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.
“…and at least six Strained spaced around the perimeter. That is all.”
Gallan rubbed his forehead. That was quite the defense force…but it was also the right amount that they just might be able to pull it off. That must mean…
“It’s a trap!” Dask spoke up.
“Yes it is,” Gallan sighed. “I’ll bet the Western District doesn’t even need that shipment of vaccines…but they know that we do.”
“How would they know that?” Darret asked.
“It was their virus, they knew what vaccines we needed before we did,” Dask pointed out.
“Yes” Gallan mused. “That’s why they’ve been doing these shipments every week. They’ve been waiting for us to catch on and then try for it.”
“Why do you sound happy about that?” Dask asked.
“Because it means they don’t know when we’re going to hit it. They know that we are, but they don’t know whether it’s coming tomorrow, next week, or a month from now. That gives us something.”
“Seems a very small something to me,” Husk brooded. “Seems to me that we shouldn’t be sticking our necks out at all. The survivors we rescued from the city aren’t providing us any value. We’ve already done them a great service by comforting them…”
“So that’s enough and we let them die?!” Gallan snapped.
“We can’t save everyone, Gallan.”
Gallan shook his head, but his adviser had a point. “I know I make too many promises,” he admitted. “But it’s the only bargaining chip we have. People believe in us to be able to do the things that no one else can, and because of that belief they pitch in and help make the impossible happen. Once we start saying that can’t keep a promise then their belief is gone and all our power crumbles.”
“You make a good argument,” Dask said. “But I think you don’t give the people enough credit. They’re hardy. They’ll keep with us even if we aren’t perfect.”
“Maybe so,” Gallan nodded. “Maybe so. And maybe I really should stop making so many promises. But this one I have made, and so this one we need to see through.” He paused to let the statement sink in. “That is my decision.”
He looked around the room and everyone was nodding.
“Well alright then,” Husk said. “But it’s going to take some doing. The fact that we know that they know does give us a strategic opportunity. We could coordinate another hit somewhere else the day before. Go grab some minor resource or something. They won’t be expecting a second strike so quickly after that. And we’ll have our scouts looking specifically for the trap. Watching for those that are watching.”
“I think we stage it at this narrow pass here,” Dask tapped the map.
“Yes,” Darret nodded. “It’s pretty certain where any hidden forces would be concealed: between these three ridges. So we run through those beforehand and clean them out. But we’ve got to be quiet and quick about it, can’t let them signal that there’s trouble…”
Gallan watched approvingly as each member of his team contributed their various insights, combining their strengths to enact his will. Because they trusted him. Because they were sure that he would be right….
How he hoped that he was.
Eight days later Gallan stood perched on top of a boulder, staring down to the narrow pass below. A heavily armed caravan rumbled through, moving forward at a steady, military crawl. Gallan was flanked by an elite strike steam awaiting his word to begin their assault. Husk was at his side as well.
“It’s far more trucks than the ledger would suggest,” Gallan muttered. “They’ve surely got something brewing in there.”
“But we know that they do. And we have our own surprise for them as well,” Husk clapped Gallan on the shoulder.
“Yes…. Alright, I’ll punch right at the center, stir them up while you lay down suppressive fire. I don’t want to commit to anything more specific until we’ve been able to spring their trap and know what we’re dealing with. You move in the assault teams according to your own judgment.”
“Ring formation,” Gallan said to the strike team. “Give me about fifteen seconds to clear the landing zone. We’ll land on truck four, and make our way directly towards truck seven. Leave me a good opening along the way.”
The armored warriors nodded.
Gallan sucked in a long, lingering breath and exhaled deeply, stoking the fire inside of him. He felt that same, old fear that came before every operation, and he turned it into his fuel. He lunged forward, taking strong, confident strides across the rocks, moving to get centered with truck four down below.
He wasn’t particularly quiet about it, and he heard the shouts from down below as the caravan caught sight of him. His split-shade allowed him to watch them raising their weapons at him, even as he focused his eyes on the uneven terrain that he bounded over. He saw both views, and by them expertly bobbed and weaved around zipping bullets and stray patches of gravel.
