Fair Upon the Tor #02 (updates Mondays)

While Caewen struggled to free herself, the half-alive, half-dead woman leaned closer and narrowed her line of sight, staring hard and direct. The noise of Dapplegrim angrily stomping and yelling was growing faint. Caewen realised that the woods all around her had visibly dimmed too, as if she was now looking at the world through a carved-out hollow of dark glass that suffocated light and sound. The only other bright thing left was the woman who grasped Caewen’s wrist.

When the woman spoke, she did so with two voices superimposed, one atop the other. “Stop your wriggling.” One voice was young and pleasant. The other was harsh, dead-sounding and echoing.

Caewen stopped moving. Her muscles obeyed, as her mind reeled and balked.

“I want to get a look at you. There are those who are talking about you. Paying attention to you. Some of them say they’ve a claim on you even, since the goings-on at the tower of the snow and the apples, they say. Others are very keen to claim you for their nation, whether their claim is rightful or not. I want to have a look at you and see for myself.”

“I’ve no part in any nation,” Caewen said. She tried to twist free but found she could barely move. Frustrated, she added, more sullen, “Unless my little home village is a nation.”

The two voices chimed together, in synchronicity. “No mortal nation. The secret nations. The other nations that lie behind the mortal seeming of the world and are more true and more elemental in their being.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” She found that she was now slowly regaining a little control over her arms and tried to pull away again. Her heat was racing. Sweat was beading on her lips and gathering on her brow. A strong feeling of fear was running up and down her throat with each breath.

“None of that now.” A frown crossed the woman’s face. “I confess I find you wanting. Nothing like what I expected, given the gossip. But perhaps there is more to you than seems? A test is needed.”

The woodland faded still more, until the world became a blank greyness, so that it seemed as if the living earth had died and turned to ash around them. As soon as the colour was gone, the woman let go and said, “Follow.”

Caewen’s wrist hurt as if it had been burned. There were red marks where the fingers had been. She rubbed at it. “Do I have a choice?”

“No.”

The woman who was half-dead and half-alive turned and walked into the blank grey. Caewen held her wrist closer to her chest. She was managing to get a little bit past her initial fear and shock now. Her thoughts were regrouping. Was her wrist hurt? She stretched it. No. The joint was mostly uninjured, although maybe the skin would blister. She looked over her shoulder, desperately hoping she would see Dapplegrim and knowing that she would not. She couldn’t just wander off after some strange entity in the woods, or, wherever it was they were now. She looked around at the impenetrable grey. It wasn’t a fog, she realised. It was an absence. There was nothing here, just emptiness.

She didn’t put a foot forward, but instead said, “I am Caewen of Drossel Village. I give you my name freely and without obligation except for the oldest of trades. I ask your name.”

The woman stopped as if someone had given her a blow on the back of the neck. When she turned around her eyes had a swamp-flame glow of a snarl in them. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have demanded her name like that. Unless the half-dead woman wanted to break the oldest of the old laws, she would have to answer honestly. Caewen’s time spent with the ice-demon wriggling around inside her skull and thoughts had left all sorts of knowledge behind. Little scraps and bits. Old laws. Old bargains. Small but useful.

“Very well,” said the woman, coolly. “You ask who I am? I am the first of the three, who are one, who are many. I am the blighting, and I am the laying to waste. I am the end of all things, as all things must end. I am the falling to ruin, and the decay, and the rot, and the undoing of all that is and will ever be. I am the first of the three and I am swift as time, and twice as relentless.”

Caewen could barely form words. Finally, she said, “You want me to believe you’re the spirit of death?”

The half-dead woman laughed with two voices. “No. We are not so diffuse, nor so potent, nor so impotent, nor so world-spanning. No. The three who are one who are many are bound to the Hill of the Art. We who are one and three dwell together there, and reign there. We do not stretch our dominion beyond what is allotted to us.”

“Right,” said Caewen. “So, a sort of local spirit of death then?” She folded her arms. “What happens if I refuse to go with you?”

“I will leave you here, in the void where the howling apparitions roam. Past that, I do not know.” A shrug. “Whatever befalls you.”

