As you may have read in an earlier post, "Classic Story Structure," virtually all tales (from Thomas Hardy to the Hardy Boys) follow an ancient pattern, summarized here:
- The Hero, in a Place, has a Problem. A well-drawn, sympathetic, particular character, in a particular setting. The specific problem hurts and challenges this hero.
- The Struggle ensues (full of surprises, twists, setbacks). Things get complicated; things get worse.
- The Pit—the Insight— the Choice.
- The Climax (showdown).
- The Resolution (the hero and perhaps the world is changed; things can never be the same).
Below, I break down my short story for middle-school kids, "Dragonfly," to illustrate the above plot elements. ("Dragonfly" appeared in Orbiter, an anthology of science fiction aimed at introducing science topics in the middle-school classroom. My assignment was to write a story that touches upon the basics laws of flight.)
© 2002 Mark Canter
Something dramatic happens to someone…
Ket opened her eyes, still groggy from the blow, and screamed so long and loud it fogged the faceplate of her helmet.
If not for her expedition Suit, the dragon’s attack would have torn through Ket’s spine. Instead, the beast’s scythe-like pincers had struck between Ket’s shoulders and snagged Rebreather, the air-recycling unit. From the corner of her eyes Ket watched vapor spewing from punctures in Rebreather’s lungs, forming white puffs in the air like her own icy breath on a warm morning. Ket imagined she heard a gurgling wheeze as Rebreather struggled to heal its wounds. But the dragon’s giant buzzing wings drowned out all sound and pummeled Ket with vibrations that numbed her to the bone.
… in a specific, concrete setting:
Far below, froth lashed and heaved on the surface of an alien sea. Most of the world was covered with saltwater. The native sentient species called the planet Earth, but only because they were land dwellers, Ket thought. It would be much more fitting to call the planet Ocean. But then, Ket and her kind dwelled under permanent ice on an ocean-covered moon, so she was partial to oceans. In Earth’s heavy gravity the waves crawled like pale green worms over the darker green surface of the sea.
Ket had only glimpsed what hit her. Now she twisted and craned her neck against the windblast from blurring wings to get a better look at the hunter that was carrying her off as its prey. What she saw made her hearts hammer a duet. She breathed out slowly and evenly to quiet her terror.
She fights back or pursues a goal, driven by a strong need created by who she is (i.e., her character and her past).
Don’t panic is the first rule of any emergency. How many times had the Queen-Explorer told Ket and the other Sister-Explorers that?
“Faceplate, de-fog,” Ket whistled to Suit, producing shrill notes from inside a gas-filled sinus in her skull.
The visor cleared. “Suit, drop my body temperature twenty degrees,” she whistled, and felt an instant icy chill surge through her bloodstream. No time to enjoy the pleasure.
Okay, Ket, what have you got yourself into this time? Fourteen expeditions to Earth, and most of them had put her in danger from the local lifeforms. That was the risk of studying megafauna, the giant creatures that dwarfed Ket. Even so, this was her first emergency on Earth that might really get her killed.
The droning wings were shaking Ket dizzy. The predator was definitely a dragon of some kind. Six legs, three body parts: head, thorax, abdomen. This particular species had a long, cylindrical body, with a double set of wings on each side. Each sphere of its twin eyes seemed half as big as the survey Ship Ket had arrived in. But while Ket’s Ship was covered with dull gray scales, the dragon’s faceted eyes reflected a bright spectrum of colors.
The four long, transparent wings identified this species. Ket had seen its kind before on a holo. What was the native name for it?
“Dragonfly,” she spoke aloud, making the feathery, purple coil of her tongue imitate the harsh language of the dominant species of this titanic world. Then she whistled in her own musical language, “Suit, show data on dragonflies.”
A holo popped up and hovered in the top left corner of her helmet, slowly rotating through each of three axes. Even in the holo the dragon’s big eyes glowed iridescently. No more information was available.
Well, that’s what science expeditions are for, aren’t they? And that’s why I became a xenozoologist, Ket thought. If I live through this, I’ll have some interesting facts to add to the knowledge of dragonflies.
