A Lover, a Piglet, and a Deep Hole; or, Three Types of Tension

I propose an experiment:

Step One: Acquire a garden hose, a stopwatch, two air horns, a terrified piglet, a wheelbarrow filled with manure, and a hole in the ground ten feet deep and six feet across.

Step Two: Trick your wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, romantic partner or best friend, into stepping into the hole.

Step Three: Gently lower the piglet into the hole.

Step Four: Join both of them in the hole.

Step Five: Explain, once you are both at the bottom of the pit, that you’d like to discuss a subject on which the two of you (the two people, not you and the piglet) have historically disagreed.

Step Six: Arrange things such that, as soon as the discussion begins, another set of people begins filling the hole with water, blowing the air horns, and pelting you with manure.

Step Seven: Allow the piglet to race around the bottom of the pit throughout.

Step Eight: Use the stopwatch to carefully time how long it takes the two of you (again, the two people, not you and the piglet) to come to some sort of agreement or compromise on the issue of historical disagreement.

I’ll admit that it’s just possible that these conditions might lead your friend or partner to submit instantly and absolutely, conceding his or her own side of the debate just to get out of the fucking hole already. More likely, however, much more likely, is that something ugly is going to happen at the bottom of that pit, something far removed from rational discourse and compromise, and you’d just better hope to hell that the air horns and the squealing piglet drown out the screaming.

Why would you do this? Well, to become a better writer, obviously.

This is, after all, what you have to do with your characters all the time. Take the famous scene from The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the rest attempt to cross the Redhorn Pass in the shadow of the great peak, Caradhras. The fellowship is clearly threatened by weather and rockfall, but the threat doesn’t end there. The strain of the conditions leads to the disastrous decision to turn back, to attempt to cross beneath rather than over the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. One can imagine this discussion going differently had it taken place back, say, in Rivendell, when everyone was well rested and well fed. In the cold and wind, however, battling against the evil of Caradhras, the social fabric of the group begins to fray. There’s no piglet, of course, and no air horns, but close enough.

Tolkien knows, of course, that there are three primary sorts of literary tension: the psychological, the social, and the environmental. These are my terms, not his, and I’ll give a set of examples:

Psychological Tension: Jocelyn has lived most of her life ashamed at having fled from the Goblin Horde that murdered her family years earlier. This shame leads her to take foolish risks in all sorts of situations. The tension that results is primarily a product of her psychology, at least so far.

Social Tension: Jocelyn is travelling with Matt. Matt is an anxious person. His palms sweat at the prospect of riding a spirited horse, let alone facing down a Goblin Horde. Jocelyn’s constant risk-taking leads him to a grim conclusion: she’s going to get them both killed… if he doesn’t kill her first. Matt’s psychological weakness are exacerbated by the people around him, by the social tension that results.

Environmental Tension: Jocelyn and Matt might actually scrape by if all they need to do is walk down the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Nothing would provoke Jocelyn into risk-taking, and Matt, therefore, would be able to keep a lid on his murderous desperation. When we pluck them from Santa Cruz, however, and plop them down in a different environment – in the cellars, say, of the Palace of the Goblin King – things are unlikely to end well.

The three types of conflict are sometimes treated as though they’re separate. You hear people complain regularly of the latest action flick: “It’s all just car chases and things blowing up.” While I happen to love car chases and things blowing up, the point can be a valid one. Environmental tensions that do nothing to exacerbate social tensions are hollow and bombastic. If the characters start getting along better when the city bursts into flames, you (the author) have a real problem.

Likewise, social tensions that don’t chafe against raw psychological tensions are pointless. Imagine: Jesse makes fun of Jimmy’s ears. Jimmy, a level-headed and self-respecting young man, ignores him. Not much of a story there.

Give Jimmy a psychological weakness or wound, however, and we’re off to the races. Let’s say his ex-wife divorced him, saying, “You look like a goblin with your tiny face and huge, stupid ears.” Let’s say he really took that to heart. When Jesse makes his crack, Jimmy’s going to have him hanging over the Brooklyn Bridge by his ankles.

This kind of dynamic plays out all the time in my favorite sport: adventure racing. Teams drop out of races all the times, and at first blush, it usually looks as though it was the environment – the freezing rain, the endless bog, the capsized boats – that did them in.

Closer observation, however, usually reveals something else: the environmental difficulties irritate social tensions (John is sick to death of Jill telling him how to paddle the fucking boat), which are themselves almost always based on psychological issues (John was worried from the get-go that he’d be shown up by Jill, and sure enough, she’s proving far, far tougher than he is). The three types of tension meet in a perfect storm.

