Short Story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 3

This is the third and final installment of an old short story I’m re-posting, called “While We Were Yet Sinners.” Before you read this, you should also read Part 1 and Part 2. I’d also like to refer you back to an older post of mine about taking a known character and putting a fresh new spin on them as a writing exercise, because if you haven’t guessed already, that’s basically what I did in this story. Thanks for reading, and for those who celebrate, have a blessed and happy Easter.

Joha still remembered the details of how it had all happened the previous day. Now he sat in a cold, hostile jail cell, on the day that he had been told he would be killed. The cell was underground and since he could not see the sun, he was not totally sure what time of day it was now, nor what time of day his execution was to take place. As far as he knew, he could have almost a full day left, or he could have only mere minutes. He had no idea. As Joha sat against the hard, bare wall, he began to think about all that had happened recently. He had killed a man, but he accepted it now. Not to say that he meant to condone it as if it were not wrong, but he realized what he had done, and knew that there was no way to take it back. He felt deep remorse now, and though he knew that the pain of his death would be great, he understood that, if anyone should have died, it was himself, not the innocent man he had killed.

On that note, his thoughts turned back once again toward spiritual things, and what he had learned as a child. He knew that the LORD must certainly hate him now; he had stolen several times, and he had taken a life. He thought back through his past and realized that those were not the only bad things he had done. He lied whenever it suited him to do so, which was often. He had gotten drunk frequently, either from being under pressure or just for pleasure, and he had sometimes spent stolen money on the local prostitutes. He remembered the Commandment about regarding nothing higher than the LORD, and he certainly hadn’t obeyed that one. In fact, he seemed to have broken all of the LORD’s commands that he could remember.

Then he remembered Jesus. Jesus, the most controversial man in all of the Roman empire, possibly in all the world. The man who called himself the Messiah. The man who preached assurance of salvation, and forgiveness of sin. Joha thought about this. He knew he had committed many, many sins and was deserving of judgment. But he remembered from his studies of the Scriptures in his younger days that, though the LORD was righteous and just, He was also loving and merciful. What if this forgiveness thing was true? What if, even now, with only a very short time until his death, he could still be forgiven, and his soul could still be saved?

“You. Murderer,” he heard. He looked toward the cell’s entrance to see one of the Roman guards who had escorted him here in the first place. “Get up. It’s time.”

***

The guards were leading him to where he was to be crucified, a place called Golgotha. Joha had said nothing. Many thoughts were racing through his head, mostly the same ones that he had already been through a thousand times. He felt apprehension and sadness, of course, but he couldn’t ignore the thoughts he kept having about Jesus. He had never even met the man, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him.

What was it about Jesus that kept plaguing his mind? Was he truly the son of God?

As they were walking, the guards were talking to each other, making light conversation as anyone might do with their coworkers. “Another one to be crucified,” one of the guards remarked. “He’s the third we’ve had this week. What do you know?”

“It just shows you what a corrupt world we live in,” the other guard replied. “But at least this one isn’t as bad as the one we brought in yesterday.”

“Most certainly not. Jesus of Nazareth—claiming to be the son of God! What a ridiculous statement. I’ll be glad to see that lunatic crucified.”

At this mention, Joha became alert. “What did you say?” he asked frantically. “What about Jesus?”
The guards both eyed him strangely. It was very uncommon for prisoners to converse such with their guards. But perhaps they felt that the dying man deserved to be granted one last request; whatever the reason, they let him speak.

“You want to hear about Jesus?” the guard asked him. “We arrested him yesterday and brought him to be crucified!”

“But not before He was flogged and whipped,” the other guard added.

Joha was shocked. “What?” he asked. “Why? What did he do wrong?”

One of the guards looked at Joha as if he didn’t know anything. “You don’t know much about the man, do you? He was claiming to be the Son of God!”

“Well, yes, I know that!” Joha continued. “But he was healing people, and doing miracles, and forgiving sins! Those aren’t worthy of death, are they?”

“Look,” the guard said tersely. “I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. It’s your own people who want Him dead—I guess He wasn’t quite the king they were hoping for. I couldn’t care less about the man—I just do what I’m told, and they told me to arrest him.” The guard paused, then added, “Besides, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to be questioning what’s worthy of death and what isn’t.”

Joha ignored the insult to himself and continued inquiring. “But what if He really is the son of God?”
The guards were getting irritated now. They stopped walking and turned back to face Joha. “Why are you sticking up for this man? He can’t help you now, and He is receiving a punishment much worse than yours. If I were you I’d shut your mouth, unless you want them to charge you with blasphemy too!”

“But—”

“Stop!” one of the guards commanded. He gestured for Joha to come forward just a little bit more. Then, when they were in the desired location, the guard said, “We’re here.” He pointed to Joha’s right. Joha looked where he was pointing and saw it. Huge, menacing, a symbol of utmost terror and pain. A tree that had been cut, shaped, and formed into an implement of the worst possible torture. It was the cross.
“Carry it to the hill,” the guard instructed coldly.

***

Carrying Crosses
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha’s journey to the hill was brutal and torturous. A few times he felt like he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he forced himself to press on and complete the journey successfully. He grimaced at the irony that he was making such a journey that would only aid his captors in his death. But, just as before, there was nothing else he could do.

