The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is all about finding the happy medium. From porridge that is too hot, too cold, and just right to beds that are too hard, too soft, and just right, Goldilocks is on a mission to find the happy medium.
Which is ironic, because while she may not be too reclusive of a neighbor she certainly is too invasive! Throughout the story she fails to find that “just right” middle ground of being sociable but still respecting privacy.
Writing a story is often a balancing act between too much and too little as well. To have a well-rounded story one must ever be looking for that “just right” between two extremes.
The first story I ever wrote was for a school assignment. I was supposed to come up with my own idea of what happened to Henry Hudson after his crew mutinied against him.
In case you’re not familiar, Henry Hudson was an English explorer born around 1565. He, like so many other explorers of the time, was obsessed with the idea of discovering a naval route to connect the western world to the eastern. Like Columbus, Hudson took multiple expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean, searching for some body of water that would press through the American continents and into the Pacific.
For the last of these expeditions he decided to explore the perimeter of a massive bay in Eastern Canada, now called Hudson Bay (named after this same explorer). Though he scoured its edges for a passage to the other side of the continent, he never found it. Even worse, he spent so long looking for it that the winter months came and froze the water over, trapping his boat and causing his men to starve. One by one, the crew began to die.
Henry Hudson had been intoo much. Too little a sense of adventure and one would never discover anything, but too much and you consign your crew to a watery grave. Eventually the men had had enough and they sent Hudson and those loyal to him adrift in a small, open boat. Then the rest of the crew returned to England and reported their mutiny. Several search parties were sent to find Hudson, but not a one of them ever succeeded. To this day we do not know what became of him.
Which, of course, is where my school-assignment story came in. The point of the homework was to be creative and fun, our stories did not have to actually be plausible. My mind rushed with ideas until at last I settled on a story of Hudson and his men rowing to a nearby island, surviving for a time off of the wild, encountering a civilization of cannibals, and ultimately destroying one another by a tragic descent into madness.
I set down to the computer and wrote the entire thing out. This entire epic saga took me…four pages.
It was pitiful and I knew it. But I was young, inexperienced, and I really couldn’t fathom any way to stretch it out any longer. I didn’t know how to let a scene breathe, how to develop a character over time. All I knew to do was state one set of events after another, writing a story that was little more than a summary of a larger novel.
But in spite of the disappointing performance something had woken up inside of me. I realized that I had stories I wanted to tell and I was going to keep trying at it. Bit-by-bit I learned how to dress up my scenes with dialogue and prose. Several stories later I had a piece about a superhero that weighed in at 20 pages. My next story, a medieval fantasy, was double that. I then wrote a series in five parts, each of which came in around 40-60 pages for a combined total of 200-300. At this point my parents informed me I was now using too much printer ink so my next fantasy piece was a handwritten novel of 300 pages.
When I got to the end of that story I realized that while I had increased a great deal in volume, I had only marginally improved in quality. I cringed every time I looked back over the works I had written, scribbling out mistakes and writing above the line in miniscule pen like a school teacher. I realized that I, too, need to draft and iterate, just like everybody else.
And so I started a second draft of that handwritten novel…but I never got through it. My problem was not that I had too little ambition or desire, if anything it was too much. I couldn’t sit still on a single project for too long, not when I wanted to write so many other things. Too many ideas, too little time, no happy medium anywhere to be found.
It wasn’t until a few years after college that I decided to give storytelling another try. Interestingly enough, it was another school assignment that helped bring me back. In the opening lecture of an ethics class we were told that we must launch a blog and post on it every week our thoughts about the issues we discussed through the semester. These weren’t stories that I was writing, but I started to see the benefit of short, public posts. They were manageable, allowed the author to cover a plethora of different subjects, and could easily be adapted to telling stories.
To satisfy my continued appetite for story I decided to launch this blog three years ago. I determined that I would write each piece as fully-bodied as if they had been excised from a fuller novel, but they would be only chapters and introductions, a hint of something bigger, and then on to the next thing.
This approach allowed me to be both voracious and measured at the same time, putting time into detailed scenes, yet getting to try my hand at every genre. And this approach has greatly helped me to turn writing into a constant pastime.
