Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.
Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.
Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!
That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!
Flip the Script)
Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.
This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?
The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.
Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.
And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.
Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.
But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.
Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.
Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.
His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.
We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.
True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.
I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!
Early on in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Jack Sparrow and Will Turner find themselves at odds aboard a stolen ship. Will Turner is deeply conflicted about working with a pirate to save the woman that he loves, and Jack Sparrow is secretly planning to sell the young man over to the pirates to aid his own agenda.
During their impasse, Jack Sparrow gains the upper hand, and has the opportunity to drop Will Turner into a watery grave. But then he explains that while he can kill William, he cannot man the boat on his own. And so he rescues his uneasy compatriot, and William realizes that it is the same for him. He may not like Jack Sparrow…but he does need him.
This scene is extremely entertaining in its own right, but what I find particularly brilliant is how it gives the audience the thesis for the entire series moving forward. For throughout the rest of this film, and each following one, the tangled web of begrudging alliances only grows and grows.
William becomes a pirate to rescue the woman he loves. Elizabeth pretends to love Jack so that she can chain him to the mast for the Kraken to eat. Governor Swann becomes a pawn of the East India Trading Company to protect his daughter. And Jack Sparrow…well he winds up manipulating anyone and everyone just to wrangle his ship back!
And all this makes for a very engaging premise. Knowing that every pair of allies might become mortal enemies at the next opportune moment keeps us eager to continue watching. Though the films have executed on that premise to varying levels of success, the premise itself is still strong.
Desire for Drama)
Why is this so engaging though? Why do we like to see natural enemies forced to work together? What is so entertaining about volatile compromises? Are we just old gossips that crave drama? Perhaps.
But I think that there is more to it than this. The simple fact is that a story where the characters have no tension is not a story at all. It is stagnant. Momentum only builds when there is friction for each scene to push off of, characters only develop if they are required to face competing ideals, and themes only become powerful when they withstand challenges. In short, if a story features no tension, then it simply states its opening situation, and then every following scene can only reaffirm that.
Of course, virtually all stories do feature tension, which comes in the form of a central antagonist, but usually that antagonist is not present with the main characters for the majority of their their journey. Much of the story, by necessity, will take place when there are only friendly characters present, in which case the only way to have tension is by sowing it among those friends.
Jack Sparrow and William Turner each have a central antagonist in the form of Captain Barbossa, but each is far more defined by the friend-enemy relationship they share with each other.
Tension to Build)
Of course, one should not write tension into a story just to write tension into a story. Do not make your two central characters hate each other simply because that is the thing central characters do. If you are sowing character tension in a narrative, it should be for a purpose.
The first possible purpose would be to have tension that is pushing a character towards their transformation. The character is going through their arc, and the tension is necessary for getting them to change in the way that you need them to.
Consider the example of Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. He begins his arc as a jaded scoundrel who openly admits to caring only for himself. He has to be goaded into every good deed by promises of wealth, and through it all he gripes and complains. He is adding a great deal of tension to every scene he is a part of, and it is tension that establishes how his heroics are forced and go against his natural grain.
And that is why the payoff is so satisfying, when at last he is able to run away from all this heroic nonsense…only to come charging right back into the fray, all of his own volition! It turns out that all his reluctance and moaning wasn’t him fighting his fellow protagonists, it was him fighting against his own conscience. A fight, thankfully, that he loses.
Tension to Break)
Of course, tension can also be sown to break apart unions. Perhaps two characters are able to set aside their differences when their interests are aligned, but what about when those interests shift? It is fascinating to read a story where each new scene might be the moment that the tension breaks into full-on conflict.
For this consider the temporary alignment of Gollum with Frodo and Sam. In their first encounter, Gollum attempts to murder the other two and steal the One Ring that is in their possession. He finds that they aren’t such easy prey, though, and overpowering them no longer becomes an option.
Now the tension begins. Gollum has to be near the Ring, his entire soul is wrapped up in it, but he cannot possess it while Frodo does. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam obviously cannot trust Gollum, but they do need a guide into lands that Gollum happens to be very familiar with.
And so an uneasy alliance is formed. Gollum becomes a member of their party, and the trio continue their trek towards Mordor. And all the while we, the audience, keep wondering when that union will break. We are sure that it will only be a matter of time until Gollum sees an opportunity to dispose of the two hobbits.
Opposite the example with Han Solo, the tension is implied, rather than explicit. For on the surface Gollum acts endearing and agreeable, he pretends that there isn’t any tension whatsoever, yet all the while is seething with malicious intent. Our anticipation for their fallout is finally satisfied in the horrors of Shelob’s Lair. In that moment Gollum truly seals his fate. He has proven the irredeemable nature of his character, and his eventual condemnation is assured.
Sowing discord among your allied characters can create intrigue for your audience. But more importantly, it can be an excellent tool for developing characters, and bringing them through a dynamic and changing arc.
In my current story I feature three characters who have a great deal of tension between them. They must work together as the sole survivors of a shipwreck, but also they are motivated to kill one another to preserve their limited resources. In what ways will this tension develop their characters and solidify their fates? Come back on Thursday to see!
Private Bradley passed the last hour in a dazed stupor. Though his veins still bulged with adrenaline, he could feel the exhaustion lurking beneath it. Though his eyes were open and his breath was sharp, he could hardly he considered conscious.
Men walked before him, but he did not see them. Voices spoke around him, but he did not hear them. A pair of hands guided him down the hill and into the back of a truck, but he did not feel them.
