I’ve been reading Rust Hills’ book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, and I came across a section where he discusses mystery, conflict, and tension. Here are the definitions:
Mystery: Something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain
Conflict: A serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one
Tension: The state of being stretched tight
Tension, according to Hills, is the most effective because while mystery and conflict set the reader and author at odds, tension brings them together as they watch the story unfold. The author is not actively trying to stump the reader or shock them, but go on a journey with them. Upon reflecting on this, I thought I should share the tragic story of Sparko Jones because I think there are elements of all three in this dreadful tale I’m about to relay to you:
Tales from the Crack Spoon: Sparko Jones
Two months before he was found bloody, painted blue, and wearing nothing but a foil diaper, Sparko Jones began hearing voices. He’d been trying to start a new novel, one that would change the world forever or at least appear in grocery store checkout lines, when something behind him whispered, “Forgo spelling and punctuation. It’s very avant-garde when authors do that. The literary elite will eat it up!” Sparko thought about that advice, but realized he was already adhering to it so he just shrugged—
Wait, he thought. Who was that?
He looked up, frightened. He put down his pen and pad of Post-It notes and wondered if the voice came from the pantry. He went into the kitchen and took a deep breath before reaching for the door. He swung it open—
There was nothing there but a roll of aluminum foil and the bottomless chaps he had to wear sometimes when money was tight. He closed the door, sighed, and made himself a twelve-inch hoagie with bananas, peanut butter, and black tar heroin.
As he ate, he began to write again, but the bananas were making it such that he couldn’t remember how to write in English. Maybe it was the heroine — he often got the two confused. He settled for his own personal amalgamation of Klingon and Japanese, neither of which he spoke.
There was another voice. This time it said, “Open the book with ‘it was a dark and stormy night’.”
Bad advice. Very bad advice, indeed. At least according to the literature Sparko stole off the body of another struggling author named iGenius (not his birth name) who’d killed himself by slitting his wrists with the edges of paper torn from his own untitled novel. As iGenius lay dying, he wrote a “You’ll all be sorry when I receive the posthumous acclaim I’m due” sort of suicide note in his own blood, but his grammar was so poor, it became a water cooler joke at the publishing houses in town. Whenever particularly unskilled authors killed themselves, it was called “pulling an iGenius” and it was always cause for celebration.
Sparko looked around trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. It wasn’t under the bed or under the couch or lodged in the dust bag of the vacuum cleaner.
Where is it coming from? He thought. Who is this that torments me so?
As he wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night” on a Post-It note (in Klingon), he began to giggle, and then passed out.
The voices continued in that fashion for weeks, dictating all manner of bad advice to Sparko, stuff about adverbs, over-the-top dialog tags, and overtly stereotypical characterizations, which Sparko happily took because he didn’t have anything better anyway …
One month before he was found bloody, painted blue, wearing nothing but a foil diaper, and holding the business end of a catheter that was attached to a gravely wounded mailman, Sparko Jones was drinking a milkshake made with vanilla ice cream, milk, whipped cream, and LSD. He finally saw the person who had been speaking to him. It was Ernest Hemingway, only he was five inches tall and living in Sparko’s microwave. Sparko discovered the famed author when he went to heat up a burrito injected with absinth and Tabasco sauce. He was a bit perturbed that Hemingway was trying to derail his career with bad advice like that — Sparko was clearly the superior author — but he decided not to make an issue of it.
Hemingway stood there on the food carousel, foot stuck in a blob of refried beans, when Sparko said, “Dude, I loved The Old Man and the Sea. That’s the one about the shark that eats those people and then the old dude blows its head off by shooting a propane tank stuck in the shark’s mouth, right?”
This enraged Hemingway — he’d be damned if his work of pure literary genius was going to be confused with some piece of pop culture swill. He lunged at Sparko, or more specifically, Sparko’s burrito. Sparko would be damned if a literary titan was going to ruin his lunch. The two of them engaged in an epic battle — Hemingway attempting to kick small holes in the side of the burrito, Sparko attempting to set off any one of the nine pre-programmed cooking modes on the microwave. Hemingway got his leg stuck in a lump of cheese that was spilling from the entree and Sparko seized the moment to flick the old man in, slam the door, and cook him alive.
When it was over, Sparko surveyed the bloody mess and thought that scooping up pieces of Ernest Hemingway with a paper towel and dustpan was probably a first. Afterward, he stuffed his Post-It note novel into an envelope and sent it off to his favorite publisher…
The day he was found bloody, painted blue, wearing nothing but a foil diaper, and holding the business end of a catheter that was still attached to a gravely wounded mailman whose face he was chewing off, Sparko received a letter. He’d had a paper sack full of crack rock and was sucking on them, each in turn, as if they were sunflower seeds. He’d painted himself blue to blend in with the sky in case any more itty-bitty authors were hiding in the front yard, looking up at him. The foil diaper was to block his brainwaves, but he’d had so many drugs over the past couple of months, his brainwaves were more appropriately called brain-jagged-line-drawings-of-a-drunk-two-year-old.
A mailman walked up to the house and handed Sparko a letter. It was a response from Sparko’s favorite publisher and he let out a squeal of glee and accidentally threw up a little in his mouth. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out the correspondence. All it said was, “Stop sending us manuscripts written on Post-It notes. You can’t spell and there appears to be feces of indeterminable origin on many of them. Cease and desist, or we shall report you to the police.”
Sparko was so enraged he decided to try and kill the messenger. The rest is headline news. No one ever figured out how the catheter came into play. Sparko’s next-door neighbor, also a struggling author, wrote a book about the terrible affair.
His book can be found on finer grocery store checkout lines everywhere.
Do you see how the author (who shall remain nameless) worked against you, the weary reader, to keep you guessing at who was speaking to Sparko? That’s mystery. The author couldn’t tip his hand too early, right? And the epic battle between Sparko and Hemingway left you wondering where the author was going with all this, right? That’s conflict. Ah, but from the very beginning, you wanted to know why Sparko was bloody, painted blue, and wearing a foil diaper, right? No? Well, anyway that’s supposed to be tension. You came along for the ride in order to see how this would play out.
… or something like that …
Am doing this right?