The Quiet After the Storm

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Releasing Tension)

Last Thursday we saw the apex of action in The Soldier’s Last Sleep. Since the very beginning of the story I have been teasing a close-quarters battle between the two sides, but I had to wait for the right time to let them loose on one another. And so that teasing returned multiple times, festering and building, escalating until the eye of the storm was a raging torrent. Then, when the timing was finally right, I let it loose in a single, great deluge!

But every storm concludes with a remarkable stillness in the air. A heavy rainfall leaves the atmosphere clear and crisp. A raging wind is followed by a deafening calm. A loud clap of thunder always finishes in a long, drawn-out tail.

If a story is not given a moment to breathe after its frantic climax, it will feel abrupt and jarring. After we have seen our heroes through their darkest hour, we also want to see the light begin to shine on them. That moment of release does not have to last terribly long, just far enough that we can safely say that “they lived happily ever after.”

This is why so many fairy tales end in a wedding. Truly the darkness has been dispelled if the good people are able to make themselves happy again.

 

The Right Flavor)

For my first example we’re going to one of my personal favorite stories, and a mainstay on this blog. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits, who compel him to live with charity for his fellowman. He is a stubborn, old man, and their tactics range clear from sentimental memory to frightful threats. It is the latter strategy which finally breaks him, and in a moment of tearful repentance he pledges to live a better life.

Now this is the climax of the story, the moment where Scrooge’s wall breaks in a cathartic torrent. No other moment can match this for emotional release, but if the story immediately ended with this pledge, it would feel off-kilter. The evolution of Scrooge’s character is triumphant, but this turning point is extremely tense, full of fear and regret. It would not fit thematically with the overall message of the tale to end things here. In a story such as this, the reader expects the final course to taste sweet.

Which, of course, it does. Because after the story’s great climax, we are then treated to an extended look at Scrooge’s next day, wherein he joyfully goes about the city and makes a great many people happy.

In all he improves the lives of a young urchin, the poulterer, the two gentlemen seeking contributions for the poor, his nephew, the Cratchits, and the occasional stranger along the way. And he does it all with a great deal of chuckling, smiling, and wide-eyed wondering.

By adding this final act, the story’s final act is given a double duty. It does not only exhaust all of the built up frustration and angst that preceded it, but also propels all of the joy and goodwill that follows it. The ending of the story isn’t about softening into silence, it is about pushing forward towards further horizons.

It is also worth noting the fact that many of Scrooge’s interactions in this final act are to directly redress the previous harm that he had made. Hard words are apologized for and old grudges rescinded. Each dis-likable thread has its frayed ends mended, and there are multiple miniature cathartic releases occurring even after the story’s main climax. Thus that initial high point is prolonged it into a series of high points.

 

The Extended Conclusion)

There is another story that continues its final note past its high-point, though in a much more dire fashion. In the Maltese Falcon we meet Sam Spade, a Private Detective who gets embroiled in the hunt for an invaluable relic. From the very beginning things are not as they seem, and the double-crosses stack up thick and heavy. Spade even loses his partner, and gets pinned for the man’s murder.

Then, at the story’s climax, he has a standoff with the main thugs and the relic is revealed to be nothing more than an elaborate fake! After all the deaths and deceit leading up to this moment, the story’s titular black falcon is but another red herring.

This is the point where the high action ends, but there are still threads that need to be tied off. More importantly, there is a need to let the shock of disappointment sink even more deeply in the reader.

And so the final pages disclose how the woman Spade has grown to love is more involved in this whole plot than she has let on. She is a murderer, and the one that killed Spade’s partner. Now he must turn her over to the police, for if he doesn’t he will be left to take the fall for her crimes.

No one gets what they want in this story. After all is said and done, Spade still continues his detective work, but without a partner, without a love, totally alone and a bit more pale than when things began.

