Long-time visitors will notice that a lot has changed around here. I’ve completely rebuilt the site to be easier to use and to provide more information for those wishing to learn about my books. In addition the site allows me to blog some of my thoughts about my books and about the craft of writing. Check back often for new info!
99% of all writing advice is just inspirational nonsense. Most of it boils down to “sing the story inside of you!” or “don’t give up on your dreams!” If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told this. If you have the bug, you’re going to write and nothing, not even self-interest, will stop you.
There’s another kind of writing advice, though, which usually gets quoted as gospel truth because nobody every thinks about what it really means. Let’s start with the most famous and most often repeated saying, “write what you know.”
Sounds good, right? Write from your own personal experience, and your stories will breathe with verisimilitude. What if you want to write genre fiction, though? What if you want, specifically, to write about what you don’t know? I can’t count how many times people have told me to write what I know. I try very hard to say thank you and not roll my eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of my head. The whole point of writing for me is to create new worlds. To explore weird ideas. If I only ever wrote what I know, my readers would get very bored, very quickly. The vast majority of my life involves what I’m doing right now. Staring at a blinking cursor on a computer screen, while I lift a can of Coke Zero Sugar to my mouth and fail to actually drink from it because I’m too lost in thought.
Do you want to read that book?
Honestly, this piece of advice is impossible to follow. Any story will, at the very least, abstract reality. A writer knows when to skip over vast swaths of lived reality. You throw away all the conversations that amount to:
“What? I didn’t hear you.”
“No, I didn’t–”
You skip the periods of time your character is asleep, or in the bathroom, or just watching television. But beyond mere elision, it’s literally impossible to write from reality. Language is only ever metaphor for describing things taken in by the human senses. No matter how carefully you choose your words, they are symbols, simplified hieroglyphs that represent sensory impressions in your reader’s mind. Except your reader may have very different impressions than you do. Your best attempt to represent your reality will never match up to what the reader experiences in their own head.
Perhaps I’m being a little precious, here. And, to be fair, like most pieces of advice, “write what you know” is actually useful when it’s taken with a grain of salt. It’s very true, for instance, that good writers take cues from their sensory experience when creating even the most fantastical scenes. One of the best bits of imagery I ever came up with was that the queen of an alien species of social insects had breath that smelled like honey. I love that image, and it came from actually getting a jar of honey out of the cupboard and taking a good honest whiff.
But the idea that you can only ever write from personal experience just doesn’t hold up, no matter how much you want it to. Simply because the whole purpose of writing–the reason it was created in the first place–was to catalogue all the things the reader cannot immediately see or feel or hear. Writers do research. We look things up, in others peoples’ books (or, more often these days, on Wikipedia). We draw ideas and images from other stories, or from first hand accounts of things, or scientific descriptions. Maybe the advice should be: “write what you know, or failing that, research the topic until you feel like you know it”.
Finally, to get back to genre writing–how can you “know” what it looks like to fly through hyperspace on the back of a time dragon, or what it feels like to transform into a were-ocelot under a silvery moon? The answer, of course, is that you infer it. You compare it to slightly similar experiences, or you close your eyes and just imagine it. The quality of your writing depends on your ability to then communicate your inference in a way that makes the reader feel it, too.
So maybe the advice should be “write what you know, or what you’ve researched thoroughly, or what you’ve done your level best to imagine given all the mental tools you have available.”
That’s a little long to put into a Facebook meme, though.
I heard a podcast recently where the guest talked about the Magical Realist novel he was working on. The host asked, “is that just a fantasy novel but you don’t want to admit you like geek stuff?” The guest laughed and admitted that was pretty much accurate.
Similarly, you hear a lot of people go on and on about “dream logic” as if it’s an excuse not to have to write a plot for your story, or have characters with realistic motivations.
Neither of these things is remotely true. Oh, it’s true that some writers use these terms as excuses. But they shouldn’t.
