Perhaps it’s the video of boys that connected me so quickly and so completely to this song. I see the parents desperately saving their son at the end, and my mind races to when I came so close to losing my own, each in different ways.
I had to learn more about this creator of narrative music.
Ludovico Einaudi is Italian born and bred; like me, his love of music is rooted down and in with his love of family. A scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Festival exposed him to the blossoming movement of American minimalism (a style developed in part by another favorite of mine, Philip Glass). He’s been composing music for stage and screen since the 1980s, but has also produced solo albums, the first–le Onde—being inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short stories.
How curious to listen to a man inspired by fiction to compose music while his music inspires me to compose fiction!
Here’s a lovely example of the minimalism present in one of his more recent albums, Elements.
I’m so happy to have found a live version of this song for the visual of this minimalism. No orchestra here–just a piano, a violin, a cello, a guitar, and a percussionist. Yet with these few instruments, you feel the world about you fill with sound, trickle-slow, like water moving through a child’s crafted wall of river stones. This steady build fits beautifully with the rise of tension in a scene, or of a character’s resolve to face the darkness.
Like young Lucy opening a wardrobe door to another world, Einaudi’s “Primavera” welcomes us into another world of magic created by trills and arpeggios–fitting touches in a melody for a song entitled “Spring.” And because spring is not always a delicate season, Einaudi makes the wise choice of building the strings up at the 2:00 minute mark to send them cascading like a downpour upon us. They run up like lighting, the bass notes rumble as thunder, and we are left standing in the deluge until the harp arrives to soften the rainfall and crack the clouds.
Einaudi’s talent for building darker worlds can be found in another album, In a Time Lapse.
It is another song that builds, yes, but there’s a menace this time. The relentless snare drum forces us forward on whether we wish to or not. At roughly 2:00 a violin cries out, a plea for…for what? A plea to listen, to change, to stop. There’s tragedy in that relentless march, and if we don’t escape, we will lose our hope. The lone piano that ends the song tells me…well. What it tells me and what it tells you may be two different things.
That’s one of the great beauties of narrative music: interpretation.
Music is a life-force. It moves our hearts to beat, our souls to breathe. May Einaudi’s compositions beat in your characters’ hearts and breathe across the fantasy-scapes of your worlds with all the magic of a thunderstorm on a summer’s eve.
Stay tuned for author interviews galore! We’re going to learn more about some beautiful historical fiction set in World War II, a cracking cozy mystery, and a series of Young Adult novels set in the cut-throat world of horse-racing.
In my January post about character death, we discussed the traumatic moment of a beloved character’s death. I loved reading your comments on how character deaths can be utilized to help strengthen stories. The ever-lovely author Shehanne Moore nailed it when she said:
A threat is a threat. End of. People can’t go up against the big guns and come out unscathed, or be labelled ruthless warriors and then be pussy cats. On another level life doesn’t always end happily with rose tinted sunsets.
These past few months, I’ve been struggling with the Act 1s of stories littered with murder and mayhem–mainly mayhem. It hit me, then, or at least while describing a corpse, that the Unknown’s Death can do wonders in making a story compelling to readers.
Now I’m not just talking typical Red Shirt Deaths. The lovely Cath Humphris referred to this kind of death back in January:
Which deaths irritate me? Well, it’s not so much in books, as on screen, and hopefully these days less usual to see. I mean those dramas when you can pick out who who will be ‘knocked-off’, pretty much from their introduction, because of their race or gender. A lot of the old ‘B’ movies and detective series were extremely lazy about the introduction of ‘canon fodder’ characters. It’s such a shame, because some of these stories were otherwise entertaining.
I and many others label these “Red Shirt Deaths” in honor of the original Star Trek show. Whenever the Enterprise crew explores an alien planet, some random security officer dies.
The Red Shirt Death is meant to make the “life or death” stakes clear to both the characters and the audience of that given episode. The audience, however, knows full well that Shatner and Company aren’t going to get killed, so there’s not exactly much tension when a Red Shirt dies.
But the Unknown Character Death done right can burn into your reader’s psyche and leave a scar for years, and years, and years.
I mean, you know that scene.
The kind that traumatized you as a child. The kind that glued you to the story even though your little brain’s utterly horrified and wants your body to flee to the safety of your mother’s lap, your father’s desk.
Who Framed Roger Rabbitcame out when PG meant “Pare down the Gore.” So long as characters didn’t have sex, drop F-bombs, or remove each other’s intestines on screen, the movie was considered family friendly.
I still. Remember. That screaming.
A shoe, screaming.
You only saw the shoe in that one scene.
You sure as hell didn’t forget it.
And just look at the reactions of Detective Valiant and the other officer. They are horrified. When grown men who carry guns are horrified of a toon dying, you bet your boots a kid in the audience is cowering behind her dad while he talks about Star Trek V (Dad talked A LOT during movies.)
In this one moment, we get:
The judge’s disregard for toon life
That toons, previously thought impervious to death, can actually die
That the protagonist humans regard toon life with at least some respect
That the protagonists would rather protect a toon wanted for murder than hand him over to this judge
The stakes have officially been raised because we now have visual evidence of the consequences that will be met if Roger Rabbit is captured. We now know the lengths to which the villainous judge will go in order to have his way. Detective Valiant now knows what he’s up against.
We the audience now know what the good guys are up against, and we’re scared to death for them because we’ve seen what will happen if the bad guys get them.
Another ’80s example comes in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic Dark Crystal. The scene’s so terrifying that YouTube won’t even let me share the scene, so I’ve got to link you to the moment where an evil Skeksi is draining the life essence from a podling and traumatize you that way.
