Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Story Kit

Six story types, from Damon Knight:

  1. The story of resolution. The protagonist has a problem and solves it, or doesn’t.
  2. The story of explanation.
  3. The trick ending.
  4. A decision is made. Whether it is acted upon is irrelevant.
  5. The protagonist solves a puzzle.
  6. The story of revelation. Something hidden is revealed to the protagonist, or to the reader.

• • • •

It has to start somewhere, and it might as well be here.

Medea. Hypsipyle. Ariadne. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Madame Butterfly. Anna Karenina. Emma Bovary. Ophelia.

Dido. The Aeneid. Letter 7 of Ovid’s Heroides. Lines 143–382 of The House of Fame. Lines 924–1367 of The Legend of Good Women. A play by Marlowe. An opera by Purcell.

Wikipedia: Dido. Aeneas.

• • • •

The pain of losing something so precious that you did not think you could live without it. Oxygen. The ice breaks beneath your feet: Your coat and boots fill with water and pull you down. An airlock blows: Vacuum pulls you apart by the eyes, the pores, the lungs. You awaken in a fire: The door and window are outlined in flames. You fall against a railing: The rusted iron slices through your femoral artery. You are dead already.

I can write about it if I am careful, if I keep it far enough away.

• • • •

The writer is over it. It was years ago.

• • • •

Dido’s a smart woman and she should have predicted his betrayal, as Aeneas has always been driven before the gusting winds that are the gods. His city Troy falls to their squabbling, the golden stones dark with blood dried to sticky dust and clustered with flies: collateral damage, like a dog accidentally kicked to death in a brawl. Aeneas huddles his few followers onto ships and flees, but Juno harries him and sends at last a storm to rip apart his fleet. He crash-lands in a bay near Carthage. His mother—Venus; another fucking god—guides him to shelter.

Dido is Reynard; she is Coyote. No gods have driven her, or if they have, she has beaten them at their own game. She also was forced from her land, but she avenged her father first, then stole her brother’s ships and left with much wealth and a loyal, hard-eyed army. Rather than fight for a foothold on the Libyan shore, she uses trickery to win land from the neighboring kings. They cannot reclaim it except through marriage, so she plays the Faithful Widow card, and now they cannot force her into marriage, either. If she continues to play her cards well, the city she founds here will come to rule the seas, the world. The neighboring kings understandably resent how this is working out.

She begins to build. When Aeneas arrives on her shores, Carthage is a vast construction site threaded with paths, its half-finished walls fringed with cranes and scaffolds, and hemmed with great white stones waiting to be lifted into place. [A textile metaphor—Ariadne’s thread leading Jason through the labyrinth—she also was betrayed and died.]

Aeneas comes to her court a suppliant, impoverished and momentarily timid. He is a good-looking man. If anything, his scars emphasize that. The aura of his divine failure wraps around him like a cloak. Dido feels the tender contempt of the strong for the unlucky, but this is mixed with something else, a hunger that worms through her bones and leaves them hollow, to be filled with fire.

There is a storm. They take shelter in a cave where they kiss, where for the first time she feels his weight on her. Words are exchanged.

And afterward, when they lie tangled together and their sweat dries to cold salt on her skin, he tells Dido that Jupiter has promised him a new land to replace his lost Troy. Italy. He is somewhat evasive but in any case she does not listen carefully, content to press her ear to his breast and hear the rumble of his voice stripped of meaning.

There is every reason to believe he will be no stronger against the gods this time, but Dido loves him.

• • • •

Some losses are too personal to write about, too searing to face. Easier to distance them in some fashion: zombies or a ghost story. Even Dido may be too direct.

• • • •

She kneels on the dark tiles of the kitchen floor and begs: anything, anything at all. She will die, she tells him. She will not survive this loss. Her face is slick with snot. There’s blood on your face, he says. Her tears are stained red from where she has broken a vein in her eye. Her heart is skipping beats, trying to catch up to this new rhythm that does not include him. She runs to the bathroom, which a year ago they painted the turquoise of the sea. He kneels beside her as she vomits but does not touch her, as though he wishes he could help but does not know how.

