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Hawaii Vacation December 13, 2022

Last week, Sweetie and I visited Hawaii for our first substantial vacation in twelve years! We came back with sunburns, souvenirs, and 3450 photos and video clips. As tempting as it is to share all of them—because every photo taken in Hawaii is stunning, especially with a shiny new Sony A6400—I've selected only the important highlights below.

Sunday, December 4: Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head State Park

Though we were scheduled to arrive in Oahu at noon on Saturday and spend the afternoon on the beach, with airport delays we reached our hotel late in the evening. Fortunately the time difference worked in our favor, so I woke up early the next morning and rushed down to the water to capture the sunrise. When stepping through the front doors I braced myself for cold wind, but I was shocked to get a face full of warm, humid air instead.

Waikiki Beach
Waikiki Beach

After a breakfast of pastries and pineapples, we walked two miles to the Diamond Head state park. On the way we discovered something no one mentions about Hawaii: there are chickens everywhere! Not domesticated chickens kept for eggs and meat, but unusually small wild ones walking around in public like pigeons. We found a hen foraging with her fluffy yellow chicks right along the sidewalk.

Wild Chicken and Chicks

The climb up the Diamond Head crater was hot and sweaty, but it rewarded us with amazing views of the island. The water off the cost of Oahu is the purest, brightest turquoise I've ever seen in nature.

Diamond Head Top View
Diamond Head, Tamara

In the afternoon we took a ride on a submarine operated by Atlantis Adventures. Sadly photos from a submarine don't turn out well. The tour guide explained the water above filters out the color red, so everything looks like a muted, shadowy blue. Nature videographers make their footage look vibrant by adding artificial light, the cheaters. But the boat ride out to the sub was very photogenic, with rainbows appearing over Waikiki as we sailed back in.

Tamara entering the submarine
Tamara in the submarine
Tamara on the boat
Rainbow over Waikiki Hotels and Diamond Head

We closed out the day with a swim. We didn't bring the camera, but Sweetie took some impressive pictures of the sunset on his phone.

Tamara wading into the ocean
Waikiki sunset

Monday, December 5: Circle Island Tour and Polynesian Cultural Center

We caught a Roberts Hawaii tour bus at 7 on Monday for an all-day adventure to the other side of the island. The driver narrated as he took us up the east coast, then north through the center with stops at scenic overlooks.

Oahu Beach from Tour Bus
Blowhole Scenic Area
Circle Tour Scenic Stop
Circle Tour Scenic Stop

According to the driver, there are so many interesting-looking chickens like this guy wandering around because a few decades ago, hurricanes destroyed most of Oahu's coops and launched the birds hither and yon.

Wild Rooster

The bus made an obligatory stop at the Dole plantation—a popular attraction with tasty ice cream, but which I couldn't fully enjoy knowing who the Doles were and the unsavory things they did to native and Asian immigrant peoples in the late 1800s. I did enjoy seeing this tiny blue-eyed kitty in the bushes, though.

Small Siamese cat in the bushes

The bus dropped us off at the Polynesian Cultural Center at lunchtime. The overpriced food trucks were forgettable, but I was impressed by the hibiscus bushes in full bloom in December. All of my flowering perennials died back in October, and I won't see them again until next July.

Hibiscus at Polynesian Cultural Center

The Polynesian Cultural Center is run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which I didn't know when booking the tickets. Most of the staff are BYU students who came from Fiji, Tonga, Aotearoa, and other countries to study. A man-made river runs through the center of the park, surrounded by the "islands" where the staff put on shows and lead educational activities.

Polynesian Cultural Center

At the islands we learned how to make coconut oil, twirl a fire baton, spin poi balls and play Maori stick games. Here's me attempting to follow along in a brief Tahitian dance lesson.

Polynesian Cultural Center Tahitian Dance Lesson

The day ended with a luau and big finale dance show. Thanks to a surprise tropical storm we we looked like drowned rats at the luau, and no recording was allowed at the show. However, I can show you this delicious alcohol-free pina colada served in a hollowed-out pineapple with an orchid on a toothpick on top. We got to keep the wooden straws!

Pineapple drink

Tuesday, December 6: Zipline and Horseback Ride

Sweetie convinced me to sign up for a zipline and horseback ride package, which were also on the North Shore near the Polynesian Cultural Center. We had to catch a Honolulu city bus at 6 am to get there by 8:30, which was a little stressful, but I was impressed they have a regular and reliable bus line that covers the whole island like that. Over here in Central Oregon, you need to own a car just to obtain groceries.