Gallan kicked off of a slanted boulder and flipped sideways, hurtling out into open space. For a long second he remained suspended in the air, then plummeted down to the forces below. A couple lucky bullets caught him as he fell, and his split-shade burned brightly around the wounds, healing them almost instantly.
He landed feet-first on top of the truck with tremendous force. The fall would have been fatal if not for his split-shade taking the brunt of that blow.
Split-shade was not the correct term for Gallan. His condition was so rare that there was no appropriate name for it. Perhaps it should be “shared-shade.” The other soul that possessed his body with him had always been there, even before he had ever recognized its presence. It had first come to his attention during moments of duress when he had had to achieve things that seemed impossible. Moments like now.
As soon as Gallan touched the ground three squads of soldiers rushed at him, two to his left and one to his right. Gallan thrust out his left hand, imposing the will of his other shade upon the men there. That was the benefit of a split or shared shade, the “loose” soul could reach out of the body and impose its will upon the shades of those around it.
The two squads of men were pulled downwards by a great force, slamming into the ground with their limbs pinned fast. Gallan spun his head around to the other side where a nearby soldier was fumbling with the gun at his side. Gallan thrust his hand out and touched the man’s arm. His shade flowed through the man’s body, unclasping the gun from its holster, sliding it along the surface of the man’s body, and into Gallan’s palm. Gallan withdrew his hand and started firing rapidly, much too quickly to properly aim the weapon. Even so each bullet found its mark, their paths bending through the air, directed by his will. Within a few seconds every squad member on that side lay motionless.
A sudden pang dropped Gallan to his knees, his brow dripped sweat and his teeth grit together. Back on his left side the two squads were trying to throw off his invisible restraints. Imposing his will on others took great reserves of energy, especially when they fought back. He tried to maintain some level of control over them as he dropped the sidearm and reached for his assault rifle. Hopefully it would have enough bullets in its clip to take care of them all.
Before he could, though, twelve blue blurs slammed into the ground all around him. It was his personal strike team come to give their support. A clatter of gunfire rang out and the enemy squads were no longer a concern.
“That couldn’t have been fifteen seconds already,” Gallan panted.
“You looked like about ready for us to drop in,” the team leader grinned.
The the team rushed into the ring formation Gallan had requested. They stood in a circle around him, facing outwards, with an opening left at one end which he faced.
Gallan gave the order and they all moved forward as a single unit. Each man covered his own zone, firing off controlled bursts at the enemy units popping up to challenge their advance. They were the best trained units in all of Gallan’s little army, and they acted with lethal precision. Wave after wave of enemies took it in turns to try and break their group. Every now and again a stray bullet would catch one of them, but so long as it wasn’t instantly lethal all Gallan had to do was reach out and touch them and they would be healed. This was why he stood in their center.
As they advanced towards truck seven gunfire rained down from above. Husk and his men taking care of threats whatever threats were hidden from the small strike team. All was going smoothly until–
“Strained!” one of Gallan’s team members shouted from the left.
“Spin!” Gallan hissed, and the team shuffled around so that their opening pointed towards the approaching foe.
A “Strained” was not a person who possessed two shades, but rather one whose shade had been nearly severed from their body, almost to the point of death, which allowed it to now “strain” beyond its mortal confines. They weren’t as powerful as Gallan, and there were some definite drawbacks to their power, but they were certainly still a force to be reckoned with.
Gallan sized up the Strained charging at them now. She was bounding over the tops of the trucks like a wild animal, eyes locked directly on him.
“Strained!” another of Gallan’s team members shouted from behind and to the left.
“Strained!” another one called from a bit to the right.
“Try and keep the back one preoccupied,” Gallan told his team. “I’ll be quick with these other two.”
He gave a mighty kick and propelled himself high into the air. He met the first Strained, the woman, in the middle of one of her bounds. He grappled her arms and pivoted through the air, swinging her around, over his head, and throwing her away from his men.