Some choice. At least if she went with the half-dead woman, there might be a chance for escape later. There was no way to tell if the implacable expression she was looking at was impatient, but Caewen suspected she had to make a decision quickly, all the same. “Very well then,” she said, though she couldn’t quite keep a wisp of anger from her voice. “I will go with you for now.”

A smile formed in return, strange in the way it spread across the living and dead flesh of the face. “If I choose to take you, you will ‘go with me’ in whatever way pleases me, for however long pleases me. Little creature, you have nothing to say in the matter.” She turned away then and proceeded on her way into the blank greyness.

It was only as Caewen took a few hurried steps to catch up that she realised that the half-dead woman had not given her name after all. A shudder. That wasn’t good. Either the spirit was too broken to care about the old laws of the earth, or too powerful to bother with them. That sort of power was the power of a god. Maybe a minor sort of god, but a god nonetheless. One way or the other, this was not encouraging.

They might have walked for moments, or hours, or days. The passage of time did not seem to quite feel real in the thin and pallid gloom. However long it was, at last the woman came to a stop and indicated with a hand, “Here. Your test is here.”

Colours grew in snaking lines, forming trees and branches, leaves and then spreading under their feet, forming into the dirt and humus of the forest floor. As the colours grew in form and solidity, the apparition of the half-dead woman faded in measure, until only a tracery of her image was left, and then nothing.

When the world fully resolved itself, Caewen found herself on a wooded and evening-shallowed slope. The air felt the same degree of coolness as before, and she noticed crows roosting in trees above. They seemed to be watching her. There was no sign of the road that she and Dapplegrim had been on, but she did seem to be standing in the same woodland. As best as she could tell, anyway. How deep into the woods, how distant from the road and Dapplegrim, she could not tell.

Immediately in front of her was a shambling near-ruin of a cottage. The daub of the walls was crumbling. The thatch was rotted to the point of smelling like silage, fermented and faintly alcoholic in tone. Nothing seemed to stir nearby. There was no sign of anyone alive. Caewen looked around, peering into the distant woods. All she could see were trees, ranking themselves away in rows until they became dim brown bars half-hidden by their own foliage and the scattered understory. She called out, “Dapple!”, three times, loudly, but heard nothing. By the third yell, she was feeling alone, afraid and resigned. The half-dead woman wanted her to go into the cottage. There was probably little for it, but to go along with things and see where they led. “Stupid uncanny spirits. Stupid weird powers. Stupid eldritch things.” With a sigh she decided that muttering angrily at the ethereal was not going to do her any good. There was no point in delaying what must come.

Fair Upon the Tor #01 (updates Mondays)

Well, here we are then. I’m going to start posting this as a work-in-progress. I’ll set this up as posts of about a thousand words. This is just a first draft, so the final version may end up quite different. I don’t want to comment too heavily about why I might be choosing to do one thing or another… that might be giving away a little too much of the long-term plot. But, seeing the work develop in a piecemeal way on this blog seems alright. I have also attempted to turn on my comments… I’m not sure if I’ve managed to make the commenting work, but if not, I’ll keep trying until I figure it out. Without too much additional wandering, here is the first thousand or so…

-oOo-

The air was brittle with cold. A stillness held itself coyly in the hollows of the landscape. It clung to the underside of mossy half-fallen trees. It was submerged inside the shadows that lay on the frost-crusted mud and leaves. When the stillness broke, it was under the weight of the barest, lightest sound; a thin young voice raised in song, somewhere down the wooded road.

The hundreds of crows that flocked together to roost in this woodland looked down, peering at the noise below them. They shuffled on their branches and gave out their own low caws and rattles, as if they had needed someone else to break the silence first, before they would dare it.

Caewen was riding her slightly strange, slightly eerie looking horse, Dapplegrim, and she was singing one of the old mountain songs of her family’s village. It had a lot of nonsense words in it. “Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue, the cat went up the flue, lubbardy lo, the cat fell down, and splashed right in the stew. Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue…” and so on.

