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.

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.

Usain Bolt Versus Gimli; A World Without Seconds

Usain Bolt would hate living in a fantasy novel. He’d still be fast, obviously, but no one would know just how fast. The tiny slivers of seconds separating him from the rest of the pack, making him, officially, the fastest human being in the recorded history of the world wouldn’t be, well… recorded. Imagine the scene: Bolt at the finish line, left arm extended, pointing, right arm bent – his classic victory pose – while a couple of monks squint at the hourglass and sundial.

Monk 1: Did you see it move?

Monk 2 (querulously): Well, there was a cloud.

Monk 1: How many grains went through the hourglass?

Monk 2 (with increasing irritation): I don’t know. It kept running after he crossed the line.

On the other hand, Bolt’s problems pale compared to those of the writer of fantasy, who has to deal with this sort of thing in nearly every chapter. After all, even if we stuck Bolt into, say, the Lord of the Rings, even if we never knew exactly how fast he was, it’d be pretty clear that he was faster than, say, Gimli. As a racer, Bolt can always just mark off a section of dirt and challenge people to a race. The author of fantasy, on the other hand, is in the position of the monks mentioned above; she is the timekeeper, not the racer, and she’s not allowed to use a clock.

Of course, clocks existed in the medieval world and, if you include water clocks, much earlier. Archaeologists have discovered clepsydrae in Babylon, India, Egypt, and China, some dating back more than five thousand years. The clocks themselves are not anachronistic. The ubiquity of timekeeping, on the other hand, our ability to glance at our watches or computers or wall clocks or phones or televisions and see time ticking past in seconds and minutes, nice and orderly, is uniquely a hallmark of the modern world. From where I’m sitting right now, in a café in Brattleboro, Vermont, I can see seven clocks (if you include the parking meter just outside the window).

A writer whose books are set in the contemporary world can easily jot down a sentence like this: “For a few seconds, Jim held his breath, hoping the walrus would not hear him.” The same sentence, however, even excluding the walrus, might give a writer of fantasy pause. After all, the denizens of her world are unlikely to think in terms of seconds. Even if there were a clock tower in the center of their town, they lack wristwatches. The narrator, naturally, need not be constrained by the psychological limitations of the characters, but if she too freely appropriates the temporal precision of the modern world, she risks shattering the illusion of her invented land.

Different authors of fantasy and historical fiction have approached the problem from different angles. Steven Erikson’s elegant solution is to use heartbeats instead of seconds. Of course, not all heartbeats are equal, but the order of magnitude is right. Hours are also simple enough; you can usually get away with “half the morning,” or, “for most of the day.” If the scene takes place in a city or town, someplace with bells or gongs or a massive church clock in the center square, so much the better.

Things get tough in the middle realm, the chunks of time greater than a few heartbeats and shorter than a morning. If you want your character to hide beneath the floorboards for fifteen minutes, what do you do? A few ideas:

Make the poor bastard count: “Jarrel waited for the echoing footfalls above to recede, then forced himself to count upward to a thousand before he dared to risk raising the trap door.” This is rarely a great solution. Unless the reader is quick to convert a thousand-count into minutes (16.6), it’s not very precise. Also, it’s psychologically implausible in most situations: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts and counted to a thousand…”

Put in some clocks: Maybe you thought your town didn’t have clocks? Maybe you want to think again: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts, ignoring the clock tolling ten, and ignoring it, too, when it later tolled eleven.” But then, this isn’t going to do you much good if they’re making out in the woods.

Fudge it: “For what seemed a very long time Elesse ran her hands over Jarrel, his chest, his back, marveling that, after so many years, he should be in her arms once more.” This solution tends to work well in battle, too: “Elesse hacked with her blade for what seemed like days, until her arms were spattered with blood and her breath burned in her chest.”

Compare it to something else: I still remember the prologue to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, which is a great book, but has this strange sentence in the prologue: “…another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile.” It’s a game attempt to solve the temporal problem. Unfortunately, the sentence needs to be taken out into the street and shot.

The most useful approach is probably to mix the methods; the timekeeping for love will be different from the timekeeping for blacksmithing, and there are certainly other approaches that I’ve forgotten or never even considered. I’d be very curious to hear what I’ve left out. In a world without seconds, can you have a rodeo?

