Repeatedly asking the question “why” very quickly leads to things that cannot be explained. We can begin with the most grounded of subjects and the most basic of functions, but if we repeatedly ask why things are the way they are, things quickly venture into one of two domains:
Either the question doesn’t have an answer, or any answer exceeds our mortal comprehension. In either case, we have found the limits of our cognition.
Order and Chaos)
Now I have already discussed the ways in which stories have handled the metaphysical elements. I described how things like karma, fate, or God are often living characters within a story. They remain unseen, but they do have a very real influence on the characters in center stage. Thus they are not perceived, therefore, so much as felt, such as the karmic justice that drives the journey of Oedipus. And in some ways this makes a story feel more true. Many of us see patterns in the world around us, and by this believe that there are supreme forces maintaining a balance in our lives.
But what about that other domain? The pure unknown? Because while we see metaphysical order in life, we also perceive chaos and randomness. We don’t want to embody these forces, we want them to remain indescribable and formless, and yet they also need to have some sort of tangential effect on the narrative. As a result there are many stories where things “just happen.” Not really to move the narrative forward, not to center some cosmic balance, not for any discernible purpose whatsoever.
Consider the coin-tossing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the two characters begin a game of flipping coins, and find that only Heads comes up. Over and over and over and over again, more than a hundred times. Guildenstern does begin to wonder about external cosmic forces: some form of karma, a trickster god, time itself having ceased, etc. But he finds no answers, and neither does the audience. It just happens…and then it does not.
In Cael: Darkness and Light, we have a massive void that is visually perceptible, insofar as it impinges upon the world that it is swallowing up. Why it is here, where it came from, and what it will become after swallowing the entire world are never answered. Because in that story there are no answers about that void. It just is.
In this way I am trying to use Cael to portray both the metaphysical and the unknowable in one. That void seems like an all-powerful and malevolent force of nature, one with a specific purpose to fulfill: to destroy. However the origin, reasons, and methods of it feel like random chaos. And it is this strange synergy of both order and chaos that I feel rings most true. Because as I said, in life we seem to perceive both forces of order and random chaos.
Sometimes the unknown isn’t kept a secret for any philosophical reason, though. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. Such as when we don’t fully explore a side-character’s backstory. We don’t need to know where the waiter was born and why he was so distracted as to spill coffee on our detective, all that matters is that it happened. Are these things knowable? Sure, we just don’t care.
Of course there are some things that the audience might think they want to know, but if they did the story would lose some of its magic. I had that experience when I tried to read The Silmarillion, an epic which gives the origin story of Middle Earth. Partway through I realized that really I didn’t want to know where elves came from, or how and why they built Rivendell. I preferred the magic of that city existing “just because.” I have never gone back to try to finish the book.
In some ways I feel that this selective exclusion also rings more true to life. The first time you visit a new city you always come to it in media res. It just exists, entirely outside of your understanding why. And while you could read up on its history and learn all about its origins, the actual experience of being in that city still only begins with the day you walked into it. For you, that will always be the origin.
I incorporated this sort of selective exclusion with Instructions Not Included. Here we have a box of strange objects with properties unlike anything else on earth. And while we eventually learn about the organization that planted the box, we do not ever learn how and why the objects came into being. Presumably it must have some point of origin, but knowing it would dispel the whole mystery at the center of the story. So I leave it unknown.
And sometimes we know what the thing is, but we lack the words to describe it. Not because we need a larger vocabulary, but because things that go “off-the-scale” will, by definition, defy any description. Sometimes you don’t just want to say that your character is angry, you want to say that he is so angry it cannot be fathomed. But if it cannot be fathomed, then the words cannot be written to properly detail it. Raging, fuming, frenzied…all these words fall short of describing an indescribable rage.
I have mentioned in a previous post how 2001: A Space Odyssey dealt with this exact problem. Here we had a constant escalation that needed to climax in a sequence that defied comprehension. David Bowman is supposed to be witnessing things that are beyond all understanding. The film handled this by showing strange, meaningless patterns and colors to the viewer, ones intended to be baffling. In the book it merely describes him seeing many diverse races and cultures, which makes for considerably less impact.
There is undoubtedly a paradox here. Visual and aural mediums are quite capable of creating experiences that cannot be captured by words. But a written story, by definition, must be captured with words.
