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

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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

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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.