Raise the Black Sun: Part Eleven

 

burning coal
Photo by Eric Sanman on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

I never did see the sun with my actual eyes. How could I? There was no light in that place at all, the sun emanated darkness. And yet, I was intensely aware of everything about it. I could easily tell you how it appeared, what its volume was, and how many tons filled it. It pervaded every empty nodule of my mind, and then pressed forcefully through the fibers into my every thought and memory. And so it was that I seemed to see and know the Black Sun everywhere. It had scorched the backs of us Treksmen all the journey here. It had pulled me with its gravity all through my youth. It had darkened my face as it stood over my infant cradle.

It was a perfect sphere, cracked and broken all about its surface, pitch black, and emanating a dark heat such as I had never felt from our old, gray sun. That old sun was no more. I could feel the surety of that fact without the slightest doubt. It was not merely hidden, it had been consumed in an instant, just like the rest of us.

Only now does a slight understanding come over me. That pulsing that pervaded everything, it was a resonance. And the wavelength of that resonance was attuned to all the universe. When the Black Sun vibrated all nearby matter was shaken loose, all color was disassembled, all light was disconnected. My atoms were no longer my own. They floated, near to each other, but no longer able to associate together. I hovered, sensing my own thoughts slowing towards nothing. My synapses still fired, but their neighbors could no longer receive the signal. I had a sense of having a million separate thoughts all at once.

And then a new rhythm began.

The Black Sun’s first wave had liberated us from all our ties, but now it would establish new ones. A massive crack, a single blade of light, vertical and extending to eternity. It barreled into our place and in an instant every person and every thing was blasted into the finest of grains, exploded out into a perfectly distributed cloud of matter.

Except for me. Where the Black Sun began reordering things, I was left as a phantom in the midst. I was not aware of body, I was not aware of my senses, I was only aware of self, and the streaming flow of matter and light all about. My conscience was an island in the midst of coursing chaos, watching as that chaos began to funnel and divide, reform, and give new inventions that had never been conceived of before.

There were great beasts in that moment. Massive titans with many heads and many arms, able to redistribute their mass as they saw fit. They congealed into corporeal form for a moment, and then burst outwards, scaling themselves out so far that entire nations lie between each of their atoms. And today no one knows of them, no one believes in them, but if you could scale yourself out to the cosmos you would see that they do exist, and that you have lived within them forever.

After the beasts came the forces. And I had a sense that the forces were the descendants of the beasts, come to fill the vacuum left by those progenitors. There were forces to draw together, forces to pull apart, forces to spin, and forces to arrest all motion whatsoever. Around each force spun the matter that had been turned to powder by the blade of light. Whirlpools of the elements, that spun at great speed until they became molten. And these whirlpools expanded and expanded until they intersected with each other. And where two whirlpools’ molten matter intersected there flew out sharp sparks and flashes of light as large as mountains. And in those sparks came torrents of black soil, fine as sand, rushing forth as a new landscape which slid under my feet and sprung up on every side. Black sand became all the ground, mounds of it became like hills and mountains, tumbling streams of it became like rivers.

And as those whirling cyclones continued to spit out more and more of that black powder they began to be buried beneath the mass, becoming hidden away, until they were sunk deep down to the world’s core. But though they are out of sight, still they spin, still they reach tendrils of new creation through the crust and onto the surface, but we see the evidence of it much more slowly now. And so it is today that the black powder will on occasion burst out of the ground without warning, spilling about in every direction as if it were flowing water, an incredible, pent-up mass that overruns an entire city and its countryside in a single moment. And where it covers, that which had once been is found no more. If you dig through the black powder you do not find the old creation beneath, for it has been dissolved in the new resonance. Many the explorer has searched that sand, only to disintegrate themselves in it.

These outbursts happen now about once every decade, but they do still happen. Each comes more slowly than the last, each comes with a greater rush of pent up matter. And so these upheavals will continue until the entire world has been remade in this new creation’s fashion. It may take millennia, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will be. For these forces, though slowed by their thick surroundings, are unending.

At the moment I have been discussing, though, that of the Black Sun’s first rising, the entire landscape surrounding me had already been changed in a single instant. Looking to the East I could make out the tidal wave of black sand rushing outwards, until it had consumed everything as far as the eye could see.

And then I looked back to my more immediate surroundings. I say I looked, but of course, there was no light anymore, nor did I possess eyes anymore. But all this new matter was interconnected, a shared consciousness, and so I saw them in my mind in just the same way as I saw the Black Sun. And all about me nothing appeared like how it had when my companions and I had first arrived. There were no people, indeed no form of life at all. There was no Coventry. There were no blackened trees with invisibly thin leaves. There were no caravan wagons or scrying sticks or roads. There was not even a void anymore. There was no Mira.

Or was she everywhere?

There was the Black Sun hanging over me, massive and very, very low in the sky, like a great weight about to fall upon my head at any moment. And an ocean of sand about my feet…or at least what would have been my feet if I yet had had a body. No doubt the material of what had once been my body was now a part of these black grains blasted all about.

Then the Black Sun acknowledged me. It flexed and the black soil in my area began to snake up over my space. It covered over me and rippled through many forms before settling on something that resembled a tall-legged man with no face.

Then all the ocean of granules began to raise and lower in waves. Everywhere they were trying to congeal together in strange shapes and mounds, then collapsed back into flatness. Then tried to congeal together again. Pulling together, releasing, over and over, like a pot being stirred until the batter grows thick.

And it did grow thick. Over the years the bonds between the grains became stronger. They slowly became more reluctant to falling apart, and they held their forms with more intricate detail. They were many layered, interwoven, creating a tumbling landscape that defied any I had seen before for intricacy.