He had bounced around in the back of the vehicle a full five minutes before it even dawned on him that he must have been relieved. New troops must have come, and now he was on his way back to camp. Or maybe the enemy had come back and he was being led to a prisoner of war camp. He honestly couldn’t have said which.
But thankfully it was the first, and ten minutes later Bradley shuffled out of the truck and stood in front of his tent. Some officer’s voice was droning at him, probably giving him orders. Probably telling him to get some rest and then await further instructions.
Probably. But even if those weren’t the orders, that was what he was going to do anyhow. It was the only thing he was capable of doing anymore. Nothing else was possible. He was coming apart in so many ways, that it seemed to take all that he had just to remain standing in one piece. To do anything, to change anything, seemed like it might shatter him once and for all.
And now he realized that he was terrified even to go to sleep. In fact, he was so tired that he didn’t know if he had the strength to face it! It meant letting go. It meant trusting the world around him as he lay totally at its mercy. He had been clenching for so long, that now he wasn’t sure how to release.
But now the officer was finished with his droning, and marching away to other duties, and Bradley’s tent lay in front of him, its front flap waving invitingly in the breeze. Bradley didn’t think about it, he just moved forward. He wasn’t aware of his feet moving, indeed it felt as if he was levitating an inch off the ground. In a haze he closed the distance, passed across the threshold, and rotated down on his cot.
He didn’t bother to undo his belt. He didn’t try to pull off his boots. He didn’t unclasp his helmet and let it clatter to the floor. He certainly didn’t worry about getting out of his muddy clothes or taking a shower.
He just lay down, closed his lids, and let his vision turn inwards.
Bradley was unconscious. Not really asleep yet, but unconscious. What Bradley was putting to rest was not his body, it was the machine. He was powering it down. Its vise-like grip slowly unclenched. And now, at last, his mind and body had room enough to start going to work on themselves. Now, at last, all the things that he had been stifling inside began to worm their way out.
First came a series of shivers. They began across his brow, then worked their way down his body, all the way to the feet. They were involuntary shudders, earthquakes in his bones. It was his body loosening out all of the tension that he had so strictly maintained all these hours. Every inch of skin had to be shaken out and made to feel again.
Next came the sweating. Tension and strain had built up a lot of heat in Bradley, and it had to be cooled. There was so much hate and fear that had to be flushed out as well. So each of his pores opened and baptized his body with purifying water. All the grime that had been clogging him up was washed away.
Then came the crying. Bradley’s chest heaved up and down and tears tracked down his cheeks. His mouth opened wide, and through it he gave a series of long, shuddering exhales. No moans came with them, for when one wails audibly they are giving expression to their traumas, and Bradley’s mourning was too deep to be given any names. They could only be breathed, spilled out of him, a thousand at a time, in a heavy torrent.
At last the body had unlocked itself. Bradley’s survival grip was broken, and now he could feel again. Thus he finally realized how uncomfortable he was in his bed. His boots were tight and heavy, and he worked to take them off. He was still mostly unconscious, and unable to wake enough to take remove them properly. Instead he just idly swatted his hand at them every few minutes over the next hour until they were finally teased off an inch at a time. At last they fell to the ground with heavy thuds.
Then his fingers reached up to his chin and fumbled with the strap of his helmet. It too clattered to the ground. He rolled over and the lapel of his jacket dug at his wounded shoulder. He winced, and undid his belt, then shrugged the jacket away.
Now he was cold, and his hands found the blanket and pulled it up to his chin. His body curled up into the fetal position, and he reverted into his most primal instincts. Now his dreams began.
Strange, abstract shapes and colors came first. Black and red, jagged and sharp. They fluctuated and danced into one another without meaning. Then, slowly, they settled into something comprehensible. Bradley saw that they were a seascape of blood waves, reaching like teeth high into the air. So high that they pierced into the onyx tapestry of thunderclouds that made up the entire sky. And where the two bodies collided into one another there oozed out a thick mud.
Bradley was aware of himself in this space. He was soaring towards the horizon where the two dread masses converged into one. Would he be drowned in the waves or would he be dissipated in the mist? Either way, he would surely then be oozed out the dark mud between.
“Please, no!” he cried. “I fought, I won, I get to go home.”
You fought, you won, this is your home a thunderous voice boomed from the heavens. Claim the spoils of your victory!
And then Bradley saw. He was the waves and he was the cloud. He was the squeezing, choking vise that must grind wayward sea explorers between his iron mills. He saw puny sailors rolling across his undulating belly, eyes wide and full of fear. He hated them for their smallness. Hated them for their fear.
Bradley sneered and swelled himself, rushing his two halves together and bursting the vessels apart like juicy grapes. He hated them for being weak enough to be consumed by him. Hated them for dying while he lived.
And though he would dare not admit it, he feared them too. They looked at him with such terror, but why? How did they not see that they had just as much power to kill him, too?
The dream turned. He was still a phantom of black and red, but now in a loose bodily form, and he was sprinting between the walls of an eternal labyrinth. One did not try to escape a place as this. Once consigned here it was your home forever. And your tomb.
Around every few bends he came across one of the dread, blue sailors. He screamed at them and burst himself forth, trying to drown them in his depths before they could crush him.
One of them rounded the bend and hesitated. That was his undoing, Bradley snuffed him out in an instant. Bradley rounded the bend on another and the two of them burst themselves on one another at the same moment. The blow of that other was strong, but Bradley bluffed a laugh through quivering lips. The sailor drew back at that, and believed that Bradley might have some hidden secret that gave him the confidence to laugh. That moment of weakness doomed him. The man succumbed to the momentum of his despair, and knelt down and hung his head. Bradley quaked him into the ground.
