Shitting in the Parking Lot; What Epic is Not

You don’t need to spend much time at the local greasy spoon on a Sunday morning before you hear a conversation like this:

“How was last night?”

“Dude, it was epic!

As a fantasy writer, I always perk up my ears at this sort of remark, eager to hear some tale of a massive struggle, one pitting heroes against gods in a contest on which the fate of humanity (or the nation, or at a bare minimum, the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, population 12,046) depends.

Instead, the account usually goes something likes this:

“Check it out – first we went to Skanky Ted’s, where Jimmy drank, like, fifteen beers in two hours. And there was this dude with, like, a fish tattoo, who kept looking at us, and Jimmy told him to fuck off. Then he hit on this totally drunk chick, but she slapped him across the face, and she told him to fuck off. I was seriously laughing my ass off. Then Jimmy was so wasted that he shat in the parking lot. Epic.”

The Iliad or Mahabharata this is not.

And let’s be clear – I’d never argue that the term “epic” can’t be used in conjunction with a party. Books 20, 21, and 22 of the Odyssey comprise a party. It’s a party in which a king is unveiled, a goddess shows up, one dude gets an arrow through the throat, over a hundred others are killed with swords and spears, and at least half a dozen servants are hung by the neck until dead. Afterward, Odysseus orders the place aired out to clear the stench of human offal, not because, you know, Sally puked on the pong table.

While I’m at it, the term “legend” also seems to have suffered a demotion. Joan of Arc – who single-handedly changed the course of the Hundred Years War, who claimed to speak with angels, and who burned at the stake for her convictions – was a legend. Genghis Khan was a legend. Martin Luther King and Buddha were legends. For better or worse, these folks twisted the fabric of the world, left it fundamentally altered.

Downing a thirty-rack of Busch Light and then hooking up with Jessie and her blond friend from the super-market checkout might be a fun way to spend an evening, but it’s hardly legendary.

Here, though, we come to an interesting point about the convergence of the epic and the legendary with the hum-drum and everyday. In the world of epic fantasy, the old terms retain much of their Homeric heft; we can usually expect gods and goddesses, world-begirdling conflicts, heroines and heroes of exceptional skill, brilliance, and wit wielding magical artifacts capable of turning people into toast, toast into people, and everything in between.

Therein lies a danger.

In the quest to write truly epic material, it’s easy to create characters whose concerns and motivations are so profound, so global in scope, so cosmic in their import, that those characters risk losing all humanity. We want the stakes to be high, but it’s hard to understand a character who thinks, “If I fail, all life on the four lands of Solmianis will perish in a great blaze of unfettered Chaos.” It’s not even clear that people, real people, are capable of considering their own actions in such abstract and universal terms.

The great fantasy writers realize this, of course. The climax of N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is nation-threatening in scope – truly epic – but hinges on a very private, intimate relationship: a student’s love for his teacher. Rob Stark, likewise, has a chance to defeat the Lannisters and unify Westeros, but the legend must bow to the boy when he falls in love. Caetlyn’s actions, too, though global in effect, stem from the utterly personal terrors and convictions of a mother fighting for her children.

And of course, there’s no finer union of the epic and the everyday than the climax of the The Lord of the Rings. By the end of the tale, Gollum has become entirely mired in his own petty greed, in a solipsism at once completely terrifying and utterly banal. There could be no less epic character than the horribly debased Smeagol, but from the basest and most basic of motives, motives with no end beyond his own immediate need, Gollum makes a choice that ramifies through an entire age. The epic springs, not from a noble knight atop a white steed contemplating the fate of humanity and the world, but from the grubby, unremarkable chambers of the private heart.

So, who am I to say? Stealing a golf cart and driving it into the Connecticut River doesn’t sound particularly epic, but then, you never know what cosmic scale hangs in the balance.

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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.)

The Vader Effect; Our Fondness for Fictionalized Evil

Why do you enjoy seeing a little kid dressed up as a brutal murderer?

Well, you might not, but at least fifty-seven million of us – and I include myself in that number – certainly do. If you missed it, check out this wonderful Volkswagen ad. It features a small boy dressed as Darth Vader wandering around his house trying to use the Force. It’s clever and cute, evoking both the magic of childhood and the ability of parents to prolong that magic for their children.

It’s also, if you pause to think about it, a little strange. After all, Darth Vader is a genocidal maniac. He is the right hand of a totalitarian empire responsible for the murder of billions. He stands by during the destruction of Alderaan, and, though he does not give the order, he is obviously complicit in the act. If we were to search for a real-world analogue, Vader might be the equivalent of Heinrich Himmler, one of the highest-ranking members of the Nazi party and commander of the Gestapo. And you’ll notice that Volkswagen isn’t making ads of little kids dressed up as Himmler.

