Weird #31: “The Long Sheet” by William Sansom (1944)

“The Long Sheet” by William Sansom hits in a personal way. It is a Kafkaesque and Dantesque journey through a prison where a detailed method of torture serves as a reflection on different social attitudes towards work. When you read it, you may also feel criticized about your work habits.

As the editors indicate, it was published before the English translation of “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka was published, yet takes a very similar approach. It can be thought of as “weird fiction” for the same reason as Kafka’s story: it uses “weird ritual to illuminate society” (290). Instead of a mechanical torture device, however, the method of torture in Sansom is much simpler in outward appearance.

The story opens with an appeal to a common experience:

Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth? Wrung it bone dry–with only the grip of your fingers and the muscles of your arms? If you have done this, you will understand better the situation of the captives at Device Z when the warders set them the task of the long sheet.

(290)

The prisoners of Device Z have been placed in separate rooms within a tunnel-like steel box, across which is stretched a long, white sheet soaked with water. They are given the task of wringing the towel bone dry–not just dry enough to air out, but completely purged of moisture–in order to earn their freedom. This is a task not of a few minutes but of months and years. What’s more, the warders employ cruel tricks to complicate it, such as releasing just enough steam into the room to hinder them and ensure the prisoners will make no progress unless they work constantly.

Given this Sisyphean task, the prisoners in each room develop their own culture of work. The rooms become like circles of Dante’s hell–circles where the punishment administered is the same, yet the prisoners’ suffering varies, according to their attitude to the work. In a sense, they are prisoners of their own minds as much as prisoners of the steel box.

For example, in Room Three (Sansom presents them out of order), there are two couples and a Serbian grocer who develop a routine to accomplish their task. However, the attention they pay to their routine becomes too habitual, to the extent that they lose sight of the task itself. They “put in their time at the office” and then return home to give themselves a well-deserved break, with the result that the towel stays wet and they remain prisoners. A child is born to one of the couples, a child who will never be free due to the influence of the constricting routine their parents have established.

As if that wasn’t enough to drive you to despair, Room Two and Room Four contain equally hopeless people. In Room Two, there’s a man who tries to take as many shortcuts as possible, which are each thwarted by the wardens to his own detriment and that of his fellow prisoners; a man with deep-rooted childhood fears of wet towels who “will never be free” because his fear hinders him (292); a distracted man who fumbles his grip on the towel constantly; and a man who enjoys wringing the towel dry only to watch the steam dampen it again, who “liked to watch the fruits of his labour rot” (293). Each of these men are imprisoned as much by their own attitude as by the metal walls of their cubicles.

In Room Four, there is a group of people, including a twelve-year-old girl, who have already given up on freedom. They take no risks and are resigned to their fate. They put no effort towards wringing the towel at all, to the extent that even the young girl, who may have harboured ambitions, has absorbed Room Four’s slackness (put intended).

Finally, in Room One, Sansom presents a glimmer of hope. There is a group of men and women who are reluctant to engage in unproductive labour but choose to do so anyway, because at least, by applying themselves, they can achieve their freedom eventually. Their philosophy runs like this: “it is not the production that counts, but the life lived in the spirit during production” (294).

The towel wringing is an essentially pointless task. These human beings have been alienated from any productive value their work can give them. But they can feel a certain amount of freedom by applying themselves to their work with a go-getter attitude. Under this energy, they apply themselves, and refine their technique, constantly evaluating the best way to wring the towel. They work hard in shifts, without tiring themselves out, and refine their technique.

Applying their full energy and creativity to the problem at hand, after seven years they succeed in wringing the towel dry and earning their freedom–only for the warders to drench the towel with a blast from a hose. The wardens do this because the prisoners already have their freedom. “Freedom lies in an attitude of the spirit,” say the wardens. “There is no other freedom” (295).

That last line crushed me as I was reading it. Sansom seems to suggest that there really isn’t any freedom at all, aside from one’s personal attitude. The warders’ actions represent this reality: we work our whole lives at school or at a job and dream of freedom, but ours is a world of work. Even when, or if, we retire, we’ll never be free from work. You need to look for freedom inside yourself instead.

In a way, writing this blog feels like wringing our a wet towel week after week. Will it bring me any benefit? I’m not sure, but I do it anyway because I have faith that I’ll get something out of it in the end. Perhaps this is the only freedom there is.

This story seems particularly well-suited to a Marxist interpretation as well. It can be seen as exposing the capitalist lie that a go-getter attitude and “positive thinking” really makes you free. After all, perhaps this idealism only makes a more docile and more materially productive workforce, labouring strenuously on tasks that produce commodities, but not on tasks that directly benefit them. Believing that freedom lies in attitude of spirit may comfort the worker, but really it distracts them from their real condition of alienation. Real freedom can only happen when workers control work for themselves and seize the means of production. The fact the warders can “dampen your towel” at any time shows the real relation between worker and employer, and that what may really be needed is a revolt against the warders, rather than playing the game by their rules.