Does the podling die? No.
Then it’s not character death, Jean!
Hush, yes it is. This creature’s life has been drained. We’ve witnessed a living being undergo a damning transformation into a zombie.
This may as well be death.
Once again, this is a moment that
establishes the power of the evil Skeksis
displays the evil Skeksi’s disregard for innocent life
That’s what makes these deaths so horrifying:
We’re watching the innocent and vulnerable be rendered lifeless.
These aren’t armed podlings. The shoe wasn’t trying to kick the judge and take him down. These are innocent, unarmed creatures completely unable to fight against the threat.
When we see them die, we realize the villains are without mercy or conscience. We must watch on to see the heroes take the villains down because those villains must be held accountable for their actions.
How to swing this in a book?
Let’s return to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I wrote a post on this book some time ago as a great study in world-building; this time, let’s see how they handle a character death in the first two chapters.
On page one, we meet the expedition team into the mysterious Area X, and the narrator of this novel is the biologist. The others are the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Why no names?
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. (9)
The stakes feel raised at this point. We know something goes wrong with the surveyor and psychologist, but we don’t know what. We follow the biologist and her team investigate a peculiar structure near the base camp of abandoned by previous expeditions, and wonder when things will go wrong.
We don’t have to wait long.
The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, as if she hadn’t slept. … “Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question… (38-29)
The surveyor and biologist go into the structure and walk the seemingly eternal stairs downward to discover new footprints, and beyond them, they discover:
It was the body of the anthropologist, slumped against the left-hand wall, her hands in her lap, her head down as if in prayer, something green spilling out from her mouth. Her clothing seemed oddly fuzzy, indistinct. A faint golden glow arose from her body. … Something clicked into place, and I could see it all in my head. In the middle of the night, the psychologist had woken the anthropologist, put her under hypnosis, and together they had come to the [structure] and climbed down this far. (60,63)
We’re only in Chapter 2, and one character–one of the only four characters in this novel–is already dead.
It’s not like we knew the anthropologist. The biologist seemed to barely know her, let alone care about her as a human being. But by killing a character this early in the story, we know the stakes are raised. Not only do we see what Area X can do to a human being, but we realize one of the human beings in this expedition is willing to kill to achieve her ends. We readers need to see that psychologist be held accountable. We need to see the biologist escape Area X, so we read on.
There’s a power in the sacrifice of the innocent life to the villain’s ambition.
Use it wisely.
How about you? Have you ever seen/read the Unknown Character Death used effectively? I’d love to know!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Things are going to get personal here about family, friends, and the future of Jean Lee’s World.
My name is Christopher Lee and I am the author of Westward, a Channillo exclusive serial release occult fantasy that blends X-Files and the Magnificent Seven.
What made you choose publishing your work as a serial as opposed to a collection/novel?
DAN: I have collections with my publisher GenZ, Lapping Water, Humbled Wise Men Christmas Haikus, and Home other places I’ve yet to see. Channillo has been a good place for projects of mine that I view as smaller endeavors.
CHRIS: For one I love to write as if my story were being presented as a TV show, each chapter I write feels like an episode of a show to me, so it made sense to present it this way. The format of serial publication allows me to work on my story at the same time as I get feedback from readers on previous chapters, etc which in turn helps make the story better down the road.
What benefits have arisen with plot, character development, and/or voice as you write a serial?
DAN: It’s fun to write these poem-letters in “Weathergirl.” I call it soap opera poetry.
CHRIS: It takes a huge load off of the authorś shoulder to know that they don’t have to crank out a huge manuscript in order for readers to access their work. There is a flexibility that I mentioned before that allows the writer to breath, take a step back, and then return to the keyboard recharged and excited to write the next chapter of the story, not to mention it keeps the readers hungry for more.
I concur about that load being shirked off! However, I know one problem I have when posting my own Young Adult Fantasy MIDDLER’S PRIDE is publishing on time.
What challenges have you faced writing serials?
CHRIS: Honestly, I have not faced any, save that classic HIT THE DEADLINE. When I began to write Westward, I had a fully developed story arc with complete show/chapter ideas. This allows me to simply sit down and write the next installment, whereas had I not done so I might have run into an issue of keeping the story straight, so to speak. Ultimately it is all about consistency when running a serial. You need to market it consistently and produce the content on time so that your readers know they can count on you. After all, there is nothing worse than investing time as a reader in a story that dead ends.
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is about a man writing to a news anchor and the reader doesn’t know if he is a deranged fan, or a fan, or her actual lover and I haven’t had any problems developing that. I’m very fortunate.
Now while I myself have never published any poetry, I find it a pleasure to read! It seems to fit well with the serial form. Because I’ve written Middler with the serial publishing platform in mind, I find myself constantly looking for little arcs or episodes to write within the larger novel-arc. How do you feel your writing and/or genre’s been affected by publishing it in a serialized form?
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is weekly so when holidays turn up I like writing themed segments. The arrows on the clock are pointing at me was like a fun dumping ground for unpublished poems and I hope to maybe start another series like that. Venus Fly Trap kept my haiku skills sharp and Little Silver Microphone explores recordings both home and live.
CHRIS: I primarily write in the fantasy genre, which I believe is aided by the format. Fantasy in some ways suffers from the drudgery of 600+ page novels that remain inaccessible to the general public at large. Many consumers of media want smaller bites that they can digest while they ride the bus, an Uber, or just before bed, etc. Just look at Netflix and the advent of binge watching or in this case binge reading.
What do you think draws readers to read serial (non)fiction?