Riding the ziplines was terrifying at first, but after a few rides I trusted the hardware enough to let go with one hand. Then two.

CLIMB Works Zipline
CLIMB Works Zipline, Upside Down

After hamburgers we caught the bus to the Gunstock Ranch, where we enjoyed a pleasant slow walk up a scenic hill on a pair of very well-behaved horses. I learned quickly to just let mine do whatever he wanted to do, with only a gentle lift of the reins now and again when he got distracted by delicious green grass.

Gunstock Ranch Horseback Ride

Wednesday, December 7: Iolani Palace and Ala Moana Center

In the morning we visited the Iolani Palace, home of the last monarchs of Hawaii. It's similar to other large Victorian houses I've seen, like the Pittock mansion in Portland and the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island, since the king was trying to impress the same European aristocrats that the Vanderbilts were. (A fan of monarchies, I am not. I got myself on the volunteer tour guide's Problem Child list by asking loudly where the money for those amazing jewels and golden servingware came from.)

Golden servingware
Diamond butterfly brooch

1800s tax dollars at work.

After an unexciting jaunt to the laundromat, we went to the Ala Moana Center for a late lunch of fancy Korean corn dogs and bubble teas. As I said in the beginning, this post documents the most important highlights of the trip.

Tamara eating Korean corn dogs

Thursday, December 8: Daniel K. Inouye Highway

We flew to the Big Island on Thursday morning and rented a car, then immediately used it to attempt to see lava from the erupting Mauna Loa volcano. Unluckily for us, the lava flow from the last active fissure had basically ended the day before we arrived, and the feds don't want anyone to get close enough to see anything. We could barely see faint steam from the eruption by driving very slowly past the viewing area. You'll have to click to the full image to see the wisps at the peak.

Mauna Loa Erupting

We did find a pretty scenic pull-off along the highway, though, with trees and groundcovers growing stubbornly through the lava rock. We learned later at the Volcanoes National Park that the tree with succulent-like leaves and red flowers is an Ohi'a, and the flowers are called leihua.

Daniel K. Inouye Highway, Scenic Area
Daniel K. Inouye Highway, Scenic Area with Ohi'a Tree

Friday, December 9: Volcanoes National Park

We stayed for two nights at the Volcano Village Lodge, which has two-person cabins in the rainforest. When I saw the phrase "in the rainforest" in reviews, I imagined they meant some tropical trees and ferns grow around the edge of the property. No, they meant in the rainforest.

Volcano Village Lodge, Hale Kilauea

Volcano Village Lodge Pond

This is Gino, the Lodge's resident cat. He likes to sit in the parking lot and greet the guests.


Despite its looks, this rainforest gets cold in December. A tree took out a power line on our first evening there, so between 5 and 9 pm we huddled under the bed covers with flashlights, no internet, and no running water. But as soon as we had the magic of electricity again, the cabin was cozy and luxurious compared to our basic 19th-floor hotel room in Honolulu.

On Oahu, we thought we'd over-packed for the trip. With nights so warm women strolled around the shops in bikini tops and breezy coverups, what were we going to do with our heavy jeans and fleece jackets? But at the high elevations of the Big Island, visitors to the Volcanoes National Park were shivering in their puffy hooded coats. At the overlook for Kilauea, which has been low-key erupting continuously since 1983, the freezing winds were strong enough to knock over a small child.

Kilauea Overlook
Sweetie at Kilauea Overlook
Tamara at Kilauea Overlook

After coming back down, standing directly in the hot steam heated by the lava below was sooo nice.

Steam Vents

We followed the Kilauea Iki trail down to the crust of the lava lake, which formed during a massive eruption in the 1950s. The little white and pink flowers growing in the rocky wasteland are bamboo orchids, and more Ohi'a trees are doing their best to establish there too.

Sweetie on Kilauea Iki trail
Bamboo Orchids on Kilauea lava lake
Kilaea lava lake
Tamara on Kilauea lava lake

After climbing back up the other side of the crater, the path leads to the Thurston Lava Tube, then back to the Visitor Center with views back down. The whole loop was about 6 miles for us, and would have been shorter if we'd known to park further east.