With a snarl she thrust out her arms and reached out with her shade, compressing the air around her to the point that she could clutch at it with her hands. She gripped tightly on that invisible wall, and then flung herself back at Gallan. As she rocketed into him she swung her hand wide, revealing a razor-thin blade tucked along the outside of her arm. It was so thin that Gallan didn’t even feel it as it cleaved clean through his arm, cutting it in two just above the elbow.
Instinctively Gallan reached down with his other hand, grabbed the falling limb, and held it back against his stump. He instantly fused the two back into one with an outburst of shade-energy and his arm was made whole. Well that had hurt.
The woman was spinning on her heel, bringing the blade back around for a second pass, this time angling it for his neck. Gallan was prepared this time and punched out with his fist, compressing the air around it. Her blade hit his invisible shield and burst into a thousand shards. As the metal pieces fell towards the ground Gallan made silent note of them, imprinting in his mind the memory of their structure.
A second split-shade landed next to Gallan and the woman. It was a burly man, with a long beard tied in a braid down to his waist. Well that was good, it had come for him instead of his team. What was less good was that now he brought down a fist the size of a car tire and smashed it over Gallan’s back. Gallan took the blow and fell to his belly. At least he had the presence of mind to angle himself so that he fell onto the shards of the metal blade. Some of them cut into him and he winced in pain, but that subsided as he absorbed them into his body.
“So much for their hero,” the burly man snarled. As he spoke he reached down and pulled Gallan to his feet, then wrapped his arms around him in a crushing embrace. Gallan’s bones held together, but only because of his second-shade’s extra fortification. They would not last much longer, so he grit his teeth, focused his will, and reassembled the metal blade, positioning it so that it projected directly out of his chest.
“Ugh!” was all the burly man managed to say as he was pierced straight through his heart, then he rolled backwards and fell to the earth.
“One down, one to go,” Gallan thought, but before he could round on the woman he felt the tremor. It was like his heart had stopped, held for a moment, and then thudded extra hard.
Even though his back was to truck seven he could already see through his shade that its door was open and its inside was vacated.
He was here.
“Hello Reish,” he said softly as he turned about. The woman was shrinking off to the side, leaving the way clear for the tall, strange creature that approached. It stood on narrow legs, with the knees bent back the wrong way. Its torso was a hulking mass, and its arms were long and thin. The head was a regular man’s on the left side, but flat and featureless on the right. The creature raised its hand and Gallan’s entire strike team was instantly snapped to the ground by invisible bonds. It was the same as Gallan had done to the squads of soldiers, but the binding was far more absolute, none of Gallan’s men could even quiver in fear.
“You shouldn’t have come here old friend,” the left half of the face spoke.
On Monday I shared how an author can create expectations in the reader, even without them realizing it. I decided to illustrate this point by writing a short piece that takes place in the middle of a larger story. This story is full of references to peoples and powers, none of which are properly understood by the reader.
We do not know anything about Gallan and his team, why they are here, and what their ultimate objectives are. We do not know the history between Gallan and Reish. We do not know why there are these “split-shades” and “shared-shades” or even what the full mechanics of these people are.
And yet, for all that lack of foundation, I believe that most readers will not feel lost. This short piece has all the trappings of a generic hero’s journey: right from the beginning we are introduced to a sympathetic central character who seems to be fighting a losing battle. That character is intimately acquainted with another individual, one who is far more powerful and has destructive intentions towards central character. With this the reader is able to get their bearings, identify the hero, the villain, and the conflict between them. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know anything else about the world, they have already put together the “narrative” and they have done it entirely subconsciously.
This, then, allows me a clear opportunity to subvert expectations, which is what I am going to focus on in the second and third sections of this story. It isn’t going to be a twist ending where it turns out that Gallan and his people are really the bad guys, but I do believe it will go to a place that is unexpected, even if foreshadowed.
Before that, though, I want to pause and consider the use of violence in this story, as it hits pretty hard when compared to most of my other tales. I’d like to talk about how an author balances capturing a mood with maintaining their personal tastes, and about the difference between being authentic and being excessive. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then come next Thursday for the second section of Shade.