Dapplegrim was humming along with her, his voice much deeper and much quieter, like a gently distant thunder. When she finished, he said, louder, “Once more!” His sharp teeth showed as he spoke. The strange, skullish cast of his horse-face and the gleaming red of his eyes made for an odd contrast to the otherwise friendly tone, and the way he was swishing his tail about while bobbing his head.

“Alright then,” said Caewen. “Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue…”

They trotted together down the wild road like this, her in the saddle and Dapple singing along hushedly, punctuating the song with occasional, “Hurs!” and “Hurms!” They were winding their way south, and although they had not seen another soul for two days, they were close now to the hill called Sorcery Tor, their destination. As yet, they had not spoken more than a few words concerning what they hoped to achieve once there. Awkward questions hung over the whole attempt. Why would a big muddle of magicians with important matters to discuss even spare the time to listen to a farm girl and her strange horse-creature? What did Caewen and Dapplegrim really have to say about the Winter King anyway? Vague warnings from a dead enchantress? Some rumours. Some whisperings. Maybe no one would listen to them. So, maybe all that really mattered was fulfilling their promise to Tamsin. Maybe that was enough.

Deeper in the woods, they came to a stone bridge and Dapplegrim clattered onto it, his hooves snicking and clicking on the hard surface. Without meaning to, Caewen felt her voice fall silent. Dapplegrim slowed, then stopped. He turned his head to try and get a better view of her out of one eye. “Cae?”

She was looking to their left, at the frozen patchwork of pond and reeds. The shadows were deep here under a canopy of willow. The morning frost had not melted under the day’s wan sun. There had been no sun here to melt it, and there would be none. The canopy was thick enough to keep the light from this hollow until sunset, now only a few hours away. A wind stirred, throwing sparklets of cold half-light through the leaves and darkness. Somewhere, a wren sang a few lonely notes then fell back to silence. Caewen shivered. She felt the coldness as something palpable. This had been a strange new feeling in her ever since her bargaining with the snow-demon. The sensation made her shiver. She felt an urge to simply reach out and take up the chill of the air in her fingers, and draw it to her like a vast sheet of cold hard silk.

“Caewen?” said Dapplegrim again, a note of worry in his voice.

She shook her head. “It’s alright. Keep going. I just–” She breathed out a pent-in tension. “Since the ice-thing was inside my mind. I just–“

“Things will be different.” Dapplegrim started off again, now at a quicker pace. “Magic like that doesn’t leave a person unchanged. It will have left marks inside you. What exactly?” A shake of his mane. “Hur. And for how long? Who knows?”

She closed her arms around herself as if she were standing in a freezing wind. “It’s alright, Dapple. It’s not painful… just, odd.” She cleared her throat. She blinked to clear her vision. There was a slight wetness there. A quick dash of fingers to her eyes. Was she crying? Why would she be crying? Taking a breath she said, “No, it’s just, how can I put it? When I feel the cold now, or come too close to ice or hoar, or even just sleety rain, I have this urge to reach for it, to move it around, pull it and tease it out, like a grandmamma measuring and cutting cloth for a blanket. Or a toddler grabbing at something shiny. It just feels so instinctual. Purely without thought.”

“That’s an odd way to phrase it,” said Dapplegrim. He was not disguising a note of suspicion. “At both ends. Old and young. Grandmother and toddler. Why did you pick those images?”

“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “They just came into my head. But that is how it feels. Like I’m at the beginning of life, and at the end of life, all at once. I can’t shake that sensation. It might even be growing stronger.”

“Well, whatever you are feeling, hur, you must not give into it. That creature’s magic, the ice-weird: its knowledge is still inside you, curling around. If you give into the urge, maybe you could pull and tug at raw coldness and make it into whatever you wanted it to be… magic is like that… it is hard to know exactly what you can do with it until you do it, but you must not. You’ve no wellspring to draw on. No power. Only your own life. If you try to push at the world with magic, the world will push back.” He continued, a little uncomfortable. “And then who would pay for hay in towns or a nice stable? I mean, I could find some other person, but you know. I’ve gotten use to you. A bit.”

She reached forward and scratched him on the neck. “Oh, Dapple. You really do know how to make a person feel treasured.”