The limits of this would be that even after a communist revolution, we would still need to work. Attitude may well be all the freedom we can exercise. At least, if one applies oneself to the task of towel-wringing with faith, tenacity, and ingenuity, one will not become a prisoner to oneself, like the inmates of Rooms 2, 3, and 4. In Camus, it’s the inner attitude of defiance that gives Sisyphus his sense of dignity; in Sansom’s “The Long Sheet,” there’s a similar existentialist observation about the human condition.

Next week I will be turning to a story that has obsessed me for a long time: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945). I could easily turn what I have to see on this story into a series of posts, but I will try to keep it brief.

A distorted, shimmering cloud

Weird #30: “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury (1943)

Ray Bradbury’s weird tale “The Crowd” modernizes the weird tale by building a sense of paranoid, unreal conspiracy founded on a modern anxiety. In this respect, he is doing something that Johnson, Leiber, and Wollheim have also done, in their way. However, Bradbury enweirdens the city by basing the sense of conspiracy not on the supernatural or an exaggerated scientific phenomena but on a familiar, modern anxiety: the urban crowd.

Crowds are an interesting thing to think about these days, when many of us have not been inside one for months, or even for an entire year, owing to the social distancing restrictions designed to curb the pandemic. In the nineteenth century, when North American and European cities were rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, urban crowds were also a novelty, since rural residents were flocking to the cities for the first time to work at industrial jobs. It pays to remember that prior to those days, more people lived in the country, where crowds do not usually assemble in great size. In ancient and medieval times, even big cities would be considered small by today’s standards and vast crowds would have been very rare indeed.

The anxiety around crowds in the nineteenth century has inspired notable literary works, particularly Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” Literary theorists believe Poe’s story had an impact on the development of the detective story. Bradbury, a big fan of Poe (Poe even appears as a character in his story “The Exiles”), builds on this tradition.

Bradbury’s crowd is not a vast one. It is relatively small, consisting of a red-headed woman, a freckled boy, a old man with a wrinkled lip, and an old woman with a mole on her cheek. However, these characters are voyeurs who compulsively show up at the scenes of terrible accidents.

The story begins with a car crash. Mr. Spallner is tossed around and hurt. He feels funny and disoriented, when a crowd materializes. The people stand around gawking, asking each other about whether he is hurt–but not talking to him.

The crowd feels “wrong” (284), perhaps due to the intrusive sense of its voyeurism and its morbid curiosity. One memorable line that encompasses this feeling comes when Mr. Spallner first sees the crowd: “How swiftly a crowd comes …. like the iris of an eye compressing in out of nowhere” (284).

When they seem to think he’ll survive, he has sudden faith that he will not die. “And that was strange,” he thinks (284). Later, he reflects to his doctor that “the way they looked down at me, I knew I wouldn’t die…” (285), and though the doctor is dismissive, Mr. Spallner becomes paranoid about the people he saw in that crowd.

Gradually, he looks through newspapers at photos of accidents and finds that certain individuals have shown up at other scenes in the area. Ordinary rubber-neckers also show up in these crowds, but there is a vanguard are always “the first ones” on the scene of any catastrophic accident (287).

“They have one thing in common, they always show up together. At a fire or an explosion or on the sidelines of a war, at any public demonstration of this thing called death. Vultures, hyenas or saints. I don’t known which they are, I just don’t know.”

(287)

Bradbury expressed the central paradox of crowds in this passage: humans are never more isolated from each other than when thousands of them are packed so close together. The fact that this alienation exists is what makes such voyeurism possible.

Just as Poe’s narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” tries to investigate and trail one solitary member of the crowd, Mr. Spallner investigates a handful of his voyeurs, hoping to uncover, detective-like, a sign of their motivation. The voyeurism of Bradbury’s crowd also has clear applications to our twenty-first century, Tik-Tok and Instagram obsessed society: so often, the instinct of the bystander is not to call for help or intervene but to snap a photo for social media.

Mr. Spallner’s sense of conspiracy develops to the point where he believes the crowd determines who lives and who dies at the scene of any accident. Often, this is done by just “innocently” moving the body, which can result in damage to the neck or spine and thus death.

As fate would have it, Mr. Spallner gets into a second accident on his way to the police station. The crowd gathers around him a final time, moving him as he lies injured on the road. He is essentially assassinated to make sure their cult or conspiracy should continue to go unnoticed.

