How Has Covid Changed Our Stories?

This weekend, while mowing the lawn, I listened to Asphalt Meadows, the new Death Cab for Cutie album. I am a horrible screen addict who has to constantly fight the urge to inundate myself with multiple streams of content at once, Back to the Future-style, so mowing the lawn is a great time for me to actually listen to music while part of my brain is focused on the simple task of driving in straight lines.

Marty McFly watches six channels at once in Back to the Future.

Upon initial listen, I really liked it. It’s clearly recognizable as a Death Cab album, but it also feels like something very different from the band. There is considerably less slick production. The sound is much more raw. Out of the quiet parts, they blast you with almost violent noise.

Death Cab has always had an emo melancholy streak, but it’s amped up here. And yet, there are still glimmers of hope in the face of tragedy. I’m hardly an expert music critic, but it feels like a Covid album.

Trends and Tectonic Shifts in Storytelling

The last few years have had such broad effects on society and on most of us personally. I’ve been wondering for a while just what long-term changes this will wreak on the world at large. It’ll take decades to begin to understand how these plague years have changed us.

As a writer, I think one of the most interesting lenses to view society through is our stories. There are always trends in fiction, like the waves of zombies following The Walking Dead, the vampire romances following Twilight, and the myriad dystopias post-Hunger Games. But there are bigger trends too. These meta-trends can show something about our collective sentiment or what we’re seeking in our imagined worlds that we feel lacking in the real one.

The optimistic science-fiction of the post-WWII era reflected a society that thought it could do anything. This was a society that believed technology could be harnessed to solve any problem and overcome any obstacle. This was the Jetsons-style future of sleek silver spaceships and moving sidewalks and personal robot butlers.

Is Cyberpunk the Present Day Yet?

When this blog was young (a whopping 1.5 years ago), I wrote an article inspired by a tweet by William Gibson, and asked, is cyberpunk retro-futurism yet? Looking back, I think that while the aesthetics of cyberpunk have been reused and recycled extensively, it’s the deeper themes of cyberpunk that really seem to be oddly on-point in our current day and age.

The futurists of the 1980s looking toward a world dominated by mega-corporations and invasive technology seems almost quaint in our modern era of Amazon and Facebook, of ad-targeting and bot-farms and Cambridge Analytica and wondering whether Alexa or Siri is listening in on our conversations. In a lot of ways, we’ve out-cyberpunked the genre of cyberpunk with our own dystopic reality.

But looking beyond these surface-level themes of cyberpunk, I think there is an even more resonant core. Cyberpunk is about vast, uncontrollable systems. Rogue AIs, mega-corporations, and legions of near-human replicants all represent systems so big and so complicated that the average person on the street has no way to even understand what’s going on, let alone take it in a fair fight. Cyberpunk is about survival in a world of vast, incomprehensible, world-controlling systems that are completely indifferent to you.

Surviving in a completely indifferent world. Boy, that sounds familiar.

When Dystopia is Too Optimistic

What about the last few years? What has changed in our stories? Again, this is something that will need the space of another decade or two to really understand, but I can look at the anecdotal evidence of the stories I’ve been reading and watching recently. A lot of these stories are about found family, about belonging, hope and love in a world of hate and nihilism.

Covid, along with the political and cultural fissures that have developed and deepened in recent years, have left many of us feeling…brittle. The world is made of glass these days. It feels like so many things are just barely holding together, and it would only take one or two well-aimed blows to shatter. This is what I heard in Asphalt Meadows while I mowed the lawn.

If the era of The Hunger Games and its dystopian facsimiles was about fighting back against authoritarianism, this era of fiction feels like an all-out fight against nihilism. Only, back in The Hunger Games days, there really wasn’t anyone rooting for the authoritarians. (If anything, people were awfully glib about the message of that series, which seemed to be that it’s not actually that easy to make things better through violent revolution.)

Today’s question seems to be whether or not to give in to complete nihilism, and I think the jury is still out on which way we’re going.

Nihilism and Its Opposite

One of the best movies of the past year was unquestionably Everything Everywhere All at Once. If you haven’t seen it, go see it right now. If you have seen it, go watch this great analysis on Movies With Mikey (one of my favorite channels about movies), and feel those feelings all over again.

E.E.A.A.O. puts to shame the shallow multiverses of Hollywood powerhouses like Marvel. This isn’t an excuse to trot out all the nostalgic reboots of reboots of reboots. This isn’t a story where evil threatens to destroy the world, or even the universe. This is a threat to every world in every universe. You know, everything everywhere all at once. Only, the threat isn’t evil. It’s malicious indifference. It’s nihilism.

In the absurd drama that only The Daniels can pull off with such panache, it’s the literal “everything bagel,” the black hole of indifference that threatens to absorb the sprawl of infinite universes. After all, when the universe is infinite, everything that can happen, happens. Nothing is unique. Nothing is special. In the face of everything, nothing matters. This is the argument the characters of the film are pitted against. Why care? Why bother?

