The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is all about finding the happy medium. From porridge that is too hot, too cold, and just right to beds that are too hard, too soft, and just right, Goldilocks is on a mission to find the happy medium.
Which is ironic, because while she may not be too reclusive of a neighbor she certainly is too invasive! Throughout the story she fails to find that “just right” middle ground of being sociable but still respecting privacy.
Writing a story is often a balancing act between too much and too little as well. To have a well-rounded story one must ever be looking for that “just right” between two extremes.
The first story I ever wrote was for a school assignment. I was supposed to come up with my own idea of what happened to Henry Hudson after his crew mutinied against him.
In case you’re not familiar, Henry Hudson was an English explorer born around 1565. He, like so many other explorers of the time, was obsessed with the idea of discovering a naval route to connect the western world to the eastern. Like Columbus, Hudson took multiple expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean, searching for some body of water that would press through the American continents and into the Pacific.
For the last of these expeditions he decided to explore the perimeter of a massive bay in Eastern Canada, now called Hudson Bay (named after this same explorer). Though he scoured its edges for a passage to the other side of the continent, he never found it. Even worse, he spent so long looking for it that the winter months came and froze the water over, trapping his boat and causing his men to starve. One by one, the crew began to die.
Henry Hudson had been intoo much. Too little a sense of adventure and one would never discover anything, but too much and you consign your crew to a watery grave. Eventually the men had had enough and they sent Hudson and those loyal to him adrift in a small, open boat. Then the rest of the crew returned to England and reported their mutiny. Several search parties were sent to find Hudson, but not a one of them ever succeeded. To this day we do not know what became of him.
Which, of course, is where my school-assignment story came in. The point of the homework was to be creative and fun, our stories did not have to actually be plausible. My mind rushed with ideas until at last I settled on a story of Hudson and his men rowing to a nearby island, surviving for a time off of the wild, encountering a civilization of cannibals, and ultimately destroying one another by a tragic descent into madness.
I set down to the computer and wrote the entire thing out. This entire epic saga took me…four pages.
It was pitiful and I knew it. But I was young, inexperienced, and I really couldn’t fathom any way to stretch it out any longer. I didn’t know how to let a scene breathe, how to develop a character over time. All I knew to do was state one set of events after another, writing a story that was little more than a summary of a larger novel.
But in spite of the disappointing performance something had woken up inside of me. I realized that I had stories I wanted to tell and I was going to keep trying at it. Bit-by-bit I learned how to dress up my scenes with dialogue and prose. Several stories later I had a piece about a superhero that weighed in at 20 pages. My next story, a medieval fantasy, was double that. I then wrote a series in five parts, each of which came in around 40-60 pages for a combined total of 200-300. At this point my parents informed me I was now using too much printer ink so my next fantasy piece was a handwritten novel of 300 pages.
When I got to the end of that story I realized that while I had increased a great deal in volume, I had only marginally improved in quality. I cringed every time I looked back over the works I had written, scribbling out mistakes and writing above the line in miniscule pen like a school teacher. I realized that I, too, need to draft and iterate, just like everybody else.
And so I started a second draft of that handwritten novel…but I never got through it. My problem was not that I had too little ambition or desire, if anything it was too much. I couldn’t sit still on a single project for too long, not when I wanted to write so many other things. Too many ideas, too little time, no happy medium anywhere to be found.
It wasn’t until a few years after college that I decided to give storytelling another try. Interestingly enough, it was another school assignment that helped bring me back. In the opening lecture of an ethics class we were told that we must launch a blog and post on it every week our thoughts about the issues we discussed through the semester. These weren’t stories that I was writing, but I started to see the benefit of short, public posts. They were manageable, allowed the author to cover a plethora of different subjects, and could easily be adapted to telling stories.
To satisfy my continued appetite for story I decided to launch this blog three years ago. I determined that I would write each piece as fully-bodied as if they had been excised from a fuller novel, but they would be only chapters and introductions, a hint of something bigger, and then on to the next thing.
This approach allowed me to be both voracious and measured at the same time, putting time into detailed scenes, yet getting to try my hand at every genre. And this approach has greatly helped me to turn writing into a constant pastime.
Yet lately I have found myself lingering too long on my “short stories,” not only carrying them past what I’d intended, but also too long for their own good. Every creator needs an editor (whether internal or external) to focus the ideas into their most ideal form, to trim off the excess and leave the vibrant core.
I’m going to try and exercise that internal editor of mine with my next story. I intend for it a very simple, very straightforward drama between two young friends. It’s a story that should be bite-sized, at the very most two posts long, and I intend to keep it that way. I’ll go ahead and flesh out each scene, but the total number of scenes should be kept to a bare minimum. Come back on Thursday as I try to walk the line between too much and too little, ever in search of that “just right” medium.
Writing stories is one of the best ways to get better at writing stories. Direct practice leads to better performance over time. However, there is another crucial practice that is necessary to more fully improve, and that is to take regular inventory of your work.
If all you do is write, then you will become more refined in the path that you are following, but you will not be able to correct any misalignments in that path. Your later work might be better than your first, but it will also be plowed deeper into your own personal rut.
Every one of us is going to have a personal rut in our work. We will have some tendency that is just wrong, an inherent weakness in our form. It is like running with an incorrect posture, and the more one practices running in that flawed way, the more entrenched in it they will become, the harder it will be to break the posture later on.
Sometimes the path forward requires taking a step back, then, and that is exactly what I intend to do now. I am going to take a step back from my work on Raise the Black Sun, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and consider how I would expand on it, if I were to turn it into a full-sized novel.
The Shape of It)
The main stand-out is the overall flow of my story, specifically the fact that its shape is so lopsided. The outline of the story can be summed up as follows: our main character is hired for a doomed venture, he embarks on a journey which is beset by numerous dangers, then arrives at a strange land and spends some time becoming familiar with the locals, he becomes enchanted with a young woman there, and finally witnesses the tragic destruction of his entire world.
Just from that description, it seems that this story wants to be an epic, a story of a long trek that takes the hero far from his home, both literally and in terms of character development. Readers should reach the end, and then look back at the beginning and be amazed at just how far they’ve come.
Given this, the correct balance would be that the bulk of the story (at least half) to take place in the journey that is beset by numerous dangers. Many changes of setting, many rises and falls in tension, and many hurdles to be overcome. Reaching the end should feel exhausting, allowing for a tapering tail until the climatic finish.
This is not the balance that I struck in my story, though. My story, when finished, will be eleven posts, each about two thousand words long, and for those eleven posts the layout is as follows.
Introduction: 1 post
Journey: 2.5 posts
Exploring the secrets of the Coventry: 3.5 posts
Conversation with Mira: 2 posts
Conclusion: 2 posts
As you can see, the journey portion, which should be the bulk of the story, is less than a quarter of the entire work! Now I’m not too surprised about this. When I was writing those portions I wasn’t expecting the scenes at the scenery to take more than another post or two. But I wanted to let things breathe as much as they wanted, and so the imbalance occurred.
This is a natural effect of writing a story without a clear structure in place. I don’t regret it, I enjoyed discovering the tale firsthand alongside my main character, but if I were ever to turn this into a full-sized novel I would now go back and expand the journey portion through more twists and turns until the balance was correct.
Let’s get a little more specific about this, though.
If I did decide to do a second draft of this story, then before anything else I would get my outline sorted out. I would write a brief summary of the story as it exists now, and then balance it out on that blueprint level, enhancing and expanding the journey section of this story. And I do believe the story is structured in a way that it could support a great deal of development there. We’ve already seen a few strange and fantastic things, and there could surely be more.
There is one thing that gets in the way of that, though, which is the fact that our Treksmen spend the majority of their journey unconscious. I like the idea of them surrendering to the Job’s Mind and becoming automatons, and I would still want to keep that to some degree, but they would just have to lose their foreman and awaken back to full consciousness aware far sooner in their journey. Like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor, I would want the audience to be keenly aware of where the party was in their world, and where they had yet to go.
