Beat Analysis for “Better You Believe” by Carole Johnstone
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? You think I’ve forgotten Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. I haven’t. I just… I just haven’t cared about writing them up. I will, at some point… probably. Most likely. Okay, just maybe.
Currently I’m reading some horror short stories — I’m taking a class in Short Story Mechanics later this year, so I thought I’d check some out and do some writing about them. I need to learn to read as a reader (which, well, I already do), read as a writer, and read as an editor.
To read as a writer, I need to learn why writers do what they do. Why they make the choices they make, how they structure their work and what makes them choose to structure their story the way they do. I need to be able to take stories apart (which is why writing up movies was so much fun and I’ll have to return to it at some point) and see when they work and when they don’t work. But most of all, I need to be able to do this for myself and by myself.
So, with that said…
Today’s story is “Better You Believe” by Carole Johnstone in Best Horror of the Year Volume 10, edited by Ellen Datlow.
SPOILER ALERT, naturally.
1. What is the setting? The setting is climbing down one of the tallest mountains in the world, Annapurna. It’s snowy, dangerous with ice, avalanche possibilities.
2. Who is the main character? The main character is an unnamed female as the story is written all in first person and I don’t remember her saying her own name or anyone else saying her name. I will check. -à her name is Sarah.
3. Who/what is the antagonist? Mother Nature at her coldest and Annapurna, the mountain itself. The narrator describes different ways to die from falling or losing your grip on both sanity as well as the ropes.
4. What is the conflict? The conflict is that she and her lover, Nick, are hired escorts for people who will pay to climb the largest mountains in the world. The conflict here is that they need to get from the top — they’ve already summitted — to Camp IV and out of the “Death Zone,” a zone where people cannot be retrieved from if they die.
5. What is the twist? The twist comes close to the end of the story where we (and the narrator) realize that she has died during one of Nick’s climbs up Everest and she continues to be on the mountain to watch after (and take care of) Nick time and time again as he continues to climb.
My attempt at Beat Analysis for the Story (Emotional Analysis)
Um, just as a forewarning, I have only a tiny sliver of knowledge of beat analysis so this might get a little rough.
1. Downhill on a Descent.
What does the protagonist want? Do they get it or move closer or do they not get it or move further away?
The first section of the story talks about descending a tall mountain, be that mountain Everest or Annapurna, both of which are in the story.
The author has her narrator/protagonist, Sarah, use the phrase, “If I like any bit of it at all,” which tells the reader the narrator is coming from a place she knows about.
“It’s all downhill on a descent. The oldest climbing joke of the lot, but only because it’s true. If I like any bit of it at all, it could never be that slow, painful climb down from the highs of before and the bone-deep exhaustion of after.”
This whole section is a combination of dramatic pipe and downward arrow. The pipe symbolizes that the story moves laterally in emotion while the downward arrow indicates that we are moving into fear, rather than an upward arrow for hope.
The last sentence of the first passage is: “Bad Things are about to happen.” Big downward arrow here.
2. Jakub Hornik’s Death.
Sarah sees Jakub Hornik, one of the members of her team, as he slides downhill to his death — a Bad Thing — which, honestly, when climbing mountains such as Everest or Annapurna is probably the only real kind of Bad Thing to worry about. Sarah thinks that it’s pointless to signal Nick back on the rope because regardless of how things are, she still has to get down.
This is on Everest and we know this because of who Nick was talking to — the American doctors. Later, on Annapurna, it’s another group.
This definitely ends on a downward note with “Bad Things. Because they’re never ever singular.” Bigger downward arrow.
3. Felix Garcia’s Death (the last Bad Thing).
Sarah tells us a bit more about what mountain climbing season is like and that “[t]here are always deaths on a climb.”
Felix’s death is also on Everest as Sarah tells us he and Nick didn’t get along even before they left Everest base camp. We learn about Felix and who he is, that he was tied to Sarah with the Koreans. Then…
“Felix plummeted so hard and so fast down the hidden crevasse that by the time anyone managed to arrest our screaming progress along the glacier, I was flying over its edge too… and I thought, they can’t hold us both. They can’t save us both.
“And they didn’t.” Big, even bigger downward arrow.
4. The Yank on the Harness
She says she feels a yank on her harness. It seems she has been daydreaming about this moment and then she continues moving. She tells us Nick wouldn’t have mentioned Jakub’s death to the other Slovaks.
Sarah’s motivation is to survive — and that’s what she believes she’s doing.
Last sentences: “Or if you’re Nick, never. Easier to pretend things didn’t happen at all.”
This is a procedural beat followed by an emotional beat. This seems like we’re still afraid for her, so it would be a downward arrow, but I think it would be more of a lateral arrow, moving us on to the next scene.
5. Her efforts to get to Nick slow due to snow and then avalanche!
Here we learn who Nick is with: a Chinese couple, Tomie Na from Hong Kong and Kate whom Sarah doesn’t really approve of.
