On Thursday I will be posting the final entry in my latest short story. After the previous post, I pointed out that this ending could go one of two ways, either path serving as a fitting culmination to its themes.
From the very beginning of that story, Jeret has been shown as unfit for society. After a life of crime, his community finally ousted him, sending him on permanent exile to a floating asteroid. There he discovered a magical device, one that could create anything that he conceived of. Very shortly after discovering it, he fantasized about using this ability to wreak havoc on his home-world, destroying those that had condemned him. Condemnation and destruction have been consistent threads through his entire tale.
At the end of my most recent post, he has come to condemn and wish violence upon a race of beings that he himself created. He has come full circle, now becoming the authority that would blot out the rogues of his own nation. Thus he has the same hands as those that condemned him…which also means he has the hands that could liberate him instead. All that remains, then, is to see which path he will pursue.
In 1882, Frank R. Stockton published a short story that also came to a junction. In it, a princess loves a young man, but that man has been selected for a barbaric test of chance. He is placed in an arena, and must choose between one of two doors to open. Behind one is a ferocious tiger that will eat him, behind the other is a woman that he must marry.
The princess is seated in the stands, watching the trial, and she knows which fate is behind each door. She also knows the identity of the woman that has been selected as the man’s potential wife, and she suspects that the young man already has feelings for that woman. At the pivotal moment, the young man looks up to the princess, who motions towards a particular door, which he goes to open.
Then Stockton turns the narrative towards the reader: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”
Do you think the princess condemned him to die out of jealousy, or do you think she let him live with another out of a sincere care for his well-being? What does your answer say about how you view feminine nature and romance?
This ambiguity works because there is still a complete story presented. It is not the story of the young man, his arc is most definitely not concluded. But there is a complete arc in the princess and in the question. No matter what she chooses, the princess has lost the man, her romantic story is concluded either way. The only question is whether she has done so graciously or not. It is a story of unrequited love, and it fittingly ends that subject with a hollow openness.
With the advent of social media, spurned lovers are able to follow the minutest details of old crushes from afar. Do they do so hoping to see their old flame find happiness, or hoping to see them in broken relationships and miserable? Perhaps a little bit of both? If you were given the power, which choice would you make?
If this story had a specific ending, then it would not make you consider your own conscience or question your own motives. In this case, a double-ended story serves a meditative purpose. It is the story of a conundrum.
Choose the Better Path)
But such an ending would not fit my own tale very well. Yes, my story is allegorical, and hopefully inspires introspection; but in the end I want to make a statement about humanity, not ask a question of it. In tomorrow’s post Jeret will choose what he chooses, and there will be a specific outcome for that. I do, though, want the audience to understand what would have befallen him if he had chosen the opposite, so that I can compare and contrast which route was better.
One of may favorite stories of all time is an excellent example of this sort of ending. In the Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life, we meet a man who is very unhappy with the hand he has been dealt. George Bailey has wanted to get away from his quaint hometown ever since he graduated High School. He has big ambitions, and he wants to see the world and do amazing things.
But one thing after another stops him from ever accomplishing that. Obligations come to him from his late father, his brother, his wife and children, and his community. Duty and responsibility prevent him from ever living his dream, until he starts to realize that he will never have a life of significance.
One Christmas Eve, his passive disappointment turns into a sincere loathing for life, once an unfortunate string of events has him drunk, beaten, and facing time in prison. In this moment, where he feels so terribly low, he commits suicide and ends a life of misery. The End.
Well, not quite.
The story makes absolutely clear that this is the tragic conclusion that the story has been building towards. But then, right before he can take his life, heaven intervenes. A guardian angel appears and shows George that he has been seeing one story, when really another was at play.
It is true that George has never traveled the world and made the things he wanted to. But it is also true that he has made a real impact on the world for good. In between his heartaches and disappointments, he has brought joy into a place where it otherwise would not have been.
George learns that his life has been full of worth, if he is willing to see it. But it isn’t just George that has changed, the underlying story architecture has as well. Before the lengthy introspection, a happy ending just would not have worked, it would have felt tacked on and cheap. But the threads are revealed to be multidimensional, building towards a sad conclusion from one perspective, but also fitting for a happy one from another. Doesn’t that ring so true for our own lives as well?
My latest story, as it has been written, is building towards a tragic ending. A sad demise is the natural trajectory of all that has transpired. This Thursday I am going to try and inflect things, though. I will attempt to turn the threads so that they could have been pointing towards a good ending all along. Come back in a few days to see how it turns out.
