An Honest Critique

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On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.

The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.

No Sideplots)

The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.

Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.

But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.

I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.

Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.

In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.

The Duel)

But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.

Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.

Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.

In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.

Easier to Critique Than Write)

As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?

I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.

Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.

And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Harold and Caroline: Part Two

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Part One

“Alright, and that’s the Shipping List, the last of the reports. Once you see all three documents you know you’ve got them all.” Harold picked the still-warm papers off of the fax machine and walked with Caroline over to the computer.

“Shipping List, Sales Timecard, Employee Report,” Caroline recited. “I mean Sales Report, Employee Timecard! Sorry!”

“It doesn’t really matter if you know their names,” Harold sighed. “Just make sure you get all three. Then you’ll come over to the computer. I’ve already created a guest account for you to login under. The username is ‘caroline’ in all lower-case. And the password is ‘enilorac’ which is just your name backwards, see?”

“Oh let me write that down.”

“Sure…Now as you can see there’s hardly anything here on the desktop. Just the shortcut for the web browser. And when you open that it should automatically load the two tabs you’re going to need. Just in case you ever open it and they aren’t already open you should probably write down these URLs.”

Caroline scribbled furiously.

“This first one is where you enter the information. See I choose the date first, then I get a form. Each field has a corresponding one on the paper, you just copy the values over. It’s very simple. Then this other one is the email. Here you’ll just need to send me an email with a few of the values from the faxes. The ones that I’m highlighting right now.” He pulled out a marker and began to run it across the pages. “Any questions?”

Caroline shook her head.

“Alright, then why don’t you go ahead and try it? I’ll watch and see that you do it right.”

“Oh…me? Already? Don’t you think I should watch how you do it first?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary Caroline, this is literally just transcribing from one form into another.”

“Oh, of course…Well I’m sure you have some other work you want be doing. How about you take care of that while I work on this, and then you can come back to check it afterwards.”

“Caroline…” Harold said testily.

“Of course…sorry.” Caroline pulled the keyboard over to her and began tapping away. She could feel Harold’s unflinching gaze on her, and she scrunched her shoulders as close to her body as possible. “Okay…so I guess I’ll do the Shipping List first…since it was the first that came through?”

“It doesn’t matter which one you– sorry, I mean go ahead. That’s fine.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “So this first field is the ‘Identification Number.’ Oh, but I don’t see that in the webform, just this one labelled ‘ID Number’ here. That’s probably the one I want…right?”

Harold sighed heavily. “Maybe I will go stretch my legs. Be back in a few.”

*

“Enjoy your break, boss!” Janet beamed from the receptionist’s desk as Harold left his office on the eve of his six-week vacation.

“Thank you. I’m sure it will be…an experience. Now I won’t be available at all these first couple days, but go ahead and email me about anything urgent even if I’m not responding. I’ll get around to things as I can.”

“Of course, sir. Oh, and Caroline is here.” Janet pointed over to the chair against the opposite wall.

“Oh good. Caroline, I just wanted to check one last time if you had any questions before I head out.”

“Um, no sir. I think I’m all ready.”

“Alright, well if anything goes wrong just send me an email right away. I’ll be sure to get things sorted out. HR already knows to expect your timecard changes, so they won’t give you any trouble about the extra hours. And thank you for volunteering to take care of this. I’ve–gathered–that your family is going through a trying time right now. You have my–best wishes.” Harold’s voice was uncharacteristically stiff and awkward, like he didn’t know how to talk about such things.

“Thank you, I’m sure we appreciate that.”

“I’m sure that you do,” Harold rolled his eyes, shifting back to his normal state of exasperation. “Alright then, have a good night Janet.”

“You too, Harold.”

Harold made his way to the elevator. As soon as its doors clanged shut behind him Janet rounded on Caroline with narrow eyes. “If anything does go wrong, you will not email him. You will let me know straight away and we will take care of it. You understand? Not that it’s any of your business, but this ‘vacation’ of his is nothing that we want to disturb.”

“Of course, Janet. Whatever you say. I’m sure I’ll manage alright, though. I’m certain of it.”

Janet’s frown seemed to suggest that she was less certain.

*

It was the second day of Harold’s six week vacation. He was in a hospital bed, listening to the doctor lecturing him as to what he could expect in recovery.

“…and certainly no heavy lifting for the duration,” the woman said, finishing her mental checklist.

“And the recipient?” Harold asked. “Things are…going well?”

“We make a point to not say anything definitive at this stage. It may be a matter of weeks before we know if his body is going to accept the kidney or not.”

“Of course, I understand.”

“But as far as the actual operation was concerned, everything went well and he is recovering just fine.”

“Good.”

“Actually…I wanted to ask you about something on your registration form. You said you were open to the possibility of meeting the recipient if they expressed a similar interest? Now I know its been a while since you filled this out and here in the moment you might feel differently–”

“No, no,” Harold said quickly. “I’m still happy to if they are.”

“They are. The boy is obviously not up to visiting just yet, but I could go and check on whether the family wanted to come over now.”

“I’d like that.”

“Give me a few.”

The doctor left him and Harold gingerly adjusted the pillows behind his back, careful not to disturb his tender side. He grabbed his book off of the nightstand, but soon discovered that his mind wasn’t in the mood for reading and he put it back. Instead he just breathed deeply and waited. The seconds slid into minutes, and the minutes into a half hour. He was just starting to think that his doctor must have gotten sidetracked when a soft knock came at his door.

“Come in,” he said.

The doctor swung the door inwards with a bright smile. “Alright Harold, I’ve brought you some very grateful visitors!”