The teams, on the other hand, made up of happy people with good senses of humor, women and men who can work hard without taking themselves too seriously, usually endure with equanimity and even laughter the very worst of environmental tensions.

“Literary fiction” (whatever the hell that is) often (but certainly not always) eschews environmental tension as superficial or gaudy. We get tight little portraits of depressed men and women staring at blue jays while drinking themselves to death. Or whatever. Epic fantasy, though, is epic for a reason. It’s great to have a group of unhappy, distrustful people, but if you can put them on a rocky ledge above a gorge with a thousand hungry wolves on their trail and raging wildfires ahead, why wouldn’t you? Also, it never hurts to throw in a piglet.

The Leaping and the Cowering

With just one week until the release of The Emperor’s Blades, I alternate between leaping joyously through the sunshine in slow motion and cowering in the corner shitting my pants. Sometimes I manage to feed myself. One thing I haven’t been doing a lot of is writing articles for this site, mainly because I’m busy writing articles for every single other site on the internet. So that you know I haven’t bee allowed out of my writing cage, I’m attaching links to two of the more recent pieces.

Giant Hawks and Mountain Bikes: An exploration of the links between Adventure Race training and the writing of epic fantasy. If you’re unfamiliar with Adventure Racing (as just about everyone in the world is), you can get a little glimpse of the bizarre sufferings involved from this post.

Defeating the Crapster: For a long time, I thought tactics and strategy were the same thing, both vaguely synonymous with “sneaky plans to be used in board games, marriage, or war.” Turns out (as it often does) that I was wrong. This post takes a look at the differences, and the relevance of strategic thinking to the writing of fantasy (or, indeed, any genre).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my cowering.

 

Thermopylae Was Not a Romantic Comedy

Romantic sucker that I am, I always get caught up in the moment. Don’t pretend like you don’t know the moment I’m talking about. We’ve come to the final, heart-thumping moments of a romantic movie. In a fit of heartbroken resolve, one character decides to leave the other, but wait! His/her true love races to the airport/bus station/train station to catch him/her just before he/she disappears forever, and all the while I’m clutching my popcorn and screaming at the taxi driver to go fucking faster!

Don’t scoff. I’m not alone here. There’s a whole TV Tropes page dedicated to this.

The thing is, though, when the movie is finally over, I start to feel a tiny worm of doubt. What, I start to wonder, is so damn urgent about this particular flight? Don’t these people have cell phones? Land lines? The whole creaking apparatus of the United States Postal System? Couldn’t the one doing all the rushing just send a text: Hey. Raced to the airport, but missed you! I love you. Please come back. It’s not as though there aren’t hundreds of flights leaving Cleveland every day.

We’re not talking about an early South Pacific Islander, who, heartbroken, sets off across the Pacific in a canoe hoping that he might run into something like Hawaii. That would be a really urgent situation. That’s when you really need to haul some serious ass to the beach. But this airport thing? On Expedia, every departure is reversible for the price of a one-way ticket.

Reversibility and complexity, however, can really confuse a good climax. High stakes, by definition, are fairly permanent. More, the possible outcomes of any climax can’t be too complex. Life-and-death scenarios tend to be more effective than Life-or-injury-or-maybe-death-but-probably-not-but-definitely-a-real-possibility-of-some-sadness-that-could-lead-to-long-term-migraine scenarios. Consider the possibilities:

A)   If Melanie doesn’t get the antidote to the poison by noon, she’ll die!

B)   If Melanie doesn’t get the antidote to the poison by noon, she’ll have to experiment with a more complicated set of options. She can cut kale out of her diet, to see what that does to her blood sugar levels. If that works, then maybe she’s ok as long as she doesn’t get bitten again. Alternatively, if the kale-diet fails, she might need to actually avoid all leafy greens for a year. At that point there are some tests she can have done to determine if she’s at greater risk for a tumor that might develop in five to ten years…

A)   If Sandy doesn’t manage to seduce George tonight, he’ll ignore her forever!

B)   If Sandy doesn’t manage to seduce George tonight, well, there’s a party Saturday. And if that doesn’t work, she’ll probably see him after work next Wednesday. Or she could date Jim until Christmas, and then see how things look with George, who, let’s face it, is kind of a loser and doesn’t have that many options. Hell, Sandy could probably play the field until 2017 and still have a chance of landing George if she hasn’t found something better by then.

