Every great trick begins with a promise. Even before the magician takes the stage, there is an implied understanding that the audience is going to be shown something that is fascinating, but that they cannot explain. If both criteria are not met, however, the spell is literally broken.
Suppose the magician produced an elephant on stage, but it was obvious how it came to be there. It might be interesting to see, but it is hardly astounding. Or on the other hand, consider those terrible magic shows where the magician spends far too long repeating the same interlinking rings trick over and over and over. Even if you don’t know how such a trick is pulled off, it is impossible to be amazed by something so repetitive and mundane.
Indeed, a magician either makes or breaks their entire trick just in the presentation of it, and the best magicians know that they must therefore walk the fine line of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. Yes, that is a paradox, and the more paradoxical the magician can make it the better! In short, they want to make the audience slap their forehead with “but of course!” while simultaneously scratch their heads with “but how?”
This, of course, is also a trick utilized by the best mystery writers. At the end of every whodunit, the hope is that the audience will be left feeling that the solution is the only one that makes sense, but also wondering how they failed to see it then.
So how does a story pull this off? Well, the exact same way that the magician does. It distracts you along the way.
Sleight of Hand)
Magicians famously fool their audiences by showing them something in one hand, while the other stuffs a rabbit into the hat. Mysteries, of course, also utilize red herrings so that the reader is too busy drawing the wrong conclusions to notice the setup for the correct one.
But here’s the thing, the correct conclusion does need to be setup for. When a story unveils a grand conclusion that has not been previously alluded to, it is like a magician who puts his hat on the table, rolls up his sleeves, and then walks offstage to retrieve a white rabbit. We aren’t impressed in sleight of hand that takes place off-stage.
And yet that is exactly what far too many stories do, producing solutions that were never setup for. In fact it is so common a sin that this sort of off-stage gymnastics has been given a name: deus ex machina. Oh whoops, did I forget to tell you that the Detective happens to have a best-friend-elephant-tamer on speed dial?
But things can be taken too far the other way as well. If the conclusion is obvious, then there is nothing satisfying in its reveal. Magicians lull us into a false sense of security by presenting a world that works exactly the way that we expect it to. A card is just a card, a box is just a box, and everything behaves exactly as normal…until suddenly the world changes and the laws of nature are broken.
Good mysteries also present us with a world that makes perfect sense, and then suddenly pull the rug out from under. The reason why “Luke, I am your father” lands with such impact is because that up to this moment audiences felt that they already had a complete understanding of the world. We had a story about Luke’s father already, and it made perfect sense. His father had been killed by the enemy and needed to be avenged.
But then, suddenly, the tale shifted with the reveal that the villain actually is Luke’s father. Most importantly, this reveal somehow seemed truer than the previous arc. That is the key to every great twist in a story. It takes what already appeared true, but then makes it truer.
A story rings truer when it has greater catharsis. Luke’s need to avenge his father was certainly cathartic, but Luke’s need to save his good-turned-evil father was even more so.
In my story The Storm, we are told that a sailor lost his son when a friend took the youth sailing and the youth forgot to tie his lifeline in a storm. Later the twist comes. Actually the boy did tie his lifeline, and the friend later untied it by mistake, thinking the knot went out to the rest of the boat’s rigging. The loss of a son was already quite an emotional toll, but to have lost him at the blunder of a friend all the more so. As soon as I wrote the change into that tale I knew it was the true version of my story.
But of course Star Wars is not a mystery story, it is a fantasy. And The Storm was not what you would call a “twist” story, it was a drama. It turns out that creating an initial premise, but then upending it with a later revelation, is an essential part to all kinds of tales.
Strider being revealed as the absent King of Gondor is character development in Lord of the Rings, Ilsa revealing that her thought-to-be-dead husband is actually alive adds intrigue to Casablanca. Madame Defarge revealing that she was the girl who’s family was tortured by the Evrémondes bolsters the theme of cyclical violence in A Tale of Two Cities.
Last Thursday I posted a story where the conclusion was foreshadowed by the beginning: a King needed to plot an unforgettable revenge on one of his districts. This foreshadowing was followed by detailing each individual piece that would reside in that revenge. In spite of all that setup, I feel that the tale’s final revelation was still shocking, and that it revealed a deeper catharsis that rang more true and satisfying than any other moment in the story.