Please don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some sort of call to arms or expression of outrage at Volkswagen. I watched the VW ad half a dozen times while writing this, and I enjoyed it every time. I don’t feel guilty about this, and I don’t think anyone else should either. The phenomenon does, however, raise an interesting question: Why are we so willing to cozy up to fictionalized portrayals of evil?

Before answering, let’s be clear that this “Vader Effect” isn’t limited to the PR folks at Volkswagen. Dick Cheney, in an interview with John King, said that people figured him to be the “Darth Vader of the administration.” The Washington National Cathedral includes a gargoyle of Vader high on the northwest tower. There are thousands of t-shirts portraying Darth Vader, including one reading “World’s Greatest Dad.” Most strikingly, some people evidently feel comfortable slipping into a little Vader lingerie in a way I suspect they would not for, say, Pol Pot or Stalin.

Clearly, our relationship to fictionalized evil differs from our response to that same evil in the real world, and in a way, this isn’t surprising at all. Books and movies are made up; their villains can’t really hurt us. On the other hand, wouldn’t we expect fictional atrocity to elicit something related to real-world outrage and horror? Wouldn’t we expect to loathe Jaime Lannister and Hannibal Lecter in the same way, although with less intensity, that we loathe bin Laden and Adam Lanza?

We might expect this loathing, but, oddly, we do not seem to feel it. Jaime throws an innocent child out a tower window at the start of Game of Thrones and yet his character remains a fan favorite.

I can suggest two possible explanations for the Vader Effect. The first is that fiction often brings us into the lives and motivations of villains in a way we rarely encounter in the real world. We get into Jaime Lannister’s head by book three, but we never get into Lanza’s head. This explanation for our willingness to accommodate Jaime (and other characters like him) strikes me as compelling but incomplete. Even were we somehow to know what passed through Lanza’s brain, I can’t imagine our condemnation of him would be one whit diminished.

I suspect the more powerful reason for our attraction to some fictional villains is that they are more interesting than workers of evil in the real world. Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who lived through the Second World War, argued famously for “the banality of evil.” In Arendt’s estimation, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Writing of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, she argues, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Whatever one might say about Darth Vader, Jaime Lannister, or Hannibal Lecter, they are not normal. They are preternaturally talented, or strikingly good-looking, or devastatingly witty, or incomprehensibly brilliant, or all of the above. We forget, while reading about them or watching them, that most real-world perpetrators of evil are stunted little people with small minds and small hearts. In the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Boston, it’s important to remember that there is nothing interesting about people who set bombs or kill children. They are vile, but they are not remarkable. They need to be killed or locked up, but there’s no point listening to them. Real evil is not sexy or exciting.

In the real world, the only characters worth following are the good guys.

Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

I suspect something horrible may be happening to us; I suspect that someone – the CIA, aliens, maybe that dude who works at the late-night burger place down the alley – is siphoning away our brain power a little bit at a time. My suspicions were first aroused last night, when my wife and I sat down to watch the premiere of The Voice. If you’re not familiar with the show, all you need to know is that the singers get ninety seconds to impress the judges. Not a full song, or, heaven forbid, a set of songs that might showcase different abilities: ninety seconds. And it was awesome. We were never bored. While watching the show I forgot that boredom existed.

Then I remembered a writer’s conference I attended many years back in which I went to a number of pitch sessions entitled “Two Minutes; Two Pages.” Sorta like The Voice, but with literary agents instead of Shakira and Usher, reading instead of singing, and an extra thirty seconds to hawk your shit. Also, I don’t seem to recall a cheering live audience of thousands. At any rate, these sessions made a real impression on me, as the agents, all of the agents, kept saying things like, “I see a million submissions a day. If you haven’t hooked me by the end of the first paragraph, I’m done.”

I really wanted an agent. I rewrote my opening paragraph.

Let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about these agents or their advice. They were passing along what I think is the overwhelming opinion of readers, the people who actually buy the books. It is their job to know what sells and they were excellent at that job. They were just a little ahead of me in the realization that aliens are thieving our attention spans.

These days, it seems that many readers want something good, and by good I mean awesome – a bomb threat, a zombie, someone naked, several naked people, naked people defusing a bomb while fending off zombies –  by the end of the first paragraph if not the end of the first sentence.

Was it always this way?

Well, I didn’t have time for an exhaustive study of opening lines, but I did have time for some half-assed Googling. Half-assed Googling, I realize, runs a distant second to actual statistical analysis, but I was so surprised by the results that I wanted to share them here. I Googled eight fantasy novels, famous novels. The first four were published before 1990, the next four, after. I ignored prologues where they existed, focusing instead on the opening sentences of the first chapters.

