JANUARY STATS Days Writing: 18
New Words: 6,360
New Chapters: 1.5
Total Word-count: 33,297
Total Chapters: 9
January had me writing quite a bit more than in December, so that was nice. Of course my goal was to write for 22 days, and I missed four of them, so not 100% but I’ll take it. I did complete the chapter that I was working on in the middle of in December, as well as write out one more. Chapters 8 began the transition from the first act into the second, and Chapter 9 concluded that switch. It feels very good to have that part down, and be off to new things.
I have now spent three-fourths of a year diligently working on this book. It took a little bit to find my cadence, and I obviously haven’t hit every goal, but I am consistent and dependable overall. At last I really have a sense of confidence that I will complete this story, and that is a very empowering thing to feel. In the past my writing was a fling that would come and go, and I was always frustrated at my inability to finish anything. Now I know that I will get this done, even if there are momentary disruptions….
Speaking of disruptions, let’s take a look at February, shall we? Right now, my wife and I are less than 48 hours from the induction for the birth of our second child.
I have no idea what I’ll be accomplishing with this novel during the month of February. I have no idea how whether I’ll even be able to keep up with the regular postings on this blog. But I do know that when we piece back together the new normal for our family, that writing and this story will be an ongoing part of that plan.
So I won’t be making any goals for February, I’ll just get done what I get done, and I’ll give you an update on March 1st for how the month went.
It was a dense and gray thing, utterly impenetrable twenty yards in. The morning light was a cool gray, diffused through the fog until it became ambient volume. The illumination didn’t appear to have a single source, seemingly emanating from every direction at once, so that there weren’t any shadows to be seen in any direction. It made the setting dream-like, ethereal and tranquil if not for the knowledge of what was coming. It was a single, mutual death-shroud, draped across them all.
“Fog? How can we have fog way up on this hill?” Private Holt asked incredulously.
“You’re from Minnesota, Holt,” Hastings drawled. “Not all fogs are mists sprung out of a lake, you know, some of them are clouds dropped down from above.”
“They wouldn’t charge in the fog, would they?” Private Dunny asked.
But they would. It was still early when the shelling stopped, and then it didn’t take long to hear the churning of boots. But of course no matter how hard you peered into the gray no forms could be made out. Even the sounds were muted and diffused through the mist, seeming to come at them as a formless wall, impossible to make out distance or direction.
Private Bradley pulled his rifle close to his cheek–Hastings was still in command of the mounted machine gun–and had a brief fantasy that there was no army coming. They existed behind a curtain, and that curtain might as well be an entire world. Yes the enemy marched, but only in his dreams.
“Ready! Fire!” another Sergeant some forty feet away called, and then all the other squad leaders echoed the call, their voices running on each other like the lapping of a brook. All at once the crack of gunfire rang out, and streams of bullets fired into the mist.
Though they fired blindly, sharp cries of pain rose up to mingle with the steady rhythm of marching. Of course Bradley never knew if he had been the one to hit his foe, or whether the man next to him had. So each successive shot was just as much a roll of the dice as before.
Fiery tracers scorched further into the great marshmallow than the other ammunition did. Sometimes they would make it eighty yards before their ember was snuffed in the soup. And then, all at once, one of those tracers from Bradley’s own rifle made contact with an enemy helmet, eliciting a bright shower of sparks against the void of white. Just like that the trance was broken and the threat was real. It had been seen!
Bradley fired again and again. At the end of each clip, as he rammed in the next, he would glance to the side where Hastings manned the big gun. Was Hastings sweeping the gun at the right height, Bradley wondered? Was he taking down enough of their foes?
It seemed that more bullets than usual were raining around Hastings, and the thought occurred to Bradley that the machine gun’s muzzle was probably the only one bright enough for the enemy to see. He was about to say something to that effect when one of those bullets cut Hastings down without so much as a whimper.
“Oh–” Sergeant began, but before he could even process what had happened Bradley dashed over to take the gun. He didn’t even pause to check whether Hastings was already dead or not. He knew.
The familiar rumble of the gun’s handles reopened the blisters that had been forming on his hands since last night. He grit his teeth, pressing his helmet tighter on his head, so that there only existed the narrowest slit between it and the top of the trench for his eyes to rove behind. Ricocheted bullets clattered against his skull like a haymaker, and flecks of rock and mud kicked into his face.
The enemy was shouting now, and Bradley kept expecting to see them burst onto the scene, a thousand men right in front of them all at once. His hand was shaking, and his grip on the trigger slipped. He clutched back on to it, and pressed his elbow against the earth wall for steadying support.
Through his narrow line of sight he could see the first evidences of the approaching enemy. It was grayish patches against the wall of murky white, oversized forms, not yet recognizable as human. But as the soldiers that cast those shadows drew nearer, the forms grew smaller and more like a man’s, so that when at last they did burst out of the mist it seemed as though the shadows had given birth to flesh and blood.
Which blood flowed in stark ribbons of crimson against the pillow of white. Bradley kept his gun on its steady swivel. His arms ached, his fingers bled, and he ground his teeth together to keep his aim straight. He held the line, not out of loyalty, but out of purebred terror. Vaguely he sensed the enemy flowing into the trench just twenty feet to the left. No matter, he couldn’t worry about it. They would have to deal with it there, just as how his squad had to deal with the soldiers leaping in front of them.
Another foe burst out of the mist after another. Three of them all at once. Bradley cut them all down, but in the meantime another five had sprung out.
He took four of them and Sergeant took one.
Another seven appeared.
All seven were cut down by their joint effort, but now there were nine, and they were already half of the way from the fog’s end to the trench.
Then Bradley knew that there would that there would be fighting in the trench for his squad, too, and the only question was how long he held to his machine gun before turning to his knife.
Could he let go of his gun at all? For if he paused to cut down a man beside him, the benefit of it would be undone–and then some–by the greater number of foes that would make it to their line a second later. He would have to hold to his station, and hold to it until he was cut down. It would be up to his comrades to–
The belt ran out again, and there was no more Private Hastings to replace it!
Mad with terror Private Bradley kicked open the box of ammunition and seized a fresh line. He felt the forms of four enemy soldiers spilling into the trench. His comrades fought them while his back was turned. He raced the belt up to the top of the gun, opened the top, threw the bullets across, closed the top, pulled back the ball, and…
There was no one before him. In those critical moments without his aid, the enemy had still made their retreat. His knees buckled before he knew anything, and his arms threw into the muddy wall for support. His face pressed into the moist earth, cooling his feverish brow as his air exhaled in great gusts, as if it hurried to escape him for want of a safer host.
“Up! Up!” the Sergeant cried. “Shoot them as the run! Don’t let them think about turning around now!”
It was the only notion that could have roused Bradley back onto his feet. Fresh fear pumped through his veins, and gave him strength to stand and shoot another five minutes until they were truly sure that no more specters would emerge from the cloud.
“Why–why haven’t they started shelling again?” Private Dunny asked after another quarter hour had elapsed.
Strangely enough, the sound of shells had become a relief to them, as it had proven the final confirmation that no more waves of enemies would approach them for a few more hours.
“You men better stay hot on your feet now!” Sergeant ordered.
In his head, Private Bradley knew that this was probably just a mind-game from the other side. Save their shells, but send no men. They knew the prolonged terror that would evoke, constantly staring at the fog, straining one’s ears for an approach, and unable to rest the nerves because of it.
But what else could Bradley and his men do? The entire value of such a tactic was to leave the trench-defenders exhausted, so that they would be easier overrun when the assault finally did come. And so the assault would come, sooner or later, and a constant watch had to be maintained for it.
Or maybe the artillery had broken apart. Or maybe they really were trying to mount another charge right now, before the fog had wholly lifted.
What else could Bradley and his men do other than wait and watch?
