For Whom the bell tolls
I wish to lament the passing of an old friend.
Whom do I mean? About whom am I speaking?
I think you know who.
Our old friend whom is disappearing. Our old friend whom we will surely miss.
It is to whom I dedicate this blog post.
Wait a minute, what?
I don’t know.
Whom is the object form of who, in the same way him is the object form of he and them is the object form of they.
We used to be more strict about this. When you talked to someone you didn’t know, you used who. Any time you needed to talk about someone you didn’t know, you used whom. For example:
- Who are you?
- About whom are we speaking?
Thing is, whom instead of who only sounds right when it comes after a preposition.
- Whom is that cup for?
As opposed to:
- For whom is that cup?
The first sentence sounds awkward. Don’t believe me? Try saying it to the barista at Starbucks.
However, the second sentence sounds stiff outside of classic literature and English class. Actually, it sounds stiff even there. No one talks like that anymore.
So, third time’s the charm:
- Who is that cup for?
There. That’s what you say to the barista.
It’s because the silly rule “thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition” is disappearing. In fact, it was never a rule in the first place, just a myth born of a few crusty old linguists’ pet peeves. And, along with other so-called rules like “thou shalt not start a sentence with a conjunction”, I won’t miss it.
Using whom just doesn’t sound right unless it follows a preposition. So it becomes collateral damage when we take down the whole “end a sentence with a preposition” thing.
Now, I’m not saying we should start every sentence with a conjunction and end every sentence with a preposition, just to spite our old English teachers. The point is, English is a language with innate beauty and endless flexibility. To keep it flexible, we need to stretch it now and then.
Plus it’s an amalgamation of many languages, and it keeps evolving.
Still, I’m a language purist. English can’t stay beautiful if we stretch it all out of shape. I’ll still use whom now and then, just for variety.
Now you pick up the ball, and throw it to Whom…
How do you move?
Everyone walks. That’s boring.
But in the right circumstance, your character can:
And there are even more ways for your character to run:
- beat a retreat
- beat it
- break away
- bug out
- catch up
- clear out
- foot (it)
- hightail (it)
- hoof (it)
- hotfoot (it)
- leg (it)
- light out
- make off
- make tracks
- turn tail
Know any good ones I missed?
Reeds, shoots & leaves: a short story on paper
Did you know when you write on paper, you are writing on leaves?
Yep, it’s in the history of our language.
Our story starts a few thousand years ago. Our ancestors in what are now North Africa and the Middle East wrote on clay tablets. It was presumably cheap and fairly permanent, but not terribly portable. Every book created in such a manner is a hardcover. Very hardcover. Imagine trying to fit the Old Testament into your camel bags when every page is inch-thick rock.
The Egyptians decided there had to be a better way. They figured out how to turn papyrus reeds into paper. In fact, that’s literally where “paper” comes from: “paper” comes from the French “papier”, which comes from the Latin “papyrus”, which comes from… um… papyrus.
In the meanwhile, Buddhist monks figured out how to write on dried palm leaves. In fact, some anthropologists think the paper caused them to use rounded letters, because angled letters tore the paper.
That’s interesting, don’t you think? Sumerian cuneiform writing was mostly lines and angles, probably because it was too hard to make curves in clay. As people started using flattened papyrus reeds and palm leaves, they added curves in their writing so they wouldn’t tear their new paper.
So that means the writing medium directly influences the alphabet of a culture.
And it’s still happening. Remember PalmPilots and their own funky alphabet? It was called Graffiti, and they needed it to make use of the new medium.
Graffiti is perhaps a poor example because it died with the PalmPilot, but in the age of text and email we introduced emoticons. This is because our new electronic media is devoid of emotion.
Back in the days when we actually talked to people, we could tell from their tone or facial expression whether they were joking. Now, in a text or email, we can’t. Thus we invented emoticons, so you can still insult your friends and family then tack on a smiley so they know you didn’t mean it. You jerk. 🙂
Getting back to leaves… the French word for a sheet of paper is “feuille“, which is the same word they use for “leaf”. It comes from the Latin “folia”, from which we also get the English word “foliage”.