It was a game of chicken. The first to show fear lost. To flinch, to admit your terror, was your own undoing. If Bradley could make them believe he was more powerful than they, then it would be so.
This is all that magic and witches are, the great voice boomed again. A spell is only of effect when the victim believes in it. Make them believe their doom and it will be so.
And what if they were made to believe in hope? Bradley wondered. Did magic work that way, too? Was Sergeant a mage? Had he cast a spell on Bradley to make him believe that he could survive that last night? Made a reality of a fiction? Convinced Bradley of it, but then died because he did not believe in it himself?
Why did Bradley get to live while the others did not? Some days he would say that it was just a matter of dumb luck, but he knew that that was not the entire story. He really felt there was some truth to this notion of overwhelming the will of others to live with your own. That will to live was like a muscle, and in some men it was stronger than others. And why was Bradley’s will to live stronger than many others? He did not know. Maybe he was just born that way. Maybe he was bewitched by Sarge’s speech. Maybe a million things. He had it though, and it was his blessing. Or perhaps his curse.
At this point Bradley turned over and nearly awoke. A faint thought crossed his mind that he was starving, filthy, and in need of a doctor to examine his shoulder. Yes, alright, he would take care of all those things. But first a little more sleep. He had denied his body this rest for too long, and now the time had come to pay the tab.
So instead he ground deeper into his pillow, pulled the blanket tight with earnest, and muscled his way back into deeper waves of sleep. The dreams here were more erratic and fanciful than before. Every now and then a vision from the trenches would arise, such as one where he was laying traps a pack of wolves that was also hunting him, but more so they were abstract and bizarre, such as one where he was carving faces into potatoes to try and get them to speak to him.
All the while men came and left from the tent. Trucks rolled by outside. Orders were shouted and people scrambled to fulfill them. None of them could break his trance, though, and everyone knew better than to wake the men that had come back from the line.
How much time passed was impossible to tell. Bradley had missed two full nights of sleep, and he more than made up for them now. When at last his eyes opened there was sunlight outside, so that he mistakenly thought that it was still the same day as when he had first laid head to pillow.
For a full hour he laid without any more movement than the occasional blink of his eyes. Indeed when he first opened them he did not realize that they were open. He just stared blankly ahead as the room slowly swam into conscious focus. He stared, and he listened. And at first the sounds seemed far-off and random, totally devoid of any word or meaning. But as his hearing also came into conscious focus he realized that there was an unusual rhythm to what he heard.
The camp had always been a busy place, but somehow it was even more so now. Trucks were rumbling by in a constant procession, voices were ringing over one another in a chorus of commands. Feet were running every direction at once. What on earth was going on out there?
Bradley rose to his feet, waited a minute for the resultant light-headedness to pass, then stepped out into the sun. If things had sounded active, they looked even more so! Most of the tents were being disassembled, the large medical pavilion was being brought down even now. Everything was being tied down, bundled up, and thrown into the back of trucks.
“Our line’s been broken!” Bradley hissed in horror. “We’re retreating!”
But even as he said that, he realized that couldn’t be right. Because even with all the hasty hustle and bustle, the men were smiling and laughing, clinking together glasses of champagne scurried up from who-knew-where.
“What is this?” Bradley caught a soldier by the arm as he passed by.
“Oh you’re a mess,” the man said, looking up and down Bradley’s filth-caked clothing. “And we’ve just taken down the showers, so you’ll just have to sail that way!”
“Sail? What are you talking about? Where is everyone going?”
The man cocked his head in utter bewilderment. “Do you really not know? You haven’t heard?”
Bradley shook his head.
“The war is over man! The old men back home have signed a treaty!”
Bradley released the man’s shoulder and stood with mouth agape. Could it be? He looked about himself in a stupor. It seemed too much to believe…yet here was his entire company beating a joyful march back home.
Two airplanes buzzed overhead, and Bradley watched them soar by. They were followed by a dozen more, all making way for the coast.
Bradley smiled and shook his head. He had slept clean through the end of the war. “So you were right all along, Sarge,” he muttered. Then he turned, and followed the procession away from that place.
And that brings us to the conclusion of The Soldier’s Last Sleep! On Monday we discussed the idea of a final act prolonging the themes of the story’s climax. Previously we experienced the rousing apex of action where Bradley defended the trench through the last night of his shift. That sequence concluded, and today I sloped the story into a long tail before the finish.
In this final act I have used Bradley’s subconscious to reiterate the themes of my story to the reader. Even as his subconscious is trying to process the events within him, I am doing the same thing for the audience. Through this I emphasize the ideas of force of will, of trying to control oneself with a vise-like grip, and the toll, physical and mental that comes with that. I speak of tension and release. I point out the idea of men overpowering one another by a show of strength, or more accurately by a facade of strength. I finish up with a discussion of influence and inspiration, which suggests a more gentle way to impose one’s will upon another.
And then, to cap it all off, I talk about the calm after the storm. For after each charge of the enemy came respite, after the fog came clear skies, and after the war there must come peace. Which was meant as a meta-commentary on the calm-final-act-after-the-climax-of-a-story theme from Monday.