Thurston Lava Tube
Kilauea Iki trail overlook
Kilauea Iki trail, crater overlook

Saturday, December 10: More Volcanoes and Black & Green Sand Beaches

We went back to the park in the morning to take some quick snaps of sights we'd missed the day before: the Devastation Trail and the Sulphur Banks. Sweetie was disappointed the "Devastation" has recovered so well since the '50s, there's only a brief stretch that still looks dead. The sulphur banks look cool, but we needed to wear N95s because of the unhealthy gases.

Devastation Trail
Steam at Sulpher Banks
Sulpher Banks mineral deposits

Then we drove south to the Black Sand Beach, which was as advertised.

Tamara at Black Sand Beach
Sweetie at Black Sand Beach
Black Sand Beach
Black sand

Ten or so sea turtles were sunning and bathing on the shore, protected from harassment by a barrier. The distance was no problem for our shiny new camera, though.

Turtles on Black Sand Beach
Sea Turtle at Black Sand Beach

One of the employees at the Lodge recommended we visit the Green Sand Beach as well. So the plan was to make a quick stop to see it, then head up to Kailua-Kona for a dinner reservation before flying home. What the employee didn't mention is the beach is two miles away from the parking lot as the crow flies, along an extremely rocky, windy, challenging non-path. We were determined to see that sand, so we cancelled the reservation and forged ahead. And we made it!

Sweetie at Green Sand Beach

The sand isn't "green" like you'd imagine from the name, but we couldn't come up with a better name for it. It's green-tinted brown, but what's interesting about it is the sparkle rather than the color. When the sunlight hits it, it looks like ground-up pyrite.

Glittering sand

Since this was our last beach before leaving, I ran around like a little kid and tried to take cool pictures, but the seawater splashed the lens.

Tamara at Green Sand Beach
Ocean at Green Sand Beach, with splashed lens

Then it was time to leave to catch our plane. Hawaii is a windy, windy island. Green sand got in our eyes, our hair, all over our arms and legs. I found some hiding in my ears a day later.

Ascent from Green Sand Beach
Walking back from Green Sand Beach

Monday, December 12: Home at last!

We flew from Kona to Seattle at 10 pm on Saturday, but a snowstorm in Oregon foiled our final flight. We finally made it back to home, sweet home the next morning. Now, back to our regularly scheduled winter.

Snow-covered home in Oregon

Guns in Fiction Land, Part 2 - Ten Years Later May 27, 2022

Nearly ten years ago, after the unfathomable mass murder of children in Sandy Hook, I wrote the post Guns in Fiction Land. Now in May 2022, after what has become just another commonplace mass murder of children in Uvalde, absolutely nothing has changed.

Disturbed kids who go on rampages don't need guns to kill. They choose guns because that's what all of their disturbed role models used. Because the magical boom-boom sticks make them feel powerful. Nobody quakes in fear and regret when they see a teenager holding a steak knife. But a gun...that's where the infamy is. That's what gets your name in all the headlines.

After every gun-related tragedy in the news, politicians promise do something about it. The something is always some minor expansion of gun control laws—closing loopholes in background checks, new restrictions for mental health conditions, mandatory training for new licenses, etc. Then the proposed laws inevitably fall apart in the senate after something even more tragic happens in the news. We've reached the point where every comment I see online is a variation of, "Our country is so messed up. Nothing will be done about it, though. Oh well."

But even if the politicians did pass laws restricting purchases of new guns, the tragedies won't stop. Checks are good. Training is good. But the reason America has such a huge and seemingly unfixable problem with gun violence is cultural, not procedural. Restricting sales of new guns won't make the nearly four hundred million guns in America miraculously vanish. The Secret Service reports that three-quarters of the guns used in attacks at schools are acquired from the homes of parents and close relatives, not bought by the perpetrators (p. 22). And no law will stop a psychotic murderer from chasing retribution and infamy.

The descriptions of these killers rarely changes. They're predominantly male, usually the impulsive age of 18-20, usually white, always with wounded egos because they failed to get a girlfriend or job or a parent's approval. They are or perceive themselves to be the targets of bullying. They choose to attack more defenseless targets: minorities like the Black shoppers in the Buffalo supermarket, immigrant sex workers like the women in the Atlanta massage parlors, and unarmed students and teachers in countless schools. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland High, and hundreds of others we don't hear about because too few children died to be newsworthy.

