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 try to 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.
The first three shots resounded in empty air. Private Bradley grit his teeth, cleared his mind, and went back to his basic training.
“Hold the gun firmly, but don’t clench it,” he muttered to himself. “Breathe slowly….Now exhale…” he fired and an enemy soldier’s helmet went flying through the air, exposing a startled face underneath.
Private Bradley had always been one of the better shots in their squad, he had just momentarily forgotten it while living and breathing the machine gun’s exhaust for the last few days. Now he set to work, picking his shots, following through, moving on to the next. It wasn’t a question of hitting the enemy, it was a question of how many he could drop, and whether it would be enough.
There was a sudden rise in the voices of the chargers fifty yards to the right. Of course the chargers were always shouting, seemingly in one unending cry, but there always came a sudden swell such as this when they reached the trench and leaped down to the murder. So the line has suffered its first compromise Bradley thought, then picked off another man.
The pitch in the enemies’ voices raised an octave again forty yards to the left and at another point twenty yards beyond that. Two more breaches in the line.
Private Bradley’s breath exhaled a bit more ragged than usual and his next shot went wide, two feet from its mark. He grit his teeth, furious that he had let the pressure get to him. He made up for it by firing his next round through two men running in file.
An entire chorus of waves broke up and down the trench-line, too many new breaches to count. There would be no routing the charge this time. Each squad had run out of machine gun ammunition, just as Private Bradley’s had. Without those pounding guns there had never been a chance of turning the wave. In the next fifteen seconds it would crash upon Private Bradley and his squad, too.
“NOW, BRADLEY, NOW!” Sergeant roared, pulling the rifle out of Bradley’s hands and putting the handles of the machine gun there instead.
Private Bradley grit his teeth and let loose ball and flame. The trench’s last fully automatic rang through the air like an awakened lion, bursting through men at more than twenty-five death-knells per second!
There was no easy stroke, stroke to how Bradley spun the weapon now. The enemy was so close and so dense that jerking it as quickly as he could from side to side was the only option left. For the briefest of moments the charging men’s eyes widened in shock and horror. And then those eyes went glassy and expressed nothing again forever. The men that stood next in line to catch a bullet came to a full halt, glancing side to side for an escape that wasn’t there. If they turned and ran now, they would only succeed in being shot in the back instead of the front. As they paused to consider that fact the decision was made for them.
Meanwhile Bradley’s compatriots made short work of what forces his gun happened to miss. Bradley thinned the line, and the riflemen finished it. Each following line was more dense than the one before, but each looked more timid and unsure as well.
And then, all at once, a clear hill opened to view before them.
Bradley blinked quickly, disbelieving what he saw. They had done it? They had cleared their section?
Yes, they had. Sergeant’s timing had been impeccable. Glancing downwards Bradley saw seven bullets remained on the belt. Just barely, but they had stopped the breach in their sector.
If only that had been enough.
Though no more enemy forces stood on the hill, the trench still crawled with them. In fact the squad directly to the left of Bradley’s had just finished being entirely overrun by the invaders, who were now lashing out in each direction for fresh kills!
Bradley spun to face the assailants, reaching for the firearm at his side. They leaped at him and he leaped back, firing into the heart of their pack.
“Move over here!” Private Holt shouted from his elbow.
“Pull in close,” Sergeant ordered. “We’re still on the defense!”
It was good advice. The natural inclination was to try to push the enemy, but that sort of over-extending had been exactly the downfall of many of their allies. Better to play it cool and wait to see which side had the numbers. Right now things were too muddled to tell.
Bradley’s squad pulled tight to one another, and stood back-to-back, some of them facing down the right side of the trench, some of them facing down the left. They all shouted and fired furiously into the ranks of the enemy. Half of the time the other side charged at them haltingly, and half of the time they tried to take a stance and fire back.
Such half-measures would not suffice. Bradley and his men were tight-packed and focused. They fired in controlled bursts, calling out their shots, and working as a team to drop one soldier, and then another.
“Stand firm,” Sergeant directed them. “Stand firm and they won’t charge you, no matter how many more of them there are. None of them want to be the first to meet a firm knot!”
But that knot was being untied. Rather than charge, the enemy had finally decided on taking quick shots at the bundle of men. It was dark and shadowy in the trenches, and hard for them to pick out man from mud. Even so, every now and again a lucky shot hit its mark.
A sting burrowed into Bradley’s left thigh. Another grazed over the skin of his right arm. A dull groan sounded against his back, the last complaint that Private Dunny would ever make.
Other shots sang past Bradley’s ears. He instinctively recoiled, and as he did so forgot to keep pulling the trigger. The fire from Bradley’s squad became uncertain, erratic, stifled in the storm raining around them. Then, like predators waiting for their prey to show a weakness, the other side swooped in for the kill.
Bradley caught the first man by the lapel of his jacket, and drilled with his knife until he found oil. He threw that one to the side, and barely raised his arm in time to catch the downward stab of another. His forearm seared in pain, but fortunately Private O’Malley surged forward to take that foe down for him.
No one was there to cover O’Malley, though, and a hot barrel blasted at point-blank range, blasting O’Malley backwards. The man fell right into Bradley, and the two of them fell together. Bradley’s back hit the floor of the trench and O’Malley fell across his legs. Bradley started to thrash to get back up…but then paused.
What if he didn’t? Here in the dark, who could tell a dead man from a man only pretending to be dead? There was a chance that he might be entirely overlooked. Perhaps it was a slim chance, but it was there all the same.
But no. That would leave the backs of his still-standing squadmates unprotected. That would go against his oath, that the enemy would have to cut him down by force. That would invalidate him for Sergeant’s promise of self-purchase. He had to fight his way through the night.