This dream sequence that I concluded with also allowed me a pleasant opportunity to delve deep into the rabbit hole. Throughout the story I presented the story with dramatic prose, painting the scene of war as some sort of exaggerated fantasy. That same idea is more deeply explored in Bradley’s unconscious visions, where fantasy finally becomes his reality. With my next blog post I’d like to go deeper into this idea of going deeper. I want to consider how a story can present an idea, and then really dive into the meat of it. Come back Monday to hear about that, and have a wonderful weekend in the meantime!
Last week I mentioned that a story can often be broken into a series of lists. The most obvious of these is a list of sequential events, which give the scenes from start to finish.
Open on an idyllic village
Villain comes and lays waste to it
One character escapes, but collapses out in the desert
He awakens in a strange home, having been rescued by an old sage
After he has recovered, that sage takes him for refuge to a foreign village
Once more, the enemy forces arrive to sack the city
Another set of lists would be that of character-arcs, which might show the gradual progression of simpletons into heroes.
Our main character begins without any concern for the world at large
The loss of his home and loved ones helps him to see that the broader strokes of the world are invading his life, whether he likes it or not
He still needs a final push before accepting his destiny, which occurs when the old man urges him to stand up for what is right, but he refuses, inadvertently opening the door for that man’s death
At some point in the planning process an author takes each of these individual strands, and tries weaving them together in a story. At this point you might get more granular lists, such as the information that needs to be passed in a piece of dialogue.
The hero comes to the conversation, trying to justify why he is running away, and why the old man should as well.
The old man is nonplussed, says that if the boy has already made his determination then he ought to get a move on.
Something is gnawing away at the boy, though: his conscience. He doesn’t just want the master to excuse him, he wants the master to absolve him of his guilt, which obviously isn’t going to happen.
So the boy gets angry and reveals a hidden wound. He asks the old man where he was when the boy’s village got sacked. Where was honor and dignity then?
And as you see, we’re already well on our way towards a completed story, even before we’ve written a single word of dialogue or described any scenery. It is interesting to note that for all of the details we do have, this story could still exist in a plethora of different times and settings. All that we really have are the lists, a skeletal framework which could be covered in many clothes.
Making a List Interesting)
Of course, it is easy to write a list, but far more difficult to write an interesting one. And it is even more difficult to weave individual threads, even if they are good, into a cohesive whole. It takes time to get this foundation right, but if you do, it will pay rich dividends down the road. Here are two things to remember if your outlines are feeling a little flat.
Let’s consider the sample plot points I provided above. We began in a tranquil village, then we destroyed it, then we had the lone survivor awaken in a foreign environment. Each point escalates the boy’s situation and the list feels far better for it. If things were to start at the climax, and then moved towards flatness, things would feel off. Once our sense of suspense has been raised, we expect it to continue on.
The same escalation was also at work in the conversation outline as well. The boy begins by trying to justify himself, is denied the absolution he seeks, and escalates to wounded rage. Many scenes start in a quiet place, get agitated, and see the characters leave in a huff. This escalation does not necessarily capture the ebb and flow of real life, but it does result in a more arresting narrative.
With conflict I do not just mean war and violence, but rather weaving together different threads so that competing desires come to an impasse with one another. In the boy’s argument with the master we have the elder’s need to stand up for what’s right, and the boy’s need to run from his fears. Presumably the story would have already hinted at this tension in prior scenes, and this moment is where that conflict finally reaches a breaking point between them.
But also note that there can be conflict within a single thread as well. With my second list, that detailing the arc of just the boy, we can feel how he is of two minds about what he should do. The invasion of an army and the argument with his master are only personifications of his fighting with his own conscience.
Tension and escalation are key to writing a compelling story, and they should permeate even the highest level of an outline. The careful and intentional inclusion of them is one of the reasons why fictional narratives feel more vibrant and interesting than most historical summaries.
Dressing it Up)
Once you have a good skeleton, then you need to get some meat on those bones. Because in the end people don’t pick up a book to read a list, they want to read a story. Lists are rigid and artificial, stories feel organic and alive. One way to obfuscate the existence of a list is to make it too complex to recognize it as such. This should be a core consideration when weaving all those multiple threads together for your story. Is there enough variation that the reader doesn’t see the trees through the forest?
Another way to make a story feel more organic is to allow wiggle room within your rigidly defined structure. So let’s take my theoretical story from above. Remember that the master and young boy escaped to an idyllic village, which is then beset by the same enemy horde that destroyed the boy’s village. This leads to the confrontation between master and pupil, where the boy wants to run out of fear and the master wants to stay and help a lost cause.
All that is well and fine, but between the plot points of arrive at village and enemy horde comes to destroy it there could be any number of organic interludes. Perhaps the two are treated to a peaceful respite, where for a moment the boy is allowed to believe that his problems are behind him. Maybe he starts flirting with a street vendor’s daughter, which arc will be tragically cut short when the enemy horde arrives. Any number of things might happen, which serve to develop character, establish tone, and also to hide the transition from Plot Point A to B.
On Thursday I’ll be posting the next entry in my short story The Soldier’s Last Sleep. Try to pick out the list structure for how one event follows another in the trenches. Watch for how there is an escalation of danger, as well as how Private Bradley and the larger military organization feel the tension of clashing priorities. Last of all, take a look at how I smooth the shift from one point in the plot to the next. I hope this is helpful, and I’ll see you there!
This last Thursday I shared the first part of a story, in which a small band attacked a military caravan. This assault resulted in a few moments of violence, including people being shot, an arm being severed, and a man being stabbed in the chest.