CHRIS: Accessibility and consistent content creation are the two major things for me. One that readers can have an a la carte or buffet experience with different genres, authors, and styles. Two is that there isn’t a huge delay between content dumps from the authors, its the exact opposite of the George R.R. Martin effect, for example waiting for years for a conclusion to the story you as the reader have invested time in.
Do you receive any reader feedback on your writing as it’s posted? What do you do with those reader comments? DAN: Yes, I do. I’ve gotten great feedback that has meant a lot to me. Sometimes I post quotes about my series on the work’s homepage.
CHRIS: If I am being honest, I have not received much in the way of comments via the Channillo platform, but I have been contacted via Twitter, Facebook, and email from readers who have given me some of the most constructive feedback I have gotten to date. It is a really cool experience to have that level of connection with the reader. Usually what I do with said commentary is to implement whatever makes the most sense to the story, all while keeping the core message of the reader close to heart.
What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to give serialization a go?
CHRIS: First and foremost you need to have a fully developed story before you kick the thing off. If you don’t have that, then you run the risk of hitting a dead end that could cause you massive problems. Ultimately a plan will save your booty if you get in a pinch.
DAN: Make sure you do your installments on time with interesting material to help build an audience.
I found this quote published inThe Washington Postback in 2015, and I’d like you to comment on it:
Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. … Yet it requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum — a value that needn’t come at the expense of integrity. –Hillary Kelly, “Bring Back the Serialized Novel”
CHRIS: Kelly makes a great point, though the critics of serialization see it as low art or cheap in quality, I find the process to be far more rigorous. You can simply slap crap together and throw it at the wall and hope that it sticks. In fact, you have to take even more time to craft a tight narrative, then you would in the case of a novel. To run a successful serial you have to keep your readers hooked. In the traditional method, example a fully fledged novel, once they buy your book, the transaction is largely done, you have the readers money, whether or not they come back for subsequent books is altogether another animal. With a serial, you have the flexibility that you don´t have in the traditional sense, and that is the true strength of serialization.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, guys, and good luck building those Channillo stories! You’re reminding me I need to update what’s going on with Meredydd…
In the meantime, check out these authors and other amazing folks at Channillo. You can scope out their amazing store of stories FREE for thirty days. Who knows? Maybe you’d like to write for them, too!
To celebrate March Magics–and because I’ve final projects to grade and two novels to crack down upon–I’m sharing a previously unposted essay I wrote a couple years back when I was compiling all my Diana Wynne Jones posts into the collection Lessons Learned. Enjoy!
In “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey,”Diana Wynne Jones discusses the place of the mythic hero in contemporary story-telling, especially her own. This particular essay in Reflections on the Magic of Writing struck me on epiphanical proportions. (Yes, new word. Doesn’t the fantasy genre allow for some language leniency?) In all the writing classes I had taken over the years, no one had ever broken down the echoes and inspirations between the modern and ultra-classic like that before. Jones details connections between her work and Chaucer, Spenser, and Homer, to name a few. Sure, that may sound like she’s tooting her own horn, but I don’t think so. Fire and Hemlock, one of her most critically revered novels, is so subtle with the fantastic you can literally blink and miss it. For instance, the first chapter is all about the protagonist Polly trying to remember something. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Yet as we go further into the story, we learn Polly is fighting through the memories be-spelled upon her by the villain. The first chapter shares Polly’s initial success in remembering the true past.
Tempting as it is to go in depth on Fire and Hemlock yet again, “The Heroic Ideal” contains Jones’ discussion of mythology’s inspiration F&H with far more depth and humor. Besides, she wrote two other novels that serve as marvelous examples. The first, Eight Days of Luke, is a touch more obvious than Fire and Hemlock if one knows a bit about Norse mythology. I’ll admit that I didn’t, at least not until the movie Thor came out and my father was as giddy as an eight-year-old. (It is a decent movie, for the record–and directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people!)
Granted, Marvel’s interpretation of Norse mythology is, um, loose, but you get some basics in there: the home of the gods, Thor and his dad being at odds, Loki the mischief maker, etc. Diana Wynne Jones has her own fun with these myths, and from her fun Eight Days of Luke is born.
David is stuck at home on school
holiday with his horrible relations. After being reminded how he’s a wretched,
ungrateful little orphan they don’t deserve to put up with, David skulks out
into the garden and starts pacing back and forth, muttering what he feels are
some really good curses—only, he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. The
garden wall cracks and out come some nasty snakes and a boy just David’s size.
His name is Luke.
By this point I’m sure you know who the title character Luke is—that’s right, Loki. David has somehow freed Luke from his prison (only Diana Wynne Jones would put a Norse god’s prison beneath a marrow garden in Ashbury) and Luke’s relations are coming down to get him: Mr. Chew (war god Tiu), the Frys (fertility gods Freyja and Freyr), and Mr. Wedding (Odin, chief of the gods). Thor comes along eventually when we learn why Luke’s in so much trouble, and what David can do to help him. (Thor’s rather the giveaway, so no fancy modern alias for him.)
One of the cool things about a quest story is that they are indeed timeless. David must outwit gods and mortals alike for the sake of his friend, just like any great hero of the distant past. Sure, folks like Perseus and Beowulf may not have had pinball or cricket, but they always had someone or something worth fighting for.
Jones’ The Game puts a girl at odds with horrible relations, too, only this novella is a bit more…hmm…nonlinear, would be the best way to say it. Hayley is sent to live with a bunch of aunts and cousins she’s never met before, and she quickly learns why her grandmother never liked them. She also learns just how much her grandfather bears on his shoulders—literally. Among many worldly matters, Haley’s grandfather takes great care of the mythosphere, a place where Hayley’s cousins secretly play The Game. Once Hayley begins playing The Game with them, reality and the mythosphere are both irrevocably changed. She discovers her grandfather’s true identity: Atlas the titan. The uncle who controls them all is none other than Jupiter. And she must…well. Needless to say, I learned some more mythology thanks to this book.
