In the novel I’m working on now, I mulled over a particular sequence for a long while, trying to find the right way to express it properly. I wanted to capture the sensation of being condemned, made an outcast, and deemed no longer fit for society. The sensation of watching the world continue, but without you. I wanted to capture that, but not with so many words. After many rewrites I am have the following:

Here you are, one of the base and the damned, the buried and the forgotten. The debris of all mankind.

Now when I consider the prose that I quoted from Moby Dick at the start of this post, I have to admit that my own turn-of-phrase is far inferior. I don’t think my sentences are painfully awkward, but they surely are not exceptional.

How am I to fix that? Well, that’s the frustrating thing about poetic hyperbole, there isn’t a formula for guaranteed success. The fact is that coming up with a new and evocative way to describe something is hard. It just is. This is the reason we constantly cycle back to classic idioms, no matter how cliche they have become. “My heart is breaking” is undoubtedly overused, but just try to replace it with something better!

My hope, and suspicion, is that one gets better at prose simply through exercising it. By trying many times to say things more cleverly, eventually I will.

 

Story As Hyperbole)

Of course sometimes the exaggeration is not merely a single phrase in a story. Often an entire story is itself a dramatic expression of some underlying theme. James Bond films emulate the popular image of masculinity in a very exaggerated way. Dr. Strangelove lampoons the insanity of mutually assured destruction in an excessively ridiculous narrative. The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents an extreme case of neglect to convey the worthiness of being a good neighbor.

Though none of these stories is categorized as a fantasy, they still utilize extreme circumstances to emphasize their point. We don’t ever expect to find ourselves in the same literal situation as any of these main characters, but we will have moments where we must depend on the same principles that they do. In our own way we may need to stand up to the bully like James Bond, speak out against self-destructing hate like that in Dr. Strangelove, or help someone we considered an enemy like the Good Samaritan. And though the reality of those moments might be simple, to us they will feel just as epic as those fictional stories.

I’d like to explore that idea with my next short story. In it I wish to take a concept we have all experienced at some point: that of being utterly exhausted: body, mind, and soul. The account that I give will eclipse any level of sleep-deprivation that I have personally experienced, yet I hope it will still ring true to anyone who has felt thoroughly fatigued. With my first entry, I will be setting the stage for that exhaustion. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Five

photo of doorway
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.

Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.

“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”

The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.

“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”

Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.

Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.

What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.

Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.

Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.

“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”

Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.

“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed.  And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”

The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.

But maybe that was the right thing to do.

For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.

Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.

His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.

“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”

The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.

“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”

A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.

The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.

The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…

And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.

Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.

Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.

There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.

They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.

And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.

“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”

The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.

All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.

There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.

“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”

Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?

“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.

“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“There was no asteroid?”

The man smiled.

“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”

“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”

“What? But I’ve been exiled?”

“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”

“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”

“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”

The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.

“Let’s get you back home now.”

And together the two of them walked out of the room.

 

So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.

But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.

Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.

Of course this also brings us to the end of an entire series. It has been a very long one, extending all the way back through It’s Tough to Be a God, The Toymaker, The Last Duty, and Shade. The first entry was clear back on October 3rd!

As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.

In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!