Indie Author Answers #55: Gradual vs. Sudden Character Arcs

Welcome to the show! Today, I ramble out the new Tarantino movie Hateful 8, and some storytelling lessons I learned from it.

 

And now, your weekly dose of read-along goodness of TPV:

 

3: Alex

 

Alex sat at his desk, arranging lines of meth on the back of his snowboard with a razor blade. He had snorted two of the first four he laid out, and already his energy levels were rising like water filling a glass. His leg bounced underneath the desk. That irritating nervous twitch had returned, causing his head to jerk every few seconds. He could sense the blood coursing through his veins. He felt strong. Powerful. Ready to go out and own the world.

He drew the last two lines into one pile, and then noticed that the edge of his razor blade had become flecked with brown rust. Alex could not abide a rusty razor blade and so he reached under his bed and withdrew a guitar case. He set the case– which had not contained a guitar for some time– on his desk and opened it. A pause, to marvel at the assortment. His previous collection had been more robust, but his parents had found and destroyed that one a year ago. Building up a fine cache of paraphernalia was more than a hobby: it was an art.

He started to remove objects to get to his razor blades, which he knew were at the bottom. Four packs of rolling papers. Two metal pipes, one of them an expensive Proto Pipe that he almost never used. Three glass pipes: one short standard bowl, one long standard bowl, and a straight Puffer pipe. Eight hits of acid on perforated paper in a plastic baggie. Three pinch hitters and a dugout. Ten pipe screens. A small ceramic bong, and a two-chambered plastic bong (one chamber for water, and one for ice). A quarter pound of weed. One Sneak-a-Toke. Two dozen or so miniature Ziploc baggies, some licked, some still speckled with powder residue. A half dozen film canisters containing varying amounts of Xanax, Valium, Percocet, Darvocet, Ecstasy tabs, and Mini-thins. Two small glass mirrors. Finally, three unused razor blades.

He tossed the old razor blade into his trashcan and went back to work with a fresh one, enjoying the clean scrapes that the sharpened blade made against the face of his snowboard.

Brian’s futile plea for sympathy about Heather had Alex wanting just to pack up and move out. He recognized that his initial response to Brian had been harsh, but that woman did not warrant the tiniest little bit of sorrow. Feed the wolf you want to survive, or whatever that dumb Indian saying is.

First of all, Alex had never cared about Heather. He had sex with her. Mistake number one. The bigger mistake was not recognizing it as the one-night stand that it should have been. He had chastised himself for those preventable months of jealousy and pain ever since it happened. He should have said thanks, but no thanks and gone off to explore the next conquest. Instead, he got lost in her.

In the end, what did it leave me? Nothing.

In Alex’s estimation, the world would be better off without her. Perhaps her death would bring some good because now she could not instigate any more drama. The mistake that he had made, the damage done to his friendship with Brian, could all just fade away with memories of her.

Go to her funeral? Just let it be, Brian. Just let it fade away. Nothing good comes from holding on to her as anything more than a mistake from the past. Learn and move on.

A shuffling near the door. Alex turned to see a folded sheet of paper work its way underneath. He walked to the door and waited mutely to ensure no knock came next to accompany this silent note. Slowly bending so that his knees would not pop, he retrieved it. Alex read the first sentence or two, realized that whatever Brian had to say would just prolong the whole ordeal and after crumpling it into a ball, he tossed it into the trashcan with the spent razor blade.

 

4: Brian

 

Brian, in his dark suit and sunglasses, ran his hands along the glossy wooden pew at the funeral home. He listened as some monotone preacher prattled on about hope, and change, and peace, but to Brian the speech translated as a bunch of optimistic drivel. He counted fifty-seven others in attendance. A good turnout. Of the fifty-seven people, Brian knew only Heather’s mother and father. All the other strangers were nameless caricatures in their nearly identical mourner garb and faces pulled into grimaces. He only thought of the wooden box in the front surrounding the lifeless husk of a girl he used to love. Nothing else mattered. He tried not to imagine her inside; he had not seen her in over two years, and did not want to break the streak now.

Behind the preacher, a slideshow of pictures of Heather played while he spouted his hopeful gibberish. Brian watched the faces of the girl he knew flick by, at various ages, at various places, at various stages of her life. High School. Family trips. Christmas. Most of the photos did not bother him, but for some reason, the slideshow lingered on a picture of a young Heather in a summer dress– in a park, on a blanket, holding a dandelion– and Brian lost his composure. The girl on the blanket had been innocent and unsullied. Brian had thought at one point that he could make a life with that girl, but she no longer existed. And she had not existed for long time before her death, either.

After the service, Brian went outside to smoke, but then he slid around the side of the building because he abhorred the idea of shaking hands and making small talk with random people, especially Heather’s mother and father. He had never made an effort to know them and had no idea how they must view him. Would they be glad that he came, or would they blame him for contributing to their daughter’s death?

How many times did I get pot or other drugs for Heather? How many other people can I say the same about?

Brian whipped out his phone and opened a new text message to Wiles.

 

I’m done. No more meth. No more pot. Do not contact me again.

 

He pressed the send button before he could change his mind, and then he sensed it: the catharsis, the goodbye, the conclusion of a chapter. From now on, he intended no longer to be a negative influence or to contribute to another death.

Alex. He had to find another way to help Alex.

Brian lit up his first cigarette since this morning. It burned, in that same bittersweet and familiar way of any long-anticipated cigarette. He stared at the little tobacco flame-stick in his hand with contempt, angry with himself for identifying with being a smoker, and for being weak enough to submit to cowardly desire. He took out his pack of cigarettes, and opened it. Four left. He crushed the pack in one hand until he was sure all the cigarettes had been mangled. None left.

His phone buzzed and he raised it into view, expecting a return message from Wiles. Instead, the Caller ID showed the number of his prodigal lover. Without thinking, he accepted the call. “Hello. Where have you been?”

“I’ve been around.” Her voice on the other end: unhurried and meek.

Brian had no desire for banter. He would say what he had to say, and then be done with it. “I called you a couple times. I left you messages, and I told you that it was important that you call me back. You haven’t been in class, either.”

“Yeah. I just… I’ve been busy and–”

Brian lost control, and the words spilled out of him like rocks in a landslide. “Married. Did that slip your mind? Did you just forget to tell me that you’ve got a husband, or were you playing me the whole time?”

“No, Brian, it’s… it’s not like that. It’s a lot more complicated. I wanted to tell you; I honestly did. I’ve been all messed up inside over this whole thing. This is why it would have been better to leave it alone. I wish I knew how to make you understand.”

Brian watched the darkly dressed funeral attendees amble out of the front of the funeral home, black suits and dresses contrasting the white marble columns of the building. Subdued pleasantries exchanged, hands shaken, cheeks lightly kissed. “You owe me an explanation,” he said.

“I get that you’re upset, and I’m sorry about that. I made a mistake. There was just something about you… I don’t know what it was. You have to believe me that I didn’t want to hurt you. Maybe we can get some coffee and talk about–”

“You don’t get it. I don’t ever want to see you again. You lied to me, and you betrayed your husband. You may be like that, but I’m not. Feel free to continue rationalizing it to yourself, whatever way you want. I mean, I own a lot of the blame for this… my own desire is what got me in trouble in the first place. It’s all related.”

“Brian, you don’t have to–”

He ended the call.

 

 

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