Bringing past gods into the present isn’t a unique idea; Rick Riordan’s made a mint off of his various “modern kids vs. ancient gods” series, Percy Jackson and the Olympiansbeing the first and, I believe, the most popular. (It’s the one I read, anyway.) And I give Riordan and Jones both credit for inspiring curiosity in young readers for the olden tales of heroes and gods, of the odysseys through time and beyond.
I know we all like to make that Ecclesiastic complaint that there is nothing new under the sun. Well, it’s one thing to copy, or plagiarize, but it’s another to truly reimagine. Jones proves time and again that one can look to the classics for inspiration. Even the most worn of roads will take you somewhere, if you let it.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have other grand (or not-so-grand) examples of reimaginings you’d like to discuss, please share them in the comments below.
A free-spirited college student becomes a career-obsessed adult.
A writer becomes a…writer? Yes, still a writer. But a stronger writer.
I’m looking at you, Holly Black.
This woman’s got phenomenal talent. Black’s written books that lure you to dive head-first into her world. She’s got a strong following of readers, and one look at books like The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King show why. The relationships are complex, the conflicts compelling. We want to see what these characters do next, especially Jude, the teen protagonist.
Now I’ve talked a bit about Jude before, both in my post on tragic backstories as well as dissecting one of the briefest chapters ever written. Today I want to return to Jude because of another Holly Black title, the first Holly Black title:Tithe.
Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death.
So over the course of sixteen years, Black wrote two different series about two teen heroines dealing with faeries. Fairies. Fae. However you spell it.
I–and many other readers, I imagine–connected with Jude because of her hopes and dreams. Jude is a girl struggling for identity inside her mostly Fae family as well as the Fae society. She witnessed her human parents’ murder by a Fae general, was then ripped away from the human realm along with her twin sister and half-Fae sister to be raised by that same general, and now attends school with other Fae gentry. She is living, breathing evidence of her mother’s desertion, yet this general fathers Jude like one of his own. In turn, Jude yearns to train and serve the Fae royalty as a knight despite being mortal. She loves her little brother, the Fae “son” of the general and his new wife. This is a girl fighting to make a place for herself in a world not created for her. She’s so desperate to make her mark in the Fae courts that she’s willing to kill in order to achieve her dream.
And then, there’s Kaye from Tithe.
Lots of people like this book, so I assume they must like Kaye as well.
But for me…look, this isn’t a roast of of Tithe. There’s plenty of strong elements here, and when one considers this is Black’s debut novel, those elements should be all the more commended. She blends Faerie and human realms seamlessly. The Fae are quite unique between Seelie and Unseelie. The black knight Roiben provides a wealth of inner conflict: magic compels him to do despicable things under the command of the Unseelie Queen, including killing a friend of Kaye’s. When we read from his point of view, we learn just how much he hates himself because he so often he has no control over his actions. A reader’s sympathy for him grows with every chapter.
And then, there’s Kaye.
Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle. She figured that would be a good test for how drunk Ellen was–see if she would swallow a butt whole.
This is the first paragraph of the Prologue. This is our first impression of Kaye.
Already I’m wincing, but maybe that’s my prudish Midwestern nature. Plenty of kids have shitty parents, drinking parents. Plenty of teenagers pick up smoking. Turns out Kaye’s mother sings in a lousy club band and is dating one of its members, the “asshole Lloyd.” During the wrap up after a gig, Lloyd for no understandable reason tries to stab Kaye’s mom but Kaye stops him. (It is later learned he’d been entranced, for the record.)
We’re only a couple pages in, and Kaye’s witnessed an attempted murder. Normally this sort of thing, especially when family’s involved, would leave some sort of mark on a person, be it physically, emotionally, mentally, or all three. This is something that spawns nightmares, phobias, fixations on danger and/or thrills.
Yet Kaye and her mother Ellen only talk about moving in with Grandma. No confusion or anger over what Lloyd did. No fear over how they’re going to live next. No anxiety over whether or not Grandma will accept them after a six-year absence. Just…
“Honey,” Ellen said finally, “we’re going to have to go to Grandma’s.”
“Did you call her?” Kaye asked. …
“It’ll be a little while. You can visit that friend of yours.”
“Janet,” Kaye said. She hoped that was who Ellen meant. She hoped her mother wasn’t teasing her about that faerie bullshit again. If she had to hear another story about Kaye and her cute imaginary friends…
As you may have surmised, this is when Kaye started to lose me.
Yet I kept reading. Openings are tough. Kaye’s got to get back to her childhood home somehow, soooo okay, this works. Now Kaye’s on the New Jersey shore, walking and talking with her friend Janet on their way to hanging out with boys.
“Kaye, when we get there, you have to be cool. Don’t seem so weird. Guys don’t like weird….don’t you want a boyfriend?”
I had to stop there.
What did Kaye want?
From my impression of Kaye’s memories of her mother falling asleep in toilets and attaching herself to loser after loser, Kaye clearly doesn’t dig the life of a traveling musician. Yet her grandmother’s demands that she attend school are met with the same lack of enthusiasm.
In fact, Kaye doesn’t talk about anything with enthusiasm except Roiben, a lone faerie she helps on the roadside.