Then comes the matter of how I would actually disrupt their journey. For this I would take note of the classic epic Odysseus, which laid a template for distraction and diversion that is still widely used today. As in that story, my journeyers would be pulled off on winding detours for every step forward they tried to take. Each of these diversions would be a self-contained adventure, leaving the main path, winding about, and then returning to it for the greater narrative to proceed. Sometimes my Treksmen would be returned closer to their destination than where they left it, and sometimes farther away.
And all this would play into the suspense of dwindling numbers among the Treksmen. Every side route would claim another soul or two. We would know more of these wanderer’s names, and as we said farewell to one after another, we would start to wonder if the company would make it to the end at all.
And that would establish the main theme of the journey: that the entire world was opposed to this small band, yet fate required them to prevail. The earth itself would be aware that these men were pushing to Armageddon, and would be a constant friction to stop them, but the undeniable pull of destiny would see Graye through to the end.
And finally I would want their journey to accomplish more than just provide scrying sticks to confirm what the Coventry members already know. As the story stands now, the end of the world would have still come, even if they had never arrived. I would want to change things so that the final sacrifice required their presence, and thus they would truly be the bearers of all destruction.
So that’s how I would rewrite this story if I were to rewrite it, but do I intend to ever do so? Honestly, I would love to, but I can’t find the time for it right now. I’m already working on another novel on the side, with a few more ideas already queued up behind that.
And I don’t want to stop experimenting with new short stories here on my blog to instead do an even longer-form production. But maybe I should? I don’t know. I like sowing new seeds to see what I like, but then I also want to take the good ones to fully maturity. I’m still trying to find the right balance between my creative desires and my time constraints, but perhaps for right now it is enough to know what I would do if I could. What do you think?
Oedipus is introduced at the outset of his story as a well-meaning king of Thebes. Not all is well in Thebes, though, the city has been cursed with a plague. Oedipus seeks guidance from the Oracle for how to dispel this plague, and she tells him it is a punishment for a imbalance of justice in the city. As she points out, the prior king’s murderer was never found or punished, and so the curse will remain until he is.
Anxious to bring relief to his people, Oedipus vows to track down this killer and bring him to justice. He relentlessly pursues the fiend…which makes things rather awkward when he discovers that he, himself is the perpetrator! Years ago he killed the king in a scuffle, believing the man to be someone else.
The irony does not end here though.
As it turns out, the king Oedipus killed is actually his own father. Why did Oedipus not recognize the man he fought as either his father or the king? Well, because his father tried to have Oedipus killed as an infant, after the Oracle predicted that the son would one day destroy him. Instead, Oedipus was left alone in the wild, until a husband and wife passed by and adopted him.
Thus the father set in motion the vehicle of his own destruction, and Oedipus’s sin of patricide, even if performed ignorantly, condemns the son as well. It is a tragic tale, but also a very balanced one. Characters do wrong things, and retribution finds them in a very poetic manner. It turns out that audiences greatly enjoy stories with this sort of balance. Whether or not they believe in karma for the real world, people tend to like it in their stories.
In my story, It’s Tough to Be a God, the main character has discovered a tool that permits him to create anything that he wishes. He does not appreciate the solemn responsibility that such power requires, though, and in a moment of foolishness, constructs two creatures for the sole pleasure of watching them fight to the death. He regrets that decision, and does not repeat it…but also he has not payed for that sin. As such, I feel the story lacks a cathartic balance, which I intend to correct in the next half of the story.
But balance, karma, and catharsis are not only about punishing characters in a story.
An essential element in most stories is character development, and often a story seeks to prove to the reader that the character is different at the end from how they were at the beginning. An excellent way to show this comparison is to have the character possess a flaw earlier in the story, and by it set in motion the karma that will destroy them at the end. Just as with Oedipus. But then a twist comes, because by the time we reach the end our hero has changed. They are no longer the same person that they were at the beginning, and they no longer possess the flaw that created the karmic demon. So they defeat it instead, freed from the past by having overcome it.
An excellent example of this sort of tale is the Disney animated film Aladdin. In this, the titular character discovers an object of immense power: a genie that will grant him three wishes. Aladdin squanders his first wish in selfish pursuit. He tries to achieve the life that he has always dreamed of. His second wish is burned in a moment of sudden danger. Then Aladdin decides to walk back on a promise he made to the genie, that he would free him with his third and final wish.
As Aladdin explains, if he frees the genie, then he loses his power. All of the façade he has carefully built up will be torn down, and he isn’t willing to lose control over his fate. This unwillingness to surrender control is Aladdin’s fatal flaw. Because of it, he leaves the door open for a new character to take power. Jafar steals the lamp, and like Aladdin, spends his first two wishes reaching for greater and greater power. Aladdin seeks to stop him, but he isn’t just facing a Sorcerer Sultan Jafar, he is facing the undeniable power of his own karmic justice. If this were Oedipus, Aladdin would now be destroyed for having been selfish before.
But then the twist comes. Aladdin knows Jafar’s weakness because it was his own weakness as well: insecurity. He knows that Jafar’s power is propped up only by the genie, and that Jafar’s greatest fear, like his, would be to lose control over that power. And so he appeals to that fear, and taunts Jafar. He points out that so long as the genie gave Jafar his power, he will always be able to take it away. Jafar takes the bait, and wishes to be made into a genie himself, unaware that the power he receives will be counterbalanced by eternal imprisonment. His karma catches up to him.
Aladdin defeats Jafar, but really he is defeating his own former self. And so, his first action upon gaining control of the original genie is to grant him the freedom he had promised. He is no longer required to pay for his crimes, because he isn’t a criminal anymore.
Scales of Justice)
As a reader, we require our stories to give us catharsis and balance. Subconsciously we are weighing the scales, silently waiting for each imbalance to be righted. But while we demand fulfillment, we are not so demanding as to how exactly it is delivered. Sometimes the sinner will pay for his own sins. Sometimes he might repent, and another sinner is tricked into paying for him. Sometimes a sacrificial lamb covers the cost. Just so long as the cost is paid, the story satisfies us.
Quite honestly I’m still trying to figure out how to make the balance work in It’s Tough to Be a God. I can feel that it isn’t there yet, and I will keep mulling it over until I find the right balance. I haven’t quite decided who must pay the price for Jeret’s wrongs in the end.
What I have decided, though, is in which form the karmic demons will arise. In my next post we will see how Jeret, by his own hand, has created the forces that seek to destroy him. Come back on Thursday to meet this specter of justice!
On Thursday I shared the middle chapter of my latest story. In it, our main character has discovered an object that will create for him anything that he imagines. He decides to entertain himself by creating two small creatures to fight to the death. This occurs, but rather than being fun, he finds himself horrified by its stark realism. It is all the more terrible because of his responsibility for the act. In this world, he has invented its first violence.
I wanted this moment to hit every reader as unquestionably wrong, but I also want them to see it as a mistake, not a sign that Jeret is the embodiment of pure evil. I try to bring about this perspective by immediately showing Jeret’s reaction of horror at what he has done. Perhaps he should have known better, but he did not. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely, but it does shift him from the malicious category into the foolish and unthinking.
The fact, also, that he did not perform the violence himself, is an important factor. Consider a similar case in A Christmas Carol. Here Ebenezer Scrooge turns down a request to donate to the poor, suggesting that these people should go to the poorhouses. He is rebuffed by the statement that many would rather die than go to those miserable grindhouses. His response?
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
It is a truly terrible thing to say, and Scrooge later regrets these words. But at the same time, it isn’t as though Scrooge performs an actual act of violence in the story. He never so much as slaps another individual, he only thinks and says hard things. In fact, the story makes firm the fact that Scrooge really doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this moment. He says, in reference to how deplorable the situations in the poorhouses are “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.” By which he means he has not verified the conditions of these facilities.
And so Scrooge is guilty of not taking an active interest in his fellow man, and much like Jeret he later sees the reality of his ignorant words and comes to regret them. A Christmas Carol never tries to suggest that what Scrooge does isn’t wrong, indeed the whole crux of the story is that what he does is wrong, but it carefully walks a line to make sure it isn’t irredeemably so.