And so they stood there, peering out into the whiteness, each minute feeling like an hour, and going past one-by-one until actual hours had elapsed. Then the deep exhaustion began to set in. This was no run-of-the-mill fatigue, either, they could feel the weariness deep in their bones. Every muscle was at least doubly-expended, every nerve had been fired to the point of burning out. There was nothing left to give.
Still they didn’t dare lower their heads, but they stared forward with blank and vacant expressions, unseeing though with eyes wide open. No words escaped their lips, neither idle chit-chat nor irritated grumbling. They did not live in this moment, they merely occupied a physical space for a time.
They did not even stir when a courier came down the line, passing a message along to each Sergeant. Though words were spoken audibly enough for them to hear, they did not process them.
“I’m sorry,” Sergeant said to his men. “It seems we won’t be getting relieved today. More fighting off to the East and they had to take our reinforcements down that way.”
“Mm,” Private Bradley said. Really a part within him felt very sad about that, but he just didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.
There was only one sound that could pull them out of their reverie, and at last they heard it: the stomping of boots in the distance.
“How are they able to keep sending men at us?” Private Dunny asked. “It can’t be the same ones over and over, they couldn’t possibly get anyone to do that fool charge more than once!”
“Oh no?” Private Holt replied dryly. “Yet how many fool charges have they been able to get you to repel?”
Now there was no more discussion to be had. Once more the trenches came alive in a row of fire, a thousand burning bullets streaking into the mist, lost from sight, to puncture bodies and kick up mud in another world. Another world that was invading on their own, and growing closer every moment to breaking upon them.
Private Bradley’s hands protested as soon as they touched the rough iron of the machine gun’s handles, his blisters burst in bloody fountains immediately, knowing it was vain to try and hold out against the constant chafing of the machine rattling back and forth a million times per second. But there was nothing for it. Private Bradley couldn’t leave the line, so his hands couldn’t leave the gun. Both of them just had to see the ordeal through.
And the worst part was knowing that as much terror as he felt now, this was only the beginning, and that even if they made it through this charge as well, that success wouldn’t be achieved for another eternity. He would have to swallow an entire epoch of trauma, much too large for any man to stomach, just as he had each time before. Each time he had known he didn’t have it in him to see this through, and perhaps this time he would be right.
Even so, that inconvenient instinct to cling to life still persisted, and somehow made him shoulder the burden of his own survival. If he was going to fall, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying to stand. They may cut him down, but that is what they would have to do: cut him down. No one would walk by him easily.
Suddenly the cloud burst apart in a thousand warriors all at once. New troops, fresh troops, ones that had sprinted all the last fifteen minutes to catch the trench-men unawares!
“Oh no!” Private Dunny screamed beside Bradley.
And then, there came the most horrible miracle that Private Bradley had ever witnessed, a blinding yellow light blossomed at the feet of those men and heaved them into pieces. A terrible shockwave rent the air, and spat mud and dirt like shrapnel into Private Bradley’s squad. They were all flung backwards in an instant, nearly buried in the avalanche of filth.
And then another shell pounded into the turf. And then another.
I mentioned last week how I wanted the audience to feel the depth of Private Bradley’s struggles, and how I was attempting to accomplish that by presenting a detailed description of all that occurred to him. We’re now several thousand words into his experience, and still going strong. I personally feel that all this material is interesting in its own right, and so I don’t mind that it’s taking its time.
This ability to stretch plot points into full and interesting narrative requires an unusual skill that I am still trying to develop: that of making lists interesting. When you get right down to it, everything that takes place in stories can be reduced into a series of lists. The overall outline is a list of plot points, the dialogue is a list of information to be exchanged, and even character arcs are a sequential list of changes that happen over time.
In the initial stages of developing a story you have to review those lists, fill in the ones that have holes, and make sure that each item logically follows the one prior. And then, after you’ve gotten everything into a nice and tidy list format, you then need to relate them to the reader in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like they’re just being read a list!
On Monday we’ll discuss a bit more of how lists work in the structure of a story. We will also consider what makes the difference between a “good” list and a “bad” one. I’ll see you then.
In my life I have spoken to people, and as such, I have listened to my fair share of life stories that dragged on and on with no end in sight. People, myself included, are desperate for whatever attention they can get, and deeply reluctant to let go once they have it.
This tendency naturally leads to “embellishing the facts” and making one’s story as grandiose as possible. Because if you can entertain everyone with what you’re saying, they just might let you keep the spotlight for a little longer. Its one of the greatest rewards we bestow as a society, and defines the function of a celebrity.
In my post from a week ago I broadly covered the element of exaggeration in story-telling. Today want I want to focus on a very specific element of it. Not exaggeration where we say something in an extreme way, but where we say something an extreme number of times.
Going back to the painfully-familiar example of listening to overlong life stories, I have often noted how an amateur will try to really, really, really sell the magnitude of their experience by just saying the same thing over and over.
So I doubled up, because I was in so much pain. Like, I’m serious, it was bad. Really bad. Like think of whatever the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced is. Okay? And now multiple that by a thousand and you’re just starting to understand how much I suffered. You get what I’m sayin’ here? It hurt really bad. So much. A lot. Tons…
You can go through the thesaurus and just repeat every term for pain that you come across, or you can try to say it in a way that is succinct, yet expressive.
Let me tell you, I’ve passed kidney stones like the Rock of Gibraltar, and they weren’t nothing compared to this!
So here we’re exaggerating facts more than repeating words, and achieving the same effect more succinctly. Or are we? Because here’s the thing, sometimes you really would rather have more words than fewer. Or better yet, have more words, but make them each of the quality of the fewer. Be clever and expressive, but also long-winded by design.
Letting a Scene Breathe)
Why? Because words can take time to sink in, and even well-written ones can be glossed over if the listener is too quickly ushered on to new plot points. Sometimes you just want to pause in a space and let the audience feel it for a little while. Consider this famous soliloquy from Juliet:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
And right here it could stop. We’ve established her conflict and her resolution. Romeo hails from the worst possible of families, and it would be far better for her if he renounced his heritage. Yet even if he does not, she would renounce her own to be with him. Yet the soliloquy does not end here…it continues, repeating the same basic ideas a few times over.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
And though nothing has been added to the story’s outline, yet the atmosphere of her tormented longing is more complete.
Making Long Things Take a Long Time)
Another reason for letting a moment breathe is so that the reader has an appropriate appreciation for its magnitude. The Lord of the Rings is known for its frequent and rich descriptions of the countryside that the fellowship travel through on their epic journey.
Now the story could have said “and Mount Doom was very, very far away, over a few mountains even! And so the fellowship trekked over hundreds and hundreds of miles to get there.” But even though the words literally communicate a vast distance, the fact that they can be described within a couple of sentences subconsciously signals to the reader that this must have been a pretty unimpressive stroll.
It isn’t necessary to make a 1-to-1 translation, where every single hour of the fellowship’s journey is accounted for by an hour’s worth of reading material, but it is important that reading out the details of their expedition does take some time. And that is why you get many, many long descriptions of the scenery, such as this:
Northward the dale ran up into a glen of shadows between two great arms of the mountains, above which three white peaks were shining: Celebdil, Fanuidhol, Caradhras, the Mountains of Moria. At the head of the glen a torrent flowed like a white lace over an endless ladder of short falls, and a mist of foam hung in the air about the mountains’ feet…
And so it continues, for more than five times as long in this particular example, with only the briefest of interruptions where one character or another comments on what they are seeing. After reading all that, the audience feels like they have gone on the journey with the fellowship! They have invested time and mental energy, have seen the landscape slowly shift and slide, have measured for themselves how epic an undertaking this really is.
This was my thinking when I exhaustively detailed how Private Bradley’s defended his trench in the latest entry of my short story, and how I will continue to do so in the next. I could have abbreviated this period of fighting, and skipped straight to the moment when he retires to bed. But had I done so, the reader would only have been hearing about his exhaustion, they would not be experiencing it with him. Really I want the reader to be able to sense his fatigue directly, and the best way to do that is to make them stand through a volume of words, even as Bradley stands through a volume of foes.