Every type of story can benefit by giving the reader one thing to believe, foreshadowing a later revelation, and through it uncovering a higher, more true story. Every story can use a bit of magic. Every author can benefit from practicing their sleight of hand, and figuring out the proper balance of obfuscation and anticipation.
I have been too nervous to write any murder mysteries on this blog so far. Those require a firm understanding of the end from the very beginning, and a very tricky balance of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. I write these stories under tight time constraints, and therefore don’t invest in careful, airtight outlines at the outset. Even so, I do love a good mystery, and I think the time has come for me to pay my respects to that genre. Come back on Thursday as we get started on my magic trick!
On a grassy knoll, far removed from any civilization, a small man sat perfectly still. Everything was quiet. There were no animals nearby, no sound of rushing water, no wind rustling through the trees behind him. He was the only thing that might make a noise, and he did not stir at all.
Instead he sat transfixed, eyes held unblinkingly towards an void that stretched before him. It appeared like billows of smoke compressed thousands of times, layers and layers of wispy tendrils combining to form a single cloud, one so thick and dark as to be impenetrable. Nothing could be seen behind it, if indeed there was anything at all. The man got the sense that he was staring into the very end of the world, beyond which no existence could be.
And it was so very massive. It stretched upwards until it was lost in the gray, overcast sky. It stretched far to either side until it was lost in the haze. It absorbed the man’s entire perspective, and his mind was lost in its depths. Staring at it made him feel dizzy, as if he were falling into it. He half expected to feel its touch at any moment, and could no longer tell how far it stood from where he sat. If it stood apart from him at all.
All about him was a thin, gray haze. So slight that it was almost imperceptible, like a filter that dimmed the world. He had not even noticed it thickening around him.
And there was the rhythm, too. The dull, deep pulsation that thudded through his core.
The man inhaled heavily through his nose. A stray thought interrupted his trance, something about how breathing was getting harder, like he had to suck longer to get enough air. He idly flexed his fingers through the dirt and it felt like touching them through thick gloves: vague and formless. His eyes came out of their stupor and looking down he saw dark gray tendrils swirling across his lap. He noticed how his legs and feet were growing numb.
Suddenly full consciousness came back and a terrible horror seized him! He leapt to his feet, turned on the spot, and attempted to run from his perch. While his limbs flailed valiantly, he did not move an inch. There was no friction at the soles of his feet. The ground simply did not seem to be there for him to push off against.
His mouth opened in what must have been a scream, yet no sound came out. The air was entirely gone now, and so his vocal chords throbbed in a vacuum. For a moment he thought he heard a dull buzzing, but it was merely the sensation of his ear-drums dissolving. All the soft tissue was fading away now: eyes, tongue, hair, the first layers of skin.
He slid deeper and deeper into the darkness. The thicker layers now made short work of his muscle and bone, disintegrating him into nothingness. For a brief moment the black void where he had been stood apart from the rest of the convulsing mist, retaining its humanoid form. Its dark head cocked curiously to the side, as if self-aware, but then the full depths of the darkness pressed unceasingly onward and the cavity was swallowed.
They needed somewhere to hide! Somewhere that the void would never be able to invade. But that was impossible…wasn’t it? In time the void would reach everywhere. Suddenly an epiphany settled on Allurian.
“Wait,” he said, reassuringly touching Ballos’s shoulder. Then he raised his hands, palms outstretched, and emanated a tone. All of the surrounding matter attuned itself to his signal and everything within a sphere of six feet ceased their movements, a perfect bubble of complete isolation around them.
Ballos stared about in surprise. There were numerous particles frozen in the air around them, flecks of dust which normally swirled so erratically that their eyes could not register their tiny forms. Now they stood perfectly frozen in time.
“What is this?” Ballos asked.
Allurian paused, looking for the right words to explain this. “I have claimed this sector. It is frozen in time, unable to register any change that I do not allow.”
“And outside of this ‘sector?'”
“As it was.”
Ballos could see the end of the alley beyond their bubble of isolation. The dark clouds were still pooling across the ground there.
“So it won’t be able to come in here?” Ballos asked.