On the flip side, consider the characters Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from the stage play and Hitchcock film Rope. The story opens with them murdering a fellow student, and then holding a social for mutual friends. Throughout the party, the story takes some steps to explain the boys reasoning for their crime, and also to show them in a multi-dimensional, relatable light.
But in the end, no audience member is going to get over the fact that these two have done unspeakable wrong, nor indeed does the story ever expect you to condone their actions. It isn’t trying to make murderers more palatable to us, it is trying to caution us that men can reason their way into being unreasonable monsters.
Thus far we’ve talked about how to help keep a character from doing something that is irredeemably wrong, but another consideration is what actions are unquestionably wrong. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge simply wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if we didn’t dislike him from the outset.
We can have a character that is a thief and a liar, but still beloved by the audience, such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Starlord. Though they perform behavior that we pretty universally consider wrong, we give them a pass for some reason.
We can also have a character that says they have done something wrong, but which the audience doesn’t condemn them for. Think of Tony at the end of West Side Story. He is given some misinformation that his beloved Maria has died. This makes him reckless, and ultimately leads to his being mortally wounded, just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. As he fades in her arms he sadly confesses that he “didn’t believe hard enough.”
In a story about how loss of faith in humanity literally kills us, Tony’s crime is enough to warrant death. But obviously we, as the audience, don’t hold his momentary weakness against him. He might be flawed, but we don’t consider his actions as morally wrong.
The thing in common with Jack Sparrow, Starlord, and Tony is that they are never seen harming the innocent. Indeed, this seems to be a very important line in establishing the morality of a character. And so if you want the audience to think of your character as bad, the surest way is to have them hurt another. Ebenezer Scrooge is wrong because he is carelessly consigning others to suffering, he is redeemable because that cruelty is kept within careful bounds.
I believe that virtually every reader will agree that my main character, Jeret, did something wrong in creating two creatures to fight to the death. In the end, a being suffered at his whim, and that is bad. The fact that it was an artificial being of his own making does not let him off the hook. Indeed it makes him even more culpable.
When I first wrote this segment, I actually played around with it to make sure it would hit as impactfully as I could manage. One of his two creations was going to die, and I found that it was sadder to have it be the first one. There was something special about it being the first, about having heard it built piece-by-piece, and discovering the little quirks in its nature. It made that first creation more interesting, and therefore more valuable to the reader. It was good, and thus it was very wrong to destroy it.
But at the same time, I believe Jeret can be redeemed. Because while he did wrong, he was ignorant of the extent of it, and he has shown true and immediate remorse directly afterwards. We’ll see where that remorse takes him in the next chapter, coming this Thursday. See you there!
It is interesting that we so often use phrases like “let me tell you a story.” Once upon a time people did exactly this, but today we try for something different. Today most writers want to “evoke” a story instead.
It wasn’t always this way. When we look at fairy tales, Greek tragedies, and myths of old, we find very little evoking. These stories were told straight ahead: this is what happened first, and then this, and then this, and so on until the end. We get only a little explanation of what characters are thinking or feeling, and when we do it is a very stale statement like “he was scared.”
The audience that hears these stories understand all that occurs, they have been told the events plainly, but they usually do not feel very much from the story. This defines the difference between telling and evoking.
Evoking became more prominent as the craft of story-writing evolved. Somewhere along the way authors learned to use their prose to elicit intense emotions from their audience. Consider this brief passage from the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
Dickens might have “told” his reader that it was dark and dreary, but instead he used flowery descriptions to better make the reader “feel” the bleakness directly. Generally we consider this “feeling” approach to be better, although there are pros and cons to both it and straight-ahead telling.
By just telling you something I can use a minimum of words to communicate a great deal. In a single sentence I can convey a broader scene. By evoking something I generally have to be a good deal more wordy. In fact it is very easy for me to go overboard and become too long-winded! But while my sentences might not be as broad, they will run deeper. Many authors will therefore combine the two, giving the general lay of the land in a few expository sentences, and then focusing on specific details with carefully chosen adjective and adverbs.
Active vs Inactive)
Another difference between telling and evoking is whether the audience is actively experiencing an event, or only hearing about it secondhand. Exposition is where someone tells you what happened. Plot is where you see it unfold directly.
Almost the whole of my last story post was exposition. The main character was at a critical juncture, the pivotal moment where he had to commit to his single, greatest deed. Now because I decided to write this short piece as if it were in the middle of a larger narrative, this main character was making his decision based off of facts that the reader had never seen. I therefore had to explain these things, and that was how the exposition came to be.
One might feel that the obvious solution would be to not try telling stories in the middle. If the reader had been experiencing all of these accounts as they happened then they wouldn’t need to be told about them secondhand later. This is true, although even a story that seems to begin at the beginning will still have some of its hooks in the past. Every story is in media res, with past events that will have to be summarized to some degree.
Another consideration is that even if the reader had experienced all of these moments, they might still need a quick recap to explain how each moment is weighing in my main character’s penultimate decision. They would need to be able to follow his train of thought to understand his behavior, otherwise his choices would appear to be random.
So once again, active plot is ideal for putting the reader in the experience and giving them information firsthand. But there is still a place for exposition when it comes to briefly going over broader details, and also to point out the significance of previous events when linked together.
So Do You Show Or Tell?)
All of which is to say that both showing and telling have their place. Of the two, telling is easier, and as such we tend to fall into it by default. This is why novice writers have to be coached to step out of that comfort zone and embrace more evocative methods. It is still perfectly valid to tell someone that they need to “show more” in their story and “tell less.”
But when we say to “tell less,” we do not mean “do not tell at all.” Not all passages should be evoked. Sometimes an event just needs to happen, and without fanfare. In those situations a writer should be practiced enough to tell the events succinctly and clearly, and then move on to the showing.
Personally I found real value in writing the second section of Shade. It was a good exercise for me to see how to approach exposition when it is necessary, and I am decently pleased with the results of it.
The next section will be much more evocative, though. It will be the conclusion of Shade, and I absolutely want the reader to feel that ending, not just hear about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out, I’ll see you then!
This last Thursday I shared the first part of a story, in which a small band attacked a military caravan. This assault resulted in a few moments of violence, including people being shot, an arm being severed, and a man being stabbed in the chest.
Now I did not dwell on any bloody or gory details, but I am aware that the mind can readily supply them to the imaginative reader. On the other hand, the more conservative mind will be able to envision these details as happening “off-screen,” and thus be spared any gruesome visuals.
I personally prefer this approach to violence in a story. I am one of those “conservative readers” that simply does not care for strong depictions of harm. Therefore I am quite appreciative when a writer doesn’t try to force unwelcome images in my mind.
And yet I do still write stories that feature violence. I have published quite a few pieces here that include monsters and killing. Terrible things have happened in my stories, though I have tried to not describe them in explicit detail. Is that hypocritical? Does it really make sense to avoid violent descriptions for actions that are inherently violent? And just why do I feel the need to include any scenes of violence in my stories at all?
Why Include Violence)
We might expand that question to why do so many stories feel the need in include violence? There’s no denying that the mainstream media is saturated with all manners of death and destruction, and it has been so for quite some time. Are we a sadistic race of psychopaths that require violence simply to be entertained?
I think not. Certainly scenes of action give us a boost of adrenaline, which can become an addictive experience. Certainly there are those that crave violence for its own sake, and certainly we have shameful examples of how this has been exploited in our past. We may feel far removed from ancient Rome, but let us not forget it was our own race that made sport of gladiators killing one another. We should be very conscious of these unhealthy trends, and we should take great care for what behavior our stories promote.
All that being said, these are not the reasons why I either write or consume media that contain mild depictions of violence. Nor do I believe these are the reasons why most authors and audience-members do. The real reason is actually much more basic.
We have violence in our stories because conflict is a central theme to them. Almost always we have characters, we have an opposition, and therefore heat and friction between them. Violence is simply one of the most straightforward ways of depicting that conflict, in fact one might argue that it is the only way.
I have written several stories which might appear to be devoid of any violence. Consider The Storm, Harold and Caroline, and most recently Hello, World. In these stories no one gets shot, no one dies, no one so much as slaps another.
