The story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland opens with a girl who is bored. Thus it is an easy thing for her fancy to be captured when a white rabbit with a waistcoat and a pocket-watch goes running by! And when the rabbit disappears down a hole, she is all too eager to continue following this thread of curiosity. Thus begins her literal journey “down the rabbit hole.” And after the popularization of the story, it also became her figurative journey “down the rabbit hole” as well!
As a result, today we use the term “down the rabbit hole” to describe taking a train of thought for as far as it will take us. Each branch of science is based on this idea of beginning with an initial question, and using it to find other deeper questions, following them one after another, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.
Like Hansel and Gretel.
In that story we have another fanciful tale, one about a brother and sister who follow a trail to get back home. But when that trail runs cold, they resort to another: that of their own curiosity. After wandering down that path for a while, they still make it back to their destination. There are many roads to get to where you want to go, though of course, as the Cheshire Cat says, “if you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”
Which might sound like a waste of time, but don’t forget Bilbo’s advice that “not all who wander are lost.” Because even if you don’t know your destination, you’re still sure to reach it “if you only walk long enough.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, Lord of the Rings. Clearly taking hold of a string and pulling on it to see where it goes is a common thread in storytelling.
I do apologize for that appalling pun, I assure you that I am very ashamed.
Perhaps there is no mystery as to why so many stories wander down the paths of curiosity. Many of these stories only come into being by that exact process!
Very often I begin a story with no more than a white-rabbit-in-a-waistcoat idea, which I then follow as far is it will go. Thus many stories uncover the next plot point at the same time that the author does, and the character’s epiphanies are really the writer’s. Literary heroes are very glad when the author finally figures out how to save the day, because only then can they do the same!
Uncovering the Next Level)
A story that ends at the same depth as where it began is not only dissatisfying to read, it is uninteresting to write. Alice moving from the White Rabbit to a Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter to the Queen of Hearts is almost as fun to read as it must have been to invent.
Sometimes a writer doesn’t know which caves of the mind will open up into wide ravines, though. Sometimes an idea looms promisingly at the beginning, but quickly dead-ends, or turns cycles back into a repeating loop. I won’t call out any specific examples, but I know more than a few tales that began with imaginative premises, only to pinch off into unoriginal conclusions.
So let us consider a more positive example instead. In the 1999 film The Matrix, Thomas Anderson is a lowly computer programmer who is more than a little bit like Alice of Wonderland. Just as she was, he is bored with life, and looking for something to chase after. As with Alice, fate intervenes, and introduces him to a hidden world, one that operates by rules entirely different from his own. It would seem that the filmmakers were quite aware of this similarity between their work and Lewis Carroll’s. They even wink at the parallel when Anderson’s journey begins by following a woman with a “white rabbit” tattoo.
When Anderson follows this lead, he discovers superhuman beings that are able to defy the laws of nature and physics. This is strange. Then it is revealed that nature and physics are themselves entirely artificial, able to be bent by those that recognize them as nothing more than parameters within a computer simulation. Stranger still. Then Mister Anderson breaks out into a world controlled by machines, where flying ships cruise dark tunnels, and humans jack into the simulation to fight the master program from within. A world that Anderson ultimately merges with, and becomes able to rewrite the entire code of at will. Strangest of all!
The film remains fascinating because each new idea goes deeper than the one that came before, while also remaining totally connected and relevant to the preceding moments. Curiosity is constantly piqued and then satisfied in repeating succession.
Another way of progressing down the rabbit hole is simply to follow from action to counter-action to counter-counter-action all the way to the logical conclusion. A story doesn’t have to be a fantasy to start pulling on a string, it can just begin with a choice that will yield a series of consequences.
The Iranian film called A Separation begins with a very volatile opening. A husband and wife are strained by being unable to agree on whether they should leave the country or not, and from this tangled outset the film follows many threads at once.
The wife is naturally frustrated, and decides to leave the home for a time. Therefore the man naturally has to hire a caretaker to watch his invalid father while he as work. When that woman neglects his father, he is naturally upset, and forces her to leave the premises…which may or may not have resulted in her falling and suffering a miscarriage.