“But it will still surround everything around us?” His voice was panicky again
“Well even if we survive, I don’t think we’d be able to get out again!”
“You’re probably right.”
Allurian pointed his palms upwards, and their sphere began to move upwards. No, that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t the sphere moving upwards, rather it seemed like the entire world moved downwards while their sphere alone remained motionless in space. In either case they were now high in the air, far above the encroaching arms of black.
Allurian next moved his hands to the side, pointing away from the dark wall horizon. All the world seemed to slide beneath them, rippling past their point. Their speed began to increase. Mile after mile flew by, faster and faster, passing through them at a blur. The city, the fields, the river, the trees.
Ballos barely noticed a mountain far in the distance before it was already upon them. He raised his hands to brace for impact, but there was none. The mass rippled through them like an intangible wave. His consciousness was left perfectly intact in the midst, but his body felt as though invisible strands were pulling the rock rapidly through his form. In one moment he was composed of dirt, then of clay, then iron. It was as though his body was nothing more than a temporary conglomeration of all the materials surrounding him, held together only by his infinite consciousness. Had it always been this way, he wondered, and only now he could perceive it?
They sprang out of the sloping back of the mountain range and the ground continued to race beneath them. Faster and faster they went. Another mountain range, then a valley, then mountain range, then valley. And at this speed Ballos saw that the landforms followed one another in larger and more prolonged intervals, escalating like a chorus. At last they came to the Great Arced Plain, which many believed to extend on for eternity. But after a few seconds at this incredible speed it, too, fell behind them, and now they flew over a sea that also seemed to extend for eternity. It was the World Sea.
Allurian pointed his hands downwards now and the frothing waves of that sea rushed up to greet them. Larger and larger the water loomed. Closer and closer they got.
Never did they plunge into it, yet continually nearer they became. Impossibly near. A foot, then an inch, then a hundredth of an inch away. And the waves towered above them, growing larger and larger. Or were Ballos and Allurian growing smaller?
And as the waves appeared larger, they also became slower, until they finally halted entirely and appeared less like mounds of water and more like crystalline towers. And up and down their forms they glinted the reflections of the sun everywhere, like so many haphazardly placed windows.
Allurian turned his focus towards one of those reflections, and now he and Ballos grew closer to that. As they did so they saw that glint separate into innumerable threads of light. And still they pressed nearer, and the beams became larger and larger. Now Allurian and Ballos were weaving between the beams, and those appeared like massive tunnels of burning splendor. And now, at last, they passed into one of those tunnels and were clothed entirely in its glory.
At last Allurian put his hands down and they came to a stop.
Ballos breathed out in awe and took in their surroundings. A golden haze filled the tunnel of light, and all about it was scattered with innumerable bright points of every hue.
Ballos paced the floor, and as he did so those points seemed to shimmer, to slide from one shade to another. He moved to the center of the tunnel and looked at the points head-on. They were a collage presenting him a reflection of the last thing this beam of light had bounced off of: the nearby wave of water.
Ballos squinted his eyes and pushed his focus deeper down the stream of light, and as he did so he could see the reflections of its entire history. A rock it had deflected off of before it had fallen into the sea, a tree before that, a cloud as it entered into the atmosphere, another world, and every inch of space in between, all the way back to its inception at the sun. He saw it all as clearly as if he were there now. He turned around and looking the other way he could see the beam extending forever forward, an unceasing journey laid out yet to come. It would plunge into the water next, bend and move deeper, start to fray out and lose luster, covering an even wider area, and then…
“Ballos, where are you?”
He heard Allurian’s voice as if from afar. How strange. They had just been beside each other hadn’t they?
“Oh here you are,” Allurian’s voice grew clearer and slowly the man materialized next to Ballos. “You’re in the future.”
“We’re…in a beam of light?” Ballos knew that they were, yet somehow he still had to confirm it.
“In a moment of light. Time is entirely frozen in relation to us here. Not merely moving slowly, literally frozen in place. We could stay here, well, forever if we needed. We could stay forever in any of the moments along this light beam’s path.”
“And the void won’t come into here?”
“No. If it isn’t already here at this particular moment of time, it never can be.”
“Thank you, Allurian. This will do.”