She stepped into the room and off to the side, clearing the way for the family to come in. Two little sisters, about four and seven, a balding father with a large belly, and a mother who was…

“Caroline?”

 

That brings us to the close of Harold and Caroline. I mentioned a week ago that I tried to use a more meandering approach in how I crafted each of these scenes. I feel like this looser method made the story feel more organic, but it also resulted in a few sequences that distracted from the overall narrative.

One such sequence was at the very end when Harold was waiting in his hospital room to meet the family of his kidney recipient. I wanted this to be a quiet moment, which meant that Harold was going to be alone in that room. But that detail made me ask myself, “well why aren’t there any family or friends here with him?” As I reflected on that I started to see the character of Harold becoming better defined. He was a man who was alone in life, prickly and off-putting, but nonetheless trying to do something good in private.

I liked that idea, and I added a few lines about how he was thinking of the young boy that had received his kidney. He considered how that boy was supported by a grateful family, which brought on a wave of loneliness and Harold began to gently cry. Then he realized what a fool he would look if the doctor came back now, and quickly composed himself.

It was a nice, sentimental scene, but suddenly it was raising new threads and questions when I was actively trying to close them! Though I feel it made Harold’s character better, it frayed the overall story. So, as I recommended in my last post, I decided to remove that segment. If this were a larger piece that I was continuing to work on I might try to find a way to reintroduce those concepts elsewhere in the tale.

But…there’s something else about this piece I want to talk about: it didn’t measure up to my expectations. There are elements of it that I do like, and I do think it was a useful exercise, but I think it could have been better. The ending, in particular, just didn’t resonate in the way that I had hoped.

Any critic that only says “I just don’t like it” is wasting everyone’s time, though. If something is flawed there are reasons why. I know the reasons for why Harold and Caroline let me down, and on Monday I’ll explain them. I’ll also take some time to talk about why it’s okay to sometimes dislike your own work, and how to move forward when you do. Come back then for a healthy dose of unfiltered honesty!

Distracting Goodness

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Do you like to watch the deleted scenes from movies? It’s always been by my favorite sort of Special Feature to check for with a new film. It’s a fun way to extend the story beyond the end credits, and allows me to enjoy the characters and settings a little more deeply.

But while I enjoy them in this removed format, I most often find myself appreciating the good sense that was shown in removing these moments from the finished product. Even when the scene is a “good one,” it is very rare that I wish it would have been left in the story.

In fact often when I watch a film for the second or third time I’ll start to realize that it could have benefited from being pared down even more. Sometimes the scenes that I think need to be excised are even the ones with the best lines or slickest action. Why? Because as awesome as those parts may be individually, they just aren’t contributing to the whole. It’s like a symphony where a world-class soloist that is trying to play a different song from the rest of the orchestra. Maybe they’re impressive, but they’re out of sync and so they lessen the overall experience.

I’ve previously discussed that when it comes time to cut out a beloved scene, you might be able to transplant it somewhere else to grow into something new. But today let’s take a step back and look at how you can even recognize that a scene isn’t fitting in the first place.

 

It’s Too Much)

The most difficult scene to cut is the one that does something better than any other part of the story. Perhaps it is the most exciting, the most funny, or the most sentimental. The temptation is to assume that a story is merely the sum of its parts, that if it is comprised of nothing but high points then the whole will be greater as a result. This simply isn’t true, though. In the end a story might be more than the sum of its parts…or it might be less.

Sometimes less is more. Allowing a single scene to be a little dimmer may allow your overall story to shine all the brighter. There have been times where a story has blown me away just by how satisfying the complete package was, even if no single scene stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

An example of a story that handled its rises and falls with careful precision in this way was The Incredibles. To me that film was endlessly rewatchable and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I liked all the scenes, but I couldn’t point to a one that took my breath away by itself. Only later did I recognize it was due to how effortlessly the story flowed from one scene to the next, how each of its scenes directly derived from what had come before, how it maintained a steady flow from start to finish. And of course it still had some high points, its climaxes of action and drama, but each of these still felt grounded to the rest of the tale.

Which brings up an important question: what about the climax? Isn’t there always going to be a scene that is more something-or-other than any of the others? The entire work can’t be a monotone after all! Yes of course, but the issue is where these moments feel unnatural. Think of how two waves in the ocean might run into one another to produce a spike taller than either of the previous. So, too, a story should naturally have moments where separate arcs combine into a high point of tension. But if two little ripples are combining into a fifty-foot tidal wave, it is going to feel very off!

 

It Throws but Never Catches)

Another issue that stands out is a story that creates a moment of intrigue which is either never paid off, or never paid off in a satisfying manner. I don’t like to give specific negative examples, but I’m sure you can readily call to mind any number of stories that began with an incredible premise that they then never deliver on.

Obviously if a story has this problem the ideal solution would be for the writer to improve the lackluster resolutions so that they deliver on the promise, rather than just removing the promise so that the beginning becomes as mundane as all the rest. That being said, it’s important to understand that some checks can’t be cashed…by anyone. Every story and every writer has their limitations, and its alright to play within your own.

Sometimes the promise also needs to be removed because the fulfilling of it actually hurts the story. I recently excised a sizable chunk of the novel I’m working on because of how it was distracting from the greater whole. Specifically I intended for my main characters to recruit a dozen workers to come help them work a season in their fields. This seemed like a nice way to evolve the story into a wider circle, but introducing new characters creates an expectation in the reader that they will become a meaningful part of the story. The fact was that I never intended to engage with or develop these new characters because they just weren’t that important to the core story.

