In the immediately previous episode I mentioned reading a Japanese comic that eventually became rather tiresome. The manga is called Bleach, and while the story starts off strong, eventually it crumbles under its own weight, becoming an endless series of battles. Most of those battles follow a form of gradual escalation that is common in literature from all around the globe. Just when the good guy thinks he has the bad guy beat, bad guy pulls out a more effective weapon, and suddenly the tide changes.
The question in a confrontation like that is “why the hell was the bad guy screwing around with lesser weapons in a life-and-death struggle? Why leave your life to capricious chance when you have a devastating first strike at your disposal?” The question, while rhetorical to most readers of these august pages, is direct for the people that write these stories. Think about it. You have a gun and a sharp stick. Which are you going to lead with?
As with any cliché, using it artfully yields magical results. In The Princess Bride, one of the best parts of one of the best books I’ve ever read is when Inigo Montoya meets the Man in Black at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ve only caught a pale shadow of the scene. Inigo has seen the Man in Black in action, and hopes that, perhaps at long last, he’s going to have a good fight. He wants a worthy adversary more than he wants life itself. He decides to start lefty to give the Man in Black a chance. The Man in Black reaches the top of the cliff, and Inigo waits courteously while his enemy catches his breath. Why? Because he needs this to be a fair fight.
After a few minutes the Man in Black stands and draws his own sword. Inigo smiles when he sees his opponent is left-handed. Strength against weakness. They join battle.
The battle is amazing, and the Man in Black pushes Inigo to his limit. Inigo has not been happier since before the six-fingered man killed his father. The Man in Black corners Inigo, who says (something like) “ask me why I’m smiling.”
“Why are you smiling?”
“Because I am not left-handed.” Inigo moves his sword to his right hand and now the battle steps up. They go all over the place: terrain, footing, tactics, and physical conditioning all come into play, written in so naturally that you think you’re an expert on fencing when the battle is over. Finally Inigo has the Man in Black cornered, and his mysterious opponent is smiling. “I am also not left-handed,” the Man in Black says.
Now, see? If you want to escalate the battle gradually, that’s how you do it. Give the combatants a human reason why they would not open with their most devastating blow. In The Princess Bride it is a mutual love of the contest. In The Monster Within, I notice now that without consciously thinking about it, I did all right with the escalation because the opposition’s goal evolved from testing to intimidating to eliminating. In The Test, no opponent ever holds back. The tension comes from battles pending and battles avoided, but when confrontation occurs, the action is swift and fierce, and everyone, even timid little Jane, bites for the throat. The Test is also different because while there are very bad people, there is no evil. Evil is a cheap excuse to make the bad guys do irrational things.
Which brings me back to where I started. Japanese comic book. Evil in this narrative is not simple, but there is still evil. Where the story gets good (and eventually tiresome as they work it to death) is when the toughest opponents are not the classic evil folk but powerful people with misguided ideas. This one does pretty well with the evil beings, explaining their lust to eat human souls to replace the one they only vaguely remember having themselves. Even within the soul-hungry horde, there is a scale of sins.
Ah… foolish mortal. Do you not know of the power of nantuki?
“Well, crap, if I’d known that, do you think I wouldn’t have mentioned the power of USS Iowa?