On Monday I wrote about how there are only so many stories I’ll ever write in my life and how I struggled to accept that fact. In the end, though, I’ve made peace with my limitations. I have promised myself that I will write regularly, and that I will publish as many of my story ideas that I can. But beyond that, we will see what will be.
And so long as we’re admitting limitations, I also have had to accept that my chances of being a commercially successful author are pretty abysmal, no matter how skilled I might become. Few stories get picked up by publishers and even fewer become a hit. Beyond that, I honestly think the sort of stuff I write would not appeal to a wide audience even if it were given the chance.
Which I suppose sounds pessimistic, but really it isn’t. I only mean to clear the air of any unlikely expectations, so that I can instead focus on the genuine good that remains. Because the fact is, even if no one else cares to read this stuff, I absolutely LOVE a story like what I have posted here today. Maybe it isn’t a good fit for everyone, but it most certainly is for me. It is exactly the sort of thing I would want to read, and so it is exactly the sort of thing I want to write.
And I get to. There’s no one to stop me from just writing more and more of this and making it for its own sake. Isn’t that reason enough to be happy? The way to make peace with your limited resources is to love the ones that you do have. Rather than mourn the things that never were, cherish the ones that are!
For now, this is all of Cael I have to show. There are a lot more ideas for it simmering in my mind, but it’ll be a long while before they’re ready for the light of day. In the meantime I need to move forward to next week’s blog post!
On Monday I want to address a theme that presented itself in the Darkness portion of today’s story: that of being consumed by an enemy. This sort of theme has been showing up in stories for millennia, and I believe there are deep psychological reasons for its prevalence. I’d like to explore them with my next post, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
“They were just sitting in the alley in a box. Someone must have been throwing them out.”
“How do you know? Maybe they were just keeping them there for safekeeping?”
Curtis shook his head. “I doubt that. But if you’re so worried, then you don’t have to be a part of it.”
“Well I wasn’t saying that…”
“Good. Help me get these sorted then.”
The two brothers worked side-by-side at the bedroom desk. The old box was tattered and warped on one side where the rain had fallen on it. It was dotted with black mold spots and smelled quite musty. But for how decrepit and trashy the box appeared, its contents were anything but.
Inside the box were two stacks of white…somethings. They were sturdy, very precisely shaped, and looked expensive. It was hard to say exactly what they were made of, plastic or painted metal it seemed to be at first glance. They were hard, heavy, and cold to the touch…or at least, cold at first. That was why the exact material was hard to guess, because the longer one touched the items’ surfaces the warmer the material got…warmer and warmer until it became uncomfortably hot and one had to draw their hand away! What sort of material behaved like that? And that wasn’t all. There was a strange tingle on the fingertip when touching them as well. Not like electricity, but almost as if it was sending microscopic waves through the skin.
One stack of the items was round, thin, disc-like. They were not quite perfect circles, each one of them had many notches and grooves cut into them. They were clean and precise excisions, with no stray fibers or detritus. The other stack was more rod-like in shape. Some were round, some were long, rectangular prisms, some were curved on one or two sides, and the opposite on the other ones. They were of inequal lengths, and some ended with a flat plane while others had slanted angles. Across all of the piece in both stacks there were intricate patterns of lines etched here and there. They were straight, with sudden right-turns like the traces on a circuit board.
Last of all, there was a single note included with the equipment, a small piece of paper on which someone had written “Some Assembly Required.”
The two boys had all of the equipment out of the box now, and handled one piece after the other, turning them over and over, trying to make sense of it all.
“What do you think it’s for?” Gavin asked.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t look like I’ve anything I’ve seen.”
“Some of the pieces fit together,” Gavin observed, slotting one of the rods into a disc’s hole.
“Yeah, so I guess you build something. Only…it’s weird.”
“There’s no screws or anything to keep it together. If we start stacking them together then pretty soon they’ll just fall apart.”
To demonstrate he flicked at Gavin’s rod, but to their surprise it didn’t topple over. He hit it harder with the back of his knuckles, still it didn’t fall.
“Hey, let me see that,” Gavin said, gripping the rod and trying to pull it out of its perch. It slid out easily.
“How did you do that?”
“I don’t know…it just came out.”