The second thing people always say after these tragedies is, "We need more support for mental health." Obviously these killers are disturbed. But they're also mostly male. Young American women also have mental health issues. There are psychotic people of all genders and ages in all countries around the world. But young men in the U.S.A. are the ones who steal the guns from Mom's bedroom closet, don bullet-proof vests, and walk through campuses shooting innocents at random like they're starring in a remake of The Godfather.

Why? In large part because of The Godfather. And Die Hard, The Terminator, and Pulp Fiction. And every other Western, war movie, and U.S. military advertisement ever made that glorifies manly men with manly guns.

We treat guns as symbols of American strength and masculinity.

Killing an animal or person with a gun is a favorite "Now I'm a Man" moment for both heroes and antiheroes in books and movies. In The Yearling, the adolescent protagonist shows he's ready for adulthood by shooting his pet deer. In L.A. Confidential, the goody-two-shoes detective shunned by his peers earns their respect by shooting a fleeing gang of Mexican criminals. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch proves to his children that he was a real man all along by shooting a rabid dog.

How many young American men every year graduate from high school in June, and in July post pictures showing how sexy they look in their new Army or National Guard fatigues, cradling "The love of my life: My M4!" How many American farm supply stores have a home decor section with "funny" window signs and welcome mats that say, "This house is protected by GOD and GUNS" and, "Yes, I Do Have a Beautiful Daughter. I ALSO HAVE A GUN."

The second amendment is meant to guarantee us a method of self-protection against state violence in times of absolute necessity. It's not meant to be an endorsement of guns as props of macho dominance.

Our culture teaches children that having a gun makes you cool. Having a gun makes you mature and fearsome. Even when we intend to teach children how dangerous guns are, we do it by inviting police officers to Brownie and Boy Scout meetings to say, "Now kids, I can hold this gun because I'm a big strong man and I know what I'm doing. You can't because you're too little. If your Dad has a gun at home, don't ever touch it until he says you're old enough and teaches you how to use it."

My husband (formerly known as Sweetie) says there would never be a school shooting again if congress passed a law that all guns must be colored hot pink and decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. That would decimate the Facebook posturing and Rambo revenge fantasies right quick.

That's not likely to happen, so to lessen the appeal of guns to psychopaths, we must commit to undoing all of the harmful messages in our media that link violence with heroism.

Stop equating being "a good shot" with being a leader.

Atticus Finch was dreamed up in the 1950s, but showing that a protagonist is a good shot continues to be used today as a fictional shorthand for competence, bravery, and all-around greatness.

In The Hunger Games, we know Katniss Everdeen is destined to save the world because she can shoot a squirrel right in the eye, every time. In an early scene, when apathetic judges ignore her performance with the bow and arrow to feast and be merry, she shoots the apple out of the mouth of the roasted pig on their banquet table. Haha, that gets their attention! So cool! And Katniss earns the top ranking score like she deserves!

A bow and arrow seems more romantic and family friendly than a gun, but the lesson to young readers is the same as in all those Westerns that establish which cowboy we're supposed to root for by showing who has the best aim. If you become good at killing, people will notice you. They'll respect you, and fear you, and talk about you.

Stop showing guns in movies and shows. Period.

In October, Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust. Everyone wants to know how the prop gun was loaded, why the crew believed it wasn't, whether Baldwin pulled the trigger or it discharged on its own, etc. But I want to know why, in 2021, the crew was setting up a "cool" scene of a beloved movie star pointing a gun straight at the camera and shooting it.

After the tragedy, headlines announced that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson vowed not to use guns in his movies or TV shows moving forward. Finally, progress! I thought, before clicking on the details. Clarification: The Rock will not use real guns on the sets of his movies or TV shows moving forward. His production company still intends to show beloved movie stars pointing guns and shooting them, but they'll be safe rubber props.

Most movies and shows don't show gun violence because it's a dark part of real life we can't scrub away. They use guns for glamour, thrills, and comedy. They show "morally gray" supermodel spies threatening cringing brown drug dealers with guns to get information. Bearded old mountain men with shotguns and Southern drawls shooting at innocent trespassers for laughs. Scrappy heroes engaging in laser gun fights with imperial Stormtroopers for pulse-pounding excitement.

(Then the heroes say some words about how war is bad. Then they go right back to shooting and whooping in celebration when the soldiers explode and die.)

