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Bad Horse

Beneath the microscope, you contain galaxies.

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Writing: Keeping all the puzzle pieces in play · 8:16pm Jun 3rd, 2014

Isn't The Giving Tree creepy?

Fun fact: Shel Silverstein wrote "The Giving Tree" while living at the Playboy Mansion with Hugh Hefner, screwing playmates and supermodels.

Yes. Yes, it is.

Recently I pre-read a great little story by TheJediMasterEd that started with that idea. It's a clever and subtle story: Applejack says what she thinks about The Giving Tree. Fluttershy notices that it mirrors something in AJ's life, and tries to point it out, but AJ doesn't quite catch on. Fluttershy is too shy to say it all outright, so she drops another hint. The reader has to figure out the meaning of that hint, combine it with what Fluttershy said before, then recall what it is AJ objects to, and see the parallels between those two sets of ideas.

This story is a delicate puzzle with three pieces. To grasp it, the reader has to have all three pieces in mind at the same time. You can hope that she'll remember the story well enough to go back and hunt down and dig out the necessary pieces, but she's more likely to put them together properly if she has them all in mind at the moment she reads the final crucial sentence.

(If you have a longer story, or a novel, you won't be able to do that. Novels have themes that you keep building on rather than puzzle pieces that snap together in a single moment.)

(Psychologists often distinguish short term memory from long-term memory. This distinction is an approximation, but I'm going to pretend that it's real.) Short-term memory can accommodate about 4 to 5 "chunks" [1], and 2 of these 3 puzzle pieces might count as 2 chunks apiece. So if anything else got stuck in the reader's memory between the first sentence and the last, it would push out that first vital chunk and possibly prevent the reader from understanding the story, as it did me on my first read through. There were some lines of dialogue that I had to stop at and think to figure out which person had said them. There was a joke that ended with a disturbing physical image that stuck in my mind. There was a line of dialogue that was supposed to have a simple meaning, but suggested something strange and sexual to me.

(Of course, most things do. :ajsmug:)

Each of those things had a purpose, but also a cost. That story is short and simple enough that a careful reader who expects it to make sense will probably figure it out, but it might not be as satisfying if they have to think it out rather than having that sudden “snap”.

It’s up to you as author of a story to decide whether digressions are worth it. Just be aware of the cost.

All the way from the first piece to the last piece, you can touch on things that the reader will wonder about, loading these digression or chunks into memory, as long as you don't load so many nonessential chunks that they push an essential chunk out the other end of the queue. You should resolve every non-essential question raised before introducing another question, so the reader discards them from memory, so that when the reader arrives at the end, their short-term memory contains all of the necessary puzzle pieces and nothing else.

The closer you get to the end, the more dangerous each distraction is, because the fewer empty slots are left in short-term memory. And it’s hard to know what might be a distraction! You see the things you intended; you don’t see the connotations that you didn’t. That’s one purpose of pre-readers.

[1] "Chunk" is a technical term whose meaning depends on how you think memories are stored in the brain. "7 plus or minus 2" refers to the number of digits people can remember, not the number of chunks they can remember. Chunks explain why experts can remember more information than novices.

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Comments ( 18 )

Yeah, it kind of is. I wouldn't let my kid read it unsupervised.

Yeah, the Giving Tree is incredibly creepy.

I'm sorry, but you said story by JediMasterEd and the rest just kinda became a blur. :twilightsheepish:
And yes, the "Giving Tree" is incredibly creepy.

... This makes me feel really out of place. I've never read The Giving Tree :twilightoops:

I guess this post illustrates a reason to really try to get the story as close to its final shape as possible before showing to a pre-reader. A pre-reader to gauge and calibrate this specific, tricky, aspect of the story will likely only be useful once per story. After he has read it once, parts of the story, likely including the puzzle, will be in his long term memory, making it harder, if not impossible, for him to tell if the puzzle aspect will work out if the author sends the same pre-reader a polished version of the same story.

2172039 Hmm. Yet, as a pre-reader, I'd rather be brought in as early as possible. Because the other thing pre-readers do is help you figure out what the shape of your story should be.


I'd say it's just a reason to get more pre-readers for stories like this.

Then the answer might be to do what Derpmind said and get more pre-readers than usual. Perhaps together with some planning to avoid deploying all of them on early revisions. This seems to be, after all, a situation where a single pre-reader can't help twice, no matter how willing he or she is, simply because persons can't unread the story.

(Though, Bad Horse, I figure you might be crossing into editor territory, rather than just pre-reader. And someone doing editor tasks might be as useless for figuring out if readers will be stumped by the puzzle as the author himself; he would likely be too involved with the story to be surprised by it.)

2172297 Though, Bad Horse, I figure you might be crossing into editor territory, rather than just pre-reader.

Yes. I don't hear the term "editor" here much. I figured people used the word to include editing. :derpyderp2:


Yes. I don't hear the term "editor" here much.

Stop the presses, boss--I got an exclusive with that flyin' guy in the red cape!

I went to Master Ed's page, it said he had no stories. Which is disappointing, you really hooked me (even though I skimmed a good portion of this to avoid spoilers).

2172138 My stories don't really have shapes, they're more amorphous blobs with all these poky-out bits that don't go with anything :pinkiehappy:

Now, "chunks." One of the things that made "Monster" such a bear to write (and Letters to a slightly lesser degree) was the chunky way actions were portrayed. The POV rocketed all over the place, with four major 'scenes' (Nightmare, Monster, CMC+2, and M5), but I found if I could differentiate each scene enough from the others, and cut them into smaller simultaneous pieces, readers could track four things at once. It wasn't perfect. I'll even bet some small percentage of the current readers still think Monster's parents are dead despite their appearance in two chapters of Letters, and I'll bet I lost a lot of readers just from confusion, but the complexity appears to have picked up more than I lost. (or I'm just delusional)

There are times when you want the reader to go "Huh? What's going on there?" to keep their interest. Letters has a several-phase time loop that some people didn't catch until the very end, and a three-scene series of events where the main character is in each scene at the same time. It's fun! :pinkiehappy:


The synopsis is that there's a kid and a tree who are friends. Anytime the kid wants something the tree can provide, it does, even harming itself in the process. As time goes on, the kid grows up and becomes a huge douche, eventually cutting down the tree because he needs the wood. All throughout, the tree only wants to help. At the end, even as a stump, the tree wants to help, even if this now old man has only brought it pain.

Thanks for all the interest from you guys, and especially to Bad Horse for puffing my story. Here's the deal:

It's too short to publish by itself, so BH suggested I post it as a chapter in an anthology, like his own "The Twilight Zone." Okay, but my question is: will I need more chapters before I can do that? I mean, does the minimum - word limit apply to the total of all chapters in a multi - chapter story?

Please let me know. Thanks!

2174144 does the minimum - word limit apply to the total of all chapters in a multi - chapter story?

Yes. Sorry.

2174144 So at least one of the two of you will alert your humble readers about the chance to read this exciting story when it publishes, yes?


I hope to get a second brief story written soon, and have them both up by the end of the month as the first two chapters in an anthology tentatively entitled "Horse Trading."

2175434 Aaaaaaah I see what you did there! :rainbowlaugh:

Does that mean you are touching horses, Ed?
I want to see this story a whole lot more now. It seems like a bit of a mind screw. I like those.

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