I had this little story rattling around my head for a couple of years. I’ve never wrote it down, until now. It’s influenced by Andy Weir’s short story The Egg, including the second person perspective. My story is not as well thought out as Weir though. Honestly the plot is kind of contrived and half-assed. But I needed to get it out of my head.
A side note: I read The Martian when Weir was still posting it on his website until he had to take it down when it was published as a book. So I’m kinda hipster.
You stood outside an imposing Gate when you saw a man whose size seemed to fill the entire expanse strolling out to meet you.
“Welcome,” He said. Despite His imposing bulk, His voice had the timbre of a grandfather’s kindly tenor.
“I’m in Heaven,” you said.
“More or less.”
“Who are you?”
“I am God the Father.”
“Are you here to judge me?”
“No,” He said, “I am here to guide you.”
“Walk with me.”
You followed the Father through the Gate and into Heaven. You stood for a moment and noticed something strange.
The Father smiled.
“There is only us,” He said.
You stood near the edge of Heaven, uncertain and wary of the Father and of the endless empty realm that stretched out before you.
“Come,” said the Father.
You looked back and saw that the Gate were closed. It was only forward now. The Father waited as you slowly walked towards Him.
“So what now?” you asked Him.
“Now we talk. I am sure you have questions.”
And as you walked through the Isles of the Blessed, the Father recounted the entire history of the universe: its birth, its habits and whims, and its eventual death.
Thus passed an eternity.
You and the Father were walking on the Celestial Lake when you came across a being that radiate light so intensely that even the Father had to shield His eyes.
“I am God the Son,” said the being, “Walk with me.”
So you left the Father and walked with the Son. And as you walked through the Elysian Fields, the Son revealed to you the entire history of humankind: its innocence, its boundless energies and relentless pursuits, and its eventual destruction.
Thus passed an eternity.
You and the Son were walking across the Lands of Paradise when you met an old man who was filled with such contemplative peace that even the Son was humbled before him.
“I am God the Holy Spirit,” the old man said. “Walk with me.”
So you left the Son and walked with the Holy Spirit. And as you walked through the fiery firmaments of Heaven, the Holy Spirit enlightened you on your entire histories: your conceptions, your numerous life journeys, and your eventual passings.
Thus passed an eternity.
You and the Holy Spirit were walking across the outermost sphere of Heaven when you came across another imposing Gate.
“Now it is time for you to walk alone,” said the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit smiled. “That is for you to find out.”
“Am I going to Hell?”
He shook his head. “Hell, Heaven, Earth, they are merely different shades of you.”
“But who am I?”
“You are what you are.”
And with a gentle nudge, the Holy Spirit ushered you through and into the darkness. You turned around and saw his wizened smile disappear behind the Gate.
So you wandered alone, lost and abandoned. Constantly searching for the Gate back to Heaven.
Thus passed an eternity.
You were drifting through the emptiness when you started to observe your surroundings not as they were, not as they are, but as what they could be. You moved across the void and knew what you had to do.
Can you tell me what’s wrong with the video? No? Well I’ll tell you. I was not impressed. Maybe it’s because I’m an emotionless robot but the video failed to hit that sentimental mark. The idea was there, but when it came to executing the idea, it fell flat.
“But Zareth,” you say, “This video is about a 13-year-old boy sacrificing his childhood to run the household while still scoring top marks in a nation-wide examination! And it has a piano driven background music! How is this not sentimental? Stop being such a cold-hearted asshole.”
True… it has all the makings of a sentimental video, but still…
Let’s analyse the video, shall we?
So the video begins with a voiceover from the 13-year-old teen. He proclaims that basketball was his first love. With that, the protagonist of the story (and his ‘first love’) is established.
The obstacle is also introduced early in the video. So now we’ve got a hero (13-year-old teen), his first love (basketball) and an obstacle (his mom’s stroke) preventing him from being united with his love.
Classic hero storytelling structure. But we’re still missing something. Something that adds a bit of a spice. Something, or more accurately, someone who is a counterpart to the hero. That’s right, we need a motherfucking villain. Enter the dragon.
A coach so evil that he is willing to kill 13-year-old boys who miss basketball practices. A coach so evil that our hero has a thousand yard stare from the many painful memories. Well, those memories will be painful when your coach is this guy:
“Do you know how to bounce the ball? Do you fucking know how to fucking bounce the ball??? ANSWER ME!”