Hopefully this volume of words will be interesting for my readers, though, and they won’t think I’m just rambling on and on, hogging all of the limelight when I ought to shut up and give it to someone else….
Private Bradley was tired even before he got to the trenches. He had spent the two days previous running up and down the medical tents, assisting wherever possible. He had no medical training whatsoever, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t deliver messages, fetch fresh bandages, remove bedpans, push beds into new wings, restrain comrades during impromptu surgeries, and carry bodies to the grave-site.
The entire camp was overrun by the tides of wounded being brought back from the front. Either you sat in the trenches getting shelled, or you took care of those that had been shelled, while waiting for your turn to go take their place. Having two days to see the effects of where they would soon be deployed was a great cruelty to Private Bradley and his squad.
Eventually the orders came, as they knew they must, and Private Bradley left the medical tent, wondering in what manner he might return to it. He grabbed his gear, stepped into the back of a truck, and jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with his squad over muddy potholes as the sound of artillery bursting grew louder and louder up ahead. Then the truck stopped and they were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way, as the road now became too steep for vehicles.
So they crawled up the muddy incline, slipping on their bellies, and sloshing back to their knees, over and over, until by the time they reached the top of the hill they were already in full earth-camouflage. The squad were led to the fifteen-foot stretch of the trench for which they would be responsible, about a quarter mile East, and firmly in the middle of the hilltop.
“Here, you hold this,” their Sergeant said, pulling Bradley’s hands onto a machine gun that was propped on top of the earth-wall and pointed in the general direction of the enemy lines.
“I haven’t handled anything like this since basic training, sir,” Bradley said.
“Luckily for us, the enemy is not aware of that fact. So if it’s alright with you, we’ll continue as ordered, Bradley?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Just be sure to keep it clean, loaded, and pointing down that line. You’ll know what to do when it comes to it.”
“Are we going to be seeing a lot of action, sir?” Private Dunny asked.
“You saw the men brought back from the line just as well as I did,” the Sergeant returned. “It isn’t going to be any picnic, men, that’s for sure. I’m told we shouldn’t expect any heavy artillery or armor, the mud is too thick for either side to field much more than infantry. But there will be plenty of that, and apparently they rush our line a few times every day. Our orders are simple, do not let them through.”
It was a simple affair, but also a grueling one. The light artillery kept up a constant barrage, but it was less of a threat than a nuisance. It was too small to actually reach their line, and so it burst peacefully over the middle of the plateau. Its main effect was to produce enough noise that no one could get any sleep. When it finally stopped, that was the worst of all, because then you knew the enemy infantry was marching forward.
Thus the silence hit like a deafening roar, and instantly every man seized his gun and waited with bated breath, watching the plateau for dirty mounds that moved. On occasion a tumbleweed would blow past and a nervous infantryman would open fire, which would set off a half dozen of his neighbors until the Sergeants shouted at them to get a grip.
Sometimes there was no approach, the enemy had just stopped shelling to mess with their heads. Or maybe something had gone wrong with the artillery and they had to replace a part before carrying on.
Most times, though, the enemy came. Like a swarm of overgrown ants, rushing over one another, pounding for the edge of the hill. Then all the guns came alive, and bodies started dropping here and there.
Private Bradley pulled the trigger and his machine gun vibrated hard against his hands. It was difficult to aim, and he tore up more clumps of grass and soil than he did of flesh and bone.
Still, every now and then he managed to drop one of the charging horde. Then another, and another. Yet on the enemy would press. Three hundred yards, two hundred, one hundred. They started to drop more quickly, and now came the great test. Would enough of them fall to break the charge?
They were near enough now that you could hear their own commanders screaming the men forward with foreign threats. Those commanders knew that they did not have to chase their men all the way to the line, only near enough that turning and running was as sure a doom as pushing forward to the trench. Where was that point of no return? Thirty yards? Fifteen?
Private Bradley’s Sergeant knew this game, too, and he hopped up and down, shouting at his men to hold to their terrible contest.
Seventy-five yards and you could start to see holes in the enemy’s line.
Sixty-five and their barbaric shouts were starting to tremble.
Fifty-five and a few of them were starting to pull back, but the main mass had not yet noticed.
Forty-five and they flinched in unison, covering their vitals with their arms, turning, and sprinting away as fast as possible.
Private Bradley’s squad had earned the right to live another few hours. They gripped the top of the trench for support, their knees shaking beneath them as cold sweat broke across their brows. They watched to be sure that the enemy really was gone, then collapsed to the ground one at a time.
For as prickly as their Sergeant could be, he allowed them these moment to unclench. He himself clambered out of the rut, crouched down, and kept watch for another wave. He had to crouch, because his own legs were shaking just as much as the rest of them.
The relief was not allowed for long, though. As soon as Sergeant was sure that the enemy was not returning he ordered his men out of the ditch. “Move those bodies! Can’t have them blocking our sight-lines for the next time they charge.”
And so they lumbered about in the mud, one man grabbing shoulders and another grabbing feet, and hauling them one-by-one to a ditch at the end of the hill. It was long, slow work, and all the longer and slower when they were more effective in their shooting. They did not clear out all of the bodies of course, there was no time for that, but any that had fallen within the nearest hundred yards.
One nightmare concluded, only to repeat again before a quarter-day had passed. And as it turned out, the first assault had been one of the less successful ones employed by the enemy. Most times a crest or two of their wave would break into the trenches, where a vicious struggle would leave many of the men dead on both sides. How many charges could there be, Private Bradley wondered, before it was his squad’s turn to be overrun by the invaders? And what if it was not their squad that let the enemy in, but the one right beside them?
Bradley wished he hadn’t been assigned the machine gun. With its greater firepower, he felt that so much of the burden fell upon his own shoulders. Though at the same time, Bradley would rather depend on himself than upon any other. Sergeant never offered to let another man take a turn, and Bradley did not ask him too. He just silently added the crippling pressure of it to his bag of traumas.
Eventually night came.
“They wouldn’t charge in the night, would they?” Private Dunny asked.
But they would. About an hour after midnight the next wave came, and this was a new terror in its own right. One could hear the enemy thundering towards them through the mud, yet not see them to shoot properly. Only one shot in a hundred was any good now. So flares were fired into the air, and the black emptiness was suddenly illuminated as bright as day. It was a scene so strange and fantastic, that it seemed lifted straight from the pages of some ancient fairy tale.
The pink-purple tail of the flare arcing against the ink-black sky, the burning zenith like a star of glory overhead, and beneath it all thousands of shifting, black bodies, tumbling over one another, driving to spill their blood in the trench.
And then blackness again and shooting where the bodies had been, and then another flare was shot up and the dark tide was closer. Again and closer. Again and closer. And then they were so near that Bradley could see them even without the flare. Bathed in the cold moonlight they appeared less like black demons, and more like pale ghosts, and only a dozen paces from where he and his squad stood now!
Bradley forgot how chafed his hands were and gripped the machine gun all the more tightly, wildly swinging it left and right in a wide arc, cutting the men through at the chest as he had been taught in basic training. He was getting quite good at it now.
His belt ran empty and he cursed at Private Hastings to put another in while he drew out his pistol and fired at the nearest phantom of them all. Two of the enemy spilled into their ranks, but closer to Bradley’s comrades, who dealt with them as Hastings snapped shut the top of the machine gun.
Bradley grabbed the gun and began harvesting souls once more. His heart heaved within him and intoxicating blood pounded through his veins. He slipped into a death-trance, waving the gun in an unfaltering rhythm as a constant shout echoed through his dry throat.
The next thing he knew his men were crowded around him, prying his hands off the weapon.
“Save the ammo!” Sergeant was shouting. “They’re already gone!”
Hastings was given command of the machine gun and Bradley was told to get some rest.