Consider:

Old Stuff:

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home.” Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy (1982)

“The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland.” Brooks, The Sword of Shannara (1977)

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage…” Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

New Stuff:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded…” Martin, Game of Thrones (1996)

“The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird. Logan opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry through the leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much?” Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (2006)

“In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive. The Reaper’s task is not to save.” Jemisin, The Killing Moon (2012)

You don’t need to be a literary scholar to see the differences.

Kicking off the old books we have: a birthday party, some geography, the description of a trail, and the sights and smells of a kitchen. Eddings, for his part, seems determined to absolutely destroy any narrative tension right at the outset, giving us love and security instead of mystery or suspense. Of the early works, Le Guin’s opening is probably the most exciting, but even she doesn’t zero in on a particular scene, providing us instead with something that sounds suspiciously like history.

In the new books, by contrast, we have: a beheading, a strangling, the potential death of the POV character, and a soulless Reaper. I can tell you right off the bat who’s going to end up on The Voice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the old books are weaker. In fact, the old books are classics, and deservedly so (whatever you think about Brooks ripping off Lord of the Rings). I do want to suggest that it looks as though the way readers and, therefore, writers approach beginnings is changing. The question is: is this bad? I have no idea. I’ve lost the ability to focus on the question long enough. Maybe one of you, however, someone who has escaped the brain suckers, could tell me what it all means…

The Little Fat One; Free Indirect Style in Fantasy

The choice of point-of-view is one of the first and most fundamental that a writer faces, and one of the most common choices I see in fantasy today is some form of third person limited. This isn’t, of course, the only way to do things, but it has grown so prevalent that I think it’s worth taking a quick look at some of the opportunities and dangers.

First, some definitions. James Wood, in his excellent book How Fiction Works lays out the groundwork:

“So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking or speaking […] this is called ‘free indirect style.’

“Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge – which is free indirect style itself – between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.”

Woods provides an invented example of free indirect style:“He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?” Then he explains, “The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it around the character’s own words.”

We can find this sort of thing all over the place in fantasy. An Arya chapter, for instance, in Martin’s Game of Thrones:

“Sansa got to sit with [Prince Joffrey] at the feast. Arya had to sit with the little fat one. Naturally.”

Clearly, both the phrase “little fat one” and that single word, “naturally,” are Arya’s words. Martin cedes his narrative prerogative to his character, allowing a child’s imprecision – “little fat one” – to replace his own keen eye in order to develop the voice, and thereby the mind of his POV character.

There are, however, some technical difficulties when writing in free indirect style, perhaps chief among them, the inability to convey facts or matters beyond the ken of the POV character. If Martin, for instance, wanted to narrate a battle scene in an Arya chapter, one in which he hoped to explore tactics and strategy, he would find himself at an impasse: either he ruptures the consistency of Arya’s voice in order to include the necessary military terminology and observations, or he sacrifices the precision of his description to keep her language woven through his own.

It’s possible to flex the boundaries, of course. As Woods points out, the omniscient voice of the author is never entirely obliterated. If it were, we’d be in the realm of first person rather than third person. When Bran (again in Martin’s novel), seven years old, observes his father “peel” off his gloves, we suspect the verb belongs to Martin rather than his character. This, however, is a minor departure from Bran’s voice.

What happens when the writer needs to do something more drastic?

I came across a skillful passage recently in Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path. He was in a bit of a bind, evidently wanting to open his chapter with a wide-ranging overview of the role of coffee shops in the world. Unfortunately for him, his POV character (for this particular chapter) is a naïve young woman with limited experience of the world. Ergo, she doesn’t have either the experience or even, perhaps, the idiom necessary to be a plausible vehicle for the description he needs to convey. He begins the chapter as follows:

“Coffee houses had always had a place in the business of business. In the cold ports of Stollbourne and Rukkyupal, merchants and sea captains hunched over the tiled tables and warmed mittened hands with steaming cups as they watched the winter sun set at midday. Beside the wide, moonlit waters of the Miwaji, the nomadic Southling pods sipped cups of something hardly thinner than mud…”

I found myself calling, “Bullshit!” by the middle of the second sentence. Cithrin hasn’t been to any of these places. She doesn’t know the Miwaji from a bucket of piss. The fabric of her narrative voice seemed badly twisted, but then, at the start of the second paragraph, Abraham turns it on its head: “Or at least that was the way Magister Imaniel had told it. Cithrin had never been outside Vanai.”

This is a wonderful little narrative moment. Suddenly we find ourselves two layers deep, overhearing the voice of a young girl who is herself remembering the voice of her much more experience mentor. It is psychologically plausible, and Abraham has created the narrative distance necessary to give the reader a sweeping overview of his invented world, an opportunity that Cithrin’s voice alone did not afford him.

When you start looking out for them, there are all sorts of problems and clever solutions presented by point of view choices. I’d love to hear from others about similar successes, or experience wrestling with the same sort of problems.