 

They pierced each of his hands with a metal spike, and put one through both of his feet. Joha cried out as excruciating pain surged through his entire being. He was now fastened tightly to the cross. He continued to moan and scream as they raised the cross, with his body still on it, until it stood upright and was securely fastened to the ground. The process, for the most part, was complete. What disturbed him most was the knowledge that he was likely to be left here, writhing in torment, for several hours or even days, when every part of his mind and body was screaming for the pain to be over right now. He knew, however, that at this point he would be dead sooner or later.

Despite the terrible, indescribable pain, he looked around him. There was an incredible commotion coming from the ground to his left. He saw that there were two other crosses in addition to his. All three of them stood in a row, and strangely enough, the man in the middle next to him was still being tortured and taunted by the spectators on the ground. Joha wondered why they would be doing this. Wasn’t the shame and torment of the cross enough punishment for whatever the other man had done? And, if anyone, why weren’t they doing these things to himself? Surely this man’s crimes, whoever he was and whatever he had done, were not worse than Joha’s!

“Save yourself, King of the Jews!” mocking voices cried out from below.

“If you can, then come down from that cross!”

“Some savior,” one remarked, followed by a cruel, scornful laugh.

Savior?, thought Joha. He had been told by the guards that Jesus was being crucified as well. Was this man Jesus, the one about whom he had been thinking and wondering so much, hanging on the cross right next to him?

From this left, past Jesus’ cross, another taunt was heard. To Joha’s surprise and outrage, even the other criminal on the third cross was mocking Jesus! “If you’re really the Christ, then prove it by saving yourself—and why not us too, while you’re at it!”

Despite how much he was hurting, Joha knew that Jesus was innocent, and felt the need to protest this mockery. As much as he was physically able, he turned his head toward the other criminal. Straining his voice and ignoring the pain, he called back, “Do you not fear God even in your death? We both deserve to die for our sins, but this man has done nothing wrong!”

Then it came to him. He had just realized the answer he had been subconsciously seeking all along. The reason that he never had fulfillment in his past life was because he had walked away from God and had been living in sin. The reason that the LORD had never seemed close to him was that he himself had moved away by ignoring the LORD’s commands and following his own path, which had led him to this death. All this time, he had needed to repent of his sins and get back to God. And this Jesus—He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had healed people, and performed miracles, and fulfilled all the ancient prophecies—surely he was the true son of God, just as he had claimed!

“Jesus”, said Joha, finally seeing the truth. Slowly, t

Thief on the Cross
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

he son of God turned his head towards Joha. His whole body was nearly unrecognizable; he had been beaten and tortured so much that he almost didn’t look human anymore. His beard had been violently ripped out and a cruelly wrought crown of thorns dug itself mockingly into His forehead, causing streams of blood to spill out onto His face. It was a face filled with ineffable sorrow that seemed to transcend even the physical pain of the cross, but even so, the hope, love, and forgiveness it radiated were unmistakable. “Jesus”, Joha repeated. “Do not forget me when you return to your Kingdom.”

Jesus smiled, inwardly rejoicing despite all the shame. Struggling against the agony to speak, He responded, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Joha managed to smile. It was true! Even though he had done so much evil, and would never have a chance to make up for it with good works, he was forgiven. Jesus had given him joy and hope, even as he was going to his death.

The rest of Joha’s life is indescribable. He endured much pain as he hung on the cross, pierced and bruised, for hours. He felt his heart almost sink again when he watched Jesus give up his spirit and die—put to death by the ones he had come to save. Joha saw and felt much grief, but he still held on to the renewed hope that Jesus had given him.

After several hours, a few Roman guards came by to make sure everything with the crucifixion was running smoothly.

“Look,” said one of them. “Jesus is dead.”

“Are you sure?” the other one asked, surprised and disappointed. “They usually last much longer than that.”

“Let’s find out,” said the first guard. Maliciously enjoying his work, he thrust his spear violently into Jesus’ side. The man on the cross made no reaction, no further outcry of pain. Instead, a mixture of what looked like water and blood gushed out from the gaping wound as the soldiers looked on, somewhat dejected. “Yes, he’s dead.”

The other guard shrugged. “Might as well just finish off the other two now.” He walked over to Joha’s cross. Taking a sharp, hard weapon, the guard smashed it forcefully against Joha’s legs a few times. Even more pain piled on top of what Joha was already feeling. He let out a shout of anguish. After several blows, Joha’s legs were broken.

Joha knew what this did. As long as his legs were still intact, he could still push up on his chest, and would still be able to breathe. But now that they were broken, breathing would be much more difficult. The guards did this when they wanted someone to die more quickly. Joha struggled to breathe, but couldn’t hold out very long, and he soon drew his last breath.

Suddenly, all the pain was gone. He felt no more hurt, and was no longer hanging from the cross. Instead of total darkness, he saw intense, unfathomable light. And in the midst of it all, he saw Jesus.

“Welcome, Joha,” Jesus spoke lovingly. “I had been seeking you out for quite a while, and I am glad that you finally decided to trust in me and be forgiven of your sins. We were just rejoicing over your repentance.” All the shame had been wiped away from his face. It now bore only a pure, holy love. “Welcome to heaven.”

Heaven
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 2

This is the second part of a short story that I first wrote several years ago. Part 1 can be found here.

The next day, Joha returned to the marketplace once again. This time he had no intention of stealing anything; it would be foolish to do so again so soon, since the trader from yesterday would still be suspicious and watchful for thieves. This time, Joha came simply to spend some of his well-earned fortune from the day before. He browsed around the various stalls set up, searching for nice things to buy.

