The protagonist approaches the dark and strange mansion, seeking shelter after her car has broken down on a lonely stretch of the highway. In the darkness she doesn't spot a crow lurking in the rafters until the bird swoops right over her head, cawing loudly! She screams in surprise, but a moment later scoffs at herself for being so jumpy. She pushes the door inward and it creaks loudly on hinges that haven't been used for years. She has a moment of hesitation, but then presses forward, into the mansion's darkened hall.
When I was a teenager the local television network would show an old monster movie or horror film every Friday. And not high-production classics, either, but the low-budget, small cast, horribly written, obviously fake effects, filmed in one location sort of movies that 40s and 50s horror cinema was overflowing with.
And all the time these movies would start with a scene like the one I described above. Even before the actual antagonist was unveiled, some strange and startling event would happen, something that had absolutely nothing to do with all the rest of the story, but which made it abundantly clear that the protagonists were entering a place of evil.
And this sense of dread foreboding occurs even in quality pieces of storytelling, too. Consider the very first lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
What does it matter that this takes place at midnight, that it is a dreary night, or that it is in the middle of “bleak December?” Absolutely nothing. These details don’t directly tell us anything about the characters or plot. Everything that transpires could still have been done with all these factors left entirely unmentioned.
But no one would say that these little details are unimportant. Perhaps they have nothing to do with the broader narrative, but they have a great deal to do with setting the atmosphere and the reader’s expectations. They make us understand that we are to view all the following events in a grim and dreary light. Not only does this get us into the proper frame of mind, it also prevents us from misinterpreting later moments, such as this:
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,”
When we first meet the titular raven our narrator greets him in a jovial manner, finding its small sternness comical. But we, the audience, do not make the same mistake. Because of the grim foreboding at the start of the story we know to be wary of this solemn specter. The character may mistake his guest, but we receive the story beats in the correct context.
But is it possible for an introductory scene to not only set the mood, but also deliver narrative or setup plot? Let’s consider the very first scene in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. We open on trees rustling in the dead of night, and a group of heavily armed workers staring unblinking at whatever it is that’s approaching.
A moment later the trees give way to a forklift carrying a large crate, which is lowered to a paddock. All the workers move to open the gate and let whatever is inside of the box transfer into its new home. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan, as the dinosaur inside bolts against the gate, causing the crate to shift away, creating an opening through which it grabs one of the workers. Everyone panics and starts zapping at the creature with their stun batons, but the man who was grabbed is killed before the thing is subdued.
There is only one character in this entire scene that appears later in the film, and his dialogue does not depend on us having seen the event. The story really only starts in earnest after this mood-setting piece is complete.
But that isn’t to say that this piece has nothing to do with the narrative. In fact it does. We are soon told that the accident caused the park’s investors to become anxious about the risk involved with the project, and that they have demanded for a team of specialists review the facility before it opens. This, of course, leads to our main characters being brought in to see the park before it officially opens. Thus this first scene is setting the mood, but it is also laying the groundwork for all the narrative.
Making a Shift)
The use of foreboding imagery can also be used to alert the audience that there is going to be a shift in tone. Maybe everything seems calm and easy now, but don’t expect things to stay that way for long. The opening shot of Alien is a slow pan over the command modules of a futuristic spaceship. Everything is calm, everything is quiet, but suddenly there is a flash of light and screech of noise as an incoming transmission breaks the silence.
It’s a startling moment, which might seem entirely unnecessary. The entire first act is a lengthy sequence where the crew follows standard procedure to investigate a distress call, and they are all extremely nonchalant about the whole affair. But because of that introductory startle, the audience knows that things are not going to remain this relaxed for long. They are anticipating the shift into horror even before the menace of the movie arrives.
And I’ll be going for this sort of effect with the first half of my new story on Wednesday. The piece is going to begin in a very grounded, very mundane place. But I want to prepare the reader for the supernatural events that come in the second half, so I’m going to craft a startling moment for my protagonist. A bird will swoop close overhead with a loud screech, a foreteller of dramatic changes yet to come.
“It’s alright, Cace,” Aylme rested her soft palm against his temple. “It’s alright now.”
“But I–but–” realization finally sunk in. “You brought me back!” he said angrily.
“Yes, I had to bring you back. Tilt your lamp down.”
“But I was there! I finally got through! You shouldn’t have done that!” his cheeks were hot and flushed and he struck his legs with his fists.
“Tilt your lamp down,” Aylme handed Cace the vessel. “Look, I already have my own at half-ember.”