In Once Among the Clouds I decided to take a stab at this problem by way of metaphor. Throughout the tale I describe an escalating conflict and an abundance of violence and destruction. Then, at the very end, all is overwhelmed by a towering, dark rain cloud that washes everything away.
While I was able to describe the rain cloud in detail, I did not explicitly spell out that it was meant as an embodiment of all the hate and strife. I could have, but I expect that the reader’s subconscious will make that interpretation already, and that which is perceived subconsciously often feels more legendary to us. My hope is that this round-about form of expression will therefore make the magnitude of hate and violence seem inexpressibly deep to the reader. Whether or not I succeeded is a matter of opinion, but I found it interesting to try.
I would like to conclude this series with a short story that attempts to weave in all three of these types of monolithic entities. I will start with a creation of unknown origins, one that becomes a being of chaos, and by that chaos establishes a skewed sense of order, which contrast will hopefully imprint an idea on the reader that feels larger-than-life. It’s a tall order, and I’m very anxious to see how it goes. Come back on Thursday to see.
Except for the stone. As everything else vanished from the reality the small portion of cold rock against Reylim’s knees seemed more real than it had ever been before. She felt it physically, of course, but now she felt its very state of being, too, it’s purpose, it’s destiny, it’s rightness. She knew it. She understood it.
Reylim glanced down and saw her inner light glowing. It wasn’t just a bright spot at her core anymore, it was her entire figure, vibrant and shining. She focused on that glimmer, spinning it through her with greater and greater speed, churning it faster with each beat of her heart.
The stone beneath her was fading, losing its reality. She gritted her teeth and beat her heart harder. It hurt, and even seemed to tear her inside a little, but she felt some of her essence spill out into the rock and bring it back towards reality.
She beat her heart into the stone again and again. Cold beads of sweat formed on her brow, her hands were shaking, but she did not dare stop. She felt another heartbeat wanting to come. It was going to be heavy, it was going to hurt, but it needed to be.
A torrent of light pooled from her into the stone, and there the rock began to shift, contorting until a being started to emerge from its midst, a man born of the earth. As he rose to his feet before her, she recognized him from the village below.
“Avaro!” she said in surprise.
He smiled warmly to her. “At your service, lightbringer! I never dreamed I’d get the honor of meeting you.”
“Oh!” she cried as another heartbeat rent her, spilling her essence back into the stone and beginning the process of raising another warrior, this one a woman. These beings were casting their own light, light borrowed from her. With every portion of herself that she gave to the stone their little circle of light was steadily widening.
“I want you to know we’ve never forgotten what you’ve done for us, first star,” the emerging woman said earnestly. As she spoke Avaro’s eyes flitted to the widening circle of illumination around them. Reylim followed his gaze and saw the dark billowings of the shadows slowly coming back into form. The woman was speaking again. “We may struggle to find our ways at times, but…”
“It’s right to struggle,” she said to them, then doubled over as a third heartbeat tore her heart again. Her face landed on the stone and she felt her breath coming out ragged and shallow. She was faint and clammy, her fingers twitching involuntarily. When at last she opened her eyes there was now a third warrior, and all three were waging powerful battle against a number of dark figures that were spilling into their radius of light. The three glowing guardians all bore different uniforms and weapons, all from different periods of time, all representing a different race.
Reylim tore her eyes from them, looking the other way. At the edge of the circle of light she could just make out the stone pillars of the Nexus. As difficult as scaling the mountain had been, this crawl looked more daunting by far. Limbs protesting, heart heaving, she lifted an arm that felt like lead and thumped it on the ground in front of her. She lifted her next arm to meet it, then slid her knees across the rough stone.
She heard a cry behind her and saw Avaro careening from a vicious blow to the chest. She cried, too, as another heavy heartbeat crippled her. The warrior’s chest healed and he rose back to the battle.
Reylim summoned her strength back and began crawling forward again. Even the small heartbeats hurt now, but they were necessary, each brightening the path in front of her, bringing it far enough into reality to support her crawling form. In spite of the pain and effort, yet she couldn’t help but notice each inch of rock and tree bud came into relief from her light. She found herself loving each one of them as her own. Wanting so much for them. Giving so much for them.