And in English, a sheet of paper is also called a “page“. The word “page” comes from the French word “pagene” or “pagne”, which comes from the Latin “pagina” which means the surface of a leaf, shoot, or a flattened twig.
So that word “page” brings us back to the beginning of this, when I was talking about papyrus reeds and palm leaves. (You thought I was lost, didn’t you?)
In case you were wondering, the English word “sheet” comes from the Saxon branch of the language. It just means a covering or a flat surface. Nothing exciting there.
Note that some people were also writing on tree bark, especially birch bark. In fact, the term “codex” which used to mean book (and sometimes still does) comes from Latin “caudex”, meaning “bark”. That is another leaf reference, sort of.
To complete this historical picture: besides paper, European monks also used parchment. This is the skin of a lamb, goat, pig, deer, or calf, which is stretched and treated to make a clean and durable writing surface. In the case of calfskin, it was also called “vellum” which comes from the French “veau”, from which we also get “veal”.
Returning again to leaves… the English word leaf references paper in two ways:
- a leaf is a single sheet of a paper with two sides, such as you would find in a book, magazine, or newspaper. It comes from medieval bookbinding methods, when monks would lay four sheets of parchment on top of each other, then fold them over to make eight leaves. Since each leaf had two sides, that gave them sixteen pages. This was called a quire, for “four”, and later called a gathering or a signature. They painstakingly filled the pages of each gathering with medieval stuff, then bound all the gatherings together into a book. As they replaced parchment with paper, they could fit more than eight leaves in a gathering, but the principle of binding leaves into gatherings and gatherings into books is still used today.
- to leaf through a book, magazine, or newspaper is to skim it by quickly turning over pages. I assume this is simply verb-alizing the noun in #1.
What about collective nouns?
Well, we call a handful of paper a “sheaf”, and we buy it in reams.
Sheaf also comes from the Saxon branch of English, as a bundle of grain or straw. That ties into papyrus, a bit.
Ream, however, comes to us through French and Spanish, originally from Moorish Arabic for “collect into a bundle”. It was around 480 pages, but varied all over the place. There is an international standard ream now, which is exactly 500 pages, but apparently reams of a little less and a little more are still around.
So the next time you come home from Staples with a fresh ream of paper, before you pull out a sheaf and stick it into your printer, give a thought to its five thousand year history and all those monks that came before you. Scribing, illuminating, and bookbinding was high art — something a laptop and printer will never replace.
A Parable of Parallels
This is the story of Robby and Tommy, and of the strange way in which their society valued their lives.
They were born in the same year and lived on the same street. Naturally they became best friends. They were always together, playing in one or another’s front yard, or riding their bikes around the neighborhood. In school, their teachers said they were twins who acted alike instead of looking alike.
Robby’s father was a lawyer. He went to work early every morning, and spent many weeknights working in his study. He expected his son would go to college like he did. On weekends he often took both boys to the museum, or the zoo, or the movies. Once in a while he took them to his office to play with the photocopiers.
Tommy’s father was a Ford salesman. He was a star football player when he was in high school, but he wasn’t quite good enough for a college scholarship, and he wasn’t that interested in college anyway. He was liked by everyone and made a good salesman. On weekends he often took both boys to a ball game, or the park, or the video arcade.
Both Robby and Tommy wanted to be deep sea divers when they grew up, then astronauts, then fighter pilots, then ambulance drivers.
But one year Robby’s mother got very sick. The doctors said it was cancer, and she started wasting away right before their eyes. One doctor gave her an experimental treatment, and she got better. One year stretched into two, and everyone started to forget she was ever sick. But suddenly she got even sicker, and began wasting away even faster. A priest went to her in the hospital, and Robby began to understand that his mother was really dying this time. He told her he didn’t want her to go, and she said she would always be watching him from heaven, and then she died.