Look at that, he said to himself. A large, plump pig for twenty-six denarii—that could be enough to cover each meal for a day or two. He turned his head in another direction and saw a trader of linen and fine clothes. A very fancy robe, richly adorned and beautifully woven, for thirty-three denarii. Both of them were very fine items. But as Joha looked around at all the activities around him, he noticed something that caught his eye even more.

A man was paying for his trade with a cup. Not just any cup, it would appear, but a fine golden chalice, laced with silver and studded with jewels on the outside. What a nice and valuable cup—surely it was worth much more than Joha had right now, even more than what the trader was selling it for.

Joha wanted it.

Golden Chalice
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

 

He quickly forgot all of his logic about how foolish it would be to steal at a time like this. From a distance, Joha carefully watched the trader, an elderly and somewhat frail man, handling the fortune he had just received. The man polished it, seemed to admire it visually, and then tucked it away inside his cloak so he could resume business. Perfect—he was no longer keeping an eye on it. This would be an excellent opportunity for Joha.

Carefully, the thief snuck up behind the trader, preparing to make his move. Fortunately for him, another customer had come already, turning the trader’s attention away from the recently acquired chalice. Joha waited patiently. He watched and waited constantly, searching for the right moment. And then, moving on instinct, his stealing reflexes kicking in, his arm shot out and he grabbed the cup. Then, also almost automatically, his legs started running, carrying him far, far away.”Stop!” Joha heard. “Thief! He stole my cup! Somebody stop him!”

Joha paid these distressed cries no attention. He never did. All he did was to continue running, making his escape as quickly as possible—

“Aha!” came a cry from in front of him. Joha suddenly stopped moving, noticing that his path was obstructed by a large, muscular, familiar-looking man. It was the same livestock trader whom he had stolen from yesterday.

“You!” the trader shouted, grabbing Joha on the arm and holding him with a firm grip. “You’re the same thief who stole from me yesterday, aren’t you?” A mixture of victory and vengeance covered the trader’s face to produce a satisfied grin. He raised his voice and called out to all the citizens around, “Somebody summon the Roman guards!”

Then he turned back to Joha. Joha noticed that the other trader, the one whom the cup had belonged to, had now come up behind him as well. He felt fear well up inside him. He had always escaped before—would he be able to this time? If the Roman guards were being summoned, would he be jailed—or even executed?

His thoughts were interrupted by the livestock trader, still with a firm grip on his arm, speaking once again. “Now, as long as you’re not going anywhere, I’d like you to return that cup to the man standing behind you.” His words were gentle, as a mere suggestion, but the tone of his voice and the strength of his arm left no doubt in Joha’s mind that it was a command. “And while you’re at it, why not hand over the money you swiped from me yesterday.”

Joha had a plan. It was a very rash plan, one that he had just thought of on the spur of the moment, but it was perhaps his only chance at escape. Slowly, he raised his arm, as if he were going to return the cup. The trader’s grip on his arm loosened. Then, acting quickly, Joha reared his arm and flung it forward, thrusting the golden cup into the trader’s head. The large man let out a cry of pain, and instinctively let go of Joha’s arm. The thief took off running once again.

His initial feeling was relief. His plan had worked. He hadn’t been sure if it would work—he didn’t know how heavy or hard the cup actually was—but apparently it was enough to hurt. Joha looked behind him as he ran. Just as he expected, the livestock trader was once again pursuing him, with the other trader following close behind.

They were getting closer. Joha looked behind him and saw that they were probably only a few cubits away. Normally he was a good runner. He had to be, since he always needed to make quick escapes. But from what had already happened, his legs were getting tired, and he was losing strength. Within a few moments he was forced to slow down, and his pursuers caught up to him. The large man came up in front of him, and the older man to his side.

“Now I’ve got you!” said the large man. “You’re tired now—don’t try to escape! And don’t think you can pull that same trick again!”

Joha wasn’t listening, and he didn’t say anything back. He desperately needed to escape, and quickly. Even though the trick had already been used, he once again raised the cup to strike with it—but this time, he struck the older man, who happened to be closer to him. The old man let out a gasp of pain and fell to the ground. Joha once again tried to run away—

“Stop!” shouted a loud, commanding voice from not far away. Joha looked up. Two tall, muscular, stern-faced men stood in front of him, wearing armor and brandishing weapons. Hadn’t someone called for the Roman guards? Obviously, they had come. Joha didn’t know what he would do.

“What is the trouble here?” one of the guards inquired. The large man pointed to Joha and angrily spoke up. “This vile thief has stolen from our marketplace two days in a row now! And just a moment ago, he slew this innocent man!”

“Slew?” Joha repeated incredulously. “What? No, he can’t be dead!”

“He was old and weak,” the large man commented, bending down toward the other man’s limp body. “His heart beats no longer.”

Joha felt a chill rise up inside of him. What had he done? He had only wanted to get rich and get away. He never meant to kill anyone. Despite the ethical codes that he had justified his way around bending or breaking, he knew that murder was most certainly wrong. Wasn’t that a Commandment as well?

Roman soldiers
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

One of the guards looked at him, studied him over, and scowled with contempt. “A dirty little Hebrew, causing trouble in the city. Why am I not surprised?” This vile man shall be brought before the judge, and punished for his crimes!” the other guard shouted, coming closer to Joha. He gestured to the golden cup and asked, “Is this what he stole?”

The large trader confirmed it.