And across these landforms other compacted soil-mounds crawled, meandering and climbing and falling and splitting and merging like some sort of artificial life. Or perhaps authentic life, but in the basest of forms.

And this was when I wondered if Mira was all about me. For just as she had spoken of the nothingness of the Void, and how it compensated for that non-existence by projecting life and exuberance through her, now I saw how this black sand of nothingness was actually the atomic material for everything. And given enough time I was sure it would become all possible forms. And as that thought occurred to me, I realized that I was witnessing a great chaos of life that was just starting to burst forth from this place in slow motion.

And with that thought my consciousness slipped into the future and I had a vision of a world where living beings and the elements of nature were one and the same. They resonated at different frequencies for a moment, projected different colors for a moment, appeared as disparate beings for a moment…but then always collapsed back into each other, back into the black dust, and from that formed new individualities.

But while they stood as individual, they appeared as all imaginable things. Yes, mountains and grass and water and fire and creatures and a form of people…but also sentient geometric patterns, volumes of light and color, masses in constant fluctuation, forces of gravity that possessed consciousness, veils that defined entirely new realities when passed through, adjacent regions of land that flowed in different directions of time, entities that had slowed in time until they only existed one moment every hundred years, galaxies in miniature scale upon a speck of dust, which galaxies held within them the entire world that the speck of dust resided in. These things and many more, existing and unexisting in turn.

I beheld them only for a moment, then the vision ended and I found myself back at the present. I knew that the future of chaos I had witnessed was still many eternities off, but the rumbling mass of sand I saw now was the foundation of it. It will come, and I will be there when it does.

For I am a consciousness apart of this world now. I am enclothed in black dust, but I am not that dust. When the dust loses its bond and falls away from me, I simply take on a new shroud, and continue wandering this world forever.

I can take the form of anything that I wish. I now take the form of you, my once-fellow mortals. I hear you speak of the destruction that happened eons ago in the Damocile Region. I hear you proclaim that the place has been covered in dead sand for its sins. You think of that event as past and done.

Fools. It was not a limited cataclysm that rang out once and then went cold. That first explosion is still churning, still rippling through the earth, and soon it will consume you as well.

This is not your world anymore. Indeed, it never was.

 

And now, at long last, we have concluded Raise the Black Sun. My stories have been getting quite long of late. Raise the Black Sun represents the end of a series that started with the first post of The Soldier’s Last Sleep, back on January 23, almost 6 months ago! It does make me wonder if it is worth continuing to make “series” of stories, or if I should just let each story stand by itself without a link to the next.

In any case, I do want to recall what the original ideas which got me to write this story were, and consider how I implemented them in the final work.

 

A Fitting End)

First off, I preceded this story by discussing elements that give a story its sense of closure. I talked about endings that have a sense of transaction, where the movements that make up the body of the story directly result in an opposite movement at the very end. I tried to replicate that in Raise the Black Sun by having its themes of gloom and destruction then make way for chaotic creation at the end. The somber march towards the finale suddenly takes up a rapid dash when it finally arrives at the end. Everything changes…but hopefully it feels fitting, like a sudden outburst from the long-building tension.

I also talked about stories ending with a new invention. We want the conclusion to be the high point of the story, and so it needs to show us something that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the story. This is why it works so well to have that long-bottled tension suddenly rush out in cathartic release. It ensures that the story will reach new heights, while not feeling out-of-sync with the rest of the tale.

Obviously there was a literal sense of new creation here at the end of Raise the Black Sun, too. Throughout the story I’ve had episodes to explore novel ideas, such as the Treksmen surrendering their bodies to automation, the Scrayer with his strange weapon, the witch with her mind invasion, and the Coventry with its mind-synced subjects; but here at the end I tried to introduce as many new ideas as all the previous ones combined. Graye’s vision of the far-distant future was meant to throw out ideas that could be an entire story themselves, all crammed into just a few isolated sentences for a huge climatic flourish.

I also spoke about stories that end with anticipation and surprise, where the reader both sees the end coming from a long ways off, yet somehow is also surprised when it comes. If your story is going end on a dour note, it is good to prepare the audience for it with a sense of dread. They don’t have to know what the exact fulfillment of that dread is going to look like, but they will be expecting there to be something waiting for them at the end.

And that was my number one objective when I began writing Raise the Black Sun. I wanted to start the whole work by tipping my hand, and stating that we were going to witness the end of the world, and then continue cultivating a sense of doom throughout the rest of the tale. As such, the audience would be extremely well prepared for a cataclysmic finish.

But then, my hope is that this ending was still surprising in its own way. I hope that the actual culmination of the sacrifices and the summoning of the Black Sun was different from what anyone had imagined. But beyond that, I also wanted it to feel like a twist that the cataclysmic destruction was also the flourishing of a new beginning. Yes it is an end of the world as we know it, but also the birth of a world we do not know.

Transaction, invention, anticipation, yet surprise. I’m pretty proud with the story I came up with, and how it answers to all of the points I had originally intended. As I suggested on Monday, I do see several ways that I would improve the story in a second draft, but there’s definitely a good foundation to work on. I have no immediate plans to do start that second craft, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I walk the caravan road to the Coventry again one day.

I See What You Did There

man wearing yellow jacket
Photo by Ivy Son on Pexels.com

Finish the Pattern)

West Side Story was never going to end happily. We listen to Tony and Maria plotting to get away from all the rottenness in their world, and we long to see them do exactly that…but we can sense that they never are going to attain their happily ever after.

