Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.
- A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
- A couple in wedding outfits riding in a car
- A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny
- Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn
- A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
The rock shifted under her fingers and the scream that nearly came from her mouth conflicted with her choked intake of breath as a kind of squeaked whimper. The piece of cliff face peeled away from the sheer surface like tree bark and tumbled away past her right ear bouncing down the 10 meters of incline until smashing to pieces with a dull thump on the unforgiving rocks below.
Sweat burned rivulets down her face and stung her eyes. Her whole upper body was trembling from the effort of climbing. She was panting hard as she blinked desperately to clear her sight.
“This was a mistake Claire.” she thought, “a very big, very high mistake.”
She scanned the surface around her through blurring vision until noting the lengthwise fissure, for a moment she hesitated not knowing what may have made its home in there before thrusting her hand as deep as she could manage, then formed a fist, grating knuckles against stone, definitely tearing up her skin. She hissed between teeth as she used the ‘grip’ to lift her body and right leg enough to find a toe hold. Then she lunged up, her body clear of the cliff aside from her fist grip. Heart in mouth she exalted as her left arm slammed triumphantly onto the small ledge she’d seen.
Small, barely 30cm deep, more of a shelf than a ledge, but enough to sit on, enough to rest. Get her body back under some kind of control. She let out a ragged yell of effort as she heaved herself up and onto the outcrop, scraping her chest painfully through her t-shirt and then carefully shuffling her body around with secure handgrips before swinging her feet out to dangle from her impromptu seat.
She nearly fell from what she saw had arrived below, flinching back so hard from the figure that she nearly shifted her buttocks off the ledge, she braced on a knife’s edge for a moment before finding her balance and shrinking as far back against the rock face as possible.
The figure watched impassively, honestly, she admitted to herself, it didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, it looked like it was carved from basalt, featureless and grey, the surface looking marked my a million tiny chips and scratches, merely the suggestion of a face and the tilt of its head letting her know that it was focused on her. Head cocked to one side like a person might when considering something but the blank smooth “face” gave no indication of what that might be.
The only thing Claire knew for sure is the thing terrified her, even here 10 meters up she felt her skin crawl at the sight of it. It hadn’t said anything, perhaps it couldn’t but it’s hulking mass although shaped like a human, was lumpy and disfigured, while she thought it might be around 2 meters tall it didn’t make a sound when it moved. No grinding crunching earthy sounds. Silence. Not even when it stepped down on gravel like below. The impassive watcher made her stress levels spike again.
So she forcibly turned her head to look away from the thing below, steeling herself to look up, to her escape, or fall. First, she estimated just two body lengths until the rim of the cliff and then she released a sigh of pent up tension, a million healthy-looking hand and footholds were visible. The small fissure she’d used below blossomed into a massive open gash in the cliff that offered her a million ways to finish the climb.
Grinning triumphantly she looked back down at the figure below. It stood unmoving head cocked on the opposite side now. The face impression still angled directly at her. Her smile curled a little at the sight and she found her mouth was suddenly very dry. Swallowing a few times she turned and moved to finish the cliff. Her body ached and her hands bled freely. But she brushed away the discomfort and focused. She took a moment to rub rock dust on her fingers, palms, face and forehead to soak up the sweat before lunging for her chosen route.
Within moments she triumphantly cleared the edge. Right arm grabbing roots and branches of a thick bush to help her pull her body up and then flop onto her back the grassy term fresh and cool on her arms and neck. She lay there taking deep lungfuls of air. A great tension releasing from her body, to be replaced by instant fatigue. She cautiously peeked over the edge of the cliff back to the base. The figure remained there but was in motion again. It’s formally fixated gaze seemed to be moving back and forth. It brought to mind a person trying to find the source of a sound. Was it ‘looking’ for her? She snapped her head back and slowly moved backwards away from the cliff edge.
Whatever was happening, now was time to run and run some more. She could figure out what to think about all this later. She turned intent on doing just that and froze, no more than 20 meters away stood another figure. But this one was massive, maybe 3 or 4 meters high. Its body resembling a human in only the vaguest of ways, two elongated arms, two squat legs, a wedged boulder for a head all in a dusty white stone resembling rough marble. The wedge at the top swivelled smoothly as she watched in growing horror a vein of quartz demarking its attention which had fixed upon her. She remained locked in place, like the rabbit caught in the oncoming headlights, “I need to move, I need to move” her mind bleated.
It surged forward, tearing a scream of pure horror from her throat as it loped and stumbled toward her on its deformed arms like some sort of lopsided gorilla, one arm raised high and she saw at that moment the promise of a violent and crushing death. Her legs remained rooted in place, her body rebelling against her. She closed her eyes and with a mental sob, waited for the inevitable.
She felt more than heard the impact, the grinding crunch of stone on stone and felt her face and upper body peppered with what felt like needles. It was followed immediately by what sounded like the crack of a lightning bolt, a noise so hard and shocking that it reverberated through the ground, up to her teeth, through every bone in her body, but she wasn’t dead, she was sure of that. She opened a single eye, terrified and curious of what was there. A dark grey basalt wall was an arms reach before her. The figure from before now stood before so close she could see every scratch and battle scar adorning its form.
Her stunned mind refused to take it all in, it must have jumped the cliff she realised numbly, A 20-meter vertical jump so well done that it landed just before her in time… In time too. The marble figure regarded the smaller one, who held it’s the great fist in both of its own. Then, for the first time, Claire heard the basalt figure make a sound, a deep rumbling growl, the sound of avalanches, the sound of earthquakes and storms. Elemental. Then the battle exploded before her.