Once upon a time, there was a [description of protagonist] who [description of problem].
[Filler. Something to do with threes. Is this necessary? Drosselmeyer never included filler, he went straight to the point.]
“Drosselmeyer was infinitely more talented than you are, amateur, and he’d been writing for a lot longer. You only get to break the rules after you’ve figured out how to use them right.”
[Some traditional devices for plot resolution:
- Protagonist is granted her wish, but in such a way that it comes out wrong (red shoes, monkey’s paw – Drosselmeyer loved this one)
- True love conquers all
“She needs a true love for that one, idiot – ha! You don’t think you’re qualified, do you? Remember, you’re the author, not the handsome prince.”
“I’m not – shut up!”
- Virtue conquers all – rewards for passive suffering and endurance, obedience to mysterious instructions, etc. (I won’t write this kind of story.)
“It’s not up for discussion. That’s what Drosselmeyer wanted from her. If I forced her into being like that, it would make everything we went through completely pointless.”
“Hmph! Have it your own way. But if you really want to write, you’re going to have to figure out some way to come to terms with the traditional narrative building blocks, or all you’ll ever turn out is deus-ex-machina-filled drivel that doesn’t do anything!”
“Do you always go running when she quacks?” mutters Autor. He follows Fakir out of the study at a more dignified pace, arms folded. “If you’re that easily distractable you’ll never become – hey! Duck! Don’t you get your – your bird pollen all over my – achoo!”
“What have you got there?” Fakir crouches down, ignoring Autor’s sneezing fit.
“Quack!” Duck flutters her wings in an energetically incoherent gesture over the book she’s tugged out of Autor’s knapsack. “Quack quack!”
“That’s a vintage – achoo! – issue of Argosy All-Story Weekly –”
“Quack!” insists Duck, and Fakir’s hand jerks in a sudden startled gesture of comprehension.
Autor’s eyes narrow, and he shoves his glasses up his nose. “Drosselmeyer always used the fairy-tale structure to great effect –”
“I’m not Drosselmeyer,” says Fakir, cutting him off. “You said so yourself. I don’t want to be like Drosselmeyer. And those stupid fairy tale rules – they just make everyone miserable, so why do we have to use them, anyway? Duck –” He reaches out his ink-stained hand down to the little yellow bird, running his fingers over the downy top of her head. “Every so often you’re a lot smarter than you seem, you know that?”
It shouldn’t really be possible to see the pleased blush on the face of a real-world duck, but it seems that’s one of those storybook tropes that stuck around.
After a moment, Autor coughs meaningfully; Fakir ducks his head, and Duck hops closer, nudging her beak against his knee. He picks her up, tucks her into the crook of his arm and stands up again, wearing his normal forbidding face. “So it’s settled, then.”
“Fairy tales aren’t the only things that have narrative rules, you know.” Autor leans back against the plaster wall, and attempts to keep his nose from twitching. Of all the ironies in his life, the bird allergy is probably the most aggravating. “All stories do. However you decide to write, you’ll have to study just as carefully as you’ve been studying the Drosselmeyer tales.”
“I know that.” Fakir brandishes the copy of Argosy magazine like a weapon, and then shoves it into the pack at his side. “I’ll borrow this from you, to start.”
“Did I say you could borrow that?” demands Autor, but Fakir is ignoring him. “It’s vintage!” he adds, and Fakir’s striding into his study and grabbing the door, which is his favorite not-very-subtle signal that it’s time for Autor to go. He manages to get in one last shout of “And if I ever catch you bending the spine!” before the study door slams in his face.
Without the benefit of hindsight, no one would have believed that the quiet town could be of interest to anyone outside itself. Ah! How little Man [or woman or duck I suppose] can ever suspect of what is to come!