In the final moment of the story, it is hinted that the voyeurs may even be ghosts. Mr. Spallner last words are: “It –looks like I’ll be joining up with you. I — guess I’ll be a member of your — group — now” (289). But ultimately, the story remains vague about whether these figures are truly the undead. Perhaps the conspiracy was all in Spallner’s head, or perhaps not, but it is this sense of a vaguely defined conspiracy based on a modern anxiety that makes “The Crowd” such a fine example of modern weird fiction.

As a final note, I’m beginning to notice patterns in the narrative structure of the weird tales I’ve written about most recently, especially with Bradbury, Johnson, Leiber, and Wollheim. Since weird fiction is often about introducing the reader to a strange phenomenon that exists within the world they already know, most of these stories can be divided in three parts: 1) the main character’s initial encounter with the weird, in which it disrupts the normal world; 2) a period of learning and experimentation in which the main character attempts to understand the weird phenomena rationally; and 3) the ultimate unveiling of the weird phenomenon, which may result in the main character’s death. In this final stage, the mystery of the phenomenon and the limits of knowledge are revealed, leaving questions lingering afterward. In many ways, it follows the structure of the horror story as defined by John Clute in The Darkening Garden, a structure that also maps onto fantasy literature.

Weird fiction may owe something to detective fiction as well, since detective fiction is also about rationally trying to investigate and explain an unusual phenomenon. In this way, Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” and his Detective Dupin stories may have played a role, no less than his supernatural fiction, in the evolution of weird fiction.

Perhaps it is the influence of Weird Tales and the pulp markets that resulted in an effective, although formulaic narrative pattern to emerge in weird fiction. The weird tale seems to have gained a certain form that could be repeated for commercial purposes–part of the natural process for any commercial literary genre, detective fiction included, which also featured in pulps. It’s interesting to think of how a genre so closely tied to surrealism and breaking up norms could remain subversive in its content but develop a certain level of stability or even conservatism of form.

Ray Bradbury (Wikipedia)

Next week I will be turning to William Samsom’s story “The Long Sheet” (1944).

Weird #29: “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim (1942)

Donald A. Wollheim’s story “Mimic” captures the unveiling of a hidden world with remarkably succinct storytelling. The premise is simple enough: insects have evolved to survive in the rainforest through camouflage. We see it in how butterflies mimic leaves and in how certain beetles imitate army ants. But what if insects evolved a way to mimic the ultimate army ant, human beings?

A butterfly camouflaged as a green leaf.
A Brimstone butterfly mimicking a leaf. https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3296838

Wollheim tells his story using a bare number of elements. In the beginning, there’s a street man he remembers from childhood, a man in a black cloak who never talks to women and who remains very private, “a sight from some weird story out of the old lands” (280). He hammers metals sheets but remains a cypher.

The protagonist grows up and forgets him, taking a job at the entomology exhibit at a museum. As he learns the ways of science, a discipline still in its infancy, he learns all about how certain insects use camouflage to hide themselves–even one particular beetle that is marked to resemble “three ants walking single file” (281). The fact is that much is still unknown to science, and since there is an entire group of animals that mimic predators, what if human beings, the ultimate predator, also had mimics living alongside them?

Once this philosophical idea is expressed, the protagonist has a run-in with man in the black cloak. He hears a troubling sound in a room in the museum and bursts in to find the man dead. However, when he inspects his face and clothes, he is revealed to not be human:

What we thought was a coat was a huge black wing sheath, like a beetle has. He had a thorax like an insect, only the wing sheath covered it and you couldn’t notice it once he wore the cloak. The body bulged out below, tapering off into the two long, thin hind legs.

(282)

This man-beetle recalls Kafka’s cockroach, Gregor Samsa, and Wilbur Whateley, Lovecraft’s half-human creation of bundled-up inhuman organs and appendages. However, this beetle, unlike Kafka’s cockroach, has not transformed into a grotesque being from a human being: she’s a beetle through and through, who simply mimics human beings to survive long enough to lay her eggs. The beetle perishes in that room, after the natural end of her life cycle. When the protagonist unlocks the metal box that was also in the bare room, the beetle’s spawn swarm in the air, a reminder of all that which remains unknown to science.

The final sighting of this hidden world comes at the story’s end, when the narrator observes a chimney move and seemingly transform into a moth: “I saw it suddenly vibrate, oddly. And I saw its red brick surface seem to peel away, and the black pipe openings turn suddenly white” (283). The language used to describe this transformation calls to mind the poetics of metamorphosis in Ovid.

It’s this unpeeling that is so central to weird fiction: it reveals the surfaces of the world to be mere surfaces, with a writhing reality hidden underneath. The labels we use to categorize the world are only self-deception. The Other is hidden in plain view. I believe that this is one thing that weird fiction shares in common with surrealism: both reveal the falsity of the surfaces that define the reality to which we give our consent every day.