Naturally the man is anxious to validate his innocence in the matter. Naturally the caretaker and her husband are offended at the suggestion that they lie about the cause of the miscarriage. Naturally follows naturally. Pride begets offense, offense begets defensiveness, blame goes round and round, all the way to the film’s sad, but all-too-real conclusion.
It is a tragic end, but we have systematically pulled the string length by length, so we buy its escalation completely.
Last Thursday I posted the last segment of a story, which delved deeper and deeper into the subconscious of a man processing trauma. On Thursday I will do my own take on following a rabbit hole of natural consequences. The story will open with a problem, and then propose a number of solutions to it, each delving into deeper and deeper levels of cruelty. The conclusion will be horrifying, but hopefully also fascinating. Come back then to see how it turns out.
“They were just sitting in the alley in a box. Someone must have been throwing them out.”
“How do you know? Maybe they were just keeping them there for safekeeping?”
Curtis shook his head. “I doubt that. But if you’re so worried, then you don’t have to be a part of it.”
“Well I wasn’t saying that…”
“Good. Help me get these sorted then.”
The two brothers worked side-by-side at the bedroom desk. The old box was tattered and warped on one side where the rain had fallen on it. It was dotted with black mold spots and smelled quite musty. But for how decrepit and trashy the box appeared, its contents were anything but.
Inside the box were two stacks of white…somethings. They were sturdy, very precisely shaped, and looked expensive. It was hard to say exactly what they were made of, plastic or painted metal it seemed to be at first glance. They were hard, heavy, and cold to the touch…or at least, cold at first. That was why the exact material was hard to guess, because the longer one touched the items’ surfaces the warmer the material got…warmer and warmer until it became uncomfortably hot and one had to draw their hand away! What sort of material behaved like that? And that wasn’t all. There was a strange tingle on the fingertip when touching them as well. Not like electricity, but almost as if it was sending microscopic waves through the skin.
One stack of the items was round, thin, disc-like. They were not quite perfect circles, each one of them had many notches and grooves cut into them. They were clean and precise excisions, with no stray fibers or detritus. The other stack was more rod-like in shape. Some were round, some were long, rectangular prisms, some were curved on one or two sides, and the opposite on the other ones. They were of inequal lengths, and some ended with a flat plane while others had slanted angles. Across all of the piece in both stacks there were intricate patterns of lines etched here and there. They were straight, with sudden right-turns like the traces on a circuit board.
Last of all, there was a single note included with the equipment, a small piece of paper on which someone had written “Some Assembly Required.”
The two boys had all of the equipment out of the box now, and handled one piece after the other, turning them over and over, trying to make sense of it all.
“What do you think it’s for?” Gavin asked.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t look like I’ve anything I’ve seen.”
“Some of the pieces fit together,” Gavin observed, slotting one of the rods into a disc’s hole.
“Yeah, so I guess you build something. Only…it’s weird.”
“There’s no screws or anything to keep it together. If we start stacking them together then pretty soon they’ll just fall apart.”
To demonstrate he flicked at Gavin’s rod, but to their surprise it didn’t topple over. He hit it harder with the back of his knuckles, still it didn’t fall.
“Hey, let me see that,” Gavin said, gripping the rod and trying to pull it out of its perch. It slid out easily.
“How did you do that?”
“I don’t know…it just came out.”
A few more minutes of experimentation and they determined that once two pieces locked together they could only be pulled apart at the exact angle they had slid together at. Any variation from that degree and they would feel like they were welded together instead. Thus they could be freely handled as one piece without fear of their falling apart.
“It isn’t magnets doing that,” Gavin said in bewilderment.
“No, never seen anything like it. Let’s see what other pieces we can fit together.”
After a quarter hour they had all of the most obvious connections sorted out. Rods had been slotted into about all of the holes that ran through the middle of the discs. Each of them connected at the rod’s end, so that it stood upright with the disc at its base. All of the notches along the edges of the discs were unfilled, though, and these were proving to be more difficult to solve.