Surrealism is a style, not an excuse. It can be incredibly powerful when it’s done right. You look at a Salvador Dali painting of people wearing lobsters on their heads and your first reaction is to laugh. Then you move away quickly, and the image haunts you every time you think about it. That’s not just Dali throwing weird crap on a canvas and calling it art. The whole point of Surrealism, according to its creators, was to tap into the subconscious. To make connections between things that seemed separate. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and almost impossible to do well. When it does work, it’s magic.
“Every dream has its navel,” as Freud almost assuredly didn’t say. I’ve always interpreted this as meaning that any story, no matter how far-fetched, weird, or seemingly dissonant, must contain a connection to reality. At the very least some kind of nod to real, lived experience. Surrealism exists on that thread-like connection, the region where the wild nonsense of chaos bleeds into the stark cold light of day. Great practitioners understand that you have to walk that tightrope to bring back phenomenal stories.
When people talk about Dream Logic they always forget the “logic” part. Or the “realism” in Magical Realism. Let’s look at some of these styles individually, and see where, while they promise chaos and insanity, are actually art at its most carefully controlled:
Dream Logic: Often called “Fairy Tale Logic” as well. In some ways, DL is the opposite of surrealism. It’s the attempt to impose consistent, logical rules onto a nonsensical world, and more often than not, the attempt fails (intentionally). If surrealism is about digging in the deep soil of the Id, DL is about the Superego trying to make sense of a messy room. Alice in Wonderland is dream logic at its finest–Alice is a scientist attempting to solve Wonderland with clear syllogistic logic. The story is about what happens when you push too hard and the crazy thing pops back up behind you. David Lynch is a modern master of DL–Twin Peaks: The Return is a master class in the style. Be careful, though. Readers who expect straightforward narrative will quickly get bored with this “crazy” style. You need to find a way to keep them turning pages.
Stream of Consciousness: Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine is one of my favorite books. It’s the story of a man riding down an escalator, letting his thoughts wander. James Joyce’s Ulysses is often held up as the one and only masterpiece of SOC. It’s not, though. The real master here is Stephen King. King gives some terrible writing advice in his book On Writing: create an incredibly realized character and then just see what happens to them. No one should ever do this. King gets away with it because he has a genius-level aptitude for creating stories out of random events–his brain just naturally gravitates toward a loose, swingy plot, so eventually he gets a book out of his wool-gathering. Do you have Stephen King’s instincts? No? Best to use this for, say, a chapter in a longer work, or just in flashbacks, unless you’re absolutely certain you can bring it back home.
Magical Realism: Argh! No, it’s not just fantasy! It’s a reaction against fantasy! Magical Realism is an attempt to describe the real world–the place you’re living right now–period. The conceit is that the only way to truly explain the beauty and importance of a real place, person, or event is to highlight it with fantastic symbols. Some life events are so big and so impossible to describe that we need metaphors to handle them. The loss of a loved one becomes a story about them growing wings and flying away. But the story, the damned story, is about the loss, not the wings. This might be one of the most misused terms in literary history.
Dadaism: Not just surrealism’s cranky punk rock grandpa. The two movements actually serve radically different ends. If surrealism mines for hidden connections between disparate subjects, Dada is all about breaking apart the established connections of our every day life. A toilet seat covered in velvet is surreal; one covered in spikes is Dada. It forces you to rethink the things you do automatically all day long. A metronome is something you watch. Unless there’s an eye on it, then it’s watching you, pal. A man puts a bicycle wheel on a stool and puts it in a museum. Not just to prove that art is bullshit. No! That was the opposite of the point! The point was to show that objects you encounter everyday become invisible to you. By recontextualizing them they become visible again, which is one of the most jarring experiences you can have. Dada was about iconoclasm, about smashing your face into consciousness.
The last thing to say about invoking surrealism in your work is that it’s dangerous to the writer, first, and the reader, second. The writer who dallies with the unconscious is liable to end up discovering things about themselves–their own personal internal symbol systems, phobias they didn’t know they had. If you find that happening while you’re writing, it’s actually a sign that you’re on the right track. You owe it to yourself to explore those strange feelings. To dig deep and see what you can find. Write crazily. Try automatic writing, where you just type without looking at the screen. Throw a random symbol in your work and see what shakes loose. Just remember–you have to edit it all, later. You have to make it make sense, make sure the reader never feels like you’ve lost control. Whatever happened while you were composing is yours to keep, and doesn’t have to show up on the page.
Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.
Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.
Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.
The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.
There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.
Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.
Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.
Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.
We’re often told that comedy appeals to our intellectual side–our appreciation of wit and timing–while drama appeals to our emotions. Appealing to one or the other is the way to reach an audience, to create a significant effect in the reader’s/viewer’s brain that will cause them to be entertained. Either we need to laugh at the protagonist and his/her futile struggles, or we need to cry for them, to want them to succeed.
I’m a fan of horror stories, though, and it occurs to me that there might be a third axis of effect. A third way to reach an audience. Specifically I’m thinking of the physiological effect. The moment when the movie-goer jumps out of their seat, or the reader closes the book, unable to read further. I don’t think this is an emotional effect. I think it happens faster, in the spinal cord where our reflexes live, not in the brain. This is not sustained fear or dread but the moment of shock, the jolt of pure adrenaline.
As an experiment, I tried to plot a number of types of stories–subgenres of fiction–onto these three axes, to show why we need the physiological category. The graph above shows my work. I like to think of the three arms of the graph, the intellectual, emotional, and physiological effects, as, respectively, the “Aha!” moment, the “Oh, no!” moment, and the “Oh shit!” moment. Every story, in this model, attempts to create one of those effects–or a combination of them.
Different stories–different genres, if you like–aim to achieve different effects. Romantic comedies want us to aspire to the condition of the lover or the beloved, while whodunnit mysteries want us to think that the author is very clever. The most obvious example of the physiologically-oriented story is of course pornography–which wants to create an immediate, physical reaction in the consumer. However I think much of horror–and almost all horror movies–fit in here somewhere as well, in the region between the intellect and the physiological which I’ve labeled as The Shocking.
The story which attempts to evoke shock has a perverse sort of mission–it dares you to stop experiencing the very thing you sought out. It makes you want to cover your eyes so you don’t see the blood-stained axe. It mocks your attempt to make it all the way through a Stephen King novel when it’s already 3 am and you’re alone in that creaky old farmhouse. It doesn’t care about your intellect–you can’t think your way out of a jump scare. It doesn’t have anything to do with love or hate or any of the more nuanced emotions. It just wants to watch you squirm.
Fear, of course, is an emotion, and belongs on a different axis. But “true” fear isn’t what I’m getting at here. Fear sticks with you. It bothers you. Shock, on the other hand, is immediate and cathartic. You jump, your hand goes to your mouth–but then you relax. Your nervous system may be tuned to a higher pitch but you don’t linger on the feeling. True horror fans will not, I think, be surprised to find that I’ve linked shock and pornography here. The distance between shock and fear is the same as the space between lust and love.
Shock and the physiological do not require deep characterization or intricate plot to achieve their end. In fact these things tend to draw us out of the effect. Just as horror comedies always end up being funny but not scary, shock movies with complicated plots always feel wrong–the shock becomes prurient, sprinkled in to keep the viewer awake and therefore less “artful”. No, a good shock moment is one where the plot suddenly becomes meaningless, where the characters turn into nothing more than witnesses to a crime. Shock is an irruption of story, an unexpected moment which offers neither explanation nor apology. It is amazingly effective when done right; when done ham-handedly, nothing feels cheaper or more contrived.
There are horror stories which eschew shock and the physiological effect, of course. Weird fiction comes to mind, a subgenre which puts aside jumping cats and pure gore, instead attempting to achieve an effect of the uncanny–the moment when you realize something is very wrong with the world, something you can’t quite identify. Lovecraft is often held up as the inventor or at least perfector of weird fiction, but he had his moments of relishing the gory and the grotesque–when I put weird fiction on the other side of the graph here I’m thinking more of the abstract horrors of Aickman and Ligotti and the luminous Ramsey Campbell.
Gothic fiction, the predecessor to modern horror, attempted to explore the depths of the pathetic (the term is not meant to be pejorative, but more clinical). A young woman in peril evokes our pity and our hope, but always we know the nasty thing was lurking around the corner, spying on her, and that makes us clench our jaws in anticipation. It’s interesting that the Gothic split, in the early 20th century, into horror and romance, two categories we think of very differently now–but which both attempt to evoke the physiological effect.