Stop "gameifying" war.

Playing video games doesn't drive young men to insanity and convince them to go out and shoot people in real life. Politicians love to blame video games for mass shootings because it's cheap and easy and won't affect their polling numbers, unlike proposing real solutions like financing social programs and taking on the Russia-backed NRA.

What violence in video games does do is reinforce retrograde ideas of masculinity, encourage weapon worship, and teach players to equate killing with winning. In other words, it's fantastic propaganda for the military and feeds the whole wannabe-soldier mindset of police departments, conspiracy-mongering militias, and the baby-faced teens on YouTube giving rave reviews of tactical vests and rifle scopes sold on Amazon.

Few developers are imaginative enough to come up with gameplay mechanics other than kill, kill, kill. Kill aliens, kill robot dinosaurs, kill hooded wizards and mace-wielding knights and foreigners guarding priceless treasures. The more enemies you kill, the more rewards you get. Higher grades on end-of-level score cards. Money to buy more powerful weapons that kill enemies faster. "Achievement" badges with funny names that friends and strangers can admire on your profile.

Marksman achievement: Kill 50 enemies with headshots

Only a handful of popular games reward nonviolent conflict resolution, like Undertale, or punish players for indiscriminate murder, like Metal Gear Solid. We need more of them. Ideally, all of them would do one or both of those things moving forward. We have hundreds of games that reward killing already. Why make more?

Finance support for boys and create more positive masculine role models.

When I was growing up in the '90s and '00s, the community invested in special programs to encourage girls to become astronauts and senators. There were no equivalent programs to encourage boys to become nurses and preschool teachers.

All children emulate the adults they see. In the study "Effects of Exposure to Gun Violence in Movies on Children's Interest in Real Guns," children were shown a PG-rated movie that either contained scenes of characters shooting guns or no scenes with guns. The children who watched the movie with guns were much more likely to pick up and pretend to shoot an unloaded gun they found in a playroom cabinet afterwards.

It's common sense that American boys who see cops and soldiers shooting guns on TV or in video games will also develop an interest in guns. The interest persists into young adulthood as they see images of manly heroes saving the day by killing the bad guys over, and over, and over.

They don't see images of men saving the day by talking down the aggressor. That's portrayed as an exclusively female, and therefore inferior, skill for heroines like Moana. Male heroes who try a nonviolent approach suffer for it, like when Christopher Reeve's Superman tries to reason with Lex Luther and gets his powers sucked away by Kryptonite as missiles pummel California and Lois Lane dies horrifically.

"For god's sake, just break his neck!" exasperated audiences will groan at the screen, as Superman calmly listens to Luthor explain his dastardly plan. Because clearly listening is a stupid thing to do, and the only real solution to a conflict is for someone to die.

I'd love to see fewer movies with so many men holding guns, the weapon models are lovingly cataloged in the Internet Movie Firearms Database, like Dwayne Johnson's Skyscraper (2018). We need to replace them with movies showing manly heroes as nurturing childcare givers, librarians, tailors, dance teachers and stay-at-home dads.

And in real life, we need to proactively raise boys to succeed by being empathetic and cooperative, not entitled and aggressive. We've put so much money and effort into teaching girls to shed the ignominies of traditional femininity, and we've done a great job. But we need to put just as much effort into helping boys shed the toxic parts of traditional masculinity.

The Distinction between Exciting and Compelling February 1, 2022

There's a stereotype of the young writer who's afraid to write about conflict. Creative Writing teachers tell anecdotes about that one student in their college class who could have written very well, but her stories were static portraits of happy families. Writers publish countless articles reminding newbies they must put their characters in maximum pain, as if they're sick and tired of seeing stories about people living pleasant lives in which nothing bad ever happens.

But if you spend any time around new writers, virtual or otherwise, you'll see the opposite: everyone wants to write about misery. That one student in Creative Writing 101 might write about happy families, but the other twenty-nine want to write about outrageously unhappy ones. Every story posted online for feedback is "my dark take on such-and-such trope." Every piece read at a writer's group meeting or awarded in a short story contest is about troubled girls trapped by an abusive pimp, or twisted brides who poison their grooms and cuddle with their corpses, or people facing the end of the world who decide to smother their children and hang themselves.

People seem to believe dark automatically equals deep. "Hear me out," they Tweet. "Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon...but with death mages!" Because Sailor Moon, being a generally uplifting and sparkly show for young girls, is dumb. But if the girls wore black and killed people, it would become meaningful!