“I’m just saying. Hur. It’d be inconvenient to find someone else. That’s all.”

She smiled, and they rode on, into the lingering afternoon light.

The crows in the canopy above seemed to grow more restless. Caewen looked up more than once, wondering.

Dapple pipped up suddenly. “Hey oop there, look. There’s someone on the roadside.”

He was right. It looked as if a traveller had bundled themselves up under a heavy shawl or blanket, and sat down next to the road. They had a long and straight view under the beeches here, so Caewen and Dapple had plenty of time to consider the scene as they neared. The forest on either side was thin with little undergrowth. It didn’t seem like a place for an ambush.

“I suppose it’s a weary traveller,” said Caewen, not sounding very convinced. “Perhaps a sorcerer on their way to the moot?”

“Maybe,” said Dapplegrim. He didn’t elaborate. As they drew closer he started flaring his nostrils, sucking at the air, as if he was trying to draw in the whole of the woods, snorting and snuffling.

“Well?” said Caewen.

“An old woman.” Sniff. “Alone. There’s no one else about.”

“So, maybe a broom-cutter or old woodcutter’s wife?”

Dapple shook his head. “No. Your first guess is closer I think. There is some magic here, but it’s faint. It’s in the air though, stirring about, all the same.”

When they were quite close, Caewen called out in a friendly way. “Hello there. How are you fine afternoon?”

Though the layers of cloth hanging off her were thick, it was still possible to see the bony curve of her spine under fabric. Several dishevelled curls of iron-grey hair hung lump from the wrap that otherwise hid most of her head. A jutting old lip, splodged with age, blue with veins, was visible too, gleaming with a sheen of spit. There was a slight quiver to her. Perhaps she was infirm. After waiting a moment, it was obvious the woman was not going to reply. Instead she just kept rocking where she crouched. Dapplegrim gave out a sound like a low huff. “Well,” he muttered. “Impolite.”

But Caewen frowned, and swinging a leg over the saddle, she got down. “Hush now, you.” Her first couple steps were uncertain and sore. She had been in the saddle since they’d stopped for a midday meal. Besides which, she was still not fully accustomed to long days riding. Muscles twinged with soreness up and down her legs. Taking another, slightly less painful step she said, “Hello there? Are you alright?”

Caewen was close to the woman now. As bent over, reaching out, Caewen dimly heard Dapplegrim raise his voice and yell, “Caewen! Don’t!”

She froze but was too late. The old woman snatched her right hand out at Caewen and took hold. Her fingers felt like steel shrinking as it cools after the forge. Caewen wrenched her hand back but could not pull against the strength. As she tried to tear herself away, the old woman stood up and her age fell from her. The rags and tatters flaked away like bits of old skin from a snake, becoming instead a rich gown of deep crimson and black, decorated with garnets as red and bright as fresh-sprayed blood. The skin that had been wrinkled and patched with age-spots changed too, but this alteration was stranger: the right-side of the her face and body turned young and beautiful, skin flushed with health, eye sparkling. The left side gathered a grey and dead sheen, touched here and there with corpse-blue. The left eye turned milky and lifeless. Her hair on the left seemed somehow more brittle and faintly discoloured. The line between youthful and dead ran like a welt down her forehead, nose and chin, neck, to vanish inside the folds of the dress.

Fair Upon the Tor Drafting

I have made some small headway with Fair Upon the Tor, enough so that I’m considering posting the first draft as I write it… or perhaps, not quite as I write it, but in thousand-word chunks. I think I’m also going to switch comments on. I don’t expect I’ll see much in the way of feedback, although I guess we shall see.

At this point I will aim for the first-draft-in-progress to go live with regular to semi-regular Monday updates. I might even throw in some related illustration work too.

Sort of related to this, sort of unrelated, I discovered Songgu Kwon’s Elf webcomic over the weekend and read it start-to-finish in a couple sittings. It is quite a bizarre tale (in a good way), and wandering, and beautifully illustrated, and also oddly and powerfully character-driven in a way that stories that claim to be character-driven often are not. Well worth checking out, if you haven’t already.