Despite all the universe-hopping and existential threats, this isn’t really a movie about big stakes. Big stakes are what fuel nihilism. It’s those incomprehensibly huge cyberpunk systems that can’t be fought by mere mortals. Like Amazon and Facebook, or national US politics. This is a film about the opposite of nihilism, something I’m not sure there’s even a good word for. Perhaps it’s along the lines of the Buddhist idea that when nothing matters, everything matters: every word, every action, every choice and every moment has value.

The movie centers around the moment when the protagonist begins to understand this. She stops worrying about the fate of everything everywhere, and starts paying attention to the people around her: her husband, her daughter, her father, her IRS auditor. She stops worrying about the incomprehensible systems and the vast universe that seem like the overwhelming problem, and focuses on what she can do in the here and now. She fights nihilism with hope, and (perhaps because it’s a movie) that’s what saves the multiverse, and more importantly, her family.

“All or Nothing” Fiction

Even as I write this, I have a hard time taking myself seriously. Determined hope vs. nihilism, what a unique and clever new idea, right? Spoken plain, it feels a little too simple, even childish. But then I look at the fragile world around us, and at my own perpetual temptation to look at no less than two screens at any given moment, just to avoid having to think too much about what’s going on out there.

We are, collectively, tired. There’s a real temptation to just stop caring about…everything. I think the fiction of the moment is all about this fight, this question. Do we actually care? Or do we just look away and let it all happen? Do we give up because the problems are too big to solve? Or do we each do what we can do, in our own infinitesimally tiny corner of the multiverse?

Does nothing matter? Or does everything?

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 17

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Writing After Time Off

This chapter took a little longer than usual because of my Covid vacation, which mostly involved sleeping and being unproductive. This particular break was outside my control, but I’ve taken plenty of writing breaks in the past. I’ve never been a very consistent writer, so I’m no stranger to taking time off, but this blog has been slowly helping me get better at that.

The challenge for me with time off from writing is almost always just the mental block on getting started again. It’s not exactly writer’s block. Getting myself to write that first sentence is like pulling my own teeth, but once I’m a paragraph or two in, I can usually set my writing cruise-control for a while. It helps a lot to have a project like Razor Mountain, because I can write from a detailed outline. Most of the plot problems are small and easy to solve.

Mixed Feelings in the Middle

Looking at chapters, we are dead center in the middle of the book. We’ll have to wait and see how it shakes out in terms of wordcount. For me, this is always the most nebulous part of the story. That may be because I rarely feel comfortable working on a story unless I already have a detailed understanding of the beginning and the end. It just doesn’t feel like a proper story until I have those elements.

The beginning is all about introducing characters and problems and settings. It’s busy. The ending is the most exciting part, because it’s full of problems being resolved and characters making important decisions and mysteries finally revealed.

The middle is more trouble. The middle is the glue. It’s the throughline that gets you from the beginning to the end. The middle is the most flexible part. It’s also usually the part with the most difficult decisions and problems to figure out. As a result, the middle is where I do most of my second-guessing and wondering whether I’m going in the right direction.

The issue I have right now with the middle of Razor Mountain is that it feels like a lot is going on—there are new characters in every chapter, new time-jumping narrative for God-Speaker, and a lot of shifting mysteries where some things are revealed while bringing up new questions. That all sounds pretty good on paper, but I have some doubts over whether all of these things will feel like a logical sequence of events or more like distracting degressions.

All of this is further exacerbated by putting each chapter up online for the world to see, as I write it. I have to accept that I may be writing imperfect story beats (and let’s be real, they’re never perfect), and that people will actually see them before I finish the thing and edit and polish as much as I would like.

The advantage of experience is that I know I always feel this way to some extent in the middle of the story. I can keep writing through it and come out on the other side with a more informed perspective. Looking back from the end of the book, I may choose to pull some plot points or change what happens. And the advantage of putting the story out there in this state is that I hopefully get a little less precious about my stories and get a little better at pushing forward and writing the thing.

A Lack of Agency

The other issue that I’ve been thinking about here in the middle of the book is how much agency Christopher has over the story. God-Speaker will be doing a lot for the next few chapters, but Christopher is at the mercy of other characters for a while. In these parts, his agency has to come from his thoughts and reactions, and how he chooses to react to the lack of control over his external situation.

My goal is to use these scenes to further develop Christopher’s character and set him up for the challenges and choices that will happen in later chapters.

Next Time

Chapter 18 continues Christopher’s forced march with the kidnapping brothers as they make their way toward Razor Mountain.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher guessed that they walked for at least an hour after coming outside, though he was sure he was slowing them down. It was harder than he would have guessed to hike without being able to see or use his hands, even with someone else guiding him. His captors must have felt the same way. After another muffled disagreement, they stopped, sat him down on an uncomfortable rock, and unceremoniously pulled the bag off of his head.