Yet lately I have found myself lingering too long on my “short stories,” not only carrying them past what I’d intended, but also too long for their own good. Every creator needs an editor (whether internal or external) to focus the ideas into their most ideal form, to trim off the excess and leave the vibrant core.
I’m going to try and exercise that internal editor of mine with my next story. I intend for it a very simple, very straightforward drama between two young friends. It’s a story that should be bite-sized, at the very most two posts long, and I intend to keep it that way. I’ll go ahead and flesh out each scene, but the total number of scenes should be kept to a bare minimum. Come back on Thursday as I try to walk the line between too much and too little, ever in search of that “just right” medium.
Brutus has a problem in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. He is good friends with the titular character…but he is also deeply opposed to the man and all he represents! The historical backdrop of the play is that Rome was run as a republic for centuries until Julius Caesar put down all of his foes, domestic and abroad, and is now on the precipice of ruling as a dictator. Brutus is sickened by this totality of power, convinced that the republic was the morally correct form of government. As Brutus later tells the masses, he loves Julius Caesar but he loves Rome more.
And to that end he joins forces with Caesar’s enemies. Together they hatch a plot to assassinate their leader and Brutus is instrumental in laying the trap for his own friend. Things unfold until we come to a pivotal scene on the steps of the senate. Suddenly the assassins draw out concealed blades and stab their leader one at a time! Last of all comes Brutus to finish the job.
And then Julius Caesar says something that immediately shifts us from Brutus’s perspective to his own.
“Et tu, Brute?” which simply means “you too, Brutus?”
Who knew that three words could pack so much of pain and betrayal? In this moment there is little to do with politics and greater goods and saving the Republic. In this moment there is just one friend being killed by another.
Even though Caesar has been shown as a pompous and deeply flawed character, even though the arguments for his death have been presented in a very sound and convincing manner, one cannot help but be moved by pity for the man in this very moment.
This, we understand, is what it really means to betray another.
Snakes of History and Scripture)
And it’s worth noting that the intimate relationship between Julius Caesar and Brutus was by no means a fabrication of Shakespeare. The two of them really did have a powerful bond, much like that of a father and son. Indeed there are some that theorize Brutus may have actually been Caesar’s bastard child! But even if not, Caesar was still a very paternal figure in Brutus’s life.
It is important to remember that fiction has its basis in fact. The idea of a betrayal is so dramatically interesting and has been incorporated into so many stories, that one can lose sight of the fact that it is not merely a work of fiction. Every romanticized story of a traitor has its roots in the soil of history.
Consider Benedict Arnold, the powerful general who led the fledgling United States to a number of decisive victories in the Revolutionary War. But after advancing the Revolution in such an instrumental way he did not feel appropriately recognized by his comrades. For their negligence he became bitter and ultimately threw in with the British against his former allies!
There is also Robert Ford, who was enamored with the outlaw Jesse James and eventually joined his gang. A wild life of freedom came at a heavy cost, though, and Ford learned the great burden of being a wanted man. One-by-one the gang’s numbers were whittled down until Ford was one of the few people James still felt he could trust. He brought Ford into his own house and fed him from his own table. And all the while Ford was tempted by the $10,000 reward and full pardon that were promised to the man who brought in Jesse James’s dead body. There, in James’ own living room, Ford picked up a gun and shot his hero in the back of head.
The scriptures are full of betrayal as well. There is Joseph who had his precious coat torn apart, was cast into a pit, and sold into Egypt by his very own brothers! To be fair, they did stop just short of killing him, unlike Cain, who out-and-out slew his own brother Abel. Jacob connived Esau into selling away his birthright, and then took his blessing by deception. Then, of course, there is the matter of Judas, who walked with Jesus, saw the miracles, and still sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Even Lucifer is described by Isaiah as a “son of the morning,” a great angel in the courts of God, but he sought to overthrow his Maker and was cast down to earth as a traitor.
The Tendency to Betray)
Betrayals for money. Betrayals for political gain. Betrayals for ideology. Betrayals for jealousy. Betrayals for spite.
Betrayals against the state. Betrayals against friendship. Betrayals against one’s own family. Betrayals against God.