Now I did not dwell on any bloody or gory details, but I am aware that the mind can readily supply them to the imaginative reader. On the other hand, the more conservative mind will be able to envision these details as happening “off-screen,” and thus be spared any gruesome visuals.
I personally prefer this approach to violence in a story. I am one of those “conservative readers” that simply does not care for strong depictions of harm. Therefore I am quite appreciative when a writer doesn’t try to force unwelcome images in my mind.
And yet I do still write stories that feature violence. I have published quite a few pieces here that include monsters and killing. Terrible things have happened in my stories, though I have tried to not describe them in explicit detail. Is that hypocritical? Does it really make sense to avoid violent descriptions for actions that are inherently violent? And just why do I feel the need to include any scenes of violence in my stories at all?
Why Include Violence)
We might expand that question to why do so many stories feel the need in include violence? There’s no denying that the mainstream media is saturated with all manners of death and destruction, and it has been so for quite some time. Are we a sadistic race of psychopaths that require violence simply to be entertained?
I think not. Certainly scenes of action give us a boost of adrenaline, which can become an addictive experience. Certainly there are those that crave violence for its own sake, and certainly we have shameful examples of how this has been exploited in our past. We may feel far removed from ancient Rome, but let us not forget it was our own race that made sport of gladiators killing one another. We should be very conscious of these unhealthy trends, and we should take great care for what behavior our stories promote.
All that being said, these are not the reasons why I either write or consume media that contain mild depictions of violence. Nor do I believe these are the reasons why most authors and audience-members do. The real reason is actually much more basic.
We have violence in our stories because conflict is a central theme to them. Almost always we have characters, we have an opposition, and therefore heat and friction between them. Violence is simply one of the most straightforward ways of depicting that conflict, in fact one might argue that it is the only way.
I have written several stories which might appear to be devoid of any violence. Consider The Storm, Harold and Caroline, and most recently Hello, World. In these stories no one gets shot, no one dies, no one so much as slaps another.
But if you think about it, even these stories do feature a sort of violence. They include people that make one another feel angry or sad, which is an emotional violence. They have characters that wish ill on one another, which could be considered a mental violence. They even speak criticisms and threats to one another, which is certainly a form of verbal violence. The only line that they all stay behind is that there is no physical violence in them.
Levels of Conflict)
This would seem to suggest that violence is inherent in conflict, though it may not always be physical. And there are degrees of violence, which seem to directly correlate with the level of conflict in the story. A tale with deeper conflict most often has stronger depictions of violence.
Thus the question of to what extent a story should show violence is simply a matter of to what degree the conflict warrant it. One of my stories, A Minute at a Time, is about a father who is trying to care for his sick child. There is friction between them and each is frustrated and exhausted, but also they still love each other. They have a conflict of opinions, but it is very tame and the story features absolutely no physical violence.
Glimmer, on the other hand, was an epic between the forces of good and evil. The protagonist holds to a worthy cause, even as the opposition escalates to a frightful degree in front of her. The tension and inherent conflict is extremely high, thus it only felt fitting for it to conclude with a violent fight to the death.
Maintaining Proper Focus)
Does this mean that any level of violence might be appropriate for a story, just so long as the underlying conflict is strong enough? Any answer here can only be subjective, but my personal opinion is no.
I personally believe that there comes a point where violence exceeds any level of communicable conflict. A scene that is horrifically gruesome no longer seems to be connecting to any narrative arc, it has just become a spectacle unto itself. One has to wonder what are the moral implications of a scene that chooses violence as both its means and ends.
Aside from any ethical question, there is also a functional aspect to it, too. A story that elevates any spectacle too far will undermine whatever greater meaning it was meant to convey. When the audience walks out of the theater, does the director want them to be discussing the jokes, the CGI, the violence, or the sex? Or do they want them to be discussing its message?
It’s a very fine line to walk, a balancing act that takes great care. Especially given what we have already said about how violence is very closely coupled with conflict. In all of my stories I want the focus to be on the conflict, because I have found that it is only in the conflict that anything a story is going to say will be said.
So how do I find that balance? How do I include the appropriate level of violence so as to communicate the underlying conflict, but also not go so overboard as to smother that conflict’s message?
My approach with Shade has simply been to be quite clinical about it all. I state that the violence happened, but I do not delve into the details. I leave it up to the reader’s mind to then choose the appropriate visualization to match the themes that they are sensing in the story. It’s certainly not the only possible approach, but I hope that it is serving the story well.
In my next post I will share the second section of the story, in which the physical violence will take a back seat as we spell out all the layers of conflict and tension. My hope is that those details will ring true because of how I setup for it with the first part of the tale. In either case, come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
“Alright, and that’s the Shipping List, the last of the reports. Once you see all three documents you know you’ve got them all.” Harold picked the still-warm papers off of the fax machine and walked with Caroline over to the computer.
“It doesn’t really matter if you know their names,” Harold sighed. “Just make sure you get all three. Then you’ll come over to the computer. I’ve already created a guest account for you to login under. The username is ‘caroline’ in all lower-case. And the password is ‘enilorac’ which is just your name backwards, see?”
“Oh let me write that down.”
“Sure…Now as you can see there’s hardly anything here on the desktop. Just the shortcut for the web browser. And when you open that it should automatically load the two tabs you’re going to need. Just in case you ever open it and they aren’t already open you should probably write down these URLs.”
Caroline scribbled furiously.