“Look, I’m only going to be in town for a couple of months, at most. The only thing that matters is that he is cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die beautiful.” Kaye waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
Perhaps Kaye is a girl who’s never allowed herself to dream. We can be like that too, I suppose–too fearful of failure, too weary of life’s obstacles to dare hope for anything beyond what’s in front of us.
So when Kaye is told she herself is a faerie who’s been glamoured to look human since birth, she…well, what do you think?
She was shaking her head, but even as she did it, she knew it was true. It felt true, unbalancing and rebalancing her world so neatly that she wondered how she didn’t think of it before now. After all, why would only she be visited by faeries? Why would only she have magic she couldn’t control?
Such a revelation alters everything: her human family’s not really hers. She’s not human at all. Any hope, any dream she had for her future must now be sacrificed–
She didn’t have any aspirations. This revelation, this life-altering revelation….just what exactly does it change inside Kaye?
I’m going to stop dissecting Tithe here. I’ll still recommend it for the world and for the conflicted Fae knight Roiben, but I cannot recommend Tithe for its heroine. For all her dislike against her grandmother’s “normal” lifestyle and her mother’s alcohol addled life on the road, has she honestly not once hidden a special passion for something to keep herself sane? One would think it’d be her “cute imaginary friends,” but Kaye’s first reference to her Fae visitors from childhood was “faerie bullshit.” So as of the beginning of this novel, faeries were no longer special. She keeps no journal, no art, no collection of little things she’d never dare show her mom. Even Janet, the one friend she’s been emailing from libraries, is completely blown off once Roiben comes onto the scene.
Readers care about characters who care. The character may be a jerk in many ways, but even jerks can have a soft spot. Jude committed murder in The Cruel Prince, yet I still found myself rooting for her. Why? Because she was fighting for her kid brother’s safety. Because she wanted the enemies of the old Faerie king to pay for their treachery. She gets her heart broken by one Fae boy while finding her fate entwined with another. Jude IS passion–hardly the “he’s so dreamy” passion, but the “I want my family to survive a coup” passion. The “I want to LIVE” passion.
That’s passion any reader can feel beating in his/her own heart.
Kaye never seems to feel that. She simply floats along whether she’s human or faerie, accepting whatever situation she’s placed in, fearful only of losing Roiben.
How often are we telling our teenagers not to wrap their entire lives around one other human being? To have their own hopes and dreams, because someone who truly loves them will love those dreams and help find a way to achieve them?
Love can be a powerful force in a fantasy, to be sure.
But so is hope.
So are dreams.
Which fictional hero or heroine inspires you to dream? Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks, too, for your encouragement during my saga over the full-time slot at the university. I didn’t get it, but I’m hopeful for the next time. 🙂
And if you’re a fan of dreamers (and stories of dreams gone fantastically awry) I hope you’ll check out my novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited, and my short story collection Tales of the River Vine are all free to download from Amazon, too.
I’m going to pause before I even begin in order to say how amazingly patient you all have been for enduring this 30-day blog-o-thon. I’ve been doing my damndest to catch up on reading your sites, but I have a feeling it’s going to take a month of NOT writing just to see all that you lovely folks have done during this cold, snowy month.
During one pre-dawn hour set aside for morning coffee and blog reading, I came across an old book review by the amazing Chris Lovegrove. His closing nails the very topic I wish to discuss today:
I felt a little cheated by the end. The lack of resolution for one character felt manipulative. Increasingly, fantasies these days are clearly labelled Book One of a spellbinding new series or The first volume of such-and-such saga; it wasn’t till near the end that I realised that this wasn’t a standalone novel but that I would have to invest time and maybe more money in the sequel.
Indeed, what has happened to the standalone story? We are an audience of franchises and serieseseses to the point where filmmakers will divvy up a book and spread its material so thinly that a single story is transformed into a film trilogy. (cough cough HOBBIT cough cough)
When I study Diana Wynne Jones’ library (as every good and proper fantasy fan should do), I see 25 stand-alone stories. 2 duologies, 1 trilogy, 1 quartet (quartology?), and the octology of Chrestomanci. (I’m just making up number words at this point.) We won’t even get into the short fiction stuff here, or plays, or whatever else. Strictly novels. (If I missed any, let me know!)
If you go through all these novels, not one ends with a cliffhanger. Correct me if I’m wrong, but DWJ was one to practice what she preached:
My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.
As far as DWJ was concerned, the story she needed to tell began and ended in one volume. Even the DWJ stories considered sequels or parts of a series are only considered such because they’re in the same universe, NOT because they’re picking up where the previous plot left off. Look at the Howl trilogy: Howl and Sophie go from primary characters in the first book to making cameo appearances in the second. In the third book they appear halfway through the novel with some importance, but still, they are not the primary protagonists. One of the primary characters of Deep Secret returns in The Merlin Conspiracy, but again, he is not the main character. DWJ utilized the same universe for multiple stories, not necessarily the same characters. Heck, Chrestomanci’s rarely a main character in his own series! (But I already wrote about that.)
I started paging through other Young Adult Fantasy stories read from my bookshelf or local library to see which stories end on a cliffhanger, and which are capable of standing alone.
Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne:She was travelling at a good pace, though, and it was not long before she disappeared up the winding path, to be swallowed into the treacherous depths of the bandit-laden forest and the company of wolves.
Cliffhanger. The protagonist’s clearly beginning another journey. Not only is the primary antagonist of the story is still in power, but we learn our protagonist is entering yet another enemy’s territory.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. “One more time? For the audience?” he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.
I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.