But there would be no rest. How could he lay down with the promise of another charge in only a few hours more, and with the bursting of shells resuming in the air, and with the memories of ghostly warriors running down every time he closed his eyes? No, Bradley sat in a stupor, but he did not sleep. Though his bones were creaking and his knees were shaking he could not relax the racks in his mind.
When his brain had cooled enough to think, he at least comforted himself with the knowledge that at least things could not get any worse. He was quite wrong, though, for he had not accounted for the fog that rolled in the very next day.
I explained in my last post that I wanted to write a story about being totally and deeply exhausted. The idea for this story began a little while ago, with a moment of imagination. I was coming to bed at the end of a very busy day, and I felt absolutely dog-tired. Not long before, my wife and I had been watching episodes of M*A*S*H, and in that show there are a few times where the doctors stumble into their barracks after more than 24 hours of surgery. They collapse on their beds, sometimes dead to the world before they can even take off their boots.
Well I felt tired now, too, and I fancied myself as a soldier, returning back to camp after spending more than 48 hours holding the line under the most grueling of situations. Such an extreme tiredness I thought that must be, such a complete level of fatigue. Just by imagining myself in those shoes I felt all the more tired, and it did not take me long to fall asleep.
Now I know that that is silly, but such is the nature of imagination. It takes one’s situation, no matter how mundane, and then magnifies it to the most epic proportions it can conceive of.
The fact is, all of us want to believe we are the hero in a most wonderful story. And so our first crush is not just some puppy love, it is the greatest love story ever told, right up there with the likes of Romeo and Juliet! Being turned down for a job is not merely an unfortunate setback, it is an outrageous discrimination, so severe that it is criminal!
Some may call it romanticizing life…and some may call it having an overwrought ego, but there it is all the same.
My own little going-to-bed fantasy returned the next time I went to bed exhausted. I imagined myself in the boots of a soldier returning from the trenches, but instead of exploring my sense of self-indulgence, I found myself curious now to know who this man actually was. What had happened on the trench that he had just come from? What was his experience as he slept? Did he get his fill of sleep or was he interrupted? What exactly did he awaken to?
This story is my way of answering those questions, and thus far I am certainly taking my time with the very first one. On Thursday I will be continuing with his adventures in the trenches, and probably won’t even let him get to his cot until a week after that! To really sell the fatigue that he is experiencing, I wanted to take my time in the grueling work of war.
To accomplish this, I simply came up with a handful of different experiences that he would have in the trenches, but then weighed each of those moments down with a gravity of words. I’d like to take a closer look at this concept: how we give space to the moments in our stories, and do so without becoming wordy and redundant. Come back on Monday as we consider this feat, and until then have a wonderful weekend.
Moby Dick is a lot of fun to read. The prose is grandiose, and the wordplay is incredibly imaginative. If I’m being honest, sometimes the text is so rich that it washes over me thicker than I can understand it…but I still feel encompassed by the intended atmosphere even so. One of my favorite examples of its passages reads as follows:
He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
What wonderful imagery: a chest for a cannon and a heart for a shell! But is there a reason to such thick poetry? Could this have been expressed in a more straightforward manner?
Honestly, it seems a hard thing to do. What sort of succinct, easily comprehensible sentence would have captured the same meaning as the original?
Ahab was extremely angry, so much so that he felt as if his heart might burst right out from his chest.
For one, I still ended up using a hyperbole, that of a heart bursting from a chest, though I wrote it in a far more common form. But even so, it just does not have the same punch as what came before, and no matter of adding verys (Ahab was very, very, very…angry) would ever make the second form as impactful as the first. It isn’t really quantifiable, there is just something about poetry that hits a depth of emotion that can’t be captured otherwise.
Truth Through Untruths)
This is a key misunderstanding between father and son in the novel and film Big Fish. Edward Bloom has only ever told his son stories from his past in the form of tall tales. He refuses to ever give a straight answer, always spinning impossibly fantastic yarns instead. It get so that when the son grows up, he feels that he doesn’t know his father at all.
As frustrated as the son is with his father’s style, Edward feels just as frustrated with his son’s more practical approach to sharing events.
He would have told it wrong anyway. All the facts and none of the flavor.
Because when Edward Bloom tells you a story, he isn’t trying to explain the events in the way that a surveillance camera would have captured them, he wants to explain them in the way his heart felt at the time. As the title suggests, it is the same impetus behind all “big fish” stories. No, the trout I caught wasn’t really 200 pounds, but it felt that way when I was tugging on the line.
When two lovers break up, they probably don’t really think that they will never be happy again…but in this moment that is how it feels. We resort to hyperbole to communicate the truths that actually true statements cannot.
Of course, not just any hyperbole will do. It is one thing to know that the stirrings of the heart can only be communicated by the alchemy of a poet, and it is another to actually mix that concoction together! I desperately wish I could have seen the past drafts of Herman Melville’s novel. Did the idea of chest as a cannon and a heart as a shell come to him immediately, or did he try to evoke that sensation many times before finding one that actually captured it well?
In the novel I’m working on now, I mulled over a particular sequence for a long while, trying to find the right way to express it properly. I wanted to capture the sensation of being condemned, made an outcast, and deemed no longer fit for society. The sensation of watching the world continue, but without you. I wanted to capture that, but not with so many words. After many rewrites I am have the following:
Here you are, one of the base and the damned, the buried and the forgotten. The debris of all mankind.
Now when I consider the prose that I quoted from Moby Dick at the start of this post, I have to admit that my own turn-of-phrase is far inferior. I don’t think my sentences are painfully awkward, but they surely are not exceptional.
How am I to fix that? Well, that’s the frustrating thing about poetic hyperbole, there isn’t a formula for guaranteed success. The fact is that coming up with a new and evocative way to describe something is hard. It just is. This is the reason we constantly cycle back to classic idioms, no matter how cliche they have become. “My heart is breaking” is undoubtedly overused, but just try to replace it with something better!
My hope, and suspicion, is that one gets better at prose simply through exercising it. By trying many times to say things more cleverly, eventually I will.
Story As Hyperbole)
Of course sometimes the exaggeration is not merely a single phrase in a story. Often an entire story is itself a dramatic expression of some underlying theme. James Bond films emulate the popular image of masculinity in a very exaggerated way. Dr. Strangelove lampoons the insanity of mutually assured destruction in an excessively ridiculous narrative. The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents an extreme case of neglect to convey the worthiness of being a good neighbor.
Though none of these stories is categorized as a fantasy, they still utilize extreme circumstances to emphasize their point. We don’t ever expect to find ourselves in the same literal situation as any of these main characters, but we will have moments where we must depend on the same principles that they do. In our own way we may need to stand up to the bully like James Bond, speak out against self-destructing hate like that in Dr. Strangelove, or help someone we considered an enemy like the Good Samaritan. And though the reality of those moments might be simple, to us they will feel just as epic as those fictional stories.
I’d like to explore that idea with my next short story. In it I wish to take a concept we have all experienced at some point: that of being utterly exhausted: body, mind, and soul. The account that I give will eclipse any level of sleep-deprivation that I have personally experienced, yet I hope it will still ring true to anyone who has felt thoroughly fatigued. With my first entry, I will be setting the stage for that exhaustion. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.
Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.
“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”
The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.
“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”
Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.
Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.
What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.
Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.
Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.
“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”
Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.
“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed. And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”
The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.
But maybe that was the right thing to do.
For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.
Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.
His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.
“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”
The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.
“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”
A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.
The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.
The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…
And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.
Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.
Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.
There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.
They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.
And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.
“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”
The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.
All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.
There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.
“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”
Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?
“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.
“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There was no asteroid?”
The man smiled.
“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”
“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”
“What? But I’ve been exiled?”
“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”
“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”
“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”
The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.
“Let’s get you back home now.”
And together the two of them walked out of the room.
So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.
But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.
Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.
As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.
In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!
On Thursday I will be posting the final entry in my latest short story. After the previous post, I pointed out that this ending could go one of two ways, either path serving as a fitting culmination to its themes.