“This first one is where you enter the information. See I choose the date first, then I get a form. Each field has a corresponding one on the paper, you just copy the values over. It’s very simple. Then this other one is the email. Here you’ll just need to send me an email with a few of the values from the faxes. The ones that I’m highlighting right now.” He pulled out a marker and began to run it across the pages. “Any questions?”
Caroline shook her head.
“Alright, then why don’t you go ahead and try it? I’ll watch and see that you do it right.”
“Oh…me? Already? Don’t you think I should watch how you do it first?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary Caroline, this is literally just transcribing from one form into another.”
“Oh, of course…Well I’m sure you have some other work you want be doing. How about you take care of that while I work on this, and then you can come back to check it afterwards.”
“Caroline…” Harold said testily.
“Of course…sorry.” Caroline pulled the keyboard over to her and began tapping away. She could feel Harold’s unflinching gaze on her, and she scrunched her shoulders as close to her body as possible. “Okay…so I guess I’ll do the Shipping List first…since it was the first that came through?”
“It doesn’t matter which one you– sorry, I mean go ahead. That’s fine.”
“Okay,” she said softly. “So this first field is the ‘Identification Number.’ Oh, but I don’t see that in the webform, just this one labelled ‘ID Number’ here. That’s probably the one I want…right?”
Harold sighed heavily. “Maybe I will go stretch my legs. Be back in a few.”
“Enjoy your break, boss!” Janet beamed from the receptionist’s desk as Harold left his office on the eve of his six-week vacation.
“Thank you. I’m sure it will be…an experience. Now I won’t be available at all these first couple days, but go ahead and email me about anything urgent even if I’m not responding. I’ll get around to things as I can.”
“Of course, sir. Oh, and Caroline is here.” Janet pointed over to the chair against the opposite wall.
“Oh good. Caroline, I just wanted to check one last time if you had any questions before I head out.”
“Um, no sir. I think I’m all ready.”
“Alright, well if anything goes wrong just send me an email right away. I’ll be sure to get things sorted out. HR already knows to expect your timecard changes, so they won’t give you any trouble about the extra hours. And thank you for volunteering to take care of this. I’ve–gathered–that your family is going through a trying time right now. You have my–best wishes.” Harold’s voice was uncharacteristically stiff and awkward, like he didn’t know how to talk about such things.
“Thank you, I’m sure we appreciate that.”
“I’m sure that you do,” Harold rolled his eyes, shifting back to his normal state of exasperation. “Alright then, have a good night Janet.”
“You too, Harold.”
Harold made his way to the elevator. As soon as its doors clanged shut behind him Janet rounded on Caroline with narrow eyes. “If anything does go wrong, you will not email him. You will let me know straight away and we will take care of it. You understand? Not that it’s any of your business, but this ‘vacation’ of his is nothing that we want to disturb.”
“Of course, Janet. Whatever you say. I’m sure I’ll manage alright, though. I’m certain of it.”
Janet’s frown seemed to suggest that she was less certain.
It was the second day of Harold’s six week vacation. He was in a hospital bed, listening to the doctor lecturing him as to what he could expect in recovery.
“…and certainly no heavy lifting for the duration,” the woman said, finishing her mental checklist.
“And the recipient?” Harold asked. “Things are…going well?”
“We make a point to not say anything definitive at this stage. It may be a matter of weeks before we know if his body is going to accept the kidney or not.”
“Of course, I understand.”
“But as far as the actual operation was concerned, everything went well and he is recovering just fine.”
“Actually…I wanted to ask you about something on your registration form. You said you were open to the possibility of meeting the recipient if they expressed a similar interest? Now I know its been a while since you filled this out and here in the moment you might feel differently–”
“No, no,” Harold said quickly. “I’m still happy to if they are.”
“They are. The boy is obviously not up to visiting just yet, but I could go and check on whether the family wanted to come over now.”
“I’d like that.”
“Give me a few.”
The doctor left him and Harold gingerly adjusted the pillows behind his back, careful not to disturb his tender side. He grabbed his book off of the nightstand, but soon discovered that his mind wasn’t in the mood for reading and he put it back. Instead he just breathed deeply and waited. The seconds slid into minutes, and the minutes into a half hour. He was just starting to think that his doctor must have gotten sidetracked when a soft knock came at his door.
“Come in,” he said.
The doctor swung the door inwards with a bright smile. “Alright Harold, I’ve brought you some very grateful visitors!”
She stepped into the room and off to the side, clearing the way for the family to come in. Two little sisters, about four and seven, a balding father with a large belly, and a mother who was…
That brings us to the close of Harold and Caroline. I mentioned a week ago that I tried to use a more meandering approach in how I crafted each of these scenes. I feel like this looser method made the story feel more organic, but it also resulted in a few sequences that distracted from the overall narrative.
One such sequence was at the very end when Harold was waiting in his hospital room to meet the family of his kidney recipient. I wanted this to be a quiet moment, which meant that Harold was going to be alone in that room. But that detail made me ask myself, “well why aren’t there any family or friends here with him?” As I reflected on that I started to see the character of Harold becoming better defined. He was a man who was alone in life, prickly and off-putting, but nonetheless trying to do something good in private.
I liked that idea, and I added a few lines about how he was thinking of the young boy that had received his kidney. He considered how that boy was supported by a grateful family, which brought on a wave of loneliness and Harold began to gently cry. Then he realized what a fool he would look if the doctor came back now, and quickly composed himself.