The fact is treachery is in our DNA. When we humans are given with the chance to lift ourselves upon the bones of another…we pause and give it serious consideration. And if we expand our scope to less fatal acts of betrayal, we can see that the vast majority of us have already been traitors in one way or another.
We cheat on our romantic partners, we let our siblings take the fall for our naughty behavior, we tell the secrets of a friend, we steal another’s possessions, we let down those that trust us. At every level of love, family, and society we find ways to trade those who matter most for our own gain. And even those who do not give in to the temptation are still tempted. Our animalistic instinct is to choose ourselves.
At their worst, stories present so many examples of betrayal that we start to think it is the common destiny of us all. At their best they alert us to the reality of our own shortcomings so that we can prepare against them.
Stories show us the best and the worst, and in between they let us choose our own role to play. We get to decide if we are Boromir clutching for the ring of power or if we are Sam refusing to leave our friend’s side. Do we identify with Fernand Mondego betraying a rival to steal the woman he loves, or with Edmond Dantès who will swallow his revenge to spare her added grief? Within the spectrum of story there is a place for us all.
As strange as it had been to discover the end of the world, I do believe the greater surprise was that we had met our first citizen of Graymore Coventry, and that the man seemed absolutely normal! The guard’s communication with us had been intelligent and understanding, not unlike a good-natured tavern-mate that one might meet back in our own home of Omayo.
Of course, when all one has heard of a place is its greatest peculiarities, one assumes that everything about it must also be so strange. I suppose my imagination was that we would find the Coventry populated by a coven of witches, muttering unintelligibly and eating repulsive things.
I know, of course, that the legends of Graymore have since depicted those people in exactly that way, and I wish to put those falsehoods to rest. They were not a backwards or perverse people, and they were not half-demons. Those descriptions would not be entirely amiss for the other outposts that I mentioned we stopped at along the way to Graymore. There the forsaken souls were losing their grip on civilization, and even their own humanity. But here in Graymore they had managed to hold onto it somehow. My theory is that it was because they driven by such a great sense of purpose. Those villagers at the smaller outposts had had no such purpose, and therefore no reason to retain themselves.
Now the people of Graymore did, of course, have their own culture and customs. They did, of course, have little nuances and peculiarities that were unique to them. Being isolated from the rest of the world it was inevitable that they would have rutted into their own particular way of doing things.
As one might imagine, the first realization of this was in how they dressed. The people of the Coventry eschewed color in almost all of its varieties. Once or twice I saw a shade of tan or light brown, and black was reserved for only the most holy of offices. Otherwise, every citizen I saw was in shades of white or gray. Those clothes were all very conservative and modest, wrapped snugly, yet comfortably from the neck to the wrists and to the ankles. I spied neither a man’s bare chest, nor a woman’s knee in all my time there.
Such a manner of clothing would seem to be restricting, yet they had such a deliberate and graceful way of carrying themselves, that their garments seemed hardly an inconvenience at all. Indeed, I must say that the people of the Coventry had perfected the art of moving through a space, in such a way as I had never seen before, nor have ever again seen since. Where we Treksmen would stump about without a second thought to how we walked, the Coventry members would glide forward with a perfect, unbroken momentum.
That might seem a small thing, but just try to lift a foot, carry it forward, plant it, and move the next without a single variation in speed or direction. As they transcended over the earth in this manner their arms would billow around them, and I think it was to transfer all of the body’s natural jitteriness out into the air, leaving the rest of their form in a state of totally controlled poise.
Such an emphasis on dress and movement made clear to us Treksmen that these were a people who were very disciplined and solemn. It was clear that they were willing to take the governance of self as their chief concern in life. They took the energy that the rest of the world so regularly dedicates to the pursuit of wealth and enjoyment, and instead funneled it into the task of self-refinement.
They were not punitive or strict, but they were calm and grave. They were more than willing to smile at us and find amusement in our foreign ways, but I never heard anything remotely like an outburst of laughter or rowdiness. They were willing to lay a firm hand and speak with intensity, but I never saw anything remotely like violence or insult.
