Lighting the Tree on Fire

I once heard a breakdown of plotting. In the first act, you run your characters up a tree. Second act, you light the tree on fire. The third act, you get what’s left of them out of the tree.

Today I’ve been writing a hard chapter on a character that I really have been cheering for, but as the story demands, I need to put them in the tree, and…you get the idea. I don’t like doing it, even though they are a fictional character. I like this character. But for the sakes of the story, I need to show how far they have come in their development. It isn’t pretty. Writing isn’t always nice. Sometimes it is waking up in the forest, half-buried in rotting leaves with blood and strips of flesh under your finger nails. It is putting your characters through hell. It is letting your imagination take you to places nobody should have to go.

It is sometimes failure and disappointment and struggling. It is an infusion of real life, sometimes a greater concentration. An exaggeration. Though personal.

It’s a little like playing God. You have your character arc figured out. You know where they are going to be at the end of it. Redemption. Happiness. They’ve learned from hard lessons and impossible odds. But it’s going to hurt like a mother to get them there.

A few weeks ago, I was telling my therapist about a chapter I had been working on. The lines from Game of Thrones popped into my head as I watched her face fall. “Oh my sweet summer child–“

Where I was talking about the progress I had made on the book and explaining some of the things I was writing about, she looked at me with genuine concern and said, “You can write a whole chapter in a day?”

“Yes,” I said. I was very proud of that.

“But the things your are writing about are so…traumatic! How do you sit for hours and write about something like that? What do you do to recover from something so intense?” She suggested I take breaks between chapters. For maybe a few days at a time. Naw. I’m good.

Just to let you know, I’m not writing a horror story. It’s a story that I think just about anyone could relate to. It features plausible (if not traumatic) instances that could have happened in real life. The thing is that writing about a lot of these things is actually therapeudic. I get to ruminate these stories and ideas and even when they are unpleasant, even when they are intense of dour, I know there is a plan.

Life isn’t like that. At least not at a level any of us can really understand. My more Christiany friends would look at the world we live in with doe-eyed optimism and say “It’s all part of the Lord’s plan!” Depending on your persuasion, that may or not be the case. I tend to agree with the former, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about any of it. Life is tragic at times, unpredictable, disappointing, joyful for incredibly short moments, and I think at the end of it, it’s the stress of living that kills us. We all wind up in the same place.

At least with my characters I know that I might be running them through the wringer, but I plan to give them the ending they deserve. I don’t know if the Author of my story has the same in mind for me, and if that doesn’t give you a sense of existential dread, I don’t know what will. What I do know is I am deep into the second act of my life. The flames are licking at my feet, the tree is really high off the ground and riddled with rabid raccoons. Those ringtailed bandits are not happy to be in this tree. They might even blame me a little bit for it. I can hear their chittering and I suspect in their varmint language they are plotting against me. I suspect they are intelligent enough to figure that my blood could be used as a flame retardant.

Boy, that got dark in a hurry.

Nobody is coming to get me out of the tree. That’s up to me. I hope there’s a happy ending for me. The squirrels are pretty restless too. So many squirrels.

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