Both. This one’s a bit grey to me. On the one hand, the protagonist has survived the Hunger Games. The primary conflict of the story has come to a close. However, we read here that the protagonist’s personal journey is not over, so there is, in a sense, a cliffhanger, just not like the life-or-death situation the protagonist’s been in for much of the book.
Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight:I touched his face. “Look,” I said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes, it is enough,” he answered, smiling. “Enough for forever.”
And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.
Standalone. You read right. Yes, I’ve read the whole series, so yes, I know there are more books after this. But I’ll give Meyers credit for giving this novel an ending that feels like an ending. As far as everyone knows, the last of the bad vampires has left the region and the girl’s got the guy. All’s right with the world.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(hush, I’m an American, THAT’S the title here): Harry hung back for a last word with Ron and Hermione.
“See you over summer, then.”
“Hope you have–er–a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant.
“Oh, I will,” said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…”
Standalone. When you consider the primary conflict (protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort) that conflict officially ends in this book. Yes, Voldemort gets away, but his plot’s been thwarted. Even the other school-friendly subplots of making friends, succeeding in a wizarding school with a muggle’s childhood, and so on are wrapped up. The Voldemort conflict does not start creating cliffhangers until the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban.
Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel:Magnus reached behind himself and locked the parlor door. “Very well,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”
Cliffhanger. Any time a story ends with a question, it’s an automatic cliffhanger–especially when that question pertains to a protagonist’s “problem.”
Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call:Early in the new year, she tells her parents that she has to leave again.
“The Nation must survive,” she says. “I can help with that.”
She sits alone on the bus, her suitcase propped up on the seat beside her so she can pretend it’s Megan sitting there instead. And off she goes through the snowy roads, Agnes and Ferg waving her away, hugging each other, their pride so fierce it burns.
Standalone. The protagonist has survived her three minutes. The fight goes on, and so will she, determined to leave her parents and teach other children how to survive the dark land of the Sidhe. By this story’s rules, she cannot be summoned back into the Sidhe realm for another hunt, so again, by this story’s rules, our protagonist is officially free. Of course, Peadar totally subverts these expectations in The Invasion, but I appreciate how he made this novel self-contained. Had this remained a standalone, it’d still be awesome.
Off the top of my head…
Other good examples of what I feel could be considered standalone novels whether or not they’re in a series: Court of Thorns and Roses, Uprooted, Neverwhere, Chronicles of Narnia
Know any others? Let me know!
Other good examples of what I feel are cliffhanger novels:Cruel Prince, Mortal Instruments, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen
Ibid on the knowing and the letting of me knowing
Hey, what’s my own book doing there?
Yes, I must plead guilty. I was in a similar situation as JRR Tolkien; as you know, LOTR is one HUGE tome broken into three books for readability’s sake. The same thing happened with Stolen–my publisher kindly pointed out that people aren’t necessarily going to be drawn to a debut novel 650 pages long. Two novels, though, would split that length into readable installments. The result?
Her head nestles against Liam’s knee. The Voice in her heart sighs, too exhausted to notice a pounding, a drumming rising from deep, deep in the Pits.
So what makes a cliffhanger tolerable and not infuriating?
Somewhere along the way, SOMEthing must be resolved.
A series is bound to have many plot threads, and that’s fine. But if a few hundred pages cannot tie off a single thread, readers are going to get pissed.
Rightfully so, too. In a way it comes back to those expectations and payoffs: the patience of a reader lasts for only so long. The more you build, and build, and build, yet never follow through, the more readers will feel lost, disengaged, or both. Why spend time in a world that’s constantly tangled with characters never decently understood?
So sure, maybe the antagonist is still free at the end of Book 1. Maybe the hero’s journey has only just begun. Was a battle fought and one? Was an internal conflict resolved? Did a relationship come to fruition or destruction? So long as SOMEthing has been brought to a close, a cliffhanger ending will still bring some satisfaction to the reader.
Resolve nothing in that first book, and readers will resolve not to invest time in the second.
Tie a thread or two, and hold your world–your series–together.
My previous music post connected with quite a few genres of storytelling: mystery, horror, and adventure. I’d like to spend a touch more time on mystery, as I’m currently writing the third novel of the Fallen Princebornomnibus, whose plot is riddled with mysteries both solved and begun.
Finding the right atmosphere for mysteries is not always simple. Is this a murder mystery with a steady body count, death threats and chases galore? Or is this mystery more slow-burn style, a hunt for the conspiracy with little blood seen but destined to be found if the mystery isn’t solved?
I love both kinds, so of course my book’s a mix of both. While scores like Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman Begins, Bourne Supremacy, and others of heavy percussion help with action-heavy moments, it’s important to find the music to counter-balance that. Mychael Danna’s Breachhas some lovely tension-filled moments, but I’d like to highlight another score of beautiful, unsettling ambiance: Alexandre Desplat’s The Imitation Game.
Once again, Desplat’s use of the piano is superb. Those first few seconds of solo piano and a low running bass note immediately establish a sense of problem, of not-rightness. The repetitive run of four notes throughout the entire track also gives that feeling of mechanization, of clockwork not in our control. The strings that swell in around the 40-second mark bring a bittersweet air to them, harmonizing with the piano, but more often in a minor key than a traditional major one. Woodwinds are held off until the last minute of the track, and here, the oboe gets a chance to shine. I’m usually not a fan of the oboe (I blame one of my elementary school classmates in band who had one and NEVER learned to play it correctly. Honestly, nothing sounds worse than an awful oboe except maybe an awful violin played by me, ahem.), but when done right the oboe provides a strong yet light tragic air to a melody before it subtly fades into the quiet.
Even Desplat’s percussion is kept relatively light.