Why? Well, even if we didn’t know that their story was based on Romeo and Juliet, we would still feel that a happy ending wouldn’t fit after all the scenes of anger, misunderstanding, and escalating violence that make up the rest of the film. Even though Tony and Maria cannot appreciate the wheels of destiny turning against them, we can. We know that violence can only beget violence, choices must result in consequences, and Tony has a reckoning to face for killing Bernardo…just as Bernardo had a reckoning to face for killing Riff…just as Riff had a reckoning to face for oppressing the immigrant Puerto Ricans…just as…well, you get the picture.

There is a principle of logic called inductive reasoning. It states that if we perceive the transformation from one state to the next, then we can extrapolate what the next state after that will be, even before we see it, by simply applying  the same transformation again. In West Side Story we are able to recognize the pattern of each succeeding scene, and can then extend that pattern out in our mind.

What is interesting is that even though the ending of West Side Story is therefore predictable, it still remains a satisfying tale. Having the expectation to feel sad at the end does not prevent our ability to be so when the time comes.

Of course, the ability to predict the end of a story often comes into play even before the opening titles show. There are recognizable patterns over whole bodies of stories, which we call genres, and we still enjoy them. Even though in most romances, westerns, and superhero tales you can predict the ending before you have even seen the beginning, we still consume them in droves.

 

Subversion)

But, of course, where there is culture, soon there will be counter-culture. This is nothing new. Art has established patterns and then defied those patterns over and over through the centuries, and will always continue to do so.

So come the late-eighties/early-nineties, romantic films often followed a pattern of the guy and girl initially disliking each other, being forced to spend a prolonged amount of time together even so, until finally their walls were broken down and they found they had a great deal in common. This was Beauty and the Beast, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally.

Then this pattern of initial dislike and eventual love was swapped. Now the couple begins with a meet-cute, the relationship progresses promisingly, but then something comes along to break everything up. Things look pretty dire for a moment, but this is still a romance and needs to have a happy ending, so there is a triumphant moment of the couple coming back together at the end. We see this pattern taking firm hold in the late-nineties/early-2000s with titles like Notting Hill, The Notebook, and The Parent Trap.

But, of course, this pattern could not last forever either. Soon films were dropping the happy ending part entirely, and letting things end in that more dour break-up note. The couple may seem so right for each other at the beginning, but little quirks expand into major chasms, and eventually they can’t stand the person they used to love. They might come back together enough to have a mutual respect for one another, but that is all. And so in the mid-2000s-to-mid-2010s we were given 500 Days of Summer and La La Land.

Of course, patterns cycle. And so while 500 Days of Summer’s break-up finish might have felt revolutionary when it first came out, it was actually repeating another story told decades prior in Annie Hall. And the hate-each-other-then-love-each-other of You’ve Got Mail can be traced back entire centuries to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

 

Tipping Your Hand)

But while the overarching trend of genres is one of subversion and defying the audience’s expectation, each of these films on an individual level still follows the rule of establishing a pattern and adhering to it in a predictable way. Especially upon a second viewing one is able to appreciate how the later plot points were being seeded early on.

For example, La La Land opens with our two would-be-lovers aggravating one another on the road. Significantly, each of them is trying to reach a destination related to their dream-careers, which they are chasing at the expense of courtesy for one another. Now, just from that opening, is it any wonder that their eventual relationship does not last, overridden instead by their pull to their careers? Later, when they have a moment where their dreams are in alignment, they are able to be together, but they were always going to drive apart again in the end.

You’ve Got Mail, on the other hand, opens with our two-would-be-lovers exchanging sincere and heartfelt messages, connecting remotely, while growing increasingly more disillusioned with their current partners. Sure, when they meet in person things do not get off to a good start, but already the film has established a tone of these two converging, bit-by-bit overcoming each element of opposition until nothing remains in their way. The ending, once again, is obvious.

And this is key. Yes, it is fine to try and disrupt the genre as a whole, and if you go against the grain you may surprise your reader in a delightful way. But… even if this is your intention, still your story must be true to itself. It should never disrupt itself. Defy genre conventions by all means, but do not make promises and establish expectations at your story’s outset, betray those later, and expect the audience to enjoy that experience. You will not come across as bold and unconventional, only as inexperienced. If a story begins as one thing and ends as another, then it simply appears that the writer was not skilled enough to establish a believable sequence of cause-and-effect to tie their intended beginning to their intended ending.

In the end, we look down on a two-faced story just as much as we look down on a two-faced person. We want our stories to know themselves and be themselves. We want them to have an identity, and to be consistent to it. And while we may want them to surprise us, we want them to do so in a way that feels fitting and authentic with what has already transpired.

 

In my own story I have sown seeds of somberness and doomed fate, and I have then tried to remain consistent to those throughout the whole. I am now fast approaching the end, and it is especially important to me that everything tie off in a way that satisfies every raised expectation. With this Thursday’s post, try and consider what ways I am answering the themes raised at the beginning of the story.

The 11th Hour Arrival

close up of watch against black background
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

Becoming Important)

It was an interesting thing getting to know my wife. Of course I didn’t know that she was going to be my wife when I first met her. At first her role in my life was simply that of “intriguing woman.”

But as I said, it was interesting getting to know her, and it was because of how quickly she became integrated into my story. It was only a short time later, just a matter of months, that I came to realize she was now one of the most important individuals in my life. I remember at the time finding that a very strange thing. I realized that some of the conversations I was having with her were already more open and honest than I had ever had with another person. I had spent my whole life around other people, and I had always thought that I was very close to them. But now she came, and in a matter of months, not decades, knew me better than they did.