On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.
The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.
The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.
Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.
But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.
I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.
Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.
In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.
But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.
Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.
Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.
In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.
Easier to Critique Than Write)
As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?
I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.
Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.
And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
“Janet said you wanted to see me?” Caroline asked cautiously from the doorway.
“Yes, yes,” Harold cleared his throat. “Don’t just stand there, come in.”
Caroline closed the door and shuffled forward timidly, coming to a stop a few feet from his desk. She had her arms wrapped around herself, as if trying to shrink herself into as small a form as possible.
“Please sit,” Harold sighed. Why did she always have to be so diminutive and awkward?
She tried to smile politely, though it came across more as a grimace, then perched herself on the edge of the leather-cushioned seat. She did not appear comfortable at all.
“How are you Caroline?”
She nodded. A few seconds later she actually processed what he had said. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine Caroline” he sighed again. “Why don’t we just get right to what I called you in for?”
“Yes, good idea.”
“Alright, well that last week I said we didn’t have any of those overtime opportunities you were hoping for… But, I think I’ve found something that you might be able to help out with if you’re still interested.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll take whatever I can get! Thank you.”
“Well, let me explain it to you and then we’ll see if you’re still interested. In six weeks I’ll be taking a sabbatical for a while. I’m not entirely sure for how long, but perhaps as much as two months. Gus will be flying in to cover for me during that time. He’s a good man and he’ll handle the day-to-day things just fine. But he will have his hands full, and I don’t want to burden him unnecessarily.”
“The thing is we have a few faxes that don’t come in until after hours. It’s basic invoicing from the Western shore after the factory closes, and I usually stay late enough to get those. They have to be received, transcribed, and filed before 8 pm. If you want it, then you’d probably be able to pull an extra hour or two each day taking care of that.”
“You don’t think that Janet would be better able to handle that?”
“I try to not keep Janet after hours when I can help it. I’m sure she would be willing if I asked her, but I thought I might as well offer it to you first, since you requested the overtime after all.”
“Oh I see. But would she be better at it?”
“It’s really not difficult. I would show you how I do it one evening and that’s all the training you would need.” Harold smiled. Clearly he felt he was doing a nice thing for Caroline, but she didn’t even try to hide the discomfort in her face.
“So…you said starting in about six weeks?”
“Yes. The fourteenth of June.”
She nodded. “I had been thinking to take some time off myself then, actually…I’d been hoping to get some overtime before then if possible.”
Harold shrugged. “Well I still don’t know of any overtime opportunities before then. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. On your way out could you tell Janet I’d like to speak with her?”
“Well, I’m not saying no,” Caroline piped up.
“Then what are you saying?” Harold said tersely, not at all amused by how she meandered around her decisions.
She bit her lip, and spoke out loud her inner reasoning. “I’ll just have to figure things out at home. I don’t know…but we can’t afford not to.” Caroline nodded resolutely to Harold. “I’ll do it.”
“Alright then,” he said slowly, as if waiting to see whether she would change her mind again. “When we get a little closer I’ll have you stay after hours and show you how everything works. That will be all.”
“How’s your son, Caroline?” Betty asked one morning after they had their first gap between calls.
“He’s doing really well,” Caroline asserted. “I mean, well, he’s still in a lot of pain of course, but he’s so patient and understanding with it.”
Betty tutted sympathetically. “It just kills you, doesn’t it? I always told my kids if you’re hurting go ahead and yell! It breaks my heart when they think they have to be so grown up all the time.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“How are you and Dave holding up?”
Caroline sighed. “We’re tired. It’s really going to help things having some overtime pay, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse. I’ll hardly be there for Zach during recovery at all, but I guess its for the best. I’m just anxious about keeping myself going with the extra hours–”
A sudden voice from behind made both Caroline and Betty jump in their seats. “Yes, especially given that you can’t even keep up with your regular hours already!”
Both women spun around to see Harold standing behind them with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. He slowly pointed an accusing finger to the blinking light on Caroline’s phone which designated a waiting caller.