From its starting point, the day seemed common enough; the far-off green lights did not attract anyone’s particular attention, and certainly not that of the
boy young man who walked alone his solitary way down the path, with only his faithful duck for companionship. Perhaps he thought them merely marsh gas. Ah, the more fool he, for he did not realize that in walking so solitary he had attracted the attention of visitors . . . from BEYOND THE EARTH.
our hero the young man even had an opportunity to pull his trusty ray gun [what is a ray gun, anyway? Duck says it’s probably a dangerous thing to carry around. Idiot] out of his pocket, he was overwhelmed by poison gas and rendered unconscious!
He awoke some time later to find himself in the strangest place he had ever seen – a prison, or so it seemed to him, entirely encased in shining silver metal. And yet that was not the strangest part. For his faithful duck, who accompanied him everywhere, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the sight which met his eyes, sprawled asleep on the floor, was . . . a girl! A girl of slender figure, her face oval and with eyes that would certainly be large and lustrous if they had been open and her head surmounted by a mass of light reddish copper, waving hair.
As he watched, her eyes opened themselves and stared up at him. “Qua –” she began to exclaim, and then covered her mouth with both hands.
Autor reads up to the end of the second page, then sighs and hands Fakir back the first draft. “Aliens Made Them Do It? Really?”
Fakir’s face turns an entertainingly familiar shade of red. “Do what?”
“Autor, you’d better tell me right now what you’re implying –”
“Quack quack quack –”
“Just because there happen to be aliens in the story, which is a standard science fiction plot device –”
“They brought a male and female protagonist into a room together, ensured that they were of compatible species, and locked them in for mysterious experiments. Do you honestly think that no one is going to see where this is headed?”
“As a side note,” Autor adds helpfully, after a few moments pass and Fakir does not seem to have regained his powers of speech, “you’ve stolen the entire description of Duck from A Princess of Mars, and the rest of the prose is utter drivel –”
“You have a dirty mind!” shouts Fakir, and throws the papers in Autor’s face.
“. . . . . QUAAAAAAAAACK!”
It is at just this moment of confusion that someone pounds on the cottage’s front door.
Fakir throws his hands up in the air and storms out of the study into the hallway, with Autor and Duck straggling behind. “Who is it?” he shouts. Fakir doesn’t get many visitors, except for Autor and Karon and Raetsel and Hans, not to mention little Formerly-Crocodellia, who has taken a liking to Duck and often asks to come play with the bird – so, in fact, Fakir gets a reasonable number of visitors, but he likes to think of himself as a loner and so nobody points this out to him. Autor is saving up this piece of sarcasm for a time when he really needs it.
“It’s us!” comes the unhelpful answer through the door, followed by an enormous thump. The latch flies up with the force of the blow, and Fakir’s unexpected guests tumble inside, falling over each other and piling to a halt on the rug.
“It was your fault,” mutters the other.
Fakir stares. "Pink and yellow?" he says, and then jumps - possibly because Duck, offended on her friends' behalf, has given his ankle a peck from behind. This sadly does not help him to remember their actual names.
The girls clamber back to their feet. “We heard a lot of noise coming from in here . . .” says Pink-hair.
“So we thought we’d come see whether you might be the creepy cultist behind the mysterious circles in the field!” chimes in Yellow-hair brightly.
“That’s not it!” snaps Pink-hair. “There’s been suspicious stuff happening, and we wanted to make sure you were okay!”
“The handsome boy that the neighbors always thought was so attractive but who secretly sacrifices young girls in the fields to make the crops grow!” rhapsodizes Yellow-hair.
Autor decides to focus on the pink-haired one, who appears slightly more rational, and peers at her through his eyeglasses. “Crop circles?”
It’s Yellow-hair who answers anyway, beaming. “Yes! All over the field! It’s either evil cultists or a sign of an alien invasion!” At this, Fakir goes rigid; Yellow-hair apparently fails to notice. “Maybe they’ll put all the good-looking boys in cages with all of the girls and make them –”
“No one takes us seriously when we talk about it,” says Pique, cutting her off, “but we know it’s not normal. Something’s happening here, and we’re gonna find out what!”