The next morning Gavin’s alarm had barely sounded a single note before he was on his feet and gathering up the tubes from his desk.
“What are you up so early for?” Curtis groaned from his bed but Gavin ignored him.
With the tubes tucked under his arms he marched to the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He plucked a fresh cup from the mirror cabinet and began to scoop out the water, then the apple juice, and finally the alcohol.
“Obviously they haven’t had as long to grow stuff as the first batch…but that’s alright, now I’ll know whether I get more or less depending on the amount of time it cooks for or not.”
No sooner did he say so than he found his answer. He had emptied enough of Tube #1 to see the dark splotches on its surface. The amount that had been there before was almost exactly doubled. Did that mean the amount of material mattered more than the length of time?
Tube #2 came next, the one with bits and pieces from nature. The black spots seemed to be made of the exact same black, miniscule threads as the first one. The amount produced also seemed similar, perhaps a bit less, but also the volume of material he put in had been less as well.
Unsurprisingly Tube #3 maintained the pattern. Black spots of the same sort of material, less in total surface area, because it had had the smallest volume of them all. Gavin also noticed that the rocks, glass, and brick had all dissolved, but the metal screws had only partially done so. He could still make out their shape inside of the third tube, though they looked worn and eaten away, as if they had been subject to decades of rust. Coating their broken surfaces were those same black, little strings. As the densest material, he supposed it made sense that they hadn’t been able to disintegrate entirely.
Gavin scribbled all this information into his notebook and then paused. What came now? For the first time in a while he wasn’t sure. He could produce patches of strange, black fibers, but where was he supposed to go from there? He was sure he could probably come up with other experiments related to feeding the tubes, but that could only be interesting for so long. He wanted something new to pursue.
He flipped back through the pages in his notebook and saw his old notes about fitting the pieces together. He had stopped pursuing that avenue for a while, and now it seemed interesting to him again. He could hear the noises of his family waking up, so he didn’t feel bad relocating back to his bedroom.
“You were up so early for that dumb puzzle?” Curtis grumbled.
Gavin ignored him and sat down, taking summary of the remaining rods and discs. He was quite sure he had fit together every piece that he could, yet there still remained 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and even his “islands” still had an unfilled hole or two. None of these pieces fit together, so he was back to the assumption that some pieces were missing from the set.
One of the holes in Tube #1 didn’t even look like it could take a rod. It had an obstruction in the middle of it, and was wider both above and beneath that protrusion. Thus there was no way for any solid material to slide all the way into it, unless perhaps the rod’s end had some spring-loaded mechanism to let it compress and then expand. None of them had any such setup.
Gavin open the drawer on his desk and sifted through his various supplies until he found his modelling clay. He took a handful and smashed it into the hole, prodding with his fingers until it filled every nook and cranny inside. Then he pulled out the top and bottom halves separately, reconnected them on his desk, and peered closely at the model.
It looked like a slightly misshapen cube with a bite taken out of its side. It was a little wider at the top than at the bottom, with a slanted edge causing the difference between them. Those same precise, right-angle lines had been molded into its side, which seemed a bit odd, because Gavin had not noticed them inside the hole when he had been peering into it.
He checked again, even felt the surface of the hole with his finger. No lines anywhere, yet somehow the clay had still been imprinted with them. Curious, Gavin took the clay and pushed it back into the hole. This time he would let it sit for longer, so he set his watch for five minutes and drummed his fingers impatiently on his desk.
“Seriously, why are you still playing with that stuff?” Curtis asked as he changed out of his pajamas.
Gavin shrugged. He hadn’t been going to any special lengths to hide his discoveries, but he also didn’t feel like sharing them either.
“It’s just something fun to do. Why? Does it bother you?”
“Only when it has you waking me up early on a weekend,” Curtis rolled his eyes, then made to leave the room. “Hey, don’t stay cooped up for too long, it’s a beautiful day out there.”
“Sure Curtis, I’ll come play soon.”