The light was so bright after the forced darkness that he couldn’t see anything clearly for a moment. It wasn’t sunlight though, it was the full moon high above them. Christopher was still blinking and squinting away the blurriness when the gag was pulled down and he could breathe the icy air.

“Please don’t shout,” Harold said, “or we’ll have to put it back on.”

Christopher felt something prod him in the side, and saw the indistinct shape of Garrett next to him, holding a rifle.

“Be good, like you have been, and we won’t have any problems. You’re slow with the hood on, and I’d like to go faster.”

It was apparent now that it was just the two men with him. They were stopped next to a cluster of boulders on a lightly-forested low hill. Far to the right, half-hidden by trees, Christopher thought he could see an escarpment, perhaps the foothills of the mountain. It was the same sort of terrain he had come through with Amaranth just a day or two ago, but he didn’t see any specific landmarks that he recognized.

“Where are we going?” Christopher asked. “Why are you doing this?”

Garrett smiled grimly. “We’re turning you in.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that nobody comes here by accident. I don’t know exactly where you’re from or what you think you’re going to accomplish up here, but I’m sure that people on base will be very interested to find out.”

“Well, you’re wrong,” Christopher said. “I’m either incredibly lucky to be alive, or incredibly unlucky to be alive here, but I definitely did not end up here by choice. I don’t know what I can tell you to make you believe me.”

“Nothing,” Garrett said. “Don’t bother.”

“What about the others?” Christopher asked.

“What about them? They still think Ema is going to come up with some brilliant plan to get out of here. She doesn’t know any more than the rest of them. They’ll either be stuck out here, starving until they get picked up by patrols, or they’ll die out in the wilderness.”

“So you’re abandoning them?” Christopher asked.

“They made their choices. Now I’m making mine.”

“No choices for me, huh?” Christopher said.

“’Fraid not,” Garrett said. “Now let’s keep walking.”

They made their way through the forest, the long shadows of the trees slowly shrinking as the sun rose higher in the sky. The two men had packs, and Harold gave Christopher a few bites from a granola bar, but it was just enough to make Christopher acutely aware of his own hunger.

“What’s the point of bringing me with you if you’re just going back,” Christopher said. “You really think I’m that dangerous?”

“You don’t seem that competent to me, but somehow you had everyone else fooled,” Garrett said.

Suddenly, Harold held up a hand. They all stopped, silent, and listened. Harold and Garrett’s heads swiveled as they squinted into the trees.

There was the snap of a branch breaking to their left, and Garrett brought the rifle to bear. After a few seconds there was another sound, like a small animal scrabbling up a tree with sharp claws. The pair let their breath out slowly.

“Maybe we should find someplace without snow,” Harold said. “Throw her off the track.”

Christopher frowned. “You’re worried about Amaranth.”

Harold nodded. “You’ve traveled with her right?”

Garrett shook his head irritably. “Even if feral girl figures out where we left the compound, she’s not going to have time to catch up. We don’t have that far to go.”

They kept walking. They were traveling steadily upward, and Christopher caught glimpses of the mountain through the trees. From this angle, he could clearly see the black crack that split the peak in half, one side slumped, the other tall and sharp like a blade.

It was hard going, and not just because his hands were still bound and his shoulders ached. Christopher realized that when he had walked with Amaranth, she had been navigating the easier paths up the slopes, avoiding the areas of woods with tangled undergrowth, avoiding the areas with rough, rocky ground. Garrett kept them going in more or less a straight line toward Razor Mountain, regardless of minor obstacles.

“You know,” Garrett said, “you’d be better off telling us what you’re really up to. We’re a lot more pleasant to deal with than the professional interrogators on base will be.”

“I told you what I know,” Christopher said. “You didn’t seem like you wanted to hear it.”


Christopher thought for a minute. “You know, I think you should be the one who’s worried about interrogators. It sounded to me like all of you are going to be branded as traitors, and I’m guessing they’re going to expect you to tell them all about the others and where they’re hiding.”

“Not a problem,” Garrett said. “I’ll tell them whatever they want to know.”

“Just going to sell out your friends? That seems shitty.”

“Friends?” Garrett asked. “You think we were just out on a camping trip? Ema convinced everyone that the chain of command was lying to us, and that she knew how to get out. She’s a liar. I don’t owe anything to any of them.”

“That’s not what it was like,” Harold murmured, “and you know it.”

“Shut up,” Garrett said. “You’re just like the rest of them.”

Harold sighed. “This is going to go badly.”

“I said, shut up.”

They walked in silence for a while. Garrett was clearly in his own head, getting worked up and irritated. Christopher could see his shoulders hunch as he stalked ahead. He wondered how much he dared to push the man.

“Why are you doing this?” Christopher said quietly, hoping that only Harold could hear.

Harold shrugged. “He’s my brother.”