Before he knew it, the golden cup was being torn from Joha’s hand by the strong grip of the Roman soldier. Crestfallen, not so much for the loss of the cup as for the fact that he had been caught, Joha saw the chalice being handed back to the livestock trader. Then the Roman soldiers quite forcefully took hold of Joha. With his mind racing, his heart pounding, and his soul overwhelmed with a sinking feeling, Joha was brought away.

Only a few hours later, Joha stood in a large courtroom, in front of a judge. The Roman guards on either side of the room still eyed him menacingly.

“Joha the Hebrew,” the judge addressed him scornfully. “You have committed theft and murder. Is this true?”

Joha knew that there was no point in trying to escape any more. There had been several people to witness the scene, and any possible routes of exit from the courtroom were blocked by the hostile guards. He was no longer trying to deceive himself, either about escaping or about right and wrong. He knew that his crimes had been wrong and, though he still felt fear gnawing away inside him, he was trying his best to be brave and face the consequences boldly. Feeling irrepressible guilt and shame rise up in his soul, he spoke three simple words. “It is true.”

“Then, Joha, you will be punished,” the judge announced. “Such crimes are certainly worthy of death. Based on the many things you have probably stolen over time, as well as requests from the murdered man’s family and the witnesses of the act, the court has ruled that no punishment less than crucifixion will be acceptable.”

Crucifixion? This was terrible! That was the very worst possible way one could die! Though he knew he deserved to be punished, he had fervently hoped that his sentence might be a light one, at least lighter than this. Only in his darkest imaginings and fears had he envisioned himself being crucified for his crimes. He had heard all the horrible stories about criminals who had been sentenced to such a death, and how they were often allowed to hang on the cross for hours in agony until the last trickle of life faded quietly out of their bodies. The thought of such a thing happening to him made Joha unbearably fearful and nauseous. But what was he to do about it? He had already established that there was no possible escape. And somehow, even though crucifixion was such a terrible experience, he felt that he deserved to die for what he had done. No, he would not try to escape. He would have to endure it, with whatever modicum of dignity and nobility might still be left within him, however terrible it might be.

The judge made one final comment. “The crucifixion is to be held tomorrow, during the Passover feast. Guards, I trust you to keep Joha in prison until then.”

To be concluded…

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 1

Hello, readers! This week I’m filling in for another contributor who is ill and not able to post right now. As such, I’ve dug up an old story from my younger years that I’d like to share with you this time around. It looks like I first published this story on my old Fictionpress account way back in 2009, and I haven’t really done much with it in a long time, but it’s nice to revisit artifacts from the past every now and again and see how one’s writing has changed and grown over time. In any case, this story is called “While We Were Yet Sinners,” and I think it’s fitting to post around Easter week, for those who observe the holiday. I’ll post the story in three installments throughout this week. I hope you enjoy it.

He was running away, ignoring whoever sought him and making every effort to avoid being found.

In fact, it seemed that he was having to do that a lot these days. Every time Joha stole something, the original owner and any other people who happened to be there at the time came running after him to try to bring him to justice. And that was exactly what was happening now; he had just been at the marketplace and helped himself to a handful of gold coins from the livestock trader. It probably wasn’t all that much—Joha hadn’t had time yet to sit down and count it—but it was something, hopefully enough to support him for another week or two.

Roman forum
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

He looked behind him and saw the livestock trader, a large and burly man, close on his trail, his rage fueling his body and giving way to furious shouts. Joha was inclined to snicker to himself; the trader probably thought that he actually had a chance of catching the thief. But Joha knew that he was the best at what he did; he had never been caught, and as far as he was concerned, he never would be.

Still running past the various obstacles that stood in his way, Joha ignored the oncoming opposition and looked ahead. The sight he saw brought him gladness: a large crowd. It wouldn’t be hard to lose his pursuers inside it. Neither his physique nor his face were particularly out of the ordinary, and he was fairly sure that none of them had gotten a good look at him, so once he was among everyone else, they would be hard-pressed to recognize him. He tucked the small bag of coins inside his cloak, and then, running on the last leg of his journey toward safety, he ducked into the crowd of people standing around and seeking to trade their items. As soon as he was among them, he stopped running—running would make it obvious that he had something to hide. Joha smiled slightly to himself. He should be safe now.

Carefully, making sure to be inconspicuous, he peeked above the heads of those gathered and looked in the direction he had just come from. He saw the livestock trader, still standing there, but confused, not sure of where the thief had gone, and no longer able to chase him. In a moment, the trader ran off in another direction—whether to continue the search or to give up and go back to his post, Joha didn’t know.

But he didn’t care. Joha had not been found. He had won.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, Joha slowly and cautiously made his way out of the crowd, trying to blend in and act natural. Acting natural wasn’t too difficult for him, because stealing had become natural for Joha. He carefully pushed past people, throwing out various pleasantries and requests for pardons to make himself seem like a normal, respectable citizen. Once he was out, he continued at a steady pace back to his home on the other side of the city. He mentally congratulated himself at another job well done.

At that point, while he was still walking, Joha had a strange thought, one that rarely occurred to him, and thus was all the more puzzling. For the first time in quite a while, he considered what he had just done. A part of him almost seemed to say that it was not right to steal—but no, that was irrelevant to him. He had done it many, many times now; that was how he had come to be so good at it. There was nothing wrong with stealing. Granted, it put whoever he stole from in an unhappy position, but Joha never thought about them—he needed to steal in order to live, and so it must be all right.