I was faced with either lifting the whole story to catch the expectation of the new characters becoming important, or else change the plot so that no new hires would come to join the family. I decided to go with the latter, which meant cutting out significant parts of the plot that I’m still smoothing out. I really do feel it was the right decision, though.

 

It Dramatically Changes the Tone)

The final consideration is perhaps the simplest. One has to consider the times where a single scene interrupts the emotional flow that exists on either side of it. This is different from an inflection point where the entire tale takes a turn into the new act, such as a moment of tragedy that signals the ramping up of conflict. An inflection point represents a permanent change in all of the tone that follows, whereas an interruption is an erratic blip, an outlier in the middle of a sequence of events that are otherwise homogeneous in tone. Though the tone that is established in this errant scene might be moving, it is distracting from the cadence of the whole. As such it should be removed so that the whole may feel more consistent…with one exception.

Sometimes a scene is intentionally made to stick out when its purpose to is foreshadow events that are yet to come. The writer is throwing out a new plot hook which will only be caught sometime later. I am using this particular technique extensively in the novel I am currently working on.

In that story the plot follows the simple day-to-day actions of a family cultivating their future. They have minor setbacks and struggles, but overall the story is very lighthearted and cheerful throughout…except for when the narrator finishes certain segments by detailing his horrifying nightmares. These sequences are drastically different in tone from everything on either side of them, and that is intentional. I know that the reader won’t forget these sequences, and when eventually things turn dangerous on the island, they will feel properly forewarned.

 

In conclusion, just because a scene is “good” does not mean that it is “good for your story.” If it is possible to take the essence that you enjoyed from that scene and transplant it elsewhere in your tale then go for it! But if not, then maybe that idea is best filed away until you can find it a new home. Never forget, just because a scene doesn’t belong in this one story does not mean it belongs in the trash.

On Thursday I will share the conclusion of Harold and Caroline, and in that half there was a piece of sentimentality I very much liked, but ultimately felt didn’t belong in the work as a whole. I’ll explain what that scene was and why I made the decision to cut it. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful day!

Harold and Caroline: Part One

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“Janet said you wanted to see me?” Caroline asked cautiously from the doorway.

“Yes, yes,” Harold cleared his throat. “Don’t just stand there, come in.”

Caroline closed the door and shuffled forward timidly, coming to a stop a few feet from his desk. She had her arms wrapped around herself, as if trying to shrink herself into as small a form as possible.

“Please sit,” Harold sighed. Why did she always have to be so diminutive and awkward?

She tried to smile politely, though it came across more as a grimace, then perched herself on the edge of the leather-cushioned seat. She did not appear comfortable at all.

“How are you Caroline?”

She nodded. A few seconds later she actually processed what he had said. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine Caroline” he sighed again. “Why don’t we just get right to what I called you in for?”

“Yes, good idea.”

“Alright, well that last week I said we didn’t have any of those overtime opportunities you were hoping for… But, I think I’ve found something that you might be able to help out with if you’re still interested.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll take whatever I can get! Thank you.”

“Well, let me explain it to you and then we’ll see if you’re still interested. In six weeks I’ll be taking a sabbatical for a while. I’m not entirely sure for how long, but perhaps as much as two months. Gus will be flying in to cover for me during that time. He’s a good man and he’ll handle the day-to-day things just fine. But he will have his hands full, and I don’t want to burden him unnecessarily.”

Caroline nodded.

“The thing is we have a few faxes that don’t come in until after hours. It’s basic invoicing from the Western shore after the factory closes, and I usually stay late enough to get those. They have to be received, transcribed, and filed before 8 pm. If you want it, then you’d probably be able to pull an extra hour or two each day taking care of that.”

“You don’t think that Janet would be better able to handle that?”

“I try to not keep Janet after hours when I can help it. I’m sure she would be willing if I asked her, but I thought I might as well offer it to you first, since you requested the overtime after all.”

“Oh I see. But would she be better at it?”

“It’s really not difficult. I would show you how I do it one evening and that’s all the training you would need.” Harold smiled. Clearly he felt he was doing a nice thing for Caroline, but she didn’t even try to hide the discomfort in her face.

“So…you said starting in about six weeks?”

“Yes. The fourteenth of June.”

She nodded. “I had been thinking to take some time off myself then, actually…I’d been hoping to get some overtime before then if possible.”

Harold shrugged. “Well I still don’t know of any overtime opportunities before then. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. On your way out could you tell Janet I’d like to speak with her?”

“Well, I’m not saying no,” Caroline piped up.

“Then what are you saying?” Harold said tersely, not at all amused by how she meandered around her decisions.

She bit her lip, and spoke out loud her inner reasoning. “I’ll just have to figure things out at home. I don’t know…but we can’t afford not to.” Caroline nodded resolutely to Harold. “I’ll do it.”

“Alright then,” he said slowly, as if waiting to see whether she would change her mind again. “When we get a little closer I’ll have you stay after hours and show you how everything works. That will be all.”

*

“How’s your son, Caroline?” Betty asked one morning after they had their first gap between calls.

“He’s doing really well,” Caroline asserted. “I mean, well, he’s still in a lot of pain of course, but he’s so patient and understanding with it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “It just kills you, doesn’t it? I always told my kids if you’re hurting go ahead and yell! It breaks my heart when they think they have to be so grown up all the time.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“How are you and Dave holding up?”

Caroline sighed. “We’re tired. It’s really going to help things having some overtime pay, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse. I’ll hardly be there for Zach during recovery at all, but I guess its for the best. I’m just anxious about keeping myself going with the extra hours–”

A sudden voice from behind made both Caroline and Betty jump in their seats. “Yes, especially given that you can’t even keep up with your regular hours already!”