Ket spread the fan of skin flaps on her scalp and let Suit chill the many tiny blood vessels that cooled her brain. It felt icy and good. She tried to keep breathing slowly, deeply, to stay calm. But Ket noticed it was getting harder to breathe at all, let alone deeply. Evidently, Rebreather had not been able to heal itself.
“Trillion,” Ket whistled, addressing a swarm of nanobots that lived in Suit’s bloodstream. “Rebreather repair. Priority one.” Ket imagined another sound from Rebreather, this time a sigh of relief, as a team of microscopic robots flowed into its bloodstream from Suit’s immune system to help Rebreather restore its injured flesh.
The dragonfly rose higher on buzzing wings, carrying Ket toward a red clay cliff. Perhaps to a nesting place to feed its young, Ket thought, sickly. Or would it deposit eggs in Ket’s body, so that when the dragon larvae hatched they could eat living food?
Interesting facts to add to the knowledge of dragonflies.
Ket had not worn a force-field generator because the so-called “portable” unit was too heavy and clumsy to lug around on her back in Earth’s high gravity. Without the protective field, the dragon could easily tear through Ket’s expedition Suit with those huge mandibles that fed its cavernous mouth. Suddenly Ket remembered herself in larval form, ripping through crimson bubbles in the ice to devour the squirming life inside. She shuddered. She had to escape.
Of course, to kill the flying dragon now would be to plummet to her own death. She must wait until they had arrived wherever they were heading; to the red cliff, it seemed.
Ket got ready to fight. The dragonfly’s attack had broken both of Ket’s tentacle arms; they flopped uselessly inside long, thin sleeves, as Trillion devoted itself to repairing Rebreather. But her abdominal graspers remained undamaged. It took only a moment longer with the shorter arms to unsnap a laser drill from its holster. Ket raised the tool in front of her faceplate: “Drill, on,” she whistled. “Setting, maximum.” A green light winked on at the base of the tool; a second light flashed red, showing the drill’s power was set to penetrate diamond.
The red cliff loomed large, filling Ket’s faceplate.
Things get complicated.
Breathing had become hard work. Ket felt overheated, in spite of the ice crystals that had formed on her scalp flaps. Rebreather was near death. If Rebreather died, so would Ket, and she knew Suit could not re-animate her for more than a few minutes, not long enough for Ket to make it back to Ship. So Ket would die, again. Then Suit would automatically switch to stasis-mode, keeping Ket’s body in frozen suspension, awaiting rescue and re-animation at a proper medical facility. But in that vulnerable state, the dragonfly would surely eat her, or something more hideous.
“If I should stop breathing,” Ket whistled to Suit in a rapidfire melody, “do not re-animate me and do not place me in stasis.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to re-animate, Ket?”
Ket flinched. It was so rare for Suit to whistle back to her that it always came as a surprise. The fact that it communicated to Ket in the Queen-Explorer’s signature whistle did not lessen the shock.
“I repeat,” Ket whistled, “If I die, do not re-animate me. Do not place me in stasis. Disgorge my body and leave it behind. If you manage to somehow escape the dragon, place yourself in longterm standby mode to await rescue. Good luck,” Ket whistled. “And may you be inhabited again and again.”
“And may you be animated again and again,” Suit whistled back, in the Queen’s high, trilling notes.
The dragonfly glided down toward the red cliff’s edge. Ket readied herself, gripping the laser drill in her central clasper. “Laser on,” Ket whistled. A blue beam shot out from the tool. The black dragon alighted on the bluff overlooking the sea. As soon as it touched down, Ket swiveled underneath and stabbed the blue laser beam into a giant eye. She stirred the cutting light around and around inside the wound, scrambling and searing the dragon’s brain in the same motion.
The dragonfly’s head jerked in crazy loops, as if trying to flee the fire twirling inside its brain. Its wings became still. Then its full weight crashed down on top of Ket.
