Disaster Plots in Short Stories with Daniel H. Wilson and Paul Tremblay
Ultimately, I want to understand this: how do I write a successful story in which the end implies that we all die? And a couple of restrictions are useful. First, I want it to be short. Second, I want it to be deeply personal and in a close POV. Finally, I want the ending to pack a wallop, rather than feel anticlimactic or unresolved in some way.
Why this kind of story? Why these restrictions? Because I’ve read not 1 but 2 stories recently that blew me away and did both of these things.
First, I read Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks” in Bourbon Penn. Then I read “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson, which appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens, although I read it in Best American SFF 2015. These stories both got to me. In some ways, these stories are quite different: “Swim…” works better on a metaphorical level with the natural disasters of the MC’s life and the disaster is introduced almost immediately, although we never fully understand it; “The Blue…” comes to tell us exactly what is going on (in fact our MC is one of only a handful who fully understand it) and so the end is far less open.
But what strikes me more, looking back, is just how much they have in common.
Both have distant narrators that dominate the voice of the story, one is distant because of drug addiction, the other because of his highly-analytical scientific language and through processes. Both involve a single parent and their one child. Both have 4 scenes. Both end in lyrically-described disaster.
For the first step in the solution, I’ll break down these stories a little further.
A little outline for “Swim…”: (1–124 words) A micro scene implying past trouble of mom with law (through her daughter); (2–2025 words) A scene of MC at work, where we learn about her troubles and normal life; (3–686 words) A sort of “bridge” scene that becomes progressively more distant, the character at her most high/destructive; (4–2410 words) MC interacts with daughter in a house and soon destruction rains down around them.
A little outline for “The Blue…”: (1–529 words) A scene of MC with his daughter in which we learn about his problems and normal life; (2–602 words) A flashback scene in which we learn about how things went between MC and his ex-wife; (3–920 words) A scene in which we learn, scientifically, analytically, about the danger occurring, and at the end the mystery of it is finally revealed, all in context with our MC’s research and life; (4–1749 words) MC returns in time to maximize time with his daughter, interact a little, and then the end comes.
Both of these stories are SO SIMPLE. And they keep it pretty short, for the whole world ending. They each have a single central character, with a young child as a secondary character. “Swim” has a few other, very minor characters. Both have a relate-able conflict: the parents feel in some way distant from their children, one because of drugs and actual no-custody style distance, and the other because his daughter is changing, growing up.
So this must be how the authors are keeping it short.
1 scene to introduce the character’s problem– Scene 2 in “Swim…” and Scene 1 in “The Blue…”
1 scene to deepen that personal issue– Scene 3 in “Swim” and Scene 2 in “The Blue”
1 scene to bring personal and universal destruction together– Scene 4 in both stories.
The scenes that are outside of the pattern are also interesting, though. In “Swim…” it’s a micro-scene at the start that seems mostly about setting tone–it has this distant, lyrical tone of the end of the story, which is very different from the mundanity of the first scene. Meanwhile in “The Blue…” the extra scene is scene 3, and this seems mostly a function of genre. It’s hard scifi, thus we need a scene that tells us, scientifically, what is happening–Wilson puts it all here, so that it won’t bog down his ending.
It also seems, based upon this outline, that the stories remain personal and impactful (while gaining distance) by devoting about half of the space of the story, and most of the scenes, to the character’s workaday world. To their conflicts at home. Only in the final scene do we really get to a novum.
So on to the final question. What about the ending? This seems, to me, the hardest part to pull off, but to some extent, they are easy to pick apart. Some reasons the endings have such an enormous impact:
(1) They are endings: endings get automatic emphasis, and that is boosted if the endings come along with conflict resolutions and a uniting of disparate story elements (creating a sudden release of potential energy).
(2) The principal players of the stories (parent and child) are super secluded in the endings, and so the ends are sooo focused on them. It’s what really allows the disaster to take on a more personal meaning–it HAS to be about them, because they are all we’re seeing. In “The Blue…” the MC and his daughter are chained to a pipe. In “Swim…” the MC and her daughter are in an unfinished mansion.
(3) The stories grow progressively more distant as they go along (“Swim…” gets more drug-infused, “The Blue…” more science-infused, with every scene that passes) until the tippy-end, the final paragraph, when the destruction and the MC’s struggle come together.
(4) It’s easy, I think, to underestimate the level of impact made by variations in sentence length and style in these stories. The final few paragraphs of these stories have sentences notably longer than the rest of the story (especially evident in “The Blue…” which has pretty typical hard-scifi short sentences for most of the story) and the styles lean distinctly more lyrical/less practical at the end, which certainly fits with destruction that really is poetic and absurd at its heart.
Two other things I’d like to note about the ends, specific to each story.
In “Swim…” the final scene is split into 3 distinct sections, each doing something different–each shows the relationship between the MC and her daughter differently, each has a different level of distance, each ends with a sort of cliff-hangar propelling you into the next scene. This gives the final scene an very deliberate sense of pace, structure, and drive.
In “The Blue…” you can almost argue for a happy ending. This is spoilery, but in the end, the MC basically gets what he wants: he’s frustrated by his daughter growing up, and in they will be frozen in this moment for eternity. She’ll never grow up. Also, unlike in “Swim…” (where the end really seems disastrously pointless for the MC), the MC of “The Blue…” has an epiphany at the end. His conflict gets a positive resolution and he gets a moment of change. It’s particularly striking.
I’ve gotten out of hand with length! But I feel like I’ve barreled through these stories, tearing them up and canning them–they’re tuna now. Go read them, because this post doesn’t do them justice!
Nevertheless, I find myself amazed by how similar these stories are. In my readings, I don’t think I’ve read any other short, personal disaster narratives, but I wonder if these have some kind of classic-scifi antecedent. It is, relatively, plausible that Wilson’s story was inspired by Tremblay’s but that seems to me too coincidental, and they came out so close that it would have meant an incredibly quick turnaround for Wilson to outline, write, and sell the story.
Have you read any other disaster narratives like these? What do you think of the uniquely late introduction of the novum?