“Huh. I’m sorry.”

Garrett stopped and turned. “You think you’re going to turn us against each other? You pretend you’re just a bumbling idiot, but I see you trying to get information out of everyone, trying to manipulate them. I don’t know if you think you’re clever, but it’s obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.”

Garrett grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him forward. Christopher stumbled and narrowly avoided falling on his face. He walked in front now, with the brothers a few feet behind, whispering irritably to each other.

Christopher knew that every conversation he had been in with these people, he was, in fact, trying to get information out of them. It wasn’t nefarious. He just wanted to know what was going on. On the other hand, he realized that he had been searching for ways to manipulate the two brothers without really thinking it through. It just seemed natural. They were so different, Christopher thought he might be able to get them to turn on each other. He had never thought of himself as manipulative. Where had that inclination come from?

The next time they stopped to rest, the faint pink light of dawn was beginning to color the sky and lend texture to the mountain ridges. They sat and ate from an unlabeled foil bag of mixed nuts. Harold shared his with Christopher. Garrett, unsurprisingly, did not.

After staring into the sky thoughtfully, Harold looked at Christopher, then at Garrett.

“I think there’s a pretty good chance that the 550th will just shoot us all on sight.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher woke as someone was pulling something tight over his mouth. A moment later, more fabric slid down over his face. He felt himself choking, unable to get enough air, and he clawed frantically at the cloth, trying to breathe. Hands grabbed his wrists and pulled them behind his back, where they were tied together with rough rope. Without thinking, he bent his neck and rammed his body, shoulder-first, toward the assailant he couldn’t see. He struck a glancing blow and heard a grunt, then lost his balance and fell forward and to the right, landing hard and banging his forehead.

A violent static filled his vision and hearing. He felt like he was plunging into the lake again, sinking into the darkness.

He was being captured, or kidnapped. But that didn’t make any sense. Wasn’t he already captured, already a prisoner among this strange group? Once again, he was overwhelmed by the frustration of not knowing. There was more going on among these people than he had been told. They were obviously afraid of the Razor Mountain people. Maybe they had been found?

The sparks and waves that filled his vision began to fade into more ordinary darkness. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see anything. He realized that he had been pulled to his feet while still dazed, and he was stumbling forward with an unseen hand pushing between his shoulder blades. Another clamped his left arm, guiding him.

He took slow, shaky breaths through the fabric and found that he could still breathe reasonably well. It was only the animal fear of being smothered in his sleep that had made him think he was being suffocated. He could hardly enunciate with the fabric bunched in his mouth, but he tried to shout, to make some noise. It sounded muffled, even in his own head.

“Quiet,” said a familiar voice on his left, and the hand on his back shoved harder.

Next, the hand pushed down on his shoulder, forcing him to bend. He tried to straighten up, only to scrape his head on something above. He bent forward, letting himself be guided and propelled. He thought about the collapsed section of the building and wondered if he was being pushed beneath that low ceiling.

He walked, half-crouched, listening to the scrape of feet and the faint sound of breathing nearby. The guiding hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled back. He found he could stand at full height again. For a moment, there was no hand gripping him. The idea of running or flinging himself away from his captors flashed through his head, but it was nonsense. Where could he go when he couldn’t see or use his hands? He had no idea how many people were with him, although it didn’t sound like more than two or three.

He took another deep breath and tried to calm down. He didn’t understand what was going on. He didn’t have enough information to guess. He had to just accept that. He also couldn’t escape at this point. He had to wait, try to be patient, and look for opportunities.

Although his heart was still beating loudly in his ears (and pulsing in the lump he could feel rising on his forehead), when he stopped to listen he found that he could make out a quiet conversation going on behind him to the left.

There were two voices, both familiar, but one that he recognized right away. It was the low, slow voice of the big man who had been assigned as his guard, or at least his observer. Harold. So he was still with the same people as before. Probably.

Before Christopher could really parse anything they were saying, a hand grabbed the rope binding his hands behind his back and ushered him forward once again. They turned to the left and there was the sound of a door opening in front of him, then closing gently behind him. He felt cooler air on his face, though not as cold as the outside air.

The sound was different here too, the scrape of footsteps echoing as though they were in a bigger space. The voices were whispering again, and this time he could hear snatches of the conversation. The low voice, Harold, sounded like he was arguing with the other voice.

“…bad idea…choice…won’t help…”

Christopher thought he recognized the other voice too. It wasn’t as deep. It was a voice that was irritatingly self-righteous. A voice that knew everything it needed to know, and expected everyone else to come around to its viewpoint. Christopher was pretty sure it was Garrett, the argumentative man from the mess hall who had even managed to get Amaranth riled up.

A gust of wind hit him, and now it was brutally cold. Now it felt like they were facing the outside. He was shoved forward again. As he walked, he was forced to rely on the hand on his shoulder or arm to guide him.