As I said, they were perhaps a peculiar people, but not evil, and certainly not barbaric. Rather they were the most civilized people I knew, and well honed to the work that they had selected for themselves.
We hoped to understand the basis of that work shortly, but first we had to deal with the our wares. Usually upon making a delivery there is a great deal of fuss finding an official to sign for the wagons and take them off our hands. But here we were immediately met by an escort, who rushed us straight to the city center where a Councilman stood ready to receive our papers and give us his own. Two signatures later and the last of the labor that had so strained us was borne away. Just like that, the Job’s mind retracted from our minds, making us our own persons once more.
We were free men. We could have gone home right then if we had liked.
“You will stay to learn why we have summoned you, and what sacred tragedy you are about to witness here in our halls,” the Councilman said. It was not a question, but neither was it an order. It was an intuition of our own desires.
“If we may,” I said.
He nodded deeply. “It is why you are here. Not by your own choice, nor my by mine. Who are we to intervene in what must be?”
Arrangements were made and we were brought to rooms to bathe, change our clothing, and rest until summoned for. Though nothing of offense was said, we were sure that our weathered and dirty state was an affront to everything that these people stood for. Thus we felt greatly relieved to wash and put on clean clothes. When we had ground down as many of our callouses we could we rested on half-reclined sofas until there came a gentle knock at the door and we were to be brought to an evening refreshment.
We were given seating in a large chamber with a massive table and exquisite eating utensils. It seemed that it must have been reserved for royalty, and we were ashamed to be the ones to grace that place. We never asked who the man that sat to eat with us was, and he never offered that information himself. The food given to us was as plain and unvarnished to look at as the clothing on the people, but for all the simplicity of presentation it was actually quite delicious and nourishing.
All through the meal our host spoke to us pleasantly and curiously, asking us all about our journey and expressing the sincerest of condolences for our losses along the way. Indeed, even though he knew nothing of us, he shed a few tears when he heard how tragically we had lost so many of our companions.
“It is always difficult to hear of the lives that are lost to the wheel,” he said soberly. “We have learned here at the Coventry to not let the cost weigh on us where we can help it, but that does not mean we do not mourn the sacrifices that forever surround us. We are able to both understand that their loss was necessary, and still be sad that such was so.”
“There are…many sacrifices here, are there not?” Bayhu asked.
The man smiled at Bayhu’s coyness. “Yes. I would say too many to count…but then, that is the one cost that we do count. And…it is many.”
“And there has never been one of the Coventry that has questioned this burden?” It was a very bold question, but our host’s demeanor was so genial that we felt we might be bold.
“No,” he said softly. “I’m sure part of that has to do with the fact that all who are here have been taught their purpose since they were sucklings. Where you might hesitate to give a sacrifice that you never intended, we do not even know what it is like to live without that expectation held out for us. But even more with this, there is something in the air of this place–perhaps you have sensed it already?–and it steels us to this work.”
“Do you consider our companions to have died in the service of your cause?” Moal ventured.
“Yes, absolutely. The delivery that they helped bring to us is of greatest importance in our work here. Though to be clear, they are not Altar Sacrifices, and their numbers do not count to our ledger, but anyone that dies in the service of the Black Sun, even unknowing that they do die in its service, is revered by our order. Give us their names and we shall never forget them.”
“But you did not know them.”
“It does not matter. We take this matter very seriously. If you wish to see as much, take a walk through the Halls of Weeping after we retire from this place. There we have great walls of glass, carved over with the names of all that have died in our service, Altar Sacrifices and otherwise. And before each section there ever kneels one of our acolytes reciting and memorizing their names. Thus it is that every name spent in this cause can be recalled at any moment by one member of our order or another.”
A silence prevailed, one where we were both touched that our friends could be so remembered, but also embittered that it was necessary for them to be so.
Our host seemed to know our minds even without us speaking. “Tell me, do you view your lost companions as having fallen to misfortune? To chance? Or do you have a sense that they died under a purpose?”
“Under a purpose,” I said. “But not necessarily for something.” and all the rest of the Treksmen immediately voiced their agreement.
