The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Fiction

Spring Of A Down, Chapters XVI-XVIII

Королевство кривых зеркал[xcvii]

Hush. He will tell the story forwards, but it makes more sense in reverse.[xcviii]

He was at his house, leaving. He closed a red door and he thought “I must have it painted black.”[xcix]

His car was broken. It was a Mercedes Benz. It had been broken since 1969.[c]

So, he walked up the road. It was a long row to hoe and he would be walking for two solid days to get to where he was going.

And on that second day, the waters parted from the waters.[ci] The mirror crack’d from side to side as the man turned to the dirt path from the paved.[cii] There were trees crowded around the road and twigs dropped into the puddles from above. Again, he looked above at the clouded sky. There was no rain falling. Yet. But it was pregnant and foreboding. The late winter weather seemed waiting to drench him again. At least it was not snow.

He trudged along the basin. To his right, there were glimpses of a large reservoir. The reservoir was where the Dnipro and the Pripyat merged and converted. It was a Kingdom of crooked mirrors – which bank was which?[ciii] He realized he was more tired than he thought.

There was the quiver of spring, but not yet, not yet. Then ahead a yellow pickup truck was parked in the distance. Joy leapt from his heart. He ran very slowly because the trail was made of mud, and he had a long way to go. His eyes were fixed on the yellow back of the truck hoping that he could rest. Even if rest was in the back. Even if rest meant sitting in the rain. Anything was better than this. Anything.

So along he ran with drench green boots and tatter fur on the inside with brown coat draping and gray hat dropping. Then he saw, he saw… He saw nothing. The was no driver behind the wheel. It seemed as if the truck was abandoned. A crushing feeling made him feel more alone. He went walking; a sad walk at that.

Along the truck’s edge until he reached the driver’s side. There, there was a body. He could see red that exited towards the back. He did not see the face. It was a civilian – all the good that got him. Then he spied the keys still in the ignition. Never one to look at the teeth he opened the door and pulled the corpse out.[civ] For a moment he saw the wrinkled face. It had a white and black freckled beard. The man looked away, quickly. Very quickly. One should not look at a dead man. It would be irreligious and sacrilegious.

But in the driver’s seat, everything felt different. He felt a little bit in charge. He sat upright. His boots still felt wet and outside the precipitation went to ice, but these things did not matter. He checked the petrol and found it half full. He ignored the murmuring in his head that it was just too fortunate to find a truck with any amount of fuel in it. Coincidence.

The wheels slogged through the grime. It had been raining much of the time and the road showed the wear and tear of the late winter rain with a vengeance. He focused now on driving because his eyesight was not as it used to be. But he ignored glasses. Too fragile, too delicate, to easily lost, to easily forgotten.

He was a man, God damn it.[cv] Oleg was his God-given name.

Then up ahead there were men on the road. Infantry men. Green clad infantry men. Russian green clad infantry men.

There were only two choices, and he did not have time to choose either. The truck stopped.

The window was rolled down by inches which a manual window handle moved. Teeth.

The first man on the outside placed his hands over the door, and began to speak:

“What are you doing driving around here?” The face was young, the words were plastic. The young face stared blankly into his eyes with a brown surreptitious look.

Spring of a Down, by Stirling Newberry, Chapters 1-3

я знаю місце1

(Read the Prolog)

She looked out over the land coming spring. Rather than domes and spires of Kyiv, here there were roofs to keep the hearth warm. But was forward to the eye was the fuzziness of the trees because the buds were forming across a flat plain. Life bloomed, over and above the plains north of the capital the river flow in.2

She turns to sweep out the broken glass from the boards of the floor. Too much mess but one had to start someplace. “Maria you must keep to your duties, not look outside.”3 Maria was very practical. Unlike her sister.

The sister and her two young daughters were 2 kilometers away, still above the ground facing the heavans. The dead eyes see the days like acid rain.4 A wider look at the world beyond the cross.