But if you think about it, even these stories do feature a sort of violence. They include people that make one another feel angry or sad, which is an emotional violence. They have characters that wish ill on one another, which could be considered a mental violence. They even speak criticisms and threats to one another, which is certainly a form of verbal violence. The only line that they all stay behind is that there is no physical violence in them.
Levels of Conflict)
This would seem to suggest that violence is inherent in conflict, though it may not always be physical. And there are degrees of violence, which seem to directly correlate with the level of conflict in the story. A tale with deeper conflict most often has stronger depictions of violence.
Thus the question of to what extent a story should show violence is simply a matter of to what degree the conflict warrant it. One of my stories, A Minute at a Time, is about a father who is trying to care for his sick child. There is friction between them and each is frustrated and exhausted, but also they still love each other. They have a conflict of opinions, but it is very tame and the story features absolutely no physical violence.
Glimmer, on the other hand, was an epic between the forces of good and evil. The protagonist holds to a worthy cause, even as the opposition escalates to a frightful degree in front of her. The tension and inherent conflict is extremely high, thus it only felt fitting for it to conclude with a violent fight to the death.
Maintaining Proper Focus)
Does this mean that any level of violence might be appropriate for a story, just so long as the underlying conflict is strong enough? Any answer here can only be subjective, but my personal opinion is no.
I personally believe that there comes a point where violence exceeds any level of communicable conflict. A scene that is horrifically gruesome no longer seems to be connecting to any narrative arc, it has just become a spectacle unto itself. One has to wonder what are the moral implications of a scene that chooses violence as both its means and ends.
Aside from any ethical question, there is also a functional aspect to it, too. A story that elevates any spectacle too far will undermine whatever greater meaning it was meant to convey. When the audience walks out of the theater, does the director want them to be discussing the jokes, the CGI, the violence, or the sex? Or do they want them to be discussing its message?
It’s a very fine line to walk, a balancing act that takes great care. Especially given what we have already said about how violence is very closely coupled with conflict. In all of my stories I want the focus to be on the conflict, because I have found that it is only in the conflict that anything a story is going to say will be said.
So how do I find that balance? How do I include the appropriate level of violence so as to communicate the underlying conflict, but also not go so overboard as to smother that conflict’s message?
My approach with Shade has simply been to be quite clinical about it all. I state that the violence happened, but I do not delve into the details. I leave it up to the reader’s mind to then choose the appropriate visualization to match the themes that they are sensing in the story. It’s certainly not the only possible approach, but I hope that it is serving the story well.
In my next post I will share the second section of the story, in which the physical violence will take a back seat as we spell out all the layers of conflict and tension. My hope is that those details will ring true because of how I setup for it with the first part of the tale. In either case, come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
Except for the stone. As everything else vanished from the reality the small portion of cold rock against Reylim’s knees seemed more real than it had ever been before. She felt it physically, of course, but now she felt its very state of being, too, it’s purpose, it’s destiny, it’s rightness. She knew it. She understood it.
Reylim glanced down and saw her inner light glowing. It wasn’t just a bright spot at her core anymore, it was her entire figure, vibrant and shining. She focused on that glimmer, spinning it through her with greater and greater speed, churning it faster with each beat of her heart.
The stone beneath her was fading, losing its reality. She gritted her teeth and beat her heart harder. It hurt, and even seemed to tear her inside a little, but she felt some of her essence spill out into the rock and bring it back towards reality.
She beat her heart into the stone again and again. Cold beads of sweat formed on her brow, her hands were shaking, but she did not dare stop. She felt another heartbeat wanting to come. It was going to be heavy, it was going to hurt, but it needed to be.
A torrent of light pooled from her into the stone, and there the rock began to shift, contorting until a being started to emerge from its midst, a man born of the earth. As he rose to his feet before her, she recognized him from the village below.
“Avaro!” she said in surprise.
He smiled warmly to her. “At your service, lightbringer! I never dreamed I’d get the honor of meeting you.”
“Oh!” she cried as another heartbeat rent her, spilling her essence back into the stone and beginning the process of raising another warrior, this one a woman. These beings were casting their own light, light borrowed from her. With every portion of herself that she gave to the stone their little circle of light was steadily widening.
“I want you to know we’ve never forgotten what you’ve done for us, first star,” the emerging woman said earnestly. As she spoke Avaro’s eyes flitted to the widening circle of illumination around them. Reylim followed his gaze and saw the dark billowings of the shadows slowly coming back into form. The woman was speaking again. “We may struggle to find our ways at times, but…”
“It’s right to struggle,” she said to them, then doubled over as a third heartbeat tore her heart again. Her face landed on the stone and she felt her breath coming out ragged and shallow. She was faint and clammy, her fingers twitching involuntarily. When at last she opened her eyes there was now a third warrior, and all three were waging powerful battle against a number of dark figures that were spilling into their radius of light. The three glowing guardians all bore different uniforms and weapons, all from different periods of time, all representing a different race.
Reylim tore her eyes from them, looking the other way. At the edge of the circle of light she could just make out the stone pillars of the Nexus. As difficult as scaling the mountain had been, this crawl looked more daunting by far. Limbs protesting, heart heaving, she lifted an arm that felt like lead and thumped it on the ground in front of her. She lifted her next arm to meet it, then slid her knees across the rough stone.
She heard a cry behind her and saw Avaro careening from a vicious blow to the chest. She cried, too, as another heavy heartbeat crippled her. The warrior’s chest healed and he rose back to the battle.
Reylim summoned her strength back and began crawling forward again. Even the small heartbeats hurt now, but they were necessary, each brightening the path in front of her, bringing it far enough into reality to support her crawling form. In spite of the pain and effort, yet she couldn’t help but notice each inch of rock and tree bud came into relief from her light. She found herself loving each one of them as her own. Wanting so much for them. Giving so much for them.
Again Reylim felt her whole form shake as an orb of light gushed out of her, streaking from her form to the Nexus looming just ahead. The rock formation flashed to life, dust and dirt blasting from its edges as cords of light wound back and forth between its pillars. Reylim crawled forward another pace.
Another ball of light went to the Nexus, deepening its cords and giving them a distinctive hum. Reylim’s elbows quaked and she dropped to the ground. It took all of her strength simply to turn her head up to the structure, soft tears shining down her cheeks. She clenched her fingers, then shuffled her arms and legs, grinding herself forward on her belly.
Her palms crossed the perimeter of the Nexus. Her elbows. Her shoulders. Inch by inch she moved forward until she was directly under the pillars. Laboriously she rolled onto her back, looking up at the twisting cords of light.
Each of the heartbeats came harder and faster than the last. Her light and her life spilled out, beating into the Nexus and imbuing it with power. Her breath fluttered and her head fell to the side, her nearly lifeless eyes settling on the blurry forms of light and dark fighting in the distance.
“Rage on,” she croaked, then gave her last beat of all. She was already too slumped down to collapse any further. The only perceptible change was the way her eyelids slowly closed and how an expression of peace washed across her face.
Above her the Nexus hummed loudly, churning into full life. It’s light increased a thousandfold in a single moment, washing the entire mountain peak in blinding light. In an instant the warriors, light and dark, were all scorched away as the reality of now was established in their place. No more people, no more villages, no more struggle. Just the memory and the assurance that one day they would be.
With the light of the Nexus having been established, another glow joined it, emanating from the entire world itself. At long last a Glimmer radiated at the core of Nocterra, giving the entire surface the beginnings of definition and clarity.
It’s task fulfilled, the pillars of the Nexus collapsed and its light sunk downwards, settling on the figure at its base. Reylim’s body coursed with exceeding luminescence, the light overpowering her form until she was actually lifted into the air.
Slowly, gently, Relyim raised higher and higher, her robes billowing in shining glory, stirred by a wind that came from within. She continued to rise, eventually lifting so far that she became a single pinprick in the night sky. She settled to a rest there, and so became the first star, the first guide to all that would walk the world beneath. Eventually other heroes would join her in the heavens, but she would always stand supreme in their legends.
Finally, peeking over the horizon from the dark side of the planet, the very first sunrise was now beginning. And with it, the promise of tomorrow.