The trouble is, most real events aren’t binary in nature. Take the American Civil War. I learned in grade school that the crucial event, the one on which everything hinged, was the Battle of Gettysburg. Well… maybe. Or maybe not. At the very least, it’s an extremely simplistic notion. In fact, if you want to see some of the disagreement that still exists regarding the war’s turning point, check out this page. There are twelve candidates listed, the first in 1861, the last in 1864. And then there’s the fact that the people who fought at Gettysburg certainly didn’t realize it was the turning point. The war dragged on for two years after it ended.

This sort of complexity makes for great history dissertations and dinner table arguments, but it seriously complicates the task of a writer. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re writing epic fantasy, one in which the stakes are appropriately high. Eventually, you need to bring it all to a climax, but what to do? You probably want something – an event – that is both obvious and decisive. We might call it, oh, I don’t know… maybe THE LAST BATTLE. Actually, never mind, the term is already taken. Twice.

Still, the narrative advantages of THE LAST BATTLE are obvious. High stakes! Binary outcome! Good triumphs, or evil does!

The trouble is, true “last battles” are pretty rare. Take one of history’s most famous last stands: the Battle of Thermopylae. Three hundred Spartan warriors (with some help) stand against the assembled might of Xerxes and the Persian Empire. They fight heroically, holding the pass for three days, battling to nearly the last man. It’s a truly do-or-die situation. Except it’s not. The Spartans lose the battle and it’s not until next year (479) that the Persians are conclusively defeated at Plataea.

This is a serious pain in the ass, dramatically speaking.

You can see Tolkien grappling with this problem near the end of the Lord of the Rings. After the victory at Pelennor Fields, Aragorn and company are at loose ends. They know, we know, and Tolkien knows that the only thing that matters is whether or not Frodo destroys the Ring. Everyone else could spend the end of the book playing Grand Theft Auto, but that wouldn’t be all that satisfying, dramatically speaking. Tolkien, of course, comes up with a plausible reason for the rest of his cast to tromp all the way over to the Black Gate: they need to distract Sauron, to buy Frodo some space. Fair enough. The battle becomes relevant. But notice that Tolkien is still reliant on a binary event: ring destroyed/ring not destroyed. Without an event like that, it’s tough to have a satisfying climax.

Literary fiction, of course, has long eschewed any attempt at an epic climax. It is acceptable in literary fiction to end on an ambiguous scene in which a middle-aged man contemplates a dilapidated canoe that once belonged to his father while a loon sounds its mournful cry in the distance. I’d like to see someone try that shit with epic fantasy.

The Problem with Zombies

Put the shotguns and the crowbars down, zombie lovers. Like you, I love the genre, and have spent many a beer-fueled evening arguing over the plausibility of retrofitting a bus with chain-saw slots and snow plows in order to escape a press of rotting, stinking, writhing undead. My problem is not with the zombies or those brave souls who battle them. It’s not even with the writers of zombie stories and movies, who produce some of my favorite entertainment. It’s with those writers who occasionally mistake the narrative purpose and utility of their brain-dead creations.

Before we get going, a clarification: I’m going to be using the term “zombie” in its broadest possible sense. (This will irritate the purists, to whom I say: too bad, it’s my blog.) In this post, “zombie” will indicate any creature that is both mindless and malevolent. In this sense, we loop in the “forged” of Robin Hobb, the Vord and the “taken” of Jim Butcher, the Others of George R.R. Martin, and the generic storm troopers from Star Wars. We can debate until the cows come home about whether these various groups are actually as mindless as literal zombies, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to point out that they are 1) pretty bad and 2) entirely monochromatic in terms of their motivations and emotional range.

So what’s the trouble? Well, in the hands of skilled writers, nothing. Zombies can be tremendously useful and unsettling. I love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead, Assassin’s Apprentice and Game of Thrones. It’s vital, however, to understand what zombies are good for, and to do that, we need to take a look at the main instance in which they are useless.

To wit: zombies make shitty principal villains. Any movie or book in which a zombie is the main bad guy is in serious trouble from the get-go. Consider this simple thought experiment: replace Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine with anonymous storm troopers and see what happens to Star Wars. Replace Joffrey and Cersei Lanniser with “Others.” Either revision would geld the story. Good villains have to be able to think and feel. If it can’t think and feel, it can’t win or lose, and if it can’t win or lose, there’s no real satisfaction in hacking off its head and mounting it on a pitchfork over the mailbox, no matter how much ichor drips onto the junk mailings from Publisher’s Weekly.