It was a nice, sentimental scene, but suddenly it was raising new threads and questions when I was actively trying to close them! Though I feel it made Harold’s character better, it frayed the overall story. So, as I recommended in my last post, I decided to remove that segment. If this were a larger piece that I was continuing to work on I might try to find a way to reintroduce those concepts elsewhere in the tale.
But…there’s something else about this piece I want to talk about: it didn’t measure up to my expectations. There are elements of it that I do like, and I do think it was a useful exercise, but I think it could have been better. The ending, in particular, just didn’t resonate in the way that I had hoped.
Any critic that only says “I just don’t like it” is wasting everyone’s time, though. If something is flawed there are reasons why. I know the reasons for why Harold and Caroline let me down, and on Monday I’ll explain them. I’ll also take some time to talk about why it’s okay to sometimes dislike your own work, and how to move forward when you do. Come back then for a healthy dose of unfiltered honesty!
“Janet said you wanted to see me?” Caroline asked cautiously from the doorway.
“Yes, yes,” Harold cleared his throat. “Don’t just stand there, come in.”
Caroline closed the door and shuffled forward timidly, coming to a stop a few feet from his desk. She had her arms wrapped around herself, as if trying to shrink herself into as small a form as possible.
“Please sit,” Harold sighed. Why did she always have to be so diminutive and awkward?
She tried to smile politely, though it came across more as a grimace, then perched herself on the edge of the leather-cushioned seat. She did not appear comfortable at all.
“How are you Caroline?”
She nodded. A few seconds later she actually processed what he had said. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine Caroline” he sighed again. “Why don’t we just get right to what I called you in for?”
“Yes, good idea.”
“Alright, well that last week I said we didn’t have any of those overtime opportunities you were hoping for… But, I think I’ve found something that you might be able to help out with if you’re still interested.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll take whatever I can get! Thank you.”
“Well, let me explain it to you and then we’ll see if you’re still interested. In six weeks I’ll be taking a sabbatical for a while. I’m not entirely sure for how long, but perhaps as much as two months. Gus will be flying in to cover for me during that time. He’s a good man and he’ll handle the day-to-day things just fine. But he will have his hands full, and I don’t want to burden him unnecessarily.”
“The thing is we have a few faxes that don’t come in until after hours. It’s basic invoicing from the Western shore after the factory closes, and I usually stay late enough to get those. They have to be received, transcribed, and filed before 8 pm. If you want it, then you’d probably be able to pull an extra hour or two each day taking care of that.”
“You don’t think that Janet would be better able to handle that?”
“I try to not keep Janet after hours when I can help it. I’m sure she would be willing if I asked her, but I thought I might as well offer it to you first, since you requested the overtime after all.”
“Oh I see. But would she be better at it?”
“It’s really not difficult. I would show you how I do it one evening and that’s all the training you would need.” Harold smiled. Clearly he felt he was doing a nice thing for Caroline, but she didn’t even try to hide the discomfort in her face.
“So…you said starting in about six weeks?”
“Yes. The fourteenth of June.”
She nodded. “I had been thinking to take some time off myself then, actually…I’d been hoping to get some overtime before then if possible.”
Harold shrugged. “Well I still don’t know of any overtime opportunities before then. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. On your way out could you tell Janet I’d like to speak with her?”
“Well, I’m not saying no,” Caroline piped up.
“Then what are you saying?” Harold said tersely, not at all amused by how she meandered around her decisions.
She bit her lip, and spoke out loud her inner reasoning. “I’ll just have to figure things out at home. I don’t know…but we can’t afford not to.” Caroline nodded resolutely to Harold. “I’ll do it.”
“Alright then,” he said slowly, as if waiting to see whether she would change her mind again. “When we get a little closer I’ll have you stay after hours and show you how everything works. That will be all.”
“How’s your son, Caroline?” Betty asked one morning after they had their first gap between calls.
“He’s doing really well,” Caroline asserted. “I mean, well, he’s still in a lot of pain of course, but he’s so patient and understanding with it.”
Betty tutted sympathetically. “It just kills you, doesn’t it? I always told my kids if you’re hurting go ahead and yell! It breaks my heart when they think they have to be so grown up all the time.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“How are you and Dave holding up?”
Caroline sighed. “We’re tired. It’s really going to help things having some overtime pay, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse. I’ll hardly be there for Zach during recovery at all, but I guess its for the best. I’m just anxious about keeping myself going with the extra hours–”
A sudden voice from behind made both Caroline and Betty jump in their seats. “Yes, especially given that you can’t even keep up with your regular hours already!”
Both women spun around to see Harold standing behind them with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. He slowly pointed an accusing finger to the blinking light on Caroline’s phone which designated a waiting caller.
“Sorry sir,” Caroline gasped, clutching her chest as her heartbeat raced. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing so that she wouldn’t huff and puff during the call. As she picked up the phone and answered she heard Harold’s feet stumping away.
“Tech support? Please hold while I transfer you.” A silent tear trickled down her cheek.
“Yes, come in.”
“Hiya Harold!” Lucas said brightly as he strolled into the boss’s office. He was holding a small woven basket with a pink bow on the front.
“Lucas,” Harold said in a measured voice meant to counter the other man’s overbearing cheerfulness.
“I’m not sure if you heard, but Caroline’s got a son who is going into surgery next month. Expensive stuff, and we figured we could do a good thing and ask people to contribute to help her out a little bit. I know it would mean a lot if the boss-man made a healthy donation himself!” He laughed and extended his basket expectantly.