Cace scowled. He didn’t want to turn his lamp down, he wanted to stay angry. Even so…he would do anything for Aylme. With a sigh he took the lamp in his hands. As always it felt strangely anchored, as if Cace could let go and it would suspend itself in the air on some invisible hook. Cace turned his hands, pivoting the lamp, letting the golden ember run out of the spout. The golden drops did not fall to the ground, though, for no sooner did they touch the air than they evaporated into steam.
As Cace continued pouring out the contents he felt the fire inside of him diminish. He was still just as opposed to Aylme’s interference, but his passion ebbed out, making him capable of calmer reason.
“There,” he said, righting his lamp and turning it so that Aylme could see only half the ember remained. “Tilted down.”
“Thank you,” Aylme nodded deeply. “Now I’m sorry I had to wake you, Cace, but your breathing was becoming so ragged, and your fists kept clenching, and you were in a feverish sweat. I was afraid what might happen if you remained any longer.”
Cace looked down at his tunic. Indeed it was covered in cold sweat, and even now his body was quaking as if he had been running for miles. But now that he was back in the conscious world his strength was quickly returning.
“I understand why you did what you did,” he sighed, “but I had made it through, Aylme! I was there!”
“That must have been exciting for you,” she smiled, then started to rise.
“You don’t want to hear what it was like?”
“The Ether is…your realm of fascination, Cace. I have too much on my mind of here and now.”
“But it matters, even to the here and now,” Cace insisted. “I think I could use it to help us!”
“I don’t know. I just…know that it could.” Cace wasn’t sure how to explain. Whenever he had his visions of the Ether he sensed that there was a connection between the images he saw and the things of the real world. He couldn’t explain that connection, but he felt that they were simply different perspectives of the same thing. And now that he had finally actually been there, conscious and able to push at things and affect them, now he had a hope that he could ripple changes into this world, too!
“I’m not so sure that you should try and visit the Ether any more,” Aylme said. “It seems dangerous for you.”
“I’m fine. Look, I’m already feeling much better.”
Aylme smiled sadly. She appreciated his desire to help, even if she thought it was misplaced. He was several years younger than she and Rolar, and he must feel guilty that he wasn’t able to contribute as much as they could. “We can discuss it more later. For now just gather your strength.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his brow, then turned and climbed out of the hole that served as the entry to their dugout.
It was the most humble of abodes imaginable: a hole dug into the earth at the base of a tree. It was quite small, only reaching out so far as the trees’ roots allowed, which provided a natural barrier to hold the earthen walls in place. The only airflow came from that small entryway, and after a while one started to feel stifled. Cace did not remain in that dark hovel, but clambered out and sat with with his back against the large tree.
Not that the breathing was much better up here. Their camp was on the banks of a slow river, and its humidity weighed the air down, making it hover low to the ground and difficult to swallow.
There was also very little sunlight that could pierce through the dense canopy of treetops overhead. Indeed most of the illumination came from the bioluminescent moss that grew along the riverbed, a dim light obscured by the lazy roll of water. It was just enough light to cast the place in a perpetual dusk. Already the three refugees had lost all sense of time, and they could not say whether they had been in this place for a week or for months.
Cace slowly breathed in the scent of a million living things and watched Aylme as she carefully stepped around the banks of the river, making her way to the great almnut tree. No doubt Rolar was there again, prying at the roots, trying to free whatever binding kept the tree from producing fruit.
“Rolar?” Aylme called out softly as she approached the tree, eyes darting left and right. “Rolar, are you there?”
The tree was as wide as a castle tower, and as she came to its base she held it for support, stumbling her way around its massive roots. “Rolar,” she called, slightly louder. “Rolar where are you?”
Just then she happened to glance downwards and leaped back in shock. For she had, in fact, been about to to step on Rolar! The youth was laid out right before her, draped awkwardly across the roots, covered in a strange black powder, and totally unconscious!
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….
An ancient must hung heavy in the air, a mist of particles drawn from the mold and mildew of thick vegetation and rich dirt, raising and lowering like the breathing of the world itself. It spoke of untold ages, ages passed and ages yet to be, as though the whole world stood suspended in the middle of eternity. Great trees stood here, thick and tall, innumerable in number, yet not pressed tightly together. Each held its own dominion, only touching its neighbors at the top of the canopy where their thin whip-like tendrils billowed into one another. The vines would entangle, then slowly unwind, and where they drew apart a fertilized seed fell. The seeds came floating down gently, sprouting and leafing even as they were suspended in the air. Most of them shriveled and decayed in the midst of this process, breaking into dried pieces of detritus to join the particle cloud, victims of some deficiency in their nature. About one in ten of the saplings actually made it to the ground, where they instantly sprung roots out, burrowing through the thick carpet of leaves in search of the rich soil. Of these another majority would shrivel and die before their tender roots could find purchase. A portion though, a tenth of a tenth, found the soil and from that deep earth drew energy to produce a single white flower, broad and open.