Now we have our hero, his first love, his obstacle and the villain. All of which are established within twenty seconds of the video. So far so good. The question now is how will our hero overcome all the adversity to be reunited with his one, true love (i.e. playing basketball so that he doesn’t get killed by Terence Fletcher)?
The next few scenes are montages of our hero grocery shopping, buying lunch for his disabled mother, and managing the household finances. In the voiceover, the hero said that he “had to learn to run the family”. At least we’ve now established that our hero is being dragged away from his one, true love by the time-consuming task of taking care of his family at a young age.
We’ve also established that our hero is a filial son, which is the premise of the entire story. It’s also the title of the video.
Which brings us back to the main question, how will our hero overcome this adversity while still keeping his moral core intact (being a filial son)?
This is where the story starts derailing.
After the household montage, the video cuts to a scene showing a new dawn on the horizon:
Is this it? Is this where they show how our hero overcome his adversity??? Will we get awesome training montages with Terence Fletcher screaming abuses at him? OMIGOSH!
Instead it’s another household montage. But what irrationally pissed me off is when the hero said this in the voiceover:
WHAT THINGS??? WHAT THINGS??? AND WHAT OTHERS???
To be fair, ‘some things’ implicitly refer to taking care of his mother and running the household. But that was already established in the first 20 to 30 seconds of the video, so why repeat them? I’m more confused by the ‘others’. You mean our hero has more than one love besides basketball? Man, Terence Fletcher is gonna be more than pissed.
BASKETBALL IS NOT YOUR FIRST LOVE! IT’S YOUR ONLY LOVE, YOU FUCKING INGRATE!
So after the second household montage, we get another soft-focus shot of the sunlight:
This must be it. It definitely must be it. We just got another sunlight shot, people. It’s coming. The training montage. I can even hear the Rocky music with Terence Fletcher screaming over it.
A homework scene?
But that’s not the weirdest part. No, what’s weird about this scene is that our hero’s friends are pissed that he’s missing training. After introducing the villainous coach at the beginning, I was expecting the basketball coach to kick down the door and drag our hero away from his home.
Instead of watching the door get kicked into splinters by a sociopathic coach, we get a bunch of passive aggressive Whatsapp message from some angsty school kids.
By now it’s nearing the end of the video. And we still have not answer the main question of how our hero will overcome the adversity of his mom’s stroke to play basketball again while still remaining filial.
In fact, the question never gets fully answered. Because these are the next couple of scenes:
Our hero looking longingly at a basketball game.
Our hero getting rewarded with a basketball for scoring top marks in the nation-wide examinations.
And the end scene.
I was also irrationally pissed off by this scene. The problem with this scene is that there’s a huge gap between “Some things became more important than others” and “But I guess it was worth it”. Both sentences are crucial in showing that our hero willing sacrificed his love for basketball because nothing is more important than his mother (Terence Fletcher might dispute that).
Yet, both sentences are separated by more than a minute of filler montages. So when the last line “But I guess it was worth it” appears, it sounds like a non sequitur.
Ultimately, my biggest gripe is, you’ve guessed it, the non-appearance of the coach.
So at the end, I’m not feeling what the video wanted me to feel (i.e. reaching for the tissues). Instead, I’m left with a case of sentimental blue balls (i.e. not reaching for the tissues).
“Now, Zareth,” you say, “it’s easy to criticize another person’s work. I bet you can’t do this. So just shut up and sit down.”
Now don’t get your underwear in a bunch. I’m not mindlessly criticizing this video. The story has a lot of potential. Done well, it could actually be a very heart-wrenching video despite its very common concept.
The problem with the video is that it makes the rookie mistake of trying to squeeze in too much within a short timeframe. There’s something called ‘Chekhov’s gun’. Everything in a short narrative must be essential. So if you introduce a hardass coach, you better be sure that coach makes an appearance. As a result of not keeping the story ‘tight’, the video feels aimless and does not really tug at the heartstrings.
“So, Zareth,” you say, “what could you have done better?”
Well, I would have remove all mention of basketball. (And the two useless shots of the sun).
“But, but, but”, you stammer, “isn’t basketball central to the story? And Fletcher is making me shit my pants.”
Nope, it’s not. The problem with the video is that there were two competing narratives: basketball and achieving top marks in the nation-wide exams. So either the video concentrates on basketball or on being studious. In this case, the narrative of being studious won. So basketball is out.
So why did the narrative of being studious won? Well, it’s because there was nothing at stake in the basketball narrative. What do I mean by that? If basketball was central to the story, then there should be more at stake. It means that our hero would have to quit the top national basketball team and lose his basketball scholarship just to take care of his mother. But there was no mention about any of that. So if our hero stops playing basketball, the most he suffers is an abusive physical, emotional, and psychological beating from Fletcher.
