Death and What Comes Next (you can find it here) is a short story in his Discworld series. To give you some context, Pratchett wrote this story in 2002 for an online puzzle came called TimeHunt. And apparently (according to Wikipedia, at least) there’s some sort of word puzzle hidden in the text of the story that provides a code word for the game. I’m not familiar with the game myself, but alas, it’s gone. As intrigued as I am, it looks like I’ll never know this code word.
Regardless, Death and What Comes Next stands on its own as an amusing, clever story. It takes place somewhere near the brink of a man’s death. The man, as it happens, is a philosopher, and when Death himself shows up, the man naturally attempts to talk his way out of dying.
Much to Death’s annoyance (he’s been through this before), the man gives an impressively concise explanation of quantum theory, triggering a back-and-forth that had me grinning the entire time.
For such a short short story, it’s impressive how likable its characters are. Granted, there are only two. It’s a shame Death and the philosopher couldn’t have met under different circumstances. Their banter is hilarious.
Here’s a bit that forced a particularly hard exhalation from my nose.
ASTONISHING, said Death. REALLY ASTONISHING. LET ME PUT FORWARD ANOTHER SUGGESTION: THAT YOU ARE NOTHING MORE THAN A LUCKY SPECIES OF APE THAT IS TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES OF CREATION VIA A LANGUAGE THAT EVOLVED IN ORDER TO TELL ONE ANOTHER WHERE THE RIPE FRUIT WAS?
Fighting for breath, the philosopher managed to say: “Don’t be silly.”
THE REMARK WAS NOT INTENDED AS DEROGATORY, said Death. UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES, YOU HAVE ACHIEVED A GREAT DEAL.
I haven’t read much of Pratchett’s work, but now I’m wishing I had. I know I’ll be reading a lot more of his stories in the days to come. I’m giving this one a 7/10. It’s a good one, and if you’ve got five minutes to spare (seriously, it’s short), I highly recommend it.
For my own purposes, I’d like to continue writing about specific things I can take away from what I read. Techniques, pretty phrases, lessons learned… things of that nature. Sometimes, though, nothing particularly pops out. And that’s not to say that whatever I’ve read is worse off because of it. It’s one of those “It’s not you, it’s me” scenarios.
So, when I can, I’ll do more than simply review what I read and include a more thorough write-up on that aspect of my reading experience. Both for myself as a writer with lots of room to grow and for anyone else with an interest in developing their craft.
In the past few days, I haven’t written on this as much as I would have liked, and I think that’s inevitable. I’m not some fortune cookie dispenser finding wisdom behind every word. And I think that’s fine. I don’t want to force myself. After all, I’m out of school (and thank god for that), and doing so would only make it feel like I have homework again.
All that being said, I do have one lesson learned from my reading of Death and What Comes Next. This story, comprised entirely of dialogue, reminded me of how, well, underwhelming my dialogue often is. Scratch that. This story slapped me in the face with that fact with its every word. By the end of it, I was practically in tears screaming, “WHY CAN’T I WRITE DIALOGUE LIKE THIS?”
Of course, if shouting was the way to get the answers we needed, it would be a lot harder to concentrate. And while I didn’t get one, I did have an interesting thought that I’ll be testing out myself. From now on, whenever I write a significant exchange between characters, I’m going to ask myself this:
If I cut out everything but the dialogue, could I make a short story out of what remains?
And while I think it may be unrealistic to expect that yes, every exchange between characters can stand on its own as a story, I do believe that making this a habit will help me catch the particularly boring conversations.