In all, “Mimic” manages to be both a powerful, visionary weird tale, while also being a focused science fictional extrapolation.

Next week I will be turning to another science fiction great, the legendary Ray Bradbury, in his story “The Crowd” (1943).

a dark subway tunnel

Weird #26: “Far Below'” by Robert Barbour Johnson (1939)

a dark subway tunnel

If I could point to a quintessential weird tale–a short story that has all the Lovecraftian features that have come to be associated with weird fiction–I would point to Robert Barbour Johnson’s “Far Below.” Not only is Johnson the first author in The Weird to mention Lovecraft by name as a fictionalized character in his story, but he seems to have deeply read his essay “On Supernatural Horror in Literature.” In Johnson, the Lovecraftian weird tale has solidified into its most stable form.

The opening line is an absolute classic: “With a roar and a howl the thing was upon us, out of total darkness” (260). The “thing” itself is nothing more unusual than a New York City subway car, but the way it is described estranges it, so that it comes to resemble a bizarre worm crawling though the darkness below the city streets.

But there is a monstrous threat below the city. As Inspector Gordon Craig of the NYPD informs the nameless narrator, “They” have been known to break into the tunnels. The threat remains vaguely defined: a race of pale white creatures who inhabit the darkness and appear similar to a human or a gorilla, yet not dissimilar to “some sort of giant, carrion-feeding, subterranean mole” (262).

“Far Below” actually precedes The Mole People, a 1956 film that popularized the concept of mole people living beneath the earth. However, the first example of mole people is probably the Moorlocks from H. G. Wells’s Time Machine in 1895, in which they were depicted as devolved forms of proletarian humans operating machinery far below the earth’s crust.

This story scores almost every tick in the weird fiction checklist, or, if you prefer, every square in the weird fiction bingo card. These mole people are a cosmic horror, a vaguely defined outside threat that the majority of human beings carry on their lives blissfully ignorant about. The NYPD are like the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones fighting back the dark horrors of the night, though instead of a wall, they patrol the subway tunnels. And if they do find one of the creatures, they shred them to pieces with suppressed Maxim guns so no questions are asked about the hidden war beneath the streets.

Unfortunately, it also checks off the “racism” item on the weird tale checklist. The editors make it clear that some aspects of the story would appear dated today. The reasons for this is probably best encapsulated by the fact that the mole people are used to explain Indigenous burial practices that settler scientists cannot explain. (This particular details also checks off the pseudoarchaeology square on the bingo card.) The mole people are also used to explain the cheap price at which the original inhabitants of Manhattan sold the land to the Dutch settlers. Furthermore, there are certain reference to phrenology, or determining human intelligence by the shape of the skull or brain. These features show how the mole people inhabit settler fears of counter-invasion and counter-colonization, as well as White people’s fears of miscegenation.

Johnson is clearly a disciple of Lovecraft’s. As if the content of his story was not enough of a clue, he also has Gordon Craig directly say that he consulted Lovecraft’s writings himself when researching the history of these underground monsters:

Oh, yes; I learned a lot from Lovecraft–and he got a lot from me, too! That’s where the–well, what you might call the authenticity came from in some of his yarns that attracted the most attention! Oh, of course he had to soft-pedal the strongest parts of it–just as you’re going to have to do if you ever mention this in your own writings!

(264)

This passage is quite clever because of the way it plays with fictionality: the reader’s relationship to other texts and the reader’s relationship to the world outside the text.

Firstly, it posits that the story told by the character of Gordon Craig has been influenced by Lovecraft himself–but a version of Lovecraft that exists in Johnson’s fictional universe. This raises questions about the ontology of this version of Lovecraft. Is this Lovecraft the real Lovecraft known to scholars, who wrote made-up stories for Weird Tales? Or is it a Lovecraft who may be a slightly different version of himself, appropriate to Johnson’s world?

Johnson seems to want the reader to think that his fictional Lovecraft had “real” encounters with the weird things he wrote about. Since he blurs the line between the real and fictional Lovecraft, he implies that the real Lovecraft who lived outside the text also had these encounters: in short, that his mole people and the weird events of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” also happened in the reader’s world.

What’s more, Johnson subtly usurps Lovecraft’s own originality by saying he owes the authenticity of his own descriptions to the first-hand experiences of Johnson’s fictional character, Gordon Craig! This positions Johnson’s story as closer to the “truth,” while Lovecraft’s fiction is actually a second-hand report.

These rhetorical moves and blurring of lines between fiction and fact create not only the illusion of a shared reality outside the text that both Lovecraft and Johnson have written about in their fiction, but the illusion of the reader’s immersion in their shared universe.