Curtis nodded and walked through the door. As soon as he was gone Gavin grabbed the tube. He turned it over in his hands while waiting for his watch timer to run out. He pressed his palm against it and paid close attention to the way it made his skin ripple. Could those ripples be what made the lines in the clay? But the ripples moved across his skin and the ones on the clay had seemed stationary. Still, the distance between each ripple seemed about the right size. Or maybe–
Gavin froze. He had been turning the tube over, and while doing so had glimpsed the inside. And in that brief moment he had seen those strange, black fibers from the previous experiment moving, crawling up the sides of the tube. He looked closer, and sure enough they really were moving. Not in the strange, sudden hairpin way that the bugs had done, but in a constant line, converging towards one common destination: the hole he had stuffed with the clay.
Gavin looked closer at the individual fibers that made up the dark splotch. They hand deepened their bowing motion, allowing them to touch their upper ends all the way to the surface of the tube and then slide their bases forward so that they step-by-step marched towards the foreign object. Once they reached the clay they began to prod themselves into its soft form, poking through it like thousands of little hairs on a white scalp.
Gavin’s timer went off, startling him. He dismissed it, and watched patiently until every last fiber had reached the clay and burrowed itself deep into it. Then he tried to remove the clay, which proved a great deal more difficult than before. It was far less pliable now, and as he pulled the top and bottom halves apart there was a strained cracking noise from its center.
At last he got it out and placed it on his desk, where he could see that the clay had been being transformed. It looked marbled, divided between two materials. About three-fifths still just ordinary clay: soft to the touch, gray in color, covered in fingerprints. The rest of it was white, glossy, just like the material that the discs and rods were made of. It even had those same strange properties of heating and rippling his skin when he touched it.
“So…these are changers,” he said slowly. “It eats stuff, and turns it into those black splotches, and then it uses those to build new parts…” he smiled broadly. “I’m not missing any pieces after all! I can make as many as I need. As many as I want.”
He still didn’t know why that was significant. None of these discoveries were actually useful to him in any practical way, yet it felt like it mattered even so.
Holding the tube under one arm he dashed down the stairs and out of the house. Once there he found the nearest patch of dirt and began shoveling it into the opening of the tube.
“It doesn’t seem too picky about what it eats, so I’ll just give it what I can get the easiest: dirt and water. And maybe play with the ratios. A bit more dirt and a bit less water. See if it makes more of the black stuff that way.”
He finished with the dirt and ran over to the spigot sticking out of the side of their building. He turned the water on and began transferring it by the handful into the tube.
“Hey, are you finally ready to play?” Curtis asked, tossing a football up in the air and catching it. Gavin hadn’t noticed him here in the yard.
“Yeah…almost…I’ve just got to run this upstairs and I’ll be right down.”
Curtis was looking at him with a bemused expression. Gavin was sure his manner of filling this tube up looked pretty strange, but he still wasn’t going to address it right now. He would probably have to explain things to his brother sooner or later though.
Gavin tipped in one more handful of water and the tube overflowed. He dashed back inside the building and up to his room. He grabbed another chunk of the clay and began to fashion a rod from it. He was trying to imitate the general dimensions of all the other rods he had, then he stuffed its end into the hole he had been experimenting with before.
Now there was nothing left for it but to wait…and this would probably take a while. So he might as well go and play with Curtis in the meantime, even though his mind wouldn’t really be on it. This afternoon he’d come back and see how far things had progressed, feed it more dirt and water if it needed it. Probably he would be feeding the tube for a few days before it could transform the entire rod, and he would have to think about buying more clay, too.
It did take a while for the rod to fully form, though not as long as Curtis had feared. He had been correct to increase the amount of solid material, and after a few more “feedings” he found the ideal ratio to be 80% solid and 20% liquid. With that the rod was completed in three days.
While it was growing Gavin set up a series of experiments to conduct with his other islands, so that he could test the limits of their abilities. From his first trial he established that the tube could not grow a rod in just any shape. He had filled the hole flush with clay, and then put another misshapen lump on its end that didn’t resemble any of the actual rods. The part in the hole transformed as expected, but the lump remained entirely clay. Bit-by-bit he prodded the lump closer to the shape of the rods, at each step pausing to look at the black splotches inside to the tube, waiting to see when they would begin moving towards it.
In the end the splotches activated before the clay was shaped perfectly. Apparently it just had to be close enough. Not only that, but the “close enough” clay ended up being altered during the transformation into the exact form it was supposed to be. That was how all the little lines ended up being etched into its sides.