“Either way –” Pink-hair brandishes an oversized magnifying glass that appears to have materialized from her pocket. “The truth is out there!”
Fakir looks at Autor.
Autor looks meaningfully, with a sardonic eyebrow raised, at the manuscript pages scattered all over the floor, and adds a significant sneeze for good measure - though that might just be the allergies.
Fakir grits his teeth. “Well – you’re not going to find anything useful here,” he lies. “So you should both really be going. Now.”
“We’ll keep you posted, Fakir,” promises Pink-hair, apparently undaunted by Fakir’s patented forbidding glower. “And stay away from weird flashing lights! I’m pretty sure a couple of students in our class already disappeared. I’ve noticed weird memory gaps, too –”
“Yeah, it’s weird . . . anyway, good luck! Don’t get kidnapped by aliens!”
“I hope you’re not an alien or a cultist!” adds Yellow-hair, in a tone that somehow manages to enthusiastically imply the complete opposite, and then the two of them are gone. Fakir hastily pulls the door closed and locks it behind them, and then turns to stare at Autor.
Fakir's stare shifts, by small but unmistakeable degrees, into a glare. He snatches up the nearest pages, crumpling them up in his hand, and makes a gesture indicative of throwing them dramatically into the fireplace.
Autor says, helpfully, "The fireplace is in the kitchen."
Once upon a time, the cottage’s fireplace would have been located wherever Fakir needed to throw something dramatically in the fire, and no one would ever have remembered it had been located anywhere different. Fakir snorts in disgust – at himself, at the world - and stalks off to the kitchen to light the fire. While he’s distracted, Duck scuttles one or two pages he’d missed over into a corner to save and read later; Autor watches her balefully, with his handkerchief up like a warding measure. When Fakir hasn’t returned after a few minutes, she scurries into the kitchen, and, for lack of anything better to do, Autor follows. Fakir is staring in front of the fireplace, arms folded, glowering into the flames. Duck flutters from the floor to the chair to the table and starts pecking at a loaf of bread, keeping one eye on Fakir.
“Fine, take it. It was stupid anyway.” Fakir turns around, clenching a fist. “Aliens? We’re supposed to be living in the real world now. This whole idea will only work if it’s something that would actually happen, not more crazy story-logic like the kind we just got out of.”
“You just show your ignorance more and more with everything you say. What you so dismissively call story-logic is inherently superior to the logic of your so-called reality. It has an elegance and a rationality to it that’s completely lacking in –” Catching Fakir’s look, he sighs again. “Fine, have it your way. But somewhere, Fate is weeping over having chosen a talentless dunce to carry on Drosselmeyer’s power, instead of anyone who would actually appreciate it. Go on, confine yourself to the petty constraints of contemporary literary realism, I’m sure it’ll be just as interesting and effective as –“ A crackle of static punctuates Autor’s monologue; Fakir has pointedly turned on the radio. Autor shuts his mouth with an offended snap.
The radio announcer’s voice, by contrast, is smooth and rich. “In today’s biggest news, Insurgents have captured Badajoz in Spain, and the Nationalists are on the defense again. Moving closer to home, the value of the deutschmark continues to –”
"Nothing about crop circles," says Autor, as the announcer reads on. "It sounds like you're safe from alien abduction for now." Fakir doesn't dignify this with an answer, but his face eases a little.
“And that’s all we have for you today, folks, but don’t turn off your set just yet – coming up next, will Ruth Ann ever realize her love for the doctor? Stay tuned for ‘Bachelor’s Children!’”
Fakir reaches out to turn off the set, automatically – and then draws his hand back, looking thoughtful.
Autor stares at him, and then lets out a bark of laughter. “Good luck,” he says, “with that!”
FAKIR: It’s ironic, isn’t it? You were always the one who talked my ear off. I never knew what to say. Now I have to be the one coming up with words, hoping that you hear them and understand me, somewhere in there –
DUCKAHIRU DUCK’S eyes flutter. [how do you even format action in a script? Check script books out of the library]
DUCK: Fakir . . .?