On the other hand, there is everything at stake in the studious narrative. If our hero get top marks in the nation-wide exam, he can get into a good secondary school. And if he gets into a good secondary school, he can receive a stellar academic education. And if he receive a stellar academic education, he can get into a top university, graduate with honours and get a good job. And with that job, he can look after his mother.
If he fails at the nation-wide exam, well, given Singapore’s education system, he’s kinda fucked.
See, not only is there more at stake, it’s also playing to the Singaporean audience’s psyche. And if you read the comments on POSB’s Facebook page about the video, quite a number mention about our hero’s filial piety (and to a certain extent, his academic achievements). Basketball, and sports in general, just does not have a big presence in the Singaporean’s mind.
It seems that basketball was shoehorned into the story. It is as if the writer or filmmaker is embarrassed of showing our hero as some nerd and introduced the basketball motif to make our hero seem less nerdy.
“Maybe it’s not that,” you say, “maybe basketball represent our hero’s childhood and the loss of it.”
Okay, then why even talk about basketball as our hero’s first love or even mention the coach? There’s better ways to do that. Maybe show a shot of our hero watching kids having fun through his bedroom window. It’s a lot more effective than establishing an entire useless backstory about basketball.
In short, the story structure failed. There’s a beginning but no middle (conflict) and no climax (conclusion). Everything just kinda died down.
The video should have just stuck closely to the source story. It was a lot more focused.
As I was saying, I’m not shitting on the video. With some rewrites, revisions, and attention to the story structure, the video will definitely be a tearjerker. And a good example is this tearjerker ad by NTUC Income:
When we entered the Parliament House to pay our last respects to Lee Kuan Yew, I scribbled down a short poem on the back of my friend’s farewell card.
From dust to dust
The sands of history will pass.
But you have left your mark,
In every Singaporean’s heart.
I came up with the poem on the fly, after queuing and walking for almost 9 hours throughout the humid and overcast night.
It’s a pity that I did not take a picture of the poem, because for the life of me, I cannot remember if the second line is: “The sands of history will pass” or “The sands of history will be passed“. The former make sense and sounds better. But I have a feeling that I might have actually written the latter after a marathon queuing session.
And I cannot remember if I wrote the last line as “In every Singaporean’s heart“. I think I might have wrote something else entirely.
Well, time will tell after the millions of tributes and condolences have been shifted through.
On another note, I wanted to talk about Amos Yee and Singaporeans who jumped on others in defense of LKY.
But then I thought otherwise and decided not too – no point joining the fray.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of modern Singapore passed away in the early hours of the morning on 23rd March.
He passed away five months before the 50th year of Singapore’s independence, an independence that was handed to him and the Old Guards of PAP (People’s Action Party). They went on to lead and develop the then fledgling nation-state of Singapore into one of the world’s financial centres and a leading metropolis within a generation.
Marked by a strong-will pragmatism and a farsighted vision, Lee Kuan Yew was the first among equals of a very talented and capable team that guided and built the modern Singapore of today. A modern Singapore that is shaped according to his vision through his numerous and sometimes controversial policies and actions. A modern Singapore that has, over the years, become synonymous with the man himself. Lee Kuan Yew has become so ingrained in the national psyche that to mention his name is to mention Singapore and vice versa. As Tommy Koh, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, succinctly stated: Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore’s George Washington.
Yet even with his larger than life stature, Lee Kuan Yew eschewed any statue or national monument in his image. And there is no need. For the Singapore today is his national monument.
After he stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, he turned his focus to the wider geopolitical arena, and became the elder statesman whose political insights and comments were sought by others around the world. However, Singapore and its survival on the world stage, still remained his top priority.
As the day comes to an end, obituaries and tributes flowed and continue to flow from various world leaders, international news agencies and online media, not to mention the various tributes and condolences from Singaporean politicians and populace.
As a young Singaporean who did not live through his premiership but yet felt his strong presence during his years in Cabinet as Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor, I may not agree with many of his decisions and his actions but I respected him for dedicating his entire adult life to Singapore. Given his international reputation, Lee Kuan Yew will always remain a controversial figure. It is and it will always be difficult to divorce the man from the legacy, to separate the myth from the fact.
But now is neither the time nor the day to debate his legacy. That time and day will come later. Now is the time for reflection and a moment of silence for the passing of one of Asian’s leaders and with him, an era.