Work to reach the corners and cracks. Stay focused. Down, she must turn down. There were so many dead. She remembered how the war began. It was a gloomy winter day when the world turned upside down.5 Then in the hazy snow-soaked sky, she heard bombs come blimping blinding down. She hid underneath her bed, death and life alternated between her children, and the two were mixed with feelings of pity and sorrow. It was a vision of Hell brought to the waking world.6 She looked over her bed to a burned-out candle.

She tried not to think of it again but the harder she fought the more vivid the movie it was.7

“Maria?” A call from the door. “Maria Petrenko? It is me, Pavlo Pavlenko.”8

Yes, she remembers who he was. At other times she would think little of him because he was a skinflint. But that was then this was now. She stood up and brush her light blue dress off of soot and coal. “It will take me a moment.” There was a door, but it was clear not locked, or even closed.

From below she heard: “Everything is moving more slowly.”

Down the curved steps, she went with a new curve to her back. At the last steps she saw the back way and the white-bearded face was brought into view.

“You have come some way to get here.”

“It is true.”

“What brought you here?”

“The hammer banged reveille on the rails, and I had to get up.9 I had to get up a set my life in order on this fine day.”

He stood there wavering.

“That is quite stark – whatever do you mean?”

“I am dying. I was before the war, but I did not know it.”

“What happened?”

“You know the office in the center of town?”

“Which one?”

“A doctor has come a set up a waypoint for people to flee.”

“I know the place.10 But are you fleeing?”

He hesitated. “Could I come in and sit down?” A smile played with the edges of his mouth.

“You will have to sit on the stairs because the is no chair.”

He shuffled to the stairs, remembering a time when they had been carpeted. “I was thinking on it.”

“Why did you stop thinking on it??”

“I was told by the physician that I was dying, and quickly, so.”

There was a rich pause because in the old days she might have wished for this, were she was honest with herself. Which she often was, when alone.

Then the heard a flowering like popcorn, only from the trees.11 Pop – pop – pop. The room tilted by some fraction of 90 degrees as if the rhyme was helter-skelter with a drone of bass climb underneath. The sky was above in blue synergy holography from light to dark, tripping the light fantastic.12

Then they were falling and, flailing, grabbed at each other, winding up in what amounted to a hug.. All went dark for an instant.

She tilted her head, seeing, finding something almost fetching in his visage though not his face.

And then an instant later hey both looked up. The roof was ripped from below as a bomb had exploded mere meters awat. The plane moved on with thrust.13

Quietly she spoke: “That was close.”

“It matters little to me, a reprieve from the death which is soon to come.”

She skipped a beat. “I am sorry”

“Now you are.”

“Forgive me for the transgressions I may have committed.” She looked into his face but no glimpse of what lay beyond was forthcoming.

“It is not important – at least not to me. Instead, I will see the dead.”

“Who is to bury you?”

“That is why I came. I want you to make sure I am lain to rest.”

“Why me?”

“Because I am sure that you will do this as you did with your sister.”

“How do you know what happened to her?”

“That is the secret I wish to confess to you.”

Her heart clenched.

He continued: “I was having an affair with her. Anastasiya was going to me.”

“What about her daughters?”

“She was dropping them with her friend, the Doctor.”

None of this she knew. “So, you wish me to bury you for the sake of my sister?”

“Most people do not care for the testament which binds us.”14 And he continued, “Everything in the world is coming to an end.”

“I will do this even to the apocalypse.”


It was daylight and the birds did nestle among the cold stone fascia of the many buildings that lined the Rynok Square, to the English tourists Merchant’s Square. one of many in the town once called Lviv. He wondered why someone would name a town after Leo when it was so peaceful. His eyes moved the many statues of real, legendary, and mythical figures which dotted the observation tower which overlooked the host of old, even aged, splay of buildings in this now wartime city. It was of course not supposed to be this way and at the same time, it was the way it had been since 2014.16 As it would be, so it seemed, for some time to come.

“Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks

Like most writers, I came to writing through reading, and most of that reading was fiction, usually novels.

So, like most writers who write something else, I also wrote a novel. And as is usually the case with first novels, it was bad.

It took me some time to figure out why it was bad. It wasn’t the writing at the word, paragraph, or scene level. The conversations were fine, there was tension, the characters had character, and so on. Each scene on its own was usually at least decent, sometimes there were very good.

But the whole was unsatisfying. Beta readers told me this, though they couldn’t tell me why, but I could feel it myself. I’d felt it when I was writing it, most noticeably when I felt I had to keep writing after the plot was over, because some story-sense, built from reading thousands of novels, told me I hadn’t actually finished.

So I put it aside for a year or so, re-read it, and investigated. It turned out most of the problems were structural, and the most useful book I found on basic story structure was by Larry Brooks. I’ve read many similar books since, and while there are more complete books — maybe even technically “better” books, but none are as clearly written as Brooks’.

Of course, all such structure is something you can throw out later if you want. But as with all such rule-breaking, you first have to internalize why the rules exist and what they do.

Brooks’s book is about more than structure, and if you’re interested in the topic I recommend it. But I felt a synopsis of the structure was worth it even for people who will never write a fictional word, because what’s eerie is that once one reads stories this way, it pops up everywhere. Movies, TV shows, almost all novels. Our society has a specific narrative backbone, and it’s damn near universal in our story-telling. This isn’t an all-times, all-places backbone (the traditional Japanese novel, for example, does things differently), but within our society, it’s everywhere.

This is so much the case that when I recognize the first plot point (explained in a bit) now, I’ll check the page or word count or running time of the show. It’s supposed to come at 25 percent, and it’s almost always within one percent of that.

We think in stories, they structure our brain at least as much, and perhaps more than the other way around, so how stories are structured matters.

The standard story structure, per Brooks, has four acts (others use three, with the second twice as long, it’s the same thing.)

It has the following key moments:


The first act is where you set up stakes. You introduce your main characters and you introduce the world they live in before it it is changed at the end of the first scene. This is where the author tries to get you to care about the character, so that when things change, you want to go along for the ride. Fail to introduce the stakes properly, and all the problems later on won’t matter. In my novel, a lot of the emotional stakes were based on a threat to the protagonist’s family, but I didn’t introduce them well, so why would readers care?

The other thing is that, in terms of character or world change, this shows the world as it was before things went bad. Perhaps your protagonist is a doctor who thinks her job is great, her life is great, everything is great. That’s all going to change, but seeing what she had before she realizes her husband is cheating and the hospital is harvesting organs matters: What does she want back? What does she begin fighting for?

The Opening Scene

In the first scene, something that matters happens, and it’s usually something which will have huge consequences later. This can be dramatic; perhaps the protagonist is fired, or finds out their spouse wants a divorce. Or, it can be minor; the boss wants them to go on a business trip or the spouse says, “Perhaps we should try couple’s therapy.” At the start, it’s not clear how much this will matter, how it will matter or why.

The Hooking Moment

This often happens in the first scene. In the first novel of the Expanse series it is a woman locked in a closet as her crewmates are experimented on and turned into biological body horrors, for example. It is the, “What’s this story about?” moment. For a movie like “Top Gun,” it’s just a scene of cool fighter jets. For “Mulan,” it is the Great Wall being scaled by enemies. For our doctor, it might be noticing that all the autopsies on her healthy ER patients are done by the same doctor, and wasn’t she laughing with the doctor’s husband, their heads very close together?

This is supposed to be within the first 20 pages of a novel or so.

An Optional Inciting Incident

This is where the protagonist becomes involved. Our doctor goes to the morgue to check on a patient who was the daughter of a friend and who she thought would survive that car accident, and the body is already gone. She finds two other bodies already gone. She remembers other patients she thought would live, finds out their bodies had been removed quickly too. She decides to investigate, but still thinks it’s probably some administrative snafu or at worse, someone covering their ass.