Again Reylim felt her whole form shake as an orb of light gushed out of her, streaking from her form to the Nexus looming just ahead. The rock formation flashed to life, dust and dirt blasting from its edges as cords of light wound back and forth between its pillars. Reylim crawled forward another pace.
Another ball of light went to the Nexus, deepening its cords and giving them a distinctive hum. Reylim’s elbows quaked and she dropped to the ground. It took all of her strength simply to turn her head up to the structure, soft tears shining down her cheeks. She clenched her fingers, then shuffled her arms and legs, grinding herself forward on her belly.
Her palms crossed the perimeter of the Nexus. Her elbows. Her shoulders. Inch by inch she moved forward until she was directly under the pillars. Laboriously she rolled onto her back, looking up at the twisting cords of light.
Each of the heartbeats came harder and faster than the last. Her light and her life spilled out, beating into the Nexus and imbuing it with power. Her breath fluttered and her head fell to the side, her nearly lifeless eyes settling on the blurry forms of light and dark fighting in the distance.
“Rage on,” she croaked, then gave her last beat of all. She was already too slumped down to collapse any further. The only perceptible change was the way her eyelids slowly closed and how an expression of peace washed across her face.
Above her the Nexus hummed loudly, churning into full life. It’s light increased a thousandfold in a single moment, washing the entire mountain peak in blinding light. In an instant the warriors, light and dark, were all scorched away as the reality of now was established in their place. No more people, no more villages, no more struggle. Just the memory and the assurance that one day they would be.
With the light of the Nexus having been established, another glow joined it, emanating from the entire world itself. At long last a Glimmer radiated at the core of Nocterra, giving the entire surface the beginnings of definition and clarity.
It’s task fulfilled, the pillars of the Nexus collapsed and its light sunk downwards, settling on the figure at its base. Reylim’s body coursed with exceeding luminescence, the light overpowering her form until she was actually lifted into the air.
Slowly, gently, Relyim raised higher and higher, her robes billowing in shining glory, stirred by a wind that came from within. She continued to rise, eventually lifting so far that she became a single pinprick in the night sky. She settled to a rest there, and so became the first star, the first guide to all that would walk the world beneath. Eventually other heroes would join her in the heavens, but she would always stand supreme in their legends.
Finally, peeking over the horizon from the dark side of the planet, the very first sunrise was now beginning. And with it, the promise of tomorrow.
And with that we have reached the end of Glimmer! I certainly enjoyed doing this one, though it did end up extending out for two sections longer that I had anticipated. There were several defining traits that I wanted to incorporate in this story all at once, one’s that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Let’s do a brief summary of what each of those were.
First I shared about the significance of sacrifice in a story. I suggested that sacrifice is a sacred principle, and ought to be treated with care by authors. Don’t try and kill off characters just to force sadness on your reader, and don’t pretend you’re going to feature a sacrifice if you don’t have the nerve to follow through.
In Glimmer I opened the topic of sacrifice in the very first scene. Reylim knew from the outset that this was her ultimate destiny, and she was naturally quite unnerved by the prospect. In fact she kept trying to find a way out of her own demise. By the end I tried to suggest that martyrs don’t have to want to die for their cause to still be willing to do so. I think we can spend a lot of time scrutinizing our heroes and wondering if we could ever make the sacrifices that they did, when in actuality they never knew if they could take those steps themselves until already striding over them.
Next I discussed the value of taking the plot of a story, dividing it into multiple arcs, and staggering their beginnings and endings. In this way key themes become reiterated on, separate threads weave towards a satisfying conclusion, and the pace is easier maintained.
With Glimmer there is always the overarching plot of Reylim’s self-discovery and the fulfillment of her quest. Though at times I had segues to introduce new characters, mechanics, and motivations, each of these eventually came back to that central core. Glimmer was introduced and would serve as the companion in her quest. The void was introduced and would serve as the opposition to give her quest meaning. The shadows of the people that might one day live were introduced and served to bring a climax of action at the end of her journey.
And though I could have taken all the sentences dedicated to her anxieties and exhausted them in one single scene at the beginning, I knew it would have greater impact if I instead reiterated those fears at many separate points throughout the tale. And anytime those fears, or the central arc, or the discoveries I mentioned above were starting to grow stale, I had plenty of options to change gears into one of the other categories and keep everything fresh.