FAKIR (holding his breath): Duck?!?
At this point, Autor stops to push his glasses up his nose and stare at Fakir through them with his most pained expression. (Mostly due to the dialogue, but partly thanks to eyestrain. He’s beginning to suspect his prescription is out of date.) “First of all, no one can talk and hold their breath at the same time. Second of all – angst coma? That’s your choice for realism?”
“Quack,” mutters Duck, sulking under the table. A quack shouldn’t be mutterable anymore than a duck should be able to blush, but she seems to manage it fine. “Quack.”
“It’s a metaphor!” snaps Fakir, in the general direction of both Autor and Duck. “Since this isn’t the kind of genre where people just randomly turn back and forth from animals –”
“So you’re saying that you think the fact that your girlfriend is a duck is equivalent to her being without any higher brain functions.”
“No I’m not! And she’s not my –” Fakir breaks off, as he sees Duck huddling further into a fluffy irritated ball against the table leg, and repeats, forcefully, “No. No, I don’t think that. Duck –” He clambers down to his knees and crawls among the crumpled scraps of discarded paper on the floor, banging his shin against the table leg in the process. “That’s not what I meant, moron.”
No quack emerges.
Fakir's fists clench on his knees. "I meant what I said back then," he tells her. "Being a duck is who you are, idiot, and I love who you are no matter what."
“All that the stupid coma metaphor’s about is that I miss having you be around talking –” Fakir breaks off, as he realizes what he’s just said, and claps a hand over his mouth, his face going bright red again.
“Count yourself lucky it wasn’t worse,” Autor tells him. “Declarations of love in this sort of genre are usually significantly more florid and ridiculous. It certainly isn’t your talent that saved you, so I can only think it must be your native inability to communicate productively countering the effect. Also the fact that punishing kisses are off the table, given the circumstances.”
“Punish – what?” says Fakir, rearing up, and bangs his head on the bottom of the table, hard. He hisses in pain, and Duck looks up in alarm.
“Quack? Quack! Quack quack quack –”
Fakir grits his teeth. “I’m fine.”
“Quack.” Duck flutters onto his knee, and then up to his shoulder, peering at his head. “Quack –”
“I told you, you don’t need to concern yourself over me! I don’t deserve –”
Autor rolls his eyes and slams Fakir’s notebook binder down on the study table. “Honestly, this isn’t even good hurt-comfort,” he complains, in the startled silence that falls. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home before I start confessing dramatic hidden feelings for either of you or Duck turns out to be your long-lost sister. I’d advise you to switch the genre back before things get even more ridiculous. Enjoy your post-love-confession awkwardness.”
He strides over to the door without waiting for an answer to that. To be honest, he doesn’t really see what Fakir is making such a fuss over. If Autor’s feelings for Rue taught him anything, it’s that there’s no point in hiding that kind of thing; you might as well be upfront. Even if you’re a minor character destined never to get the girl, at least maybe hearing it will help her somehow. But it’s more entertaining to watch Fakir squirm than to have to listen to him say lovey-dovey things to the duck all the time, so as far as Autor is concerned he can work out those emotional truths on his own.
“Quack,” says Duck, and shakes her feathers out before settling back into his palm. “Quack quack quack quack quack.”
A crashing sound from the window draws both of their attention, and Fakir heads over, rubbing the back of his head with his free hand. In the pounding rain of the storm – it wasn’t storming earlier, but of course it is now – he can just make out the figure of Autor, flat on the ground. Another raincoat-clad figure with telltale pink hair is struggling with her overturned bicycle.
“Dammit!” says Fakir, diving into a drawer for a quill and coming up with a ballpoint pen. He’d better do something about the genre quick, or Autor waking up with plot-convenient amnesia seems about as inevitable as Duck tripping over something in the next twenty-four hours.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that sat by a pond. In the bed of the pond there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and placid and blue.