The First Plot Point

This is where, because of action the hero takes, everything changes. In “Thelma and Louise,” this is when they decide to make a run for Mexico. It’s not when Louise kills the would-be rapist, it is when they decide what to do in reaction to that killing. It’s a completely different story if they go to the police and say, “That guy tried to rape her, so I shot him, shit.”

With our doctor, this is when, after bringing up her initial findings with her supervisor and being given a story and told the supervisor will handle it, she chooses instead to follow the truck leaving the hospital after her next accident victim dies when they shouldn’t have. And she saw the driver talking to her husband.

The first plot point is where the protagonist chooses to leave the old world. If the doctor just dropped it, she could keep her marriage and labouring under the assumption that she was doing good at the hospital. She could keep her life. But because she doesn’t drop it, she will probably lose everything. All she has to say is, “This is not my problem.”


Act 2 is where the protagonist does all the reactive things one would do. If you know of a crime, you go to the police (or have a damn good reason not to). You tell your boss. You file for UI. You play the game by the rules, expecting the rules to work.

You are reactive and it doesn’t work, but you do the reasonable things, including trying to hand off responsibility to the authorities, which is what reasonable people do.

The First Pinch Point

This is just a scene where you see the antagonistic force in full fury. If it were a book or movie about a storm, you might see another ship smashed and sunk by the storm, see the victims screaming for help and be able to do nothing for them. Sometimes, we see this through the protagonist’s eyes (often as they hide, unseen by the villain and helpless to intervene); other times we may see it through the villain’s eyes or the eyes of a victim. Sometimes the protagonist is the victim, as the enemy forecloses on their business, buys their mortgage, and forces them out of the house, even as the husband says, while he clings to the villain’s arm, “She’s promised to be a good mother to our children.”

The more awesome or hateful the villain, the greater the stakes, the more the reader or viewer cares, so long as you don’t push into melodrama.

The Midpoint

Brooks’ definition is when “new information enters the story squarely the middle of it that changes the contextual experience and understanding of the hero, reader, or both.”

This is when you find out what wasn’t known before. The hospital isn’t just selling body parts, your husband is involved because his mother has a rare disease that requires transplants every year, and without them she’ll die. (Robin Cook’s Coma is a different version of the organ stealing story, as an aside.)

The midpoint in “Thelma and Louise” is when their money is stolen and Thelma robs a store to get more money. Up until then, everything was reversible. Killing a rapist is something they might get off on, but the robbery? No.

You can see the definition of the midpoint as information which is a bit slippery. Thelma’s money is stolen, that’s information, but how she reacts to it is what matters. They’re criminals now.

Third Act

In general terms, the first act is “who / what things were,” the second act is “reacting to the new world by doing all the expected things,” and the third act is “going on the offensive after all the usual things don’t work.”

Going to the cops and hospital authorities didn’t work, our doctor will have to try something else. The protagonist overcomes a lot of their issues at this point, and starts acting in ways that might actually succeed. If fear was an issue, the protagonist starts acting brave. If lack of initiative was the issue, the protagonist stops waiting for other people to act. If lack of planning was the issue, they plan. If not accepting help was the problem, they go get help.

A Second Pinch Point

As with the first pinch point, this just shows how dangerous the antagonist is. Perhaps the antagonist gave the mother-in-law the disease in order to secure her husband’s cooperation. Now, he gives it to one of their daughters.

A Second Plot Point

As with the first, this is new (and final) information injected into the story. No new information or characters will be introduced. The Titanic sinks, the cops have Thelma and Louise surrounded, our doctor finds proof that the villain has been infecting the loved ones of those whose cooperation he needs.

The Fourth Act

This is the shortest act. The rule is that we gain no new information or characters who matter. If the character has a flaw, she either overcomes it and wins, or fails to overcome it and loses. (You can die and win, of course.) The protagonist is the catalyst; their decisions drive the climax. This doesn’t mean they necessarily “wield the blade,” but if someone else does, it is because the hero made it possible. If the police swoop in, it is because the hero convinced them. If someone else kills the villain, it is because the hero made it possible for them do do so, and so on.