She cannot figure out what has happened. It seems he cannot either, but the wind fills his sails. He is already gone.

• • • •

1,118,390 words before these. The writer’s craft is no longer a skill she has learned but a ship she sails. It remains hard to control in strong winds.

• • • •

Aeneas will be tall and broad-shouldered because heroes and villains usually are. Probably in his thirties. Scarred from the Trojan wars and a bad sleeper. He thinks he has lost everything, but he still has his health, his wits, some followers.

Aeneas is from the eastern Mediterranean. He will not be half-French. He will not have blue eyes, nor wear horn-rimmed glasses. He will not have a tattoo that says caveat emptor on his left shoulder, nor a misshapen nail from when he caught his finger in the car door when he was ten; nor sleep on his right side and occasionally sleepwalk.

Perhaps he will have survivor’s guilt.

• • • •

  1. the sound of the words
  2. what the words mean
  3. how they string together into phrases, like the linked bubbles of sea wrack
  4. the structure
  5. the plot
  6. memories and lies
  7. the theme
  8. the feeling she wants to inspire in readers

• • • •

Lost her wallet. Lost her virginity. Lost her way. Lost the big game. Lost his phone number. Lost the horses. Lost the rest of the party. Lost the shotgun. Lost the antidote. Lost the matches. Lost her brother. Lost her mother. Lost

• • • •

Wikipedia: Carthage.

Though the real Carthage is on the Libyan shore, for purposes of this story it will look like a Greek island. There will be a cliff breached by a narrow road that hairpins up from a harbor to the city’s great gates of new oak bound with iron. Carthage will someday be a great seafaring nation, so the writer adds wharves and warehouses by the harbor, but they are unpeopled in her mind, wallpaper.

It was March when she stayed on Ios—not the season for tourists, so she saw no one beyond two scuba divers and a couple of shivering Australians pausing in their wanderings. Ios was mostly stone-walled fields with goats and windmills and weeds, but Virgil’s Carthage did not have fields and neither will hers.

She hiked a lot, and climbed down to the water. The sea was clear as air. She saw anemones and a fish she did not recognize. The rock looked gray until she came close and its uniformity broke into rose and white and smoke-colored quartz crystals, furry with black and gold lichens.

It was cold on Ios. In the mornings, her breath puffed from her like smoke. When she climbed the cliffs, mist rose from her sweating skin and caught the sun. Her feet were always cold. [Perhaps I am mixing up Ios with some other place I have been: Oregon or Switzerland. But these rocks, these anemones—they are real.]

There needs to be a bay just up the coast, because Aeneas will land there. It is a horseshoe tucked between stone arms, a lot like the little cove where the scuba divers would spend their days. His ship will ride at anchor, the torn sails laid out on the dark sand; the sail-makers will shake their heads but mend them anyway because these are the only ones they have.

Aeneas will climb the cliffs. The air will smell of wet earth and the bright salt sea, so far below. The writer can use Aeneas’s responses to the forest—which will be of short, slim-needled pines, maybe some oaks too, why not?—and the boulders to develop his character. Or Dido’s, to develop hers.

There will need to be a cave, as well.

Does Carthage even have forests? Did Virgil know for sure or was it just convenient for his story? Virgil was a professional liar. This would not be the only place where he pruned the truth until it was as artificial as an espaliered pear tree against a wall, forced to an expedient shape and bearing the demanded fruit.

• • • •

Sensory details. The moan that ice makes underfoot. The taste of salt. The smells of ash and copper. A dog barking at a great distance. A bone cracking in your leg. The gray scouring pain of sleet. She stumbles and falls against a rusted railing. The taste of pears.

• • • •

Dido is playing her cards poorly, making her discards at random.