Dark stories can be deep—see anything written by Shirley Jackson—but they're not inherently deeper than joyful stories. I've read books with horrifying revelations and despair on every page, and they were still boring and pointless. Anna Karenina is an enduring classic, but that doesn't mean "And then she threw herself under a train" is an easy shortcut to writing an interesting story.

Why do writers assume dark stories are deep, complex, and compelling, even when they're not?

Literary tradition praises violence and cynicism.

My high school reading lists were filled with books by angry dead guys:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Brave New World
  • Animal Farm
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Lord of the Flies
  • And so on and so forth.

Each of these books has its own merits worth teaching, but combined with very little variety mixed in, they taught me that the criteria for good literature is simple:

  1. It's about sex.
  2. It's about death.
  3. It's about people being unhappy and mean in the gaps between sex and death.

Anything else, as we know, is trite "women's fiction." One English Lit teacher in my school dared to assign Pride and Prejudice to her seniors, and oh, the scandal. Such a waste of time, the students complained. Not a single main character gets shot in the head, so like, what's even the point?

Writing advice revolves around "what sells."

As soon as people decided to turn fiction into a business, the definition of a good story became "a story that makes money." Charles Dickens became a Literary Great by ending his serial installments with tantalizing cliffhangers. In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), a big conflict between Jo and her future husband is her decision to write juicy pirate tales for money, instead of the sentimental stories she wants to tell in her own voice. In 1906, a translator of Natsume Soseki's satire I Am a Cat complained in the forward:

"Love-stories are all right. But when they are produced in such an enormous mass as at present, they become a nuisance...Their constructions, which are nearly of a piece, are stale and dull. Their charm, if it may be called so, invariably consists in scandalous incidents and offensive dialogues. These are the productions which, catching the attention of wide circles of youthful readers, have long remained the master of the literary field."

Today every rejection letter from a literary agent is some version of, "Unfortunately, the story didn't grab me." What does it mean to grab a publishing professional? To be frank, it means every book written today is supposed to be clickbait. It's supposed to promise anger, fear, lust, shocking twists and violent drama so wickedly tantalizing, no book lover can resist clicking "Add to Cart."

Death is exciting.

Most of the titles promoted by stores and public libraries are high-octane thrillers about murderous psychopaths of some variety. The few low-octane novels with pastel illustrations of blueberry pies in New England beach houses are also about murderous psychopaths, but with recipes.

Anxiety and anger are stimulating emotions, and audiences love to get excited. Adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding action has been a reliable staple of fiction since the ancient days gods warred with lightning bolts and Oedipus Rex married his mother and stabbed his eyes out.

However, "exciting" is not the same thing as "compelling." Two-hour movies stuffed full of life-threatening action scenes can be uninteresting, as shown by the many articles and Reddit threads on the subject, "What went wrong with The Matrix sequels?"

A compelling story is one that "evokes interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way." In practice, it's a story that:

  1. Makes the reader care about the characters and their fates.
  2. Creates knowledge gaps the reader wants to keep reading to fill.

Humans are interested in what we don't fully understand. As babies, we'll stare tirelessly at dangling mobiles and Mom & Dad appearing magically from behind blankets singing, "Peekaboo!" As adults, we're still fascinated by songs with novel patterns we haven't heard before, and by artwork that depicts the world in ways we haven't seen before. We stare open-mouthed at car accidents and obsess over cold murder cases, because they don't make sense to us.

When things don't make sense, we feel dissatisfied, and we want to investigate until we understand. Like when we hear the unpleasant sound of a dissonant, unstable note or chord, we feel something isn't right. Our ears perk anxiously until the music resolves to a nice-sounding chord, and then we're relieved that the world is in order again.

Every story, regardless of genre, is a kind of mystery. What happened? Who's fault was it? How did they resolve the problem? These questions in the reader's mind create what John Gardner termed, "profluence"—a sense that the story is going somewhere, and we'll be rewarded if we keep moving forward.

A lot of death, high stakes, and constant excitement doesn't always create mystery or peak curiosity.

The "rules" of modern fiction prioritize excitement.