As with A Christmas Carol, the Maltese Falcon uses its climax to not only release tension, but also to propel the action a bit further. It does not want that moment of shock to be a lone note in the rousing finish, but only a keystone piece in an entire chorus. The climax, combined with the extended finish, fully sell the theme of the story. A theme of disappointment being the norm. Sam Spade survives, but he does not thrive. He might not be anyone’s sap, but that doesn’t mean he will ever find riches or love. He ends things the same as where he began, though perhaps just a little worse.

And so, a skilled author uses the final act to tease out the themes of the climax long enough for them to really settle in the reader. The climax remains as the single high point, but it is backed by a tail that echoes its ideas a few times over. Last Thursday I published the climax of my latest short story, and next I am going to tryto follow it up with a reaffirming final act. I’m a bit anxious that it will be overly long, and that it might not echo the climax’s themes well enough. I’m going to try my best though, and if I succeed, I think the story’s messages will live on in the reader’s mind for that much longer. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Putting a Story Through Its Paces

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For nearly a year I’ve been working in earnest on my own novel, and much of that time has been spent in just getting the outline to the point that I want it at. And if I’m allowed a moment of pride, I’m genuinely very proud of how things are looking in that regard.

But obviously a great outline is not enough. And so I have moved on to writing the actual first draft, and I’m constantly afraid of not measuring up to the quality of the outline. I keep worrying to myself that no one will be able to see that the original idea was any good, because they’ll be too hung up on awkward bits of dialogue and uninspired scenery descriptions.

I have walked out of my fair share of movie theaters where I thought to yourself “well that was probably a great idea on paper, but in execution…” This is exactly the fear I have for my own work.

Of all the elements that I find most difficult to translate from outline to draft, it has to be the pacing. When my story was just an outline, every bullet point took the same amount of time to read. But when actually fleshed out, some of those list items are going to remain lean, while others carry on for a few thousand words or more. The result is that the rhythm I felt while reading the outline is not the same as in the actual draft.

Another problem with pacing is that writing something can feel much more epic than when reading it. More than once I have spent ten minutes hammering out a paragraph of intense emotional depth. By the time I get through typing every tear-jerking adjective I’m practically dabbing at my eyes, and wondering how I became such a master at expressing the deepest feelings of the heart.

Then I read through the completed paragraph, and the experience lasts all of twenty seconds, landing with all the emotional profundity of a soggy pancake. I read much more quickly than I can write, and so it is difficult to gauge the experience of one from the other. Or in other words, it is very easy to write a story so that it is written at a perfect pace, but far more difficult to write one that it is read at a perfect pace.

When I run into these issues of pacing, I like to consider how well I am adhering to the basic principles of the art.

 

Lulls and Rises)

Most stories do not want to begin at the same pace that they finish with. If there is no change in a story, then it will become monotone. A story that is all sad, or all sweet, will soon lose its sense of sadness or sweetness by over-saturation.

Therefore, most of our favorite tales feature a quiet beginning, and then build towards a rousing climax. This means that the story must grow increasingly more energetic as it moves along.

But again, if all we do is escalate, then even the escalation begins to feel flat. It either ceases to be impactful, or else it is exhausting. A common counter to this, then, is to overall escalate the story, but to have calming interludes along the way.

Think of Frodo Baggins taking the ring to Mount Doom. He is always growing closer towards the heart of darkness, and the chaos around him is constantly becoming more intense. But even so, he still finds time for respite in the abode of Tom Bombadil, and in Rivendell, and at Lothlorien. Notably, each of these resting points immediately follows a moment of intense action: nearly being crushed by Old Man Willow, Glorfindel chased across the fields by the Nazgul, and the party losing their leader in Moria.

As the series continues, these respites become fewer and fewer, and the action between becomes more and more prolonged. Thus we feel the increasing heights that we are climbing, and it makes for a dramatic climax at the end.