Both women spun around to see Harold standing behind them with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. He slowly pointed an accusing finger to the blinking light on Caroline’s phone which designated a waiting caller.

“Sorry sir,” Caroline gasped, clutching her chest as her heartbeat raced. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing so that she wouldn’t huff and puff during the call. As she picked up the phone and answered she heard Harold’s feet stumping away.

“Tech support? Please hold while I transfer you.” A silent tear trickled down her cheek.

*

“Yes, come in.”

“Hiya Harold!” Lucas said brightly as he strolled into the boss’s office. He was holding a small woven basket with a pink bow on the front.

“Lucas,” Harold said in a measured voice meant to counter the other man’s overbearing cheerfulness.

“I’m not sure if you heard, but Caroline’s got a son who is going into surgery next month. Expensive stuff, and we figured we could do a good thing and ask people to contribute to help her out a little bit. I know it would mean a lot if the boss-man made a healthy donation himself!” He laughed and extended his basket expectantly.

The “boss-man” peered with a wrinkled nose at the crumpled bills already sitting in the basket. “You’ve been going around to the employees and asking them for money?”

“Yes, well…it’s for a good cause, you know!”

“The cause doesn’t matter, its against corporate policy. People aren’t supposed to feel pressured by their peers to contribute while at the workplace. Don’t you think if people heard that their manager had made a ‘healthy donation’ that they would feel obligated to do the same?”

“Oh, uh–I suppose you’re right,” Lucas’s face suggested that that was exactly what he had been intending.

“Lucas,” Harold sighed as he massaged his temples, “the company provides proper methods for those who need extra financial aid to receive it. There is the Family Hardship Fund which provides large contributions each year to qualifying employees. However–”

“Yeah, Caroline said she already tried that but you said–but she was told that she couldn’t get any help.”

Harold frowned at Lucas’s weak attempt to iron the accusation out of his complaint. “She only started here four months ago. Certain programs are only available after employees have been here for a year. But my point was that there are proper channels for this sort of thing. Another option that’s available to her right now is if you coworkers diverted a percentage or two off of your paychecks towards a general fund. Then include a note that you want the contribution to go to Caroline, and I’ll see that she receives a lump sum. That way everything stays anonymous and no one feels pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”

“I see,” Lucas said flatly. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to go.

“And make sure you hand back the money you’ve already collected!”

*

“Well this is never going to work,” Betty scowled as she looked over the flyer Lucas had made. He dumped a tall stack of those fliers on Caroline’s desk. She also took one to look over and quickly frowned. Printed on the flier was a detailed list of instructions for how one could donate a percentage of their paycheck to aid Caroline.

“It’ll never work,” Betty repeated. “It’s way too complex.”

“I know,” Lucas groaned, “but Harold says that’s the only way.”

“What that man’s problem anyway?”

“He hates people.”

“It’s alright,” Caroline shrugged. “It was really nice of you guys to try anyway.”

“Caroline,” Harold’s stern voice rang as he marched into their cubicles.

“Uh-oh,” Caroline whispered.

“Caroline these forms are all wrong,” he said in exasperation as he dropped a stack of papers on her desk. “See that top one there? It’s the order sheet for Asper Co. and you’ve filled out the contact information for Jake Sutherland. But I know Jake personally, and he’s from DeltaRay!”

“What?–oh.” Caroline thumbed through the papers. “I must have gotten a sheet or two off from my call list. I’m sorry!”

“That’s nice that you’re sorry,” Harold rolled his eyes, “but we can’t bill any clients if we don’t know which company they’re representing now can we?”

“No, of course not. I’ll fix these up first thing tomorrow–”

“That won’t cut it, your team’s quota is due today. You need to stay and take care of this now.”

“Oh but she had plans,” Betty piped up, earning a frown from Harold.

“I don’t like asking people to stay late, Betty. I make a point of not imposing unfair demands, but when a team has made a commitment and then they don’t deliver on them that’s on their own heads.”

“Well I could cover it for her tonight.”

“Do you think I hired Caroline for you to do her work, Betty?”

“Um…no sir.”

“If I’m not made confident between now and my vacation that she’s capable of handling things on her own, then maybe she won’t belong in this company much longer! Do I make myself clear?” With the last question he steered his focus back to Caroline.

“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it right now, sir.”

“I’m sure that you will.”

Harold turned a strode away, leaving the three in stunned silence. Caroline clenched her fists, screwed her eyes shut, and for a moment her whole body shook in stifled aggravation.

“That…man,” Lucas seethed. His pause between words suggested that ‘man’ was not the first word that had popped into his head.

“I’m never going to survive doing that training with him,” Caroline moaned. “The two of us alone for two hours, can you imagine?!”

“Well sure, he’s a monster,” Lucas agreed, “but so what? I get him angry at me all the time and you know what I say? I say ‘so what, I’m still going home at the end of the day and there’s nothing he can do to me.'”

“I just…when he gets angry he shouts and I really don’t like it when people shout. If I’m around him I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to explode! I get so self-conscious, I make silly mistakes, and then he must think I’m making those sorts of mistakes even when he isn’t there! And even if he doesn’t shout, there’s still just the way he looks at me. It’s like he sees right through me! Somehow he knows everything I’ve done wrong and he despises me for it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “Just remember that you’re not doing anything for him. This is all for Zach, and that’s all that matters.”

Betty sighed deeply. “Of course. You’re right. I’ll manage…somehow.”

 

On Monday I discussed how many stories treat the protagonist’s biases as gospel. If the hero views another character as evil, then that character is evil. In these stories there is little space for different perspectives, ambiguity, or misunderstanding.

