The Self-Examined Son

Photo by Andre Mouton on Pexels.com

Usually at the conclusion of each story, I leave a little space at the end to review all the different lessons I gained from writing it, and to summarize all the elements I had been trying to imbue in it. But sometimes these stories run nine chapters long, and there is too much to cover in the little space at the end of the last post. So instead, I will use this entire post to review my current story, The Favored Son, all the things that I think went well, and what I think could be improved on.

Manipulation)

Right before I launched into this story I shared a post discussing how an author gets readers to trust and distrust certain characters from the outset, so that then the audience will accept or reject the philosophies connected to them.

At the time I pointed out how I wrote Tharol and Reis in particular ways to make one likable and the other not, to get the readers to assume one would become the protagonist, and the other the antagonist. That expectation was wholeheartedly affirmed.

A little bit later, I wrote about how this style of manipulation allows the author to guide the reader’s mind to a particular state, and then, knowing what they are expecting, they can either reaffirm or subvert those expectations.

And so, having had this affirmation of Reis as the antagonist and Tharol as the protagonist, I knew the reader would now assume that there would come a standoff between the two of them, a point where they duel over their different ideals and the protagonist would finally overcome the enemy.

And again, this was affirmed in my last post as Tharol defied Reis’s orders and convinced the other youth to do so as well. At that point it may have seemed obvious for Tharol and Reis to cross swords, but I wanted Reis’s downfall to be strictly due to his own hubris, not because Tharol happened to fight better. And so that is what occurred.

You might have noticed that I also setup an expectation for things to go horribly wrong with the battle against the elders by foreshadowing trouble multiple times. There was Tharol feeling uneasy, Tharol going along despite the protesting of his own conscience, and the youth encountering many surreal and unsettling sights along the way. All this was meant to create a sense of discomfort in the reader, and prime them for a scene of failure. Which, again, is exactly what occurred.

Appetizer)

I next wrote about stories that begin with an extended prologue, which gets the audience settled into the tone of the story before the main thrust of the tale begins. I suggested that this was my approach with the first sections of The Favored Son, where the youth first gathered at the centrifuge and Tharol spoke with Master Palthio about his dilemmas of faith.

At this point it should be abundantly clear that the real story was not about those elements, but about the war between the elders and the youth. And its themes evolved into letting go of old expectations to begin something new and about the need to preserve one’s soul even in the most dire of situations.

This isn’t to say that the introduction was entirely disconnected, though. Those opening scenes still laid the roots for several elements in the main story arc. In them I established the basic ideas of Reis’s hunger for power and Tharol’s efforts to listen to his conscience. Thus while my intro largely stands apart from the rest of the tale, it does still remain in connection to it, too.

Things Go Topsy-Turvy)

Then I reached a critical juncture in my story. I was having trouble making that transition into the real thrust of my tale, and suddenly I thought of a better way to go. But that better way changed a great many things, and meant that all the rest of the story would have to change accordingly.

I explained this in great detail at the time, and also shared my realization that it is a perfectly fine thing for an author to have more than one version of their story. Our minds work in tangents, and it is vain to assume our story-crafting won’t branch into multiple interpretations as well.

At the time I considered releasing an alternate version of The Favored Son. I had wondered if that would be redundant though, after all that I would end up writing in this new version. And now that I am at the end of this branch, I actually think there are still a lot of original, worthwhile ideas that have been left on the cutting-room floor.

And so I will be doing another take on The Favored Son. I think I need to rework the opening sequences to better support that alternate form, so I will be rebuilding it from the ground up. Certain elements will be similar, some passages will probably be copied over verbatim, but eventually the two will permanently diverge, at the point where the elders attacked the youth in my current version.

Familiar Haunts)

Next I spoke of stories that revisit the same location multiple times, and how using that familiar backdrop can be used to highlight the changes in the main characters by contrast. The location I was using for this effect was the centrifuge. Previously we saw the students there in a moment of innocent drama. They were quibbling about politics that didn’t really matter, and their fears and anticipations were only minor things.

The second visit took place after the initial attack of the elders, at a point where things had become horrifying, and probably seemed like they couldn’t get any worse. Now we see them returning for the third time, when things have absolutely gotten much, much worse! The unchanging nature of that centrifuge is helping to highlight the darker and darker situation among the youth as it unfolds. Where the location’s broken columns and crumbled stone were originally just an amusing piece of set dressing, now they can be recognized as a foreshadowing for the entire Order.

Pizzazz)

Finally I spoke of inventing new things in a story, simply to entertain the reader. I mentioned as a counterpoint to this, though, that all these crazy, new inventions still need to feel like they belong together. So long as the new creations feel like they originate from the same place, then our illusion of that place as somewhere real can be preserved.

In The Favored Son there are quite a few new creations. There is the strange behavior of the Invaded elders, the reforming Shraying Staffs, the strange physics when one is connected to their core self, and the cryptic hints of the Order’s doctrine.

I like to think that there is a sense of cohesion between all of these, although if I’m honest I kind of just wrote them down as they occurred to me, realized that they didn’t gel together, and then refactored them in my rewrites to bring them more in line with each other. Generally I like to pin down the system and mechanics of a world first, but in this case I kind of just took flight and corrected things as I went. And in the end, I don’t think it was half-bad!

Well that was a lot to cover! Now all that’s left is to finish the tale. Next I will be posting the last section of The Favored Son, and I hope it all comes together in a way that makes the journey satisfying. Come back on Thursday to see the result of that, and then a little bit later we’ll look at the alternate form of it, and consider which version lands better.

The Favored Son: Part Eight

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

Tharol forced himself to turn from the elders, and focused instead on Jolu. Jolu was only recently lost after all, perhaps there was a way to bring him back. Tharol bounded over to the youth, and as he did so he noticed Inol following him from a step behind, Shraying-Staff elongating into a pointed spear.

“No!” Tharol cried. “Give me a chance to talk to him!”

“Those aren’t our orders!” Inol shot back. “We kill any Invaded!”

There wasn’t any time to argue, so instead Tharol slowed his step, grabbed Inol’s shoulder, and spun him hard. Inol’s own momentum made him lose balance and he went flying to the ground, cursing as he slammed into the stone floor.

Tharol pounded on ahead and leaped through the air to meet Jolu. He turned his Shraying-Staff arm into an extraordinarily large arm and hand, using its considerable strength to grab the boy’s wrist and restrain it. Tharol used his other hand to grip Jolu’s other wrist and tried to force the youth to look him in the eyes.

“Jolu, look at me!” he shouted, but Jolu’s eyes were rolled backwards. “See me, Jolu! See, it’s Tharol!”

Jolu’s arms flailed with a force that caught Tharol entirely by surprise, and the boy wrenched himself free of Tharol’s grasp. Jolu clapped his hands together, attempting to crush Tharol’s head in between. Tharol only barely managed to raise his Shraying Staff arm horizontally, blocking each hand.

“Jolu, please! You’re in there aren’t you? Come back!”

Jolu’s eyes flickered. For a moment his irises started to tease back towards their proper position. “No,” he strained out with an unnatural voice, as if he spoke through a heavy shroud. “I won’t. The fear.”

In that moment of hesitation Inol attacked. All Tharol saw of it was the Shraying Staff come thrusting in from above his shoulder, filling his vision. Jolu’s hands went limp and he fell backwards.

“You’re a traitor!” Inol shouted.

“Just because I have a different idea–” Tharol began, but Inol wasn’t in the mood for words. His Shraying Staff was still pierced through Jolu, but he had a standard sword in his other hand, which he was already thrusting at Tharol’s chest. Tharol tried to block it, but he was too late, and only deflected the blade so that it pierced his shoulder instead of his heart.

“What are you doing?” Tharol roared.

“Following orders.”

Tharol was confused by that, but then he felt a pair of eyes on him. He looked to the side and saw Reis watching the two of them intently.

Inol pulled back his blade and Tharol’s arm fell limply to his side. He felt the blood running down his shoulder, the throbbing pain emanating from his wound. He tried to raise his other arm, the one fused with the Shraying Staff, but Inol stepped on it, pinning it to the floor. Inol swung his own blade forward, a horizontal swing to pass right through the center of Tharol.

But then, just before contact, Inol exclaimed in shock. His Shraying Staff arm appeared to be melting into molten steel. One glob after another fell sideways through the air, flowing across the hall and over to the elders attacking the youth. When Master Y’Mish had let Inol cut him, he had claimed the weapon with his blood. But apparently he had not claimed it for himself. Having become fused with all of the elders he had been able to claim it for the mass. It fell into the hand of Master Zhaol, then flickered and appeared in the hand of Master Finei. Quickly it cycled through possession of them all, and evidently they could transmit it between them all. The youth’s advantage in weaponry had been negated.

Rather than watch the horrors that followed, Tharol turned to the matter closer at hand. He reformed his Shraying Staff arm, drawing it quickly inwards and pulling it out from beneath Inol’s foot. The youth lost his balance and stumbled forward, right into the blade that Tharol immediately formedhis Shraying Staff into. Inol was pierced straight through the heart.

“You were a fool,” Tharol scoffed, then pulled his blade loose, letting Inol’s body drop to the earth.

He turned to the battle between the youth and the elders. It was a massacre. The elders moved in a strange and erratic fashion, splitting into their individual forms, and retreating into a central mass, flickering their Shraying Staff sword in and out of existence in time to block, parry, and thrust. Already four of the youth lay dead, and now their precious weapons were being claimed by the elders. Three more youth were on the ground bleeding out. The remaining six were all huddling back om a corner, forming their Shraying Staffs into a shield wall, not even trying to fight anymore. All of the elders were moving in on that group, closing from the kill.