“Sorry sir,” Caroline gasped, clutching her chest as her heartbeat raced. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing so that she wouldn’t huff and puff during the call. As she picked up the phone and answered she heard Harold’s feet stumping away.
“Tech support? Please hold while I transfer you.” A silent tear trickled down her cheek.
“Yes, come in.”
“Hiya Harold!” Lucas said brightly as he strolled into the boss’s office. He was holding a small woven basket with a pink bow on the front.
“Lucas,” Harold said in a measured voice meant to counter the other man’s overbearing cheerfulness.
“I’m not sure if you heard, but Caroline’s got a son who is going into surgery next month. Expensive stuff, and we figured we could do a good thing and ask people to contribute to help her out a little bit. I know it would mean a lot if the boss-man made a healthy donation himself!” He laughed and extended his basket expectantly.
The “boss-man” peered with a wrinkled nose at the crumpled bills already sitting in the basket. “You’ve been going around to the employees and asking them for money?”
“Yes, well…it’s for a good cause, you know!”
“The cause doesn’t matter, its against corporate policy. People aren’t supposed to feel pressured by their peers to contribute while at the workplace. Don’t you think if people heard that their manager had made a ‘healthy donation’ that they would feel obligated to do the same?”
“Oh, uh–I suppose you’re right,” Lucas’s face suggested that that was exactly what he had been intending.
“Lucas,” Harold sighed as he massaged his temples, “the company provides proper methods for those who need extra financial aid to receive it. There is the Family Hardship Fund which provides large contributions each year to qualifying employees. However–”
“Yeah, Caroline said she already tried that but you said–but she was told that she couldn’t get any help.”
Harold frowned at Lucas’s weak attempt to iron the accusation out of his complaint. “She only started here four months ago. Certain programs are only available after employees have been here for a year. But my point was that there are proper channels for this sort of thing. Another option that’s available to her right now is if you coworkers diverted a percentage or two off of your paychecks towards a general fund. Then include a note that you want the contribution to go to Caroline, and I’ll see that she receives a lump sum. That way everything stays anonymous and no one feels pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”
“I see,” Lucas said flatly. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to go.
“And make sure you hand back the money you’ve already collected!”
“Well this is never going to work,” Betty scowled as she looked over the flyer Lucas had made. He dumped a tall stack of those fliers on Caroline’s desk. She also took one to look over and quickly frowned. Printed on the flier was a detailed list of instructions for how one could donate a percentage of their paycheck to aid Caroline.
“It’ll never work,” Betty repeated. “It’s way too complex.”
“I know,” Lucas groaned, “but Harold says that’s the only way.”
“What that man’s problem anyway?”
“He hates people.”
“It’s alright,” Caroline shrugged. “It was really nice of you guys to try anyway.”
“Caroline,” Harold’s stern voice rang as he marched into their cubicles.
“Uh-oh,” Caroline whispered.
“Caroline these forms are all wrong,” he said in exasperation as he dropped a stack of papers on her desk. “See that top one there? It’s the order sheet for Asper Co. and you’ve filled out the contact information for Jake Sutherland. But I know Jake personally, and he’s from DeltaRay!”
“What?–oh.” Caroline thumbed through the papers. “I must have gotten a sheet or two off from my call list. I’m sorry!”
“That’s nice that you’re sorry,” Harold rolled his eyes, “but we can’t bill any clients if we don’t know which company they’re representing now can we?”
“No, of course not. I’ll fix these up first thing tomorrow–”
“That won’t cut it, your team’s quota is due today. You need to stay and take care of this now.”
“Oh but she had plans,” Betty piped up, earning a frown from Harold.
“I don’t like asking people to stay late, Betty. I make a point of not imposing unfair demands, but when a team has made a commitment and then they don’t deliver on them that’s on their own heads.”
“Well I could cover it for her tonight.”
“Do you think I hired Caroline for you to do her work, Betty?”
“If I’m not made confident between now and my vacation that she’s capable of handling things on her own, then maybe she won’t belong in this company much longer! Do I make myself clear?” With the last question he steered his focus back to Caroline.
“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it right now, sir.”