The fact that Johnson’s narrator is never named strengthens the illusion that the narrator might be a fictionalized version of Johnson himself, who “really” travelled with Gordon Craig in the New York subway and recorded his story like a journalist would. Since encounters with real cosmic horror cannot be tolerated by most readers’ minds, perhaps Johnson wishes to make the reader think that he has chosen to tell his story through fiction only because of the shielding alternative it gives. If he had used journalism, perhaps readers would have thought him mad, or gone mad themselves.

Johnson may have intended the appearance of fiction to be seen as one the ways in which his narrator has softened the truth, just as Lovecraft supposedly softened it through fiction. By suggesting that not all of the truth was told, Johnson lets his readers posit that there is a “worse” reality behind his story, a reality the reader could discover for themselves if only they searched for it “out there.”

Each of these strategies of Johnson’s assists in creating the intertextual illusion that the the mole people might actually exist outside the story, in the grimy subway tunnels of Manhattan, where the reader is currently reading Weird Tales magazine as the dark tunnels zip by the plexiglass windows.

There’s a detailed discussion of Johnson’s story and his other inspirations on the Tor.com blog.

Next week, I will be examining Fitz Leiber’s story “Smoke Ghost” (1941).

Course Offered: Imagining the Past: Fiction & Archaeology

Petra, Jordan

Come join me and up to 15 students on an archaeological expedition into the world of fiction at the Thomas More Institute this fall.

Imaging the Past: Fiction & Archaeology is the literature course I’ve been dying to design, and it’s finally being offered at TMI. We need brave, inquisitive souls to join us on our journey in search of ‘lost’ cities, cursed mummies, and the stratigraphy of past aeons.

I’ll be leading our discussion along with course leaders Karen Etingin and Greg Peace. We’re going to have twelve weeks of engaged discussion in a question-driven discussion environment in which we will be reading everything from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” to Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.

You don’t have to be in Montreal to attend. Courses may be taken for degree credit.

Course Description

If you love history, mysteries, and adventure, then this course is for you. Over twelve weeks, we will delve into how authors, some of whom are archaeologists, have imagined the past in their short stories and novels. We will also consider how they have represented the scientific discipline of archaeology.

Why do so many of fiction’s archaeologists investigate the supernatural and face danger in exotic locales? What impact do the tropes of detective fiction and adventure have on how the public perceives scientific research? How do the remains of past civilizations inform our understanding of them? With authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth as our guides, we will investigate the intersection between science and storytelling—between discovering and imagining the past.

Our expedition will take us from Egypt to Sri Lanka, from the prehistoric dawn of humanity to Mars, as we read a variety of fictions in which the discipline of archaeology and the puzzle of the past are significant themes.


Course schedule: Wednesday, 6:15 – 8:15 p.m. (12 weeks)

First Class:  23 September, 2020

 

You can register now.

Register online by logging in or creating an account at TMI: https://courses.thomasmore.qc.ca/log-in/

  • You don’t have to be in Montreal to attend. It will be offered online with Zoom.

  • Books to purchase: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Artifacts by Mary Anna Evans

  • $135 tuition (admin fees included) for new students; 185$ (admin fees included) for standard tuition

Come join us on an adventure.

How I Wrote a Character-Driven Story

I’m a plot-driven storyteller. As a result, it took me a long time to really understand how to write a character-driven story–not just to deepen characterization after the plot is written, but to really write a story that tells about a character’s particular life experiences.

This is supposed to be the domain of realist literary fiction, I thought. Plenty of genre fiction is character-driven, of course. The best often is. But genre fiction tends in general to slant towards plot and storytelling for the joy of storytelling. As such, I felt more at home writing those kinds of stories. I’d never consciously tried to write what Orson Scott Card might call a Character story before, but I had written Event stories.

Until, that is, I took a fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute with Pauline Beauchamp and Karen Nesbitt (which is being offered again in Winter 2020). The 12-week workshop gave my classmates and myself plenty of time to do exercises that allowed us to slowly discover our protagonists. And once I had this chance to really build a character from the ground up, it seemed the easiest thing in the world to write a story about him.

The result? My story “The Goddess in Him” will be appearing with NewMyths.com in September 2020 and I can’t wait to share it with you all.

Writing a character-driven story was simple in the end. Because of the way my mind works, it had just never clicked that this was one way you could write the kind of story editors always want: character-driven stories.

I had to begin not with a fully outlined plot, but with a fully-fleshed person.


I go more into depth about my experience with writing character-driven fiction in my latest article in The Writing Cooperative, “How I Learned to Write Character-Driven Stories.”


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How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Desert journey

Photo by Jeff Jewiss on Unsplash

Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?

Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.

This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.

Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.

Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”

Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.

One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.

True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.

One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?

Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”

Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.

What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.

True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.

The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.

Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.

Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.

And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?

Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.

To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.

By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.

Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?

Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.

Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:

“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?

Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?

Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and] 

Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”

While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.

In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.

Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.

Course Offered: Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing

specfic

Are you an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer? If so, I have good news!

I am teaching a speculative fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Avenue, Montreal) called “Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing.”

You will read selections from speculative fiction authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Charles de Lint, and China Miéville, while working on your own short story to be workshopped in class.

The 12-week course begins January 7th. Register for the course through the Thomas More Institute website. Questions may be directed to me at matthew.rettino@gmail.com.

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My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

“The Pilgrim’s Yoke”

Professional Proofreading and Editing

My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

Ever since I became serious as a freelance editor/proofreader and a participant on Critters.org, the oldest online writer’s critique group, I have encountered the same weakness in fiction over and over again. Partly, I think this is because people send early drafts to critiques and forego revision until they receive their first round of feedback.

In my opinion, writers could benefit from self-revision before submitting to critique groups because many weaknesses that make a story unreadable can be fixed by the writers themselves. Beta readers and critique groups are useful resources, but writers can improve their craft more reliably through deep practice.

As a tool to help writers improve their own work, I have provided the following list of common weaknesses in fiction.

1. Too little exposition, especially at the beginning.

Young or inexperienced writers are often advised to avoid exposition at all costs. It’s an info dump, boring, and uninteresting to read. But given the volume of fiction I have read where I did not feel grounded in the story, I am no longer convinced that this advice is unimpeachable.

Writers are told by creative writing teachers to begin in media res, but often, they begin their stories before they establish the res. In other words, they begin in ‘the middle of things‘ without establishing what those ‘things’ are, or where they are, or when they are. The characters are already running around doing things, but there is a certain level of knowledge the reader is presumed to have before they come to the text.

Unfortunately, there is no way for readers to access this information if it is not on the page! This is a problem especially frequent with speculative fiction openings, where a common reality between the reader and the fictional world is not necessarily assumed.

“Once upon a time, there was a young princess who loved to play with her toy ball.”  This establishes a time, a character, and a setting. It is a perfect window into the “before” state prior to the main action. Every word is exposition: “telling” instead of “showing.” Yet, the words have a solidity and sense of narrative confidence that grounds the reader.

Writers often forget to use the narrator’s voice to convey important details of the story. This likely has to do with how most writers are raised on the visual formats of TV and movies instead of the nineteenth-century novels of yore. Since writers think they can see their characters in the movie of their mind’s eye, they think the reader will have no problem seeing that movie. But in these cases, this movie does not exist on the page.

Simply showing events does not ground the reader automatically. A certain  amount of telling is often necessary. Keep exposition minimal in the middle of your story and at the end, but do not forget that exposition at the beginning may be necessary.

In modern literature, stream-of-consciousness and multiple viewpoints give a greater sense of the fragmentation of experience. But even if the narrator’s  perspective no longer carries the authority it enjoyed in the nineteenth century, it must still anchor itself in those very limits. From that base, that creative center, the story expands outwards, growing steadily more complex, like coral.

N.B.: I would highly recommend writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to consult How to Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings by Robert Qualkinbrush, which I have read. It goes into more detail about this issue.

2. Opening at the wrong time.

On occasion, a story might begin too early or late in the action.  Introducing your story in media res can sometimes feel like filling a reader in about what happened when they were asleep during the first half of a movie. If you find that this is true for you, you might have begun the story too late.

On the other hand, when you write a character traveling or walking towards a fateful destination, chances are you have begun the story too early. This is called “walking to the story” and is a crutch writers fall back on. This is fine to do in rough drafts as a way to connect with your characters. But in subsequent drafts, it is usually a good idea to cut these moments out.

Sometimes the story begins with the right scene, but the wrong thing is being described. For example, there might be a few sentences of purposeless description done in the interest of painting a picture. Perhaps the colour of the sky is described or the colour of the protagonist’s hair. Often, this information is uninteresting to the reader who does not yet have a reason to care what the world looks like. They want to know what’s happening or at least have some unusual, privileged insight into a character presented to them.

Sometimes a story begins at the wrong moment simply because the reader tries to express an emotional reaction that has been given no context. In About Writing, Samuel Delaney provides a model for the three units of narrative that build on one another like blocks. Setting/location must be established firstly, followed by situation and conflict. As a result of this conflict, the reader lastly experiences affect, or emotional reaction (payoff). This model can be applied on any fractal level of narrative structure: paragraphs, beats, scenes, acts.

In cases where an emotional reaction begins a story but falls flat, the writer may have used the three units of narrative in reverse, beginning with affect without describing setting or situation. Unless the emotion is primal and/or the context swiftly provided, the reader may feel disconnected from the events.