Which meant…none of them were advancing for Tharol. He was alone, and he could get out of that place if he wanted. For a moment he considered doing it. What was the point of pursuing a lost cause? Even if he got the youth out of their corner the elders would keep on chasing them down.

Maybe he could save one though.

Gritting his teeth Tharol lifted his arm and charged forward. His damaged arm protested every movement, sent sharp flashes of pain through his side with every step. He fought that down, though, and launched himself high into the air.

A force carried him up. A force far greater than he had kicked off of the stone pathway with. He lifted fourteen feet into the air, then rolled himself into a spin. He extended his Shraying Staff out as a long pole. It whipped through the air, unhindered until it collided with Master Etla, the forefront elder. With a sickening crack Master Etla was thrown back into her compatriots, tumbling them all to the ground.

“Come on!” Tharol roared to the youth who were peeking out at him from behind their shield wall. “To the centrifuge!”

“Wait, no, we can kill them if we’re quick enough!” Reis emerged from the barricade first and gestured to the fallen elders. His voice lacked its usual authority though. It sounded more like a weak idea than an order.

“Back to the centrifuge,” Tharol repeated firmly. “I won’t protect anyone who stays to die.”

In a moment Reis’s face steeled. There was no more uncertainty in his demeanor now. For in spite of any common sense, he could not swallow a challenge to his leadership. He stepped towards the fallen elders, waving his Shraying Staff sword overhead. “I AM YOUR LEADER!” He roared back at the youth. “YOU HAVE ALL MADE A PLEDGE TO ME! I ORDER YOU TO–“

But no one listened. Without a moment’s hesitation all the others lowered their shields and dashed down the hall for refuge.

“I DENY YOU!” Reis shrieked, and held his hand aloft. The bonds of the pledge took hold. The youth could not resist an explicit rejection from their leader. So long as he was their leader, he could deny them their free will. All they could do now was either submit to his order, or remain frozen in place.

There was a rustling from behind. Master Etla would not be returning to her feet again, but all the other elders were. Seemingly unfazed by being so forcefully thrown to the ground, they marched forward in a tight battle formation. They advanced to the youth that was nearest to them. Which, of course, was Reis.

“Fight with me!” The tinge of panic returned to Reis’s voice now. He hurriedly glanced over his shoulder at the approaching elders, then back to the other youth still frozen in defiance.

The first of the elders reached Reis. The boy swung his weapon wide and she easily deflected it, then pinned it to the ground.

“Obey me!” Reis panted.

Three swords pierced him at once. He fell to the earth and Tharol and the others felt their bonds loosen. They were free to run now, and run they must, for Reis’s parting gift had been to take away any head-start they might have had.

Everyone moved at once! The youth rushed towards the end of the hall, the elders sprang after them, and Tharol leaped in between. He spun his Shraying Staff in a wide circle, forcing the elders to deal with him first, covering for the others’ retreat.

The two nearest elders caught Tharol’s weapon between their own, and twisted their blades in unison so that he was sent sprawling through the air. His back slammed into a wall, and the two elders advanced on him as the others continued the chase. They were Masters Oni and Strawl.

Tharol’s wounded arm should have been in agony from the blow. But he didn’t feel any pain. Didn’t feel anything at all. Indeed he felt like his mind was detached from his body, directing it from a place of calm removal. He flung himself forward, swung his blade out. He did not try to strike either of the two elders, rather he intentionally crossed his sword with theirs, until they were all locked together. He sent a ripple down his Shraying Staff and the individual sections began tumbling outward, interlocking with those belonging to the two elders. Each of them tried to pull their weapon free, but they were tangled together! Tharol focused once more, and retracted all the sections of his Shraying Staff, leaving the still-fused weapons of the other two.

It only took Oni and Strawl a moment to follow his example, retract their weapons, and free themselves, but by then Tharol had already dashed away, chasing after the rest of his comrades. He thundered down one hallway after another, pushing himself faster and faster. He paused only for a moment as he came across the body of one of his friends. It was Golu. It was immediately apparent that there wasn’t anything he could for him, though, the youth was already long dead, so Tharol continued on his way.

Tharol clenched his teeth and sprang back into the air. He needed to move faster. He needed to catch up to the others. He flung his Shraying Staff out as a hyper-elongated arm with a vise-like claw at the end. He seized upon a distant column, flexed his arm, and flung himself powerfully through the air.

A wall came rushing up to meet him, and he barely managed to throw his mechanical arm forward in time to catch the wall’s upper ridge and flip himself over the obstacle. As quickly as possible he righted himself, then thrust out to vault off a stone gargoyle.

And so he continued, grasping and flinging, weaving his way through the air at breakneck speed. Any mistake and he would slam into a wall or a roof. Any slip and he would break all his limbs or worse. Any misjudgment and he wouldn’t be there to save his friends.

Tharol flipped onto an adjacent hallway and came upon two elders locked in battle with another of the youth: Chaol.

Tharol gave a cry and let himself plummet towards the ground. His Shraying Staff arm splayed out like a massive net, wrapping the two elders at once. They were Masters Zhaol and Finei, and they were ready for him this time. As soon as his net touched them they resisted the bind. In unison they lurched Tharol off of his feet and slammed him into the ground. He tried to regain his footing, but their own Shraying Staffs shot forth like vines, pinning him to the wall.

“Run!” he gasped to Chaol. Then he thrust his Shraying Staff forward as a long spear towards the two elders. Again, they were ready for it. Master Zhaol released Tharol’s body and enmeshed Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own, just the same as how Tharol had done to Oni and Strawl. Tharol couldn’t help but suspect that Zhaol knew about that maneuver by having shared with Oni and Strawl’s minds when it has happened.

Master Finei still held Tharol’s body firm with her Shraying Staff, but also drew a sword from her side with her other hand and ran Chaol through, killing the youth. Then she turned to Tharol and advanced for the kill.

Tharol regarded the cold steel of the sword…standard like the one Inol had carried.

With a cry Tharol thrust out his wounded arm. Pain washed over him, but he closed his eyes and focused with all his might. There came the sound of bubbling, molten steel, and then he felt Inol’s sword forming in the hand of his his wounded arm, claimed by his blood when Inol had stabbed him in the shoulder.

Tharol opened his eyes in time to see Master Finei slump backwards, dead. Master Zhaol blinked in surprise, and for a moment Tharol thought he looked like his old, regular self.

“Master Zhaol, let me go!” he pleaded. He tried to retract his Shraying Staff, but Master Zhaol was too quick, locking onto the sections of Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own and pulling them back out.

“No,” Master Zhaol stated flatly, staring blankly off into the distance. “You have defied us. You are all to die.”

Tharol could hear the sound of other elders approaching them, Oni and Strawl pursuing from behind, no doubt.

“Please, Master. Remember what you stood for. What you believed in. Why are you letting the Invasion take you?”

Zhaol turned his eyes onto the youth, and again Tharol felt that he was seeing the remnants of the teacher he had known.

“There is no point in resisting,” Zhaol said sadly. “You haven’t seen it Tharol. Even now, through us, you haven’t really seen it. There is only joining or perishing.”

Oni and Strawl, rounded the corner, saw Master Zhaol and Tharol, and began to approach them.

“Then perish with us!” Tharol cried. “We might save one if we tried. If we die, just for that, it’s already worth it. You know it is.”

“But–but–” Zhaol’s eyes fluttered, snapping rapidly between a blank stare and a wide-eyed mania. “But I’m afraid.”

“So am I. I’ll be afraid with you.”

A look of relief washed over Zhaol, his whole body quavered, and then he became very calm. He looked sad, but sure.

“Five of us,” Oni and Strawl recited in unison. They stepped away from each other, now advancing on Zhaol in a pincer formation. Zhaol turned to face them.

“Thank you, Tharol,” he said over his shoulder. “I can handle this now. You run!”

“We should stay together,” Tharol said. “If we were work together we can save one.”

“You’ve already saved one. Now go save another.”

On Monday I wrote about stories that are detached from any normalcy that we experience in the natural world, yet which we still accept as real so long as it remains consistent to its own rules.

Admittedly, this is one area that I think my current story is lacking. I did not begin it with a clear understanding of its mechanics or systems. I just sort of made it up as I went, and the result is that certain elements are inconsistent throughout.

Take for example the elders after they have been taken over by the invasion. In their initial attack (in the amphitheater) they seemed basically human. Later they were zombie-like characters in a trance, who fused together to form one, featureless void. And in the first version of this latest section I had them basically back to human.

Fortunately I realized that the second interpretation, the entranced and hyper-connected communion, was the most interesting, and should be the one I used consistently.

Thus I went back over this nighttime battle and rewrote the elders to exhibit more of that fusing-together/coming-apart behavior. Even so, I do feel like the first chapters of this story could be updated to be in better synergy with where I went in these later ones. If I were to ever expand this story, I would be sure to make that change. And in this way, by making my story more consistently strange, I would actually make it more true to itself, and thereby easier to believe in.

Next Thursday I will be posting the next section of The Favored Son, and it will be the last entry for it. After that it will be time to move on to another tale and another series. But before we get to that, I’d like to recap what my intentions were for this story, and evaluate how I have done at executing them. Come back on Monday to hear about that.