 

Bouncing Between Dramas)

So should we just shoehorn quiet moments into our story? Obviously not. A quiet moment should never exist only for the sake of only being a quiet moment. The perfect lull in a story not only occurs right where it should for perfect pacing, but also right where it should to develop a needed plot thread. It takes skill to hone a story that way, but that’s why we remain in awe of the authors who pull it off so well.

An important thing to consider is that even if a scene is quiet in nature, it still might be an escalation of a sort. One might feature visceral, physical action, and the next might feature a character coming to a profound epiphany. The scene of character development might not spike the reader’s adrenaline, but it will still satisfy their desire for progress and climax.

Therefore a skilled author knows that they can swap between progressing action, character, emotion, and plot. Each will feel fresh in its turn, each will overlap with one another’s escalation, and so the story will continue to be rousing as a whole.

Consider, for example, the film Master and Commander. In this film, a British naval vessel has been tasked with taking down a superior French Man-of-War. The film certainly has its fair share of action, where each encounter with their quarry introduces the crew to greater and greater danger.

But in between those battles, there is also an arc of the sailors coming to mistrust one of their own, and labeling him as a curse to their cause.  There is the arc of a youth that lost his arm in battle, and now must relearn how to be a man. There is the friendship between the Captain and the Doctor, which becomes strained as the Captain pushes his crew harder and harder, just as he pushes the ship to its physical limits.

That is not all. The story even interweaves secondary plots, such as the ship’s Naturalist constantly being frustrated in his attempts to examine a rare species of cormorant. Though this aside is more light-hearted, it still has its own sense of escalation and payoff.

 

On Thursday I pointed out that I have been shifting between various escalating arcs in The Soldier’s Last Sleep, such as the ones dealing with life in the trenches, the soldiers’ physical deterioration, and the chaos of military administration. Each of these comes in turn, and thus provide a natural rise and fall to the story’s cadence, while also heightening the overall tension in their own way.

On the surface it may seem like the story only escalates with each new wave of the enemy attacks, but each of those attacks feels all the more dire because of the quiet discontent that is mounting between them. Thus as the story has progressed, the chasm between its chaotic and calm moments has become smaller and smaller, the reprieves have seemed less and less restful, until now the plot is ready to conclude in a single climax.

Come back on Thursday to hear the end of that long, loud note, after which we will examine the fallout that comes after a story reaches its peak.

A Proper Cadence

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On Thursday I shared the first half of a story that I had originally intended to publish in a single post. As I explained at the time, the reason for dividing it in two was based on the constraints of my appointed deadline. Each of my posts is given a three-day period to be taken from conception to published completion, and trying to do the entire story of The Noble in that allowance would have rushed the the work faster than it should have been. That “rushing” to which I am referring is twofold.

First, the story would have had to be less words. Where I have three days to write each story post, there are only so many words that I can write and still somewhat polish the work before pushing it out the door. I’ve come to learn that for me 3000 words is about my limit before I’m going to be cramming to get the post done in time.

So why didn’t my story fit within that 3000 word limit? Well, right from the outset I had created a general outline for the story, and it called for a very specific number of scenes: five. Each of those scenes was going to run for about a thousand words. Thus the only way to make the math work would have been to lop off two-fifths of the story, either by compressing the length of each scene or by removing them entirely.

So in my dilemma I saw only three options.

  1. Reduce to 3000 words and publish a polished but incomplete story, one that would essentially be a glorified outline of the full story I originally wanted to do.
  2. Super-speed write five thousand words, leaving no time for polish and refinement, and thus taking a hit in quality.
  3. Break the story into two posts.

Obviously the third of those options is the most attractive, given that it does the fullest justice to the story itself. But why did my story need to have five scenes in the first place? Could it really have not worked with only three? Why did each scene have to be a thousand words? Could they really have not worked with 600 each? These are questions related to a story’s overall cadence and a scene’s overall rhythm. Let’s look at these in greater detail.

How Many Scenes?

