The Sweet Bay Tree

photography of tree
Photo by Yugal Srivastava on Pexels.com

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.”

“They…what?!”

“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.”

“How’s that?”

“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!”

“Ah…well…alright then!”

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.

How to Finish

man running on black asphalt road
Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU on Pexels.com

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.

 

Implied Trajectory)

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.

And Now We’ll Begin

time motion round clock
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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!