And yet, he still couldn’t shake the feeling. Why did he have this moral sense all of a sudden? He hadn’t followed anything of that sort since—he thought back—since he had been a mere youth. Joha was a Hebrew both by birth and upbringing, and his mother and father had always taken him to the temple on the Sabbath, to worship and sacrifice to the LORD. His mind flashed to the Ten Commandments. They had been recorded in the Scriptures, in the book of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, and had often been recited and referred to by the priests. Though he couldn’t remember all of the Ten Commandments, he was fairly sure that one of them specifically forbade stealing.

But it didn’t matter now, he told himself. He hadn’t been to a temple on the Sabbath for years, since he was a child. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he even believed in the LORD. Growing up, Joha had read and studied the Scriptures under his parents’ instruction. He remembered being a young boy, full of childlike faith, whose heart would swell with hope and excitement whenever he read the prophecies about the restoration of the nation of Israel and, even better, about the coming Messiah. As he grew older, a part of Joha still hoped for these things, but he had begun to realize what a cruel and bleak place the world really was. His people were looked down upon by most everyone else, and he himself had failed in every attempt to make an honest profession, which was why he eventually resorted to stealing. His parents had shunned him for such evil things and for no longer practicing the faith on his own, but he maintained that stealing was a necessity and that the LORD had all but abandoned them. He had had a hard life, and he hadn’t seen any of the blessings that the Scriptures had promised to his people. If the LORD really was so good and so powerful, then where had He been all this time?

Since he had taken up the life of a thief, Joha had almost completely ignored all thoughts of the LORD and memories of his religious upbringing. Yet today, for some reason, the thoughts and feelings had come to him out of nowhere, as if someone out there wanted him to remember and had the power to reach out to his soul. Joha still was not certain that the LORD existed, but after pondering the subject briefly, Joha determined that if He did exist, then He must no longer care for Joha. The LORD hadn’t done any good for Joha in his life, and now that Joha had become a thief, the LORD must care for him even less because of all the evil things he had done. Yes, this had to be true.

Joha sighed to himself. What had caused him to think of this all of a sudden? Even after reaching this conclusion, Joha couldn’t quite bring himself to shake the thoughts. Things had been so simple in those days; his mother and father had always taken him to worship. They had diligently followed all the ceremonious instructions of the Law (in fact, if he remembered correctly, the Passover celebration was to be held just a few days from now, though it certainly didn’t matter to him anymore). He had basically believed that he was a good person, one of the LORD’s chosen people, and would be going to heaven when he died. But now he hardly knew what to believe.

Things had become especially complicated in recent months, with the appearance of this Jesus person. Joha hadn’t seen him in person, but he had heard of the man’s teachings and doings—who in Rome hadn’t heard of him? The things he had heard about Jesus were very strange, and half of it was probably gossip and lies. After all, nobody had the power to walk on water or to heal sick people simply by touching them, and nobody thinking logically would believe those things for even a minute. But was it true that the man had the audacity to claim himself as the very son of God? Did he really have the boldness to criticize the religious leaders, and the authority to preach salvation and forgiveness of sin?

Forgiveness of sin…

Roman coins
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha looked up. His feet had carried him to his home. Upon realizing this, all thoughts of religious conundrums dropped from his mind, as he made his way inside to count up his new fortune.
Pulling the small bag out from his coat, he spilled the contents out onto his table. Several small metallic shapes, each imprinted with Caesar’s likeness, fell out of the bag and were counted accordingly. When Joha had finished counting, the total came to seventy-three denarii. Seventy-three! It was certainly more than he had expected, more than he usually got. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on making another week’s wages.

To be continued…

Plot Challenge of the Week

Shadows_LingerWell, I’m in the middle of a 12 day stretch writing a paper a day. Admittedly, most of these are 2000-4000 word essays (prepping for the entrance exam for one of the schools I applied to), but that’s still quite a bit of writing to do… and quite a bit of stuff to know about. The prompts for these essays range from identifying and explaining the three most significant theological doctrines for Christian Ethics to discussing the biblical passages having to do with divorce and remarriage and various arguments around them, to explaining the history of abortion in America and it’s impact on the Christian social witness, to discussing whether Ethics is most appropriately placed in the field of theology or philosophy. My mind is going to be a bit drained by the end of the process. However, today I have a plot challenge for you. This one is new, but its related to our challenge from last week. Last week I asked you to develop a metanarrative for a story: the broad, overarching details and plot. One of the major things I asked you to do is figure out what the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story are. This week, I want you to narrow your focus. I want you to choose two of those three points (i.e. beginning and middle or middle and end–not beginning and end) and figure out how the story gets from Point A to Point B. You want to treat this in the same way that you did the metanarrative–just narrower. So, if you choose the beginning and middle, then the beginning is still the beginning, but the middle is the new end of this portion of the narrative, and you need a new middle or middles. Some questions to consider:

  1. What settings are significant for this section of the story? Does it all happen in one place or are multiple settings important? Perhaps characters are traveling?
  2. What needs to change to move the story along? Perhaps a house burns down? A civil war begins? Someone gets fired? Perhaps multiple things need to happen.
  3. Who are the important characters for this part of the story? What new minor supporting characters are necessary? How much of a backstory do they need to have? Consider that none of your characters should simply be flat. Even if a character is just a bartender who appears in two scenes, you should have some idea of who he/she is and what his/her life story is.
  4. How do you major characters need to change between the Point A and Point B and what is going to motivate this change? If you want a masterful example of masterful character development over the course of a novel read Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger and pay attention to the character Marron Shed.
  5. What needs to happen to set the stage for the next part of the story? Remember that, once you get down under the metanarrative you’re dealing with parts of an interwoven whole. So, what connects this part of your story to the parts that come before and after it? What needs to happen in this part that either ends story-lines from the last part, or opens story-lines for the next part?