Sometimes the story begins at the wrong chronological moment. Other times, it begins with the wrong details being described. Sometimes the fix is as simple as rearranging the order of a few sentences in a paragraph; other times, the story’s initial event must itself be rethought. Ideally, a story begins at a moment of dramatic interest where the relevant details can be shown and/or told in exposition that appears relevant to the action.

3. Unclear, unfelt stakes.

The next biggest weakness is a lack of clear, emotional stakes. By stakes I mean the question, “Why is this character performing this action?” Stakes have to do with risk and all the things the character has to lose or gain. The clearer the stakes, the more reasons to read on to see whether the protagonist gains or loses what they most value and love.

Unclear stakes often occur because readers have forgotten to make them explicit.  Too much subtlety can sometimes result in a vagueness with regard to a character’s goal. But there is nothing wrong with a line that puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see: “Velma couldn’t let Clarice beat her at Bingo, or she’d never be able to look her knitting circle in the eye again.” The circumstances may appear trivial to a reader, but given the above example, no one can deny that Velma needs to win the Bingo tournament at Shady Maple Retirement Home to earn the regard of her peers.

Exposition can go a long way to making stakes clear, especially at the beginning of a story. Later in the story, stakes can be shown instead of told. For example, there might be a scene where Velma loses the Bingo game and the knitting group has a meeting without inviting her. Now the stakes are bigger: will she confront her knitting group and stand up for herself or wallow in self-pity about her loss? This is an escalation.

These stakes must not only be clear, but carry an emotional impact. The stakes of a story might be world-ending–a nuclear war scenario, for instance–but if the protagonist remains unaffected, the reader does too. Thus, the urgency of a stake has nothing to do with the volume of people affected but by the specificity of the emotions associated with it.

Velma’s need to earn the respect in her knitting circle might engage readers, while scavengers surviving in a post-nuclear Toronto might elicit no sympathy whatsoever. If the scavengers’ stakes have no emotional context, they will simply not matter to the reader.

Think of all the things George Bailey loses in It’s A Wonderful Life when he sees what Bedford Falls looks like in a world where he has never been born. He loses the Building & Loan, his family, and the optimism of the town itself, which has nowhere to turn to escape Mr. Potter’s exploitation. George stands to lose everything he cares about and the audience feels it.

The more particularized the stakes, the better. If the fate of the world is literally at stake in your story, a bland emotional reaction on your protagonist’s part, even if noble (“We have to save it!”), will not give an especially compelling reason to be interested in the character per se. If, however, the scavenger’s grandmother is alone at Shady Maple Retirement Home on Bingo Night and unaware of the danger of the incoming nuclear apocalypse, the stakes for the scavenger are more particularized–that is, specific for him. We might also feel a little sorry that grandma was never able to resolve the drama with her knitting circle.

Think of the reader’s attention as a tent on a windy mountaintop. You need many specific and poignant stakes to pin that tent down, keep your reader’s attention tethered to your story, and hold it there.

4. A lack of frontwork to prepare readers for revelations.

A revelation in your story that does not ‘land’ often confuses the reader instead of delivering the emotional or intellectual impact you desire. Fixing revelations involves hard work. In order to reveal information in your story in an impactful way, you have to do some frontwork.

For instance, in one story I read, a character was working on a mystery surrounding a crime, but before they could establish a baseline of assumptions about the case, the writer threw a curve ball: a surprise revelation revealed that the crime the character was investigating was itself a deception. The suspects, who were only vaguely described, were actually a cover-up for other criminals, who were even more vaguely described.

This was ineffective because I did not have a baseline of assumptions about the criminals already. This came from a lack of exposition. But the main issue was that the clues to the deception were not planted in advance. I was not engaging with this revelation on an intellectual level. I was just seeing it happen. One set of criminals were as good as the other.

At Odyssey, I learned the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘answer’ revelations. The distinction between these types of revelations lies in how they each generate a different kind of expectation in the reader. An answer revelation comes as the answer to a specific, limited question posed by the story. An example would be the classic whodunit. A surprise revelation comes out of the blue, but still creates the anticipation in the reader that the information revealed will cast a new light on what came before. For example, the characters might reinterpret specific clues, correcting an illusion or a misdirection.

To these two types of revelation, I would like to add the type of ironic revelation. In an ironic revelation, the reader or audience is aware of the content of the revelation, but specific characters in the story may not be. This is particularly common in comedy (Ex: “Nina’s been lying to you about being a Hollywood starlet ever since you first met.”).

Surprise revelations work because clues interpreted one way can become reinterpreted in another. But if these clues are unclearly indicated, or even absent, the revelation can fall flat or confuse the reader.

