BEHOLD AND TREMBLE
The Mad Missourian, Ben Wheeler returns!
A tome of terror and nightmare beyond your reckoning! IT IS THE NECRONOMICON AESTHETICA . Bound in the twisted and flayed flesh of critics and penned with the blood-tear ink of underpaid and overworked artists, this book will be the end-all and be-all of entertaining fiction analysis. This is not to be an explicit guide to a paint by numbers towards something poor, generic and, Lord forgive me for saying this, derivative. This is a guide to promoting excellence of story telling, to look at, disagree with or consult like a road map where you already know the way, but you want to make sure.
Read ON brave delver of the darkest literary arts!
The bats “REEEEEE” out the midnight hour as you fumble with the tumor Scrofula supposedly planted at the base of your skull. It’s there and you are terrified. A part of you wants to get rid of it. A voice in your head is comforting you and telling you that it’s not THAT big of a deal. He plants a tumor in all of his best student’s head and only seventy percent of them turn cancerous. You panic a bit.
Don’t worry, they deserved it for writing books Scrofula didn’t approve like.
You keep twisting and twisting, trying to get those memories to come forth. You KNOW he did a lecture on time travel somewhere. Finally, the tumor stops whirling within the flesh-pocket in your neck. After some poking and prodding, you see a vision of the past.
Ah, college. All your hopes and dreams still living and prancing about in your mind. The world still refrained from kicking you in the gut for your tender years. You had, when flicking through the channels at midnight, found an advertisement for the good mad doctor Scrofula. You fell in love. Of course, that would turn to manic fear, but it was love just then.
Oh, how it changed. It changed five minutes into class.
One student, a green fellow from the center of the earth, raised his hand and asked. “I see here there’s a whole week dedicated to quests and the hero’s journey. Why? It’s not that important.”
Scrofula stopped talking and began to scream. Your ears bled and eyes felt like they would pop with every ever increasing decibel. “NOT IMPORTANT?! Satan’s tailbone WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!” Scrofula leaped from the front to the very back and gripped the exchange student. He leaped again and placed the screaming student on the blood-stained altar in front.
While chaining him to the stone slab, Scrofula conversed with him, genially.
“Now, my young egg, you have made a terrible mistake. You have brought post-modernism into my class. I can’t have that. You are going to be sacrificed to ITUMBO OF NIGHT for your crimes. But fortunately for you, I am going to explain exactly WHY. Not everyone will get this gift. Not everyone will die knowing WHY.”
“Please don’t kill me!”
“Nah. First things first. Are hero’s journeys, character arcs and quests necessary, even in some quiet, tertiary fashion? Yes. In some fashion, in some way, even roundabout, the hero’s journey/quest/whatever is vitally necessary to the story. There’s all kinds of versions, don’t miss the forest for the trees, elixir quests and so on… but the basic existence of one is necessary for a story to exist. This is a meta conversation, so don’t get caught up in details, my dear victim.
“Without that structure, a story cannot be told. How do you know structure exists? Does a novel need that structure to be ‘good’? What’s more, if we do not have ideas or some writing ABOUT writing, it becomes harder and harder to tell whether something is good or bad. Yes, I said good or bad. A structureless story with no characters, no plot and no climax is only chaos. Without knowledge of structure how can you say something is structureless?
Say a charlatan writes such a tale. He argues that it has a structure through dishonest tricks of language. How can you argue against him? He says it is so and, sadly, you cannot rip out his heart due to the circumstances of the stars. ‘I don’t think it has structure’ isn’t a legitimate argument without some idea how structure exists and set to language that both of you can understand.
Which brings up another layer. If you cannot communicate how can you write in a way that others can understand you? While some madmen may claim perfect knowledge of the connection between words and reality, reality does not perfectly correspond to language in a vacuum. Rather, it is the human mind that translates the two. There is a mean, a gestalt you see. And this is simple, besides. I have an entire month dedicated to the training of that gestalt. And yes, it can be trained.
Eventually, you will get good enough to do it on reflex and good by objective standards. A reflex, yes, to know what is good and bad. An idiot who has convinced himself that chaos is good will have such a reflex, if twisted. By consuming the reading list I have set for you, on page 96 through 149 of the syllabus, you will have a baseline of ‘good’.
What’s more, writing is a muscle. I will guide you in your writing, your ‘work-outs’ and eat anyone that offends me. As you write more, as you study writing, tropes and truth, as you experience MORE, you will improve that reflex, that sacred knowledge, that Je-ne-sais-quois. You have so far to go. Any idiot can put down pornography or a fan-fiction. Some might even be DECENT.