A Place Most Bizarre

Photo by anouar olh on Pexels.com

Big and Small Minds)

I have never had much luck explaining the message behind allegories to my son. I can tell him a story about the tortoise beating the hare, and he’s with it clear until the end. But then, once I start to say “so you see, the moral of the story is…” it all goes in one ear and out the other.

He can learn from fables, but like most children, he must do so by osmosis. Without anyone telling them what they’re supposed to think of it, children simply intuit what is right and true in the story, and what is wrong and evil.

But the other side of this coin is that children are able to embrace their imagination wholeheartedly. When Alice eats a cake and shrinks down to the size of a bug, and then meets a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah…children don’t bat an eye. They know that none of this happens in real life, but why shouldn’t it in a story?

Adults, on the other hand, are far more likely to get hung up on all the details and want an explicit explanation for it all. What exactly is meant by a caterpillar that smokes? Is this character an allegory for vice and its influence upon the youth?

They find it more difficult to accept that a caterpillar might just be strange for no other reason than to be strange.

A Wonderland)

Of course these are only a very few of the many, many things that are strange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a world that boldly refuses to be normal, surprising us instead with one oddity after another. We have talking cats, a kingdom of cards, croquet mallets that are really flamingos, walking on walls, and riddles during a mad tea party.

And can the less imaginative adults find a hidden subtext that grounds all of this to our regular world? Many scholars have attempted to do just that, suggesting that it is an examination of insanity, or an allegory of the coming-of-age experience, or a thinly-veiled shot at the tyranny of British rule.

But even if you don’t try to find any deeper meaning, the story still presents an experience that is undeniably captivating. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not require any deeper meaning to already be a fascinating adventure. Perhaps it is supposed to have one, but even if not it is already worth the ticket of admission.

And Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the only story that presents a strange land detached from reality. Indeed, most fantasy stories are even more severed from regular life. Where Alice at least begins her adventures in the real world, tales like Lord of the Rings and The Way of Kings are entirely based in foreign lands. They neither begin nor intersect with the real world at any point, they are completely divorced from our reality.

Fake Reality)

And yet these totally fabricated world can still feel real to us. They can seem as authentic a place to us as our own home. Though their magic and mechanics might be impossible, we accept them without the bat of an eye.

And people have always been able to do this. Encountering gods and titans was not a common occurrence to the everyday Greek. Even if they believed in the real-life existence of characters like Zeus, they were not personally acquainted with the individual. The everyday citizen probably never encountered magical threads, minotaurs, poisoned centaur blood, flying horses, or gorgons…yet they were perfectly content to listen to stories about them!

As with Alice in Wonderland, even the most fantastic of tales can remain convincing and intriguing just as it is, even when separated from any sort of symbolic meaning. And even when viewed under the lens of pure fantasy, we can still feel like these places are real.

Keep Your Story Consistent)

Or at least…we can find them intriguing and believable if they have been done well. But this isn’t always the case. Every now and then I find a story that I totally accept as real for the first act, but which then shatters its own illusion in the second. And as I’ve considered these disappointments, I’ve realized there is a common failing to each of these, a particular sin that is sure to make a story break its own illusion every time.

And that is when they change the rules of their own world partway through.

A story is able to be as fantastic as it wants, it can remain completely untethered from our own world if it wishes. But is must remain tethered to itself. It needs to be consistent to its own rules.

After Alice has seen a white rabbit in a waistcoat we are perfectly content to accept companions like a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter. But if she went around the corner and met a Greek god? Or a French revolutionary? It wouldn’t have fit with the established tone, and it would have shattered the illusion. All at once we wouldn’t see Alice as a real girl who lives in a real world and has real adventures. She would have been simply a “fictional character,” written by an “author,” and existing in a “fabricated story.” Totally fake.

I usually try to avoid calling out specific negative examples in these posts, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge in one here. I believe the main reason why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was rejected by many audience-goers was because it changed the tone of the story too severely. It frankly wouldn’t have mattered whether it was a “good story” or not, because it simply felt too different from everything that came before. Characters and themes seemed to be at odds with their prior selves, and thus they couldn’t be believed in anymore. The illusion of “a galaxy far, far away” was broken, and instead the awful truth was laid bare: Star Wars was simply a film franchise, made by movie studios, with different creative minds behind its entries.

Is it ever okay to pull out the rug, change the rules of your story, and subvert a reader’s expectations? Of course. There are always ways exceptions to the rules, and ways to break them that create a fascinating and worthwhile experience. But tread carefully if you go this route. It is very easy to take it too far.

If you do break the reality of your story, perhaps you could consider breaking it into a greater reality, one that can encompass the first. That is my intention with The Favored Son. I spent the first three posts trying to establish basic ground rules, then disrupted them with the fourth, and have spent the next few in a place where nothing seems grounded. My hope is that as I come to the end I’ll be able to catch the fractured pieces into a new, greater whole. I’m really not sure if I will succeed. There is a very real possibility that I do not, and the story will finish with a sense of having been at war with itself.

I hope that isn’t the case, but if nothing else the effort should be very educational! Come back on Thursday to see how I try to catch all the broken pieces.

The Favored Son: Part Seven

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably. “But–he’s not doing anything to us.”

Inol’s eyes narrowed. “Why are we here, Tharol?”

“We’re getting the weapons.”

“To do what? What are we here for ultimately?”

“Attack the elders?”

Inol nodded. “So why are you dragging your feet right now? Maybe Reis was right about you.”

Tharol cast around in his mind. It was true that he didn’t want to be a part of this, didn’t want to have this war with the elders. Everything he had just seen further convinced him that these people were not in their right minds, and so he didn’t want to be their executioner. He pitied them.

But…Tharol knew saying things like that weren’t going to go over very well. Everyone else was convinced that this war was the right way forward, and they were closed off to any criticism of it. So Tharol shook his head and went a different route. “Our first priority is to get these weapons to the others, so that they have a fighting chance when the main assault happens; not to go off on a whim, get ourselves killed, and leave our comrades helpless.”

“He has a point,” Bovik nodded.

“No he doesn’t,” Inol spat. “There’s three of us and one of Master Y’Mish. These are the best odds we’ll see all night!”

Bovik sighed. “That’s a good point, too.”

Tharol looked to Bovik. “What will it be then?”

“Huh?”

“I vote we find the others, Inol wants to fight this elder. What do you choose?”

“That’s not for me to decide!”

“What else is there?” Tharol shrugged. “We have no leader, and no explicit commands to guide us, so we all get a voice. What side do you take?”

Bovik squirmed uncomfortably, darting his eyes back-and-forth from Tharol to Inol.

“Well…I guess we try and take him, then. We take Master Y’Mish down, and then we find our comrades without further delay.”

“So be it,” Tharol sighed, then swung his leg out to the stone statue.

As silently as possible, the three youth stole to down the legs of the statue and off its base. Inol and Tharol left the other Shraying Staffs in a nearby bush, and then they rushed towards the orchard path. Master Y’Mish had not returned from there yet, so they lined up on either side of the walkway, Inol on the left-hand side, Bovik and Tharol on the right.

“Alright, we have him trapped now,” Inol observed. “We wait here until he comes out. When he does, we move quickly and decisively. We don’t try to talk to him, we don’t try to restrain him. We kill him.”

Tharol and Bovik nodded.

“Are you two going to use your Shraying Staffs?” Bovik asked eagerly. “How do they work?”

Tharol looked down to his arm and regarded the flexing metal shafts that covered his flesh. His arm ended in a large, menacing claw, and for a moment he envisioned five fingers instead. Even before the metal shafts began to realign themselves he knew that they would. All he had to do was think the form, and the Shraying Staff began spinning and contorting to create it. He could even flex each individual finger at will, as if it had been a real hand.

“Oh skies!” Bovik breathed in awe. “Let me have one.”

“I don’t have them anymore. We left them back there, remember?”

“Well I’ll–“

“Hsssh!” Inol spat out, and once the other boys quieted they could make out the sound of footsteps approaching down the orchard path.

Bovik silently drew out his standard sword and all three youth waited anxiously in the shadows. The steps grew nearer and nearer, without the slightest variance in rhythm. It was like the cadence of a machine.

Inol and Tharol had their eyes locked on one another from each side of the path. Suddenly their view of the other was broken as Master Y’Mish stepped between, and each sprang forward instantly.

Without even looking to either side, Master Y’Mish thrust his hands outward, expertly dodging their weapons and striking each youth squarely in the chest. He hit them with an impossibly powerful force, and both of the boys spun head over heels backwards.

Bovik managed to leap over Tharol as he went rolling by, kept his footing, and swung his sword forward with a cry. Master Y’Mish whisked his own sword out and the two of them crossed blades.

“Don’t worry about defeating him, Bovik,” Tharol cried as his roll finally came to a halt. “Just hold your ground.” He scrambled up to his feet and looked down to his arm, changing his sectioned fingers into a long, piercing blade. But then he paused, gripped by the memory of when he had fought Master Dovi and the voice told him to claim the elder’s weapon with his own blood.

Tharol looked up in shock. Master Y’Mish had just deflected another of Bovik’s thrusts, then used his free hand to punch the boy in the throat, sending him sprawling backwards with his hands around his neck. Behind them Inol was charging forward again, his Shraying Staff-arm also formed in the shape of a long blade.

“Inol, no!” Tharol cried. “Don’t cut him!”