During the third week I mentioned the option of creating characters that were not-so-human. These characters could be massive, disembodied forces, things like karma or God. Still their influences would be felt, and they would have desires, and would interact with other characters, but they just wouldn’t ever be seen explicitly.
In Glimmer there are two of these entities, and each of those is manifested indirectly. These two beings are, of course, those of Glimmer and the void. The ball of light that guides Reylim through her journey explains that he is nothing more than a spark off of that main fire, a fire that we never interact with directly. We understand its purposes and attributes to be the same as this guide, but also that it is a distinct and infinitely more powerful being. We understand that that being has thrown off a multitude of sparks igniting planets all across this story’s universe, and we associate it with all that is good and heavenly.
It is the same with the void. We see areas where it is not, more than we see areas where it is. We see beings that are driven by it, but they do not define it itself. We understand it to be an infinite being that stretches through the universe attempting to swallow all existence into perfect nothingness.
The purpose of creating two entities that are never directly spoken to, nor indeed can be spoken to, is that it gives the story’s lore an immense depth. We are witnessing the tips of infinite creatures, and the promise exists that their eternal duel will extend far beyond the confines of this single story. It simultaneously makes Reylim insignificant by virtue of the other infinite wars that must be going on, but also terribly significant for being worthy of these god’s attention in this one place and moment.
In stark contrast to all of this brushing against infinities and the battles of the gods, I then posted about the need for stories to focus deeply on mere individuals. As I explained, no one will care about a massive army if they are not invested in the individuals that make it up. We simply lack the capacity to register groupings past a certain size, and instead need something more individual to anchor our emotions to.
Though Glimmer involved epic beings lurking in the background, at its forefront this was still very much a story about a single individual: Reylim. Even Glimmer and the shadows she fought were only secondary supports to her own very personal and intimate story. This closeness was established by having every inflection of the story immediately followed by an examination of how it affected her. I mention the dark cloud that is waiting for our heroes on top of the mountain, and I immediately focus on how Reylim cries in response to it. I mention how empty and bleak the world is when Nocterra first arrives, and I immediately show how she trembles and whimpers. I then mention how a small light is exuded from her, and I describe her delighted surprise.
Reylim may be a single character in an infinite epic, but this is undoubtedly her story. I even emphasize this in her final moments where her vision fades and the raging battle becomes nothing more than a blur, a backdrop, a mere periphery to her final strains.
Last of all I observed how every author has a particular style for the stories that they write. This is simply a default voice, one that I suggested is based more on personality and experience than conscious intent. Mine, it would seem, happens to deal with themes that are slow, supernatural, and allegorical.
Certainly in Glimmer there were punches of action, but ultimately the climax of the story is a long and heavy final note. The action that does exist comes in at a very specific time to fulfill a very specific purpose, and otherwise I allow the drama to move the plot forward.
This story also dealt entirely in the supernatural. Alien worlds, strange powers, mysterious beings of light and shadow; actually there was very little in the story that was relatable to us and our everyday lives. I suppose there were humans and basic villages and depictions of nature, but all of these operated under different rules and physics than our own.
If there was one thing that the reader could find familiarity in, though, it would have to the be story’s themes. The call to become one’s truest self, the sense of fear at sacrifice, the personal quest against evil; all of these are very human experiences, and herein we find the allegorical nature of the story. By making all of the mundane and tangible things bizarre, it is instead the intangible familiars that shine through most clearly.
It’s been fun working on this story and this series as a whole. It’s certainly time to move on, though, and I look forward to exploring entirely new pastures when we begin a new series next week. Come back Monday to see where we’re headed.
There is a common misconception in storywriting that the more lives that hang in the balance, the more important the story is. Consider the sequel that has to up the ante on the chapter that came before, and does so by simply expanding the region of impending destruction. First a village is being threatened, then a nation, finally the entire world. I’ve mentioned this trend in a prior post.
Now there’s nothing wrong in a sweeping epic with massive armies clashing into one another and the fate of the entire world on the line. Writers just need to be sure that they aren’t falling for tired clichés, or trying to use “epicness” to compensate for an otherwise weak narrative. If the entire world is at risk it should only be because that is what is needed for the story to work.
The other thing writers need to be aware of when setting their sights so high is that this might not be the most effective method of getting readers to care about their story. Quite frankly you don’t need genocide to give a story weight, you only need to threaten a single character that you have made the audience care about. That’s the key to truly giving your stories meaningful stakes: quality over quantity.