Many of our bonds in life are formed slowly, over the long march of time. The individual strands are woven together, one or two each day, until a powerful cord is formed. But this is not true for all of our relationships. Some of them come out of the blue and get straight to our roots, and do so almost immediately.

 

Instant Friend)

I had a similar experience when I started meeting with a therapist and a recovery group. The transition from complete strangers to intimate friends was, if possible, even more jarring here. Literally the same day that I met these people, I was disclosing things that I hadn’t been able to say to anyone else. In some cases, things I wasn’t even yet ready to say to my wife.

Over the next weeks, as each individual shared more and more of their story, I found myself being inserted into their experience. They were inviting me right into the formative years of their childhood, and I was inviting them into mine.

We became fast friends, in fact I consider them to be my best friends. And not because we’re the best of buddies who share so many common interests. In fact, to be frank, most of these people were not the friends that I would have chosen for me under normal circumstances. We all had very different hobbies, demographics, ages, and life philosophies. Under normal circumstances I would have considered them a nice acquaintance, but nothing more.

But these weren’t normal circumstances. These people were part of my story now. I had no choice but to love them.

 

Closure and Final Acts)

I believe one reason why we are able to grow close to people who have only just arrived in, is because our future is unknown. Since we do not know the exact path of tomorrow, it is entirely possible that this new face is a hinge that we are about to turn on. If something about the situation tells us that this person is significant, we pay attention.

Most of us have years left to live, after all, and that is plenty of time for a new face to start mattering to us very much. At any point of life we might be about to discover a new arc in our story.

But this doesn’t work so well in fictional stories. When new characters introduce themselves in the third act, we’re usually keenly aware that it is the third act, and therefore know that they only are here to help resolve the previous arcs, not to begin any new ones.

And yet…there is a way to introduce a new character at the very end of a story, and still have them be significant to it. The secret is not to have them introduce a new arc that ends before it begins, it is to have them tie directly into an already-existing arc, one that has been running ever since the beginning of the tale.

 

Roots in the Past)

An example of this would be the introduction of Private Ryan in the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. The film goes on for a very long while before the character is revealed, with many twists and turns to get there. Indeed, by the time we meet him all of the characters have already concluded their arcs, or are ready to. The story doesn’t have time to raise any more questions, only to start answering them.

Thus it is that Private Ryan’s arrival ushers in the final act. Given how brief of a presence he has in the story, his own arc is very brief. There is only a small conflict that he must resolve, and the process of doing so is quite straightforward.

And yet, in spite of all this, Private Ryan does not feel like a tacked-on character who is only relevant to the finale. He feels absolutely integral to the entire tale that has transpired, even before he appeared on the screen. For even if his face has not been present, his shadow has been.

Because, you see, the entire film has been all about him, even without him there. The premise of the movie is that a squad is sent to find him and bring him home. Each adversity that they face to carry out that task, every loss they suffer, every companion who dies in the effort…all of it brings them back to the same question, over and over: is this sacrifice worth the saving of one man?

And the fact that he is an enigma through the majority of the film actually increases that tension, because they aren’t making the sacrifice for a friend, but for a complete stranger. So then it becomes a story about principles and morals, and whether those words have any meaning in the heart of a war.

Thus by the time Private Ryan shows up on the scene, we have already been discussing him a great deal, thinking about him a great deal, forming all manner of opinions about him. We feel that we already know him extensively, even though we’re just barely meeting him. He is a central character to the story, even if he graces it with his physical presence but for a moment.

 

In Raise the Black Sun I want to take this notion one step further. I am about to introduce a brand new character, one who I intend to feel interwoven with everything that has come before. Unlike Private Ryan she has not been spoken about by name, but she has been spoken about.

Because, you see, all throughout the story there has been a strong theme of a doomed fate. It has hung over every scene like a thick cloud about to burst. With the next section of my story I am going to introduce a young woman who will come to personify that theme to our main character. She will take everything that has been allegory, and put her face to it. So even though I have not spoken her name at any point previous, my hope is that it will feel like we were already talking about her the whole time, we just didn’t know it. Come back on Thursday to see if I’m able to pull that off.

A Fitting End

conclusion word formed from lettered yellow tiles
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Back to Basics)

Some elements of storytelling are so ubiquitous that they are taken for granted…at least until you start writing a story of your own and then have to pause and ask yourself “wait, how does that actually work?”

One such example is that of writing a story with a satisfying ending. We all know that a story should have one of these, and we all can tell whether a story has it or not, but when it comes to crafting one of your own…how?

It seems like such a simple question should have an obvious answer, but often it is the simplest questions that prove the most troubling. I would contend that a great number of published authors still do not know what it is that makes for a good ending, they just look for it in other tales and then try to imitate those scenes in their own.

Having to resort to imitation is a limitation, though, and it is worth diving into some core concepts to truly master one’s craft. The category of “good endings” is much too broad to cover with just one post, but I would like to take a look at just one kind of satisfying conclusion a story can have. Here are the specific steps I used to try and use that particular finish in each of the stories from my latest series.

 

The Opposite End)

I started things off with The Soldier’s Last Sleep, which featured a soldier facing down wave after wave of enemy forces, just trying to hold onto his life until reinforcements came to relieve him. It wasn’t a war story about accomplishing an all-important mission, or giving a great sacrifice for the greater good, it was about surviving, pure and simple. Private Bradley’s single great task was to hold on to himself one moment at a time.

I dragged this sequence out for quite a long while, hopefully long enough for it to really weigh on the reader how terrible a burden just continuing to survive could be. I wanted them to be thoroughly exhausted by the strain of holding on, and feel as utterly depleted as Bradley did when at last he was replaced by fresh troops.