And with that we have reached the end of Glimmer! I certainly enjoyed doing this one, though it did end up extending out for two sections longer that I had anticipated. There were several defining traits that I wanted to incorporate in this story all at once, one’s that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Let’s do a brief summary of what each of those were.
First I shared about the significance of sacrifice in a story. I suggested that sacrifice is a sacred principle, and ought to be treated with care by authors. Don’t try and kill off characters just to force sadness on your reader, and don’t pretend you’re going to feature a sacrifice if you don’t have the nerve to follow through.
In Glimmer I opened the topic of sacrifice in the very first scene. Reylim knew from the outset that this was her ultimate destiny, and she was naturally quite unnerved by the prospect. In fact she kept trying to find a way out of her own demise. By the end I tried to suggest that martyrs don’t have to want to die for their cause to still be willing to do so. I think we can spend a lot of time scrutinizing our heroes and wondering if we could ever make the sacrifices that they did, when in actuality they never knew if they could take those steps themselves until already striding over them.
Next I discussed the value of taking the plot of a story, dividing it into multiple arcs, and staggering their beginnings and endings. In this way key themes become reiterated on, separate threads weave towards a satisfying conclusion, and the pace is easier maintained.
With Glimmer there is always the overarching plot of Reylim’s self-discovery and the fulfillment of her quest. Though at times I had segues to introduce new characters, mechanics, and motivations, each of these eventually came back to that central core. Glimmer was introduced and would serve as the companion in her quest. The void was introduced and would serve as the opposition to give her quest meaning. The shadows of the people that might one day live were introduced and served to bring a climax of action at the end of her journey.
And though I could have taken all the sentences dedicated to her anxieties and exhausted them in one single scene at the beginning, I knew it would have greater impact if I instead reiterated those fears at many separate points throughout the tale. And anytime those fears, or the central arc, or the discoveries I mentioned above were starting to grow stale, I had plenty of options to change gears into one of the other categories and keep everything fresh.
During the third week I mentioned the option of creating characters that were not-so-human. These characters could be massive, disembodied forces, things like karma or God. Still their influences would be felt, and they would have desires, and would interact with other characters, but they just wouldn’t ever be seen explicitly.
In Glimmer there are two of these entities, and each of those is manifested indirectly. These two beings are, of course, those of Glimmer and the void. The ball of light that guides Reylim through her journey explains that he is nothing more than a spark off of that main fire, a fire that we never interact with directly. We understand its purposes and attributes to be the same as this guide, but also that it is a distinct and infinitely more powerful being. We understand that that being has thrown off a multitude of sparks igniting planets all across this story’s universe, and we associate it with all that is good and heavenly.
It is the same with the void. We see areas where it is not, more than we see areas where it is. We see beings that are driven by it, but they do not define it itself. We understand it to be an infinite being that stretches through the universe attempting to swallow all existence into perfect nothingness.
The purpose of creating two entities that are never directly spoken to, nor indeed can be spoken to, is that it gives the story’s lore an immense depth. We are witnessing the tips of infinite creatures, and the promise exists that their eternal duel will extend far beyond the confines of this single story. It simultaneously makes Reylim insignificant by virtue of the other infinite wars that must be going on, but also terribly significant for being worthy of these god’s attention in this one place and moment.
In stark contrast to all of this brushing against infinities and the battles of the gods, I then posted about the need for stories to focus deeply on mere individuals. As I explained, no one will care about a massive army if they are not invested in the individuals that make it up. We simply lack the capacity to register groupings past a certain size, and instead need something more individual to anchor our emotions to.
Though Glimmer involved epic beings lurking in the background, at its forefront this was still very much a story about a single individual: Reylim. Even Glimmer and the shadows she fought were only secondary supports to her own very personal and intimate story. This closeness was established by having every inflection of the story immediately followed by an examination of how it affected her. I mention the dark cloud that is waiting for our heroes on top of the mountain, and I immediately focus on how Reylim cries in response to it. I mention how empty and bleak the world is when Nocterra first arrives, and I immediately show how she trembles and whimpers. I then mention how a small light is exuded from her, and I describe her delighted surprise.
Reylim may be a single character in an infinite epic, but this is undoubtedly her story. I even emphasize this in her final moments where her vision fades and the raging battle becomes nothing more than a blur, a backdrop, a mere periphery to her final strains.
Last of all I observed how every author has a particular style for the stories that they write. This is simply a default voice, one that I suggested is based more on personality and experience than conscious intent. Mine, it would seem, happens to deal with themes that are slow, supernatural, and allegorical.
Certainly in Glimmer there were punches of action, but ultimately the climax of the story is a long and heavy final note. The action that does exist comes in at a very specific time to fulfill a very specific purpose, and otherwise I allow the drama to move the plot forward.
This story also dealt entirely in the supernatural. Alien worlds, strange powers, mysterious beings of light and shadow; actually there was very little in the story that was relatable to us and our everyday lives. I suppose there were humans and basic villages and depictions of nature, but all of these operated under different rules and physics than our own.
If there was one thing that the reader could find familiarity in, though, it would have to the be story’s themes. The call to become one’s truest self, the sense of fear at sacrifice, the personal quest against evil; all of these are very human experiences, and herein we find the allegorical nature of the story. By making all of the mundane and tangible things bizarre, it is instead the intangible familiars that shine through most clearly.
It’s been fun working on this story and this series as a whole. It’s certainly time to move on, though, and I look forward to exploring entirely new pastures when we begin a new series next week. Come back Monday to see where we’re headed.
Reylim didn’t need telling twice. She put her dagger back in its sheath, turned on the spot, and sprinted back towards the mountain. She was already panting, though not so much from exertion as from the tension of the moment. She knew she rushing into the moment of decision, and she was trying to push down the fresh waves of doubt and fear that were trying to break across her.
Instead she focused on the path ahead, watching as Glimmer’s light revealed the ever-increasing incline of the mountain. The grade was getting steep enough that she had to rein in her pace and lean further forwards. Then, suddenly, there came into relief a massive cliff face only a hundred paces ahead of her. She squinted through the darkness and saw that this mountain was truly nothing like what she had seen on her homeworld. It seemed to be comprised of a series of sheer walls, each stacked on top of the other with narrow ledges to mark where one ended and the next began. The whole thing ascended at an incredible rate, piercing high into the sky.
“I don’t know that I can scale this, Glimmer,” Reylim said, a slight panic to her voice.
And yet you must.
She glanced behind her and saw that Bolil and his band were already gaining on her. She may have had a headstart on them, but they were bounding forward with superhuman speed and would surely catch her before long. She steeled her brow and looked back to the cliff face, scanning its surface for every crevice and hold. She plotted out an approach in her mind, then turned up her pace, building up momentum as the dark stone expanded to fill her vision.
Reylim exhaled sharply and then leapt up towards the first ledge. She sailed higher than anticipated, catching the rock lip on her stomach. She was winded, but didn’t dare to pause, instead rolling all the rest of the way onto its surface. After that she scrambled up a particularly pockmarked portion of the next rock face, hand- and footholds coming easily so that she reached the next ledge and mounted it in a flash. She bounded to the back of this ledge and ducked inside a wide fissure in the rock face that stood there. She placed her hands and feet on each side of the fissure, then began scaling up it like a spider.
This crevice ran upwards nearly the full length of its rock face, which then capped off and sloped inwards to form the next ledge. As she climbed, Reylim glanced downwards and watched as Bolil and the other void-possessed shadows spilled onto the ledge directly beneath her. Bolil continued to lead them as they streamed into the fissure and followed her up its shaft.
Reylim glanced upwards. She was nearing the point where the fissure tapered down into a crack, one that was much too narrow to admit her. She would have to get out onto the face of the rock, which was sure to be a difficult maneuver. Looking downwards she saw Bolil hurtling upwards, pummeling his hands and feet at the rock and propelling himself upwards in a series of bursts. He would be crashing into her in mere moments.