He felt the crunch of snow underfoot, and the subtle rise and fall of the rough ground. He had to concentrate on his steps to make sure he didn’t slip on slick spots or trip on the rocks and grass and whatever else he trod over.

His world of darkness lightened a little, to a deep gray, and he thought that the sun must be rising.


Storytelling Class — Style/Substance

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was style and substance.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

Freya is getting close to finishing the first Wheel of Time book. I asked her if she was excited to continue with a series that has fourteen books. She said she thought she might be 70 before she finishes. She also just started the “Janitors” series, though she hasn’t gotten far enough to form an opinion yet.

I have been working my way through my beautiful new Ambergris hardcover. City of Saints and Madmen was a formative book for me, and I’m excited to now have it in a single massive tome alongside Jeff Vandermeer’s other Ambergris stories. I was however, a little disappointed to find that they actually removed some of the appendices that appeared in the original, so now I have to keep my copy of City of Saints and Madmen as well.

In non-fiction, I started Ways of Being at the recommendation of Cory Doctorow, although I’m only a few pages in.

What Did We Write?

Freya has kept busy writing for school work, and hasn’t worked on any fiction recently. After my Covid break, I’ve been working on getting back into Razor Mountain.

Style and Substance

Each story consists of two parts—two sides of the same coin—style and substance. You can think of “substance” as “what the story is about” and style as “how the story is told.” Substance is the meaning. Style is the actual words. By some definitions, substance is good, while style is just the shallow surface layer. However, when it comes to fiction, each story is really a melding of the two.

Schools of Thought

At the risk of being a little controversial, I’m going to define two schools of thought, and I’m going to call them “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” I put them in quotes because each story is a special snowflake, and I’m about to speak in broad generalizations, so take it all with a grain of salt.

The “genre fiction” school of thought is that substance takes precedence. Genre fiction sometimes even devalues style. Common genre fiction advice suggests that, when reading a great book, the reader should forget they’re reading and get lost in the story—that is, in the plot and the characters. The descriptive text should become transparent. Authors should endeavor to become invisible, and never call attention to themselves.

The “literary fiction” school of thought holds that style is quality. Literary fiction tends to put a higher value on authorial voice. The advice here is that a great book should be overflowing with the author’s unique voice, and the reader should be transported into the mind-space of the author. Mechanics like plot and character are nice, but they need to be described through transcendent prose. Anyone can tell a story. A true author tells it in a way that only they can.

False Dichotomies

Like most dichotomies, this one is artificial. Style and substance aren’t strictly opposing forces (although they can sometimes fight each other). Some authors make the mistake of crafting page after page of beautiful prose that doesn’t really  tell a story, while others create intricate plots by placing row upon row of flat words like bricks in a wall.

Readers, like authors, are unique, and there are audiences for both of these styles. Science fiction has a big audience that revels in clever plots and is fine with a lack of ornamentation. Likewise, there are plenty of literary fiction readers who care more about delicious sentences than characters who actually go somewhere and do something.

As an author, you can make your own choices about what you value. You may choose to focus on substance, or style, or try to find a happy medium. However, it’s important to understand that there are trade-offs. The more stylized your prose is, the more your reader will have to work to understand what’s going on. Some readers will appreciate the extra layers of complexity, but others simply won’t be interested, and may just put the story down. Focus on style inherently takes some focus away from the substance.


We looked at a few of my personal favorites when it comes to literary style.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series is a relatively mild example, where most of the stylistic flourishes could be described as “literary comedy,” twisting language for fun and amusement.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book with literally complex text that stretches sentences across pages, forms shapes and pictures, and wraps around upon itself. But it is also a narratively complex work, presented by a character named Johnny, who details the work of his acquaintance, Zompano, who himself took detailed notes based on videos shot by a third character, Navidson, whose descriptions of his ever-shifting, labyrinthine, and spatially inconsistent house form the heart of the story.

Finally, there’s Vandermeer’s more recent work, Dead Astronauts, a book that is so dense and challenging to decipher that it almost feels encoded.

These are wildly different examples of a strong authorial voice put to use for different purposes. While Adams is extremely readable, House of Leaves ranges from straightforward prose to deep complexity. Dead Astronauts is lyrical and dreamlike, but so obfuscated in parts that I found it off-putting. And there are many other examples of other authors doing entirely different but equally interesting things with language.

Choosing a Style

Depending on the type of writer you are, you may find that you default more toward one end of the spectrum than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many authors are influenced by their own favorite writers and stories, and you may like to write the same kind of stories that you like to read.

I find that memorable quotes and phrases tend to come from style-heavy writers. Substance-heavy writers tend to make unforgettable stories where you don’t necessarily remember any of the words in particular. I loved The Martian when I read it a year ago. I remember some of the structure (maybe because I blogged about it) but I don’t remember a single line from it.