Every contemporary creative writer has been told the following dozens of times from teachers, craft books, and AuthorTubers:

  • Every story conflict must be about a kind of death (physical, professional, or personal).
  • In every scene, the stakes must rise higher and the main character's situation must get worse.
  • Every chapter must end on a cliffhanger to keep readers turning the pages.

The folks teaching these rules cite Dean Koontz thrillers and Stephen King horror novels to make the case that every book in every adult genre must do the same thing to be compelling: manufacture danger, then crank up the danger more and more, until the clever protagonist wriggles out of danger at the very last moment.

These "rules" are reductive. They teach us how to write exciting fiction, but not necessarily compelling fiction. There's some logic behind each rule, but as written they can mislead writers into believing "death & despair = compelling story."

"Every story conflict must be about a kind of death" => Compelling stories are about challenges with rewards and consequences.

In mysteries, the challenge for the protagonist is to identify the culprit who disrupted the peace, and to restore order by removing the threat from the community. In romances, the challenge for the lovers is to overcome personal foibles and external obstacles to secure their happiness as a new family unit. In coming-of-age stories, the challenge is for the sheltered youth to carve out their new place in the hostile adult world.

These challenges don't dictate tone, and they certainly don't need to be about "a kind of death" unless you stretch the definition of "death" to extremes to justify your theory. The stakes—a.k.a. potential negative consequence of failure—will always be a potential loss, but not necessarily of the main character's whole life or future. They might simply fail to marry a sexy misunderstood duke, or launch their dream career in fashion design, or win the state hockey championship against all odds. That's hardly "death," and it doesn't need to be for a compelling story.

"The stakes must rise higher and the main character's situation must get worse" => Throughout the story, the main character's situation must continuously evolve.

In high school physics, I was astonished to learn that the word "accelerate" doesn't mean "to go faster" as it's used colloquially, but "to change in velocity over time." Slowing down is also accelerating.

We're taught by The Rules that the only acceptable direction for a novel to go is "faster" and "higher." But what's really important to maintain a reader's interest is continuous change: an ever-shifting situation, new unexpected information and surprising consequences, a power-balance see-saw between the heroes and the antagonists.

Simply making the main character's situation worse, and worse, and worse, isn't necessarily compelling. Personally, I'm uninterested in most of the books published today that constantly threaten imminent disaster. Wow, the sleuth is falsely accused of murder? And she has to find the real killer before he strikes again? And she figured out who he is, but suddenly he's at the door with a gun, and there's no possible way she can get out of this scene alive? *Yawn* you don't say.

"Every chapter must end on a cliffhanger" => Each scene should promise interesting events in future scenes.

Cliffhangers are usually explained as endings that leave the audience in suspense, either by leaving the characters in a precarious situation or by introducing a shocking revelation or catastrophe.

From watching the drama W, I learned Korean writers think of "cliffhangers" in a different way: an episode of a show or comic should end on a change in the main character's emotional state. I like this definition because it opens up many possibilities for keeping audiences engaged, beyond "And then something really bad happened!"

A compelling end to a scene is simply a promise to the reader that this story is going somewhere interesting. The promise can take many forms. For example...

  • The spunky Regency heroine learns she has a new neighbor with a mysterious past, and she's going to meet him at the colonel's ball tonight.
  • The underdog hockey team learns there's been a change of plans, and they're going to face the regional champions in the rink this Saturday.
  • The teen sleuth learns she'll find an important clue in the restricted special collections room of the library. She calls her eccentric acquaintance in the archives department and says, "Remember when you said you owed me one?"

A "cliffhanger" doesn't have to be negative or threatening. It can be a positive development that makes the characters happy, as long as it promises new challenges and dramatic situations ahead.

Tastes Differ

Different readers will have slightly different definitions of "compelling." The 5-star books I found unputdownable, like The Vanishing Half and The Dutch House, probably bore readers who want Oedipus-level drama. Thousands of YA readers were enthralled by the Divergent trilogy, while I put the first book down halfway through because I felt the heroine was just facing one life-threatening double dog dare after another with no real progress.

The competitive nature of commercial publishing teaches us to believe that the only taste readers have is for liquid opium. If they're not hooked within the first sentence and addicted by the end of the first page, it's "not compelling enough." But readers might not want to get high. They might be looking for a book that's like a warm cup of tea made by a friend who understands them, or a refreshing fruit smoothie that makes them feel energized and optimistic. Those books are harder to sell, but that doesn't mean they're not as "good" or we should give up on writing them.