Make It Bleed: The Third Dimension of Storytelling

This is the third and final piece of musing on the art of the storytelling — at least, for now. (I’m a writer. No doubt I’ll be back here sometime, marvelling at my past arrogance and stupidity. Sufficient unto the day…)

So far, I’ve discussed what I call two dimensions of storytelling. The first — action and adventure and imagination — is discussed here. Note that I didn’t try to talk about how you do it, but rather why, which I think is more important.

The second dimension of storytelling — and this is of particular import to the speculative genres — I referred to as The Nifty Idea. That little piece can be found here.

The third dimension is the bit that makes a story chewy. Last time I called it ‘The Human Dilemma’, but that sounds like two-fisted wankery. I think it’s easier to just say: make it bleed.

What do I mean by that? I mean that at the end of a really good story, the reader should be torn. You should elicit at least two strong reactions from anyone who ventures into the story, and the more disparate those reactions, the better. If you want an example from me, dash back to Keys, from a week or two ago. Read it? Good. I’ll go on.

By the end of the story, you’ve been given reason to sympathise with the protagonist. He’s a nice guy. He’s helping out a young woman who is in an emotional crisis, and may even be in serious danger of killing herself. His method of helping her is kind, clever, and apparently rooted in honesty and personal experience, and the young woman responds appropriately.

The next thing you discover is that our kind hero isn’t really there to save her at all. He’s actually there to kill himself — with good reason, mind you. And he’s allowed the young woman to go back to his car, knowing that sooner or later she’s going to figure out the situation, and it will undoubtedly mess with her head in a big way.

This is an old trick, by the way. It’s a variation on the “unreliable narrator” character, put in place deliberately so that by the time you work out (as the young woman must) what the keys left in his car mean, it’s too late for you to withdraw yourself from the story. It’s a way of cutting the ground from under you. One minute warm and fuzzy, next instant cold and bleak and dark. And if the story is any good, it’s hard for you, the reader, to abandon either of the two feelings.

The Fading Memory of Music works in a similar fashion, except this time both the characters are other than they seem at the outset. The mysterious woman turns out to be a murderous creature out of myth, intent on killing the protagonist. Meanwhile, the protagonist is far from the vulnerable victim that he appears, and indeed, is there at that time with the express intention of killing the mystery woman. And the thing that lets him kill her; the thing that empowers him and strips her of her power to destroy him is also the greatest disaster of his life, and even as he kills her we discover that he lives in a place so empty and dark that it’s a kind of death in itself. Two killers, both sympathetic characters (at least to a degree) — and the survivor is so badly damaged it’s almost impossible to be happy for him even though he’s killed the monster and saved the day.

The story bleeds.

I was talking about this the other day with my sister Aiki, who has lately taken up the pen as well. She’s doing well, getting the work out there, doing her thing. She asked me to look over a piece she’s put together for a competition, and it was fine. Nicely written, with a nifty idea and some tension and interest — it was a strong two-dimensional story, and as I observed last time, the history of SF is founded on precisely that.

In our discussion, Aiki admitted that she might not actually want to create stories that bleed. I understand that, definitely. I grew up reading all kinds of things, many of which were light and fun and thought-provoking without ever forcing me to retreat and regroup and reconsider. But as I get older, I find that I want that extra element. I want my stories to bleed.

How do you do it? How do you work a story so it curls back on itself, makes the reader try to hold onto two different emotions by the end?  Oh, I’m sure I could thrash around, reduce it to some kind of formula, but I’m damned if I will. Instead, I simply want to acknowledge it, and appreciate it.

Here’s another example for you: O Henry’s famous The Gift Of The Magi. It’s dated, and reflects customs that now seem out of place, and yes, he treads on his own punchline a little with the last line or two — but the heart of the story is strong, and the contrast between the poverty of the couple versus the sacrifices they are prepared to make for love of one another is still as sharp as ever. Perhaps it isn’t a mortal wound, but the story bleeds…

… and that’s how it has to be.


  1. Or as they quote in the old newspaper biz,”if it bleeds, it leads”

    1. Yeah. Prob’ly a relationship there.

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