A dark blur passed over Bradley, an enemy making another charge. Bradley turned his gun upwards and fired, cutting the man down entirely unawares. Then, from some long-forgotten coffer, Bradley found the strength to fling back onto his feet in a single, swift motion. He held gun out in one hand and knife in the other. He fired, he cut, pushed, he grit.
The trench was narrow, and the enemy came single file to avoid crowding one another as they danced around the littered corpses. So it was an even match-up, one against one, over and over, and the only question was how long a man could stand down the tide.
A foe grabbed Bradley’s wrist while also swinging wide with a shovel. Bradley leaned back so that it cut fat air and lodged itself in the trench wall. Bradley grabbed the handle with his free hand, just above the blade, and pulled firm. The soldier, still attached to the other end, lurched forward, and lost both of his grips, the one on the shovel and the other on Bradley’s wrist. He fell to the ground at Bradley’s feet. Bradley swung the shovel around and with it dug the man into his grave.
One could not remain a man in such work as this. One had to give himself over to the machine. This was no trench of men, it was a chute on a dis-assembly line. Bradley was the mechanical arm that took the subjects apart one at a time.
Another man lunged forward with a knife. Rather than try to dodge, Bradley gripped the man’s wrist and pulled, ever so slightly shifting the angle of the thrust so that it slid in the crook between his arm and torso. He clinched down and twisted. Something snapped, metal or otherwise.
Bradley-the-machine’s limbs were creaking and sore. No matter. A machine did not complain about such things. A machine just kept at its work as bolts fell off and screw threads stripped and motors spun out of socket. Perhaps he would shatter apart, but he wouldn’t even know it. He would just keep going.
The next soldier made like he was going to lunge at Bradley, but at the last moment pulled back and fired from the hip. It was clever. It caught him off guard. Bradley felt a hole open in his shoulder and he fell onto his back.
What was less clever was that the man paused to see if Bradley was dead, giving him the opportunity to fumble his gun over from the wounded arm to his other. A crack of thunder and the assailant was down.
It was his ability to separate his mind from his body that made Bradley so adept at this work of separating limb from limb. First one had to stifle the life in himself, then he could do it in others. And so a man was always his own first casualty. It was the only way to live.
Two more soldiers advanced down the trench. Bradley was still prone and his vitality was quickly seeping through the wound in his shoulder. This was it. The fight in him was gone.
The first soldier reached him and held out his hand.
Only now did Bradley recognize the uniform of his allies. Bradley tried to offer his good hand, but it still held his gun. He dropped the weapon and let the friend pull him to his feet.
“Good to finally see a friendly face,” the soldier said. “The trench is all secured back this way, how about down past you.”
“I’m not sure,” Bradley said. He started to twist to look that way, but winced at the searing pain that came from his shoulder.
“You’re hurt,” the soldier observed. “Don’t worry, I’ll move down the line and see for myself. You stay here and Private Bailey will see to your wound.”
The man was clearly some sort of officer, though of course it was far too muddy and dark to make out any insignia.
The second man came up and Bradley showed him where he was hit, then leaned back while the man bound him up.
“You’re lucky, the shot passed clean through, I don’t have to dig it out of you.”
“A life of my shoulder always aching and never working right? Hardly seems lucky.”
“At least it’s still a life. That’s more than most of our men can say tonight.”
It suddenly occurred to Bradley to check and see if any of his squad had survived with him. One glance along the trench floor, though, and it was clear that they had not. One-by-one he could pick out each of their bodies interwoven with those of the enemy. They looked so strangely peaceful laying side-by-side with the very men that they had fought to the death against.
Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. They had killed each other, hadn’t they? And what feud could possibly be left unresolved after such a measure as that? What more could be gained by disputing the matter any further? Here, in mutual death, they were finally all square with one another.
Of course Bradley gave his men a closer check once Private Bailey finished dressing his wounds. The two of them crouched down and felt each man’s lack of a pulse. They truly were all dead. Dunny, Holt, Yates, O’Malley…
“You too, Sergeant?” Bradley sighed. “After that speech you roused us all with? You too?”
By this point it was clear that the battle was over. The scattered din of gunfire up and down the trench had slowed and finally come to a stop. The line had been held, though with extensive casualties. More than fifty percent. Their forces were so diminished that they couldn’t hope to repel another attack. Reinforcements would have to come replace them now.
But then, of course, the enemy needed reinforcements of their own, too. All of their fresh troops were dead, and they would have to send up a new regiment before the onslaught could continue.
Sergeant had been right. Surviving this last charge had been enough. Private Bradley had earned the right to stay alive. Massaging his shoulder he turned to the East. There, searing a line of red across the green hilltop, the dawn was approaching.
On Monday I discussed how a story is composed of several arcs, which each take their turn in the light, thus creating a natural rise and fall in the plot. I also mentioned how each arc escalates in their own way, combining to make a climatic finish.
In today’s post we saw the culmination of the increasing tension in this story. With each preceding charge, the enemy came closer and closer to breaking the ranks of Bradley and his men. That constant teasing was meant to build up anticipation in the reader, anticipation which was finally satisfied in the rousing action of today’s entry.
When a story has pent up enough conflict and turmoil, then it is a simple matter to let it loose in a stream of cathartic release. But another essential element of pacing in a story is the sigh of relief after the action subsides. Though the hard-run race may be won in a moment of intense effort, the experience is not over until one is able to fully regain their breath.
This next Monday I will examine this idea of giving a story time to release its tension after the climax of its action. Then, next Thursday, we will see this in play with the next entry of The Soldier’s Last Sleep.
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.