“I’m sure that you will.”
Harold turned a strode away, leaving the three in stunned silence. Caroline clenched her fists, screwed her eyes shut, and for a moment her whole body shook in stifled aggravation.
“That…man,” Lucas seethed. His pause between words suggested that ‘man’ was not the first word that had popped into his head.
“I’m never going to survive doing that training with him,” Caroline moaned. “The two of us alone for two hours, can you imagine?!”
“Well sure, he’s a monster,” Lucas agreed, “but so what? I get him angry at me all the time and you know what I say? I say ‘so what, I’m still going home at the end of the day and there’s nothing he can do to me.'”
“I just…when he gets angry he shouts and I really don’t like it when people shout. If I’m around him I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to explode! I get so self-conscious, I make silly mistakes, and then he must think I’m making those sorts of mistakes even when he isn’t there! And even if he doesn’t shout, there’s still just the way he looks at me. It’s like he sees right through me! Somehow he knows everything I’ve done wrong and he despises me for it.”
Betty tutted sympathetically. “Just remember that you’re not doing anything for him. This is all for Zach, and that’s all that matters.”
On Monday I discussed how many stories treat the protagonist’s biases as gospel. If the hero views another character as evil, then that character is evil. In these stories there is little space for different perspectives, ambiguity, or misunderstanding.
And depending on what the objective of your story is, that might even be the best approach. But obviously for a more nuanced tale, you would probably also want a more nuanced take on the characters. That approach is my intention with this latest short story.
To help with this objective, I decided to not portray the story from just one character’s perspective. By using a third-person voice I am able to avoid having one character cast shade on the other exclusively.
Next it was obvious I needed two characters that were both flawed. I imagine most readers will take the dimmer view toward Harold. He certainly is harsher than he should be, but it is also understandable why he is frustrated. Caroline is legitimately incompetent, though sympathetically so. My hope is that characters can empathize with Harold’s frustrations, even while wishing he would give the poor woman a break.
Another thing I experimented with in this story was to make hard cuts between each scene. This makes them feel more like isolated vignettes, like a sample of everyday life for these individuals. It’s been an interesting format to experiment with, but one side effect I hadn’t anticipated was the significant pruning I had to or else the story would become too distracted.
The surf did not break across the shore all at the same moment, but rather rippled down its length in a long, drawn-out rush. This was due to how the sandy beach was laid out at an angle to the flow of the tide. And so the waves sounded on the North-Western tip first, then worked their way South and East, where at last they rolled off in a curling white froth. Many the fish was caught in that circling current, and some of the weaker ones were unable to break free of it. They would die in its churning, then be deposited on the cold, wet sand when the tide drew back again.
It was a freshwater coast, and the white sand was dotted here and there with various bits of brown scrub and green needle-grass. About twenty yards back from the waterline the sand gave way to a more muddy carpet, and small gray crabs dug little burrows in that clay. The entire stretch of beach was backed by the black, porous bluffs that rose high above the scene. Sheer walls that were perpetually driven back by a continual process of erosion.
As that rock wall receded it left large, boulder deposits on the ground, sentinels that then crumbled to bits in slow motion. While they still stood their porous surfaces were turned into a thousand miniature lakes, each hole filled by the spray from the sea and then crowned by a ring of lichen. They all bore a head of hair as well, long, slick, green blades of grass that grew wild and unkempt, the same as could be found atop the bluffs.
The sky was perpetually gray, an endless stream of clouds ever passing over with no break to indicate where one ended and the next began. Winds frequently buffeted the small island, and rain flowed most days of the year. Not in torrents, usually, but in a constant drizzly weeping.
During the drier months the occasional gull would chance the voyage out to the island from some distant origin. It was a long and tempestuous route for them, but those that managed it would gorge unrestrained on the crabs, relieved from the usual squabbling of their brethren.
Further inland the grassy knolls were sprinkled here and there with small houses. The people that lived here were decent, quiet folk, as one had to be to make a home in a place so humble and gray. They were absent any ambition, and only worked the land for their own subsistence, never trying to raise a profit from its depths. All they wished was to enjoy the quiet tranquility, and the perpetual washing from the weeping rains.