Her need for Aeneas burns through her hollowed bones. He said something about leaving someday, but she did not believe him. Men say that kind of shit all the time and then change their minds. What does she really know of him, anyway? Stories carved on the walls of temples.

Dido gives him the keys to her apartment. He can share her kingdom to replace the one he lost: a king for the Queen of Carthage. In her distraction, construction on the city’s white walls slows and then ceases. They remain half-built, cranes akimbo and unused. Her neglected armies grow sullen and fall into disarray.

The hot-eyed Gaetulian king who is her neighbor wants his land back and, not incidentally, hungers to prove his right to it upon her body. Her faithful widowhood was more effective than a naked sword in guarding her honor and Carthage’s boundaries, but now she has taken Aeneas into her bed, felt his weight on her body, bowed her head to him. She has laid aside that sword.

But it will all still be fine, so long as he stays.

Poor Dido. She is dead already. The writer knows it. You know it. I know it.

• • • •

The sentence, “She was hollow, as though something had chewed a hole in her body and the hole had grown infected,” unless it’s been used before by someone else in a story she cannot recall.

• • • •

And there is the rage sometimes, the rage of a smart woman betrayed by her own longing. It runs under her skin, too hot to be visible. Her breath is smoke; her skin steams. Her tears freeze to slush. Her cheeks bleed.

The writer stalks the winter streets at dusk and imagines him dead. She imagines their house a smoking, freezing ruin. The fire trucks are gone; all that remains is black wreckage outlined by tape that says do not cross. She imagines her town a glassy plain, every dog in the world dead, the Earth’s atmosphere ripped off by a colliding asteroid, the universe condensed to an icy point.

[A flute made of a woman’s bones]

She walks the streets. Her pain cannot permit her to exist in a world where he also exists, and yet she does. Her feet are always cold.

She can use this.

• • • •

Virgil walked the streets of Rome as he composed. It could take all day to polish a couplet.

• • • •

Dido knows what happens if Aeneas leaves. Her hot-eyed neighbor, the Gaetulian king, will denounce her inconstancy and send his armies. Her own army’s resistance will be half-hearted. They want a ruler who is strong, and perhaps a king will be better after all, more trustworthy than a woman, however clever and just.

The Gaetulian king will attack, break her gates, and claim her white-walled city. He will find Dido and her personal guard in the great courtyard, on the steps that lead to her palace. She retains this much pride at least, that she will not be hunted through her own rooms. No, that is wrong. It is not pride that holds her here, chin lifted and a naked sword in her hand. Despair and fury burn like lye through her veins.

The Gaetulian king will slay her guard to the last man.

He will mount the steps to her. He will strike the sword from her hand. In the presence of his own hard-eyed guard, he will force her to her knees, his hand knotted in her hair. When she refuses to open her mouth to him, he will throw her to the ground and rape her as she lies in the cooling blood of her dead men. This will be almost enough pain to make her forget Aeneas’s betrayal. This will be almost enough pain to make the writer forget.

The Gaetulian king will hang Dido with chains and march her through the streets, scratch marks on her face, blood running down her leg. He will raze her city. He will disband her armies. Carthage, which was to rule the world, will dwindle to a footnote in someone else’s tale.

Plus, Aeneas will be gone. Dido has courage for the rest of it, but not for that.

• • • •

Some stories are not swallowed but sipped, medicines too vile to be taken all at once.

• • • •

“What am I supposed to say here? I’m sorry?”

“Please. Please just still love me.”

[pause] “Well. It’s just. You know.”

Considering the pain it gave the writer when her husband said those words, she imagines it will break Dido’s heart as well. But really, it is pretty banal, written down.

• • • •

Demia looked forward, squinting. The dimming sunset [no, it’s dusk] sky outlined the crags ahead of them. The hermitage was there somewhere, safe haven if they could just reach it before dusk dark.