From the very beginning of that story, Jeret has been shown as unfit for society. After a life of crime, his community finally ousted him, sending him on permanent exile to a floating asteroid. There he discovered a magical device, one that could create anything that he conceived of. Very shortly after discovering it, he fantasized about using this ability to wreak havoc on his home-world, destroying those that had condemned him. Condemnation and destruction have been consistent threads through his entire tale.
At the end of my most recent post, he has come to condemn and wish violence upon a race of beings that he himself created. He has come full circle, now becoming the authority that would blot out the rogues of his own nation. Thus he has the same hands as those that condemned him…which also means he has the hands that could liberate him instead. All that remains, then, is to see which path he will pursue.
In 1882, Frank R. Stockton published a short story that also came to a junction. In it, a princess loves a young man, but that man has been selected for a barbaric test of chance. He is placed in an arena, and must choose between one of two doors to open. Behind one is a ferocious tiger that will eat him, behind the other is a woman that he must marry.
The princess is seated in the stands, watching the trial, and she knows which fate is behind each door. She also knows the identity of the woman that has been selected as the man’s potential wife, and she suspects that the young man already has feelings for that woman. At the pivotal moment, the young man looks up to the princess, who motions towards a particular door, which he goes to open.
Then Stockton turns the narrative towards the reader: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”
Do you think the princess condemned him to die out of jealousy, or do you think she let him live with another out of a sincere care for his well-being? What does your answer say about how you view feminine nature and romance?
This ambiguity works because there is still a complete story presented. It is not the story of the young man, his arc is most definitely not concluded. But there is a complete arc in the princess and in the question. No matter what she chooses, the princess has lost the man, her romantic story is concluded either way. The only question is whether she has done so graciously or not. It is a story of unrequited love, and it fittingly ends that subject with a hollow openness.
With the advent of social media, spurned lovers are able to follow the minutest details of old crushes from afar. Do they do so hoping to see their old flame find happiness, or hoping to see them in broken relationships and miserable? Perhaps a little bit of both? If you were given the power, which choice would you make?
If this story had a specific ending, then it would not make you consider your own conscience or question your own motives. In this case, a double-ended story serves a meditative purpose. It is the story of a conundrum.
Choose the Better Path)
But such an ending would not fit my own tale very well. Yes, my story is allegorical, and hopefully inspires introspection; but in the end I want to make a statement about humanity, not ask a question of it. In tomorrow’s post Jeret will choose what he chooses, and there will be a specific outcome for that. I do, though, want the audience to understand what would have befallen him if he had chosen the opposite, so that I can compare and contrast which route was better.
One of may favorite stories of all time is an excellent example of this sort of ending. In the Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life, we meet a man who is very unhappy with the hand he has been dealt. George Bailey has wanted to get away from his quaint hometown ever since he graduated High School. He has big ambitions, and he wants to see the world and do amazing things.
But one thing after another stops him from ever accomplishing that. Obligations come to him from his late father, his brother, his wife and children, and his community. Duty and responsibility prevent him from ever living his dream, until he starts to realize that he will never have a life of significance.
One Christmas Eve, his passive disappointment turns into a sincere loathing for life, once an unfortunate string of events has him drunk, beaten, and facing time in prison. In this moment, where he feels so terribly low, he commits suicide and ends a life of misery. The End.
Well, not quite.
The story makes absolutely clear that this is the tragic conclusion that the story has been building towards. But then, right before he can take his life, heaven intervenes. A guardian angel appears and shows George that he has been seeing one story, when really another was at play.
It is true that George has never traveled the world and made the things he wanted to. But it is also true that he has made a real impact on the world for good. In between his heartaches and disappointments, he has brought joy into a place where it otherwise would not have been.
George learns that his life has been full of worth, if he is willing to see it. But it isn’t just George that has changed, the underlying story architecture has as well. Before the lengthy introspection, a happy ending just would not have worked, it would have felt tacked on and cheap. But the threads are revealed to be multidimensional, building towards a sad conclusion from one perspective, but also fitting for a happy one from another. Doesn’t that ring so true for our own lives as well?
My latest story, as it has been written, is building towards a tragic ending. A sad demise is the natural trajectory of all that has transpired. This Thursday I am going to try and inflect things, though. I will attempt to turn the threads so that they could have been pointing towards a good ending all along. Come back in a few days to see how it turns out.
Jeret was deeply intrigued by this development, and made himself a journal to track the creatures’ progress. It soon became clear that while both the Firlings and Seclings could adapt, the insects were far quicker at it. When he had fashioned them, he had made them as prey, and so had felt obligated to imbue them with greater cunning to defend themselves. Never, though, had he mandated that such cunning had only be used in defense.
And this explained the adaptation that Jeret saw them taking next. At first it was so subtle a change that he didn’t catch on to it. It seemed mere chance that from time-to-time a single Secling would be out, wandering the flowers on its own, a perfect victim for a pack of Firlings. Surely enough, the pack would come, attack, and devour their prey. Then, as they departed, they would suddenly hiss and recoil in pain. Only then Jeret would notice three or four Seclings that had burrowed, stingers up, in the vines around their solitary comrade. Those assassins quickly wriggled away, leaving the pack of Firlings to die.
After this same drama had played out multiple times in a week, Jeret knew it was an intentional behavior. He started watching for how these ambushes were prepared, and noticed that one Secling would land near to a flower first, and then stick its rear legs up into the air and rub them in a rhythmic humming.
That humming would attract any passing Seclings who would land by their partner, and attempt to burrow into the vines. If the burrower found three or four other Seclings already laying in wait, it would continue on its way.
There were quite a few points of this behavior that Jeret found shocking. For one, it seemed to suggest that the Seclings were able to collaborate with one another beyond a basic pack mentality. They were adapting their behavior in the moment, assuming separate roles according to need, and were prioritizing the colony over self. How else could he explain an individual Secling offering itself up as bait so that the Firling population could be more quickly diminished?
Perhaps the most shocking thing of all, though, was that it worked. It took some time for the new strategy to have a noticeable effect, but after a while the number of Firlings began to dwindle. If things continued unchecked, they would go extinct. The Firlings seemed to be aware of their decline, and they became more desperate in their hunting. Each attack on the Seclings was quick and ferocious. They still traveled in packs as they hunted, but would often fight with one another for the greater portion of any meal. As such, even when there wasn’t any Secling trap, they might still kill off one or two of their own number by themselves.
Of course the Balan parasite strove to bring these trends in check. It released its pheromones, both increasing the rate of Firling reproduction, and restricting that of the Seclings. It began to reach extremes, such that only one in a hundred male Seclings was capable of fertilizing eggs anymore.
But the Seclings were inadvertently taking steps to resolve that issue, too. They had been getting wise to their other predator as well: the Impli flowers, and they started developing tactics to eradicate that nemesis as well.
Thus far they had not learned how to tell the Impli flower from the ones actually grown by the tree…until the Impli closed up around one of their kind. And so, whenever a Secling passed by a flower wrapped around a corpse of their comrade, they would fly down to the base of that flower and sting it repeatedly.
Jeret had never put a limit on the range of effect in a Secling’s toxin, and it appeared that the Impli flowers were not immune to it. After being stung, one of them would wither and die within an hour.
At first Jeret saw no problem in this. He had anticipated the Impli having a short lifespan, due to the Firlings stealing their food source, and had dictated that they would spread their seeds very quickly after ingesting their meal. The Secling toxin was relative fast-acting, but still not fast enough to prevent most Impli flowers from spreading their seeds and securing the next generation.
The real trouble was that the larva Balans were losing their host before they could transfer to the Firlings. They were dying before they could progress to their final state and lay their eggs. And as their numbers dwindled, there were far fewer of the moderating pheromones being released in the air.
It took some time for the Secling onslaught to have any perceptible effect, but all at once their reproduction rates boomed back to normal, Firling numbers stopped replenishing so quickly, and the Balan parasite was all but extinct! Before long the Seclings would be the last remaining fauna in the garden.