I subtitled this piece “notes toward a theory” because I’m still not entirely sure if this model is complete. There may be additional axes. I think there might be a Spiritual axis–stories which attempt to elevate the soul rather than the emotions, though we see so few of those kind of stories these days its hard to say if that element deserves a full dimension on the graph. But I do believe that looking at our physiological response to some stories, especially horror stories, can add new light to our understanding of how stories work.
“Calling Space Mummy… Space Mummy come in… the galaxy needs your aid once more… calling Space Mummy… Space Mummy come in…”
The signal rushed across the ether, bouncing off pulsars and rocketing past blue giant stars. The call that could not be ignored, the call for help!
When Space Mummy first heard it, he was wrestling with kelnars on a planet circling the star Arcturus. The kelnars were beasts, savage animals that were half lion, half insect, and all fury. Two of them had their massive jawparts clamped around either of Space Mummy’s arms while a third writhed on the ground under Space Mummy’s massive, bandaged heel.
At the sound of the call Space Mummy burst into action. He shook the two kelnars off his arms and kicked the other into a crater. “Sorry, pals,” he said. “I’m needed elsewhere!” With a great bound he leapt across the crumbling soil of Arcturus IV, back to where his starship, the Astro-Obelisk, stood straight and tall a thousand feet above the beast world’s plain. In the low gravity of that deadly world he jumped up into the ship’s airlock, a round door cunningly worked into one of the countless giant hieroglyphs decorating the Astro-Obelisk’s surface.
He hurried to the engine room, where his chief engineer was already warming up the ecto-reactor. “Beat Bones,” Space Mummy called out, lustily. “You know our next destination?”
The engineer was a human skeleton dressed in a black turtleneck and a matching beret. No one could work the reactor better, because Beat Bones had built it himself. “It’s a stone groove, Daddio,” the beatnik mechanic claimed. “We’ll blow this pop stand before you reach the control room!”
Space Mummy laughed and looked up at the tall ecto-reactor, which resembled a giant hourglass filled with the wailing spirits of the dead. Not for the first time, he wished there was some better way to propel a starship than by torturing the damned. Space Mummy was a man of great compassion. But the galaxy made its demands—what could he do but acquiesce? He climbed a long ladder toward the pyramidal control room at the top of the Astro-Obelisk. When he arrived Miss Death, his factotum and first mate, was already laying in coordinates.
She was wearing a black Chanel dress and a brooch in the shape of the wadjet, the Eye of Horus. Space Mummy took a moment to enjoy the way the colored lights of the control board flashed off her bare skull. He was secretly in love with Miss Death, though he assumed she was beyond all mortal concerns and would never return his affections. “You heard the call?” he asked. Then he grabbed for the side of his chair as the room shook wildly—the Astro-Obelisk was blasting off in a great welter of screaming ectoplasm!
“I have it up on the main screen,” Miss Death said, her eye sockets burning with white fire. One triangular wall of the control room lit up with the jackal face of General Anubis, dressed in his customary paratrooper’s uniform, complete with a bright red ascot and aviator sunglasses. The only being in the stars who could order Space Mummy around!
“You’re needed on Planet 13,” Anubis barked. “The King there has gone mad with power. Great injustices may be committed at any moment!”
“Understood,” Space Mummy said. “Miss Death—how long to Planet 13?”
“Traveling at just below the speed of light, the fastest speed allowed by the laws of Physics,” she said, running the calculation on her own, smaller screen, “about twenty-four years.”
“A blink of the cosmic eye,” Space Mummy said. “General Anubis—I’m on it!”
Planet 13 had been a lovely place, once, a paradise of forests full of tall trees and placid lakes. Now it was a hellscape of massive factories belching filth into the sky and endless concrete parking lots, despite the fact that none of the workers could afford to buy cars! The King of Planet 13, Viktor Markoz, had transformed the place in just a few short decades. He’d done it on the backs of his poor subjects, worked till they collapsed by a corrupt and decadent military caste.