And we find out for sure which climb this is: “Bivouacking in the Death Zone is never a good idea, but on the South Face of Annapurna, it’s pretty much suicide.”
We also see her try to help save a member of the group who is taking off his clothes and he asks her to stay with him.
Then the avalanche happens.
Last sentence: “And then the avalanche steals away any sense I have left.” Big downward arrow again.
6. Sarah breaks through from underneath the snow but she stays over Acke as he asked.
Thoughts of Nick help Sarah break out of the snow she’s in, bringing up Ernest Shackleton’s Third Man who supposedly led him to safety during his last expedition.
Sarah asks: “Where the hell is the bloody spirit that’s going to lead me down to safety?” Then answers it: “Me. Just me. My own strength, my own will. I am all that can save me.”
Right now, this question and answer may not seem like much as you’re reading the story, but, looking back, it’s a clue as to what’s actually going on.
Last sentence: “I’m always exactly where I’m supposed to be.” While I’m not exactly sure, in the reference of reading the story the first time, what this means, this feels a bit like an upward arrow. We can hope a bit now after all the fear.
7. Sarah encounters a startled Pasang, Nick’s business partner, who asks her why she was there.
Pasang is surprised to see Sarah — the avalanche of the last part forgotten. He asks her who was higher than Jakub and Acke and while she gives names, she’s not sure.
“Why you here? … You hate the mountains. Always. … Why you come back, every time? … You don’t belong here. You never belong here.”
Last sentence: “You know why. I’m here for Nick.”
Sarah is more hopeful sounding now — she knows her purpose. Nick.
However, as an aside, I want to point out Pasang’s phrase, “every time.” This definitely sounds like there was time between her death and this specific decent down the mountain.
8. Sarah continues her descent down the mountain, her focus on reaching Nick.
This section is filled with comments that make me believe that most times when we hear of Sarah climbing after Felix dies, the descent is a different trek than the one she died on.
Figuring out which is which has been a fight for me, but I’ve tried as best I can to note which descent is which.
Here, all Sarah wants to do is to find Nick.
Last sentence: “Nick loves these few places high above the rest of the world with a passion that could never be faked. And that’s why he’s here too. That’s why he puts up with everything else, all the other shit that he hates. Because he has as much choice as I do.”
9. Sarah finds Kate and Nick preparing to cross the serac.
Neither of them acknowledge Sarah as she approaches. We learn that the rest of the party has been lost and that they are preparing to go around a ridge of ice (according to the New Oxford American Dictionary) without ropes.
Kate wants them to remain where they are, hoping that the rest of the party will appear. Or that they’re evacuated from the mountain.
Nick’s calm but following the rules of mountain climbers as has been portrayed to us thoughout the entire story. When he says he’ll leave Kate behind, we believe him.
Sarah says, “No, … [h]e’s what’ll keep you alive.”
Last sentence: “Let’s go.”
Nick is alive and Sarah’s happy about that although she’s not too thrilled with his company. But there are more pressing matters. She’s happy she’s with Nick, but we still are afraid of what is going to happen when they continue their descent.
I’d cross my arrows: Nick is hope while facing the serac minus ropes is fear.
10. They start across the serac and Sarah tries to comfort Kate, telling her it will be okay.
This is a nice interesting up arrow. We learn that Sarah knows of the affair between Nick and Kate, but now that Kate’s scared, she comforts her anyway.
11. The serac begins to crack and crumble and Sarah pushes Kate and Nick to run to safety.
Last sentence: “We run. And run. And the world collapses around us.”
Big downward arrow. Big arrow.
12. Kate asks Nick if he felt Sarah and he brushes her off and howls into the wind.
Finally, an answer to our questions as to whether Sarah survives or not. “You felt her too, right?” Kate grabs hold of his upper arms. “I know you fucking did. She was there! She was — ”
We learn that Sarah died on one of those descents down the mountain but her spirit doesn’t accept it: “Denial: a mountain climber’s best and worst friend. Better to believe. Except we never do — those of us already on the other side of that coin, that mirror. Because then there really is no going back at all.”
And why is Sarah on the mountain?
Last paragraph: This is Nick’s home. And mine. Because what I told Pasang will always be true. I think of Acke shouting stay with me to the stone, the snow, the sky. I am here because Nick needs me to be here. And so I stay. I will always walk beside him. It’s the only reason I’ve ever climbed any mountain at all.
Datlow, Ellen. Best Horror of the Year (Best Horror of the Year Book 10) . Night Shade Books. Kindle Edition.
Laws, Robin D., Beating the Story: How to Map, Understand, and Elevate any Narrative. Gameplaywright. PDF version.
Laws, Robin D., Hamlet’s Hit Points. Gameplaywright, PDF version.