The Lesson Behind The Lesson: Stakes and the Ending.

Everyone should be a teacher at some point in their lives. I don’t mean, of course, that everyone should be a paid teacher in a public school. There are far too many hoops to jump through for that. But in teaching your subject matter, you sometimes discover new truths about it. You’re forced to, when you have to explain your choices to people who haven’t yet developed the unconscious competence that you’ve absorbed through years of trial and error.

This semester, I got to teach about 33 high-school seniors the basics of short story writing. Among other things, I did expose them to a whole list of handy “don’ts.” Don’t switch viewpoints if you can avoid it. Don’t write in both past and present tense at the same time. Don’t end your story with “And then they woke up and it had all been a dream.”

Of course, these being high-schoolers, I got ignored a lot. Having taught high school for years, I am well aware of their tendency to do whatever is easiest, besides the permanent streak of “you can’t make me care” that is natural to the age. But I didn’t expect to get so much apparent pushback on that last one. I had stories that ended when the main character woke up. I had stories that ended when the main character got dragged away to an insane asylum. Or back to their cell because they were already in an insane asylum. Or won what turned out to be a game.

And I realized then that this wasn’t pushback at all: this was the desperation of people who didn’t know what to do to end their stories, and hadn’t seen the common thread that was so obvious to me. Many of my readers will have figured it out already, but for those who aren’t to where they can do that yet (and we all pass through that stage), I’ll spell it out: the problem with all of these endings is that they destroy the actual story.

How do they destroy it? Well it helps, perhaps, to think of a story as a game. A game played for stakes. When you read a story, the characters’ lives, fortunes, their sacred honor, even their souls may be at stake. If it’s at stake, that means they can be lost. When the events of the story are revealed to be a dream, a hallucination, or a game, then that means none of it was ever really at stake in the first place. It’s like discovering that the players around the poker table, wagering thousands of dollars, were in fact playing with Monopoly money.

So I had to break that down for them, and it was interesting to watch the lights go on. And there are even ways around these endings that can make them meaningful. A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge waking up, but you never doubt that his soul was really at stake and that the Ghosts were real. Shutter Island does indeed end with Leo DiCaprio’s character being dragged off to the insane asylum, but it works because he did have a moment of understanding in which he could have chosen the hard road back up to sanity, rather than embracing his delusions. In Larry Niven’s and Steven Barnes’s Dream Park, the game matters because a) the characters are well-defined enough that the game has real-world meaning to them, besides being entangled with an actual murder. The problem with these endings, most of the time, is that the writer confuses emotion with stakes.

We’ve all been really scared by a bad dream. The fear is real. And certainly, the plight of someone suffering through insanity (or even mental illness) is heart-wrenching. But watching someone be scared by a bad dream, or someone be insane, or someone be thrilled by a game is not interesting. That’s like watching an injured athlete sit on the sidelines. It may be very sad that he is there, but it’s not going to change for the whole game. He has no role to play in it, and he will be lucky to get two sentences said about him for thirty seconds of screen time.

You can tell a meaningful story only if the dream, the insanity, or the game have real meaning in the characters’ real lives. Anything less, and the readers have no reasons to care

 

 

NOT QUITE FREE FANTASY STORY!

So, I’m excited to report that with the contract novel delivered to Digital Fiction Publishing League, I’m back on track working on the continuing adventures of James and Harriet, the daring veterinarian (and his lovely assistant witch) of the Evil Dark Lord who rules the world.

Superversive Press, my publisher for this series, has agreed to allow me to post chapters as they are completed, and this will continue until the work is done. And as an incentive to back me on Patreon, I am offering to my patrons the next chapter in James and Harriet’s saga: “The Exanimation Room.”

Now, go patronize me!

Release Day: Iron Out Of Vulcan!

Today, my story “Iron Out Of Vulcan” releases in the anthology Battling In All Her Finery from Mad Scientist Journal! Accompanied by twenty other tales of awesome warrior women (and who doesn’t like those), it is a tale of post-alien conquest apocalyptic survival. Short version, of you liked Furiosa, you’ll love Scout.

And just for your enjoyment: an excerpt:
I rode between two drum-fed National Guard .50 caliber machine guns mounted in a plexiglass ball-turret, mounted on the back of a microbus shell welded over the bed of the six-wheel Ford F550. Again, I peered through the iron crosshairs at the black speck in the distance.

Definitely a motorcycle.

“We have a friend,” I called through to the cabin. “Watch for IEDs.”

“Oh, sure; I’m on it,” Mina deadpanned. But she signed to Eric, which was good enough. Paul moved forward, too. It was a standard trick. Make your target watch you, and they might miss your roadside bombs. Best way to take us out, unless they had spike-strips.

“Who is it, Scout?” asked Mina. “Not Them, I take it?”

“She’d be swearing more,” Eric grunted.

“I don’t know,” I said. Not Them. A gang out of Chicago or Dallas, maybe. The remnant of a Mexican drug cartel, perhaps. The bandidos had tried taking Criptown from us last summer. Cost us a lot of good Crips and ammo we couldn’t spare.

Some thought we shouldn’t call the place ‘Criptown.’ Worried it might scare potential recruits off because of the old gang name. As if any of them had got out of the cities before the nukes hit.

I looked back at the cycle. We could only hope that cycle-boy’s friends would decide Vulcans weren’t worth the carnage.

I looked at the empty road ahead. Somewhere out there, a radio had called for us. Was it a trap? Some Vulcans had disappeared. Maybe this cyclist’s friends had set us up. Or maybe someone else had. Or maybe – just maybe – the signal was genuine. It was a chance we would have to take, if we could find them.

We needed people desperate enough to live free.

Return To Amazing Stories!

I just realized that I never followed up on the post from June about my story about Space Marine Midwives (In Space).

It has been sold to Amazing Stories, and will appear in the next issue releasing mid-November. I was in the second-to-last issue of Amazing Stories when it folded in 2000, so I find the symmetry especially pleasing to find myself in the second issue of its next incarnation.

The story that will appear is called “In The Republic Of The Blind,” and is a twist on H.G. Wells’s better-known work set on a long-forgotten colony where the formerly disabled preserve their own cultures.