Then Bradley’s whole world suddenly changed. There were no more enemies trying to kill him, no more demands that had to be made of his body and mind. Now at last he was able to unclench, and I had a brief sequence explaining the torrent that rushed out of him in that release.

But that was not quite where the story ended. I do not believe the absence of a quality is the same thing as the opposite of it. I did not want the world to just stop weighing him down, I wanted it to actively lift him up. And so I added a brief moment where he learns that the war has passed, and all the machines for war-making are now being used as transports to take him back home.

Writing a story that pushes in one direction to then finish with an ending in the opposite direction is one way to make a satisfying close to a story. It gives the story a sense of transaction, a cathartic this-for-that, which naturally suggests a sense of completion.

 

The Invention)

I tried a variation on this with my next story, The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath. This story feels a lot more direct. It opens with a king presenting a problem, his desire to punish a rogue district in his kingdom. Each of his assistants present a solution, each trying to find a crueler invention than the last, but each leaving the king ultimately dissatisfied.

Because, like a story, an act of legend is not just about making things bigger and bigger. Too often I see stories that try to escalate things in the final act with something like “well now the big baddie is threatening to destroy two innocent homesteads.” A story that ends with a bigger firefight and larger explosions doesn’t really feel like an evolution on what came before, only an iteration, and therefore a less fulfilling end.

A story does need to have a sense of escalation throughout its body, but its ending should feature something more than just being “bigger.” It ought to present something novel, something which takes everything prior and transforms it in a way that feels like a revelation.

King Bal’Tath calls out this very  point, and explains that a truly memorable action is one which feels like a new invention, and also one which feels poetic in its balance of cause and effect. He then presents his own solution, and also the ending to the story. It is an answer meant to be satisfying in its harrowing sense of karma. The end he proposes is not just crueler, it is fittingly crueler. He want the people to betray their own conscience first, and by that sow the seeds of their own destruction. Thus once again we have that idea of a transaction, but also we have added the idea of a new invention. This doubles down on the psychological sense of proper completion.

 

Hidden Meaning)

I took this same idea in a somewhat different direction with my next story, Washed Down the River. This tale featured a pair of detectives working a case from clue to clue until its final revelation. Once again, though, I did not want the final revelation to simply feel like all the others that happened along the way, only bigger, I wanted it to feel fundamentally different. Also it needed to somehow be a fitting response to everything that had followed before.

Thus, at the end my two detectives do not only crack the case, one of them figures out the secret of the other: that he is dying of cancer. That there is a secret is no secret, the audience is well aware that something is amiss in James Daley from very early on in the tale, but exactly what that is should come as a new revelation.

But, in keeping with our theme, I tried to lay the story out so that this final revelation was a direct reflection of all that had come before. The great hope in writing a story like this is for the audience to not be able to guess the ending before it happens, but then be satisfied that it was the only “right” conclusion once they have seen it.

I have mentioned in a previous post that this sounds like a paradox, yet the more paradoxically unfamiliar-familiar you can make your ending, the more satisfying it often is. I think this helps bring greater definition to that idea of a “new invention” ending that I mentioned before. Another way to express that is for the ending of a story to not only fitting, but to be surprisingly so.

 

Cultivating the End)

But could we have an ending with that same sense of transaction and invention, though without the element of surprise? That was the challenge I tried to tackle with my most recent story, Slow and Easy, Then Sudden. Here we met a character who feels warm and friendly at the start, but with every passing interaction becomes more sinister and foreboding. This tension is only ever expressed in words and emotions, but is held back from having any physical, cathartic release.

Of course that line is finally crossed at the end. At this point I don’t think it came as a surprise to any reader when he gave violent expression to his brooding and assassinated a man in cold blood. But even though that part of the end was not a surprise, the moment immediately before, when he suddenly kills a hare, I believe was very shocking. Thus I am trying to have my cake and eat it too. The final moments feel both unsuspected and novel, but also heavily anticipated.

Even without the killing of the hare I think this conclusion would have been satisfying, though less memorable, because the story still did evolve in that final moment of assassination. Yes, it had hinted at murder previous to that moment, and it built up anticipation for it, but neither hinting or anticipation at violence is the same as actually witnessing its occurrence.

 

Anticipation, surprise, invention, transaction. If there is one consistent theme to sum up all of these ideas, I would say that all of the endings to these stories I wrote is have featured a turn of some sort. Rather than having the story’s tail taper out quietly into nothingness, each time I have had it do a sudden about-face and look back on all the plot that has come before. These are endings that reflect on the rest of their tale.

As I said at the outset, this is not the only way to write a satisfying conclusion, but is it a way. Cultivate your ending, let it reap what has been sown, something related to its build-up, and yet elevated into a new form that goes further than anything previous.

Thus far in this series, my stories have signaled their endings more and more clearly, while still retaining that satisfying moment of uncovering something novel at the end. With this series’ next and final entry I will try to push this line still further. Right from the outset I will state what will happen at the end, I will lay the exact expectations for what that conclusion will look like, and I will try to have that finale still feel novel and satisfying. Come back on Monday to see the first entry in that story.

The Quiet After the Storm

island during golden hour and upcoming storm
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Releasing Tension)

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

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

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

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

 

The Right Flavor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Extended Conclusion)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Sure How to Feel About This

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Incomplete Victories)

Last week I concluded a short piece with a bittersweet moment. In it the hero sacrificed his life, but not even to defeat the villain. In fact, the villain was left even more empowered than ever before. The hero did, however, manage to free a soul that had been enslaved to the villain, and so there was the triumph of something right having been done, though at the cost of the world becoming darker as a direct result.