Aside from their homes they had built only two other edifices for public communion. One was a church, whitewashed and prominent, with imported oak for the doors and the pews. It was at least five times too large for the small population of the island, but it had seemed disrespectful to make a place of worship that was too small. Each Saturday they all fastidiously cleaned it, and so it was the tidiest of any structure in town. As they felt it should be.
The other edifice was a pub. It was a long, low building, illuminated by orange lanterns without but left dark and smoky within. No one came here in a hurry, and every towns-person had their own seat for the long evening hours they whiled away within. One-by-one they came after the day’s work was done, and one-by-one they left at their preferred time for “turning in.” Unless, of course, there happened to be any visitors in the place, in which case they might stay as late as 2 or 3 in the morning.
These visitors were usually some fishermen who had stopped to make repairs on their vessel, and every now and again they some city-minded pilgrim would arrive after becoming hopelessly lost in the sea, seeking directions back home. More rarely, perhaps once every few years, an uncharacteristically powerful storm would arise, and then all of the nearby ships would be driven towards their refuge, skirting in like so many giant gooses caught in a gale.
It was the morning following one such of these storms, still much too early for the island to have fully awoken. Down on the soaking shore a dark form washed up, a mass of tangled clothes, sopping hair, and pale skin. The man coughed and his fingers clawed at the sand, but his eyes remained stubbornly clenched. The next wave came and engulfed him, and he sputtered a torrent of water from his mouth after it had receded. Instinctively he crawled on his belly a few feet further ashore.
He was a young man, surely no more than thirty. Yet the gaunt expression in his face aged him prematurely. His eyes were naturally sunk in deep, and seemingly all the more so with how his long, pointed nose extended out between them. Around the edges of his eyes was a scrawl of wrinkles, ones that extended uncharacteristically out and downwards, tracing onto the tops of his cheeks.
The man huddled his bony knees up to his chest, trying in vain to find some warmth as an easterly wind blew across in fitful gusts. Each of these breaths stirred him closer and closer to consciousness, until at last his eyelids slowly rolled back. His vacant eyes peered out unseeing, the focus slowly settled in, and at last the pupils lazily rotated to survey the scene about him.
He perceived the sand, the water, the wind, but all was strange and unfamiliar to him. His mind started working, trying to trace back where he was and why. What was the last that had happened to him?
He suddenly recollected all and tried to sit bolt upright. He barely made it halfway before he collapsed back on his side. He palmed his forehead, trying to ease the throbbing in his skull. After a minute had passed he tried to raise himself again, this time more slowly and cautiously. He winced as he dug his palm into the sand, propping himself up on that arm, and peering out into the wild sea. He scanned his eyes left and right, searching and searching again for some shape on the horizon.
He saw nothing, and with that blessed omission his mouth cracked open in a smile and a small laugh of relief escaped his aching chest. The wheezing chuckle passed, and it was immediately followed by one deeper and fuller. He clapped his hands in front of his nose and pressed his thumbs against his forehead, heavy sobs now mingling with the laughter, and eventually taking them over. His whole body shook as the moment of relief allowed himself to truly appreciate the trauma of his flight.
Could it truly be over? he wondered. After so long, so hard a chase? No matter. Time would heal all wounds, erase the memory of what had been. All that was relevant now was that the sea was empty, there was no more ship to be seen anywhere. It must have sunk, and taken with it all the men aboard. All but him. Such a terrible cost, indeed, but necessary. May a few dozen innocents die that the one great evil may be purged, and call yourself blessed that somehow you escaped the froth.
As his head bowed under the weight of his emotions he failed to notice the dark figure of another body washing ashore, some thirty yards from where he lay. That man was as motionless as the dead, though, and did not stir at all as the water continued to smother him with every wave.
At last the first man finished his heaving sobs and began to see about getting up on his feet. It was no small task, and he found that he would have to rub some life back into his legs before they would function properly for him. It was while he was in the process of this that he happened to look about him, and at last he saw the other man lying down-shore.