This notion has been wonderfully illustrated in the comic-book movie: Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Here the main protagonist is mortally wounded and another character, Liz, journeys to the Angel of Death to save him. There she is cautioned that his survival will ultimately doom all of humanity, to which she replies she doesn’t care, she just wants him restored. In real life this would be a choice of immense selfishness, but in the context of the story we, like Liz, care far more for the individual we know than the countless ones we don’t. To us the characters we have met and interacted with are actual persons and all the masses are nothing more than set dressing.
Consider also the mistreatment of Tom Robinson, Jem, and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of these characters is menaced by a local, bitter man: Bob Ewell. Though the entire story takes place in a sleepy, little town with only a few lives hanging in the balance, we feel greatly affected nonetheless. Not in spite of its quiet, low-scale realism, but because of it. We feel incensed at the prejudice shown against Tom Robinson because we know such injustices really do happen. We are terrified by Jem and Scout being attacked on the road from school, because that is a very real fear for all with children.
And the tension is all the higher because of the close intimacy of the villain to his victims. Were Bob Ewell a war-mongering tyrant sweeping through the land with a grand army he would have been far less unnerving. There is something chilling about the frankness of a solitary drunk staggering through the woods at night.
Even when writing a story that is larger than life, you still need strong, individual characters that the reader cares deeply about. The bigger action will only be affecting insofar as it applies to those individuals you care for. Consider the film Patton, which features an epic scene where the general fields thousands of men and machinery against another army in vicious battle. The drama of this scene only lands because it has been preceded by one of Patton standing alone in the street, wielding a handgun against a swooping fighter jet. We have seen the depth of that man’s private commitment, and that leads us to care about his triumph in the greater war.
In each of my stories during this last series I have tried to focus primarily on the small and intimate relationships over the large and abstract. Let us consider the ways I implemented smallness into the bigger picture.
With the Beast had a very limited cast of only five individuals. And one of those individuals, the reader, is an invisible observer of the other four. Essential to working with a small cast is that each must have a very distinct voice. John was the voice of wisdom and stability, William was drive and ambition, Clara was innocence and naiveté, Eleanor was compassion and concern. The very first thing I did upon introducing these characters was to illustrate these fundamental differences. If readers are going to connect with your core characters they have to understand them, and the more distinct those characters are the faster that understanding will be established.
The Heart of Something Wild also featured only a few core characters, but additionally an entire tribe stood in the background. Here I found myself in an interesting situation where I needed the audience to care about that tribe, but at the same time keep my work within the short story format. I didn’t have enough time to really bring the community to life for the reader, and so I used a compromise. I instead tried to earn the audience’s affection for the main character, Khalil, and then asked them to inherit his concern for the tribe. Whenever a reader makes a connection with a character, they will naturally come to care for the things that that character cares for, just as with Patton and his war.
In Glimmer I have had the same conundrum repeat itself. Reylim has come to Nocterra to ignite it and allow for countless generations to live their lives, and so the fate of the entire world really is hanging in the balance. I knew that it would be impossible to quantify the weight of that, so instead I chose to focus on individuals. I even explicitly state that the mission here is not about the world, it is about Reylim’s personal growth and development. I only ask the reader to invest in Reylim, with the understanding that the fate of the world will simply be a byproduct of her own development.
In just this last section I finally allowed Reylim and the reader to witness the lives that she was fighting for. I knew I didn’t want to do this with a meaningless montage of the masses, though, so again I limited myself, this time with a sample of three intertwined souls. Their story was meant to be a representation of all the rest of humanity, and as such incorporated timeless themes of love, jealousy, regret, atonement, and closure. In this way the focus of my story remained personal and intimate, but also made the whole world matter more.
It seems that people are excellent at extrapolating the masses from a small selection. Usually when we see a group of people all we see is a group, but when we see a single individual we see a representation of all mankind.
So if you want the reader to care about the bigger picture, all you need to do is extract from those masses a smaller representation of characters and make the audience care for them instead. And if you don’t have a bigger picture, don’t worry about it. It may make for a more exciting movie trailer to see huge armies pouring into one another’s ranks, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better story. There can still be a sense of epic importance in the struggle of an individual soul. Indeed, I would argue such stories are usually far more weighty than those about the thousands.