“Um…” Reylim said anxiously, but suddenly an idea flashed in her mind. Without time to evaluate it she simply trusted her instincts and pulled her hands and feet from the wall. She slipped into a fall and Bolil seemed to rush up to her at twice the speed now. She saw his eyes grow wide as she collided with him, the two of them momentarily frozen in space as their opposite momentums cancelled one another out.
Reylim’s eyes were narrow and focused, and she used the split second to reach into the folds of Bolil’s clothing, grip the handle of the sword she knew he kept there, and pulled it free. Then she drove her feet back into either side of the fissure, careening wildly and spinning her arms to try and preserve balance. Meanwhile Bolil was knocked loose into a freefall, and he tumbled downwards, smashing into his compatriots and dislodging them as he went.
Reylim didn’t pause to watch the cascading fall, though she heard the sickening thuds down below as she continued her scale up the crevice. She held Bolil’s sword between her teeth, carrying it with her all the way to the top. Here she drew the blade out and thrust it upwards into the narrowing crack above, twisting it so that it locked in place. She wrapped both hands tightly around the hilt, giving a tug to be sure it would hold her weight.
“Glimmer, I think I’ll need some help,” she panted.
Of course, what can I do?
“Just invigorate me. The same as you did when I was fighting Bolil in the village.”
Glimmer sunk into her chest, and she felt her heartbeats grow deeper and stronger, pure energy flowing through her veins. Her arms and legs stopped shaking so much from fatigue and she took a deep, calming breath.
Reylim let go of the rock with her feet, swung her whole body backwards, and then kicked powerfully forwards. As she did so she also hauled in with her arms and flexed her entire core. The result was that she swung swiftly like a pendulum: out of the crevice, then up through air, and finally landing on the sloped rock above. She slapped her open palms down on the ground, gripping it to be sure she wouldn’t slide forward and down.
She was face-down looking at a sheer drop to the narrow ledges below. She could just make out all of the void-possessed bodies broken and scattered across the rock there. As she watched a darkness seemed to leak out from those bodies like black water. It pooled, spread, and quickly consumed them entirely. Shuddering Reylim began crawling backwards, moving up the slope until it eased out enough for her to get onto her feet and turn around.
You did well, Reylim, I am proud. I’m afraid we must keep moving, though, there is little time remaining.
Reylim looked to Glimmer as it emerged from the billowing folds of her robes. She noticed it was even further diminished, more dull than she had ever seen it before. She frowned in concern as she obediently continued her ascent, now scrambling over a series of boulders.
“You are hurt,” she observed. “I’ve never seen you so faded.”
Yes, Glimmer’s message came heavily. It is not just the strain, though. Our presence is bringing the shadows of the future into clearer and clearer focus. Their reality is straining against the shroud, overrunning our own. As you have seen.
“And that’s bad?” Reylim reached the top of the last boulder and now began climbing hand-over-hand up a narrow crack in the next rock face.
Here it is. The reality that is spilling out in this place happens to be one that is very dark. In the future the void will come to hold great sway here, and masses of men will overrun the land, almost all of them deeply shadowed. It drains me.
“This seems to be a particularly conflicted place,” Reylim observed, remembering the story Glimmer had told her of the villagers down below.
Yes, well, it is the Nexus.
“Glimmer,” Reylim said thoughtfully, “what will happen to this world? Do you know which side will win out in the end? Whether the void will just take it back over in time, or if it will eventually find its peace?”
Child, that is what we are deciding right now. If you and I fulfill our purpose then, in time, this world will find its way. You can be certain of that.
Reylim’s eyes grew misty. She could feel a fear lifting that she hadn’t recognized before. In this moment everything was calm enough that she could feel a flush of success rising within her. “Well we’re not seeing anyone else coming to attack us. Perhaps we’ve won already?”
I wish that was the case. But they know what we’re here for, and they’ll be pooling their strength just ahead of us.
Reylim rolled up onto the next ledge. She was breathing very hard now, and she felt her every movement coming slower and with less finesse. She looked upwards to see how far she had left to go, and to her surprise found that she could already see the summit of the mountain. For as sharply as it was rising it did not actually extend as far as she had feared. There remained one more craggy cliff face, and then a gentle slope that curved back beyond where Reylim could see. She was here. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Reylim began moving up the handholds of that cliff face, keeping her face turned up to that final destination. As she watched a wreath of darkness began to extend around that final ledge, spilling over its lip, seeming to reach out for her.
An incredible mass of dark entities was waiting on that surface above.
Reylim felt the panic she had been trying to ignore returning. She realized that she had subconsciously chosen to believe that the sentinel and Glimmer had been mistaken, that somehow she would be able to succeed without it costing her life. Seeing the mass awaiting to destroy her, though, she couldn’t ignore their prophecies any longer. She hadn’t grown as selfless as this moment called for and she wasn’t going to be able to see this through.
Reylim’s fingers began trembling, her legs began to shake. She was going to fall all the way back down to the ledge below. She was going to bounce off of that and down the next cliff face, all the way to the foot of the mountain. She had come all this way and was going to fail even before seeing the Nexus.
Her heart burned and she saw Glimmer’s glow emanating from her chest.
I know you don’t want this, Reylim. You can’t want this. But I promise you that it will be alright. I promise you. It will be alright.
Reylim bowed her head and fresh torrents of tears washed her cheeks. Her whole body shook with sobbing.
It is very hard.
Reylim raised one arm and gripped the next handhold.
I am so sorry.
She lifted a knee and stepped up.
I don’t want to die either.
She was too heartbroken to process that. She simply kept climbing. The ledge was growing very near now. A thought flitted by that she should have a strategy, a plan for what she was about to face up there. But the tears were still silently flowing and this moment seemed to stretch as eternity, filling all her capacity.
The clifftop was only five feet away. Why was it so quiet up there? Four. It seemed so surreal to be at this moment. Three. It wasn’t how she had envisioned the culmination of her life. Two… One… Reylim crested the ledge, far more smoothly now that she was being strengthened by Glimmer.
The mass hit her instantly, a swarming wall of black figures, their pitch darkness overflowing such that the details of the individuals beneath couldn’t be made out at all. Glimmer flashed a blinding brightness, and Reylim felt herself lifted in the air as the figures were propelled out in every direction. She rolled, landing on her feet in their midst. She ignored the dagger at her waist, instead sprinting forward. Ahead she could see a stone outcropping with two vertical pillars on either side. It had to be the Nexus.
Glimmer lowered down to her side, somehow both bright but strained at the same moment. As the dark shadows stumbled back to their feet they met its fury as it streaked back and forth, bursting crippling light across them at every turn. From their folds the phantoms drew out swords and daggers, all bristling with dark energy. They swiped at Glimmer, and Reylim had only just wondered whether they could actually do any harm to it when one of the blades connected. A visible gash seared across the orb of light, luminance trickling from it like blood.
“No!” Reylim screamed, turning away from the Nexus and diving into the horde crowding around Glimmer. As she sailed into them she flung out her foot, kicking one back to the ground. In a flash she drew her dagger and swung it in a wide arc, clipping through several of them at once. They hardly noticed, instead reaching out their dark arms for her now.
“Go, Glimmer, go!” She cried. “You need to get to the Nexus, not me!”
We both do. Glimmer’s usual calm communication now seemed so weak and faint, yet still strained with incredible urgency. Glimmer started floating away, heading in the direction of the Nexus.
One of the dark figures leapt for Reylim, she side-stepped it, but plunged her dagger into its center. She rolled with the torque, flipped round to the other side, then drew the blade out and turned to run after Glimmer.
She had barely gone three paces before another of the enemies barreled into her from the side. The dagger clattered to the stone, and the two of them tumbled to the ground. She turned the momentum into a roll, moving away from the thing’s grasp and bounding back to her feet. Another foe leapt at her but she ducked. It reached out as it overshot her and gripped her wrist, pulling her down to the ground again. She slammed into the stone, but ignored the pain, instead swinging her foot up to kick the creature’s grip loose. At the same moment a kick from another shadow-form caught her side, lifting her briefly into the air and then dropping her back to the ground.