“This notch looks like it should fit,” Curtis said, holding a rod against the edge of a disc. “But it isn’t locking in place like before.” He pulled his hand away and the rod clattered noisily to the table.
“Hmm,” Gavin said, picking the rod up. “Well, that notch is only encasing two of its sides. I’ll bet it goes between two discs, each covering half of it, and you need to put all three pieces together at once before anything will lock.”
“That’s a fascinating theory,” Curtis said with a yawn. “No, actually it is. But I think my curiosity’s run out on this.”
“What? You don’t want to keep playing with it?”
“What’s the point? It’s clearly not coming together into anything cool. It’s just some abstract art piece or something. No wonder it got thrown out!”
Gavin looked the pieces over. It was true that there was still no rhyme or reason to what they might be forming. They had just gone from random piles of discs and rods to a random pile of flagpoles. It clearly wasn’t going to come together into something cool like a toy or a radio…yet still…
“I want to keep working on it,” he declared.
“Great…over on your desk, I need this space for homework now. And you better get that ratty cardboard box out of here before Mom sees it.”
“Sure, sure.” Gavin knew Curtis felt pleased for having pawned all the junk off on his brother to take care of, but that didn’t matter. He dutifully moved all the pieces over to his side of the room, smuggled the box into the outside garbage bin, and then came back to work on the pieces.
He thought that finding the third piece for the rod and disc would have been simple. He systematically went around each disc, testing any groove that remotely matched the exposed edges of the rod. None of them were a perfect fit. He went through them all a second time just to be sure. No dice.
He shook his head in confusion, then decided to leave that particular rod for the time being. Instead he started finding all of the other partial fits that were possible. Fifteen minutes went by and the mystery thickened. Nearly all of the edge grooves had been accounted for: 47 out of 61. All 47 had a different rod that connected to them, meaning there weren’t enough remaining grooves to complete the fits.
“Great…there’s parts missing.”
He could hear his mother calling for dinner, so Gavin rubbed his eyes, flicked off the desk lamp, and left the room.
With homework and school the next day it wasn’t until the next afternoon that he sat back down at his desk and was reminded of the pieces. He frowned at them as his disappointment resurfaced. He really had been curious to see what they made, even if it was nothing more than some weird, abstract art-piece.
His mind wandered absently as he picked up on piece after another, feeling their weight and running his fingers along their lengths. For a moment he was lost in the sensations they made against his skin: the rippling, the heat. When he tapped them they made so muted a noise it was almost inaudible. That was strange, too. Sometimes they caught the light in a strange way, shimmering so brightly it seemed almost as if the illumination was being amplified.
He leaned in and looked at them even closer. It started to dawn on him how remarkably smooth they were. The rippling sensations on his skin had made it seem like they were textured but they weren’t. Not even a little bit. Smooth as glass, yet not made of glass. Even the lines etched into the sides were unbelievably uniform and straight. Not a single ding in any of them. The grooves which ran the full length of some of the discs never varied in depth or breadth. They just–
Gavin started with a shock. There were grooves cut down the middle of the discs! He had already seen them, of course, but had just dismissed them as just yet another oddity that couldn’t be accounted for. Now though he realized that they were the right length to hold a rod…when it was laid sideways.
Trembling with excitement he found the partially-enclosed rod he had been experimenting with the night before. One-by-one he fit it length-wise into the grooves running across the surfaces of the discs. As he did so he held the first disc firmly against the already-matched sides of the rod. He made it through eleven discs without finding a perfect horizontal fit. And then…
The three pieces locked into place. Two discs propped up at right angles to one another and the rod fusing them together at the corner. As with before, they stuck together as if welded. In fact undoing that weld was more difficult, because he couldn’t remove just one disc from the rod, he had to do both at the same time and still at just the right angles.