Everyone they knew came to the funeral. As Robby watched his mother’s casket lowered into the ground, he said to Tommy that he was going to be a doctor. He wanted to make sick people well again, like that doctor with the experimental treatment, only he would do it better so it would never stop working.
Fast forward a few years. Robby became Robert, and Tommy became Thomas. Robert got a new mother, and he thought she was okay. He called her Karen instead of Mom though, and she was okay with that. Thomas said she was pretty, and Robert thought that was gross.
Thomas still came around for supper sometimes, but he didn’t sleep over anymore. Every night he had football practice or basketball practice or baseball practice, and he usually hung around with his friends from the team.
Robert read lots of different books because he knew doctors had to know a lot of different things. His dad bought him a set of encyclopedias, and he sat cross-legged with them on his lap for hours, going from one topic to the next. Thomas sometimes came over to read them too, and then they used Robert’s chemistry set to make stinkbombs.
Fast forward a few more years, to high school. Robert became Rob, and Thomas became Tom. Rob was the school brain, good at every subject, captain of the debating team, and winner of all the science fairs. Tom was the starting quarterback for the school football team, and star center for the basketball team. They didn’t see each other much. If they passed in the hallways, sometimes they would say “hi”.
In fact, Tom hung around with the “in” crowd, who made fun of Rob and his nerdy friends. Tom went quiet when they did that. Tom got a new girlfriend every month. Rob was awkward and shy around girls. He never got a date and took his cousin to the senior prom.
Tom got a college football scholarship, signed a contract for a major league team after his third year, and dropped out to play pro. Many top colleges offered Rob scholarships, and he chose the one with the best medical and biotechnology programs.
Tom got a vintage Corvette as a signing bonus. Rob kept driving his father’s old Tempo, the one his father had bought from Tom’s father fourteen years before.
Rob completed his undergraduate degree with honors and applied for graduate studies in biotechnology. He was accepted immediately.
Tom was named Rookie of the Year and he tore up his contract to get a better one. He got it.
Later that year, Tom wrapped his Porsche around a streetlamp and bought a Ferrari, but then got arrested for cocaine possession, suspended for a month, and was committed to rehab. He tried to punch a police officer on the way out of the courtroom, and Disney had to cancel their advertising contract with him. Fortunately, Mennen and Schick found his new rough image appealing, especially since it was splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the developed world. They offered him new contracts.
Rob’s old Tempo finally died and could not be resurrected. He started taking the bus.
Rob finished his Master’s degree in a year and went on to Doctorate studies. The faculty put Rob’s professor in charge of a privately funded research project looking at new cancer treatments. After a year, the professor was spending more and more time flogging for additional grant money so he let Rob lead the research team. Rob couldn’t have been happier, despite his girlfriend of six months leaving him for a phys-ed student.
Tom was arrested again for cocaine possession, but the judge was a huge football fan. Tom was sentenced in absentia to one hundred hours of community service. He never served it. No one expected him to.
Over the next two years Tom’s addictions and erratic behavior began to affect his play, and he started to slide in the league standings. He was traded to a small market team and his adoring public forgot about him. The celebrity endorsements dried up, leaving him with only his base four million dollar salary. He was very unhappy, and he fell further into excess.
Rob and his team made worthwhile discoveries and published three papers, but they didn’t make the big breakthrough that the private backer was hoping for. They pulled their funding, which effectively killed the project. Rob was disappointed, but not so much. He knew he was close to something.
Later that year, Rob completed his Doctorate degree and became a professor at the same university. He pulled together a team of graduate students and restarted his previous research project. His old professor found him another corporate backer and Rob borrowed against everything he owned, and more besides, to buy better equipment for his lab.
Tom kept looking back at all he had lost. He grew despondent as he watched his cars and his summer house in France go up his nose. His girlfriend left with his Corvette, his friends dropped by less and less often, and he was suspended from the team for missing too many practices. He gained ten useless pounds and looked fifteen years older. He felt like the has-been the football pundits were calling him.