I suppose reading Elf made me reflect on other people who have posted creative works in progress. Given that my plan is to give it all away free anyway, it doesn’t seem all that terrible an idea to post bits of it as I am going. Yes, it may mean that I post something that is unpolished and will need a second or third pass to get it into shape. But, on the other hand, it will also impose a sense of urgency around actually getting the work done… which I think I now need to place on myself, one way or another. There’s a point where feeling exhausted and bleed-out ceases to be a good reason to remain in a state of slow trudging. Sometimes I think the only way to get back into a good pace, is just to start running again.

Is Beauty

camille_pissarro_the_boulevard_montmartre_at_night

 

The Boulevard Montmartre at Night

Camille Pissarro

There is a quote from Pissarro I like. I read it once on one of those little white placards they have in galleries, the small micro-essays that sit beside the painting. Have you ever noticed how people tend to spend more time reading those little placards than looking at the paintings? Others have noticed this too. Some galleries have been removing the cards entirely in an attempt to remove some of the filter between the visitor and the art. Anyway, the quote: The whole of the world is beauty. The art is in the seeing.

I remember reading that and being quite struck by it. It agrees with my own experience of the world. Everything has a beauty in it. Ugly things are not ugly the whole way through. Look at them from another angle and they become radiant, beautiful, enchanting. There are whole swathes of art based on the search by the artist for the beautiful in the overlooked and the mundane, the grotesque, the weird and the frightening.

I am going to attempt some sort of regular update around the writing hereon. I have returned to Fair Upon the Tor, and done some more detailed outlining. I recently discovered Jim Butcher’s writing advice, and although I don’t necessarily want to write books like Butcher’s, some of the advice was interesting enough for me to decide to give it a shot. I already had a rough outline of the story, but I’ve now returned to it and tried more clearly to add a ‘big middle’, as Jim calls it, as well as character tags (features, whether emotional, moral, physical or mental that only belong to this particular character in this story), and traits (words that are only or almost only used in association with this character in the story). I’ve thought a bit about introducing characters using characteristic action (an action that is highly definitive of the character), and I’ve thought about Butcher’s emotion/reaction/plan sequence.

I have also started, very gently, a novel that I’m aiming to be for sale to a traditional publishing house. I’m not sure how easily I’ll be able to flip from one story to the other. Doing that never used to bother me, but, on the other hand, I used to write every day (and did so for years and years), but then ceased writing entirely about six to eight months ago. The reasons why I simply stopped were mixed. I have been reflecting, for a while now, that I have been writing for a long time, twenty years or more, and I have not really got anywhere with it. Surely, if I were any good, if I were going to succeed, then I would have by now? And yet, I keep writing books, and I keep trunking them… I have over a million words worth of various novels on my hard drive and I’m not at all confidant that any of them are very good. I also had a fairly scathing workshop experience at about the same time, as well as being overwhelmed by real life responsibilities and a feeling that I wasn’t living up to my more general life and work duties. It all added up to make me just stop. I stopped writing. Stopped drawing and painting. Stopped working on games. Stopped everything. It’s going to be a process getting back into the swing of things, but I am resolved to do it.

So, as a part of this I am going to attempt to update this blog regularly. I may not have a lot to say, but, at the very least I can still check in and let people know I’m still working at things.

Rather neglectful update

starry_night

Starry Night
Jean-François Millet

 

It has been quite some time since I posted any updates or writing. I did consider spinning a story about how Auberon sent me off to beguile a bean-feed mooncalf, or similar, but the truth of it is that lecturing this semester has run me off my feet. I have an outline and some of Fair Upon the Tor written (The Winter King 3), although not enough for me to be very certain when it will be ready. My teaching semester has slowed down, and it is time to get back on the writing horse, so to speak. Ironically, I have all of Book 4 and a fairly comprehensive draft of Book 5 written, but Book 3 needs work, which means that I can’t release the down-the-track and complete works without there being quite a substantial jump in narrative.