And depending on what the objective of your story is, that might even be the best approach. But obviously for a more nuanced tale, you would probably also want a more nuanced take on the characters. That approach is my intention with this latest short story.

To help with this objective, I decided to not portray the story from just one character’s perspective. By using a third-person voice I am able to avoid having one character cast shade on the other exclusively.

Next it was obvious I needed two characters that were both flawed. I imagine most readers will take the dimmer view toward Harold. He certainly is harsher than he should be, but it is also understandable why he is frustrated. Caroline is legitimately incompetent, though sympathetically so. My hope is that characters can empathize with Harold’s frustrations, even while wishing he would give the poor woman a break.

Another thing I experimented with in this story was to make hard cuts between each scene. This makes them feel more like isolated vignettes, like a sample of everyday life for these individuals. It’s been an interesting format to experiment with, but one side effect I hadn’t anticipated was the significant pruning I had to or else the story would become too distracted.

On Monday I’ll take a closer look at this idea of how not every scene belongs in a story, even if it is a good one. Then on Thursday I’ll present the second half of this story. I look forward to sharing these with you then, in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

Black and White

silhouette of grass under white sky
Photo by João Jesus on Pexels.com

On Thursday I wrote a story from the point of view of a plant, one that was being eaten by an animal. As one might expect, that animal was viewed in a very dim light. It was a destroyer, a killer, and therefore inherently evil. At the very end a part of that plant became autonomous and had a fantasy of growing bigger, more powerful, and then exacting vengeance on that animal.

But of course, had I written the story from the point of view of the animal, then it would have seen itself as doing no wrong. It ate some food, just as every creature does. It adhered to its basic nature. We people do just the same thing, so it would seem we shouldn’t be taking sides in nature.

Evil Things)

And yet we do. Certain animals and substance are considered inherently evil by us because they are known to do us harm. Snakes, bears, and poisons are bad. Bunnies, kittens, and vanilla are good. But from a more removed point of view, is there really anything more evil in a bear that eats people than in a kitten that eats mice?

It is our nature, and seemingly the nature of all creatures, to hate those that can cause it harm, and to love those that can benefit it. We can’t be blamed for having this instinct embedded in our DNA, it is essential to our basic survival. It is perfectly understandable for a person to say that they just don’t like large spiders.

But humans don’t stop at labeling animals and substances as evil, though. Some people are determined to be bad as well. As before, these tend to be people that by their very nature mean us harm. Whenever two nations are engaged in war, we always see both sides labeling one another as evil. This is understandable, even if misguided. The other nation is seen as a threat, capable of destroying you, so your self-preservation instincts kick in and you see them as subhuman.

But we don’t stop here either. Those that threaten us on an emotional or spiritual level are quickly labeled as well. If we hold something sacred or true, then it is genuinely painful for us to hear others disparage that thing. Why would that atheist say I’m wrong for believing in God? Or why would that Christian tell me that I’m a sinner? It can only be because they are evil.

Obviously somewhere along this spectrum we’ve crossed a line. Probably several lines, in fact. It is true that some things and people are bad for us and are worth avoiding, but that does not necessarily make them evil. The bear that wants to eat us is trying to preserve its own interests by doing something bad for us. Our boss that wants us to work through the weekend is trying to preserve her own interests by doing something bad for us. But these facts alone do not make them evil. And though we might be able to logically appreciate the invalidity of demonizing those we dislike, it is still a very difficult thing to stop doing.

Villains are Evil)

For this reason characters in a story are often portrayed as either “all-good” or “all-evil” as well. If a hero has flaws, they are minor and easily excused. If a villain has virtues, they are warped and twisted into something unnatural. It is unheard of for a story to finish by the hero convincing the villain of the error of his ways, and certainly not by coming to appreciate the villain’s point of view. The villain is fundamentally evil, after all, so rational reason would never be able to work on them.

Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.

Undertale was a game released in 2015 that on the surface might have appeared like any other RPG (role playing game). The world is quirky and humorous, but there are some definitely evil rogues that the player has to go and violently destroy. And if the player chooses to, they are allowed to play the game in exactly this way.

But there is also a “pacifist” version of the game where instead of destroying all those evil villains, you can instead befriend them, listen to their point of view, and finally help them to let go of their anger. They cease trying to destroy you, are no longer a threat, and thus are no longer perceived as evil.

When approached in this way the player wins by destroying the barriers between them and their enemies, rather than the persons themselves. One might assume that such a peaceful resolution might lack a necessary catharsis and make for a hollow ending, but actually the game was lauded by critics and consumers alike. But this isn’t to say that Undertale denies the existence of evil.

Is There Any Evil?)

While it is true that our society applies the label of evil too quickly, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist. Children see things in black-and-white, young adults start to see things as shades of gray, and then at full maturity one sees a dual nature: both black and white in the same being. Each of us have parts that are truly good and other parts that are truly evil.

In Undertale the villains are doing things that are truly evil, they knowingly hurt others for personal gain. But so do all of us, and still we know that there yet remains a goodness inside. The player is able to communicate to those parts of them that are good, and by so doing can bring an end to the evil behavior.

The reason that the classic story A Christmas Carol works is because Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a bad man, but one who also has a goodness inside. In the story’s opening pages we find it has been a long, long time since Scrooge has listened to that goodness, so long that he himself has forgotten that the part still exists. Over the course of the tale we travel back to witness the moments before he became a bitter old curmudgeon, a time where he was still divided between two natures. In that past Scrooge suffered a defeat to his worse nature, and then, like so many of us, assumed that the good part was dead and gone forever. This Christmas tale thankfully offers a more hopeful perspective in the end.