The Final Resolution Scene or Scenes

Whatever is the most important point, it is resolved. The ship survives the storm to stagger into port, or it tragically goes down. In “Titanic,” Jack sacrifices his life to save Rose. In “Thelma and Louise,” having finally become free and brave, they decide they’d rather die free than be arrested — and if they are going to die, it will be by their own hands. Our doctor shows those who were blackmailed to cooperate with the organ harvesting by their loved one’s diseases the proof, and they form a vigilante mob to take down the villain.

Note that character growth isn’t always “good.” Perhaps our doctor’s psychological issue was a need to always play by the rules, trust the law, and never hurt anyone, and it is only when she decides that she is the law and is willing to whip up a lynch mob that she can win.

Concluding Remarks

This is pretty different from what I usually write about on this blog, so hopefully readers found it useful. I will suggest that it’s more political than it seems, and that it’s worth looking for this story structure in the fiction you consume, of whatever kind. Then look for it in the narratives given to you about politicians and public figures.

The world doesn’t actually operate this way, but we often feel that it does or should. Often, that is used to manipulate us, but stories can also be a source of great power if one takes a role and plays it well, one will find others fall into their roles.

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Libby: Washington December 2006

She is slight and crisply gray suit clad, her hair pinned into a bun and her lip bitten. The office is large, with only one window letting in dusk’s strained light. Three walls are covered with maps and graphs, each pinned neatly in place. In one corner, a muted television changes channels each minute and the final wall is nothing but crisp LCD screens. Some display stock tickers, others charts, still others a blur of words or news tickers. The woman sits cross legged in her chair at the center of this, completely motionless. She is looking in the direction of a series of charts whose titles all relate to housing and credit risk derivatives, but her eyes are unfocused..

When the man says her name, “Libby”, she doesn’t so much as twitch until long seconds have gone by. Slowly, with a shift of her weight, she swivels the chair to face the silver haired man.


He smiles faintly, “Libby.”

“Credit derivatives.”

He nods. “Offloading default risk from banks onto investors. The chairman says they make the market much… stronger.”

“Who’s buying these derivatives?”

“Hedge funds are big. Those boys need big profits. No one parks their money in a hedge fund to get mutual fund returns.”

“Lot of them are getting mutual fund returns.” She nods towards one of the charts.

“I’m guessing their risk profile isn’t the same as a mutual fund’s.” It’s not a question but Libby nods to another chart.

“Nope. Lots of refi exposure too. ‘Cause the risk of someone defaulting on a second mortgate is no big deal.” She gestures with her chin to a series of charts pinned to one wall and he turns to look at them.

“Time to sale of housing. Seems to be going up in a lot of markets.”

“When a market hits a sharp discontinuity who gets hurt worst, first?”

“People who expect it to continue trend.”

The silver haired man turns back to Libby. His voice is weary, “are we going to hit a discontinuity?”

“Ever blow bubbles as a kid?” One corner of her mouth tilts up. “Any of them ever not burst?”

John shakes his head, but says, “well, not that I know of. But maybe one’s still blowing on the wind somewhere.”

Libby raises a hand slowly, then purses her lips and blows. John turns to look in the direction off her breath, “still going”.

She shakes her head, then cracks her hands together. The two of them match gazes for a few seconds and the older man finally breaks the gaze to look at the monitor. With a stride he stands next to the slight woman, then crouches, his head level with hers. “Show me the numbers.” She swivels back to the monitor and as the last pale light of the sun dims he follows her flashing white hands in a darkness lit only by the light of her screens.


This is one of the John Q. Treasury series of short stories, the majority of which are no longer online.  There have been some requests to repost them, so here’s one of the last.  I’ll repost more as time goes by and perhaps write some new ones.  There’s certainly plenty of reason for John,  Libby and friends to return.  Unfortunately.

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