“Ha ha!” they would laugh, as their leatheroid whips cracked across the spines of the workers. “Ha ha!” Propaganda posters of the King’s face hung from every building in the capital city, called Markoz after its master. Massive statues of the man stood in every plaza. Try as hard as they might, the sculptors never managed to portray their King with anything but a nasty sneer on his face. Maybe it was the result of the old dueling scar that ran from his chin to his temple, costing him the use of one eye. Or maybe it was the darkness that squirmed inside his evil heart.
“There,” he said, standing on the balcony of his palace, a fifty-story skyscraper in the middle of the city. He peered with his remaining eye through a spyglass and pointed at a polluted lake some miles away. “I own that!” He spun the spyglass around so he could see a strip-mine where once a rolling meadow had been. “No more wildflowers, not when I need iron for my weapons of war!”
His audience was the young Prince Kurt, his only child and heir. “Yes, father,” the Prince said, though not without a heavy sigh. Prince Kurt did not love evil, no matter how much he wished to please his—frankly insane—father.
“Do you see that massive prison?” the King demanded, pointing out across the blighted landscape. “Is that mine? Is it? It is! Ha ha!” he laughed, a laugh that echoed the brutal sadism of his evil soldiers. “And that—that—there…” his gloating drew to a sputtering stop. “What is that? Do I own it?”
Prince Kurt rushed over to the spyglass, though in fact he didn’t need it. A massive building stood on the far side of the central square, directly across from the skyscraper palace. It looked nothing like the other buildings—it was not stained with years of soot, nor was it covered in unnecessary spikes and gargoyles and leering bas reliefs of the face of Viktor Markoz. Instead it was a graceful square column, tapering gently to a pyramidal tip. Its surface was elegantly carved with ancient pictograms. “Why, father,” Prince Kurt said, in wonderment, “I believe that’s—I mean it kind of looks like, that is to say it’s—”
“SPACE MUMMY!” the King of Planet 13 screeched. “He’s here!”
Space Mummy had dressed for battle, in a kilt of hammered copper and a golden nemes headdress, the gear of an ancient Egyptian warrior pharaoh. He leapt down to the streets of Markoz City and just as he’d expected—and secretly hoped—was met by a welcoming committee. In this case, a cadre of huge goons wielding leatheroid whips! But these whips were even worse than the ones the soldiers used on the workers. These were electrified.
“Ha ha,” the soldiers laughed, and their whips sang a crackling symphony of pain.
Space Mummy wasted no time. He never did. He grabbed one of the whips even as it sailed toward his face. Yanking on it, hard, he lifted a soldier off the ground and spun him around like a wicked bola, knocking down all the rest of the soldiers one by one.
Next came machine gunners on motorcycles, with sidecars that also carried machine gunners. Space Mummy guffawed as the bullets tore through his bandages. They could not harm a man who had been properly mummified in the ancient Egyptian tradition! As the motorcycles roared ever closer he brought his hands together and whispered the ancient incantation. “By the names of Osiris and Isis, I AM POWER INCARNATE!” Then he slapped his hands together so hard the resulting shockwave sent the motorcycles spinning end over end into the air.
A walking tank came toward him, a colossus of armor in the shape of a man with a massive gun sticking out of his midriff. The gun whined as it charged up for a devastating powershot. But Space Mummy was ready. “Horus Punch,” he shouted, as he dashed forward, one fist curving around to land a thundering blow right in the solar plexus of the walking tank.
When the dust cleared the walking tank’s gun was bent at a comical angle. The big machine tottered on its metal feet and then fell backwards with a great clang.
A final foe moved to stand before Space Mummy. It was not a division of crack troops, nor an aerial bombardment by space planes. Instead it was a single soldier, a young man who had tried and failed to grow a goatee. He shook visibly in his patent leather boots and it looked like he might drop his saber at any moment. But he raised one finger and jabbed it in Space Mummy’s direction.