“Well, perhaps that’s all there is to it,” Jeret said in exasperation. “Tried to setup a balance, it seemed to work for a bit, but in the end survival has to be earned, doesn’t it? The Firlings had a good run, and no one can say I didn’t try to keep them going.”
But of course, he still had that sense that he had set the Firlings up for failure from the very beginning. He had created the species without any sustenance, had then given them sustenance, but then made that sustenance cunning and lethal. The Firlings had never stood a chance!
“If I intervened again…what would I even do?” he wondered. “Add yet another species? And try to keep that balanced as well as all these others?”
He shook his head hopelessly. Course correcting was such a hard thing to do. Alterations didn’t take full effect until long after they were implemented. And so to curb an immediate threat required a powerful deterrent, which deterrent would then carry long term consequences, and likely tip the balance again.
Unless he could make a change that was limited in its nature. What if he could create a one-time effect? Something that struck in a moment, corrected the balance, and then went away.
An exodus. The Seclings were simply too lethal. So long as they remained with the Firlings and the Impli, either they or the other two would have to be destroyed, and each of those prospects was unacceptable.
So they could not remain with the Firlings and the Impli. If there was a divide, then the Seclings could live off of the trees’ flowers without being molested. They would preserve the garden, and be preserved by it. There would be no predator behavior whatsoever.
Meanwhile the Impli would receive a new pollinator, and the Firlings another food source. The simplest solution would be a slight variation on the Seclings, one that wasn’t so ruthless and didn’t have any toxins.
Jeret thought through the proposal a few times. He could see no way for it to backfire…but he had felt that way before. Still, he might as well go through with it. In the worst case, the species would still prove unsustainable, and he would be back in the same situation as he was right now.
And so he started to prepare a second garden alongside of the first. It was identical to the first in its flora: the broadleafs, the tendrils, the trees and the flowers. It also had a high perimeter of containing rocks, and as the Seclings were the only species that could fly, they alone had access to the new area. It did not take them long to explore it, and it quickly became a regular stop along their circuit. They did not, however, entirely abandon the first garden area. Apparently competition-free sustenance was not compelling enough to give up half of their available resources.
No matter. Jeret fashioned a fungus that he placed along the rock-tops in the old garden area. They didn’t like sharing their space with any other creatures, and put out a repulsive scent to drive them away. Gradually the Seclings retreated onto the uninfected quarries of the new garden area.
During this time, Jeret began introducing his new variation on the Seclings to the first garden. He called them Thirlings. Thirlings were almost identical to the Seclings, though he omitted their intelligent and aggressive nature. He ended up deciding that they should still have their stingers, to defend themselves, but he reduced the potency of these. They could momentarily paralyze a Firling and allow the Thirling to escape, but they were not lethal any more.
The tree flowers were still pollinated by the Thirlings, and the Impli flowers were still able to trick and consume them as well. Jeret specified that the Thirlings were closely enough related to the Seclings to be affected by the same pheromones, and so the Balan parasite continued to moderate the ebb and flow of the populations.
And once again there was balance.
Jeret divided his time between each of the two gardens, and each seemed to progress well. The Seclings thrived without any predators, and so the trees and flowers that they pollinated did as well. It seemed to be an entirely mutual arrangement, and Jeret wished that he had been able to set things up this way from the very beginning.
Meanwhile the Firlings flourished as well, in fact to a shocking degree. Jeret had expected them to revert back to solitary hunters once the threat against them was removed. But they didn’t. They retained the new techniques that they had had to employ against the Seclings, and proceeded to hunt the Thirlings with just as much ferocity, gorging themselves on the far more timid quarry. Jeret observed them eating to the point of vomiting, and then continuing with their meals. They had been traumatized by living off of a species that was more dangerous than themselves, and the terror of those necessary walks with death were not so easily set aside.
Of course the Balans had to release pheromones to drastically suppress the reproduction rates of the Firling population, while strongly boosting those of the Thirlings. Rather than improve things, though, it only made them worse. Now there were Thirlings all over the place, and the insatiable Firlings became even more mad! They spent their every waking moment in the hunt. The females joined in as well, given that they weren’t spending any time raising young. The hunting packs were entirely dysfunctional. They would still patrol in groups of three of four, but the whole way they snarled and scrabbled and outright killed one another.
Meanwhile, over in the second garden, things had taken a turn for the worse as well. Without anything to threaten or moderate the Secling population, it had exploded ridiculously, and done so far more quickly than that of the trees and flowers. Soon their numbers outstripped the sustenance that was available, and their one colony fractured into vaguely defined factions emerged, each vying against the others for control.
The Seclings had been instructed to preserve themselves at all costs, and now they perceived their own kind as a threat. They were ruthless, slaughtering themselves off by the thousand. Of course this did provide its own form of regulation, but at such a terribly violent cost. It got so that Jeret could not walk through their garden without his every step crunching upon the carpet of dried insect corpses.
And they did not stay within their bounds either. Though they were repulsed by the fungus on the rocks, they managed to push through to the other side from time-to-time. These rogue groups did not come here to live, though, they came only to satiate their desire to destroy all hostiles. They murdered their cousin-Thirlings in droves, but more especially they sought out and killed Firling packs. Sometimes the Firlings prevailed, but most times they did not.
The animals had learned to kill for killing’s sake. Kill out of fear, out of competition, even just for sport. And this led to perhaps the most troubling development of them all. It took place one day, while Jeret was walking through the gardens, racking his mind for a solution. A hundred options occurred to him, but he had lost all confidence in himself. Every plan he implemented backfired, things only became worse because of his involvement.
Indeed, he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time to leave things to their natural course. Would it not be simpler to just let the species work out their own ruin now? Yes, it was simpler, but even after all the frustration and failure …that choice still pained him. He had felt such a delight as he invented each creature. He knew the beauty that was in them, the delightful little nuances, the reasons that they deserved to live.
But all that beauty was tarnished by this predisposition to violence. It was a black mark that spread like a cancer. But it was only in them because they had been made of him, and it felt wrong to punish them for his own mistakes.
Suddenly all his thoughts were interrupted as a sudden pain shot through his hand. It was a localized heat, which then pulsated down his veins, making his entire arm twitch involuntarily. Looking down he saw a Secling drawing its stinger out of him.
“What? I didn’t do anything to you,” he said softly.
Then another sting, this one on his right thigh.
“Stop it!” he cried.
A third Secling landed on his back and stabbed him. Now Jeret could hear the buzzing growing louder, the din of an approaching swarm.
He breathed quickly and his eyes narrowed. He looked down at the offenders with deep bitterness.
On Monday I discussed the idea of a main character creating their own nemesis. I spoke about how this can be used for a poetic hubris, where the fatally-flawed protagonist impales themselves on their own sword. I also said that it could be used in a redemption arc, where the hero sidesteps the destruction by proving that they have overcome the flaw that set it in motion.
In the past few sections we have seen Jeret work to create a peaceful utopia, his own Garden of Eden. But doing so is impossible, because he is not a perfect god. He is a flawed mortal, and his flaws bleed into his work. He seeks to evolve and adapt them into something better, but it is their violence which advances most quickly of all. The more he tries to fight it, the more his own nature looms right in front of him.
Now we are going to come to the decision point. For the first time the violence is coming all the way back to him. He has been stung by his creations, threatened by his own hand. This makes him angry, and will compel him towards violence. At this point there are really only two ways that the story can end. On the one hand, he could give in to his old nature and attempts to squash his subjects. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by trying to destroy them he will doom himself in the process. On the other hand, he could overcome his anger, forgive the offending creatures, and at last discovers true inner peace. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by cleansing himself of violence they will become peaceful themselves in the process.
I am certainly leaning towards one of those endings over the other, but I will have to write it and see if it feels authentic. In either case, we will see the culmination of the story next Thursday. Before that, though, I’d like to examine this situation a little more closely. We have two possible endings, and each seems a fitting closure to all that has come before. On Monday let’s consider how such dual-path stories exist, and what some of the defining characteristics of them are.