I can blame it on the Lunar New Year festive or that I have had been spending more time on writing crappy short stories. But I’m not going to do that. The fact that I managed to go through four books in January while holding down a hectic full-time job at an ad agency shows that I can and could make time to read.
So the answer is simple. I didn’t make time for my readings. And I’ve come to realized that the less I read, the more my writing suffered. When I read less, I not only lacked the tools to structure a story but also the creative spark to tell one. Or as Stephen King mentioned in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:
[Reading]… also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
So, moving on to that one book I read in February.
“Men At Arms” – Terry Pratchett
I first came across Terry Pratchett’s work when I was 15 or 16 years old. A math teacher had printed and posted outside his classroom a number of witty quotes and sayings that were attributed to famous people who purportedly wrote or said those witticisms. One of these were attributed to Terry Pratchett:
In the beginning there was nothing. And the Lord said ‘Let There Be Light!’ And still there was nothing, but at least now you could see it.
I remembered laughing and thought that it was pretty funny. I also remembered trying to explain the joke to a couple of friends and completely bombing it. It’s a complete mood-killer when you have to explain a joke.
After reading that Pratchett’s witticism, I read up on him and discovered that he was a well-known fantasy writer who was famous for his Discworld series. My school library had a number of Discworld novels. So I very briefly glanced through some of them and then decided that it was not for me.
I still don’t know why I thought that.
Years passed, and being an immensely popular writer, Pratchett was always in the background or the foreground of my mind, depending on the news of the day. Still, I did not pick up his books, even when I started reading my way through Neil Gaiman’s works. I mean I’ve always wanted to read Pratchett’s works but was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his writing.
So January this year I took the the plunge and bought Men At Arms (Discworld#15). And I was blown out of the water.
From the dark alleyways of the city of Ankh-Morpork to its complicated web of law, rules and competing guilds, from the myriad of characters that flirt in and out from one scenes to another (or in some cases, one dimension to another) to the building crescendo of solving multiple murder cases in the chaotic Ankh-Morpork, Men At Arms is a fantasy novel that I have never encountered before. But instead of a story spiraling out of control from the various competing forces, Pratchett keeps everything and still manages to inject the book with his wit and humour.
Below are some examples of the wit and humour that is infused throughout the novel (minor spoiler alert).
In this paragraph, Pratchett paints a vivid picture of the relationship between the City Watch and Ankh-Morpork’s citizens and how Ankh-Morpork’s various laws influence the complicated relationships between the two groups.
Cuddy had only been a guard for a few days, but already he had absorbed on important and basic fact: it is almost impossible for anyone to be in a street without breaking the law. There are a whole quiverful of offences available to a policeman who wishes to pass the time of day with a citizen, ranging from Loitering with Intent through Obstruction to Lingering While Being the Wrong Colour/Shape/Species/Sex. It occurred briefly to him that anyone not making a dash for it when they saw Detritus knuckling along at high speed behind them was probably guilty of contravening the Being Bloody Stupid Act of 1581. But it was too late to take that into account. Someone was running, and they were chasing. They were chasing because he was running, and he was running because they were chasing.
And then there’s the nature of Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry encapsulated in one sentence:
If the Creator had said, “Let there be light” in Ankh-Morpork, he’d have gotten no further because of all the people saying “What colour?”
And finally, one of the most well-known quotes/excerpt. This have been floating around the Web for ages, so even if you haven’t read any of Pratchett’s work, you would definitely have come across this at some point. Below is the excerpt in full:
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness.
When I finished Men at Arms, my first thought was:
“I will never be as good as Terry Pratchett”.
Not only has Pratchett crafted a witty and humourous fantasy novel, but his wit and humour also showed the real world in a different perspective. The three excerpts above showed how Pratchett used the fantasy novel as mirror to reflect and shed some light on our own reality.
5/5 – A definite must read. I would encourage non-fantasy readers to give this book a chance. Although billed as a fantasy novel, it’s more a murder mystery novel set in a fantastical world. No prior Discworld knowledge is required.
A couple of hours ago, Pratchett passed away after his long battle with Alzheimer. He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. While I am only recently acquainted with his work, I know that the world has lost one of its brightest writer, one who will continue to influence and entertain future generations.
As a personal experience, I wrote a flash fiction that was heavily influenced by Pratchett’s style after reading Men at Arms. Of course, Pratchett’s wit, humour and writing is way of out my league, one that I can only hope to emulate but never achieve. Below is the link to the flash fiction I wrote (it’s bloody horrible and apologies for the watermark).