With another arpeggio, this time in a lower key, and a few percussion instruments like rhythm sticks, Desplat creates a menacing air fitting for the wartime conflict. This story is, after all, not one of the front lines and bomb raids, but the one fought out of sight, where coded words are as deadly as any missile strike. Even xylophones and chimes are put to use, but unlike Danna’s score for Breach, though here patterned melodies provide that feel of mechanization…but not the circuitry of some computer. Here it is time to follow the journeys of logic to decode nature and language.
Whether you are a reader or writer of mysteries, I heartily recommend Desplat’s The Imitation Game to create that air of hidden conflicts and pursuits for truth. Give characters the unspoken need to embrace the mystery.
With the eighteen gazillion snow days my kids have had this winter, reading’s been all but impossible. Cabin fever sets in sure and fast, nerves fray–you know the drill. It’s like the fall after our basement flooded,only now we can’t even utilize the outdoors much due to the extreme cold that sweeps in, sweeps out.
Yet here I am, determined to write a “lessons learned” post SOMEhow. Look to something I read a while ago? Well I could, but that would take some research time that I don’t have because my job interview for teaching full-time’s in…90 minutes.
Don’t worry, this is NOT like the panic of yesterday. It’s just that I haven’t worked full-time since Blondie was born, making even the potential for this culture shift intimidating. As Bo says, though, it is NOT worth worrying about unless I actually get the job.
So, let’s divert from that bridge for a moment and think of warmer climes, where dew drops hug the tree leaves and a million lives scurry around us, out of sight. Every day, every hour, these lives are in life or death struggles to eat, fight, and survive. Duels over prey, wars over homeland. Nonstop action at every turn….
…until winter when everyone’s gotta hibernate.
I’m talkin’ about bugs.
Bash is our bug kid. He’ll stare at books on insects for ages. He’ll watch ladybugs and ants traverse across the sidewalk (until Biff comes over to stomp on them). The tiniest life fascinates him.
I forget how, but I stumbled upon a cancelled show still on YouTube that brought his love for bugs to his siblings. This show was a savior during the snowdaypacolypse.
I’m talkin’ about Monster Bug Wars.
Just listen to that cool movie-trailer voice they got to narrate this show.
Every episode is like this! “In this life and death struggle….For the centipede, will it be fight, or flight?…The katydid, katydidn’t.”
Okay, I made that last one up, but this narrator is full of dark and dangerous turns of phrase to make every showdown the most epic showdown of them all. You’d think you’re watching a wrestling match, or some action schlock movie (probably why I like it, then, ahem).
But more than the voice, my attention was hooked by the bugs. For instance, check out this snippet on the moss mantis.
Look at that camouflage, all the little mossy-like bits on its exoskeleton. How it sways in the breeze like any other leafy growth.
Imagine something like that the size of a dog. A bear.
Suddenly those hooked arms and mandibles are pretty damn terrifying, aren’t they?
~TWO HOURS LATER~
How in Hades did I forget about the time difference?!
Okay, the job interview is done and done. A bit of rambling, a bit of awkward Loony Tunes-style vocal staggers into the phone, but I was me, and that’s…well, dramatic, to say the least. No different than I am in the classroom.
Anyway. Back to bugs.
As a fantasy writer, the pressure’s always on to create worlds unique unto themselves. This means I–and I’m assuming other writers–feel like we have to create from scratch. Yet when I look at creatures like this mantis or spider, I can’t help but wonder: why are we starting from scratch when such amazing monsters already live among us?
No, I’m not saying you make giant bugs be the monsters of your stories. What I am saying is that these creatures are a wealth of inspiration: the way they melt into their surrounding environments. Their weapons. Their weaknesses. Their fighting styles. The way they hunt, breed, survive.
Our world overflows with creations both beautiful and terrible. In the writer’s quest to bring the unique and never-before-seen to readers, we too often forget the wealth of unknown predators that move in our oceans and forests. Utilize the mind-blowing traits of such predators, and you’ll create a monster that truly terrifies characters and readers alike.
There are other times, however, when inspiration is the last thing I get from my family.
Take this month. Writing’s been a tough racket, what with preparation for a new term, snow days, and teachers cancelling school for “professional development.” But I am a hearty Midwesterner and shall prevail! I continue working on the third Fallen Princebornnovel while prepping the first novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, to go on sale for ALL OF FEBRUARY.
(Oh yeah. Watch out for that price drop. Tell your fantasy-lovin’ friends!)
I’m also brainstorming up some fresh’n’FREETales of the River Vineand a few other stories to be shared exclusively with newsletter subscribers.
So I’m developing another project, one I alluded to a while back: a fantasy adventure story featuring twins who need to learn the strengths of brotherhood. (Can’t imagine where I found the inspiration for that story…)
I had an epiphany about what to name the brothers, but realized the names would require permission from a big-time person in order to pull it off. That meant having a title and rough synopsis worked out. Typing up a wee synopsis was one thing, but the title…ugh, the title. This is a title that must reflect fantasy, adventure, and NOT romance. For once, let’s have a story where protagonists don’t find love and/or sex in the plot. The title needs to reflect that absence. Something strong…otherworldly…
I poke the back of Bo’s neck, for surely Blondie’s math homework doesn’t have to be reviewed right this minute.
Hey. You’re a guy.
I need your take on a title.
Race the Bronze Breath.
Bo’s face twists. He stifles a laugh…then gives up and lets it out. “Seriously?”
What? It’s racing. It’s fantasy.
Bo’s still laughing. “What’s that even mean?”
I…I dunno. I just thought it sounded cool and steampunky.