It was too late, though. Master Y’Mish turned to face Inol, saw the raised blade, and casually lowered his weapon. With a shout Inol plunged his weaponized arm clean through Master Y’Mish’s heart. The elder slumped to the ground without a cry.

“Well that wasn’t so hard,” Inol crowed, while Tharol went to check on Bovik, who was still gagging and holding his throat.

“I’m fine,” Bovik croaked. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.”

“You shouldn’t have cut him,” Tharol shot at Inol.

“Why not?”

“It’s something I learned earlier. When someone gets their blood on a blade, they’re able to claim it for their own.”

“What? I’ve never heard that. How?”

“I don’t really know–but I’ve seen it done.”

Inol shrugged. “So what? He’s dead. Can’t claim anything now.”

“Are you so sure?” Tharol pointed to the ground, where the body of Master Y’Mish was rapidly changing. It seemed to be melting into a long, silver strand, and it reached through the air like a cord, wending its way out of the gardens and back towards the rest of the elders. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Tharol believed he heard a chorus of steps from far away, all marching towards them in perfect unison.

“We should get out of here,” Bovik said.

The other two readily agreed. They retrieved the other Shraying Staffs and ran as quickly as they could through the halls of the abbey. All the youth had agreed that they would regroup at the Wester Hall after accomplishing their various tasks. As Bovik, Inol, and Tharol approached the tall doors of that great room they finally slowed to a walk, panting for breath and holding their sides.

Inol reached up and knocked on one of the doors. “White rose,” he whispered through the crack, and someone inside undid the latch.

“What took you so long?” Reis demanded as the three boys walked into the hall.

“Ran into the elders,” Inol explained. “They’re in the passageway between the gardens and the dining hall. They’re in a sort of–trance.” Inol looked sideways at Tharol and then leaned close to Reis. “Hey, come over here, though. There’s something we need to talk about in private.”

Tharol rolled his eyes and tried to not dwell on the two of them as they peeled off to the side and had a hushed conversation together. He was sure Inol was reporting about Tharol’s hesitation to attack Master Y’Mish, and whether that was evidence of treason.

“Let them have their conspiracies,” Tharol thought bitterly, then looked around to see how many youth had already made it back from their missions. All of them were present, apparently Bovik, Inol, and he had taken longer than they realized with all their side diversions.

Each of the youth were pacing restlessly, some of them muttering together in twos or threes. Each of them seemed on edge, jumping at any sound that was louder than a whisper. No doubt they were all expecting the elders to come crashing in on them at any moment. Scared to stay in one place for too long, terrified to go out for the battle.

Why were they doing this? Tharol wondered. They all craved a strong leader like Reis, needed it in a time of crisis like this, but he was leading them far beyond what they were ready for.

Before Tharol could think any more on the matter, Reis had concluded his private conversation with Inol, and now he was coming to address the rest of the crowd.

“Well done everyone,” he praised, “that’s every mission fulfilled flawlessly. It would seem the elders have retreated to a single position, one that is ill-guarded. This is very fortunate, and we can stage our attack to our own advantage. On the other hand, it does mean an all-out fight, where I would have rather preferred to single them out one-at-a-time. Still…” Reis paused and surveyed the gathered youth, unsure and wavering. He nodded approvingly. “I like our chances. If this is our moment, let it be now. I feel no greater privilege than to–“

A soft clatter echoed from the halls. On a normal night, it was the sort of sound one wouldn’t even give a second thought. But to the youth now it sounded like the approach of death itself. Each of them locked their eyes on the double-door, half expecting it to be blasted in at any moment.

The explosion never happened, however they became aware of a subtle, pulsating rhythm coming from far away. It sounded very low and dark, like the rushing of wind at the bottom of a deep well. One-by-one the youth looked back to Reis.

“We go now. Tharol and Inol, hand out those weapons. We’ll advance on the garden-dining hall passageway in two groups–“

“I’m not so sure that they’re still there,” Tharol interrupted. “I thought I heard them moving as we left”

“Stick as one group then, but fan out. If we see them at a distance, and they haven’t detected us yet, we’ll pause to set up the razor cord trap. At each juncture, the people furthest to the right and furthest to the left check each path before we proceed.”

Everyone scrambled to take a weapon, or get in position, activated more by fear than duty. In only a matter of second they all stood at ready before the door.

“Alright,” Reis breathed deeply. “Go.”

Bovik and Golu opened the doors, and everyone moved out as one. They spread out to fill the full width of the hallway. Well, not quite everyone. Tharol noticed the space immediately behind him being filled out of the corner of his eye, and he turned to find Inol there.

“What are you doing?” he whispered.

“You and I work together. As a unit.”

“But I thought–“

“Hush!” Reis called back over his shoulder.

Tharol bit back the rest of his comment and kept moving forward. He didn’t care for the feeling of Inol lurking immediately behind him, though. Didn’t care for it at all.

Together the group of youth reached the first intersection. Marvi and Jolu peered down the two sides, then looked back to Reis and shook their heads. There was no one there.

Reis cocked his head upwards, listening for which way the deep strumming sound was coming from. He pointed dead ahead. Again they moved forward as one, taking one hallway after another, winding their way closer and closer to the source of the sound.

Now they came to a hall with ceiling-high archways opening to their right every few feet, overlooking the gardens. As they approached each opening the youth snapped their heads to the right, anxious to detect any threat that might be lurking out there.

Tharol could feel it in the air–was sure everyone else could feel it as well–they were close. The elders were very near. Any second now and there would be–

“OHHH!” Golu suddenly cried, which startled half of the other youth into shouting as well. Golu’s hand was extended towards the nearest archway. At first Tharol saw nothing, but following Golu’s hand he picked up the figure of a ghoulish creature hunched by the bushes, eyes staring out at them unblinkingly.

“It’s just a statue!” Reis hissed, and Tharol realized it was true. A stone gargoyle, skewed by the sideways moonlight and their own imaginations until it was nearly unrecognizable.

But the shout of the youth had already broken the spell. The deep, distant thrumming picked up in speed and volume, moving rapidly towards them. Seeming to echo through the walls and shake the stones at their feet.

“Oh no, they’re coming!” Jolu wailed. “We have to retreat!”

“No, stand firm!” Reis commanded. “Everyone ready your–“

“No!” Jolu panicked. “No we have to–have to–” the fear overtook him and he lifted his trembling hands to his eyes.

“Get him out of here!” Reis snapped. “He’s losing his nerve!”

“No,” Tharol said in dread. “It’s not that.”

Jolu’s whole body now trembled with his hands, his flesh rippled as an invisible wave passed through. His eyes rolled back into his head and the backs of them shone with a ghostly light. Then, suddenly, his hands stilled and his body went limp. How he remained standing was impossible to tell, it seemed as if he was being suspended only by an invisible puppeteer’s string.

“He’s being invaded.”

Jolu’s arms snapped upwards and he lurched forward towards the rest of the youth. A strange cry came from his mouth, like a miniature echo of the strumming sound they had been following.

And his wasn’t the only cry. It was being echoed behind them as well, though it was higher in intensity, like a shriek! Tharol already knew what he would see when he looked that way. The faceless entity had arrived, from it all of the elders were emerging, and they were also lurching to the attack!

Part Eight

On Monday I spoke about how stories are not only plot, character, and theme, they are also windows into new and exciting experiences. One of the reasons we pick up a novel or watch a movie is just to be given an image or idea that we’ve never experienced before.

With last week’s entry, and this one as well, my intention was to stuff one new idea after another into every scene. But the idea was not actually to amuse my readers, but rather to overwhelm them. I want them to feel uncomfortable, to not be able to grasp the rules of this new world, and to be uncertain of what might happen next. In this way I mean for them to have the same experience of our characters, who are all experiencing the rug being pulled out from under them.

I would say my greatest danger is overdoing it, and making it impossible for the readers to feel grounded in the story at all. In a world where literally anything can happen, it stops being surprising when yet another oddity follows after another.

This is an idea I’d like to explore with my next post. There have been some extremely weird stories over the years, full of all manner of crazy ideas, yet audience’s have been able to connect to and find personal meaning in them even so. Come back on Monday where we’ll look at a few examples, and consider how a story can walk the line of being unpredictable, yet relatable.

Just Dazzle Them

Photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

Movie Magic)

Old time cinema was used for more than just telling stories. Indeed, several of the original films were particularly light on story, with only threadbare plots and single-dimensional characters.

The Great Train Robbery, for example, did not strive to dissect the mind of the criminal, or provide an important moral lesson to its viewers. What it did do, though, was allow audiences to experience something that most of them would never encounter in life: the danger and thrills of a heist on the rails! And as cinema continued through its infancy, this idea of showing people things they had never seen before only grew.

High action stunts and feats of derring do abounded everywhere. From Laurel and Hardy dangling for dear life from a skyscraper, to the entire front of a building falling around Buster Keaton, to Houdini leaping from the wing of one plane to another, people saw things they had never witnessed before. The camera could take them to places they wouldn’t dare go on their own, and showed them wonders that no other form of entertainment could claim.

Artificial Wonders?)

More recently, the prevalence of CGI and extensive editing in recent years have been both a source of greater and lesser thrills in cinema. On the one hand, filmgoers have been transported to fascinating and impossible worlds, such as the lush jungles of the Navi and the halls of magic in Harry Potter. But on the other hand, films have also felt increasingly artificial and animated.

Perhaps that is a strange thing to say, given that movies have always employed a healthy amount of smoke and mirrors, even before the advent of digital effects. But at least even the smoke and the mirrors used to be actual, physical objects, not purely digital effects. A bad take was a bad take, and one did not have a hundred others to smooth it over. A mistake was a mistake, and one did not have editable pixels to cover it.