A few more minutes of experimentation and they determined that once two pieces locked together they could only be pulled apart at the exact angle they had slid together at. Any variation from that degree and they would feel like they were welded together instead. Thus they could be freely handled as one piece without fear of their falling apart.
“It isn’t magnets doing that,” Gavin said in bewilderment.
“No, never seen anything like it. Let’s see what other pieces we can fit together.”
After a quarter hour they had all of the most obvious connections sorted out. Rods had been slotted into about all of the holes that ran through the middle of the discs. Each of them connected at the rod’s end, so that it stood upright with the disc at its base. All of the notches along the edges of the discs were unfilled, though, and these were proving to be more difficult to solve.
“This notch looks like it should fit,” Curtis said, holding a rod against the edge of a disc. “But it isn’t locking in place like before.” He pulled his hand away and the rod clattered noisily to the table.
“Hmm,” Gavin said, picking the rod up. “Well, that notch is only encasing two of its sides. I’ll bet it goes between two discs, each covering half of it, and you need to put all three pieces together at once before anything will lock.”
“That’s a fascinating theory,” Curtis said with a yawn. “No, actually it is. But I think my curiosity’s run out on this.”
“What? You don’t want to keep playing with it?”
“What’s the point? It’s clearly not coming together into anything cool. It’s just some abstract art piece or something. No wonder it got thrown out!”
Gavin looked the pieces over. It was true that there was still no rhyme or reason to what they might be forming. They had just gone from random piles of discs and rods to a random pile of flagpoles. It clearly wasn’t going to come together into something cool like a toy or a radio…yet still…
“I want to keep working on it,” he declared.
“Great…over on your desk, I need this space for homework now. And you better get that ratty cardboard box out of here before Mom sees it.”
“Sure, sure.” Gavin knew Curtis felt pleased for having pawned all the junk off on his brother to take care of, but that didn’t matter. He dutifully moved all the pieces over to his side of the room, smuggled the box into the outside garbage bin, and then came back to work on the pieces.
He thought that finding the third piece for the rod and disc would have been simple. He systematically went around each disc, testing any groove that remotely matched the exposed edges of the rod. None of them were a perfect fit. He went through them all a second time just to be sure. No dice.
He shook his head in confusion, then decided to leave that particular rod for the time being. Instead he started finding all of the other partial fits that were possible. Fifteen minutes went by and the mystery thickened. Nearly all of the edge grooves had been accounted for: 47 out of 61. All 47 had a different rod that connected to them, meaning there weren’t enough remaining grooves to complete the fits.
“Great…there’s parts missing.”
He could hear his mother calling for dinner, so Gavin rubbed his eyes, flicked off the desk lamp, and left the room.
With homework and school the next day it wasn’t until the next afternoon that he sat back down at his desk and was reminded of the pieces. He frowned at them as his disappointment resurfaced. He really had been curious to see what they made, even if it was nothing more than some weird, abstract art-piece.
His mind wandered absently as he picked up on piece after another, feeling their weight and running his fingers along their lengths. For a moment he was lost in the sensations they made against his skin: the rippling, the heat. When he tapped them they made so muted a noise it was almost inaudible. That was strange, too. Sometimes they caught the light in a strange way, shimmering so brightly it seemed almost as if the illumination was being amplified.
He leaned in and looked at them even closer. It started to dawn on him how remarkably smooth they were. The rippling sensations on his skin had made it seem like they were textured but they weren’t. Not even a little bit. Smooth as glass, yet not made of glass. Even the lines etched into the sides were unbelievably uniform and straight. Not a single ding in any of them. The grooves which ran the full length of some of the discs never varied in depth or breadth. They just–
Gavin started with a shock. There were grooves cut down the middle of the discs! He had already seen them, of course, but had just dismissed them as just yet another oddity that couldn’t be accounted for. Now though he realized that they were the right length to hold a rod…when it was laid sideways.
Trembling with excitement he found the partially-enclosed rod he had been experimenting with the night before. One-by-one he fit it length-wise into the grooves running across the surfaces of the discs. As he did so he held the first disc firmly against the already-matched sides of the rod. He made it through eleven discs without finding a perfect horizontal fit. And then…
The three pieces locked into place. Two discs propped up at right angles to one another and the rod fusing them together at the corner. As with before, they stuck together as if welded. In fact undoing that weld was more difficult, because he couldn’t remove just one disc from the rod, he had to do both at the same time and still at just the right angles.