Sometimes particular stories will speak to you in a certain way. Just because you normally write very straightforward sci-fi space operas doesn’t mean you can’t do a bunch of clever stylistic embellishment in a complicated, self-referential time-travel story.

As with most things in life, it can be good to experiment. You might discover that you can find joy in more kinds of stories than you previously realized. Or you may find that a particular story calls for a particular style.

In Defense of Endings

I have a co-worker who loves anime and manga. Once, several years ago, he was in the bookstore, perusing the manga, and a boy sidled up to him. The kid was practically vibrating, he was so excited to tell him about the best manga ever: Naruto. My co-worker was all-too-familiar with Naruto and explained that he was not interested. But the boy insisted. Repeatedly rebuffed, he refused to give up. He was certain that this series was great, if only the dumb adult would listen. He pointed to one of the spines, some ten or twenty books into the series.

“Here,” he said. “See where the covers change color? That’s where it gets good.”

My co-worker, exasperated, threw up his hands and said, “I’m not going to read twenty books just to get to the good part!

The War on Endings

In the traditional story breakdown, the ending is one of the three parts of the story. It comes after the beginning and the middle. Or does it?

Today more than ever, media is business as well as art. And it is competitive. All the big gatekeepers are in competition not just with each other, but with all the little indie artists out there, from self-published e-books to rappers on SoundCloud to short films on YouTube.

Big media companies love a sure thing, or as close to one as they can get. Conveniently, after decades of mergers and acquisitions they also have warehouses full of old IPs and characters from all their previous successes. They are happy to use and re-use it, playing on nostalgia or even just vague familiarity. And even with brand new IP, they love to milk their stories and characters until they’re dry, desiccated husks.

More Star Wars, more Marvel, more Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and Lord of the Rings!

These modern mega-media empires are incentivized to make everything as episodic and ongoing as possible. Endings are bad for business. They want to sell more tickets, more monthly subscriptions, more merch. They want a multi-generational fan base. In short, they want the story to go on forever.

But stories aren’t meant to go on forever. They’re meant to end.

Engines Need Fuel

What drives a good story forward? What gets us excited and makes us eager to find out what will happen next? Well, Lincoln Michael would say that there are many different engines that can power a story.

Often the engine is about characters and their goals. They’re seeking something. Sometimes it’s mystery and discovery: something we want to find out. Machael suggests other options, like form, language and theme. However, all of these engines have some similarities. As we dig into them and begin to understand them, they get used up. The patience of the audience is a finite resource. Familiarity breeds contempt.

A character with a goal drives the story forward. They run into obstacles, they have successes and setbacks, and we root for them. But eventually, they have to make progress, whether that be success or failure. Eventually, they need to achieve their goal or have it slip out of their reach, or we get bored. Likewise, a mystery can only remain mysterious for so long. The clues have to lead somewhere. The red herrings have to be revealed eventually, or we’re left in a stew of uncertainty and frustration. The detective has to find the killer.

There are ways, of course, of stretching out that resolution. Perhaps the character fulfils their goal, only to discover a newer, bigger goal. Perhaps the original villain turns out to be just another henchman of the real villain.

These kind of tricks can only take you so far. The engine of the story eventually runs out of gas. You might be able to refill it once or twice by escalating into some exciting new territory, but if you go too long without a satisfying resolution, it all starts to fall apart.

What About Episodes?

Episodic stories might seem like the escape hatch. After all, the police procedural catches the killer at the end of the episode, and next time there will be a new case, right? But it doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

Episodic stories have two options: they can carry baggage from episode to episode, or they can wipe the slate clean every time. If they carry things forward, building larger arcs beyond episodes, then they wind up with the same problems of escalation as any other story. They need arcs, and they have to build toward endings. But if they wipe the slate clean, they run into an even bigger problem.

Episodic stories with no larger arc are cartoons. Often literally, but sometimes only figuratively. The world and the characters become static cardboard cut-outs. They can be played for laughs or drama for a while, but there are only so many times we can laugh at the same jokes or wonder “how will they get out of this one?” These are the zombie remains of real stories, still going through the motions, but utterly devoid of life.

Are Endings Really Necessary?

No. For all my complaining, I’ve watched some of those shows. I’m actively reading several stories with no ending in sight. That’s fine. We can still get joy out of those things. Hell, Hollywood is banking on it.

It’s really just a missed opportunity. A good ending elevates the beginning and middle. A bad ending can ruin a good beginning and middle (which is why we collectively get so incredibly mad when the ending is bad). A story with no ending at all? We’ll never know if it could be great. It’ll just fade away slowly.

All of my favorite stories have endings. So really, this is just a plea for you to cater to my tastes.

Give your stories endings. Give them the opportunity for greatness.

An Unexpected Fall Break

I don’t typically talk much about my personal life on this blog. The blog is about writing, and I want to keep it that way, and not digress into the kind of parasocial voyeurism that pervades so much internet and television these days. However, I did want to drop a quick personal note today.

