Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled, read the story first at Clarkesworld Magazine.
Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion
by Caroline M. Yoachim
Clarkesworld Magazine August 2014 – available here.
Basic Outline: Aliens have invaded by accident and some humans pick up the pieces of their lives.
As a reader, I love characters trying to solve mysteries. There is the challenge of trying to solve the puzzle before the characters, and I really don’t mind if I know the solution before the character, because how they get there can be just as enjoyable. Then there are the times when you read a character and realize that their perception of reality–to be politically correct about it–is not right. Five Stages of Grief opens with a scene that demands sympathy for the character–maybe. In that first paragraph Ellie’s self-doubt (four months or thirteen?) and shaking her head tell the reader that Ellie may not have a child that she certainly believes she has.
The second character, Oskar, is readable through Ellie’s as and our own. He gives the reader the story’s reality. The baby died. We see Ellie as a mother broken by grief. Her duality is understood, and Oskar’s pain is clear.
I think this unreliable narrator works by not filtering Oskar’s dialog into her worldview, but for every action Oskar has, Ellie’s reaction is distorted into her mindscape. Ellie’s world is also internally consistent: she is the caring mother and wife who only wants what’s best for her family. Reality sneaks in slowly. The important storyworld building in this section is “Sporefall killed all the birds”. This important fact is the first thing Oskar says out loud, and the last thing Ellie reacts to. So, maybe it’s the ordering of the reactions that helps, too.
Ellie’s broken reactions continue throughout the first chapter of the story. What we see is the real thing, every time, and Ellie’s reaction.
Using Ellie as a narrative character gives an easy solution to the problem of “how do I explain the world.” People explain things to Ellie, without her feeling like just another gateway character.
Storyworld as Background
This story is about people recovering from massive death. Ellie and Marybeth are both grieving for lost loved ones, and they deal with it differently. They both need to move on. Oskar can be said to be on the same journey, but only one segment of the story gets close to him, and his resolution is told from outside his point of view. Technically, so is Ellie’s as it is told through Marybeth, but Marybeth is attached to Ellie as her caretaker and friend.
The world, broken by Sporefall, is the cause but not the problem the stroy tries to solve. This helps me realize what “character-driven fiction” looks like. People are, after all, people. What draws me into science fiction and fantasy is worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is here is a slow sequence of mysteries that are unwrapped for us. The reader may ask what Sporefall was, and it is answered, but it is not fixed.
What if Aliens tried to terraform Earth and then felt really crappy about the people they killed and damage they did? What are the effects of the people? I cannot say how this story was created, but I can say these are possibilities. Or maybe it started with Kübler-Ross and a thought exercise on the title. I think that can be more challenging, which is why it’s an exercise below.
Lesson: The Storyworld is not a problem to be solved
There is a place for the massive-scale save the world stories and that’s what I think my stories have to be. It’s really stupid, and I don’t have to aim for that scale. My temptation as a young writer is to explore the fascinating world I’ve created, when it is only the background.
This is one of those “duh” lessons. After all, I’ve seen Julius Ceaser set in the US Senate (which only made sense in the first scene or two) and The Comedy of Errors in the Old West and Troilus and Cressida set in modern Iraq. The texts changed slightly in some cases to accomodate the setting, but for the most part the setting became another way of interpreting the text. The Trojan War is a mythological event to me, but Bush’s invasion of Iraq is all too real. It changes things.
The lesson I need to take from Five Stages of Grief is to let the world I create be the world. I also need to practice the second exercise below.
Exercise: Take a structure and plot a story
Because I think this is difficult, take some progression, series, or sequence other than the Hero’s Journey (I’ll let FILM CRITIC HULK explain why), and wrap a story around that progression. How does each stage inform the direction or action of the story? If there are symbolic elements, how could they play into things? Quiara Alegria Hudes uses musical structures in her plays.
Exercise: Unfold the Storyworld
This story doesn’t show off the worldbuilding, but hints at it. The first scene only mentions “Sporefall killed all the birds”. The second scene includes “Nine months ago the Eridani seeded the planet with spores. Once they realized the planet was inhabited, they undid the damage as best they could, but they came too late for the elderly and the very young.” The third scene introduces us to an Eridani, and also mentios Purple leaves, which even Ellie finds strange.
So for this, outline 3-5 facts that establish your storyworld that build upon eachother, but will be spaced out in the actual text. Break your world. Reveal your world.