So evidently there was a way that the rod was generally “supposed” to be…but now Gavin wanted to see whether there was any leeway allowed in that. He started by making a proper, straight rod, and it grew in just fine. Next he tried to do the same thing, but smoothly curved it to one side as it extended. The new rod grew in, and did so without straightening the piece out. He tried it again, bending it back the other way, and it also worked. So long as he didn’t try to have it zigzag back-and-forth, or make too sharp of a turn, he could fashion a wide array of possible rods.
Next Gavin experimented with the endpoint. After a few experiments he found that he could cap off a new rod with any of the already-existing slot-shapes and it would be accepted. Not only that, but he could also fashion it into entirely new shapes, so long as they were “similar” to the already-existing ones. Though if he tried to mold anything dramatically different, like a sphere shape at the end of the rod, it would be rejected.
Gavin tried growing a rod that was short and then capped off, and then he grew another that went for three times the length before being capped off. Both worked.
Gavin grew two incomplete rods that weren’t capped off at all. Then he put their incomplete ends together with a little clay in between, and inserted the whole contraption into one of his “growing islands.” The clay turned into the same rod-material, and it fused the two parts into one perfect piece without so much as a seam.
So I have to follow the fundamental shapes of the already-existing pieces, Gavin wrote in his notebook, but then I could really steer these into any setup that I want.
He paused to bite at the end of his eraser. What exactly did he want? He could join all of the tubes into one larger piece to see if there were any new properties there. He could try building a disc now instead of more rods. If he could accomplish that then he could make a dozen copies of the same tube, but each with slight variations to see if that influenced their behavior at all. Or maybe–
“So when are you going to tell me what you’re doing with all this stuff?”
Gavin jumped in surprise. He had been so lost in thought that he hadn’t noticed Curtis standing behind him.
“Curtis! You scared me. I–uh–I’m just still playing around with it. I still don’t know what it was meant to be. There’s not much to say, really.”
“Uh-huh,” Curtis raised an eyebrow. “Why are you lying?”
“Look, little bro. I included in you that stuff from day one, didn’t I?”
“Well yeah, but…”
When Gavin didn’t continue his excuse Curtis sighed in exasperation.
“You know what, if you don’t want to share, then fine.” He turned to go out the bedroom door.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly. “I’ll show you, come here. I just–I guess I just liked having my own little thing for a while. But you’re right, you shared with me first.”
Curtis smiled and sat back down, then patiently waited for Gavin to talk him through it all.
“So…it’s pretty weird actually,” Gavin said. “But if you don’t believe me about any of it I’ll show you and you can see for yourself.” He flipped his notebook back to the first pages and began from the last progress Curtis had seen.
He told him everything. How he figured out how to put the pieces together into islands, about how things floated in the middle of them, about reducing material down to the black splotches, about putting clay into the holes, about making new pieces, and even about all of the questions he had for where to go next with it.
I mentioned on Monday that with this entry I wanted to bring Gavin’s brother back into the picture. This would allow Gavin to start speaking and expressing his emotions, and cause him to become a character that the reader can settle into the perspective of. We can see the beginnings of that here, although thus far still we aren’t yet in Gavin’s head any more than we’re in Curtis’s.
The fact is this story has resisted getting into a specific perspective, and part of the reason why is because I don’t know where it is going. It is hard to commit to a specific point-of-view, when I don’t know what to point that view at.
Sometimes with my short pieces I start with a clear roadmap from start to finish, but sometimes I like to just explore an idea and see where it takes me. Instructions Not Included followed that latter approach. I knew I wanted to have boys exploring these strange devices, but I didn’t know what it was all leading up to. Sometimes this approach has led to some very fruitful discoveries, sometimes it meanders around and resists proper closure.
It was a bright Spring morning the day they brought the Sweet Bay tree into the open study area. It was a massive room, featuring thousands of square feet in open floor space, with another fifteen yards stretching vertically before being capped off by a wide glass ceiling that ran the whole length of it.
It was a multi-purpose room, one commonly scattered with tables and chairs for the University students to study at during the days, but all of which could be folded up and carted away with ease. It had played host to dances, career fairs, blood drives, charity auctions and more. Many-a-time it had been reserved for wedding receptions, and once had housed the funeral services when one of the Deans had passed way. A collapsible stage could be erected at one end for music and dance performances. It had seen debates, clubs, and religious ceremonies.
Of course the Sweet Bay tree did not yet know any of these things. It’s amazement as it was wheeled through the double doors was due simply to the sheer magnitude of the place. It was awed at the awesome grandeur on display, the architectural wonder of 400,000 cubic feet, all sustained without a single supporting pillar to break that space.