The Siege of Gordul Nor, Part 2

Hello, internet!

I hope you all enjoyed Tuesday’s instalment of my ongoing story, The Siege of Gordul Nor.  Without any further ado, I present part two – and I hope that you’ll come back on Sunday for the finale!


 

Crimea Barricade Corpse

“I wouldn’t advise that, sir,” Bournclough managed to articulate, after several moments of stunned silence.

“Nonsense!” said the nob. He was still inspecting the parapet of the trench with a glint of zeal in his eyes. “I shall only be making a quick inspection. I can’t imagine that I’ll come to any great harm.”

Bournclough shared a look with Corporal Mogget. There wasn’t much that could distract Mogget from his rollups for more than five seconds, but this nob was managing it.

“Well,” Bournclough began, in the gentle voice used to explain things to officers. “Not to tell you your own business, sir, but wouldn’t it answer better to take a look during the day? Safe and sound behind our lines, like? With a spyglass?”

“Oh I’ve already done that, Colour Sergeant,” the nob laughed. “But I need to get a close look at the enemy cannon, and I should hardly think that they’ll be keen to let me do that in broad daylight. I must approach their lines under the cover of darkness.”

Bournclough fell dumb again. He returned his pipe to his mouth, but it had gone out. If this nob was mad enough to want to visit the enemy positions at night then he would be better off going west to the Gavilonian lines and finding one of their all-elf companies, the somnambules who could cross the mud without leaving a footprint or making a sound. But the nob seemed to have every intention of going by himself. Bournclough watched wordlessly as the engineering officer retrieved a fur-lined cloak from a sort of satchel that hung at his waist, shook the cloak out to its full length, and swept it over his shoulders. Once it was tied, he peered away down the trench.

“I believe the approach line is that way, isn’t it?”

Bournclough could think of two answers to the nob’s question. The first was “yes sir, and are there any valuables you’d like to leave with us for safekeeping so we can flog them on the sly for drinking money when you don’t come back?” It was the question that Mogget wanted him to ask. But when he looked at this bright-eyed, cheery, innocent nob, he didn’t quite have the heart to ask it.

It was a funny thing. He’d always assumed that his conscience was something that he’d misplace after he spent long enough in the army. But he’d been in the army a long time, and his conscience had stuck with him like a stubborn case of gout.

He steeled himself, wondered what he was doing, and asked the other question.

“Yes, sir. Would you like company, sir? Can’t let you go off by yourself, now. Might lose your way.”

Just for a moment, the nob looked surprised. Then he looked cheery again. “How thoughtful of you to offer, Colour Sergeant. Let’s not waste a moment. The night won’t last forever!”

The nob started off towards the approach line, careful not to step on any more of Bournclough’s men. The men watched him go, and then Bournclough felt their eyes turn on him.

“Stay warm, boys,” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say in the circumstances. He fastened his cloak around his shoulders and swung his pack onto his back, bearing the weight as well as any man despite the fact that the pack was almost as large as him. He emptied his pipe and tucked it into his belt. Then he picked up his musketoon and checked the flint.

Dry as a bone.

He’d been hoping that he might have to replace it, because that would have given him one more thing to do before he had to set off after the nob. But he’d exhausted his options. He wriggled his moustache, sniffed, and set off down the trench.

He’d only managed to take two steps before someone said “Sarge.”

Bournclough stopped, and turned around. It was Mogget. The skinny corporal rose to his feet and sighed, casting the glowing dog-end of his rollup down into a puddle. “If you’re going then I suppose I’m going too, aren’t I?”

Bournclough snorted with humourless laughter. “Not if you don’t fancy it.”

The corporal shrugged. “Well I’ve just thrown my light in a puddle, haven’t I? Might as well come with you now.”

Bournclough smiled. “Truer words, Pat…”

“Oh sod off. Let’s get after him before I come to my senses.”


 

They crossed the valley as quietly as they could, listening for each other’s movements to avoid losing each other, and trusting Bournclough’s sense that they were heading in the right direction. It was hard to get lost as long as they kept going uphill. The land rose unevenly towards the hill where the defenders of Gordul Nor built their great redoubt, and the ground underfoot was strewn with loose rock, blasted clods of soil, and the hundreds of cannonballs fired by both sides almost every day for the past three months. There were bodies too. Bournclough saw grey hands emerging from the soil, a lone boot still containing a substance that had once been a foot. He had to grab hold of the webbing on Mogget’s back to stop him from sticking his boot through the gaping chest of a dead elf. The elf lay there in his powder blue Gavilonian tailcoat, looking pale and forlorn in the way that only a dead elf could. Elves always looked like they were in a painting, even when they’d been festering on a frozen hillside for three weeks. Bournclough felt oddly jealous.

“Must have copped it in that last assault,” Bournclough muttered.

“Yeah,” Mogget muttered back, “him and half the 34th.”