Through the entire setting was a soft golden light. That light did not seem to emanate from a single point, nor even a single direction. Instead it was so diffused and diffracted by the atmosphere that its origin, if indeed there was one, was impossible to tell. Under such a body of illumination the shadows were made so vague and overlapping that they could hardly be noticed at all.
Into this grand endlessness there came, almost imperceptibly, the occasional wisping breeze winding between the trees, heralding from peaks and valleys unknown. One of these slight currents struck against one of the trunks and dissipated into nothingness, puffing away the light detritus that had accumulated on the bark, and exposing a stark white patch beneath. The fresh bark seemed to wince at the sight of naked light, and shriveled itself into tight folds, pulling from nearby layers of moss to cover itself. As it shriveled it exuded moisture, and the heavy drops of sappy water rolled as a stream down the trunk and into the crook of a branch. There they pooled over some bumpy thing that lay there, washing away millennia of grime and dust. Two closed eyelids were revealed, brown and formed of some tough, brittle skin. The drops absorbed into that rough skin, traces of it streaming down the sides like tears. As beads of the thick water sunk between the lids a pair of underlying eyes twitched ever so slightly.
A moss-covered mound a few inches away raised and lowered as an uneven shuddering breath disturbed the tranquil silence. A long pause followed, and then another breath, this one more steady and full. Soon the creature’s chest was rising and falling in a steady rhythm. As one breath passed, and then another, the grip of hibernation relaxed on the creature and with each exhale the eyelids receded a few more millimeters apart. The glassy pupils being unveiled were unfocused and vacant, unseeing though open. At their cores was a tiny spark of awareness, though, and it began to expand until suddenly the creature blinked, and then eyes reopened with a full consciousness. They did not dart about, but the pupils did contract, focusing up on the tree swaying up above. The tree did not sway in any wind, rather it was merely redistributing its considerable weight from one root to another in a long, slow rocking motion, like a careful mother trying to lull her child back to sleep.
With the advent of consciousness there now followed the awareness of physical sensations as well, and the creature became numbly cognizant of a pressure on its chest, the build-up of moss grown across its body. It tried to lift its limbs but they did not respond, and so it lay there and waited as waves of prickling sensations passed from each nerve returning to life. It became aware of its other senses, too, and it took a deep breath to inhale the scents of stillness and entropy. A mandible moistened and it tasted the sugar in the sap that had washed its face. The creature tried to move its arms again, which was met by the resisting strain of the moss’s tendrils. The creature maintained a constant pressure against them, though, and one by one their roots snapped in quickening succession. The creature threw its thorax against the blanket of lichen and the resistance broke entirely as its back glided to an upright position. Insect-like arms with thin-fingered hands emerged, and slowly, almost reverentially, began pulling the growth away from itself, revealing its copper exoskeleton. The hands then set to work uncovering the legs, and once enough of the foliage was broken off the creature pressed its palms against the body of the branch and stood upwards, each of its four legs trembling from the strain of the vines wrapped around the waist, but again it pushed on until the cords snapped with a loud crack. As the creature reached a full upright posture its back instinctively opened and a dual pair of clear wings unfolded against the light, drying from their ages of condensation.
The creature’s mind was blank, but not new; it had not been born, only awakened. Awakened after a period so long that all rememberances had been permanently released. There only remained the shadow of a memory, one stored not in the mind but etched into the very body, a sort of aching nostalgia, a call that could never be answered. The creature had no name for the trees, the air, the ground, and it did not understand their inner workings; but its instincts made it comfortable with them all the same. It could process and accept them as separate entities from one another, and also recognize itself as a separate entity as well. The creature began to associate its sensations with those various different entities: the sense of movement belonged to the swaying branch it stood upon, the smell of pollen belonged to the cloud of particles that shimmered all around, the sound of rustling belonged to the leaves above.
The creature stood in silent observation until its wings were dry, and it beat them in curiosity, the feet lifting off the branch and hovering in space for a moment. The effort was difficult for muscles so long out of practice, and looking downwards the being allowed itself to slowly drop towards the forest floor. The air was so thick of particles that the wings did not have to work hard to resist it, only requiring a lazy stroke now and again to maintain a safe descent speed. The feet touched the dried remains of dead leaves which were so frail that they disintegrated into a cloud of powder on contact, exposing the bare earth, dark and muddy beneath. The color of the soil was such a dark brown that it was almost black, with veins of orange and flecks of tan sprinkled across. The whole thing was spongy and the individual granules clung to one another due to being so saturated with moisture.