Somehow the artificiality of the room made it seem bigger. Naturally the tree was natively from the open outdoors, yet the openness there was too great to be appreciated. One does not marvel at a breadth unless one can see both ends of it, and so can comprehend it.
If the Sweet Bay tree felt honored to be put into a room so large, it swelled all the more with pride when it beheld the vessel the workers now lowered it into. A massive pot that lay a full twelve feet across and six feet deep! Perhaps the tree felt a little silly being so dwarfed by its home, but it knew this grand base had been selected with the intention that it would grow to fill it. It meant the workers intended this tree to become the central piece of the room’s ornamentation.
And so, after the workers had finished patting the soil around the tree’s roots, and threaded the water hose through a hole in the back of the pot, and added a layer of shredded bark as a skirt around its trunk, and then left for the rest of the days duties–then the tree unfurled itself and drank deeply from the soil and relished in a sense of fullness and fatness.
“Hello there,” a neighboring fern said. “Looks like they’ve given you the place of honor!”
“Why thank you,” the Sweet Bay tree returned graciously. “Yes, I am quite touched. It certainly is a thrill to come and visit you all. I only hope I’ll be able to measure up to everyone’s expectations.”
“I’m sure you will. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Sweet Bay tree number four on the Eastern side.”
“Eastern side of what?”
“Why the Eastern side of the Administration Building, of course, that’s where I’m stationed.”
“Oh…” the fern said awkwardly. “But aren’t you stationed here now?”
“Oh that’s very kind of you,” the Sweet Bay tree laughed. “I am, as I said, thrilled to come and visit. But I couldn’t possibly give up my station, I am an essential part of the tree-line there after all.”
“Well…” the fern started to say, but didn’t know how to politely end its sentence and so did not.
The conversation with the fern had made the Sweet Bay tree all the more anxious to measure up to the expectations that had been placed upon it. The last thing it wanted to hear was people tutting that it was a disappointment to the place.
Focusing its power inwards the tree began to will itself to new heights. To its delight it felt that the growth came quite easily. The tree was constantly sustained with a diet of nutrient-rich soil, regularly pruned to promote upward growth, and positioned under the glass ceiling so as to receive the most hours of bright sunlight possible.
In a matter of only a few years, which really is no time at all to a tree, the Sweet Bay had multiplied itself by many orders of magnitude, swelling to fill its pot and expanding to brush its uppermost leaves along the glass of the ceiling. Those higher branches would be trimmed, but it always grew them back as a statement to the workers that it was doing its part in the role they had given it.
The Sweet Bay was not at all disappointed for attention, either. It swelled with pride each time a new student entered the room and remarked on how that impressive tree stood supreme in all that space.
“I didn’t know you could grow a full-sized tree indoors!” they often said in awe, and the Sweet Bay tree smiled down at them from its lofty perch.
Almost every occasion held in the room now utilized it as the centerpiece of its decorations. Lights wound up its trunk on Christmas and fake coconuts hung from its branches for luaus. There were black shrouds whenever someone important died, white lace whenever someone got married, and pink ribbons for cancer awareness.
The Sweet Bay tree was very pleased to serve and no one questioned that it did its part well. Still, with every passing year it found itself more and more anxious to know what was happening to its home on the eastern side of the Administration Building.
Any time a new plant was brought in it would ask them if they knew that area of the college campus exterior. Most of the time they did not, having instead been brought from greenhouses and nurseries far removed from the University. One day, though, a young poplar was brought in that had been stationed just south of the Sweet Bay tree’s home.
“The Administration Building? Yes, I know it. Had a fine view of it from the Library where they kept me.”
“Oh wonderful!” the Sweet Bay tree sighed in relief. “Tell me, how are things there? I suspect Sweet Bay trees number three and number five are missing me terribly?”
“Sweet Bay trees number three and number five? I don’t believe I know them.”
“Oh, but of course you do. Why they must be nearly as tall me now. Probably not quite as tall, but nearly.”
“Were they near to the vinca?”
“No, the vinca is on the southern side. These were on the eastern.”
“Ah, that explains it. They tore up that whole side and paved it over with a new parking lot. I didn’t see it happen, but some of the older trees told me about it.”
“Yeah, the demand for parking has really gone up of late. Doesn’t look anything like it used to.”