Rob followed his childhood dream with a fervor that left his fellows in awe. They rarely saw him outside of his laboratory. He even installed a cot in his office. Which he occasionally shared, as it turned out, with an attractive young graduate student on his team. She was caught up in the vortex surrounding the handsome young doctor with the soft belly and unruly hair, and a fire in his eyes that left her smitten.
The next year, Rob made a breakthrough that made international news. His discovery was credited with saving potentially millions of lives, and he was nominated for the Nobel prize in Medicine.
Tom’s agent told him his contract would not be renewed. Tom was deciding whether to go work for his father selling cars, or to put a gun into his mouth and end a lifetime of wasted potential, when his eyes happened to fall upon an article in USA Today. It was about a boy he once knew. The boy had grown up to accomplish everything he had promised to do. Tom looked at himself in the mirror, then threw up. He followed that by flushing the envelope of cocaine he had taped beneath the bathroom sink, then he went through his house gathering the rest of his caches. He flushed them too. That afternoon he called some friends in the league. He managed to get himself traded to an expansion team that he thought could be a Superbowl contender.
Before the end of that season, Tom rediscovered his love for the game and outran even the rookies. His star began to shine again. The endorsement contracts began to trickle in, and the sports pundits stopped calling him a has-been. As much.
Rob won the Nobel prize for Medicine. He graciously shared the cash prize of ten million kronas, roughly one point three million dollars, with his research team. After paying off his debts he still had enough money to buy a nice house. The award presentation was not televised in North America, so he bought a ticket to Stockholm for his father and stepmother to watch it in person.
The next year Tom led his new team to the Superbowl finals and the league named him Player of the Year. He received a million dollar cash bonus. His face was again front page news. His team renewed his contract for twenty two million dollars over three years, and new endorsement contracts came in at double that. He married a supermodel and divorced her a month later. She kept his new summer house in Italy and two of his cars. He then married an actress. That marriage lasted nearly six months, but fortunately she had signed a pre-nuptial agreement. Naturally she contested it, but his lawyer assured him that the case would be tied up in appeals for another ten years, giving him plenty of time to hide his assets.
Rob’s breakthrough was considered one of the top medical discoveries of the century. No one knew his face, and his name was quickly forgotten by the people whose lives he saved. Instead, they thanked their doctor, or the pharmaceutical company who supplied the drugs created from Rob’s research. Incidentally, that company’s stock split after the university sold them the patent.
Rob became a legend in the scientific community, and shared his time with as many research teams as he could. He preferred to stay near home though, in his four bedroom house that he shared with his wife – the attractive former graduate student – and their two children. He wrote in his memoirs that except for losing his mother at an early age, he was the luckiest man on Earth, and he would relive his life in exactly the same way.
Tom’s name lived on forever in the minds of sports fans and in games of trivia. He blew out his left knee at age 30 and decided to retire. He was wealthy enough to live better than royalty for the rest of his life, despite squandering millions on high living and failed marriages. If he decided to write his autobiography – which he never would, but if he did – he could have remarked that throwing a ball and running around pays very well for those who are good at it.
One warm autumn day, Tom suddenly remembered that article in USA Today, and he found himself wondering about his childhood friend. He nearly had his assistant look for Rob’s number to invite him over for a barbeque. Rob nearly accepted. And their society nearly wondered if it should value those who save lives more than those who entertain. But it didn’t.
A dramatic Rule of Three
Three is the magic number for fiction. It shows up everywhere.
For example, there is the classic “three act structure“. Dramatic theory says every story ever written can be broken down into three parts called the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution.
Another obvious example is the trilogy. Books just work well in threes. The Lord of the Rings is the most notable example, which set the standard for Fantasy in particular — most editors who deal in Fantasy want trilogies, and it’s probably Tolkien’s fault — but it’s catching on for popular books too (The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Hollywood also likes trilogies. Think of Amazing Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire and the Batman reboot with Christian Bale. Most egregious is Star Wars, which started with a trilogy and will become a trilogy of trilogies.