“Yes. Even you, who are strangers to our ways, could feel it out on the road. And you expressed it very well. Their deaths, as I have said, were not Altar Sacrifices, and therefore did not tip any scales, and did not directly summon anything. But they had been marked, all of them, claimed by the Cause of the Black Sun, and so their deaths are registered in its index.”
There was a very heavy pause. All of us Treksmen thinking the same question at once, yet not daring to break that threshold. The man squinted, then smiled as he once more understood.
“And what is the Black Sun?” he echoed our thoughts. “Well, I am sorry to disappoint you…but I do not know. None of us do, not in any way that is truly meaningful. I shall tell you what little we do know of it, but I warn you now that you will only learn the periphery things, the edges of understanding, for I cannot lay before you the thing itself.”
He gestured with his hand towards a parlor, suggesting that we might be more comfortable there for the following discussion. We followed him there, and then he proceeded to give us the people’s history.
“I am sure that when you arrived you bore witness to the great void that stretches for eternity beyond our Southern wall. It has always been there, ever since our first ancestors came to this place. Without understanding what the significance of this place was, still they knew it was significant. Though they were not a studious people up to that point, yet they felt driven to seek the mysteries of this place. And so they made camp, began taking measurements, recorded everything that they found, and they did so most meticulously.
“The record we have of them is unclear whether they knew right away that they would devote the rest of their lives to this work, or if that realization came upon them only after several years of the labor. In either case, eventually they laid the foundations for this Coventry, and committed them and their descendants to the study of this ancient chasm.
“I shall not bore you with the details, but from all of their studies they found many truths. The first of which is that there are cycles and patterns to everything here. A clockwork system permeates absolutely everything. Even you are all under the influence of its regime, though you are not even consciously aware of it.”
We raised our eyebrows.
“Count your steps from when you awaken in the morning to when you lay down at night. I will tell you now, each of you will have gone eight-thousand and four-hundred. It does not matter how much you intended to accomplish that day, your feet will go that many and not a step farther or shorter.”
“And what if we tried to make ourselves go one extra step?” Ro’Kano asked.
“It has been tested. You will forget before the day expires, and fail to count out your steps at all. And any reminders you try to make for yourself will fail. But again, don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself tomorrow. Count your steps. Better yet, each of you count the steps of the other. You will all come out the same. Just as how if you pour your water or stir your tea here, the liquid will circle exactly four-and-a-half times before coming to a complete stop. Every single time. Just as how a member of our community dies of natural causes every thirty-second day. Every single time. Just as how every rainstorm falls three weeks after a goat is sacrificed. Every. Single. Time.”
He nodded to emphasize the sincerity of his claims.
“And perhaps you see in that last statement the beginning of the answers to your deepest question: what have the sacrifices of the Coventry to do with this Void? You see, this place runs like a clock, it turns us all. But we are free beings, and so when we act, then the rest of the gears must rotate in response to us. We are not the masters of this place, but we are influencers of it. And the greatest work that we must do is to perform our sacrifices and raise the dread horizon.”
On Monday I spoke of a sort of diamond-pattern in designing narratives. As I explained, many stories begin a new chapter with an initiating idea, which then expands as the implications of that idea are explored, which implications are then resolved in a climax, resulting in the chapter contracting to a close. And then, the process repeats: opening, widening, zenith, narrowing, closed.
Today we saw the beginning and widening of a new chapter in my story. This section is instigated by the Treksmen’s arrival into the Coventry, and begins to widen as our narrator recounts the customs and nuances of the people here. They grow even wider during their conversation with their dinner host, and we are gradually approaching the zenith point. In the next section the host’s conversation will reach its climax, where he uncovers the deepest secrets of the Coventry, after which he will bid the men a pleasant sleep, narrowing the story with the close of that day. After that will begin a new sequence.
Now to be honest, this whole story has been going on for quite a bit longer than I had anticipated, and I still feel that I am several posts from its end. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to me, where a story simply wanders further than I had originally intended. I’ve spoken before about how a story seems to “want” things of its author, and resists being pushed into corners that do not suit it. I’d like to take a moment to examine this behavior more closely, and specifically in relation to the pacing and length of a work. We’ll go into this on Monday, have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then!