Usually that isn’t how these sorts of stories end. Usually the heroic sacrifice is supposed to achieve a total victory, not a partial one. Therefore my ending was partially fulfilling, but I hope it was also partially disappointing. The purpose of the story was to offer a challenge to the reader. I want them to have to decide whether the saving of that one soul is therefore a “good enough” ending. How much value do they put in that success? Enough to accept some defeat along with it?

This idea of challenging the viewer with a partially-satisfying/partially-subversive ending is not a new idea. Consider the classic film Spartacus, in which we follow a Gladiator as he raises a ragtag army and uses them to challenge the oppressive rule of Rome.

We have come to expect a story like this to end with triumphant liberation, but that is not what happens here. Ultimately Spartacus and all of his men are killed, and the tyranny of Rome will continue for a long while yet. Even so, there is still the fact that these men died as free men, and Spartacus’s own wife and child escape to a brighter future. Spartacus therefore won some things, if not all. Is that enough?

 

Is This Still Good?)

Of course, Spartacus and my last story are asking this question with an implied answer. The audience is intended to feel a little taken aback, but then to affirm “yes, accomplishing even a partial victory is a worthy cause.”

These stories remind us that sometimes change is procedural, rather than revolutionary. They help us realize that following one’s morals can come at quite the cost. The reader hesitates because they are unsure if they have the stomach for a somewhat hollow victory, but not because they question that it is the right thing.

These stories, then, do not really provide a moral dilemma. There are stories that do, of course, ones in which the audience is meant to come out on different sides of the question being posed. These sorts of tales still make use of mixed moments, ones where the audience experiences both victory and defeat. The difference in how they employ these is subtle, but significant.

Consider the 2008 film The Dark Knight. In this comic book tale Batman is locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis the Joker, and he finds himself taking more and more extreme measures just to keep up. It then concludes with another one of these mixed endings. The Joker has been defeated, but the woman Batman loved has died, the man he considered a paragon of truth has gone dark, he has violated the privacy of innocent citizens, and he is now lying to them to maintain a facade.

Again, the audience is being asked was it all worth it, but it intends for some of us to say yes, and others to say no. Even among those that say no, Batman went too far, there will be further division about when and where he crossed that particular line.

In many ways the Dark Knight reflects the story beats of the classic Herman Melville novel, Moby Dick. Here again our main character, Captain Ahab, is intent upon defeating his nemesis, the titular whale. Ahab, too, goes to greater and greater lengths, leaving ruin and death in the wake of his monomaniacal campaign against the whale.

The main difference is that Moby Dick does not end with any sort of partial victory, though. The tragic destruction of the Pequod and all its sailors, save one, has no bright side to balance it out. The audience is not split on the question of whether Ahab pursued Moby Dick for too long, only as to where that moment of being “too long” was.

 

The Difference)

So what makes stories like Moby Dick and The Dark Knight so divisive, while Shade and Spartacus are only ponderous? What line is crossed in one set of stories and not in the others?

Well, the difference is in the characters themselves. In Shade the main character, Gallan, has an incomplete victory in the world around him, but he has a pure victory within. He remains true to his commitments, and his soul remains intact in a shattered world. Spartacus’s internal victory is even more pronounced. He progresses from indifferent and cynical slave to a passionate and inspiring hero.

In each of these stories the audience is meant to conclude that the outcomes are good, because the characters themselves are good at those conclusions.

In The Dark Knight Batman accomplishes his means, but it is clear that he is discontent with the actions he took to do so. He feels he did what he had to, but he is haunted by the corruption of his soul. In Moby Dick, Ahab doesn’t exactly begin as a saint, but he ends up far more guilty than how he started. At the outset he has committed his personal life to chasing down his quarry, but by the end he willingly dooms the lives of his entire crew as well.

One of our greatest fears is the loss of our own souls. We want to make it through life successful and happy, but also to feel that we did not comprise ourselves along the way. Some stories reaffirm our commitment to do what is right, even if it is a partial victory, by showing the soul being preserved or improved. Other stories, however, can make us doubt our convictions by showing us an overzealous soul becoming fractured.

 

This is a very subtle, but very important lesson for how to steer your audience into self-examination. If the ending of your story isn’t challenging them in the direction that you intended, perhaps it is worth considering whether this principle has gotten crossed. In the meantime, I would like to explore the idea further with my next short story. Last week we had a hero that maintained his soul through a difficult decision, this time I want to do the opposite. I will create a character that does what he feels he has to do, even though it condemns him to do so. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

Or I Could Just Ramble On and On

cable rope loops
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Triple Writer’s Block)

It seems that every part of creating a story is tricky. Knowing where to begin is tricky, maintaining interest through a middle is tricky, and ending it all is tricky. In different stories, though, one of those three parts will be harder to pull of than the other two.

Beginnings are usually hard when your outline started with something vague like “there is a conflict between two families.” Perhaps you wrote that because you knew that your hero needed a background of strife to emerge from, but now you struggle to define just what the nature of that strife is. The beginnings of a story are usually used to establish the tone and atmosphere of a tale, something difficult to do when all you had accounted for was events and dialogue.

Middles are difficult when you know where your characters come from, and you know were they wind up…but not how they get there. This is an easy dilemma to get into, because the first ideas for a story are often based around an interesting contrast. Something like “a man wakes up with awesome power, but eventually he learns to relinquish it for love.” That’s great, there’s a beginning, an ending, and an interesting voyage suggested in between. But now you have to turn that “suggested” into something more concrete.