Bournclough hoped it wouldn’t be his regiment that was picked to lose half its men in the next attack. As far as he knew, the concordium had landed in Myrmogosh with the plan of marching straight into Gordul Nor and sending a polite note to the Malign Emperor, suggesting that he could have the city back without a fuss if he agreed to give up some of his favourite hobbies, such as slaughtering the penitent and sending back the limbs of ambassadors enclosed in rusty hunting traps. Bournclough didn’t know whether the Malign Emperor would be quick to accept that arrangement, but the plan hadn’t got that far yet. Gordul Nor still stood. The city fell away to the north, protected by heavy batteries that stopped the concordium’s ships from sailing into the harbour, which meant it was the infantry’s job to attack by land. So far they hadn’t had much luck. The old High Elf ruins had been turned into a fortress, with guns that overlooked the valley, defended by legions of orcs and a good few regiments of Pyromanian riflemen. Bournclough didn’t want to see another attack go as badly as the last one. If this engineer nob took a good look at the enemy cannon, maybe it would help to make the next attack go better. That was why he was out here risking his hide. That was what he told himself as they neared the orc lines.

He knew that they were getting close when the stone head of an old elf king appeared out of the gloom, one cheek submerged in dirt, his free eye pleading for some good soul to set him to rights again. Stone heads meant they’d reached the ruins. And sure enough, a little way uphill of them, Bournclough saw the first of the enemy batteries. Stones steps rose to the lowest tier of the old elf temple, where mounds of rock, earth, and straw had been thrown up as a barricade among the fallen columns. Bournclough could hear nasal voices from the other side. Hideous faces flickered in the dim light of a hanging lantern, but they weren’t the faces of men or orcs. Bournclough had been fighting orcs for long enough to know that all of their cannon were cast with dragon’s teeth or demon’s eyes, grinning as they belched fire and rained down shot upon their enemies. These were the cannon that the nob wanted to see.

The nob was crouching next to Bournclough, peering over the ear of the fallen king. He hadn’t spoken once since they crept out into the valley, but now he took an intake of breath, and whispered, “How close can we get?”

Bournclough glanced at Mogget, then back at the nob.

“How close would you like to get, sir?”

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

A New Novel, and that one big break we’ve all been waiting for

If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.

Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.

Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.
Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.

In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.

So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.

What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.

Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.

Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author
Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author

So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:

Morning, Sickling

by Mark R. Harris

A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
in spite.

The air was gone,
at first–
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.

I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.

The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.

I flailed,
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.

Thick roots seemed to ooze,
bent, buckled
before my masterful strokes.

But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
hardening ribs,

and the strokes came slower,
stiffer,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.

No light yet.

O wind, get over here already.

Adapting our imaginations into prose

Hello, internet!

I’m slightly frazzled from travelling, so today’s post might be a little disjointed.

After several weeks of intense travelling (and sleeping off my intense jetlag) I’ve finally got myself back into a healthy sleeping pattern where I actually see some daylight now and then, and I’ve found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s really benefiting my writing. I sat down this morning determined to begin a fresh new draft of my book and I shot straight out of the starting blocks, writing 1,000 words and only stopping because I had to go and buy myself a shiny new phone.

I’m back now, with my shiny new phone successfully purchased, and I find myself eager to get back to writing. This is almost a novelty, because I’ve had a few weeks of fairly intense writer’s block, where I’ve been asking myself a lot of crippling existential questions about my writing and my desire to make a career as a writer, and it’s been tying me up and stopping me from getting any words down on the page.

I think there are a few factors which have renewed my creativity, as well as just having a healthier sleeping schedule. One was all of the advice and inspiration that I got from attending NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It’s only now, with all of my travelling done, that I’m really finding time to apply all of the lessons that I learned to my own writing. Mostly the authors speaking at NerdCon just reaffirmed a valuable lesson that I already knew, but had perhaps forgotten: every writer, even your favourite writer, sucked to begin with. All of the great writers in history began with a crappy first draft, which probably didn’t even get published after they’d rewritten it into a well-polished final draft, but the only way they eventually got published was by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. As Maureen Johnson always says, as an aspiring writer, you have to “give yourself permission to suck”. You have to abandon the idea that you’re going to like what you write, at least at first. The only way to get good is to be bad, and then improve.

Sucking at something

I find that advice very empowering, so whenever I get a fresh dose of it, I’m always raring to go and write pages and pages of my crappy first draft without worrying about the quality, which is exactly what young aspiring writers should be doing.

As well as that, though, I think I’ve stumbled across another important lesson, in my recent writing.

I’m really enjoying the latest redraft of my story, which I’ve only just embarked upon, but as I get it down onto the page, I can’t help but shake my head at how different it is from how I originally imagined the story, when I first envisioned the book and the world it’s set in, about two years ago. I like this new envisioning of my book, and more importantly I think it’s the ‘easiest’ incarnation of my world that I’ve ever come up with, in terms of how well the plot and characters melt down into a story that I can actually tell. It’s more malleable, and less troublesome to mould into scenes and plot arcs, linked by a consistent narrative, which of course are all of the essential bare-bones elements of a story that can eventually be turned into a book.

That doesn’t change the fact that the book is very different from the one I was writing a year ago, or even six months ago. The narrative voice is very different, the events have changed sequence dramatically, characters who were in the background have moved into the foreground and vice versa, the technology that they use has regressed by about a century in terms of it’s level of advancement, and I have introduced some explicitly supernatural elements that were completely absent in earlier drafts. All of these changes have made it easier for me to write, and easier to actually tell the story, but they have moved the book further and further from my original conception of the story and the world that it takes place in. And I’m completely okay with that.