We lived there because the girl liked water and because the boy didn’t care very much where he lived and he had promised the girl he would stay with her. The house was fine and the town was too now that the walls had come down from around it. There was a dock by the house that went into the pond. Its boards were weathered and lined in the warm shadow of the house. From the dock you couldn’t see the road or the troops who went down it who would never bother to stop at the tiny village.
The girl was scrawny and didn’t seem very likely to get much bigger. She never walked places but always ran. She had long orange hair that stuck out around her face and blue eyes that were always earnest and a face that was always full of expression. She didn’t have to talk for you to know what she was thinking but she always told you anyway. Her voice left an emptiness when she wasn’t there.
The house was
“You’re aware that realism doesn’t mean you have to describe literally everything,” says Autor, once he has reached this sentence, and then sneezes. “I just want to make sure you’re clear, given that you have another three pages of prose describing the surroundings.” He ruffles through the rest of the college-ruled pages, expressively, and then slides the paperclip back on top. “I didn’t think you could do that to minimalism.”
Because Duck is perched attentively on his shoulder, Fakir limits his reaction to a stony glower. To be honest, he's been stuck on the first few pages. While he can see the advantages of the Hemingway style for description, he can't find anything in the plots to connect with; those stories don't seem to have room for a Duck.
Then again, neither did the fairy tales. Neither, really, did anything else he’s tried. He’s coming to think that maybe that’s the problem, or the point.
“Maybe I should have given you Kafka instead,” muses Autor, ignoring Fakir’s glare, “but if you got that wrong there’s a good chance we’ll all wake up tomorrow as cockroaches. What’s your device for making it work in this story, anyhow?”
“The description of Duck isn’t terrible,” concedes Autor, and Duck looks faintly pleased. “Though you really – achoo! – should learn to embrace the comma. It won’t bite.”
“Ha ha,” says Fakir, sourly. “He doesn’t use them.” He throws his copy of A Farewell To Arms back over to Autor, who ducks to let it fly over his head. The battered paperback hits the wall and slides down, and Autor hastily goes to retrieve it.
“Please don’t treat my books that way. He is one of the greatest writers of our generation. You, to put it mildly, are not.”
“You always use that excuse!”
“I didn’t when you were basing your writing off soap operas.”
“Quack quack quack quack quack,” puts in Duck.
“Oh, don’t you start thinking you’re a literary critic,” says Fakir, irritated, and Duck, irritated in return, snaps back, “Quack!”
Autor sniffs, and seats himself back at the table. “I would have thought the soap operas would appeal to the more plebeian taste.”
“Quack,” announces Duck, so emphatically she wobbles. Fakir puts up a hand to steady her, his face softening a little.
“This idiot never likes any story unless it has a happy ending.”
“Quack quack,” Duck points out, sidling on his shoulder.
“If I have to sit here and listen to you two argue like an old married couple for another hour,” says Autor pointedly, “I won’t be responsible for my – achoo! – actions,” and then eyes them. “And I have to ask – how do you even manage that?”
Fakir glances over at Duck, and shrugs slightly, careful not to dislodge her. “I guess I just – usually know what she’s trying to say.”
“Interesting,” says Autor, in his most superior, I-know-everything-you-don’t-know voice.
“. . . interesting what?”
“Interesting,” says Autor, adjusting his glasses – he really does need to make that eye doctor’s appointment, if he can find one in Gold Crown Town – “that in all the drafts I’ve seen, you hardly give her any dialogue at all. You do realize that what you’re trying to do isn’t about you, don’t you?”
Fakir flushes a sullen, unexpected red at this. “I’m not Drosselmeyer,” he mutters, for approximately the millionth time. “And I –”
Autor raises his eyebrows and waits. (The lofty effect is somewhat ruined by another fit of sneezing.)