The “boss-man” peered with a wrinkled nose at the crumpled bills already sitting in the basket. “You’ve been going around to the employees and asking them for money?”
“Yes, well…it’s for a good cause, you know!”
“The cause doesn’t matter, its against corporate policy. People aren’t supposed to feel pressured by their peers to contribute while at the workplace. Don’t you think if people heard that their manager had made a ‘healthy donation’ that they would feel obligated to do the same?”
“Oh, uh–I suppose you’re right,” Lucas’s face suggested that that was exactly what he had been intending.
“Lucas,” Harold sighed as he massaged his temples, “the company provides proper methods for those who need extra financial aid to receive it. There is the Family Hardship Fund which provides large contributions each year to qualifying employees. However–”
“Yeah, Caroline said she already tried that but you said–but she was told that she couldn’t get any help.”
Harold frowned at Lucas’s weak attempt to iron the accusation out of his complaint. “She only started here four months ago. Certain programs are only available after employees have been here for a year. But my point was that there are proper channels for this sort of thing. Another option that’s available to her right now is if you coworkers diverted a percentage or two off of your paychecks towards a general fund. Then include a note that you want the contribution to go to Caroline, and I’ll see that she receives a lump sum. That way everything stays anonymous and no one feels pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”
“I see,” Lucas said flatly. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to go.
“And make sure you hand back the money you’ve already collected!”
“Well this is never going to work,” Betty scowled as she looked over the flyer Lucas had made. He dumped a tall stack of those fliers on Caroline’s desk. She also took one to look over and quickly frowned. Printed on the flier was a detailed list of instructions for how one could donate a percentage of their paycheck to aid Caroline.
“It’ll never work,” Betty repeated. “It’s way too complex.”
“I know,” Lucas groaned, “but Harold says that’s the only way.”
“What that man’s problem anyway?”
“He hates people.”
“It’s alright,” Caroline shrugged. “It was really nice of you guys to try anyway.”
“Caroline,” Harold’s stern voice rang as he marched into their cubicles.
“Uh-oh,” Caroline whispered.
“Caroline these forms are all wrong,” he said in exasperation as he dropped a stack of papers on her desk. “See that top one there? It’s the order sheet for Asper Co. and you’ve filled out the contact information for Jake Sutherland. But I know Jake personally, and he’s from DeltaRay!”
“What?–oh.” Caroline thumbed through the papers. “I must have gotten a sheet or two off from my call list. I’m sorry!”
“That’s nice that you’re sorry,” Harold rolled his eyes, “but we can’t bill any clients if we don’t know which company they’re representing now can we?”
“No, of course not. I’ll fix these up first thing tomorrow–”
“That won’t cut it, your team’s quota is due today. You need to stay and take care of this now.”
“Oh but she had plans,” Betty piped up, earning a frown from Harold.
“I don’t like asking people to stay late, Betty. I make a point of not imposing unfair demands, but when a team has made a commitment and then they don’t deliver on them that’s on their own heads.”
“Well I could cover it for her tonight.”
“Do you think I hired Caroline for you to do her work, Betty?”
“If I’m not made confident between now and my vacation that she’s capable of handling things on her own, then maybe she won’t belong in this company much longer! Do I make myself clear?” With the last question he steered his focus back to Caroline.
“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it right now, sir.”
“I’m sure that you will.”
Harold turned a strode away, leaving the three in stunned silence. Caroline clenched her fists, screwed her eyes shut, and for a moment her whole body shook in stifled aggravation.
“That…man,” Lucas seethed. His pause between words suggested that ‘man’ was not the first word that had popped into his head.
“I’m never going to survive doing that training with him,” Caroline moaned. “The two of us alone for two hours, can you imagine?!”
“Well sure, he’s a monster,” Lucas agreed, “but so what? I get him angry at me all the time and you know what I say? I say ‘so what, I’m still going home at the end of the day and there’s nothing he can do to me.'”
“I just…when he gets angry he shouts and I really don’t like it when people shout. If I’m around him I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to explode! I get so self-conscious, I make silly mistakes, and then he must think I’m making those sorts of mistakes even when he isn’t there! And even if he doesn’t shout, there’s still just the way he looks at me. It’s like he sees right through me! Somehow he knows everything I’ve done wrong and he despises me for it.”
Betty tutted sympathetically. “Just remember that you’re not doing anything for him. This is all for Zach, and that’s all that matters.”
On Monday I discussed how many stories treat the protagonist’s biases as gospel. If the hero views another character as evil, then that character is evil. In these stories there is little space for different perspectives, ambiguity, or misunderstanding.
And depending on what the objective of your story is, that might even be the best approach. But obviously for a more nuanced tale, you would probably also want a more nuanced take on the characters. That approach is my intention with this latest short story.
To help with this objective, I decided to not portray the story from just one character’s perspective. By using a third-person voice I am able to avoid having one character cast shade on the other exclusively.
Next it was obvious I needed two characters that were both flawed. I imagine most readers will take the dimmer view toward Harold. He certainly is harsher than he should be, but it is also understandable why he is frustrated. Caroline is legitimately incompetent, though sympathetically so. My hope is that characters can empathize with Harold’s frustrations, even while wishing he would give the poor woman a break.
Another thing I experimented with in this story was to make hard cuts between each scene. This makes them feel more like isolated vignettes, like a sample of everyday life for these individuals. It’s been an interesting format to experiment with, but one side effect I hadn’t anticipated was the significant pruning I had to or else the story would become too distracted.