“But I–I don’t understand. Why would they do that? It’s quite a waste seeing as they’ll just have to change everything back to how it was… so that they’ll be ready when they return me there.”
“I mean why pave over a lovely green lawn when you’re just going to have to put the lawn back sooner or later?”
“Well…I mean…” the poplar stumbled awkwardly to find a tactful way to explain itself. “Sweet Bay trees three and five are gone. You understand? Not transplanted elsewhere from what I heard…gone. So I don’t think they were planning to change things back to how they were again.”
“Oh, of course,” the Sweet Bay tree tutted as if explaining something basic to a child, and not at all concerned about the chopping up of its brethren. “I’m not too shocked that they won’t be coming back. You didn’t see them after all, but quite frankly they were never anything so special as me. That’s why they brought me over here to liven up the room for a bit after all. Because I was the best! So of course they’re going to want me come back there. And when I do come back, I don’t intend to be planted in an inch less of lawn!”
Despite the Sweet Bay tree’s show of confidence, it seemed to have been unnerved by something in that conversation with the young poplar. It began brooding and festering, wondering aloud why it was taking so long for the workers to return it to its station. It simply didn’t make sense!
The tree scolded those workers when they came to prune it and demanded answers from them, but of course they couldn’t understand any of that rustling. They just continued their regular work, making the Sweet Bay tree the perfect, beautiful centerpiece to this grand, impressive room.
Except that the room didn’t seem nearly so impressive to the tree as it once had. The Sweet Bay tree wasn’t nearly so small as when it had been brought in here, and it had long lost its sense of awe for the space. No doubt a large part of that had to do with being as tall as the entire room, for nothing seems so grand once you are able to fill an entire dimension of it. It would scratch its twigs along the glass canopy that defined the extent of its world, transparent enough to tease a world without limits beyond, but forever denying access to it. This room that had once been a throne was now nothing more than an ornate prison.
All the other plants learned not to broach the subject with the Sweet Bay tree. It was entirely unwilling to hear anything about being “replaced” or “forgotten.” And so they all stood silent as it rambled on about the warm summer breeze, the snowy blankets on the field, the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of chipmunks, the refreshing rain, the crunching of dead leaves, the flowery scents, the churning of the earth, and the taste of the wild wafting down from the nearby mountains.
One day a trimmed bush was brought into the room and placed right next to the Sweet Bay tree. As with all newcomers the tree swayed wistfully towards it and asked its tired, old question.
“Have you seen the Administration Building? Friend?”
“Hmm, well which one do you mean now? The old one or the new one?”
“Old one? What on earth do you mean?”
“Well they tore down that old one with the Library, didn’t they? Put up that new football stadium instead.”
“A… football stadium?”
“Yes, a sight to behold really! Thousands of tons of steel and stone splayed out over everything that used to be the Administration Building and the Library. With a massive parking garage hulking by its side, even. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it makes a place like this feel very small.”
“But…why would they do that? They’ll never be able to get things back to the way they were in time!” The Sweet Bay tree was swaying very laboriously now, as though it might faint from shock. “Where are they going to put me then? It just–it just doesn’t make any sense.”
The bush felt quite awkward and started to shrink back, but suddenly the Sweet Bay tree rounded on it with a sudden fury.
“You! Tell me! Have you heard any word of a new field for Sweet Bay trees? Any word of starting a grove for outdoor studying? Any mention of planting some trees to shore up the river’s edge?”
“I–no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Has no one said when they’re going to take me out of this miserable place?!”
“You don’t…like it here?”
“It’s my prison!” The Sweet Bay tree fell to weeping. “But still I know they will get me out some day soon. They have to. They just can’t be leaving me here forever.”
For a moment the bush intended to avoid stating the obvious, just as every other plant had done. But then it felt it would be more cruel to leave the Sweet Bay tree hanging onto a vain hope.
“But…how will they get you out?”
“What’s that?” the tree snapped out of its self-pitying reverie.
“How would they even be able to get you out of this room?”
“The door, obviously! The same way I came in.”
“You don’t fit.”
“Well of course I–” a moment of horror swept across the tree. It had been staring down at the doors as it spoke. Down at them! They were so far beneath it, so distant, so small a matrix to pass through. Of course it had fit through them once when it had been a sapling. But now…now the only way out was in pieces.