And finally, endings are difficult when the initial motivation for writing the story was to explore an atmosphere or concept. Writing is a very meditative exercise, and sometimes an author simply wants to hash out an idea that’s weighing on their mind, to slowly walk within themselves and process what they find. Such sojourns can be quite fruitful, leading to an entire gold mine of new discoveries. That is all well and good for a beginning and a middle, but now how does one cap off such a wistful wandering in a way that is satisfying?

Today we’ll focus on just this last quandary, how to end a story that doesn’t want to finish.

 

See What Your Story Wants to Be)

My story Does What He Must actually began with no particular ending in mind. My notes simply stated that I wanted a character who did increasingly impressive feats one after another, always rising to the occasion to do what had to be done. And then he was supposed to face some penultimate and impossible task, something the audience would feel he couldn’t do because it broke the laws of physics or something like that. But then, to their surprise, he would simply grit his teeth and do that impossible thing, simply because that was just the natural continuation of his arc. And that was as specific as my notes on the story were.

So I just started writing. I came up with his background at random, and started working through a series of escalating challenges for him. All the while I was trying to figure out what this nebulous “penultimate and impossible task” would be, but nothing came to mind. I simply continued writing until I reached the point where the final act should go, and then I paused.

At this point I reread everything I had written, looking for some subconscious arc that I might have imbued into the tale. Much to my delight, there absolutely was one. I realized that the whole piece had been very family-centric, and so the ending should maintain that theme. I also realized that I had shown my main character performing miracles for his wife, his friends, his brothers in arms, and even strangers, but still had not done one for his son, who was the narrator of the tale. And thirdly I realized that this Old-West-Tall-Tale format practically begged for him to become a legend whose influence extended beyond the grave.

As I made note of all these points the only proper ending was obvious. I needed for my character to die in one of his miracles, but then still come through as a ghost (or an angel) for his son. This end fit with all of the themes I had been writing, both conscious and sub-conscious, and it made the whole experience complete.

 

Fictionalize Your Epiphanies)

As I mentioned at the top, a most common reason for beginning a story without an ending is because you just want to explore a concept that you are curious about. It might be a new technology, a strange setting, a philosophical question, or a real-life drama. You want to wrap your head around it, and writing gives you time to walk around in that concept and get a real feel for it.

In these situations, the answer to how to end your story might be staring you in the face. The fact is, people that spend enough time exploring an idea often find out something about it, something that wasn’t obvious from the outset. Though it is easier said than done, all an author needs to do to close their story is have it teach those same epiphanies.

Currently, I am trying to find a way to take this same approach for Instructions Not Included. I began that story with the desire to explore a simple notion: the process of scientific research and discovery. I thought it would be fun to take an idea that is usually so stiff and prickly, and turn it into something fun and playful. As I did so, I found my mind coming to rest on an important principle of inventions: creativity is a great power, and he who wields it is responsible to employ it well.

Like I said, turning an epiphany into a plot point is easier said than done. I’m still trying to figure out a way to actually implement this idea in my story, but I do have hopes that I’ll figure something out by Thursday!

 

Let a Meditation be a Meditation)

If the above approaches fail for you, then my last recommendation is that you perhaps just let your story be what it is: endless. I think stories with rich endings are wonderful things, I think they are important, I think humans depend on this structure to learn some of life’s greatest truths.

But none of that means that every time a pen touches a page it has to create a story with an ending. There’s no need to be so limiting in our idea of literature. Not everything has to neatly fit into categories like story, research paper, or instruction manual. Some things can just exist within their own sphere without having to justify their existence.

One of my favorite short pieces on this blog is Deep Forest, and that particular piece really doesn’t have a proper ending at all. I began writing it by wanting to explore an atmosphere that was so ancient it had become timeless. I wanted to capture a deep and heavy nature, one that knew no civilization or history. I had a lot of fun writing it, but when it came time to finish I didn’t have a proper ending in mind. I couldn’t see any arcs that needed to be concluded and there weren’t any epiphanies that it had to offer, it just kind of was what it was and that was it. So I posted it anyhow.

In hindsight, I realize it would have simply been wrong to tack an ending onto an exercise in timelessness. The fact is the only way for that story to have ended was without an ending at all. Though I did not realize this at the time, I am glad I went with my instincts.

 

All of these solutions come down to the same root though, that first idea of letting your story be what it wants to be. If you’ve written your tale properly, then it has its own ambience and tone, its own themes and styles, its own wants and desires. By knowing your story thoroughly, you will naturally gravitate to the end that is right for it.

On Thursday we’ll see what sort of ending I come up with for Instructions Not Included. Presently my hope is that I’ll be able to incorporate that epiphany I mentioned earlier, thus giving it a sense of thematic closure. At the same time I want to leave it with a sense of ongoing adventure, and so I will want to leave the plot somewhere more open-ended, as I did with Deep Forest. But more than anything else, I want to give it an ending that feels right with its personality. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!

The Chase

man riding a bicycle
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I remember the first story I read that didn’t have a proper ending. It was one of the many tales in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this particular one the hero discovered a magic flying carpet, and by it managed to overcome the villain and was promised the hand of the beautiful princess. His every desire having been met he decided to take one last celebratory ride on the carpet the evening before his wedding day. At that point the carpet decided to get a mind of its own, and whisked him far and away, never to be seen again.

I thought that was a very strange and dissatisfying story, but it stuck with me. It seemed like it was supposed to mean something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then, several years later, I came across another story that brought me closer to an understanding.

This was a piece called Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli (or Strife of Love in a Dream). The basic outline is that a man is deeply in love with the beautiful Polia, though she spurns his every advance. He falls asleep and travels through a strange dreamscape, pursuing his love and assisted by all manner of mythic characters. In the end he finally does manage to win her heart, and is finally about to embrace her forever…when she vanishes into thin air and he wakes up alone.