I’ve been absent from the blog and my other usual online haunts over the past week or so. Mere days into the busy start of the school year with three school-aged children, we had COVID make its way through the family. We’re all vaccinated, but I was still pretty effectively sidelined for a couple days, and the kids had to stay home from school.

I’m now on the other side of it, feeling fairly functional—only occasionally short of energy and a bit more easily winded. Everyone else is recovered or mostly-recovered. I’m thankful that we all had relatively mild and short-lived symptoms. I probably had the worst of it, and I really have nothing to complain about when considering what some people have gone through with this illness.

After what felt like an interminably hot and humid August, this weekend I got to enjoy air that feels cool enough to qualify as autumn weather. I went for a walk in the woods with the kids. I sat in the back yard with the monumental 865-page Ambergris omnibus hardcover. The cicadas are in high form, buzzing their raucous farewells to summer.

The parkway near our house was populated by only the most determined joggers and bikers in the mid-day swelter of a week ago, but in the cooler weather it now seems to have spontaneously germinated clusters of people like mushrooms: adults with their dogs and their children in strollers.

This week I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to slow down; to watch and listen and “be present” (as trite as that phrase sometimes feels these days); to experience a series of peaceful moments, like little Norman Rockwell paintings. Maybe it’s a touch of altered consciousness, thanks to cold medications and COVID brain fog. Whatever it is, it feels like a nice break.

I’ll be back to the usual blogging soon. Back to Razor Mountain and the writing stuff. I’m already itching for it. I guess I’ve become a bit of an addict over these past couple years.

Dissecting Influences — Sci-Fi From My Childhood

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember that my favorite writing podcast is Writing Excuses. In Episode 17.7, the team discussed dissecting your influences.

We all have stories we love, whether they be books, shows or movies. The idea of this episode was that it can be useful to take apart our favorite things and figure out why we like them, because it guides us toward things that matter to us. The themes and ideas that draw us to these works will often be fertile ground for our own writing. And while it may seem obvious that we all know exactly what we like in media, the truth is that we often leave those stones unturned. It might even be surprising to dig into what really brings us joy in a favorite movie or book.

After listening to this episode, I started compiling a list of my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to start. In fact, it was hard to stop. The things closest to mind were mostly books I had read recently or old favorites that I’ve been re-reading with my kids. But I soon started to remember books from childhood, poetry, and even influences outside fiction altogether.

With this list in hand, and continuing to add to it, I thought it might be fun to dissect my own writer brain in public. I have to limit myself to a reasonable size for a blog post, so I’m going to pick a somewhat arbitrary classification to pull out a handful of entries.

The Grown-Up Sci-Fi of My Childhood

That’s right, it’s some of my first loves in science fiction, way back when I was still in school. The actual dates of publication vary quite a bit, from 1965 to 1994, and these are all novels aimed at adults. One of the things that drew me into these books was the faintly illicit idea that I, as a child, could read stories intended for grown-ups. It felt like a window into ideas and worlds I wasn’t yet allowed to enter. Going from “Choose Your Own Adventure” and Goosebumps to heady books like Dune is a real shock to the system.

On that note, let’s start with Herbert’s masterpiece.


Having read this book at least three times—and one of those times quite recently—I have a hard time going back to the headspace I was in when I read it originally. I think I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure the reason I started reading it was because I saw a mention of it where someone said it was as influential in science-fiction as Lord of the Rings was in fantasy.

I think Dune is a pretty great book for young people who are starting to get into science fiction. On the one hand, it reduces the many political and economic complexities of the far future into a feudal culture where the only thing that matters are the machinations of a handful of powerful factions. The protagonist, Paul, is a ducal heir with adult responsibilities, but he’s still not quite an adult. Interestingly, the whole feudal system and it’s quasi-European royalty end up falling apart by the end of the book, with young Paul engineering their downfall at the hands of colonized people.

I remember this book being interesting because it sets up a world where people and decisions hundreds of years previous can have profound and complicated effects on the present. It’s a world of complex, interrelated systems that nobody can completely understand, and even a single person putting a wrench in the gears in just the right way can totally change the universe.

I also genuinely love Paul’s relationship with his own psychic powers. He hates them. He is constantly vacillating between seeing the future and being unable to steer it, or losing that sight and the fear of not knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that handled that kind of power in quite the same way.

I have to at least mention the other books in the (original) Dune series. I read them all, although not right away. I don’t think any of them quite measure up to the original, but I appreciate how strange they are, and Herbert’s audacity in choosing to set them thousands of years apart in far-flung futures that are less and less similar to our own modern lives.

Ender’s Game

Another book with a child protagonist? Possibly a theme. Ender in this book is much younger than Paul is at the beginning of Dune, but he deals with some comparable drama. This is another book that I re-read recently with my kids.