The epiphany made, it didn’t take him long to get all of the other partial-fits sorted out. Less than an hour later and he now had 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and 12 cobbled-together “islands.” Several of the islands had formed enclosed spaces, like square tubes that were open at two opposite ends. Well, usually square tubes, there were a couple where the discs did not actually meet up at exactly right-angles.
These new formations came with their own unique properties. When Gavin placed his ear by one of the openings he was able to make out a faint humming that emanated somehow from its center. Passing his hand into the disc-tunnels created even stronger skin-rippling sensations, powerful enough that he could see the skin rolling with little waves.
His next experiment was to hold a plastic toy soldier in his hand, reach to the center of the tube, and then let it go. The toy fell to the bottom, but it moved very slowly, and shook the whole way down like it was being buffeted by a silent wind.
Gavin looked around, trying to find something even lighter, something that might be able to float. He ripped off a small corner of notebook paper and it did indeed float lazily within the tube, never touching any of the surfaces, yet never coming to a rest either. It would follow a straight line, come close to a disc or rod, and then make a sudden hairpin turn away. Gavin tried to pick out a pattern to its movement, but it was much too complex.
Gavin grabbed Curtis’s hole puncher and emptied its contents into his hands. He dropped the whole pile in the middle of the tube all at once and watched as the cluster of paper pieces scattered in different directions. They tumbled around aimlessly for a moment, then slowly began to file into a line. Gavin could see now that their movement was not random, each paper’s turn was consistent with all the others. They made a sort of train, bouncing away from each surface at just the same angle, twisting and turning within the tube. Gavin fumbled through the supplies on his desk for a paper, pen, and ruler then he began to draw out the pattern he was seeing.
But the pattern never stopped. It just keep going and going, never repeating itself, until soon he had line-by-line drawn one massive dark splotch on his page.
A few more experiments followed, by which Gavin ascertained that each of his disc-tubes had distinct patterns from the others. Even the ones that weren’t fully enclosed would float the pieces of paper endlessly through their half-pipe or trench shapes. He also verified that he could lift up, rotate, and even shake the tube but the papers would continue unhindered. They wouldn’t even wiggle in their paths, as if all earthly forces such as gravity and air resistance simply did not apply within the tube.
Gavin made a note of these facts on a piece of paper.
The plastic soldier sunk to the bottom, he wrote, so I guess things have to be beneath a certain weight and then the tube takes them over entirely…
He paused and bit at the end of his pen.
What would happen if I were to step into a giant one of these tubes?
Would he be forever cut off from the rest of the world, unable to be pulled out by gravity or any another force? Well…he could still reach in his hand in and pull the pieces of paper out after they had been surrendered to the tube. And maybe that was because his hand was anchored to his arm which extended out of the tube. So as long as there was something that existed outside of the tube that could reach into it, it could alter things. But otherwise anything enclosed in the tube forever belonged to it. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought.
Unless…paper was dumb and it couldn’t move itself. What about something alive?
Gavin stood up from his desk and began scouring the room for the fly. When he couldn’t find one, he expanded his search to the whole house. Of course now when he actually needed a flay there was none to be found. So he went outside and found a few, but he knew he’d probably end up just squashing them if he tried to catch them. Instead he went back inside and looked up online how to make a simple fly trap with a mason jar. He modified the instructions a little. He didn’t add any dish soap to the sugar-water solution at the bottom of the jar so that the flies would avoid drowning. He needed them alive. His trap prepared, Gavin left the jar out on the porch and called it a night.
As I said on Monday, my intention with this story was to create a story that originated in an ordinary world, but which opened a gateway into the fantastic. One common element of stories like these is that they don’t need to spend a lot of time time in the ordinary world. Indeed, many of them enter into the new world within their very first chapter or two. All that really matters is that the reader have a familiar point of reference to begin with.
I’ve been having a lot of fun so far with this piece, but I do wish to give credit where it is due. This story of mine is written an homage to a highly skilled storyteller named Shane Carruth. This Monday I’ll explain a little bit more about him and his work, and then discuss how one can approach writing stories that are inspired by others. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!