Again, a very strange tale, but one that also lodges itself in the mind at least somewhat by virtue of that strangeness. So what is this all about? Well, it all came together for me when I heard the legend of how Alexander the Great became inconsolably distraught after he conquered all the known world powers, his one great dream. He had reached his “happily ever after” and that was the greatest curse of all.

Having only that one hope, the accomplishment of it, of consequence, must put an end to all my hopes; and what a wretch is he who must survive his hopes! Nothing remains when that day comes, but to sit down and weep like Alexander… (Way of the World, Act 2: Scene 3)

Now the message of those prior stories became clear. They are speaking to the natural destiny of man to ever have one dream to chase after and then another. If ever you achieve the goal you pursue, then that ideal vanishes and goes somewhere further ahead. It is the mirage you ever follow but never obtain, pressing onward without an ending.

To reiterate, it’s not that one can never obtain a reward, one might indeed gain the new job, the lover, the prestige; however it is the knowledge that even if they do so there will still be another mountain to climb after that. Which is worse, to ever drink and still be left thirsty, or to find a satiation that never allows for the sweetness of desire again? Alexander the Great seemed to feel that the latter was the greater curse.

Because really Alexander’s sorrow is simply due to never becoming any better. The literal definition of damnation is not be thrust into fire, but rather to be halted in all forward progression. If we are not improving, then what is the purpose for our continued existence? To have no path for growth is to frustrate the nature etched deep into our very souls.

These thoughts and others like them  have haunted me ever since I read and pondered over these stories. That is the power of a narrative: to set a trajectory to the infinite, then leave it to the reader to follow the implications as far as his mind dares to explore. Or to put it another way, stories like these plant a germ within a new host, and then let it take root and branch itself out into other original expressions. As a result I have found myself writing new stories around this idea of the chase, of how achieving one objective is only to be followed by pursuing another.

 

Power Suit Racing)

My latest story was my most direct effort at giving that original expression. A story of a man chasing for the ideal, and upon obtaining what he thought it was, he now realizes that it has moved on to somewhere new. As with the tale in One Thousand and One Nights and also Hypnerotomochia Poliphilli, this is a story where there is a man, a woman, and a chase. But in this case the chase is away from the woman, trying to find a new and greater definition to life.

Of course the chase away from the one woman leads to a chase towards another. But as is common in these sorts of stories that woman is only a representation of something more. She is a type for discovering one’s true self, for finding a purpose and cause, she is the reason to become.

Of course Taki doesn’t know that this is the case until the end. He isn’t sure what he is chasing, but he knows that something is stirring inside. His moment of clarity doesn’t arrive until he is offered back what he had before. Sometimes it takes looking into the mirror of the past to be able to discern the change that has occurred, and to extrapolate the trajectory of the future. That is the case for him. His hesitation has been due to balancing between holding onto the past and reaching for the future. He sees the past, he is repulsed by it, and so he dives into the future.

In this particular story I changed the end of the script to be different from most others, though. Taki rushes alone into the great unknown, and this time it is the girl who chases after him.

 

Washed Ashore)

Before Power Suit Racing I tried to do a different take on the chase with Washed Ashore. The chase in this tale turned out to be something very grim: one man pursuing another with fatal intent, each seemingly called by fate to ever pursue and be pursued. It was hinted that there was extensive collateral damage in the wake of their battle, yet neither was willing to relent.

With this story I meant to make reference to the chases that occur in a continual round within the same individual. The inherent weaknesses we are born with, the never-ending struggle we make with them, and the years of anxiety produced as a side-result of that conflict. You see this sort of approach in a story like Citizen Kane. The entire life of Charles Foster Kane is one continual struggle between his child-self and his overcompensating-self. The two sides wrestle for control, giving him alternating faces of sincerity and hypocrisy.

A more lighthearted example of this from my own life is that I am divided between introverted and extroverted tendencies. I want to feel comfortable, but also want to step outside of my comfort zone for some “betterment” of myself. And so that means a constant war between two sides of myself, one advocating for a sense safety and the other for healthy interaction. Thus neither side will entirely win out, but the hope is that the conglomerate of all my parts, the overall self, will be better for balancing between the two.

This is perhaps the most common way we experience an eternal chase within ourselves. Not so much an ever-progressing journey as a circling struggle between our different natures. Temptation, weakness, and fear challenged by virtue, resolve, and courage. Perhaps one doesn’t move forward so much as hold their ground, which can be a monumental victory in its own right. These are great races that are won by merely standing firm.

 

Mixing it All Together)

So here we have two very different takes on the chase. We have the one that is linear, moving on from one state to the next, achieving one dream and using it as a launching-off point towards another. Then there is the other that is cyclical, the one that finishes back at the beginning to go another round.

Now that I’ve written a story with each of these approaches I’d like to try and blend the two together. I recently saw the film I Can Only Imagine that did just this. In this film the main character found himself in a cycling struggle between his wounds and his faith. He holds out a belief that he was made for something more, but he also holds a fear that it just isn’t so. The cycle continues, it alternately raises him and breaks him down, and then he finally manages to break that cycle and finally chase on to the new.

On Thursday I’d like to take my own crack at that sort of story. I am going to present a man who carries two burdens: both very heavy, and each in danger of drowning him, one in anger and the other in grief. One of those burdens is one that can never be let go of, the burden of grief. He will always strive with it. The other though, one of hate, he will begin to realize it is possible to move on from, to cease chasing vengeance in order to pursue something better.

I’m excited to write it, and I hope you’re looking forward to read it. Come back on Thursday to see the first half.