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.


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 Good Kind of Beheading

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains a major spoiler for Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. There is also a semi-spoiler regarding Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although nothing that should really ruin the story.

Most writers aren’t killers.

It doesn’t bring any sort of pleasure to create a character out of that magical mixture – two parts thin air, one splash of that girl we knew back in high school, a sprinkling of voice from the conversation next to us in the coffee shop, a liberal dollop of bullshit, boiled up with our own sublimated fears and desires – only to murder that character a few pages or chapters or books later. I often find myself reluctant to kill off even the characters I created for that very purpose. Even odious villains. Once I’ve spent all the time dreaming them up, I want to keep them around a little bit longer, to find out what awful shit they’ll get up to next.

And yet, the power of killing a major character, the necessity of it is undeniable. I still recall, as does just about everyone who has read Game of Thrones, the moment that Ned’s noble head is lopped from his equally noble shoulders. The whole world of the novel seemed to shift at that moment. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. “It’s that kind of book.” And suddenly, all possible outcomes were in play. Anyone could die at any time and, of course, they do. The book was better for Ned’s beheading.

A lot of older fantasy wasn’t quite like that. All the main characters except Boromir survive in Lord of the Rings, and even Boromir’s death is a sort of liberation, a badly needed rehabilitation. I loved the Belgariad as a child, but I always got the feeling that nothing really bad could happen to any of the really key players. In the these “gentler” forms of fantasy when someone you like is going to die, the death is telegraphed pretty far out, so you have time to prepare; it is also generally ennobling. Death becomes a sacrifice necessary for the ultimate triumph, not a meaningless, avoidable slaughter that occurs just because a character you’ve come to like makes a stupid mistake.

And yet, as noted, this second kind of death – the senseless and unexpected – is what really puts a reader on edge, what makes her keep flipping the pages, wide-eyed, wondering if the good guys are actually going to pull off a victory. It seems like an ingredient every fantasy writer should employ, almost a necessary formula: “In Book I of your series, kill a major and likeable character.” Writers and hostage takers share a rulebook here: “Let the bastards know you mean business.”

As formulae go, I like this one, but I think it’s dangerous.

A story is a contract between writer and reader. When we open a book, we expect certain things: mysteries introduced in the opening chapters will be resolved by the close, obstacles faced will be overcome (even if only partially), and, perhaps most crucially, we will follow the characters we’ve come to know to their ends, happy or sad.

I’ve more or less arrived at the conclusions that a writer can get away with killing one major character, someone in whom both she and her reader have invested time and emotional energy, per book. Much more than that, however, and I start to feel as though I’ve been bamboozled. If these folks are going to die on page four hundred (out of a two thousand word series,) I start to wonder, “Why did we spend so much time with them in the first place?” After all, if they’re gone from the picture by a quarter of the way through the story, it can’t really be their story. The contract feels violated.

This problem is compounded when the writer introduces entirely new characters in books two, three, four, five, etc, to take the place of those who have fallen. “Ok,” I sometimes find myself saying, “if it was all going to depend on this other asshole in the end, why weren’t we paying attention to him in Book One?” I also have more trouble investing in characters introduced later in the game.

It all comes back to that unwritten contract, of course. Writers like Steven Erikson let you know pretty much up front that their stories are actually histories. We are following the grand sweep of events, not the fate of a particular hero or group of heroes. As such, we accept that plenty of people are going to die – that’s what happens in history. When he kills off crucial characters in book two, he hasn’t violated his contract.

George R.R. Martin also scrapes by because of the scope of his series. He can kill a handful of characters while retaining others that we still care about. Imagine, however, if all the Starks were dead by book six and we were expected to read about the Martells for the rest of the story…

So a writer walks a fine line. A reader expects the people to whom she’s introduced in the opening pages to be (mostly) around by the end – that’s why she bothers learning about them, caring for them. On the other hand, if the writer doesn’t stab a few in the back, that reader grows complacent; the character lives, but the story itself dies.

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others on this question. How much killing is too much? Where have you seen it employed to good effect, and where does it undermine the story?