"It's all gimmicks," says Fakir finally, and his tone is one of self-disgust. "Everything I've been doing, devices and description - it's because I'm a coward. I'm afraid to write the part that's important." His fingers twist together, tightening on an imaginary pen. "I used to think I knew the way people really were, but that was back when I was an idiot. If I know anyone I know her, but -"
Fakir jumps – the sound’s right in his ear, after all – and even Autor looks startled. “Quack,” says Duck furiously, “quack, quack, quack-quack –”
“Yes,” Autor says to the duck, “sometimes he is a moron, I fully agree.”
“You don’t even understand her!”
Autor looks superior again. “I can take an educated guess – what was that?”
“That was someone at the door,” says Fakir, and goes to open it.
He’s half-expecting to see Pink-hair and Yellow-hair again, but instead it’s the postman who doesn’t remember being a Labrador collie. He hands a small pile of envelopes off to Fakir, who blinks at them. It’s rare for him to get letters, except for the ones Raetsel sends; the rest of the world still has trouble remembering that Gold Crown Town exists.
“This one looks official.” Autor dangles the topmost letter from his fingertips; Fakir snatches it up.
“Don’t look at my mail.” He uses a letter-opener – not Drosselmeyer’s historic swan-handled one, still stained with his blood from last year, but a plain one he got from Karon – to slice open the envelope and pull out the sheets of paper inside.
He has to read it twice before it makes sense. “Mandatory military – what the hell is this?” He knows what it is. But he shoves it into Autor’s hands anyway.
Autor reads through it in about half the time it took Fakir, and then looks up to meet the other boy's eyes. "Realism," he says. His voice is pitched too sharp, like an over-tightened guitar string. "You're not eighteen yet, are you?"
"I'm sixteen," says Autor, and carefully folds the letter closed. "Then it's just an announcement." He laughs, high and nervous. "Call it foreshadowing. This plotless interlude has a time limit."
“If I destroy this story,” Fakir says, “then –”
“Don’t think so much of yourself!” snaps Autor, his voice rising higher still. “The fairy-tale is over. Our life is realism now, isn’t it? You’re a barely-trained amateur. You can play superficial games with the genre all you like, but you’re right – it’s all gimmicks. You can’t affect the whole world.”
“Then what good is any of this!” Fakir shakes the papers in his hand; they slide against each other, flimsy-gray and factory made, with nothing of the satisfying weight of parchment. “If I can’t even keep us safe –”
Autor sneers, about to say something disparaging, but Duck gets in first. “Quack,” she says, and flutters down from Fakir’s shoulder to the table, spreading her wings wide like a barricade. “Quack.”
It seems that Gold Crown Town is not so completely realistic now that a little music can’t be summoned up out of thin air when necessary.
“Is she . . . dancing?” asks an incredulous Autor, after a minute.
Fakir’s eyes don’t leave Duck. “She’s reminding me,” he says, finally, “of a conversation we had once.”
“You can take your book with you. I won’t need it.”
Autor opens his mouth, and then shuts it again. He snatches up his book and heads for the door, but he can’t resist turning around once more to say, haughtily, “I’ll be available for editing if you need me.”
Duck quacks something that sounds like a laugh, but Fakir doesn’t smile back.
“I’m sorry, Duck.”
"He's right." He reaches for his ballpoint pen. "And you're right, but I guess old habits die hard. I can't protect you, or - or save you, or anyone, not by myself. The only time I've ever written something true was when I was helping you make your own story. So -" He looks down at the paper, suddenly profoundly embarrassed. It's one thing to write about someone's feelings when they're far away, and you're desperate to save them; it's another when they're right there watching you do it. "Yell at me if I get this wrong, all right?"
I’m not a very good writer yet, and Duck isn’t a character anymore, so this isn’t a story. This isn’t once upon a time.
This is right here and right now; this is my friend, who isn’t just a duck or just a girl, but both of those things and a lot more. And this is what’s in her heart.
("I should have known," Autor says the next day, when Fakir shows up with the completed story, "you'd end up with metafiction. Next time I'll lend you Tristram Shandy.")