Ket’s skalp-flaps drooped with relief. At least that part of my nightmare is over, she thought. Then the sizzling hole in the dragon’s eye spilled its contents. A thick, yellow jelly rained down on Ket in hot, splashing globs. For a long moment she fought down the urge to be sick. Fog on her faceplate was bad enough.
Forces try to stop her, but she keeps pressing forward because something critical to her heart is at stake.
With Suit’s help, Ket managed to wriggle out from under the dragonfly. She stood back and stared at the animal, long and black and sleek, with wings the size of an aircraft.
Ket began to see how she might get back to Ship on the other side of the water. But she was forced to breathe faster now, and her body temperature kept creeping upward.
She had very little time to make her plan work.
Things get worse.
As Ket set about preparing to escape, she thought grimly that her predicament seemed like a horror version of a game she had played as a larva, called “Fortunately/Unfortunately.”
Fortunately, when the dragon had swooped down from behind and plucked Ket off the ground, it’s pincers had missed Ket’s spine and stabbed Rebreather instead.
Unfortunately, Rebreather was so badly wounded that even Trillion could save only part of one lung. Rebreather was losing its ability to recycle Ket’s outbreaths into breathable air.
Fortunately, this planet had enough mass to hold onto a thick atmosphere. Unfortunately, Earth’s atmosphere was so toxic to Ket, that just breathing it would make her burst into flames.
Fortunately, Ket wasn’t planning to breathe the air. She only wanted to use it to fly back to Ship. Unfortunately, she didn’t have an aircraft to fly.
Fortunately, she did have one huge, dead dragon. Which, Ket remembered, had smoothly glided down to a landing. From this tall cliff, the dead dragon could serve as Ket’s glider, to fly her back over the finger of sea to the low, salt marsh where Ship waited.
Unfortunately, Ket didn’t remember much from Explorer Seminary about aerodynamic theory—at the time it had seemed to her obsolete. Survey Ships traveled in the vacuum of space, where the study of bodies moving through air did not apply, or they traveled on-planet by repelling gravity waves. So Ket had no idea whether her flight plan was ingenious or suicidal.
Fortunately, she had no idea whether her flight plan was ingenious or suicidal. Because if she were convinced her strategy was impossible—rather than just desperate—she would be stranded on this alien crag, without hope, dying.
With Suit’s help, Ket aligned the dragonfly’s wings and gave them positive dihedral—a V-shaped upward tilt—for stability during flight. She straightened out the dragon’s slender body and then sprayed the entire airframe—wings and fuselage—with a thin film of liquid titanium from her kit. A moment later, she tapped a wing with the spray gun, testing for hardness; the shiny silver clinked metallically.
Dragonflies were not equipped with ailerons, elevator or rudder for flight control, so Ket would have to bank and steer the big kite by shifting her bodyweight, as in the sport Earthlings called hang-gliding.
Riding beneath the glider in the right spot was critical, Ket knew, or the aircraft’s center of gravity would be skewed, causing an unbalanced and uncontrollable flight. Sucking in and holding her breath, Ket detached herself from Rebreather and used glue-rivets to fasten the dragonfly’s legs to Rebreather in the same place they had grasped it before. Then she backed beneath the outstretched dragon wings and recoupled her lungs to Rebreather, gasped for air.
“Suit, maximum cold,” Ket whistled, “and inject strength hormones, all you’ve got left.”
“What about reserves?” Suit whistled.
“Keep no reserves. Give me everything, now. Chill me down.”
A flood of icy energy surged through Ket’s blood, into her muscles and lit up her brain in a white, frosty light. Only her Explorer’s training kept her from swooning in the freezing ecstasy.
Ket gathered her physical might and stood up, lifting the giant dragonfly glider over her bent back. She gazed down from the crest of a slope that led to the cliff and the sheer drop to the sea.
She stared at the edge where the world ended and the sky began.
Everything was ready. But Ket was too scared to budge. A fall from this height would smash her against the water. Then the pale green waves would crawl over her like worms and gulp her down.
Ket was about to tell Suit to go to standby, to re-absorb the energy nutrients from Ket’s bloodstream before they were wasted.