Yes, smallpox was “defeated,” but as far as I know, the World Health Organization didn’t stand over the final virus, fists clenched, teeth bared, like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

“Aha!” the zombie-fanatic exclaims. “But what about zombie movies, asshole? You know – the ones with actual shambling, brain-eating zombies? Zombies are the antagonists in those movies, and those movies ROCK!”

Yes and no. Yes, Dawn of the Dead rocks, but no, zombies are not the antagonists. The zombies are not characters at all. They are the weather.

They are the weather in exactly the same way the storm in The Perfect Storm is the weather, and they serve an identical function: they make life harder for the cast of human characters, and in so doing they force all manner of interesting conflicts and compromises, fuck-ups and epiphanies to the surface. This is the first good use to which zombies can be put.

And we need not limit ourselves to storms and zombies. The weather could be comprised of deadly trees (The Happening, Day of the Triffids), deadly blobs (The Blob), deadly birds (The Birds), deadly trans-dimensional insects (The Mist), deadly dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), deadly cold (The Day after Tomorrow), deadly freaky underground worm things (Tremors), deadly water pressure (all submarine movies ever made), deadly viruses (Contagion, et. al.), deadly genetically-modified hyper-intelligent sharks (that movie where Samuel Jackson gets chomped in half).

I could go on, but I think the theme is clear: it’s the “deadly” that matters, not the noun that follows it. Yes, of course, the strategy and tactics differ; you don’t use the same tricks to survive a vengeful fungus that you might when trying to endure the precipitous onset of an ice age. When I say that the type of adversity doesn’t matter, what I really mean is that the sort of drama that ensues in this type of plot is fundamentally the same: people struggle with each other and themselves in order to overcome or survive “the weather.” This type of story (when told well) generally doesn’t culminate with the defeat of the tree/worm thing/hyper-intelligent shark but with human endurance (or, in the case of several of these stories) the failure to endure. In Twenty-Eight Days Later, the point isn’t to beat the zombies – you can’t defeat them any more than you could defeat The Perfect Storm – it is to weather them. The struggle happens between the human beings.

The second use of zombies (again, in my broad sense) is as a weapon. This is what happens in Star Wars, where the Emperor wields his imperial minions, or The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron and Saruman wield their orcs. In this case, we don’t need intelligence or emotional range out of the zombies any more than we need intellectual subtlety out of the Kurgan’s sword (although the Kurgan’s sword does kick some serious ass) or Voldemort’s wand. What matters is the villain wielding the weapon and the way in which he/she/it wields it.

To come full circle, a story runs into trouble when a zombie or group of zombies is treated as the antagonist. “Good Guys and Gals Versus Zombies” tends to fail, plot-wise, because it’s the equivalent of “Good Guys and Gals Versus Lightning.” If the guys and gals are all truly good, if they have no psychological demons or bad eggs mixed into the group, then there’s not much to write about. They do their best and either the lightning gets them or it doesn’t.

Almost all writers understand this at some level, and so it’s rare to see a story without a viable antagonist at the outset. In zombie stories, there’s always a megalomaniac or sociopath mixed into the group, a petty tyrant or at least a garden-variety asshole (Garden-Variety Asshole would be a good name for something. Not, like, a child, but a band or an album.) against whom the protagonists must struggle while they’re trying to endure the zombies. So far, so good.

What often happens, however, is that the writer mistakes the zombies for the true antagonist. As a result, the humans start out with their real and interesting problems, problems that emotionally animate the story, that keep us reading, but then those problems are resolved prematurely. For the final pages/minutes we’re left with what can only be a cooking-cutter climax between good and zombie. The special effects people will do their damndest to keep us engaged, and I like seeing a field of zombies decimated by a helicopter blade as much as the next guy, but if that’s the final conflict, it’s just a matter of hacking up meat – and there’s a reason we don’t have a thriving market for stories about people in the chicken plants chopping up the dead birds.

The Trouble with Orgasm; Unsatisfying Endings

The trouble with orgasm, according to Marie Stopes, is that it’s too obscure. Not the orgasm itself, which seemed to function just about the same a hundred years ago as it does now, but the word. Dr. Stopes, in her 1918 Married Love (a treatise on marriage, sex, and birth control, among other things), used the word climax instead of orgasm. She thought it was more straightforward, more intuitive to her readers, and her use of it helped to promulgate a new, sexual meaning of a very old word.

Climax wasn’t always so sexy. In the 16th century, it was a rhetorical term used to describe a chain of logical reasoning – not surprising, given that the Greek, klimax, from which it descended, meant, literally, ladder. Ladder to rhetoric to orgasm. Not a bad career for the word.