A howl interrupted her thoughts. Her mare jumped as though she had been struck but did not bolt, Demia’s long hands strong on her reins. [POV?]

“Lady,” Corlyn said, his voice suddenly tense urgent. “The athanwulfen/athanhunds. They are hunting.” His own horse twisted against its reins under him.

“Too soon,” Demia murmured, but no: dusk [twilight? nearly dark?] already. “I wish—”

Her brothers could have defended them all, but they were dead. She and Corlyn had found them on the Richt Desert at the dead oasis, miles to the east—or what was left of them—their bones picked clean and drilled through in many places, hollowed by the narrow barbed tongues of the athanwulfen/athanhunds. Stivvan, Ricard, Jenner, Daved/David/Davell? She clenched her teeth against the loss. There was no time.

Corlyn lit a torch and was outlined by the flame the leaping flame—

No Corlyn, no horses, no torch. But athanhunds, yes. Demia must lose everything, her own bones hollowed. Otherwise it will not hurt enough.

• • • •

No “suddenly”s. Nothing is sudden. When the tornado hits, the house comes apart in a few seconds, but before that there was a barbed curve on the NOAA map, a front coming in from the southwest, clouds and cold and a growing wind.

In fact, no adverbs in general. Verbs happen, unmediated. Leave, abandon, lose. The next day the videos show you amid the ruins, clutching a cat carrier and a framed photo from someone else’s wedding.

• • • •

[ANGER SHAME DERANGEMENT]

[ALL BETRAYALS ARE THE SAME STORY]

[at least dido had warning]

• • • •

Aeneas does not stay. He says that of course he loves her. He feels terrible about all this. It’s not his fault; it’s the gods that whip him from her side. His words mound up like slush under her feet, slippery and treacherous. He is unworthy—every word proves it—but it’s too late for that to make a difference. He is sorry, so sorry, but he did warn her, after all. It’s not his fault that she didn’t believe him. Etc.

Dido abases herself, kneels before Aeneas. She has broken a vein in her eye and she sees through a red haze. Her heart skips beats. She fights not to vomit. Her fingertips are bloody from clawing herself.

He promises to stay, presumably because he wants her to lighten up, but he slips from her arms as she sleeps. There is no time, she will wake soon; so he runs to his ships, cuts his anchor cables, and sails out on the tide. When she sees them at dawn, he is far out to sea. He has lain with her, lied to her, for the last time.

• • • •

Diera Vallan’s tears fell unheeded as the V-5f life pod crashed through the meteor field, all that remained of her shattered planet. So many millions, she thought, and the tears fell faster. Her own husband, the Windhover King, was dead, flayed alive by—

Not that, either.

• • • •

The writer still has her health, her wits, the cat. Many people have lost more. There are plagues, earthquakes, fires, and starvation. Children run down in the street. A man’s legs crushed between two cars as he tries to jump-start a Ford on a winter’s night. A woman losing her ability to form words as the tumor webs across her brain. A couple waiting for the stillborn birth of their already-dead son. Farming accidents. Alzheimer’s.

And other divorces. She is not unique. She is not even unusual. Perhaps this has more in common with a wedding ring lost by the pool at a vacation hotel, or blood poisoning from a cat bite.

• • • •

  1. 237 “the”s. They are words that dry to invisibility, Elmer’s Glue-all to anchor nouns.
  2. 104 “and”s; 30 “but”s. Apparent correlation.
  3. Too many semicolons.
  4. Clean out the passive constructions. Dido was there. She did things and some of them were wrong.

• • • •

She has a dream in which he’s still there. He has not yet betrayed her and she is still sane. They huddle together in a mountain cave where they have found shelter from the night’s storm. The world outside roars with rain, broken timber, falling stones. The air here is chill but they are safe.

All things are new, all things are possible. In the darkness, she sees him only with her fingertips: his eyelids, his curling lashes, the complex shapes of his ears. His lips smile against her palm. He opens his mouth. She feels his breath. They lie in a nest they make of their clothing, the things they have cast aside.