“Oh no,” he whimpered, his slight frame crumpling at the sight. The other man was dressed in fine, black clothes, or rather clothes that had been fine before the sea had so bedraggled them. Over them was a rich, red vest, with some stitching that suggested a station of some sort. His hair was blond and close-cropped, his mustache was carefully trimmed.
The first man stared long and hard at his quarry, and finally trembled less as he steeled himself for action. Probably the aggravator was already dead. It was better for the body to wash ashore in this way, now he would be able to know for sure. And if, by some curse, the hole in the other’s chest still beat, then better to end it now and be done with it. And so the first man began to crawl forward, his legs still acclimating to regular use.
That monster had to be dead. He had to be. It was miracle enough that one of them had survived, for both to have done so would be…would be a sign at that the gods had fated them to this infernal dance eternally. The thought made the man pause in his crawl, then he swallowed hard and continued.
Even if he felt no heartbeat in that body he might as well be sure of the deed. He’d open the man and stretch him out across the whole beach, pocketing only the heart, just to be sure it could never return to its master. Or perhaps he would dry the body out and grind it into a dust. He’d feed it to those crabs over yonder. He’d–
Of a sudden the second man lifted up on raised arms and gave a long, startled gasp, like a sleeping beast pierced in the dead of night. Immediately his head snapped to one side and his eyes locked on the nearing other. Those brows furrowed so deeply that they ran together as one, and he began to take long, sharp inhales, filling his lungs with biting, cold air and willing its energy to flow from thence to his limbs.
The first man recoiled in horror. Though he had been conscious longer, he knew he was not so well recovered as to overpower his adversary. And so he stumbled backwards. His feet had at long last discovering their strength in his terror, and so he rose and staggered away backwards.
That second man continued to hold himself on wobbling arms that ever grew more steady. His breath pumped in and out of his lungs, whistling around his clenched teeth, his face etched with a deep and hurtful desire. He seemed to breathe hate in with the air, using both to strengthen him. The second man could not continue to look at such a terrible sight. He turned, and sobbed bitterly as he ran away, wondering what the use of it was. Would it never stop? Would he never wake from the nightmare?
No. Evidently it was their fate to chase and flee forever. He would neither overcome nor escape his enemy, yet also he would never be overcome nor destroyed himself. Somehow he always managed to just barely escape his death, while countless other innocents perished in the wake of their clashing instead. It was his curse. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop and endure the agony and then sleep? Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker that way? More humane to the world? Maybe it would, but his courage failed him.
And so he ran, tears splashing around his feet as he went. Some for him. Some for the poor souls who chanced to live on this island, and would soon be swept away in the tide of violence.
My post on Monday was all about the mood of the story. My suggestion at the time was that it didn’t have as much to do with what you wrote as how you wrote it. For me the most difficult part of this piece was the very beginning, where I tried to first establish that mood, but once I found it the rest actually followed quite naturally.
One misstep I had at the beginning was that I originally began by talking about the villagers on the island. Right after I mentioned how the tide broke across the shore at an angle I wrote about how the locals had learned to listen to how long that breaking took, and from that extrapolate how many knots the wind was blowing at. I then said they would use that trick to impress the visitors at their cozy pub, whom they would then regale with stories.
It was a fine little detail, but it suddenly made the mood far too warm and pleasant. It made everything that followed lack that somber tone I was looking for. And so I cut it, and by the time I did get around to discussing the townspeople they were living under the tone already established by a muted gray beach, rather than the other way around.
Often that’s how it goes for me when establishing a mood. I have to ask myself “does this feel right?” And if it doesn’t I try other things until I find the one that does. Then progress continues as normal.
There was another element of this story that I would like to look at in greater detail, that of the motivation. I was intentionally very sparse on specifics for why these two men are so irreconcilably opposed to one another, we just know that they are. But isn’t the classic question for an actor “what is my motivation?” Don’t characters always need reasons to do what they do? Well, to put it simply it’s not that simple. But let’s take a closer at all of that come Monday, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
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!