If a movie is successful enough for a sequel, they usually add a third. Sometimes they add a fourth and everyone agrees they should have stopped at three.
You may say that is because three is the longest Hollywood can milk a franchise, or because the principal characters get too old (it was getting harder to buy Tobey Maguire as a college kid), or too bored (after three turns as Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford wanted to do other things… at least until twenty years later when he made Crystal Skull, and see the above comment about “adding a fourth”).
All true, sure, but it’s also because of the mystical properties of three.
Yes, three. It’s not too big, it’s not too small, it’s ju-u-u-st right.
Wait… where have I heard that before?
Oh yeah. A certain moppet called Goldilocks and her adventures in B&E, trespassing, and vandalism beloved by children everywhere.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or I just snuck in a tic of foreshadowing as a clever segue to my main topic.
In this post I wanted to talk about the Rule of Three in drama.
In previous posts I explored two Rules of Three as used in humorous fiction: first, as a way to create Humor in the Unexpected, and second, adding a third character to save a humorous scene.
In drama, you routinely encounter what one of my earliest creative writing teachers (okay, my only creative writing teacher) called the try/fail.
In fact, one could argue drama requires a try/fail or it just isn’t drama.
So this rule of three goes like this:
- hero tries and fails
- hero tries and fails
- hero tries… and success!
Not complicated, right? Well, no. How complicated is e=mc2? But that doesn’t make it any less important. (Notice I didn’t say ‘explosive’ — I am working through the ten steps of PunAnon.)
In fact, now that you know about the Rule of Three you will see it in every book and movie from now on.
So here’s an example:
- the first bed is too hard
- the second bed is too soft
- third bed is ju-u-u-st right
What would happen if Goldilocks found the third bed first, and passed out there? Scene ends, no drama. Or say she found the best bed second, and passed out there. Again, scene ends, no drama.
Just as in humor, once is an incident, twice is a pattern, and then you break the pattern.
No pattern, no audience expectation, no drama.
Also consider: what if the Three Bears’ cousins Ned and Myrtle were staying with them, and Goldilocks tried their beds too? By the time Goldi gets to the fifth bed, your kids are bored with this story and want to play Xbox.
As Goldilocks has proven by experiment, three is ju-u-u-st right.
Short stories generally only have enough time for one plotline, so they generally only have one brace of try/fails. However, in longer fiction, there are usually several plotlines with their own try/fail, try/fail, success.
Sam and Frodo first try to get to Mordor through the Misty Mountains, but the company is forced to try the Mines of Moria instead, and we all know how that turned out: Gandalf buys it, Boromir betrays them, orcs attack, Sam and Frodo get pissed and strike off on their own. So that’s a pretty big fail.
Sam and Frodo are forced to ally with Gollum to use him as their guide, but Gollum leads them into a trap and Frodo dies from a massive spider bite. Sam carries on alone. That’s another big fail.
Fortunately Frodo was not dead, he’s getting better and he thinks he will go for a walk, so he and Sam re-team and carry on to the Crack of Doom. But Gollum catches up to them at the worst possible moment, and the last try/fail is a literal cliffhanger that will decide the fate of the world, and we are turning pages as fast as we can, and… and… this time the bad guy fails, and the good guys succeed! Main plot resolved.
Of course, there was another major plot line running at the same time starring Merry and Pippin, and they have their own set of try/fails.
And we have another major plot line with the battered remnants of the Fellowship trying to catch up with Merry and Pippin, and they have their own set of try/fails. What would have happened if Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli caught up with Merry and Pippin on the first day? Booooring. Plus it would have ended Merry and Pippin’s subplot before it began.
And yes, as with any rule, there are exceptions. Sometimes an extra try/fail can work, and sometimes a single try/fail can work.
However, just like gravity, it’s easier to follow a rule of nature than spend all your energy figuring out ways to beat it.
And before you trot out examples of storytellers breaking the rule of three, make sure you aren’t looking at try/fails in subplots, or setpieces that contribute to an upcoming try/fail. I’ll bet you are.