“Well racing’s fine. Racing says something’s got a time limit, and it’s, you know, tense. But what’s bronze breath?”
Okay, I get it, it doesn’t work. What kind of fantasy adventure title would work for dudes?
Bo without blinking: “Not Game of Thrones.”
That is not a title.
I think about my brainstorm of race names, the current YA titles out there that are really long, a touch blunt.
How about Break the Centurion or Die Trying?
Bo throws down the pencil: “Again, what…are you trying to be Sergio Leone?”
Well then YOU think of a cool dude title.
“Racing Adventure with Marathon Quest.”
O-kay. But that doesn’t sound really dangerous.
“Super Killer Race of Deathly Death.”
“Bloody Hearts of Death Kill the Dead.”
Blondie looks up from her fraction muddle. “Bloody Heart of the Dragon’s Throne!”
Hush, that doesn’t…well, hmmm. I write it down anyway, even though I wasn’t planning on having any dragons this time round. Time for a squeeze and a kiss for my eldest.
Thanks, Kiddo. Now back to those fractions!
Bo follows me as I scribble in my notebook, all the way down the hall where I plop down on our bed. I click the pen in that fast, annoying fashion Biff adores, and say:
The problem is I do want a bit of camp to it, like Death Race 2000.Suppose I can’t call it Lethal Prix or Killer Run.
“Not if you don’t want Roger Corman to sue you…oh hey! Let’s Get Sued! Great title. And then I can get an autograph.”
The kind that makes you go, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” because a beloved and/or cool character is about to die.
Every time. Seriously, every time I see Predator, I say, “Nooo, Billy!” at the screen. As a member of the audience, I’m invested in seeing the characters’ survival against the Predator. I want to see the characters’ skill sets aid them in overcoming the conflicts and obstacles that await them before the journey’s end.
This can be said as a reader of any high-stakes story, really. Look at a few big SFF series for examples. We want Captain Kirk and his crew to survive. We want Harry Potter and all his friends to survive. We want the Fellowship of the Ring to survive. We want Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones to survive. We want Luke Skywalker and his friends to survive.
We know these people are fictional, but there are facets of these characters that connect within us. This makes us care about them, so of course we go “NOOOOO!” when Dumbledore is struck down by Snape, when Prim and dozens of others are bombed by a device made by the Katniss’ oldest friend, Gabe.
…and then there are the deaths that just don’t feel necessary.
Now I just want to pause here that I’m talking about this as both a reader and a writer. I get that pain and consequence have to occur in a high-stakes story. You can’t threaten death without delivering at least a little bit of death or you risk hollowing out the stakes.
What bothers me as a reader and worries me as a writer are those unnecessary character deaths. You know you’ve encountered stories with this problem. That’s why I showed the aforementioned Predator clip of Billy. Billy, the biggest and buffest bad-ass of Dutch’s team, stops on the tree-bridge to face the Predator. Why?
On screen, we’re not given a reason apart from MANLINESS. Just look at him, stripping down and cutting his own chest. It’s the ultimate bad-ass standoff!
Only in the story, it’s not the ultimate bad-ass standoff. That’s for Dutch (also stripped down) and the Predator.
So why did Billy have to die?
As a “reader,” I could shrug to “noble sacrifice,” except no other death has bought the survivors time or advantage. Billy would know that. I could also shrug to “acceptance,” since earlier in the film Billy says, “We’re all going to die.”
But as a writer, I think I really know why.
It’s because you can’t have an ultimate bad-ass standoff between TWO good guys and a bad guy. Plus, in terms of physique, Billy and Dutch are an equal match. Heck, I think Billy could have beaten Dutch in arm wrestling.
So Billy had to die.
It feels like when there has to be a bit of death in the story, writers sometimes choose the character most similar to the protagonist. Take Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games trilogy: he’s strong, knowledgeable, another survivor of the Hunger Games (also: pretty). We meet him in Catching Fire, grow connected to his personality and backstory, root for him when he gets married….aaaaand watch him die on the assault on the Capital. Now it can be argued his arc’s complete, so the audience knows who he is. SOMEone’s got to die in a war; his death will have the strongest emotional impact while primary heroine Katniss can continue on.
Fine. Fair enough. At least Finnick got to die on page/screen, UNLIKE BILLY.
Notice how after all his bad-ass preparation, we never get to see Billy fight the Predator. We just hear his anguished scream, and know he’s dead. Such off-screen deaths drive me nuts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is guilty of this, too, both in book and on film, when it comes to characters like Professor Lupin and the Auror Tonks. They die during the battle at Hogwarts while Harry’s elsewhere, so we never see their final moments. They’re just dead.
Wow, I went off longer on this than planned. Dammit, Billy, you got me all wound up!
I get that I have to accept beloved characters dying. I just want those deaths to MATTER. You bet your ass I cry when Beth dies in Little Women. I bawl when Clint Eastwood’s character Walt is shot in Gran Torino. I refused to believe Hercule Poirot was really dead in Curtain until I went online for evidence to prove otherwise…and couldn’t find it. Even Dobby, that goofy little house-elf Dobby, had me sobbing both while reading and watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I hated that these characters had to die.
But their deaths help spur the protagonists–and the narrative–forward. Without their deaths, there is less at stake; therefore, there is less concern for the characters.
Now I have waaaaaay more to say about character death, but Bo’s up and given me the giggles by saying, “Billy will always be in the chopper of your heart.” Yes, yes he will!
So let’s pause to talk. Is there a story with a character death that really frustrates you? Should I kill more characters in my own books?
Lastly, be sure to stay tuned to my monthly newsletter. Big changes are coming, and I don’t want you to miss out!