“You will not get past me,” the young man said. “Oh, you may have defeated all our other defenses handily. Oh, your strength may be immeasurable. And I must admit your cause is just. King Viktor Markoz is a dictator, an evil man. He does not deserve to rule Planet 13. Yet even saying as much—there is a question here, a question of planetary sovereignty, that must be addressed. What right do you have to come here and attack our King Viktor Markoz? What authority does General Anubis possess to send you around the galaxy, toppling governments and fighting cosmic horrors? What kind of freedom do you represent, if the people of a given planet cannot choose their own destiny? Even if they choose wrong, even if they make poor choices, that is their right. And so I will stand before you, alone and afraid. I will stand up to the greatest bully of all—yes! For that is what I name you, Space Mummy. That is what I—”
“Apep strike,” Space Mummy said, and delivered a single karate chop that knocked the young man’s head right off his shoulders.
Space Mummy looked around the square. “Next?” he called.
But there were no defenders left. Planet 13 was defenseless!
Space Mummy focused his ka energy and hurled himself toward the skyscraper palace across the square. He didn’t even slow down as he jumped on the head of a giant bronze statue of King Viktor Markoz, denting it badly.
“So-called King,” he sang out, “prepare to be judged in the halls of the dead, where if your heart is found to be heavier than a single feather—”
“One moment,” a voice called out, echoing around the square. It came from a giant loudspeaker mounted on the front of the skyscraper palace. “One moment please, Space Mummy. I can see that you are preparing your famous Desert Oasis Burst, also known as the Attack of One Thousand Staggering Punches. I have heard stories of your great strength. I am sure it would level this entire building.”
“I possess the futuristic technology that built the pyramids!” Space Mummy called out. “I have studied the mind and body techniques of the ancient pharaohs, which have made me an unstoppable hero!”
“Unstoppable?” the voice from the loudspeaker asked. “Or perhaps… not?”
Space Mummy stopped in mid-air and just hung there, waiting to hear what the King of Planet 13 would say.
“I know you fight always for… gah, freedom,” the King announced, the word seeming to stick in his throat. “I know you are worshipped as a god on many worlds. But I know you would also never hurt an innocent.”
King Viktor Markoz stepped out onto his balcony. He was in full uniform, with a half-cape and a saber at his side. He held the hand of a small boy.
“If you attack this building, you will kill me, yes, but you will also kill Prince Kurt. Who, despite all my attempts at indoctrination, still possesses the clean, pure heart of a child.”
Space Mummy dropped lightly to the ground. He could see it was true.
“We have come, I think, to an impasse,” King Viktor Markoz said. “You cannot kill me. I cannot destroy you.”
Space Mummy lowered his bandaged head, his hands balling into fists at his sides. “You’re forgetting one thing, though,” he said.
“You forget that I possess the greatest weapon the cosmos has ever known,” Space Mummy insisted. “Time.”
He snapped his massive fingers. An airlock opened on the front of the Astro-Obelisk. Two members of Space Mummy’s skeleton crew emerged, bearing a solid gold sarcophagus, worked elegantly in the ancient Egyptian style. Space mummy pointed at the center of the square, at a spot directly below the dented statue.
“Wait,” King Viktor Markoz said. “Hold on. What are you doing?”
The skeleton crew sang prayers to Ra as Space Mummy opened the lid of the sarcophagus. It was no simple casket, but a weapon capable of wreaking untold devestation. Space Mummy climbed inside, adjusted the pillow under his head, and called out to his bony crewmen. “Close it up, boys,” he said.
“No! You cannot! I won’t—”
The King of Planet 13’s voice was first muffled, then silenced as the lid of the sarcophagus closed over Space Mummy’s bandaged face. Space Mummy adjusted the sarcophagus’ controls, setting the Master Dial for seventy-five years.
“Now,” he whispered, as he sank into the Sleep of Pharaohs, “we play… the waiting game.”
Seventy-five years later Space Mummy opened his eyes. It would have been impossible for anyone to know that, since his eyes were covered by rich linen bandages, and anyway, he was still in the sarcophagus. He yawned and stretched a little, then punched upward and sent the lid of the sarcophagus flying across the square.