The epiphany made, it didn’t take him long to get all of the other partial-fits sorted out. Less than an hour later and he now had 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and 12 cobbled-together “islands.” Several of the islands had formed enclosed spaces, like square tubes that were open at two opposite ends. Well, usually square tubes, there were a couple where the discs did not actually meet up at exactly right-angles.
These new formations came with their own unique properties. When Gavin placed his ear by one of the openings he was able to make out a faint humming that emanated somehow from its center. Passing his hand into the disc-tunnels created even stronger skin-rippling sensations, powerful enough that he could see the skin rolling with little waves.
His next experiment was to hold a plastic toy soldier in his hand, reach to the center of the tube, and then let it go. The toy fell to the bottom, but it moved very slowly, and shook the whole way down like it was being buffeted by a silent wind.
Gavin looked around, trying to find something even lighter, something that might be able to float. He ripped off a small corner of notebook paper and it did indeed float lazily within the tube, never touching any of the surfaces, yet never coming to a rest either. It would follow a straight line, come close to a disc or rod, and then make a sudden hairpin turn away. Gavin tried to pick out a pattern to its movement, but it was much too complex.
Gavin grabbed Curtis’s hole puncher and emptied its contents into his hands. He dropped the whole pile in the middle of the tube all at once and watched as the cluster of paper pieces scattered in different directions. They tumbled around aimlessly for a moment, then slowly began to file into a line. Gavin could see now that their movement was not random, each paper’s turn was consistent with all the others. They made a sort of train, bouncing away from each surface at just the same angle, twisting and turning within the tube. Gavin fumbled through the supplies on his desk for a paper, pen, and ruler then he began to draw out the pattern he was seeing.
But the pattern never stopped. It just keep going and going, never repeating itself, until soon he had line-by-line drawn one massive dark splotch on his page.
A few more experiments followed, by which Gavin ascertained that each of his disc-tubes had distinct patterns from the others. Even the ones that weren’t fully enclosed would float the pieces of paper endlessly through their half-pipe or trench shapes. He also verified that he could lift up, rotate, and even shake the tube but the papers would continue unhindered. They wouldn’t even wiggle in their paths, as if all earthly forces such as gravity and air resistance simply did not apply within the tube.
Gavin made a note of these facts on a piece of paper.
The plastic soldier sunk to the bottom, he wrote, so I guess things have to be beneath a certain weight and then the tube takes them over entirely…
He paused and bit at the end of his pen.
What would happen if I were to step into a giant one of these tubes?
Would he be forever cut off from the rest of the world, unable to be pulled out by gravity or any another force? Well…he could still reach in his hand in and pull the pieces of paper out after they had been surrendered to the tube. And maybe that was because his hand was anchored to his arm which extended out of the tube. So as long as there was something that existed outside of the tube that could reach into it, it could alter things. But otherwise anything enclosed in the tube forever belonged to it. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought.
Unless…paper was dumb and it couldn’t move itself. What about something alive?
Gavin stood up from his desk and began scouring the room for the fly. When he couldn’t find one, he expanded his search to the whole house. Of course now when he actually needed a flay there was none to be found. So he went outside and found a few, but he knew he’d probably end up just squashing them if he tried to catch them. Instead he went back inside and looked up online how to make a simple fly trap with a mason jar. He modified the instructions a little. He didn’t add any dish soap to the sugar-water solution at the bottom of the jar so that the flies would avoid drowning. He needed them alive. His trap prepared, Gavin left the jar out on the porch and called it a night.
As I said on Monday, my intention with this story was to create a story that originated in an ordinary world, but which opened a gateway into the fantastic. One common element of stories like these is that they don’t need to spend a lot of time time in the ordinary world. Indeed, many of them enter into the new world within their very first chapter or two. All that really matters is that the reader have a familiar point of reference to begin with.
I’ve been having a lot of fun so far with this piece, but I do wish to give credit where it is due. This story of mine is written an homage to a highly skilled storyteller named Shane Carruth. This Monday I’ll explain a little bit more about him and his work, and then discuss how one can approach writing stories that are inspired by others. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!