They are not cold. She runs her hand down the long smooth planes of his body. She feels a scar. He says it still hurts when it is touched. She understands this; she has her own.

In the darkness he strokes her and she feels outlined in light. Her skin is afire. She sobs under his hand, his mouth, the weight of his long, scarred body.

I want to leave them dreaming there, Dido and the writer both, for lines and lines. It is a lie I am telling them.

• • • •

Are grammar and syntax correct? Is there enough setting? Were the senses engaged? Is this the best start to the story? Does it end too soon/too late/too abruptly? Are the characters realistic? Is the story from the right point of view? What is the theme? What is the subtext?

• • • •

The story betrays us all.

I spend the entire night rewriting, changing things around, hoping for a better result. The story doesn’t do what I wish. Dido always dies. The writer always finds herself alone, a flute made of a woman’s bones.

She does not want to face the raw, whole thing, so she takes it in pieces. She transfers, distances, sublimates. She cannot sit at her keyboard for long. She is haunted. The apartment is cold and smells of chicken. The cat turns over the bones she forgot to put in the trash.

Rewriting ends when the deadline comes. Even then, she will attach the file to an email and send it, and wish there had been more time.

• • • •

The onshore wind blows through Carthage. His ships are far off, flecks smaller than snowflakes on the dark sea. He is still in sight but he cannot return: The winds forbid it. In any case, he was gone already, before ever he cut his cables and sailed at dawn—before the cave and the first time he held her in his arms, even.

In the great courtyard before the palace, Dido, Queen of Carthage, orders a pyre built. She will burn all the things he left here: the clothes and jewels she gave him, the shield and sword he left beside her bed. She holds the naked sword in her hand.

She is dead already. She has been dead since he was first brought to her, sea-stained and despairing, and the flame of her hunger gnawed into her bones.

She curses him. She curses him. She curses him.

But it is herself she kills.

• • • •

Delete.

Undo.

• • • •

It is not just that the writer needs the safe distance of a zombie story, a ghost story. It is that no story can carry so much sorrow and anger without being crushed beneath its weight, without bursting into flames, without drowning.

What really happened—the careful stacking of pebbles in the path of the landslide that was the last year of their marriage, the woman from the gym, the months of listening to his voice make promises for the bitter false comfort of it—those words cannot contain her feelings.

Even her imagined Dido cannot contain them, as she bleeds upon the oil-soaked pyre in those seconds before her heart stops struggling to fill the hole left by the sword. A torch stabs into the stacked wood. Flames run along each tier.

Her skin breathes a mist. She is for a moment outlined in light. Then the fire bursts upward and she becomes a burning pillar, a tower, a beacon, and she is dead; and he looks back and does not see the thing that he has destroyed, only the flames upon the half-built walls of Carthage, and he wonders what message they send and to whom.

Not Medea’s frenzy, not Ariadne’s broken thread. Anna under the train’s wheels. Butterfly holding the blade to her breast. None of the betrayed women, that commonest story of all.

Not even Troy itself and all its deaths: the bitter siege and ten years from home, Penelope’s tears and the Trojan women’s torn breasts and Iphigenia’s sacrifice, the ruined towers, the blood dried to dust on the golden stones; the anguish of Paris; Aeneas’s own pain—even these cannot contain her rage, her loss.

Words fail.

• • • •

She found herself in a room with ivory-painted wainscoting and a floor tiled with black and white marble. There were no furnishings, only a single glass table at the hall’s center. There were no doors. The narrow windows were too high to reach, though she tired herself through the long afternoon, jumping for them.

When it grew dark at last, she huddled against the wall on the cold marble and slept, and tried to remember the flowers that had been in the garden.

• • • •

Dido dies on the sword. She hits CTRL-S. I type “End.” We will do this again.

Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon Awards, among others. She teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas, where she is also the associate director for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.