As a reaction to that fakery, there has been a push among some filmmakers to keep the marvels authentic. So Tom Cruise still does his own stunts, Christopher Nolan still crashes real planes, and Alfonso Cuaron still makes his actors memorize their roles for very long takes. It is still possible to go to the cinema, see something that you’ve never seen before, and believe that that something is really real.

Another Kind of Marvel)

Yet presenting a marvel to the audience is not the exclusive purview of visual mediums. Forget about CGI or smoke and mirrors, the written novel is nothing but pure imagination, yet it has still been able to inspire readers for centuries.

A novel has a much more limited currency to deal in than movies or songs: it has only its own ideas. And even so, the written word has still managed to spark the imagination of readers everywhere, and put into the mind notions that are entirely new.

Thus long before any alien movies, readers had already explored space travel with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Before the high-octane stunts of today’s secret agent, Sherlock Holmes was matching wits with Moriarty, the “Napoleon of crime.” Before audiences were horrified by the visage of monster makeup artists, they were held in captive-dread by the Headless Horseman and Frankenstein’s monster. And long before children were taught morals by animated, anthropomorphic creatures, they were enthralled by the whimsy of fairy tales and fables.

As I said, the currency here is the “idea.” Authors invented the narrative idea of space-travel, and detectives, and monsters, and readers fell in love. Though it wasn’t only genres that can be invented in a story. Tragic love, cathartic resolution, an ironic twist…these are all notions that have their first forms in the written or spoken word. And these sorts of inventions are just as capable of grabbing the imagination of their audience, and making them form connections that they never have before.

New Clothes)

However not every new idea in a story has to be a new narrative concept or a new genre. It is possible to write a tale that provides absolutely nothing new on an outline level, yet still captivates by dressing it in a way that feel fresh and new.

Consider the basic idea of Harry Potter: a chosen youth discovers a greater world that he had been blind to, and along the way learns truths about himself that are necessary to overcome a great evil. There is nothing new in this. From Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Narnia to It, there have been countless similar monomyths throughout the centuries.

But having that greater world be a community of witches and wizards that are concealed within our modern-day reality? That was something new, and it hooked the imagination of readers everywhere. It hooked them because it made them picture something they had never pictured before, and people love it when stories ask them to do just that.

Invent or Be Forgotten)

And so yes, an author should put a great deal of effort into making a solid story, one that has a good outline at its core, compelling characters, and dramatic arcs. Authors should learn how to describe a beautiful setting and to write gripping dialogue. They should learn to structure their sentences in ways that are both precise and beautiful.

But if they accomplish these, and still do not spark the imagination of the reader, then it will all be for naught. A flashy story without substance is superficial, but a story of substance that does not spark the imagination is quickly forgotten. If you truly want to make your mark, you need to say something that matters, and you need to say it in a way that has never been said before.

I’ve always wanted to put interesting, new ideas into my stories. I’ve wanted to craft worlds and mechanics that felt unique. With my latest story you can see examples of this in the multi-stage acted-out password that Tharol used to enter the armory, the weapons that fold into the characters arms, and the gang of elders morphed into a single body.

Obviously the best inventions are ones that integrate directly with the drama of your story, and if I’m being perfectly honest I haven’t achieved that particularly well with The Favored Son. The novelties of my last session were mostly just interesting for being interesting’s sake, not representative of any greater meaning, and not likely to carry any special significance in later events. Perhaps I’ll be able to find a way to integrate them more into the story of the architecture moving forward.

Come back on Thursday to see how I continue striving to put images and ideas in the readers’ minds, and hopefully ones that they have never considered before.

The Favored Son: Part Six

Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

“Alright, you setup watch here,” Tharol whispered to Inol. “If you see anyone–“

“Why should I keep watch?”

“What?”

“Who put you in charge? Why should I be the one to keep watch?”

Tharol blinked quickly, trying to hold back his frustration. “Does it–does it matter?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bovik sighed. “I’ll keep watch.”

“Fine,” Tharol agreed. “If you see anyone, you come and get us. Don’t try to take an elder on your own. Doesn’t matter who it is.”

“Sure,” Bovik shrugged. “I’m not stupid.”

“I know, Bovik. And–thanks,” Tharol clapped the youth on the shoulder, then he and Inol stole to the end of the hall where the armory door was waiting. They had been tasked with retrieving the abbey’s Shraying Staffs, so that their little army would have a fighting chance against the elders.

There were other groups of youth running through the abbey as well. One was scouting out the locations of the elders, another was trying to secure the Ovayan Stone so that they could communicate with the outside world, and a third was roaming the dormitories for anything of value that had left behind in their initial retreat. Tharol didn’t think much of this tactic, splitting their numbers out when they were already too few as it was.

But then, Reis was insistent that this was the way forward, and Tharol had made a pledge to support him. Right now what really mattered was to keep the youth united. Tharol would swallow his criticisms for the greater good of them all.

“Alright, what are you waiting for?” Inol hissed as Tharol remained motionless before the door to the armory.

“I don’t–I don’t understand this. It’s changed,” Tharol whispered back.

“You said you knew how to get in!”

“I did! Or at least I thought so. I saw how Master Makile did it once. But at that time there was a keyrod and there isn’t one now. Just this panel!”

He tapped the metal plate that was over the center of the iron door. Inol frowned, pressed his fingers against the panel, and slid it sideways, uncovering the keyrod laying underneath.

“Oh,” Tharol said, feeling stupid. He took the keyrod in hand and spoke to it. “I approach at the dawn of day, and speak my words to he who listens.”

A mechanism turned in the depths of the door, and two large spikes emerged, hovering menacingly in the air.

“What are you–” Inol began, but Tharol raised a hand to silence him.

“I take the hands, cold and small. I show no fear for their ruggedness.” Slowly he stroked the spikes, letting his fingers trace right over their jagged tips.

Another sound of gears spinning in the door, and now an entire section opened like the maw of some great beast, complete with teeth above and beneath.

“I take my pillow in trust. I consign myself to the mercy of those I serve.” Slowly Tharol inserted his head between the metal teeth, eyes closed. There was a sound as if of breathing from the mouth, a rising growl from the center of the door. “Yet I am cunning as a snake,” Tharol’s eyes snapped back open, “and I ever preserve my life!” Tharol whisked his head back out from the machine-mouth just as the metal teeth snapped shut. There was a pause, then a clatter of turning gears on the other side of the door, and at last the whole thing swung inwards.

“What was that?!” Inol hissed in shock.

Tharol shrugged. “It’s the password.”

“And you memorized all that from one time watching Master Makile?”

“I think you’ll find that having seen it once now for yourself will be more than enough to make you remember.”

Together the two youth rushed into the hold. There was a solitary window set high in the wall as their only source of light. Groping in the dimness they found shelves on either side of them. They were dusty, and mostly barren, but on occasion their hands felt something long and cold lain out on them.

“Is it these?” Tharol asked.

“It must be. I don’t think they keep anything else in here. Just grab whatever you can feel.”

“They’re heavy!”

“Well they’re powerful, so that’s to be expected. How many do you have now?”

“I think five.”

“We need a lot more.”

“What’s that? The end of the aisle. Are there any other rows?”

There were not.

“Well that’s it, then,” Inol admitted. “We’ll just have to make-do with what we have.”

They felt their way back out of the room, then crept down the hallway, looking for Bovik.

“He was supposed to be here!” Tharol said in dismay as they came to the hall-end and found their comrade missing.

“Yes, well–watch it! Your staff is coming apart!”

“What?”

Tharol looked up, and for the first time properly took in the Shraying Staffs he was carrying over his shoulder. They were tall, onyx staffs, about the same size and weight of a beam of wood. None of the youth had ever actually seen one before, they just knew that they were the pride of the Northern Armies.

As Tharol examined the staff-ends hanging over his shoulder he saw what Inol was referring to. It appeared that some hinge had opened, and a few rods were starting to spill out of the beam. He was about to reach up to close it back up when he realized the rods were waggling back and forth, like overly large fingers feeling for something.

“It’s a spider!” Inol said. “A giant spider!”

“No, it’s–” Tharol looked to his companion and saw that the same overly-large fingers were reaching out of his staffs as well. And when Inol had spoken, the fingers had thrust themselves out towards his face, they were about to touch him now.

“No!” Tharol shouted, all sense of stealth thrown to the wind. He dropped his staffs and thrust his hand out, trying to block the machine-hands before they could touch Inol’s mouth!

As soon as he made contact with them, the most unusual sensation came over him. It felt as though there was a pin that had always locked his finger in place, one that he had never noticed before, and now it suddenly loosed and the digit was free for the first time in his life. And as he looked to his hand he saw it was so, for his finger was revolving on a hinge, folding up into his hand. And then all his hand seemed to be built of small, finger-like sections, all on pins that had been unlocked, all rotating and folding, all giving way to machine sections that were unfolding out of the staff to take their place.

“Oh no!” Inol cried. He dropped his own staffs to the ground, but not before another of them had reached its fingers out and begun bonding with his shoulder. Both youth watched in horror as the two staffs continued extending themselves until they covered each boy’s entire arm. Fortunately they stopped after they had consumed from hand to shoulder, and did not attempt to creep any farther along their bodies. Their arms were longer than usual now, with many waving, undulating tendrils, and large claws in place of hands.