Of course, story-lovers tend to use it in yet another sense. When someone mentions the climax of a book, they’re not usually talking about a massive ejaculation or feat of rhetorical bravado (unless it’s a book about sex or rhetoric). A dramatic climax is one in which the tension building throughout the novel comes to a head. Everyone’s seen the graph – tension on the y-axis, time on the x-axis, and a rising line that looks like the stock market in a good month.

I hate that fucking graph.

The problem is that it makes the climax of a book look pretty straightforward. Just pile on more stuff (the graph seems to say), more tension, more fights, more speed, more volume – make that mountain higher! – and the pile becomes a climax. If you had two people dueling in the first scene of the novel, you should have two thousand at the climax.

Seems straightforward. Trouble is, the sex/stock index approach to literary climax doesn’t work.

I was reminded of this just recently, as I worked through the final chapters to the second book of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. While I’d started writing with a spring in my step and hope in my heart, the ending pretty near killed me. The walls of my house were covered with huge sheets of paper, each of which mapped out an abortive attempt to pull the plot threads together. Then I gave up on the papers and switched to a dry-erase board. Then I gave up on the dry-erase board and started wandering the streets of Brattleboro muttering to myself, my pockets stuffed with color-coded index cards. It wasn’t pretty.

It’s easy enough to have the characters pair off, protagonists and antagonists, like square dancers preparing for a particularly bloody number in which half the group ends up dismembered on the parquet floor. While that can be fun and useful, it’s not enough. We’ve all seen that movie, the one that ends with a long, loud bloodbath. If that’s all there is to it, the climax tends to be somewhat less than orgasmic. We want something more, something better, something deeper…

Sure. Ok. But what?

In an effort to save the ending of my book and my sanity both, I charted out the elements that I need in a satisfying ending. As far as I can figure it, there are five.

Mysteries Resolved: It’s human nature, when we encounter a riddle, a mystery, or a question, to want to know the answer. Most shrewd writers capitalize on this. In N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, we want to know the identity of the Reaper (among other things). In Martin’s Game of Thrones, we want to know who murdered Jon Arryn (among other things). In Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, we want to know the name and nature of the shadow that is chasing Ged all over creation. All of these books eventually give us a degree of satisfaction, but there is a danger in relying too much on mysteries and their resolution: the satisfaction of learning the truth tends to be intellectual rather than emotional, and we want an emotional reward at the end of a story.

The Slaughter of the Bad Guys: As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I will read thousands of pages to see a detested villain get his or her comeuppance. Penthero Iss and Marafice Eye, from J.V. Jones’ wonderfully imagined A Cavern of Black Ice spring to mind. Fifty pages into the first book, I wanted to see these dudes painfully slaughtered, and, as a result, I read on. And on. And on.

Protagonist Reaches Her Potential: The main characters of most stories are not fully formed. We endure chapter after chapter in which they are unable – either through inexperience, confusion, or some outside constraint – to operate at their full potential. This inability frustrates a reader, but that frustration can lead to release, when, at the very end, the protagonist achieves a breakthrough. Think of Katniss’s cold resolve at the end of The Hunger Games.

Separate Threads Converge: A few weeks back, I helped a friend’s four-year-old daughter put together a puzzle. Actually, we put together the puzzle about a dozen times, giving me time to reflect on the pleasures of puzzle-putting-together. The joy, of course, comes from connecting seemingly disparate elements. We like watching order emerge out of chaos. This is why it’s so great at the end of Empire Strikes Back (SPOILER ALERT. ACTUALLY, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE, QUIT READING RIGHT NOW AND GO WATCH IT) when we discover that Darth Vader isn’t just some random galactic tyrant, but Luke’s father. And Leia isn’t just a woman with a pluck, grit, and great hair. She’s his sister!

Apocalypse: I’m using the word in its old sense here: unhiding or uncovering, that moment in which the seemingly irrelevant or insignificant reveals its true importance: There is a tiny detail in Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (I won’t reveal it here) that appears trivial for most of the novel… until, at the very end, we discover that this same detail is, in fact, crucial. It’s an astounding moment, and one that makes the ending of the novel deeply satisfying. We like to feel as though there’s an order in the world, “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (although Hamlet defies this augury) – books can uncover this hidden significance.

What have I missed here? Are there any other structural elements that you look for in a satisfying ending? (Aside, of course, from convulsive multiple orgasms and sweaty naked bodies strewn across the page.)