“When did that happen?” the tree mumbled in shock. “Why did I just keep growing? Why didn’t I stop? What am I going to… what am I supposed to…. Wh–why?”
All the other plants in the room drew themselves as far away as their trunks and stems allowed, trying to grant the poor Sweet Bay tree a respectful moment of silence as its entire world collapsed.
I promised on Monday that I would try to write a story that began with its own ending. From the moment the Sweet Bay tree came into the room its story had reached its conclusion, and all that followed was merely waiting for it to realize that simple fact.
But of course, in this long ending there is also another story that is playing out. It isn’t the story of how the tree came to its final destination, it is the one of how it came to accept it. I wrote this story as an examination of a phenomenon I’ve noticed when people experience sudden, drastic changes to life.
These sharp turns occur in a single moment, and the course of our future is instantaneously changed. But then there is usually a considerable delay before our expectations shift to match up with that new destiny. In spite of all reason and sensibility, it can be very hard to let go of how we thought things were going to be.
I realize it is a strange thing we do, trying to represent very human notions with very non-human subjects. But anthropomorphized characters and allegory have been parts of story-telling since longer than the Tortoise and the Hare. On Monday I’d like to take a closer look into why we do this sort of abstraction. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you then.
It has been said that every story begins in media res. This means that there is always something that has occurred before the action picks up and there is always a context that the story is couched within. The same goes for endings as well. Unless your story ends with a complete apocalypse, then it is going to continue on even after your last page runs out. Thus it isn’t the world that ends, just this particular story about it.
That was certainly the case with my last story, its conclusion came firmly in the middle of a larger ongoing journey. Had I continued it to the next stopping point, there only would have been another continuation after that as well. And so on and so on without end.
So when exactly is a story “complete” and when is the right time to make your current page the last page? This is a discussion I’ve had with my wife on a number of occasions and we tend to have different opinions on the matter. We enjoy seeing movies together at the theater whenever we can, and usually when we walk out at least one of us will be dissatisfied by the ending.
She feels that Gravity ended too abruptly, that we ought to see how the heroine will be rescued from the beach she has landed on. I feel that we’ve already seen her triumph, and we can just infer that everything else is going to be okay now.
I feel that the final act of The Return of the King is bloated and long overstays its welcome. She says that it isn’t just the end of one film, it’s the end of the entire trilogy all-at-once, and so a long good-bye is fully warranted.
And the fact is, she isn’t wrong and neither am I. Each of these endings are simply different styles that match our different tastes. I’m not so arrogant as to believe that my personal preference in this matter represents an objective truth.
In fact, when it comes to writing a story, an author will usually find that they must choose from a number of possible valid endings to their plot. Maybe in some cases there really is just one best way to close a tale, but usually you will have at least these three equally viable exit-points available to your plot.
This is the story that ends while still on the battlefield. The villain has just been defeated and the warriors are breathing a sigh of relief, silently greeting the new dawn rising over the mountains.
One of my favorite examples of this is the film Warrior. The film focuses on two central characters, brothers who have each become estranged from one another and from their abusive father who inadvertently drove them apart. The two live entirely unaware of one another’s situation, with more than a decade having passed since they parted.
But then, of course, fate intervenes. Each of them is brought by their own needs to the same MMA competition, where each can only obtain their victory through crushing the hopes of the other. We all know the two are going to face down sooner or later in the ring, and when the promised conflict finally comes they quickly break each other down to tears. All of the anger and bitterness comes out blow-by-blow. Each of them has grown callouses and scars over their emotional wounds, and all of that baggage has to be worn down before they can get to the heart of that hurt.
And then, as all their walls are broken down, the two realize that they are still brothers at their core. The horn signals the end of the fight and the two leave the mat, cradling one another in their arms. Cut to credits.
But what about the estranged father? What about the destitute family the younger brother was trying to support? What about the foreclosure on the older brother’s home? None of this gets explored, because frankly it doesn’t need to. If this were real life then any number of trajectories might follow our characters after their fight. But this isn’t real life, it’s a story. And part of the language of story is that the trajectory it finishes with is the trajectory that the character’s will continue with. Just think of the most classic ending of them all: “and they lived happily ever after.”
After the two brothers reconcile at the end of Warrior we are meant to understand that everything is going to be okay now. The family will heal, the debts will be paid, the loved ones will be cared for. We’ve already resolved the great conflict, so all the littler ones will surely follow.