“It’s a–it’s a part of us,” Tharol breathed.

“I’d always heard of them as bonding weapons, but I never understood that it meant like this!”

“I can–I can still feel my arm…in a way. Can you?”

“Yes, just sort of–folded up inside but still there. And I can feel the staff as well, like it’s a part of me.”

“Psst!”

Both boys nearly jumped for fright, then turned and saw Bovik stealing down the adjacent hallway towards them.

“Where were you?” Tharol asked.

“Do you have any idea how loud the two of you are being?” Bovik scolded.

“Sorry…we were…being shocked. But where were you?”

“I saw one of the elders. I was following her.”

“You were supposed to come get us if you saw one. She could have destroyed you!”

“No…I don’t think she was in a state to do that. It was like she was in a trance. Come on, I have to show you.”

Bovik turned right back around and continued back the way he had come, looking over his shoulder every few steps and beckoning the other two forward.

Inol and Tharol hurriedly picked the other Shraying Staffs off of the floor and hurried after Bovik. As they went Tharol continued to examine his malformed arm. He found that he could push on the different sections and fold them into the arm’s recesses. He could even unfold certain sections of them and bring back out portions of his ordinary, flesh-arm.

“Alright, just look over the banister.”

Bovik had led them to a hall which opened one one of its sides to the floor below. Tharol and Inol squinted curiously at each other, then slowly advanced to peer into the lower level.

“We’ve walked into the Cryptics,” Tharol breathed in awe.

There below them was one of the elders. They could recognize it as such because of the robes it was wearing, not because they recognized the face. For that face was completely blanked out, an empty slate with only the vaguest suggestions of eyes or nose or mouth. It stood with naked arms slightly raised on either side, and its limbs twitched now and again as if it was trying to move.

As they watched another figure approached the first. This one they could readily make out as Master Iliya, whose classes had covered herb care and medicinal treatments. Her eyes were closed, her hands held in the same partially raised pose as the other body’s. As Bovik had said, she seemed to move as if in a trance, drawing nearer and nearer to the faceless body. As she did so, the body’s form became less vague and more defined. Indeed it was changing to take on Master Iliya’s features.

The closer she drew to it, the more her own face reflected in its own. Both of their movements became more like that of a regular human being. Master Iliya’s airy trance-like steps became more intentional and the idle twitches smoothed out of the doppleganger.

“Circuit completed.” Master Iliya’s body moved like it was the one speaking, but it was the mouth of the copy that spoke the words. “There are fifteen with us.”

“Eight of us and fifteen with us.” A chorus of disembodied voices echoed around the room.

“Hey,” Inol hissed to Tharol. “There were fifteen of us youth who came into the building.”

Tharol paused for a moment. Inol, Bovik, and he made three. Reis and two others had gone to retrieve the Ovayan Stone, four more were scouring the dormitories, and another five were patrolling the halls. Fifteen.

So did that mean only eight of the elders were remaining alive after the battle in the amphitheater?

Master Iliya suddenly began to shudder. She took a step forward, body trembling like a leaf. The other body began to shake as well, its features blurring and distorting, combining with Master Iliya as she stepped forward into it. A moment later and she had been entirely ingested. The body continued to contort, though, and then Master Y’mish emerged from it.

He moved as if speaking, and the body behind him (which was now reflecting his form) spoke the words “Beginning my circuit.” And then he strode off and out of sight.

The boys watched until he was gone around the hallway.

“He was headed towards the gardens,” Inol observed. “We can get to it from this level if we go through the library.”

“I’d rather not,” Tharol whispered, but Bovik and Inol had already started off, and with a sigh he followed.

The three crept through the gilded doors of the library, stole between the aisles of books, and pushed open the windows at the back. Before them was the upper half of a stone statue, with the garden paths sprawled out beneath.

“There he goes,” Bovik pointed towards Master Y’Mish’s entranced form. “Down towards the orchard.”

“No way out but the same way in,” Inol observe. “Come on,” he stepped one foot out of the open window and reached for the arm of the statue.

“Wait, why?” Tharol asked.

“We’re going to take him, Tharol. Here and now, while he’s cornered and can’t alert the others. The three of us are going to kill him.”  

Part Seven
Part Eight

On Monday I wrote how certain areas can be returned to multiple times in a story, becoming a sort of familiar home to the audience. These places are often used to reset the readers emotions, or else to highlight (by contrast) how different the protagonists have become.

In The Favored Son, I have made the decision to make a familiar haunt out of the center of the stone hedge, laying on the outskirts of the abbey grounds. The abbey itself I have described as little as possible, leaving it shrouded as a place of mysteries. It’s an interesting choice, because to the students the abbey would be their common living area, the place they have spent every day in for the past many years. They must be more familiar with it than any other place.

I took this approach, though, because it fits the narrative better. This setup highlights the fact that the students have been kicked out of their own nest. They have become strangers in their own home. And so I focus on them discovering things that they never knew about this place.

At this moment they are trying to reclaim their home for themselves, but as one discovery leads to another, they’re going to have to face the fact that the place they thought their home was never actually existed. They’re going to look at these once-familiar halls and admit they never truly knew them. And once that pill is swallowed, there will be nothing left but to to uproot themselves, retreat back to the fringes, and set out to find a new home of their own. A place of belonging can only lay ahead of them, not behind.

But before we get to that, let’s consider what I did with today’s entry to make the abbey seem like such a foreign place, and the centrifuge more cozy by contrast. I made this by turning the abbey into a place of new and uncomfortable discoveries. From the strange multi-password ritual to enter the armory, to the Shraying Sticks being living machines, to its halls being haunted by the shells of their teachers, I tried to cram as many unpleasant surprise revelations into this post as possible.

And as already stated, this served the purpose of making it feel like the students are strangers in their own home, but it was also to accomplish another effect as well: that of entertaining the reader. My hope was that these strange discoveries are just plain interesting to my audience, and will make them want to continue with the story.

I think this idea of inventing new things in your story, and using them to entertain the reader, is very common. Most authors do it without necessarily thinking about it. But it is worth pausing to take a focused look at this tool of story-crafting.

To be sure, a story needs things like strong characters, interesting arcs, an engaging pace, and cathartic resolutions. But aside from all that, it also just needs to be fascinating in the individual moment.

Come back on Monday where we will explore the practice of inventing in a story, and how it is utilized in the best of tales. Then we’ll see how I have been employing that technique in The Favored Son.

The Watering Hole

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A Calm Amidst the Storm)

There is a video game called Shadow of the Colossus, in which the main character has trespassed onto forbidden lands and seeks the aid of a disembodied demon. He presents a young woman who has been sacrificed and pleads for her soul to be returned to her body. He is told that his wish may be granted…but only if he is able to defeat sixteen colossi in battle, each of which is scattered across the land. A very dangerous undertaking to be sure, but one that he will gladly face to save her.

And so he goes out, toppling one giant monstrosity after another. And at the conclusion of each battle he falls unconscious, only to awaken back at the hall where he has laid the young woman’s body on an altar. Each time he awakens the exact same ritual commences: the statue representing the most-recently-dispatched colossus bursts into pieces, the disembodied voice tells him where he must go to face his next quarry, and the boy sets off to fulfill the task. It a scene very reminiscent of Hercules returning to King Mycenae after each of his labors to receive the next piece of his penance.

Over and over the pattern repeats in Shadow of the Colossus. Each chapter is book-ended by this same return to the hall and altar. You become very familiar with this place, and in its repetition it starts to become personally meaningful. The cavernous chamber, the flowing staircase, the never-ending bridge…without even trying to one starts memorize every little detail. This place starts to feel like home.

In a game otherwise filled with danger and tragedy this is a most welcome respite. Each new challenge features new settings, new dangers, new puzzles. They can become quite taxing and fraught with frustration. But that’s alright, because each of them is also set apart from the others by this singular moment of reprieve. Like Hercules, each new task may be a novel and difficult experience, but the hero is able to feel safe and comfortable for a brief while before trekking out once more.

A Shortcut to Pacing)

Even the most exciting of stories needs moments of calm. A story that is only made up of intense action will soon fail to have any impact, it will lose its voice within its own noise. There has to be variety, there has to be escalation and de-escalation.

And returning to a familiar setting is one of the quickest ways to bring the tempo back to a calm state. Soothing background music can help, soft voices can help, warm colors can help…but the best thing of all to calm the audience’s nerves is to put them in walls that are well-known and safe. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, you want them to have a place that just feels like home.

And one medium that is especially able to make a place feel familiar and safe is the television show. By having episodes strewn over a period of years, developers have great opportunity to repeat settings until they are second-nature to us. And when one of those familiar places is reserved for scenes that are always calm and happy, then the viewer starts to feel better just by being there.

And so in Star Trek: The Next Generation a favorite haunt is Ten-Forward, the futuristic bar where characters come to share a drink and a little bit of gossip. Other places on the ship are often subject to laser blasts and torpedoes, but Ten-Forward, by contrast, is usually the setting where characters only come after all the chaos is past. It is a place for quietly reminiscing, for exploring relationships, for casual words.

Episodes of MASH might be fraught with wartime violence, overbearing stress, and the looming specter of death…but regularly the cast will come back together for a friendly game of Poker in Hawkeye’s tent. No matter how chaotic things are elsewhere, the Poker night immediately resets the tone to something calm and safe.