Evil Without, Evil Within)

Did you notice that we shifted from talking about evil in others to talking about evil within the self? As I said before, each of us have parts that are truly good and others that are truly evil. At different times, one or the other side will hold the reins of our behavior. So long as it is the more evil part that drives us, we will never be able to awaken the good in anyone else.

When the evil part of us that interacts with the evil parts of those around us, then we are in a state of war. When the evil part of one interacts with the good parts of others, then we are in a state of abuse. The only path to peace is for our good parts to find their way past the evil to touch the good in others.

In Les Miserables we meet a convict name Jean Valjean, and a prostitute named Fantine. Each of them is deeply ashamed of the things that they have done, each tends to view themselves as evil. However the two of them do not meet while both are at their lowest points. Indeed, if they did their interaction would most certainly have been destructive to each. Thankfully, Jean Valjean has the good part inside of him awakened and is redefined by it before he meets Fantine. In that moment he sidesteps the bitter-for-losing-her-employment part of her, he sees past the self-hatred-for-being-a-prostitute part of her, and instead he reaches the mother part at her core. In Fantine’s last moments she becomes good again by having had her goodness touched by the goodness of another. Jean Valjean is only able to do this because he once had his own goodness touched by another as well.

Hope in the End)

Undertale, A Christmas Carol, and Les Miserables all give a message of hope for humanity. Each of them allows that evil is real and that it is the enemy to our nature, but each of them also suggests that evil can be overcome. We must overcome the evil in ourselves, though, before we can help others to do the same.

With my next short story I would like to explore this idea of seeing the good in an individual that is initially despised. I will introduce a character whose behavior is good in his own eyes, but bad in another’s. At first each character will consider their own perspective as being the source of truth, but by the end we’ll see if we can get them seeing more broadly. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

The Anther-Child

closeup photo of white rose
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Nestled in the heart of the forest there grew a cluster of Marrowberry bushes, sprung up around the bases of the Elder Trees. The bushes grew directly from the roots of the great trees, sapping all their nutrients from the undiscerning hosts.

Crowning each of the bushes was a cluster of flowers, each such a light shade of purple or pink that they were almost white. They had velvety petals that never fully unfolded, and they always rustled, even when there was no wind. Hidden beneath the layers of petal was the entire plant’s greatest secret: a little community of living anthers, small and bright white beings, each shaped with arms and legs and a head. They were all tethered to their own filament at the navel. Most days the Anther-people lived in a perpetual joy, deriving constant pleasure from the conduit with their nourishing mother. They waved about inside the petals in a carefree manner, bumping into one another and giggling lazily.

They were never fully awake, after all they were still embryos and ever would be. Life was naught but a hazy, blissful dream. Every now and again one would sway into another with a squeal of delight, and the second would dash away to collide with a third, and so continue, chasing one another round and round in a circle, never pausing to wonder what they did, never understanding any of the causes or effects in their life.

One day, in one of the bushes, and in one of its flowers: the anthers were carrying on in just this manner when a passing Wolger happened to hear their play. Not many Wolgers knew the secret of the flowers, and this was one that did not. Even so it paused for a moment, then decided to investigate.

It turned on its stumpy legs, whinnied, lifted its large front hooves onto the Elder Tree, and stood as tall as it could. Then it felt its long snout into the recesses of the flower, and extended a long, flexible tongue to explore what it could not see. It felt about until it touched against one of the anthers, then it seized down and plucked it loose.

The Anther-child cried out in a shocking agony, a sound so harrowing that it was enough to disturb the reveries of its brothers and sisters. With eyes seeing properly for the first time they witnessed in horror as the captive brother was pulled up into the sky. They heard the death shrieks and crunching sounds on the other side of the petal walls, and then worst of all the total silence that followed.

They barely began to look about in confusion before the rushing sap from the flower’s filaments flooded their senses. It suppressed their fears and lull them back to a placid ignorance. That was its function: to numb the senses, still the mind, and invoke a deep and peaceful trance upon them all. One-by-one they flowed back into their swaying euphoria, their playful giggling, their blissful ignorance.

Another shriek broke the trance and a second sibling, this time a sister, was pulled away to her doom. Again they were soothed by their mother-flower, and again they were awoken when a third of their siblings was pulled to her doom. Five more times this occurred, and each time they awoke from their reverie for a longer and longer duration. They began to cry and stare about helplessly, looking for one to save them but finding no hero in their midst.

And so they reached out with hands and feet, grasping one another and pulling themselves into a communal ball, somehow hoping to find protection among their masses. They held one another close and quivered, but in their mutual comfort the trance was able to set in again. One-by-one they slipped into their fitful dreams, let go of one another, and swayed back into their previous positions.

This time there was no more disturbance. The Wolger was satiated for now, and so trundled off through the forest’s thick vegetation.

Although they slept, the Anther-children’s dreams were not so pleasant as they had ever been before. There were sudden stabs of fear and melancholy, nightmares that made their sleeping forms wince and shudder.

It was three days before the Wolger returned, but in their unconscious state it seemed more like an eternity. So much so that when the tongue invaded and plucked away another shrieking child they could hardly recollect that this sequence of events had already transpired before. It felt like trying to recall an event from a different lifetime, not so much remembered as just sensed. This sense that came upon them was in the form of a dread understanding, a knowledge that there was a pattern here, and soon it would be their time to be eaten, too.