I know of a boy from my generation who wrote a series of books. It was pretty great, honestly. It remixed some stuff from famous movies and did nothing particularly offensive… in the first book. His usage of tropes and journeys was natural and proper, hinting at great talent. However, in the second book and beyond, he became corrupted. He didn’t hold true to his story and it became quasi-mystical. It consumed parts of the story until it became unreadable. Dramatic twists were unable to support themselves because of his expenditure of reader patience with his mystical BS like some over-wrought fanfic writer whose just discovered Buddhism or some such nonsense.
His muse and his training was overtaken by his desires for what he wanted in the story. His editor, bedazzled by the money he brought in, could not REIN him in or, worse, encouraged it. Though this boy, man now, may have had talent. May have had something, it has been ruined and allowed to burn through whatever he had before. It is a truly sad story. And while few have reached his fame so quickly, many have followed such a path.
His structure became tangled and unkempt. Training montages became strange and tortuous. He wandered too long in elfland and nearly forgot his purpose. His mistook the bad for the good and he didn’t know what his limits were. He didn’t know the limits of the story. Perhaps it burned him out. Don’t begrudge his success, begrudge that he didn’t GROW. He has published nothing new since the end of his series.
It would have been better for him to FOLLOW the hero’s journey than to linger with what might be his own desires and fetishes. He should have sought STRUCTURE instead of DESIRE. At some point, no matter how awesome a thing is that you are writing, if you allow it to be eaten up by what you want, and not what your muse wants, your book will FAIL.
Let’s look at this from another angle. The boy leaves his blacksmith father to go and find adventure and fortune. He returns and picks up his father’s trade. How does it sound to you? It is merely the prologue and epilogue of a great story. He left a callow youth and returned a man capable of upholding his father’s work. Ignore his ghost arm and elven wife and gold coins as a reward for his fell deeds. Ignore his scars and new strength. It is not the details, but the broad strokes I care for, in this lecture.
The reader expectations, the normie expectation, those WHO WE WRITE FOR, expectations are that he HAS to have changed. He didn’t walk fifty feet out of the village and then return. It isn’t WHAT has changed, it is that change happened. In the movie, Kingdom of Heaven, the main character does just that. The adventure calls to him again and he refuses, claiming to just be a blacksmith. Despite refusing the call, because we have seen the adventure, it is neither offensive or degrading to what he has done. He has had his adventure and wants no more, except that common one to all mankind.
Of course some smart-alec will point out that ‘there could be miles of desert he can’t cross blah blah blah’ but then the story would be about him struggling in a quest literally, but rather, it would be figurative, metaphorical or some other word like allegorical. He would struggle with nothing else existing. He would wrestle with being forced to accept something beyond him. The reader would follow this struggle and internalize the themes of entrapment by an unfeeling outside power and the acceptance that some things cannot be overcome. Or, even better, perhaps he finds a caravan going through the desert and joins as a camel driver…
While one may write that book, of the boy stuck on an island in a void he cannot traverse, it is a story that does not have infinite variations. Either he escapes, accepts, or suicides in some fashion. You might boil down a quest to such a slim number, but it is not the same thing at all. Being embroiled in some intrigue, or enslaved during his adventure, is not the same thing as the above acceptance. Slaying the dragon is not escaping the island, because the dragon comes for him, and the island cares not. And dying heroically on the field of battle is not suicide, which is despair.
There is a need for entertainment we have not covered yet. Even if the man is just despairing on the beach, it must be VERY entertaining. It has to be thoughtful examination. It must be valuable for its character drama and themes. It classifies as a very hard write. You cannot just slap angst on it and call it good. It requires depths upon depths to be worth reading. It is an entertainment of the mind and emotions, but it is not the same thing at all as slaying the dragon.
Slaying the dragon is excitement, danger and the promises of endless wealth if victory is won. Killing the man who killed your father is drama, vengeance and honor! Overthrowing the usurper is Justice, hierarchy and the return to goodness. It is MORE. While one a few good stories may be written of the child stuck on his void island, INFINITE stories may be written of him going on his adventure, growing as a character and completing the quest. The usurper is a dragon and killed your father!
Whatever quest is set before the characters, it must entertain. However, whatever entertainment that can be had must FIT with the quest. Sometimes a dalliance to something whacky is alright, but too much whackiness will overturn it. Entertain, always, but never forget that the reader will notice and dislike your book for it. Even if they protest and say ‘I only want to be entertained!’ ignore them and write a plot into the book! Failing to structure and pursue the quest along in favor of cheap jokes will hurt your story severely and cause you to lose that entertaining quality. Think a joke that takes too long to tell.”
Scrofula began sharpening an obsidian knife. “And there are layers to this, deeper and deeper. Characters who show up often should have an arc. Characters should grow and breath with every mention of them. If time passes they should be them, but more mature and changed by the passing of time. Even villains.