Every episode of the old Mission: Impossible series is fraught with spies, deception, and danger. But each episode also begins in a calm apartment where the team methodically plan out their disguises and test their equipment. It is only a brief segment in each episode, but it always allows the audience to settle into the plot from a familiar setting.

A Shifted Perspective)

However, regularly returning to a familiar scene does not only have to be used to reset the audience’s emotions. Sometimes returning to an old haunt can actually be used to illustrate just how different the characters within it have become. Yes the setting is familiar, but the spirit of it feels entirely new.

Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in A Christmas Carol. Throughout the tale Ebenezer keeps leaving and returning to this place, and each time the room is completely the same as before. And it is that sameness that makes his own personal change stand out in stark relief.

We are first introduced to it when he comes home from a long day of work, sets the many locks on its door, and takes a supper of gruel in the dark. It is a mean and meager place, thrifty to the point of oppressiveness, and it is in perfect harmony with the man that lives in it.

Then the visitations from the spirits begin, and Christmas Past takes Ebenezer down a painful walk of his own memories. We see his life laced with one regret after another, until he refuses to continue the journey any further, and forcibly returns back to his bedroom. He is filled with deep relief to be back home, and suddenly we see the room how he sees it: not meager and dark, but close and safe. In its confinement he feels secure. It is his fort to keep out all the outside world, and all the pain of his past. For the first time, we pity him.

Next comes the visit of Christmas Present, who shows him how much more mirth and love is occurring outside of these walls on Christmas day. Scrooge finally starts to long for more, and the dankness of his hovel is emphasized even more than before.

Finally Christmas Future comes, and of all the places that he could show Ebenezer, he shows him the future version of this very same bedroom. It is the room, after Ebenezer has died.

This is the only time the room actually changes, and we are shocked to find that it is able to become even more bleak than before, with bed curtains stolen and a single sheet laid over a solitary, lonely corpse.

And then, after that moment of absolute darkness, we return to the room once more as it is today, and by contrast it now seems a place of life and hope. In fact the sun is raising, and the windows are thrown open to let that light in. Ebenezer is still alive, and he still has a chance to make this room a place of joy.

A single, solitary room, a room that does cannot speak a single word of dialogue. Yet so much is said in the many different ways we behold it.

I am trying my hand at writing a single location that returns multiple times in The Favored Son. The centrifuge has been visited twice already, and each time under very different contexts. The first time is at the very beginning, when things are still relatively calm and carefree. The youth are quibbling about leadership, but there aren’t any serious stakes at play.

The second visitation takes place after the youth have been attacked and retreated to the centrifuge for safety. Suddenly its annoying complexities become securities. It is a place of safety, a place that feels an essential to survival. Again the students are conflicted about questions of leadership, but there is a desperate urgency to it now.

There is a third visit to the centrifuge yet to come, and this one will occur when the students are in a place of utter defeat. The brokenness of the place’s columns should carry a significance then that was never felt before. The question of leadership will finally be put to rest. It will be a scene of old ideas and hopes being laid to rest as well, while a bleaker dawn arises.

Before we get to that, though, we’ve got to actually have the youth be broken. I’ll be getting into that with my next post on Thursday. As you read that entry, consider how I am setting things up to make the next visit to the centrifuge feel fundamentally different than any time before.

Update on My Novel: Month 17

black pen near white printer paper
Photo by lalesh aldarwish on Pexels.com

SEPTEMBER STATS

Days Writing: 18
New Words: 3145
New Chapters: 1

Total Word-count: 56,412
Total Chapters: 15.75

Well 3,000 words-per-month definitely seems to be my pattern of late! Actually, if I’m being honest, I was tracking well below that level until the end of the month, and when I realized it I redoubled my efforts just to be sure I made that mark. I guess 3,000 words unconsciously became a minimum standard for myself.

Also, I wouldn’t have had a chance of hitting that many words if not for a writer’s group that I am a part of. Each meeting we take an hour-and-a-half of uninterrupted writing to get out as many words for our novels as possible. I only attended one of these meetings for the month of September, but from that one session I got 1,200 words. Just by attending more of these (they occur on a weekly basis) I could get a lot more done each month.

For the past while I’ve been realizing that the greatest slow-down to my writing process is that I review each chapter after I finish writing it. I don’t get chapter polished to a perfect state, and there’s still going to be a lot of refactoring and revising to do later, but my work does become markedly improved from this editing-as-I-go approach. I think it is an important process, but it sure does put the brakes on my momentum.

I’m not sure what to do about that yet. I could push myself to edit each chapter for a set number of days only. I could try to be more sparse in smoothing out each rough spot. I could see if it is better to write out three whole chapters, and then edit them as a batch.

Perhaps I’ll implement some of those ideas this month, I’m still not sure. But I will be paying close attention to how things go once I get finished with Chapter 16. Come back on November 1st to hear how it went.

Before I head out, though, here’s a little snippet from my work this month. Enjoy!

An early chill crawls out of the earth that night and the family awakens to several patches of dew that have crystallized into frost.

“Is this a concern?” William asks Eleanor.

“No, not yet. We had a few cooler days last season as well, and none of them were a problem for our test crop.”

The wind picks up, and all of the family pull their blankets more tightly around their shoulders and lean closer to the fire.

“Well that’s a proper sea breeze, isn’t it?!” William exclaims.

“Yes, and a sea sky,” John observes the flat, gray canopy overhead.

“Well I think it’s quite refreshing myself,” Eleanor smiles. The wind picks up once more and she shrinks back into her blanket. “I’ve gotten so used to this hot and humid air that I don’t even notice it anymore. Nice to have a day that you can actually feel once in a while!”

“Well I prefer not feeling the day,” Clara shivers.

“Were you finished with your porridge?”

“Yes.”

“Well then why don’t you and I start on our way. The walk will help thaw you out.”

“But then I won’t be in my blanket anymore.”

“I’d consider letting you keep it around you, but then you’d have to carry it back at the end of day.”

“I’ll carry it!”

“And it will be hot and stuffy this afternoon, and you won’t enjoy having to carry it then.”

“No, I’ll be alright. Thank you, mother.”

“I believe you mean ‘please, mother,'” William cocks an eyebrow.

Clara sighs. “Please, mother?”

“Well, alright.”

“Thank you, mother.”

The Favored Son: Part Five

Photo by HaRsh SiNgh on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Reis and Tharol walked to the end of the central dais and to the other side of a wide column, which nearly shut them out of view of the other youth.

“Alright, what is it?” Reis demanded as soon as they were around the pillar.

“I don’t want to embarrass you, Reis,” Tharol explained, “that’s why I had us come here, you understand? I just wanted to ask you why you told the others those–those stories about me. That I was the one who wanted to investigate them, that that was my own idea and not yours?”

“It as good as was your idea. You made it clear that you don’t trust all the rest of them either.”

“Reis…that’s not true. I’m worried for them, but I think that they’re good. And it wasn’t my idea, not even a little. It was yours.”

“So that’s what you’re here for? To accuse me? Try and get some dirt to make the others doubt me?”

“Reis, please stop this!” Tharol sighed in exasperation. “No one is here to hurt you. I just need us to be on the same footing. Why are you so convinced that I’d be a traitor anyway? Why are you telling them things about me that aren’t true?”

“Well I–I still don’t know that you’re not a traitor–“

Reis!

“Well I don’t, I just know that someone is. It could be you.”

“What makes you so sure that one of us is? I only saw elders attacking us back there.”

“Raystahn…it told me!”

“It what?”

“It did!” Reis was speaking very quickly and excitedly now, unable to hide his eagerness to share his secrets with Tharol. It’s what I was showing to the rest of them here at the centrifuge after you left that day. There was that first set of symbols you heard about, the ones that change whenever you move, but there were also symbols that changed much more slowly. They would stay the same for days at a time, and then shift ever so slightly.”

“And you interpreted them?”

“Not all the way. I had my suspicions, but I wasn’t sure of them until I saw what happened today in the amphitheater.”

“What were the symbols.”

“Just shapes, circles and triangles. But the triangles were breaking the circles, pressing their points into them and splitting them in two! From when I first saw it I could tell whatever that meant it wasn’t good.”

“And after what happened today…you believe the triangles are the elders and we’re the circles? I suppose that could be…though it’s not sure. And I don’t see where the theory of a traitor comes from that either.”

“Because there’s always been another symbol among the circles. One that is also circle, but which has a triangle inscribed within it.”

Something about that struck Tharol very deep.

“I suppose you think that doesn’t mean anything either,” Reis shook his head. “But I can’t explain it to you. It does have a significance, I can just feel it.”

“No, I believe you,” Tharol said, his mind trying to make sense of his intuitions. “But–but it isn’t just elders against acolytes and a traitor in our midst–that’s close, but that’s not quite it.”

“What then?”

“It’s an invasion.”

If possible, Reis’s eyes went wider than before.

“You think–? You think this is what the Invasion looks like?”

“I–I think so…”

Reis looked skeptical. “But what the Cryptics described made the Invasion sound far more…extreme.”

“I think this is how it starts. And from here it gets even worse.”

“Well…then we would still have a traitor. Even worse, actually. Someone among us who’s actively being taken over by the Invasion.”

“And you assume that it’s me.”

“Well–yes? I didn’t think so at first, but then…you were the only one who wouldn’t make a pledge. And you ignored me when I told you about my suspicions.”

I didn’t agree with you, so you assumed I was evil. Tharos thought to himself in exasperation.

“But…you see the importance of what I’ve been saying now, don’t you?” Reis continued. “Now you understand why we need the pledge, now you see why we need to investigate and root out any Invaded. Don’t you?”