Oedipus is introduced at the outset of his story as a well-meaning king of Thebes. Not all is well in Thebes, though, the city has been cursed with a plague. Oedipus seeks guidance from the Oracle for how to dispel this plague, and she tells him it is a punishment for a imbalance of justice in the city. As she points out, the prior king’s murderer was never found or punished, and so the curse will remain until he is.
Anxious to bring relief to his people, Oedipus vows to track down this killer and bring him to justice. He relentlessly pursues the fiend…which makes things rather awkward when he discovers that he, himself is the perpetrator! Years ago he killed the king in a scuffle, believing the man to be someone else.
The irony does not end here though.
As it turns out, the king Oedipus killed is actually his own father. Why did Oedipus not recognize the man he fought as either his father or the king? Well, because his father tried to have Oedipus killed as an infant, after the Oracle predicted that the son would one day destroy him. Instead, Oedipus was left alone in the wild, until a husband and wife passed by and adopted him.
Thus the father set in motion the vehicle of his own destruction, and Oedipus’s sin of patricide, even if performed ignorantly, condemns the son as well. It is a tragic tale, but also a very balanced one. Characters do wrong things, and retribution finds them in a very poetic manner. It turns out that audiences greatly enjoy stories with this sort of balance. Whether or not they believe in karma for the real world, people tend to like it in their stories.
In my story, It’s Tough to Be a God, the main character has discovered a tool that permits him to create anything that he wishes. He does not appreciate the solemn responsibility that such power requires, though, and in a moment of foolishness, constructs two creatures for the sole pleasure of watching them fight to the death. He regrets that decision, and does not repeat it…but also he has not payed for that sin. As such, I feel the story lacks a cathartic balance, which I intend to correct in the next half of the story.
But balance, karma, and catharsis are not only about punishing characters in a story.
An essential element in most stories is character development, and often a story seeks to prove to the reader that the character is different at the end from how they were at the beginning. An excellent way to show this comparison is to have the character possess a flaw earlier in the story, and by it set in motion the karma that will destroy them at the end. Just as with Oedipus. But then a twist comes, because by the time we reach the end our hero has changed. They are no longer the same person that they were at the beginning, and they no longer possess the flaw that created the karmic demon. So they defeat it instead, freed from the past by having overcome it.
An excellent example of this sort of tale is the Disney animated film Aladdin. In this, the titular character discovers an object of immense power: a genie that will grant him three wishes. Aladdin squanders his first wish in selfish pursuit. He tries to achieve the life that he has always dreamed of. His second wish is burned in a moment of sudden danger. Then Aladdin decides to walk back on a promise he made to the genie, that he would free him with his third and final wish.
As Aladdin explains, if he frees the genie, then he loses his power. All of the façade he has carefully built up will be torn down, and he isn’t willing to lose control over his fate. This unwillingness to surrender control is Aladdin’s fatal flaw. Because of it, he leaves the door open for a new character to take power. Jafar steals the lamp, and like Aladdin, spends his first two wishes reaching for greater and greater power. Aladdin seeks to stop him, but he isn’t just facing a Sorcerer Sultan Jafar, he is facing the undeniable power of his own karmic justice. If this were Oedipus, Aladdin would now be destroyed for having been selfish before.
But then the twist comes. Aladdin knows Jafar’s weakness because it was his own weakness as well: insecurity. He knows that Jafar’s power is propped up only by the genie, and that Jafar’s greatest fear, like his, would be to lose control over that power. And so he appeals to that fear, and taunts Jafar. He points out that so long as the genie gave Jafar his power, he will always be able to take it away. Jafar takes the bait, and wishes to be made into a genie himself, unaware that the power he receives will be counterbalanced by eternal imprisonment. His karma catches up to him.
Aladdin defeats Jafar, but really he is defeating his own former self. And so, his first action upon gaining control of the original genie is to grant him the freedom he had promised. He is no longer required to pay for his crimes, because he isn’t a criminal anymore.
Scales of Justice)
As a reader, we require our stories to give us catharsis and balance. Subconsciously we are weighing the scales, silently waiting for each imbalance to be righted. But while we demand fulfillment, we are not so demanding as to how exactly it is delivered. Sometimes the sinner will pay for his own sins. Sometimes he might repent, and another sinner is tricked into paying for him. Sometimes a sacrificial lamb covers the cost. Just so long as the cost is paid, the story satisfies us.
Quite honestly I’m still trying to figure out how to make the balance work in It’s Tough to Be a God. I can feel that it isn’t there yet, and I will keep mulling it over until I find the right balance. I haven’t quite decided who must pay the price for Jeret’s wrongs in the end.
What I have decided, though, is in which form the karmic demons will arise. In my next post we will see how Jeret, by his own hand, has created the forces that seek to destroy him. Come back on Thursday to meet this specter of justice!
Jeret reached down and scooped the poor, lifeless creature up.
“It–it sometimes plays dead,” he said in fear, imagining it starting to stir, “but then it pops back up after a moment.”
“Really the way these creatures fight is just a game. They wrestle, one wins, but then the other comes back. It always comes back!”
But no matter how he tried to picture it, the creature did not wake. Perhaps once an object came into full relief it could no longer be altered. Perhaps it was because he was actively breaking the rules he had already established for these creatures.
Jeret dropped the animal and picked up the cylinder. He frantically spun it through the air, drawing a haze around him. He pressed his fingers against his temples, trying to recall the exact pattern for how he had made the first creature. He started with the shell across its back. And then was it the legs? But even as he saw the first features beginning to form in front of him he stopped.
Somehow it felt wrong.
He might make another creature…but it would be something new. Even if he managed to make it look exactly like the first, it would not be the first.
Because he had killed it.
Jeret gave a shout and threw the cylinder as far as he could. It arced through the air and clattered on the smooth stone a hundred paces away.
“What are you getting so worked up about?” he scolded himself. “It’s pretend! You made that miserable thing.” He heard the words echo off the ground at his feet, totally hollow.
Because while a part of him wanted to argue that he hadn’t done anything wrong, in his heart he felt he had. In the end, wasn’t that all that mattered? No further explanation needed.
At that acceptance the dam within him broke, and tears flowed quickly down his cheeks. The right thing to do was obvious to him now. He picked up the dead creature and carried it with him as he walked off in the direction that he had thrown the cylinder. He came to it after a minute, then used it to create a rough pickax. He hoisted it and beat through the top layer of smooth stone. Beneath was a fine powder, and so he fashioned a small trowel to dig a little grave. The small creature went in there, and he buried it up.
The mound of gray dirt was unmissable in a sea of otherwise unchanging rock. It would catch his eye many times each day, a permanent reminder of what he had done.
“Demerit number one,” he sighed, then made his way back his camp.
He came to the cage with the still-surviving creature, and he stepped up to it, wondering what he ought to do with it. The thought occurred to him that he should destroy it. It was a killer after all, and forever that instinct would remain a part of its nature.
But punishing it for doing the things he had designed it to do seemed unfair. Yes, he regretted having made it, but it had been made still the same. Now it had a right to live.
But how could it? He had specifically dictated that it lived off of small insects, and there wasn’t a single one of those to be found on this asteroid. He had created something that was entirely unviable. It could not grow, it could not live, it could not propagate…it had absolutely no purpose. Of course, if he had no power, then he could leave it to starve and wash his hands of it. But he did have power. He had all the power.
He could make an ecosystem to support it. A little garden, complete with streams to drink from, dirt and plants to burrow in, and even a mate to perpetuate its species.
But would he also make insects for it to eat as well? Either he had to kill this creature, or he had to make a new life for it to kill. There was no getting around that.
Jeret grabbed the cylinder and started to draw out a haze.
“Six legs,” he said, “half as long as my finger, with two antenna on the end.”