He emerged into a Planet 13 changed beyond recognition. The city square now was a lush park full of medium-sized trees. Children laughed and played in a broad public fountain. The statue of King Viktor Markoz had disappeared, replaced by a monument to the hard-working people of Freedom City.
Space Mummy laughed as he looked around. He reached down one massive hand and took the hand of a little girl who smiled up at him with joy. “It’s Space Mummy,” she said. “Everyone! It’s Space Mummy!”
It wasn’t long before Space Mummy was joined by a young woman in robes of pure samite, with a slender diadem of silver on her brow. She smiled warmly and gave Space Mummy a polite bow. “I am Queen Vladina,” she said. “The benevolent ruler of Planet 13. It is good to look upon your countenance, Space Mummy.”
“What of King Viktor Markoz?” Space Mummy asked. “What came of him?”
“He died a few years after you entered your weaponized slumber. I believe he slipped and accidentally fell fifty stories off his balcony. Onto a terrorist bomb, which was buried under a pile of cavalry sabers. Which had been poisoned. It was a fitting end to such a horrible man.”
“And he was replaced by King Kurt, then?” Space Mummy asked.
“Briefly. Kurt turned out to be a weak and ineffectual leader, who was quickly ousted by a military coup. Which was in turn overthrown by a popular revolt by the Committee for Public Safety. Which grew corrupt and decadent and was then voted out of power by a coalition of workers. Who finally elected me their supreme queen. Planet 13 has entered a golden age under my rule, because there is no evil or greed in my pure soul.”
“I can see it in your eyes,” Space Mummy said. He considered leaning forward and kissing Queen Vladina, but then he remembered Miss Death, and the desperate longing he felt for her, always. “Freedom has come to your planet! As is true everywhere, people long to be free. They crave it. Most likely they were inspired by the sight of my sarcophagus where it lay here, in the central square, for seven and one half decades. No doubt every time they passed by my visage they were reminded of what they truly wanted, a just and fair society. I imagine they must have spent their whole lives dreaming of that which I represent. A free and happy galaxy.”
Queen Vladina blinked several times. She coughed into her hand, delicately. Then she swallowed and nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “It must have been so.”
The Astro-Obelisk raced across the spaceways again, pushing the speed of light as it blasted a path through the red clouds of the Crab Nebula. In the control room, Space Mummy and Miss Death sat on comfortable stools, sipping cocktails. Neither of them were capable of consuming liquids, of course, so their martini glasses were full of ectoplasm, the same raw stuff of dead souls that powered the ship’s engines. As Space Mummy lifted his glass to the light he could see a face in there, wracked with torment.
If only, he thought, there was a better way to make a Sloe Ghost Fizz. A way to make one without suffering. Well, what could be done?
“Time,” Space Mummy mused, “will murder all tyrants.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Miss Death said. The white flames that burned inside her eyesockets studied Space Mummy, his noble profile, his massive chest. If only he knew, she thought, how she longed for him, how she dreamed every night of her bones being crushed in his massive arms. Yet, it was impossible. She was one of Space Mummy’s skeleton crew. He would never fraternize with one of his staff—it was unthinkable.
“Have we received new orders from General Anubis?” Space Mummy asked, touching his glass to the bandages that covered his lips.
“Not yet,” Miss Death said. “Though I doubt things will stay quiet for long. Not in a galaxy like this!”
The two of them laughed, long and hard. But unbeknownst to them, the signal was already rocketing its way toward them.
“Calling Space Mummy… Space Mummy, come in… the galaxy has need of you once more…”
I want to share a story about one of my failures as a writer.
I intended, once, to write a short story about a woman working in an organ farm. A place where brainless clone bodies are grown in vats, so that their organs can be harvested to save the lives of people waiting for transplants. One of the clone bodies starts kicking the side of the vat, and the woman freaks out. It turns out that it’s just a loose wire–easily fixed–and the body goes on to save dozens of lives.
I thought it was a good, creepy image that I could turn into an unsettling little story. Then I actually tried to write it.