They huddled together in their tight ball again, clutching each other as close as possible. In apprehension they watched as the long, gray tongue returned, just as they knew it would. It felt about in confusion, unable to find them at first. They were so tightly bound to one corner of the flower that they might have escaped, if not for their quivering cries. They were too ignorant to know that such sounds could give their position away, and so it was that the monstrous shape bore down on them, gripped their mass, and pulled until limbs broke and bodies split. With a great tearing seven anthers were carried away all at once. Of those that remained, most were broken and torn in one way or another, and so writhed on the ends of their stalks until they stilled forever, slumping lifelessly upon their spear-like filaments.

Only three Anther-children were left unscathed, two males and a female. They felt the numbing flow of the flower’s nutrients beginning to cloud their minds and they squinted their eyes and shook their heads, trying desperately to hold to the clarity of the moment. One of the males reached to his navel and gripped the filament with his thin fingers. He pulled, and as he did so he cried out in an agony. The stalk grew into his very flesh, and he would have to tear himself to pry it loose.

Still, at least the pain gave him a clearer grip on his senses. He dug his fingers into the body of the filament, and pressed outward in a long, consistent push. Slowly its fibers began to stretch and snap, breaking their hold on his body one-at-a-time. His brother and sister stared at him in horror. They made a weak effort to imitate him, but ceased once they tasted the agony that it involved. They looked at him with pitying eyes that slowly grew duller and duller until at last they fell back to sleep.

With a pop the Anther-child wrenched the last of the filament from his body and fell to the bed of the flower. His small body lost some of its luster, turning a dull white that was almost gray. He seized his knees to his chest as an irrepressible trembling and sobbing convulsed his body.

For the first time in his life he was deprived the sweetness of the flower’s nutrients. Above his head, on the tip of the broken filament, great drops of sap were accumulating like tears for the lost child. He had torn himself from his home and there could not be any reattaching. He was alone and naked in a world of fear.

There was a deep rustling sound all about him, and he stared about in confusion. For the first time he saw how it all began, how the petals shook and then how the long, gray tongue pierced into their sanctuary. The whole flower swayed backwards, and with no tether to hold him anymore he tumbled with it, falling against the back petals, tumbling through their folds, and then out into the open air. The last thing he saw of his home was how the tongue felt out his brother and sister and began to twist itself around their writhing figures.

Then a rush of color assaulted his eyes and he clapped his hands to his face. In blindness he hit the ground, bounced a few times, then finally came to a rest on his back amidst the grass. There was a snap and he opened his eyes to see the Wolger drop back to all four hooves in front of him.

Though he had never seen the outside world before, the child immediately understood that this large gray thing with its stubby legs, iron hooves, rounded flanks, watery eyes, and serpentine snout was a being, just as he was a being. And he knew, of course, that this being sought his destruction, though why he could not fathom. It simply seemed to be in its nature.

The Anther-child watched as the Wolger drew its tongue into its mouth and ground its teeth on his brother and sister, forever silencing their cries of pain and fear. He trembled and his fingers shriveled like dried reeds down to his palms.

By seeing his persecutor he also discerned that he might be seen himself, and he shrunk deeper into the tangle of grass he had fallen among. The Wolger did not see him, though, and having eaten its fill it turned about and waddled away through the thick brush of the forest.

The Anther-child sat petrified. Where before he and his siblings had been motionless in their tranquility, now he was made motionless by fear. What sort of world was this that had come and broken his old one?

Though that terrible gray thing was gone he now felt as though something else was present. A writhing and many-legged thing, one that was inside of him and trying to force its way out!

All at once his anguish burst from him in a torrent. His eyes freely streamed their tears, and he howled in an agony. He heaved and retched. Then his body expanded and tightly compressed. Glistening silver drops flushed out of every pore of his body and pooled on the ground. His body shrunk, deflated, went limp, and collapsed to the ground.

And still his body continued to ooze, every drop squeezed out of him in an agony. All that defined him excreted until nothing was left. Then, after all the moisture was out of him, he stopped crying. There simply was nothing within him left to mourn.

His body was dry now, shriveled. He trembled fitfully in the wind, and if a strong gust had struck him in that moment it would have broken his brittle form into pieces. His heart beat slower and slower, and finally came to a stop.

The vacuum was complete, and now he reached a withered hand and pressed it against the blade of the grass he rested on. He knew, instinctively to breath deeply and draw in from that plant. As he did so a new moisture began to flow into him, something greener and sturdier. Where before he had been soft and malleable his body began to form tough fibers. His webbed fingers fully detached, his formless face became more angular. He stood and he found he was a little taller, a little leaner.

His mind was altered, too. He understood this world better. That gray thing had been eating. Eating was common. There would be many that would wish to eat him. He must not let them. Perhaps one day, if he grew still larger and changed his nature, he might be able eat them instead.

Indeed he wanted to eat. And not out of hunger.

The Grass-child’s eyes flicked open, dark pupils set in pale green.

 

This was a very interesting piece to write. I conceived of it as I tried to think of a story that would be surreal, deeply rooted in an emotion that was hard to define, and might lodge itself in the reader’s mind for a long while. As I explained on Monday, sometimes emotions are impossible to explain, and better suited to be expressed in a narrative that summons the emotion within the reader. When an author is able to effectively craft this experience, then the reader will forever remember it whenever that emotion arises anew in regular life. The Anther-Child was meant to capture the sensation of lost innocence. The experience of hurt, confusion, and the resultant resentment that follows.

Interestingly, as soon as I finished it I immediately recognized that it actually has a very similar atmosphere and style to a previous piece of mine: Deep Forest. But whereas that piece was meditative and escalated to a moment of euphoria, this one was brooding and escalating to a moment of dark resolve. Both of them were meant as expressions of natural emotions, and both represent true states of mind. There is a natural hurt to this world, but also a natural wonder. It all depends on which one chooses to define themselves by.