This book was astounding in a few different ways. Firstly, while it’s not exactly dystopic fiction, it does depict a world where war with aliens has resulted in hardship for average people and a government with dictatorial power. We learn early on that Ender is special because he’s a “third.” In a world where the government limits how many children each couple can have, he is a rarity.

All of the main characters are children: Ender and his siblings, and all of the kids at the battle school. Parents and adults are present, but they have little time “on-screen.” Like the dictatorial government, they show up periodically and force some seemingly arbitrary and often cruel new rules onto the children, but it’s the children and their relationships that matter. This is a book that understands what it feels like to be a child, to feel like adults don’t give you all the information and many decisions are left completely out of your hands.

Ender is bred to be a soldier and a leader. He’s trained for it. He is subjected to insane cruelty, to the point where he ends up having to kill other children to defend himself, all because it’s part of the program. But the ultimate cruelty happens at the end of the book, when he discovers that the supposedly wise adults who forced this horrible life on him didn’t even understand the enemy that they trained him to kill. The entire war is nothing more than an interspecies miscommunication, and he finds out by accident.

And then he leaves. He finds the one person he loves and who loves him: his sister. They get on a spaceship and fly away. He leaves behind all the systems of abuse and control that defined his entire life. Maybe a metaphor for growing up.

The “Ender” series continues on. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind are all great books, but again I feel like the original is still the best. The series is similar to Dune in the way it jumps large spans of time in a wildly changing galaxy. The Dune series eventually had a bunch of new books written much later, by Herbert’s son. I heard they were terrible and I never read them. The “Ender” series, on the other hand, had more and more books still written by Orson Scott Card, but I got to the point where I just wasn’t that interested by yet another rehash of the same story from a different secondary character’s perspective.

Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that I’m still disappointed that Orson Scott Card turned out to be a homophobe and the sort of person who politely states their deeply held and hateful beliefs. Card was one of my early writing heroes, and I still hold his books on writing in high esteem, but as a person, he really bums me out. He kind of did the whole “J.K. Rowling” thing before Rowling.

The Uplift Saga

While the above two entries are the first (and I would argue, most important) books in a series, David Brin’s “Uplift” books are inseparable in my mind. There are six of them, in a pair of trilogies:

  • Sundiver
  • Startide Rising
  • The Uplift War


  • Heaven’s Reach
  • Brightness Reef
  • Infinity’s Shore

I suspect this series might be the most influential set of books in my childhood, but I came at them in a very weird way. I’m honestly not sure if I even remember it correctly. I know I read them out of order, because I bought one of these books at a garage sale, completely unaware that it was part of a series. I can’t be sure, but I think it was The Uplift War, the third book in the first trilogy.

That might sound a little insane to some readers, but it’s something I did multiple times as a kid. I even read through the fifth book in a series once, and didn’t realize it was part of a series until the ending completely failed to resolve the plot. One of the crazy things about being a child is that the world makes no sense. Every time you open a “grown-up” book, it’s like being transported into a completely new universe. Of course it’s confusing. Everything is confusing when you’re a child. It’s the ultimate introduction to the concept of “in media res.”

While Dune imagines a sci-fi future with no aliens whatsoever, and Ender’s Game has only the buggers, who seem to be mindless insectoid killing machines, the Uplift books are absolutely chockablock with all sorts of aliens. They are not your usual little green men. They are crabby things with 360° vision or energy creatures that live in the corona of the sun. They are varied and logical for the environment they came from.

The Uplift books depict a humanity that has just made contact with a galaxy full of aliens. There is a galactic culture. It is full of aliens who are much more advanced and powerful than humans, and we are forced to very abruptly change our own assessment of how awesome we are.

Humanity has started the process of advancing the intelligence of chimpanzees, dogs, gorillas and dolphins through genetic manipulation and technology. It turns out this is a pretty damn important concept to all the aliens, who call it “Uplift.” In fact, it’s the glue that binds all these different cultures together, as the uplifted races are forced into millennia-long servitude to the race that gave them the gift of sentience, and the races providing “Uplift” have a higher social position. Of course, the top dogs of the galaxy aren’t excited to see the newcomers, humanity, get that kind of respect, let alone the servitude of multiple freshly uplifted species.

Again, we have a fictional world that is too big for its characters. Hell, even the entire human race (and super-dogs/chimps/gorillas) is just trying to keep from drowning in a galaxy where almost everything is out of their control. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that everything we know and have ever known on planet Earth might be utterly inconsequential in the wider universe.


I have to admit, when I started writing this article I thought I might not have that much to say. Now I’m almost 2,000 words into this, everyone has probably stopped reading, and I only made it through half the books I intended.

I’m going to call it here. I found this to be a really fun exercise, but I’m curious if anyone else will be interested. I got more out of it than I thought I would, not the least of which is the desire to go and re-read the entire Uplift series. If anyone enjoys this, I might make it a regular feature. I have a lot of books, shows, and movies on my list.