She couldn’t react before two more forms landed on her back. Another gripped her wrist. Others continued spilling onto her, drowning her in their darkness. Between them she could barely make out Glimmer, having sensed her plight and now streaking back to her.
“No, Glimmer, no!” she pleaded. “It’s okay, I’m ready. You just go on!”
But Glimmer wasn’t listening. It barreled into the masses, billowing explosions of light at every turn. Before it had seemed to be pacing itself, expending its energy in a controlled measure. Now Reylim got the distinct sense that Glimmer was furious, a ball of burning rage. After each scorch of light it reduced down to barely a candle’s worth of illumination, but somehow still summoned enough essence for another burst.
The dark forms pressing Reylim down writhed wildly, trying to fling themselves from the light. At each flash the area around Glimmer loss all contrast, melting into the same fervent, white heat. Any portion of a shadowy figure that was caught in that brightness did not return after the illumination faded back down, resulting in severed limbs and bodies tumbling bloodlessly to the ground.
Though the dark forms leapt away as Glimmer flashed, they leapt back as it summoned power for its next blast, driving at it with their dark blades. Glimmer wound through their weapons with great dexterity, bobbing and spinning in a deadly dance. Yet their numbers, though dwindling, could not be denied and every now and again they clipped and chipped away another piece from the orb.
Reylim struggled against the few remaining enemies that had stayed to restrain her. She twisted with mad energy, contorting her body like a living pendulum into their dumb forms, knocking them loose one-at-a-time until at last she stood free.
“Glimmer!” she called bounding over to its continuing battle. It was not far to go, yet she could already tell it was too late. Glimmer’s movement was slow, sluggish, with only the occasional jerks of movement to throw its assailants off. One large shadow lifted a great axe, lifting it high into the air and swinging down with extraordinary force. The blade caught Glimmer full at the core, cleaving it cleanly in two.
Reylim dropped to her knees, skidding the final inches to Glimmer with hands outstretched to catch its falling halves in her hands.
“Oh Glimmer,” she cried softly, feeling its last embers melt into her palms, bleeding its heart into her own. The light was fading and all was turning black. The encroaching emptiness made the dark phantoms lose their definition, and they stopped moving after being absorbed into the pitchness. Everything became dark, just as it had been when she first arrived at the planet. Simple nothingness.
On Monday I spoke of the importance of few characters instead of many when it comes to making a story resonate with a reader. While a major point of Glimmer is that the world of Nocterra needs to be illuminated, more important is that Reylim needs to become the hero. Most of us cannot relate to the sensation of a world crisis, but her hesitation and fear can be recognized within us all. The idea of having a chance to do something powerfully good, but only at great personal cost, is something we both desire and dread in the same moment.
Though the struggle between those two emotions at first blush appears small enough to exist within a single individual, the reality is that these are two great infinites locked in eternal warfare through the medium of our souls. Mankind is the agent of the eternities and the quest for a single heart extends to time immemorial both in past and in future.
What does all this mean for the pragmatic writer though? Treat your individual characters with respect. Don’t just give them a personality and an arc, give them a soul. Make that soul worth something, make the reader care for what happens to it. Do this and you can make a fictional character an immortal person.
It was my intention to wrap up Glimmer with today’s post, but the tale needed to be drawn out a bit longer. Therefore I’m afraid you’ll need to wait one more week for the end of this story. Before that, though, I’ll take some time on Monday to examine the common themes that I’ve incorporated into all three of my short stories during this current series.
These themes are actually ones I didn’t consciously intend for them to share at the outset, but they occurred naturally. As I’ve reflected on them I’ve come to realize that they represent a particular style that I seem to fall into by default. Every writer has these default themes, and there’s a lot to be learned from discovering your own. Come back on Monday to see what I’ve been able to glean of it, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
Lately I’ve discovered a new favorite food condiment. It’s pepper jam. The combination of sweet and spicy, two flavors that usually stand in contrast to one another, is a very arresting experience. Each side of this pairing has to be kept in just the right balance, though, otherwise one side overwhelms the other and ruins the effect.
And just what is that effect? What is it about contrasting tastes that captivates our fascination and pleasure? To answer this I consider the wisdom of our friend Ishmael, in Moby Dick. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”
If ever I eat something sweet, and nothing but sweet, soon enough the sweetness of it will be lost on me and the food becomes disinteresting. But when I eat something with contrast, let’s say a salted caramel, then I am constantly experiencing both the salt and the sweet at the same moment. I cannot become over-saturated with either because the other keeps it fresh and novel. By entertaining two tastes at once I am able to longer appreciate the depths of each.
This same principle holds true for writing as well. If we present our themes and characters to the audience and they are all very similar to one another, the reader will quickly become over-saturated and the work will feel flat. But by allowing multiple contrasting elements to occupy the same page the story will become textured and interesting. Over the last month I’ve been trying to do just that, writing stories that walked two lines at once, and with each story I tried to capture a different facet of contrast in writing.
To begin with I posted The Last Grasshopper, which dealt heavily with themes of birth and death, old and new. However the piece was meant to challenge the idea that these elements are actually the opposites we initially think them to be. These themes were presented against a backdrop of seasons changing continuously from one to another and then back again, suggesting that birth and death are not dichotomous from one another, but may actually be two points along a continuous spectrum. A spectrum that, in fact, cycles back on itself, meaning that neither of these two states is able to exist without the other.
In this way I was trying to echo an idea from one of my favorite stories of all time: L’homme qui Plantait des Arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). In this tale we meet an old man who has spent his entire life planting seeds in a stark and barren wasteland. Over the course of years and then decades, an entire half century in all, this man sees his life work accumulate in massive and lush forests, an entire transformation of the surrounding climate, and a joy of life restored to the locals who live in that region. The situation at the beginning of the tale and at the end seem to belong to completely opposite worlds, and yet they occupy the same geographic space. The tale suggests that barrenness and lushness exist on the same continuum as one another, in fact they define the continuum, and traversal along it would not be possible without the presence of both. And that traversal is negotiated simply by the amount of steady, continual cultivation we are willing to commit to.
That challenge of continual good effort was examined more closely in my next story. Cursed presented a father and a son who both loved one another, and yet had a terrible rift due to their contrasting priorities. The father was trying to relieve the son of a moral burden, but prematurely, before the son was able to naturally overcome his own failings. The result was necessary conflict. They cannot avoid one another, they are father and son, but they cannot see eye-to-eye and so there is opposition. I meant for this to be a reflection of life experience, where we strive for good, but by necessity live a world with constant opposition to that good. We cannot simply divorce ourselves from all the evil, we just have to try to wrest something good out of an eternal battle.
I find a very similar sort of message in the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men. Here we have men who hope. Though they have been beaten down before in life yet they must still hope because that is human nature. However there is no reason to assume that their hopes will be realized, and in the face of increasing opposition we start to feel that their “hopes” are actually only “wishes,” ones for which there will be no granting. The story ends tragically, a somber end that does not rest in the greener fields that were hoped for. Or does it? At the very end the story hints that the contrast of evil and good may find their roots both in the world around us and the world that awaits after death. Perhaps here wishes get crushed, only to be granted afterwards.
That idea of solutions that come outside of the box was something I wanted to explore in my third story. In A Minute at a Time we again meet a father and son at odds with one another. It seems, again, that neither can find relief except for at the expense of the other. But then they relinquish their goals for a moment of honest vulnerability. They commiserate together and realize that at their core all they really need is one another. I meant to suggest that opposites can be resolved, and perhaps that resolution comes at a cost of letting them go.
Of course overcoming opposition at a cost is a very common theme to stories. Perhaps the evil of the world can be defeated, but what sacrifices are you willing to pay to accomplish that feat? The video game Alan Wake provided a meta commentary on this. In that story the titular character finds a dark story manifesting itself into the real world, establishing a plot of wanton destruction. As a writer, he is trying to redirect the arc of that story, a feat that was previously attempted unsuccessfully by a poet, Thomas Zane. As Alan Wake explains, Thomas Zane failed because he tried to rewrite the ending of the story to be bright and cheerful at no cost. As Alan says: “There’s light, and there’s darkness. Cause and effect. There’s guilt and there’s atonement. But the scales always need to balance. Everything has a price. That’s where Zane had gone wrong. There’s a long journey through the night back into the light.” He writes a new ending, one where his objective is obtained, but only at great cost, the loss of himself. The story accepts this offering, and thus ends things on a bittersweet note.