It wasn’t the same as making a victim for sport. This was an insect with a purpose. If he was going to have a garden, it was going to have plants, and those were going to need to be pollinated.
“Two wings, and a long tongue for drinking nectar.”
This insect would have a life. It would cultivate the garden, and the garden would provide sustenance back to the small creature. And when that creature died, its decomposing body would be returned to the garden. It was balanced.
In fact, so long as he was worrying about balance…
“And it has a stinger on its end, which it uses to deter its predators. It is intelligent, and does whatever it can to overcome every threat. It injects a toxin. Usually it doesn’t manage to inject enough to kill off the predator…but it does have a chance to.”
No sooner did Jeret make this pronouncement than the creature popped into reality. That was the last element it had needed, a chance to defend itself. There would be life and death in Jeret’s little garden, but nothing would threaten the life of another without risking its own as well. It wouldn’t be a perfect world, but it would be a fair one.
He would make more of these insects, enough that the other creature would not be able to destroy them before they had reproduced themselves. And he would watch every day to help maintain the balance, to ensure that even if a species started to advance on or recede from another, that it would never totally overrun, nor be overrun.
“Firling is the name of the small creature,” he announced. “And Seclings are the insects.”
Slowly his asteroid slid into the night, but Jeret did not sleep. He had much more work to do.
First he made a plot of dirt. It was a fine, brown powder, one that felt more like sand than the soil he knew back home. He dictated that it sat in a level field, and extended deep beneath the asteroid’s a surface. He contained the whole thing inside a ring of large rocks, more than fifty yards in diameter. This would keep the sediment from sifting away, and would refresh it as erosion wore the large rocks down.
Next he worked on a source of water. For this he fashioned a great hole in the very center of the garden. He stipulated that it connected to a massive underground cavern. Then he imagined water filling up that cavern, the passage leading up from it, seeping out of the hole’s mouth, and saturating the dirt. He stated that the water had a weak magnetic quality in it, such that various drops were attracted to one another. A large body, such as was contained in the underground cavern, would pull all of the water through the soil and into itself. From there it would overflow into the soil above, where it would again be slowly sucked back to the cavern. And so the water redistributed itself, over and over in cycles.
Traces of the water would be liberated from this process by the plants, but when those plants died the moisture would be returned to the cycle. These plants included broad-leafed fronds that reached as high as him, and spread out over a massive surface area. In their shade more delicate, wispy tendrils grew in curls, tangling with one another into a springy carpet.
Next Jeret added a grove of trees. They shot straight up from the ground, but only to a height of eight feet. Once there they shifted all of their momentum outwards, splaying out a pinwheel of branches like the legs of an octopus. Rather than leaves, the tree grew knotted vines, whose roots bristled out from the very center of the tree’s nervous system. Those roots pierced out of the bark, and then sprawled out over the surface like long fingers.
Wherever the root of the vine emerged from the bark, a small stem sat, and upon those were the flowers: pure white creations, each with six round petals, and a deep, deep anther. In fact the anther ran clear through the stem, and clear through the vine’s root, and clear down the heart of the tree’s branch, and also it’s trunk, and then came out below as a single root in the earth. And thus the inside of each tree was a massive tangle of life cords.
Towards the base of each flower were the nodules of nectar, the source of life for the Secling insects he had fashioned. The Seclings would collect in large hives at the the top of the perimeter boulders, much too high for the Firlings to reach. But from time to time the Seclings would have to come down, both to have their daily meal and to lay their eggs, so the Firlings would patrol up and down the flowers, patiently waiting for their chance.
Jeret designed each element of the garden one at a time. He made a prototype of each species, and then repeated the process for the entire race. So first came all of the ferns, then all of the wispy tendrils, then all of the trees and vines and flowers, and last of all the rest of the Firlings and Seclings. He tried to balance their numbers out as best he could.
Jeret’s next few days were extremely busy. He spent all of his time walking about the garden, observing the ebb and flow of life within it, and modifying things for a better balance. At first the Firlings were not catching enough of the Seclings to survive. He tried to counter this by creating more of the Seclings, so that there would be more of them to catch. This didn’t quite work, though, because the insects became more bold with their greater numbers, which resulted in several Firlings being stung and killed.
So he started to design a new flower. He called it the Impli. This one perched itself upon the trees, and made itself to look like all the other white flowers that grew from the vines. But it was impostor, and indeed it lacked any roots to draw nutrients from the tree. Instead it waited for a Secling to confuse it for one of the authentic flowers, and when it tried to feed on its nectar its leaves closed around the insect and digested it. That digestion took a while, though, and the Firlings could open the Impli and take out the partially-digested Secling for themselves. There were relatively few of these flowers, but it meant that some of the Firlings could feed without being stung, and it provided just enough of a boost to keep them alive.
But then, of course, there would be the problem of Firlings taking all of the food source from the Impli. If the flowers could not digest the Secling, then they would die, and the Firlings would lose their free snack.
So Jeret added another parameter to the flowers before they were complete. It was alright for them to die quickly, because they would also propagate quickly. Partially digesting a Secling would be enough to let them spread seeds for the next generation. Then the Firling would take the sustenance and the Impli would die, but the seedlings quickly grew to continue the cycle.
The balance between these three: Firling, Secling, and Impli was tenuous to say the least. One day Jeret would increase the numbers of one, and the next day increase the numbers of the other, trying to find the perfect amount of give and take to keep them all sustained.
After a while, Jeret began to wonder if there was a better way. And so one day he created a parasite. He called it the Balan. It was so small that it was almost invisible, and it passed through three stages of life. It hatched inside of the Impli flower, and siphoned sustenance from it as a grub. Then, when a Secling was captured and the flower released its digestive juices, the acid transformed the Balan into its second stage: that of a small worm. This worm would wait for the arrival of a Firling snout, which it would latch onto and burrow within its body. It would stay there for a season, then press back to the surface, appearing something like a miniscule crab.
This was the adult version, and it would return to the flowers to lay new eggs. And so it could only survive by the continual existence of all three species. And in each of its three forms it could release a different type of pheromone. One for each of the three species it depended on, either to stimulate or repress their reproduction. It released one or the other, depending on how long it had taken for each next step of its transformation to take place.
This moderation finally allowed the garden to self-balance itself. Now Jeret was able to let things flow on their own without further intervention. Now he only used his time just to observe, and indeed he found his self-made creatures to be full of many fascinating secrets.
The Seclings, for example, learned to stop going out as individuals to drink the nectar from the flowers. Instead they would travel in groups of two and three, so as to better fight off the Firlings that attacked.
Eventually the Firlings caught on, and became pack hunters themselves, going out in pairs to break the Seclings defenses. This was a fascinating development, because the Firlings were still naturally territorial by nature, but they would set aside this part of their nature, if only during these cooperative hunts. They were adapting.
On Monday I talked about how Jeret did something intended to offend the audience: inventing two creatures for the sole purpose of them fighting to the death. I also discussed how he regretted this action, and would now have the opportunity to grow past this ignorant foolishness.
We see the first hints of that character development in how he cares for the surviving Firling. Building a complex ecosystem for it is a very long and arduous process, but he has made the life, and so he is responsible for preserving it.
This ties back to my initial intention for writing this story. As I explained before, my wish was to explore responsibility, including responsibility for past mistakes. Jeret invented violence in this world, and it is too late to close that Pandora’s Box. The garden he has created is therefore full of violence, but it is balanced out with birth and life. It is a flawed world, but still one where a creature can fill a purpose and propagate itself.
Jeret has taken some important steps in being accountable for his actions, but I wish to push him still further. Things are going to start to unravel in the garden, and it is going to be his old mistakes that come back to haunt him. And this time, the danger that arises is going to be enough to threaten him directly! The idea of the hero inadvertently creating his own nemesis is not a new idea at all. I’d like to explore this concept in greater detail, and why it captures our attention so effectively. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then next week we’ll see the rise of Jeret’s demons.