How many scenes are to be in a story is determined early in the writing process, usually it comes about as a direct byproduct of outlining your plot. Which leads us to the following question: when writing an outline, do you consciously consider how many scenes you are setting up your story to have? Do you have a specific number that you are trying to shoot for? Do you just starting with the beginning scene, decide what should immediately follow, and thus incrementally add scenes until you get to the end? It might be tempting to ignore these questions entirely and just let the story happen “naturally.” That does sound nice, but in practice this approach runs a high chance of finishing your entire work and only then discovering that its pacing is lopsided and disjointed. Far better to put the time in up front to get this right.

In the case of my story The Noble, I chose five scenes for a very specific reason. There were five main phases that I wanted my protagonist to go through in his arc, and each of those phases needed their own equal weight within the story. These steps of the story were chosen intentionally to give his development the natural arc I wanted, passing sequentially through cynicism, intrigue, hope, despair, and finally triumph. Notice how that sequence establishes the cadence of the entire story. About half of it will be spent in slowly ascending from cynicism to hope, after which we have a climatic drop to our lowest low and rise to our highest high. It’s a full and complete experience, and to reduce it to any three of those sequences would make his journey feel disjointed and unnatural.

These are exactly the sort of considerations you want to have when planning out your own stories. Have you decided which cadence you want your tale to follow? Have you chosen scenes that contribute to that natural rising and falling motion?  If your outline is missing a step in its arc then your plan is incomplete and you need to develop it further. Or if you have a complete trail from start to finish but then a few extra scenes along the side, then those parts are just “filler.” Cut them.

How Many Words

Alright, so that’s why I wanted five scenes for my story, no more and no less. But why did I choose 1000 words for each of those sequences? Quite frankly, I didn’t. When I first began I had no consideration for how many words each sequence would be,  that decision was to be determined by one thing and one thing alone: the tone.

Personally, I don’t believe in trying to make a story or a chapter fit into a predetermined size. I don’t think you should inflate your text to try and make it look more serious, I don’t think you should cut each sentence in half because you want it to sell better. It may be that a bigger or shorter story will be perceived differently, or will affect how many sales you are likely to achieve. But I consider each of those criteria to be far beneath the ultimate deciding factor: what sort of rhythm does your story want to be written in.

Consider my story Tico the Jester. This was from the perspective of a child and her toys. Their reality was one of quickly changing interests and high-energy imagination. The scenes there wanted to be written in a fast and snappy rhythm. Pausing to describe the scenery in detail would have been contrary to the tone of that story.

One the other hand consider Deep Forest. This was the recounting of a strange being slowly awaking in a massive forest, one buried by the accumulated dust of millennia at rest.  The scenes there wanted to be elaborate and ponderous. Trying to quickly move from one sensation to another would have also been contrary to the tone of that story.

So when it came time to write the first scene of The Noble, I simply started writing, detailing things or leaving them unexplained according to what felt right. It felt right if it matched the tone that I was trying to establish for that story. At the end of the first scene I looked at the word-count and it was at a thousand words, and I knew that this would be the average magnitude for each scene in the work. Individual sections might run a couple hundred words above or beneath this average, but they would all be around this estimate because they would each be given equal weight in their own space.

To be clear, this isn’t an excuse to be unnecessarily wordy, which happens to be a flaw of mine that I am trying to keep in check. Nor is this an excuse to ignore painting the scenery, a flaw of mine that I am trying to get in the habit of. Merely it is stating that you try to find a narrative tone which has good synergy with the ideas of your story. Allow yourself to move along at a snappy pace when appropriate, and pause to take a knee and breathe in the world when that is what’s wanted.

 

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that your driving motivation in deciding both your story’s cadence and your scene’s tempo should be what your story needs. You should give your story what it deserves, and then let every other consideration follow behind.

It was that very mindset that resulted in me deciding that The Noble simply couldn’t exist in a single post. I look forward to sharing the second half of that tale with you on Thursday, and I hope you’ll find it was worth the intermission.