I think when authors first conceive of a fantasy world, and think it out, their original idea can be a very beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s fantasy at it’s purest – when it is just mere fantasy, in a writer’s head. But it’s a mistake to think that the world in our heads at the moment of conception is going to be exactly the same world that appears on the page once we’ve finally written the world into prose. The world you’ve created has to be filtered through you if it wants to get into print, where other people can experience it, and you’re an imperfect vessel for that transition. You can’t just open the floodgates and let it pour out unchanged or undiluted. You’re a human being with wants and needs and time constraints and bills to pay, and ultimately you have to change the shape of the world you’ve created so that it’s easy to draw out of yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s no good having a vast, wonderful and expansive fantasy world in your head if you find it impossible to turn into a story which you can actually write: if you can’t mould it into a format that will actually flow through your fingers and out onto the page. Ultimately, I think writability must come first, before any kind of integrity to our original vision. Sacrifices must be made to get the world out of our heads and onto the page.

In short, the important thing is to create a faithful prose adaptation of whatever fantasy world exists in our heads, the same way that a movie director would try to create a faithful cinematic adaptation of a fantasy world that exists in prose. There’s a certain nobility to preserving our original idea as much as possible…but it can be a useless nobility, if our goal is to get published. Sometimes characters must be swapped around, plots must be truncated or rearranged, and extrenuous dragons must be mercilessly excised, in order to make a book writeable. And, for that matter, publishable.

What are your thoughts?

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Why Study Fiction?

Hello, friends of the writing world! Today has been a very exciting day for me. That’s because today was my first official day as a teacher. Not a teaching assistant or a student teacher as I’ve been for the past two and a half years, but an actual teacher, a goal I’ve had to some extent or another for nearly ten years.

I haven’t blogged about it much yet because I’ve been pretty busy for the last few weeks (and because I don’t currently have internet at home), but I’ll say a little bit about how I got to this point. After finishing my Master’s degree in May, I spent most of the summer looking for jobs teaching secondary English and driving to interviews all around. In mid/late July, I got offered a job teaching 9th and 11th grade English at Grace Christian Academy, a small private school in southern Maryland. Of course, mid/late July is a time frame dangerously close to the beginning of the school year, so I’ve spent the last month or so frantically looking for a place to live and trying desperately to prepare. I moved from Lynchburg to Maryland only about a week and a half ago (hence me not having internet set up in my new place yet), started teacher orientation about a week ago, and had my official first day of school today (Wednesday)! It’s been a crazy whirlwind of a ride, but I’m loving it so far.Welcome to English Class

Unfortunately, since I’ve been so frantic with relocating and then lesson planning and a million other things, I haven’t had a whole lot of big creative writing opportunities lately. However, the whole process of preparing to teach literature has been a good reminder to me of why writing is so important. And as a teacher, I’m going to need to find creative ways to convey that importance to my students as well (especially the ones who don’t really like to read or write so far).

Originally, I was asked by my new boss to teach a creative writing elective along with my English classes. Sadly, that class didn’t make it this time around due to low interest and low enrollment (although I did have at least a few students today who said they liked writing, so there’s always hope for next year). Still, I’m probably going to give each class a writing prompt as a warm-up each day. Some days the prompts will be more literature-related and will be used as starting points for class discussions, but I may be able to do some creative prompts at times too (so if you have any good suggestions for creative writing prompts for high school students, please feel free to let me know!).

For the next class, though, I plan to ask my students something along these lines, and hopefully have a good discussion based on their responses:

  • Why is it important to study grammar and writing?
  • Why is it important to study literature?
  • What makes literature good?

I know, I know. These are tough, big questions. I hope they’ll be helpful for establishing a rationale for some of the things we read and do in the class, but I don’t expect 9th and 11th graders to have the perfect, ultimate answers to these questions. Heck, I took a whole graduate class specifically devoted to the question of “what makes literature good?” and I still don’t fully know the answer in every situation. Probably no individual scholar ever will in this lifetime.

But when I was decorating my classroom this past weekend, I tried to find some good literary quotes (amidst lots of memes and cartoons) to stick on bulletin boards. And I came across a couple quotes–from a couple of my favorite authors–that I had probably heard before but that struck me especially this time around. Here are two of the ones I hung up:

  • “That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Image taken from Wikipedia. Public domain.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Literature adds to reality. It does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” -C.S. Lewis

    C.S. Lewis
    C.S. Lewis

Thankfully, even in my new location, I have a couple of friends nearby who I knew from college–and who were also English majors. Last Friday night, I went to a twenty-somethings fellowship group in the area with one such English-y friend. He warned me that there was typically some good-natured joshing between himself, an English major, and the other group members, who all studied and worked in the maths and sciences. Sure enough, the group leader shook his head in mock-disgust upon learning that I had gotten not one, but two English degrees, and he even said at one point (again, with no intended malice) that he didn’t know why anyone would get a liberal arts degree.

And yet, most of the group members there could also be considered “nerds” just like myself and the friend I went with. They talked long and deeply about their favorite movies and games, and we played a board game that night which required us to roleplay as a specific character while killing zombies. In reference to one movie, I even heard one person there use the phrase “the book was better.” I didn’t say this at the time, but I wanted to ask, “So you’re telling me that you like all these movies and games, and yet you can’t see the value in studying creative works of the human imagination?”

In short, literature matters. Writing matters. If you read, study, or create writing or literature, then that matters. Among other things, fiction adds beauty and creativity to our lives and lets us connect with each other on a profound and poignant level. So if you’re a reader or a creative writer, then keep reading and writing, no matter what you might feel or what others may say. It may be more important than you know.