Why do we keep telling apocalypse stories? Surely there are only so many ways to write the end of the world. So why is it such a fertile subject for speculative fiction?
There are multiple answers to that question. As a predictive tool, apocalypses let us highlight the hazards we see in the world today or imagine in the world tomorrow. As a setting, a world gone mad provides plenty of fodder for daring action sequences and thrilling near-misses. But the apocalyptic story that reached out from the screen and grabbed me this week contains neither prediction nor action.
Instead, Shauna O’Meara’s ‘Heart Emoji at the End of the World’ demonstrates another reason the apocalypse is such brilliant writing fodder: it has a potential for emotional impact like no other. Catastrophic events lend unprecedented urgency and depth to personal interactions – and O’Meara’s story takes the broad-scale tragedy of a society coming apart and makes it deeply, achingly personal.
Like my other writer’s reviews, this will be about what I took away from this story as a writer as much as a reader, and as usual it won’t try to avoid spoilers – so if you’re interested in experiencing the story as a reader, I highly recommend you go and read it before you read my analysis of it. It’s well worth it. I’ll wait.
A picture in a dozen words
The first element in O’Meara’s writing that has me captivated is her use of visual language. Take this sentence:
A man with polished hair and a tigershark smile had met us in the showroom, his arm swinging back like a gate to welcome us onto the floor
With a few sparse, unlikely, yet perfectly-chosen words, she paints an unmistakable picture of this person, this moment in time. “Polished hair and a tigershark smile” – greasy, predatory. We know this man wants something from the characters before we even know they’re visiting a showroom.
The action, “his arm swinging back like a gate”, gives the reader’s mind so much to work with: we can picture the broad sweep of the motion, sense the meanings wrapped up in it – not only welcoming, but demonstrative, see what we have to offer!
The salesman isn’t a major character – the reader doesn’t need to know much about him, and to spend too many words on him would distract attention away from the main foci of the story. But in a single sentence, O’Meara breathes more life into him than I’ve seen other writers achieve with a paragraph.
Emotion is (for me at least) one of the hardest elements of show-don’t-tell, and ‘Heart Emoji’ demonstrates beautifully the kind of emotive writing I strive for. Here’s an example, early on:
My breathing quickens, shaky panting echoing and amplified throughout the space. I have a sudden notion that oxygen is no longer the indefatigable resource I once knew. That I am a cave-diver too far from the surface, gauge plunging toward zero.
I wrestle my fear until my panting subdues. My leg throbs in time with my heart.
As it turns out, the space Tash is trapped in really is running out of oxygen, but that doesn’t become apparent until much later and I don’t think it’s in any way the point of this description. What we see here – what we feel, viscerally – is Tash panicking.
The trick is in the perspective. We, the reader, aren’t looking at Tash panicking. We are looking at the world as she experiences it while panicking. The fast breathing, the (at that point) baseless perception of the oxygen running out, the throbbing pulse of her leg – those are her direct experiences of the world as she is overtaken by one particular, very recognisable emotion. The narrative distance is as close-up as its possible to be.
And by presenting the moment this way, the writing invites us to share Tash’s experience and get a direct taste of what she’s feeling. We’re asked to think for a moment about what it would feel like to be unable to control your own breathing, to suddenly realise that maybe the air you are consuming is precious and valuable and running out. Instead of simply being told I panicked, we are given our own brush with panic.
To me, this is the key to good emotional storytelling – to create emotion in the reader, not just in the character.
Woven narratives, mirrored themes
‘Heart Emoji’ weaves together three narratives: Tash and Daniel bunker shopping, the later breakdown of Tash and Daniel’s relationship, and finally their conversation by SMS as Daniel tries to get to the bunker and Tash lies trapped beneath a collapsed building.
Superficially, the three situations have little in common – but the story is full of moments in which they mirror each another.
Tash telling Daniel not to keep the bunker open for her reminds her of the don’t-wait-up-for-me’s of the end of their marriage. Her plea for him to keep texting echoes her plea for him not to leave her. And when it comes to the question of why it all went wrong, the bunker becomes a symbol of the differences that drove them apart: Daniel thinks Tash saw him as the emergency shelter, the last option, ignoring him while taking for granted that he would be there when she needed him. Tash’s antipathy towards tethers made her resist commitments like marriage, a house, children – anything that would trap her in place.
The symbolism morphs as needed to support the narrative – the curtains in the windowless bunker are in one moment a metaphor for going through the motions (“Marriage: carpet plus curtains. Check.”), in another the symbol of Tash’s fear of being tied down to Daniel: “I didn’t want to forget freedom.”
These multiple threads give the story a complexity and sense of depth that is hard to achieve with a single narrative. And yet the way each thread reinforces the themes in the other two creates a strength and simplicity of message that keeps the reader focused on the story’s central thematic core.
So much in so little
There are other mirrors throughout ‘Heart Emoji’: the uncertainties of communicating by text compared with the silences and miscommunications that marked the end of their relationship; Tash watching her phone die as she herself moves closer to death.
Taken all together, they form a beautifully-layered piece that never feels overcrowded, and yet conveys astonishing depth in less than 5,000 words. This, to me, is short story-craft at its most powerful.