I realized after the first draft that the message of the story was very clear: it’s wrong to grow clone bodies in vats, even if it saves lives. It doesn’t matter why you do it, it’s terrible and awful and disgusting. There’s only one problem. I don’t think that. I honestly believe that cloning is going to lead to enormous advances in medical science. I’ve known people who needed transplant organs and couldn’t get them. They died, horribly.
I tried writing a second draft, changing some details. I added a scientist who comes in and gives a speech about how the clones could save lives. I added a coda where a little girl gets a new kidney and gets to see her tenth birthday.
The story, with the clone kicking the side of the tank, was still awful and nasty. The message was still clear.
A third draft didn’t help at all. The clone kicked the tank. Rhythmically. Mechanically. Like a robot. I couldn’t shake the fact that this little gesture, this meaningless twitch, made the clone human. Made its existence an atrocity.
Okay, why am I dwelling on a story I eventually decided not to even finish? Because there’s a point here about theme.
Theme, what your story is “about”, may be the hardest part of writing. If you try to force it, you often come across as didactic or preachy. The usual advice is that you shouldn’t worry about it. Write the story you want to write, and theme will take care of itself. This is good advice ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and it’s how I usually operate.
At least… I did until I tried to write this story. Now I sit up nights worrying about theme all the time. Did any of my earlier books spread a message I personally disagree with? I’m not a huge fan of gun violence in real life, but I kind of fetishized Laura Caxton’s pistols, and the rocket launcher in Monster Island. By writing all those books about the end of the world, did I inspire people to think there is no future, that we don’t have to worry about climate change?
The unintended parable is one of the great risks a writer runs when they choose not to think about theme at all. I’m not saying you should write a book with the intention of sending a message–as well all know, that’s what Western Union is for. But maybe spare a thought, once you’ve finished your outlining, for what your story says. What it means.
You might save yourself a lot of regret later.
What’s the difference between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy? Both are fictional stories about the suffering of likeable, or at least attractive, heroes. There is an inevitability to their plots–they’re not necessarily formulaic, but everyone can pretty much see where things are headed. Neither of them promises nor delivers a happy ending.
Yet Greek tragedies are held up as being among the finest examples of literature. Soap operas are often derided as trash stories fit only for the most bored and jaded consumers.
I can tell you a soap opera is more dynamic and harder to write than a tragedy. They require bigger character ensembles, more modulation, better pacing. A tragedy is all about sustained affect, a car driving downhill as fast as it can. A soap opera is a rally race, where you need to plan for each stage, every sharp turn well in advance. So why do we roll our eyes when Laura goes into another coma, or Stavros burns down the children’s hospital… but applaud in respect when Oedipus realizes he’s married his mother and then stabs out his own eyes?
Both forms serve the same function: to make you feel pity. The downfall of the characters is unearned, or at least regrettable. The tone is somber, reflective, and bitter. Both forms rely heavily on mood and atmosphere. What separates them is focus.
The story of Oedipus is ridiculous and tawdry, but it’s one story. The play-goer or reader can’t get away from this one man’s journey. On the other hand a soap opera is crammed full of tales of woe. Every character has their own downward arc, and in the best soap operas no one story is valued more highly than any of the others.
When tragedy is singular, and rare, and highlighted, it feels real and strong and relatable. When tragedies are piled atop one another, they suffer from comparison to each other and they become melodrama. Another coma? Another burning hospital? Another husband hypnotized into sleeping with his wife’s younger sister? It becomes self-parodying, often farcical.
When you plot out your story you need to think about how the reader will react to each element, each beat. You need to know how far you can stretch their willingness to feel for your characters. Focusing in on a single character’s misfortune is a powerful tool. It’s tempting to give every side character and extra their own deep, sorrowful backstory, but all that does is dilute your protagonist’s suffering. If everyone is sad, no one’s sadness means anything. If one man is miserable while the world around him is singing in joy, the contrast alone is enough to make him sympathetic.
This isn’t to say that a character’s crisis has to be simple. Complications will arise from your inciting incident, the stakes will pile up, the plot will thicken. And it would be unrealistic to have everyone other than your main character be happy all the time. But focus in as best you can. Drill down on one person’s story at a time. The tighter, the more laser-like in intensity your plot becomes, the more powerful the drama.