On a side-note, I recently trawled through my inventory of short stories and have realised that I have about fifty completed short stories sitting in various files. Of these, seven have sold and been published, but I haven’t submitted a short story since 2011. I’ve kept writing them… I just haven’t sent them anywhere. I will try to remedy this within the next few weeks. I’ll also relaunch my other blog, the one I shut down when I split my writing into Hob Goodfellowe (e-book) and Christopher Johnstone (traditional publishing). My short fiction is published under my actual name, and I think it’s about time that I uploaded my previously published short stories to that blog so that the stories don’t vanish utterly into the obscurity of long defunct publications.

Second Drafts & Colours

I’ve finished the on-paper edits now for The House of Snow and Apples, and am slowly transferring them across to the Pages document I write in. It’s now sitting at about 40,000 words, though cutting and adding may change that slightly.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about lately is racial diversity in fantasy. I mean this first at that basic level that there should actually be people present who are not white, blonde and blue-eyed in a fantasy world, and working in a setting that is a riff on Medieval, or Dark Ages Europe does not preclude diversity. In actual historical Europe there was quite a lot of diversity, as invasions, migrations and empires tends to mix people up a bit.

But in fantasy, we can be yet more imaginative. I’ve been thinking about the colouration in our closest relatives, the (other) apes and the monkeys, and looking though images of primate faces. Although I’m not sure that I want to add in human peoples that have red and blue posteriors to match their noses, the diversity of colours is interesting, and if sexual selection or natural selection had run another path, red eyes, bright yellow and black markings, purplish-grey skin, or soft grey skin surrounded by a flair of red hair could all, potentially, be human traits. Of course, there’s a risk that the people no longer come across as ‘human’ in a story if they get a bit too far removed from what we expect to see. The key would be to make sure they are presented as human, and maybe play it subtly for a while before introducing any really unusual colourations? At any rate, I feel this is something I’ve been doing badly so far in The Winter King stories, so it is something I’d like to play around with and address.

Thoughts on Titles

Well, I’m now nearing the end of the first draft on what will now be the second book of The Winter King. The manuscript is sitting at about 25,000 words, so a medium to long novella. In an earlier post I discussed the (somewhat) confusing reasons why the release schedule I had so carefully laid out has gone into a state of turmoil. I think though, that slipping two new stories between what was to be Books 1 and 2 will make for a better overall arc.

I’m now left pondering titles. The working title for Book 2 was The Wolf at Winter’s Door. I like the slight poetical slant of that title, but I think it performs its job badly for two reasons. One, the series is called The Winter King, and mentioning ‘winter’ in a title implies that the Winter King might actually turn up–whereas what I’m actually doing here is playing a very long game. Yes, there are references to the long story in this manuscript, but some of them are subtle enough to be missed entirely on a first read-through. The Winter King certainly doesn’t appear in person for quite some time yet. The other problem is that the title emphasises the wolves in the story (there are wolves in the story), and I don’t really want the emphasis to fall there. This leaves me considering other options. The House of Snow and Apples is my current second favourite, though it has the disadvantage that it might suggest to someone this is a Snow White retelling, which it is not. Titles make promises about the story, and even very short titles can convey a huge amount of information about what a reader can expect. By attempting to make my titles lyrical, for example, I’m implying you’ll find at least a little bit of lyricism in the story itself, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, then probably this isn’t the right book for you.

Toying around with other things, thematically similar… The House on Appletree Spur. WinterfruitThe Snow Orchard. Actually, I sort of like The Snow Orchard. I think the best titles sound like books you feel you ought to have heard of, but for some reason the book must have slipped past you somehow. I should check to see if it is already another book: seems not to be, although there is an art print by that name. But would I personally read a story called The Snow Orchard, and does it give the right feel? Probably not on both counts. There isn’t enough magic in the title to really convey that the book is fantastical, which could mislead readers, so it might need to be nixed also. Winterfruit perhaps isn’t bad, but has the problem of using the word ‘winter’ again.

I’m circling back to The House of Snow and Apples. Though I’m still leery of making some readers angry by tricking some of them into thinking it is a Snow White retelling. Something to think on.