In another story I read, a character’s father was a supernatural being, but clues that could have served as subtle hints of this were skimmed over. This is where illusion or misdirection can help. For instance, if the father was trying to hide that he was a vampire, perhaps the son could be suspicious that he is a cocaine addict and find evidence to reinforce this idea–at least until the surprise revelation tells him otherwise.

The surprise revelation casts the specific clues placed earlier in the story in a new light. But it is fundamentally important to ensure those clues are doing the right work. Choose a specific, convincing way for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the clues. This misdirects the reader. Then, after the surprise revelation, those same clues are reinterpreted.

5. Stock or manipulated gestures.

This is probably one of the hardest issues to fix, but it is certainly one of the most common to find in fiction, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. “She smiled”, “he walked”, “he nodded”, “she raised her eyebrow”: If any of these short phrases sound familiar, you probably know that these expressions are overused. These body language beats are clichés and so often repeated, especially in early drafts, that it reduces writing to a boring sameness and repetitiousness.

It’s not that these gestures are an absolute evil. Plenty of published works throw in the odd eyebrow raise. It’s just that these expressions are rarely ideal. They often misrepresent the particularity of your characters’ personality and stifle their fullest expression. Having a startlingly unique character raise an eyebrow, nod, and walk around is almost like placing such a character in a straitjacket. Instead, they should express themselves using telling gestures authentic to themselves, their own setting, and their own situation.

Write stock gestures to get past the first draft. But after you have gained a better vision of your character and their personality, specify. Particularize. Instead of saying they smiled at someone, you can say they smiled at someone while looking the other way across the room. This implies inner conflict, that their attention lies elsewhere. Gestures demonstrating inner conflict can go a long way towards representing a character’s particularity.

Gestures can also seem like they are manipulated by the author. For example, a character who is usually depressed and/or self-critical would likely not smile to express happiness. Depending on their personality, they might not even smile to express sarcasm. Every character comes with an emotional range. You must ask yourself how this character would express happiness, or how that character might react to jealousy, and so on.

To recap, my advice comes down to two major themes: making sure the reader has all the information they need to enjoy the story and ensuring that characters are depicted in their particularity to generate deeper interest in those characters.

Your first draft will always be rough, but once you train yourself to spot these weaknesses in your own writing, you will be that much closer to developing better second drafts and becoming a more self-reliant writer.

Announcing the October Archaeology of Weird Fiction Project

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I was introduced to the world of weird fiction.

My roommate for the weekend, Usman T. Malik, introduced me to the  Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology series (Undertow Publications), where a short story of his, “Resurrection Points,” had been published recently. His enthusiasm for his genre of choice, the weird tale, was contagious.

Soon I had discovered ChiZine Press’s lineup of dark fiction novels and short story collections and I had picked up Jeffrey Ford’s collection A Natural History of Hell. These stories, particularly those in the Ford collection, astounded me with their imaginative situations, their mythologies, and their bold use of language. Although I had not been exposed much to H.P. Lovecraft, I began to read his classic weird tales as well. I had caught the bug.

Before I knew it, weird tales had infected my brain. It was just as China Miéville described in his “Afterweird” to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories: weird texts “will eat the books you read from today on … That is how the weird recruits. … These stories are worms” (1116).

These textual tapeworms led me to write an essay on the Weird and Usman T. Malik’s fiction in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, an academic journal based at McGill University. The ways this genre twists language and representation became an object of fascination for me.

It was not long before I discovered the vast range of texts Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had compiled together in their anthology. Texts from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first are gathered here within the same sprawling volume, encompassing authors as diverse as Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury, Rabindranath Tagore, James Triptree, Jr., George R.R. Martin, Julio Cortázar, Kelly Link, and Jamaica Kincaid. The anthology also includes contemporary authors of the New Weird, such as China Miéville and Thomas Ligotti. In all, 110 texts appear in this collection, each originally published between 1909 and 2010.

The Weird creates the predecessors of the New Weird movement, an act of canonization. However, Miéville emphasizes that this compendium “does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion–of crawling and wringing time–there is no Weird. All canons are tombs, yes, but this collection is a post-elegy, wearing / an eaten shroud / –a long-dead rag for the dead” (1116). Weird fiction frustrates our categories and subverts our reassurances of permanency and order.

This project is an excavation of that canonical tomb. It is an archaeology of the weird.

My goal will be to post weekly reflections on the earliest stories in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s compendium throughout the month of October. I hope to learn something about how the genre developed the way it did. I also hope to figure how the weird produces some of the stylistic effects it is famous for making. And lastly, like a pulp archaeologist in the adventure serials, I may find my cold, rational logic challenged by the sudden manifestation of the realities human beings were never meant to understand…

It promises to be fun.

My first post will be on an excerpt of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908), the first story included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology. The posts will appear weekly on Saturday mornings.