Guest Blog: We've all got it coming
Guest Blog: We've all got it coming by Brian Staveley
Sophocles and Aeschylus didn’t worry about spoilers. In part, of course, this was because classical Athenians had been too busy tinkering with their triremes to invent Twitter or Facebook, but even if young Themistocles had rushed into the agora immediately following a performance screaming, “Clytemnestra and Aegisthus killed Agamemnon!” his fellow citizens wouldn’t have much cared. They already knew who killed Agamemnon. The drive-by spoiler, a la Harry Potter, was impossible in antiquity.
Likewise, if you were an Elizabethan showing up to the Globe to see Richard III, you could be pretty sure that the eponymous character wouldn’t end the play by leaping into his convertible, cranking Dire Straits on the radio, and driving off into the sunset. Richard was always going to die. The question, for those original audiences, was not whether but how.
Modern storytelling, particularly the modern fantasy epic, doesn’t usually function in quite the same way. Witness the shock, despair, and outrage whenever George R.R. Martin slaughters another of his putative favorites. He’s offed enough of his golden cows in enough brutal ways that we should expected it by now, but we don’t. A huge part of the game—for both the writer and the reader—is figuring out who will live and who will die.
I have to think that, in part, this shift in the focus of storytelling reflects a deeper, more fundamental shift in our view of life, particularly the view of those of us living, by historical standards, comfortable lives. I like to explore the cemeteries of my small Vermont town. There are only 900 people in my town, but we have a lot of cemeteries, and those cemeteries are filled, by and large, with the tiny, heartbreaking graves of children.
If you were born in southern Vermont in the early eighteen hundreds, your odds of making it to age five weren’t particularly good. Kids weren’t the only victims, of course. Before the advent of modern medicine, every pregnancy was a game of Russian roulette for the mother. My wife had a tough time with her labour (over forty-eight hours) and the birth of our son. I asked the doctor and midwife what would have happened to her if we’d been living in a cabin in Marlboro in the 1800s. Their answer: “She would have bled out and died.”
It’s sobering, actually, to take a poll of one’s acquaintances, to try to figure out who would still be alive if they’d been denied access to modern medical care. My wife and son would both have died during childbirth, my dad would be dead of a heart attack, my mother would have died of untreated cancer, one of my friends would have died of anaphylaxis, another might never have recovered from his broken back. It’s staggering, really, to realize how close death used to be, how much progress we’ve made in pushing it back, delaying it, moving it out of sight.
I suspect this progress explains, at least in part, the emphasis in our modern storytelling on the suspense inherent in not knowing whether a given character lives or dies. We’ve managed to forget in our fiction and our lives, at least momentarily, that old, undeniable truth: no one survives. We can pretend that a character who makes it through a book or a movie has actually made it in some greater, more enduring, more fundamental way. Which is, of course, wrong. There’s a great moment in my favorite movie, Unforgiven, in which the old gunslinger, William Munny (played by Clint Eastwood) is talking with a young buck about a couple of dead cowboys. These are the first men that the young gun has ever killed, and, clearly freaked out, he turns to Money and says, “I guess they had it coming, right?” Munny just grimaces, then growls, “We’ve all got it coming, kid.”
Not that a reader needs her nose rubbed in this fact at every juncture of a story; even if the triumphs of our heroes are only momentary, contingent, they are triumphs nonetheless. Still, I think this older perspective on death—that we’ve all got it coming—has something to offer an author. Writing with this perspective in mind reminds us that, while it matters if a character dies, what matters even more is how she lives, and how she faces that death. Focusing on these questions lets us move beyond the world of binary outcomes and spoilers into the difficult, multihued drama of true human experience.
After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decade, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades, the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award, the Reddit Stabby for best debut, and scored semi-finalist spots in the Goodreads Choice Awards in two categories: epic fantasy and debut. The second book in the trilogy, The Providence of Fire, was also a Goodreads Choice semi-finalist. The concluding volume of the trilogy, The Last Mortal Bond, is available from TOR UK on 24 March,
Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on Twitter at @brianstaveley, Facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley. His blog, On the Writing of Epic Fantasy, can be found at: bstaveley.wordpress.com.