At this point I felt that things had gotten quite heavy. What’s more I didn’t want to suggest that this war of opposition had to always be so grim and unpleasant. The fact is most of us actively enjoy doing sacrificing for another’s happiness. And we often find that we have guidance and help in our long journeys of self improvement. Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry was meant to capture that more cheerful side of contrasts. Daniel is happy and kind, Jerry is jaded and reserved. Now in the first half of the story these two sides have been shown as being in opposition to one another. In fact that first half ends with Jerry planning to terminate his own employment to get away from the friction he is feeling.
Next week I’ll be completing that story, and in that second half we will see that like salt and caramel, the Daniel and Jerry can combine for something greater. Daniel, with his wealth and compassion, will provide the means for the charitable contributions. Jerry, with his experience on the rougher side of life, will be able to deliver the gifts with a needed dose of empathy and understanding. They’ll still be two very different men at the end, but that won’t be putting them in opposition any more. This is actually a theme I’ve explored before on this blog, in one of my very first stories: Scars and Soothing.
Hopefully this series of stories has sufficiently illustrated the infinite possibilities of mixing and matching flavors in your story-telling. Keep your stories interesting by putting them at odds with themselves. Give them tensions by establishing fundamental opposition. Give them nuance by suggesting those contrasts may not actually be so opposed to one another as originally believed.
Professionally I work as a software developer. The industry has come a long ways since it exploded among the workforce a half century ago. A lot of those changes, particularly those related to work/life balance, I am very grateful for. Things are generally a lot better in the tech environment, although you can still find some sectors holding onto those less-than-ideal business patterns. For example, video game development studios and tech startups still commonly maintain a mentality that employees need to work 80-hour weeks, coding until they crash on mattresses under their desks. There persists an unhealthy expectation that if you work for these industries then that work has to be the single most important thing in your life. Family relationships, social interaction, and even mental stability are all secondary to pursuing the company’s creative vision, and must be sacrificed as needed.
Of course the tech district isn’t entirely unique in this mindset. Any sort of entrepreneurial or artistic field tends to demand the same voracious pursuit of craft and career at the expense of all else. And of course, given that story writing is also a creative industry, it is plagued with its fair share of workaholics as well.
And to be fair, professional competition and poor management are actually far less demanding taskmasters than our own inner passions can be. Sometimes people work ridiculous hours because they choose to do so. And so there is perpetuated the idea of the artist that cannot be tied to family, or community, or religious devotion, or any other obligation that distracts from their personal muse.
It’s an understandable conclusion. The natural assumption would be that minimizing certain aspects of one’s life in order to maximize others would result in more time for the things that matter most and greater advancements in them. Moderation in all things sounds far too limiting, a sure recipe for mediocrity in all things. Is it, though?
In reality this “focused” approach to life is nothing more a narrow approach to life. It only results in being less developed as a person, and, ironically, less developed creatively, too. For the sake of those creative passions, sometimes you really do need to take a break from those creative passions. Here are three reasons why that is the case.
Write what you know. It’s advice we’ve all heard before and there’s some good reasons to heed it. On the surface level this means to draw from your actual experiences, to give your voice to the corner of life that you have inhabited. It means you shine a light that is informed and authoritative. When Herman Melville penned the experience of the Pequod in Moby Dick, there was an authenticity in his details that was only possible due to the years he had spent as a sailor and whaler. He not only captured the specifics of how a sailor would perform his chores, but also the specifics of what went on in the heart of the sailor during those very moments.
Even further, though, the advice is advising you to write about the truths and perspectives which you personally hold. Don’t write about some trendy cause if you don’t actually have passion for it. Don’t promote conclusions in your story that you, yourself don’t believe in. When audiences viewed Schindler’s List for the first time they were touched by the film’s deep earnestness, which in no small part was due to the fact that the subject matter clearly mattered to Steven Spielberg, given his personal history in the Jewish faith.
Write what you know, write what you feel, write what is true to you.
But how are you to write any of this unless you have been able to actually experience it? How can you convincingly write of heroes standing for what they believe in until you’ve gone out there and found a cause that is bigger than yourself? How can you speak of the power of love until you can say you would choose the happiness of another over your own? Going back to the example of Schindler’s List, Spielberg had the rights to the story a full 10 years before he began producing the film. Why? Because he didn’t feel “mature” enough to tackle the subject. He wanted to experience what it was like to have a family and find his place in the world.
Being grounded in the full breadth of life gives you a foundation from which truly sincere stories can be told. People want stories that speak to their heart, after all, and we find those in the ones that were spoken from the heart.
2) Breaking through the monotony
I remember writing my first little stories in my mid-teenage years. I churned out a fantasy adventure, then followed it up with another fantasy adventure, and topped it all off with a third fantasy adventure. Even when I wasn’t trying to write a sequel to a previous story, all my tales felt exactly the same.
It’s really not very surprising. At the time I was very much being influenced by the new Lord of the Rings films, as these had arrested my attention like nothing before. I knew I wanted to write about things that excited me, and there was very little else that did then.
Today I still think fantasy adventure is pretty exciting, and I still like to dabble in some of those original ideas I had. But I’m not limited to only that anymore. I’ve discovered a fascinating world of math and logic, and I’m excited by stories involving time travel, conundrums, and the systematic discovery of new theories. I’ve experienced very poignant emotions at home with my family, and I’m excited by stories that explore relationships, how they are built and how they break, and what constitutes a healthy one.
Even better, I can mix and match these various themes together for entirely new expressions. I could write about relationships among fantasy characters that travel through time. In fact, I did just that very thing and I loved it!
I trust my point here is clear. If you aren’t hunting for new life experiences then you aren’t going to be finding new wells of passion from which to draw, and your writing will run the risk of growing stale and repetitive. Next time you find yourself repeating the same tired paths in your stories, put down your pen, go outside, and walk a road you’ve never been down before.
3) Only as strong as your weakest link
Humans are complex beings with multiple fundamental needs. When it comes to our physical nature we know that each of those needs has to be met and kept in balance. We cannot give up on eating, and then compensate for that deficiency by drinking an excess of water. Though we may be wonderfully hydrated, we will still die.
Why would it be any different for our emotional, mental, or spiritual natures? Absolutely we have creative needs that we must make time for, but we cannot expect an overabundance in that category to compensate for starving our social needs. Any accomplishment in one area of life is only impressive insofar as it is not counterbalanced with a failure in another.
Celebrities provide the most public insight into individuals who strive to excel at some facet of their lives. It seems that a good portion of that pop culture is comprised of artists whose lives are falling apart due to dedicating too much of themselves to their singular craft. Fortunately, another good portion is also made up of stars whose lives are rebounding after they took a serious look inside, identified which parts were being left undernourished, and are now giving themselves the self-care they always needed.
When one part of us suffers, all parts of us suffer. If you give your craft 90% of yourself and your mental health only 10%, your work will not ultimately rise to the level of that 90, it will drop to the depth of that 10. Life is not a game where we can min/max our attributes and expect to come out ahead for having done so.
In conclusion, moderation in all things is not antiquated advice, it is not some myth that is obsolete in our world of speed and competition. It will always bear relevance to us, because our nature as humans remain the same, even though the world around us may change. That nature is such that we achieve our greatest capacities when we are balanced between all our various sectors of life. Moderation in all things is not mediocrity in all things, rather it is fulfillment in each. If you truly love your creative aspects, take a break from them to truly live your life to its fullest. You will be happier, fuller, and even more creative for it.
For my next short story I wish to focus on just one of the topics I referenced above, specifically that idea of taking inspiration from our real life experiences. At this point in time the seasons are rapidly changing where I live and my mind has been caught up with themes on the passage of time and generations, the death of one year and the birth of the next. I’m going to try and capture those sensations and write them into a short piece for Thursday. Come back then to see how it turns out.