Just as things seem as bad as they can get (“The Pit”) she breaks through to an important lesson (“The Choice”) that enables her to move ahead.
Then the Explorer-Queen’s unmistakable melody whistled to Ket.
“Dear one,” the warbling said, “when I was uploaded into Suits for all my Sister-Explorers, it was so they could inhabit me, as my genes and my teachings inhabit all of you. Now I tell you that I am proud of you, Ket. But an Explorer must return, to report on the wonders she has found.”
Ket sighed. Snowflakes of love fell from her eye stalks and a glacial blue oil oozed from trembling gills.
She hefted the dragonfly and ran down the slope into the wind wafting off the sea. The airflow over the dragonfly’s wings gave lift and tugged Ket’s feet off the ground. She flattened her body into a prone position as she floated beyond the cliff’s edge. Red clay plunged to green sea.
Ket was flying. Dragonflying over the wrinkling waves.
The dragonfly glider flew well. Too well. After a few scary and glorious moments, Ket was more than halfway to the far shore and she gazed below at the green marsh grasses. But she couldn’t bring the glider down. She had gotten caught in a thermal—a rising column of heated air—that was carrying her up and up, toward the fat underbelly of a summer cloud.
Ket tried to think of everything she knew about how airplanes fly. She recalled that flight involves the interplay of four forces: lift, weight, drag and…she couldn’t remember the fourth one. Lift and—whatever—made a plane fly higher; and the other two forces—weight and drag—made a plane come down. Obviously, she could not increase her weight, but if she could increase drag, she should start to descend.
Ket lowered her body until it faced flat into the slipstream. The air buffeted against her, braking her forward movement. It worked. The glider started to drop. Now the green shore loomed close, filling Ket’s faceplate, as the red cliff had done before.
One last complication (“The Hollywood-kicker”).
But the whitecaps came rushing up fast. The spray reached for her feet as she shifted back into a more streamlined pose, but it was too late, she was going to hit the waves.
Suddenly, she remembered the other component of flight. Thrust. Of course! Thrust helped a plane fly higher. And Ket’s expedition Suit was equipped with steerable hydrogen jets for maneuvering outside Ship in space.
Ket whistled piercingly, “Suit, aft-thrusters, full power, NOW!”
Ka-whooosh. The kick of acceleration felt like being blasted from a sea-geyser. The glider shot up over the waves. Now only waving grasses rushed by below.
The dragonfly glider floated down smoothly to land on the soft marsh.
The Resolution. Tying up loose ends…
Back inside the freezing safety of Ship, Ket slept through a whole cycle in a tank of saltwater, beneath an icecap. Suit rested in its recharging chamber. Rebreather sprouted lung buds in a slow whirlpool of pink slush.
When Ket awakened she skittered straight to the lab. She plunked a tissue specimen from the dragonfly into an enzyme bath and fed the digested flesh to Ship.
Ship tasted the dragonfly’s genetic instructions and began to grow a virtual dragonfly in the space in front of Ket’s head. Molecules clumped and folded and twisted into proteins that linked in complex chains that took on the structure of cells that developed into tissues that formed organs. In a moment, a scale holomodel of the dragonfly hovered in the middle of the room.
An ice fog wafted up from the deck and wet the feathery tips of Ket’s tentacles as she began the virtual dissection. According to how she probed, the dragonfly’s anatomy rotated in space, enlarged by magnitudes, vanished layer by layer. Ship recorded her findings. Ket tweeted and chittered, enjoying the work, her scalp-flaps coated with frost.
When she had finished the project, Ket telescoped her tentacles back into their sockets, and reflected on all she had learned.
“Giant dragons,” she trilled to herself softly. “What a planet.”
In spite of its crushing gravity, deathly heat and combustible atmosphere, Ket considered Earth beautiful—even bewitching—and studying its weird, enormous lifeforms was worth the dangers.
She gazed with pride around the pearly interior curves of Ship. Every object glowed in ultraviolet lighting. Ket could not imagine a life more rewarding than to be a scientist in the Order of Sister-Explorers.