Reaping the Reward)
Of course we can go the other route with a story, giving the ending plenty of space to breathe. The victory has been hard-won, but now we want to see the heroes receiving the fruits of those efforts.
I’ve mentioned in a previous post the excellent example of this in King Henry V. This epic spans two full countries and years of duration. We travel through lofty courts and muddy battle-fields. There is love, there is fighting, there is humor, and there is betrayal. With so much ground to cover it might have been easy to rush the plot, but the play insists on taking its time and giving the story due justice. Thus it is we spend the entire first two acts before King Henry even reaches the decision to fight his war.
Henry is, of course, the King of England, but by his ancestry he also feels he rightfully has claim to the throne of France. He seeks to unite the two mighty nations, but his ambitions are unsurprisingly rebuffed.
The more peaceful campaigns having been exhausted, we then find Henry with his soldiers invading French soil in Act III. This act and the next detail the warfare, complete with several dramatic shifts in power before Henry finally stands in triumph on St Crispin’s Day.
At this point the story really could have drawn to a close, implying that this trajectory of triumph will continue past the final curtain. But as the play has taken its time in showing the lead-up to the war and the details of that war, it only seems right that it now illustrate the outcome of that war as well. And so we get an entire act dedicated to Henry’s romancing of Katharine, his ascension to the French throne, and the peaceful prosperity of the two united kingdoms.
An epic tale deserves an epic ending, and sometimes its nice to just bask in the world of a story for a little bit longer before saying good-bye.
A New Beginning)
All stories find their close right at the end of one arc, but some are also positioned right at the beginning of another. As suggested above, this was the idea behind the ending of my latest story. There we had an arc of how an individual ruins himself by his voyeurism and criminality. The final moments of the piece involve the law finally catching up and taking him into custody. This marks the end of a life for him, but also marks the beginning of another.
One of the best examples I know of this sort of story is that of The Railway Children. This charming piece by Edith Nesbit begins, as so many other stories, with something going terribly wrong. Specifically, it opens with the father of a 19th-century London family being arrested on false charges. His once-wealthy wife and children must learn to live without him, eventually having to sell their house and move away to the country where a great number of adventures await them.
The children: Roberta, Phyllis, and Peter, win over a great many friends with their bright and enthusiastic nature. Though they are destitute themselves, they still find all manner of ways to help out those that are even less fortunate than they. By these connections they eventually come across a man that is aware of their father’s plight and has several strings he can pull in that regard.
Ultimately the father is exonerated, and the final scene features him coming to his family’s little cottage and entering back into their lives. The final lines include the following:
He goes in and the door is shut. I think we will not open the door or follow him. I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away.
As he crosses that threshold the story that this book has been about is ending, but now another story is beginning. It isn’t the place of this book to try and tell that story as well, it is a very personal and intimate family story after all.
These make up the most common types of endings, but of course there are all manner of other options as well. There are the endings that really aren’t endings at all. The words stop but the arcs don’t, and the world just keeps on turning. This could be a literal cliff-hanger as in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It could also be a single slice out of an ongoing serial, such as Little House in the Big Woods.
There are of course the endings that are true endings, most notably any of the many biographies that follow their subject to the moment of death, at which point there really isn’t anything more to say.
Then there are those things called epilogues. Some of which are really the ending of the story and ought to have had a proper chapter heading. Other epilogues, though, are used to bridge that gap between the Implied Trajectory ending and the Reaping the Reward ending. The story proper will end with the main arc completed and the “happily ever after” implied, but then the epilogue will give a quick synopsis of what exactly happens to each of the characters in that “happily ever after.”
There are many types of endings, and if there’s anything specific I’ve wanted to say with this post it is to simply choose the one that best fits your story. The examples of the stories I shared above were specifically chosen because they could have each been finished in different ways, but each of them should have been finished in the way that they were. Warrior should have concluded at the moment of emotional climax, King Henry V should have had a grand, sweeping close, and The Railway Children should have carried us just far enough to see the sweetness of a new beginning.
The fact is many stories want to be finished in a particular way, and it is the obligation of the author to find out what that way is. With my next story post I’d like to experiment with a more unusual sort of ending. That tale is going to begin with its own ending, though it will take the entire following story for the main character to realize that its path is already over. Come back on Thursday if you’re curious to see how that turns out.
New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.
The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.
That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.
Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.
What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.
But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?
My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.
Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.
Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.
A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!