Aspects of the Story

We are returned now to Melbourne, although the combination of exhaustion from the flight and some other major life events on coming home took me away from the journal. I have managed to keep up my writing every day, although to be honest, that has grown into such a woody, bark-swollen habit, that I’m not sure I could shake it off if I wanted to.

In part, I wanted to use this journal as a place to muse on the writing process. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I will call the aspects of stories, for wont of a better term. When you break apart a story, teasing it open like a ripe mandarin, it is not a single, homogenous mass. There are parts hidden within.

I’ll define a story itself as anything in which a something changes. This is Le Guin’s definition: I can’t claim it for my own. As a definition, this works neatly. It requires no characters and no plot. A good example of a story that consists only of change, is the Ray Bradbury short in which an automated house of the future keeps whirring and cleaning itself long after an apocalypse has taken away all the people. Over time, gradually, the house fails, falls apart, decays and is claimed by nature. It is a beautiful, sad, even melancholic story, but it would be quite a stretch to claim that the tale has a plot. Maybe the house is a ‘character’, but as it has no motivations, no thoughts, no intentions. That would make the house a ‘character’ only in the thinnest, most metaphorical sense.

Plot then. What is plot? I’m defining plot as the questions that keep a person reading. These questions are usually either why did it happen? or what happens next?, although sometimes more nuanced variants drive a plot. Plot twists, unexpected turns, foreshadowing and try/fail cycles are all different ways of thinking about plot. I think some of these approaches are a bit didactic. In the end, all a plot needs to be is an intriguing question or set of questions that drags the reader along.

Now we are getting into thornier territory. Now I’m having to make up terms. Let’s call the next aspect the ‘fabric’ of the story. Fabric also keeps a reader reading, but in a more immediate way. Fabric is the short-term payoff of a story. Beautiful prose, humour, erotic or horrific titillation, or the layering into the prose of a thick ‘mood’, such as a mysterious, menacing, wondrous or absurd feelings, are all part of the fabric of a story.

The final aspect I’m going to define is ‘narrative’. Narrative is the more human part of the tale. It is the part of the story that explores human behaviour. At its simplest, narrative consists of motivation, action and consequence. In its more preachy forms, narrative can turn into a self-conscious morality play. But when more refined, more considered, and more thoughtful, narrative is the core of most really good, lasting stories. I suspect also that narrative is the evolutionarily kernel of storytelling too. Narrative is what drives an examination of one’s own empathy for others, it sets up in-group identifications, as well as modelling possible behaviours for the listener to a tale. Narrative is the mental experiment of the tale. If I am motivated in this way, and if I behave in such-and-such a way, what are the likely consequences for me? In the end, a narrative is about behaviour and consequences. It potentially teaches you a hard lesson learned by others, passed along and along. If I am greedy and petty, what will others make of me? What about if I am brave, clever and never give up?

In each case, I think it’s possible to identify stories that consist either primarily or wholly of one aspect or another. There are a good number of literary short stories that are entirely story without plot, along with maybe only a few dashes of fabric and narrative. On the other hand, ongoing superhero comics tend to be all plot and no story. Superhero comics give the illusion of constant change, but it is only an illusion. Nothing ever actually changes in a superhero comic. A character dies? They’ll be back somehow or another. The world is shattered in a catastrophe? It’ll be fixed. Comics, I suppose much like literary novels, make use of fabric and narrative too. Some comic titles are funny, others are moody. In terms of stories that consist largely of fabric, the clearest example is probably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a dazzle of wordplay and wonderment–other examples might include the unrelenting absurdity of Catch 22, or the ludicrous, overwrought horror of Lovecraft’s work. Finally, tales that are almost entirely narrative tend to be, at one end, stripped-down folktales, fables or fairy tales, and big, deeply imagined character dramas, like Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment, at the other extreme. Narratives don’t need to be realistic… some children’s stories are almost pure narrative… here is a motivation, here is an action, here is a consequence… although, I suppose that narratives perhaps do need to scale to a stage of life. Simpler narratives for simpler times. Complex narratives for more complex times. That might be something to think more on.

Of course, there may well be other aspects of stories I haven’t considered yet. It’s something I’ll come back to in time and think over.