You see, side characters should have their own goals and dreams that they are attending too. A villain is set against the hero. He isn’t ‘in a vacuum’ in fact, he’s less so that any other characters. They need to be going through their arcs even as the hero tries to overcome them. A villain who is just the same as before, is not a villain who has properly suffered a defeat.
Both the hero and the villain must rise to circumstances, but the villain is far more active than the hero. He is the driving force, either behind the curtain or boldly. He must be rising, and then he must fall. If he is falling the entire time that the hero is active, fine. If he only falls when the hero shatters his soul-bearing phylactery, fine. While character development might be kept less than what the hero has gone through, we must see the noose tighten around the neck of the villain. He has to see everything he’s built fall around him, or the sword flashing towards his head. While the hero will come to a realization of power, the villain will come to a realization of weakness.
Good stories where villains win are rare. Often, if they slay the callow youth, they might be faced with a crisis of some kind. Win the battle, but lose the war. The genie is a tricksy thing. The ancient machine doesn’t work. The comet grants no increase in power. The god is mad. In cases where he wins permanently, it must be with a sour taste in his mouth. Victory cannot be sweet, but rather, ashes in his mouth.
Stories that do not subvert the villain’s victory are not worth reading, for they have no hope. They are not capable of rising to some height that glorifies God or man. The villain does not need to die. He doesn’t need to suffer nearly as much as some think. He just cannot win, or, if he does win, he cannot enjoy it. It is actually quite simple.
With that, the arc is complete. The finished man, the hero, will slay the fallen man, the villain and the quest is over, but for the return home, the coronation ceremony or some such other thing. The reader will be satisfied. They will feel like they have come full circle.
Ultimately, the reader desires this. They want the catharsis of the victory, the hero enjoying the victory and the evil vanquished. Even in stories where the ending is bittersweet, the reader may still be satisfied by it, knowing that the victory over evil still leaves lingering pain. The quest is complete. The elixir, princess or battle won.
Then, here’s the secret. It doesn’t need to keep going. It doesn’t need another adventure. The blacksmith with the ghost arm and the elvish wife doesn’t need to go out again a questing. His son may, sequels can be beloved by fans, after all, but make sure it is HIS quest, and not another’s journey. Know when enough has been done. Do not push where your muse does not want to go.
For a counterpoint to this, read “One bright star to guide them” by John C. Wright. The hero is called again and takes up the magic sword to fight evil. Ultimately, though, the quest changes. He evolves to something else. His youth has its adventure. His middle age returns to it. Then he becomes a mentor for the next generation. I could even say the quest never really ended, for the evil was never truly vanquished, only one of their agents.
I hope you appreciate this. It’s a pity I’m ripping out your heart in the flower of your youth, but ITUMBO demands sacrifice. You will never breed your own hunchback. You will never build your castle. You will never conquer what has been set down for you to conquer. The quest is OVER.” Chanting dread syllables as blood poured from his mantis-mouth, Scrofula ripped out the gaian student’s heart and threw it upon the fire. It shocked us all, but you are fascinated. Is literature so important?
One student asks, “Professor, aren’t some characters flat? It’s not like Conan grows over his stories. He generally stays mostly the same character through each story.”
Scrofula points, “Good point! However, that’s not the focus of the lecture. My point is that character/quest arcs should exist within a story for the reasons I stated. Growth is required, but, for some characters, growth is merely slaying the dragon/overturning the dictator/getting the girl and so on. The character doesn’t need to change personality, but that assumes the character is ‘complete’ already. If the character isn’t ‘complete’ then he needs to go through a character arc. If he’s on a quest, but he’s still a callow youth, and ends as the same callow youth, I would say that the story is ‘less’. If he grows from a callow youth into a hero, the story is ‘more.’ Never be satisfied with lesser story.”
When the struggles on the altar ceased, Scrofula, mostly to himself says, as the blood runs to the ground, “Such is literature. Michelangelo or whoever would tell you that the sculpture is already in the block of marble. He knows, though, the weight stresses of marble, how the body should be designed and what strikes and tools he must use to make it a masterpiece. How can writing be different? Ah, because everyone should be able to write. Yes. But not everyone can or should. Their quest to write is false! FALSE! They have no muse but a fetish, a desire, a dream and they are not equal to those with a real muse…”
The furies screech the change of the hour and time is over. You file out with the rest, but you watch as Scrofula folds the body, altar and statue of ITUMBO OF NIGHT (which stares at you, though you never saw it move) into a briefcase and then leaves. His mantis eyes gleam and you are not sure why.
Check out Sheik of Mars: https://www.amazon.com/Sheik-Mars-Ben-Wheeler-ebook/dp/B07D9KSCQR