As a force of instinct, the creature cupped the dirt in its hands and pulled it up towards the face. It inhaled, and was struck by a symphony of scents, evidences of the wealth of nutrients locked within. It squeezed the soft dirt between its fingers and a thick oil-like moisture pressed out of it, forming on the top in a thick film. The creature’s mandibles opened and it sucked the moisture in. The liquid flowed down the throat, and as it distributed through the body a wonderful vibrancy and power began coursing through all of its organs. Some of those organs had still been in a state of hibernation but now all came to life. The melody of sensations it had been experiencing from the outside world was now being met by a harmony of the inner.
Then, of a sudden, those inner sensations were overwhelmed by one strange urgency that rippled and pulsated from its abdomen. The throbbing grew stronger and moved upwards until the mandibles stretched wide and spewed out a dark bile onto the ground at its feet. The dry leaves quickly absorbed the liquid, thinning it until it disclosed a small, white, wriggling larva. A gap along the plating of the creature’s thorax widened, and she instinctively reached down, picked the infant form up, and placed it inside, securing it close to herself. She felt it squirm until its mouth found one of her inner glands, to which it latched contentedly and stilled itself. A new euphoria washed over her, and in the excitement she let out a thrill. The tone expanded like a bubble through all that thick air, pressing out against all matter. Then, instead of continuing out and dissipating, the tone buckled back inwards, bringing a chorus of responses to the creature. In that moment she felt the reality of each of the nearby trees, of the particles in the air, of the leaves on the ground and the dirt underneath. She understood their composition and their balance, their relations to one another, and the cycles of their growth and decay.
She thrilled again, this time with an intent. The tone expanded as before, and this time when it collapsed each of the nearby trees bent gently in her direction and trembled, scores of leaves cast off and tumbling to the ground at her feet. She was delighted by the effect, but did not repeat the experiment. With this connection between her and the elements of the world there came a reverence, one which discouraged frivolous use. Further, she realized that she was not a controller here. She sung and they harmonized, but she had a sense that that link flowed both ways.
To that end, she closed her eyes and, focusing on attuning a different sense, one that drew in from the thorax, she let the thrills of the world wash over her. She felt each sway of the trees, each puff of the wind, each warm pulsation of the light, even the growth of the larva within her, all of these were waves cascading upon her and each produced a unique harmonizing tremor in her body. Their wills and intents were understood by her through how they pulled and pushed her. She swayed as though buffeted by an invisible wind, and she understood now the purpose of this connection and the thrills set upon it, to communicate, to connect, to unify. She could distinguish how a tree far off in the distance groaned from lack of moisture and how the ground beneath her billowed to bear wet relief to it. A stony face in the other direction was vibrating out a herald of approaching gusts of wind and the trees were swaying to welcome them. For a moment she lost a sense of conscious identity, feeling instead as a drop in a great ocean through which all waves rippled in turn. A sudden thought occurred to her, and she hearkened intently, trying to make out if there was any call from one such as her. Signal by signal she disconnected her awareness from each tree, each mountain, each light, each wind, the entire symphony reducing one part after another. As the last of the elements she could identify were disconnected, she felt a somberness to find that there remained no call from any other creature.
There was, however, an undefined something. Buried amidst all the other thrills had been something so faint and vague she had not initially perceived it. The signal did not seem to emanate from a being, nor did it seem to communicate any physical properties. It was as though it were the reverberations of a history, an echo of past thrills, a ripple once so loud and strong that its eddies still whispered through the air countless ages after. What was more, though she could not explain why, the creature somehow felt that this pulsation was meant for her, was connected to her more intimately than any other thing in this world. It was as though she was hearing her own voice.
Her eyes opened and she turned to face the source of that history. She could tell that it was a very long ways off, but she had nowhere else to be. Wings buzzing to life behind her, she lifted into the heavy air and bore away towards that strange familiar.
If ever I am asked which of my stories is my personal favorite, my answer will always be “whichever one I wrote last.” To the reader preference is generally based on personal tastes, and I expect that even if you have enjoyed some of the things I write, other work of mine just doesn’t suit you as well. That’s simply to be expected.
For the writer, though, the preference comes solely from how closely the created work hews to the form originally imagined, as I mentioned in my post on Monday. Because writing is a skill, the nature of it is that you get better at it the more you do it, and so the latest work tends to be the truest to original intent. As I look at other works of mine, I do believe other entries have been more exciting, more emotional, and more realistic, but as of right now Deep Forest is the most true to myself and it is my favorite.
There is an unfortunate corollary to this, though, which is that the author’s previous works become less and less appealing to him or herself, and even outright embarrassing. Ascension, by its nature, involves better perceiving how much lower one was before. But this a whole other can of worms, one that I’d like to handle in my next post on Monday. Have a great weekend and I’ll see you then.