Perhaps the character from Deep Forest and this Anther-child would make for a good protagonist and antagonist in a larger work. Really, though, I conceived of each one as a completely separate and individual project.

Another point of interest to me in this story is the nature of the Wolger. In stories we most often see things from a solitary point of view, where the good is good and the evil is evil. But in this story isn’t the Wolger just a creature adhering to its nature? I’d like to take a deeper look at this idea of how some stories cast characters into firm shades of black and white, while others try more nuanced approaches. Come back on Monday to read about that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

A Story for Every Day

green trees
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I once had the privilege of knowing an artist. Sculpture was his primary expertise, though he made wonderful drawing and paintings as well. He took me to an art gallery once, and I of course wanted to know his opinions on all of the various pieces. He was quite resistant to divulging that, though, simply stating that if I liked a piece that was reason enough to call it good.

He did at least explain to me one piece of criteria he used when evaluating a piece, though, and I was struck by what he said. He explained that he would never buy a work of art on the same day that he met it. Rather he would remember it, and then wait until he had a truly joyful day. He would come to look at it again in that mood and see if it still spoke to him as strongly as before. Still he wouldn’t buy it though, now he would wait until he had a truly heartbreaking day, then he would come to look at it again and see how he felt about it then. He explained that if something was going to be in his house, it needed to be a work that could speak to him at all times.

With that I understood why he didn’t want to influence my opinion on any individual piece. In the end all that mattered was whether it spoke to me or not, and whether it resonated with all parts of me, or only during one particular mood.

I’m sure you have heard the saying “this too shall pass.” This quote is attributed to a time when a monarch commissioned his wise men to give him a quote that would both cheer him when he was sad and give him pause when he was joyful. “This too shall pass” was the result of their combined wisdom. A saying that has not one meaning, but many.

Some of my favorite stories are ones I appreciate because of how they are able to speak to me at any point in life. Although I also appreciate how I have been able to find meaning in books that once I disregarded. But what is it that makes a story timeless? How do you write a tale so that it can fit to every mood and every day? Well, there’s a few different approaches that seem to work well.

 

Speak to Many)

The first approach is simply to broaden the audience you are speaking to. Caution has to be exercised here, though, making a story too broad can also make it meaningless. A story that tries to be all things to all people tends to be too unfocused to have special meaning to anyone.

But consider how A Christmas Carol works to make Ebenezer Scrooge as relatable of a character as possible. It uses flashbacks to extend its story over the entire duration of a man’s life. So many moments are captured that almost any male will be able to connect with the experience at one point or another. We have the youthful version that has no friends, the young man who has no money, the driven man who has conflicting interests, the old man who is full of regrets. Wherever you happen to be in your own life arc there is an Ebenezer Scrooge for you.

I certainly have returned to this story multiple times and often find it is different scenes that speak to me most each time. For an added bonus, this approach also has the benefit of making Scrooge a more interesting and rounded character, one full of nuance and development.

 

Emotional Paradoxes)

Another approach is to write in a way that evokes two emotions at the same time, a phenomenon that arrests a reader’s attention and prompts deep introspection. A slight variation of this is to evoke the two emotions so closely to one another that the first is not forgotten before the second begins. To accomplish this one must realize that an emotionally charged scene creates an aura that lasts longer than the scene itself. When George Bailey desperately pleads for a second chance at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, the shadow of his intense remorse still lingers even after he receives his wish in a moment of triumphant joy.

This enables the viewer to be feeling both emotions in the same moment, which disparity both confuses and fascinates the mind. If those two scenes had been separated so that they were experienced independently, then they still might have been moving but they would not have been timeless.

When our mind recognizes that we are receiving conflicting emotions it processes how this came to be. It looks for a meaning behind it all. For example, in this particular case one might conclude that because the happiness immediately followed the sorrow means that the former caused the latter. George Bailey was in a bind, and was only able to be happy because he was willing to first be sad, healed because he allowed himself to be broken. That learning experience makes the moment stick. Every time we see it the mind will remember the previous process, and either reaffirm the conclusions or else produce another interpretation.

 

Captivate the Imagination)

The last approach is to ask the reader to supply their own meaning. This is not to suggest that one should make a plot intentionally obtuse, but rather it is an acknowledgement that sometimes stories deal with elements that defy our human languages to fully express. Rather than try to find the right words, the author instead tries to find a way to replicate the right feelings. The reader will only be able to find closure by experiencing the story and then giving their own silent interpretations to it.

Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) is an excellent example of this sort of tale. In this book a man wakes up in bed, reminisces on his life situation, and presently comes to discover that he has transformed into huge insect! A very strange plot follows, detailing the way he deals with this embarrassing turn of events, the burden he becomes on his family, and the tragic demise that eventually befalls him.

As bizarre as the story may be, one cannot shake the sense that it isn’t simply weird for the sake of being weird. There seems to be some sort of purpose behind it, some allegory or moral to be revealed. In some ways these sorts of stories feels like reading through a dream, and people have long believed that special meaning can be found in their night visions.

 

With my next blog post I’d like to try my hand at writing a memorable story, and I’d like to try to approach it with the third of the methods I’ve mentioned here. I want to write something that feels different and even dream-like. Something that is based off of a sense or a feeling that I do not know the words to express, but which emotion I hope to recreate in the reader. If I succeed, then we will be able to mull these inexpressible things together, and maybe some good will be able to come of that. Come back Thursday to see how it turns out.