Digging

Imagine you are digging a hole. You’ve your shovel or your pick, your drill or your laser or your pet conqueror-worm. The earth disappears beneath you. Your progress is unfathomable and in another day’s time that progress will remain unfathomable. To have come so far, so fast.

Then the familiar crunch and rasp of soil fades. There is only the wet sucking sound of clay. This day is difficult, each heave dredging up less and costing more, and three days pass before you accomplish the depth you had on the first. But still you are proud, still you have dug. On to the next day.

And on the next day, the clay gives way. For all of a moment, your heart flutters. No more with that slog. It is the soil again. But amid the soil, soon there are cracks and tinks and thunks. Stone. You have reached the depth of stone. The blade of your shovel is next to useless. Your pick begins to blunt, your drill to foul. The laser is running out of juice and your worm needs fed something other than hard rocks.

What do you do? What can you do? Except keep digging. It has worked so far. You have come so far. Certainly it was going to get difficult at some point. And persistence is the modus, yes? It is the virtue. Yes, keep digging, that is the answer. Surely. Certainly.

The rocks wash away on the tides of your labor, as even the cliff face erodes under the eternal duress of the waves. This is the rule, the lesson. You are more confident in this than you are in the strength of your arms or the effectiveness of your tools. Days and days and days pass like the wind over the edges of the abyss you have tunneled into the earth. Finally, at last, the stone gives way…

Only to something more impenetrable: the bedrock. You cannot get through. The eternal question resounds: What is to be done?

In life and as Americans especially, we’re often battered with the phrase: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” And yet as often as we are redressed with the words, we make the mistake. We make the mistake over and over again. Why? Simple: We do not believe a mistake is being made. Why should we? We’re following the rules. We’re digging. Why wouldn’t we get any farther? It’s worked up to this point. But no matter how hard you work, you won’t circumvent the bedrock that lies in your way.

Exchange the analogy for whatever you like: running, swimming or sailing. The quandary repeats. Whether you reach squall or mountain, the temptation is to determination. To the seductive first principle of persisting, especially when all seems lost. Sail through the storm rather than lengthen the trip, travail the mountain to its peak rather than take the long way around. Dig until you reach the bedrock and keep pecking away rather than dig further to the left or the right.

You might reach your intended juncture, but invite illimitable catastrophes easily avoided along another route. Better by far to simply adjust course or to stop and consider the approach or the tools at hand. The key is to recognize when one has come up against the bedrock, the mountain or the storm, the obstacle which may cost everything to traverse. As therein lies the deception of the maxim.

Of course, it’s insanity to perform the same action and expect a different result. When put simply, anything is obvious. When what worked before or is working now ceases to work, do not merely assume it is failure of persistence or talent or effort. Take that as a sign to fall back and reassess, both your progress and your means. When your legs have been pumping beneath you, launching you across the proverbial landscape, and you suddenly find yourself on uneven ground, it is critically important to not first redress and damn yourself.

In short, first consider that you are digging a hole.

Scene Geography

Where things are is almost as important as the things that are being said. Oftentimes it is enough to address objects or terrain or the layout of a structure as these are met by the character who is moving through them; sometimes, it is even necessary. Detailing the scene in sum before the characters have started moving through it can lead to the reader getting lost among all the corridors and rooms that the movement has not reached yet. Conversely, the same hiccup occurs if a writer does not efficaciously—if not succinctly—lay out one of those rooms or corridors in a manner conducive to the flow of the narrative and the movement of the characters. I like to call this “scene geography”, which I’m sure someone else has come up with in a much more thorough and technical style.

Usually it’s a slip of the mind, committed in the first draft and corrected in the second, but chances are if you’re reading this: you might not know yet to look for it. So let me do your work for you. Let me live your pain.

I’ve run into this a lot while going through some old drafts the past couple months, and it’s left me chock full of examples for this kind of thing. In my own work, it often happens in passing. I’ll be in the thick of some bit of exposition—describing the movement of a character through an alleyway, say—and suddenly something appears.

But not in the way that you might think. I don’t mean a thug pops out from behind the corner or a cat darts into the gutter. I mean the character opens a door that they were not said to be looking for and steps through, takes or searches for something from the gutter that wasn’t shown to be there, turns that undescribed corner at random and gets plowed with a club.

These are instances where the geography of the scene was not sufficiently solidified before the action in the scene took place. Instead, highlight the cat running into the gutter and then show the character searching for something in it. Show the character keeping an eye over his shoulder, hurrying for the corner, then getting clobbered for watching behind him when he should have been more careful about his blind escape.

Scene geography is all about giving precedent to action. Your precedents act as highlights for forthcoming action in the scene. I’m not advocating to give an exhaustive rundown of every item in the character’s vicinity. But if there’s a knife on the table that the character will momentarily be picking up to stab an intruder with, then show me the knife. Show me the money, in other words. Then put it in your mouth. I guess?