Reis was offering to let Tharol back into the circle, but Tharol couldn’t help but sense the implied threat if he didn’t.

“Well of course I see that things have to be different now,” Tharol said. “We’re on our own…we’re facing extinction. We need to be bound to each other, yes, of that I’m certain.”

“So you’re willing to make a pledge to me now?”

“A pledge to everyone. I want all of us to make a pledge to each other. Me to you, and you to me, both of us to Bovik and him to both of us, and so on and so on.”

“What? Well that wouldn’t mean anything,” Reis scrunched up his nose.

“That would mean everything. We’d all be bound in every direction. We’d all be equal, as we should be.”

“No, that’s not it. You just don’t want to follow my lead still. Why not?”

Tharol bit the inside of his cheek. Reis could be a pompous fool, but when it came to a shift of power, he didn’t miss a trick. He was right of course, the last thing Tharol wanted was to be directly bound to Reis. Reis was too proud, too distrusting, and Tharol would rather follow anyone else instead.

“It’s–it’s like you said before, Reis. We all have different strengths, and we’re meant to unite them together. This is how we do it, by sharing the responsibility together equally across us all.”

Reis snorted. “Please. The others need a leader and you know it. And that’s my particular strength: leading. That’s how we band together. Everyone else sees it. Everyone else has already made their pledge. Whether you like it or not, Tharol, the new order has already been formed, and the only question is if you’re with it or not.”

Reis was right, the other youth had already committed themselves. And if Tharol couldn’t convince Reis, there wouldn’t be any convincing them either. They would just defer to whatever they were told, and view any argument against Reis as an attack against them all.

We have to stay together, Tharol thought to himself. Even if it’s an imperfect banner, what matters is that we all stand united under it.

“Alright then, Reis. I’ll make a pledge.”

A few moments later and the two of them came out from behind the stone column, over to the dais where the rest of the youth were collected. Reis was practically beaming with his triumph.

“Well you were quite a while,” Marvi pouted. “I was starting to get worried.”

“It’s fine,” Reis waved his hand dismissively. “I told you that I’d handle things.”

“So what’s the situation with him,” Inol tipped his head towards Tharol.

“We’ve talked things over, and it seems there was a misunderstanding between us. Tharol sees the importance of what we’re doing here now, and he’s made his pledge to our new Order.”

“Are we really our own order now?” Bovik breathed in awe.

“Well certainly we’re not part of the old one anymore,” Golu said bitterly.

“I still don’t understand what happened,” Inol spoke up. “I just can’t believe that every order is supposed to end with its elders trying to kill all of their followers.”

“I don’t think it is,” Tharol shook his head. “They were supposed to just pass on. Did you see how most of them meditated into nothingness? That’s what they were meant to do, resign their lives so that there was space for us to take over.”

“But not all of them did.”

“Yes, well, clearly not every elder was as ready for such a sacrifice. I think Master Orish anticipated that when he made his speech. Maybe that’s how it is every time. Maybe there’s always those who would rather keep their place, even if doing so meant killing the next generation.”

“But why would those be the only choices?” Bovik demanded. “Why can’t they just live alongside us until they die naturally?”

“I…don’t know. Somehow it doesn’t work that way.”

“And would that mean that the elders who defended us were in the wrong, too?” Marvi added. “Do you mean that they should have just blinked away into nothing instead of helping us?”

“I don’t know…maybe.”

“Yes, he doesn’t know,” Reis cut in, frustrated that Tharol had become the center of questions. “And making idle guesses isn’t going to help us right now. What we need now is to act swiftly and strongly. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d say I saw five times as many elders trying to kill us as trying to defend us. It’s only natural to assume that anyone who was going to be a help is already dead. If we see an elder from this point on, they’re our enemy.”

Reis paused a moment to let that notion sink in.

“So…if we see an elder…you want us to kill them?” Bovik asked slowly.

“It’s kill or be killed, simple as that.”

“We could run,” Tharol countered.

“Not a chance!” Reis spat. “This is our Order now. Our chance to earn our future. You heard what Master Orish said, it’s ours, but only if we’re able to take it.”

“But we don’t know how to move and fight like they do,” Tharol shook his head. “They’ve had so many more years and learned so much more.”

“Yeah, they’re old! And weak! Sure, they got the jump on us earlier when we weren’t expecting anything, and things didn’t look so good then. But now, when we know what we’re facing, we’ll cut them to pieces! Or is that not how you escaped?”

“I…did kill two of them. But it wasn’t me. Master Palthio was helping. He was…honestly I don’t know how to say it other than he invaded me! But he was doing it to help, just for a very brief moment. I wouldn’t have had a chance on my own.”

“Well…I guess martial skills never were your forte,” Reis scoffed. “Plus you’re forgetting the most important matter of them all. This is the Invasion. I’ve seen it in Raystahn. So it wouldn’t matter if we were outmatched a hundred-to-one, the simple fact is we have a duty to do. We make our stand here and now. Stand to protect the world from being Invaded because we’re the only ones that have the training to do it.”

Tharol opened his mouth, intending to point out that fighting the Invasion just created strife, which the Cryptics taught could only further Invasion. But before he could say a word Marvi shouted “Hear! Hear!” and then all the other youth rushed in to join her.

Well that’s that, Tharol thought ruefully. The leader has spoken.

*

Tharol kept himself aloof from the rest of the conversation that evening, while Reis and a few of the others planned how they would retrieve weapons and launch a counterattack against the elders. Tharol felt muddled inside, more than ever before, and he preferred to have some time alone.

So he took up watch at the eastern edge of the centrifuge. There were two youth assigned to watch at every forty-five degrees of the clearing. One youth roamed outside the centrifuge, patrolling the halls of the hedge maze in that area, while the other stood within, demanding a password when the patrolling youth came back inside.

Then the two would swap places and continue their joint patrol/watch. Passing back-and-forth through the centrifuge was exhausting work. Every time you exited, the only way to return was through some totally new mechanic. It became a great mental taxation then, puzzling out one solution after another.

Perhaps the inconsistency of approach was the reason why none of the elders had attempted to invade the centrifuge yet. It couldn’t have taken them long to scour every other corner of the Abbey, and it wasn’t as if the youth’s fascination with the area was much of a secret. But how could the elders plan a proper assault where every member of the attacking party would have to come into the centrifuge by a different method, and thus break into it at different times? The youth would be able to cut them down one-at-a-time.

That was just as well as far as Tharol was concerned. The fact was that he had no desire to kill the elders at all. He had seen how Master Omil’s face had changed from hate to remorse right before he had vanished at the end. He felt that he had seen the real Master Omil in that final moment. Not a monster trying to eat him, but a man who was regretful and broken. Tharol got the sense that Master Omil had not been in his right mind when he attacked. There had been a shadow over his face, and it was that image which convinced Tharol most of all that this was the work of the Invasion.

And perhaps some of the elders had done something wrong. Perhaps they had not been vigilant enough. Perhaps the Invasion had taken them over because they were too naïve or stupid or careless. Perhaps it had taken advantage of their fears, had been invited in by their hesitancy to move on. But now were they to be executed simply for having been human?

“Brilliant,” Reis clapped Inol on the shoulder over at the central dais, praising him for some scheme the youth had just concocted. “They won’t be able to draw near without being cut to ribbons!”

Evidently so.

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

On Monday I spoke about stories that exist in more than one iteration. I even shared how I was considering releasing more than one version of The Favored Son, just so that I could explore all the possible different variations on it that I was thinking of.

And I may yet do that, but for the time being I will write this version to be the fullest, most complete vision that I can, and perhaps after I’ve done that I’ll no longer feel the need for a new interpretation. I’ll see when I get there, and until then I am free to write this first version exactly the way that I want.

That freedom has helped me a great deal to let go of the old ideas, and build on the new. And with that freedom I have worked a recurring pattern into the story that was not in my original design. And that recurring element is the youth in the centrifuge. The story began with them there, contemplating the changing of the Order. Then, after the attack they have returned to it to take stock of the situation and plan their next step. Next they are headed off to battle, and I will have them return to the centrifuge a final time at the end to review the aftermath of that effort.

Thus I will have used the centrifuge as a place for the youth to recollect themselves after every major plot development. It is a place to pause, reflect, and solidify themes and intentions. Of course, mine is not the only story to feature a recurring location like this, a safe zone where characters and readers can collectively gather their thoughts. This is actually a very common trope. Come back on Monday where we will examine the value of a recurring refuge in a story, and how it has been utilized in other tales.

The One, True Story

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

To Kill a Watchman)

Less than one year before her death, Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman was published to considerable controversy. First and foremost was the concern that Lee, in her old age, might have been manipulated into publishing the novel. And even if this was untrue, the novel itself ruffled many of its readers.

Because it was not actually a new novel, as had been suggested, it was actually a first draft version of Lee’s only other published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. And, as it goes with first drafts, this version was a far less polished experience, in dire need of editing.

There was one bright side, though, and it was that this first draft version provided a fascinating insight to just how different that beloved classic might have been. Because Go Set a Watchman is not merely an unrefined version of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a drastically different beast altogether. Central characters, including the all-important Atticus Finch, are changed from one telling to the next. In To Kill a Mockingbird he was shown to be an honest man trying to do his best in a dishonest world. But in the first draft (Go Set a Watchman) we are disillusioned by his portrayal as fundamentally racist. And all these changes add up, creating a story with very different themes than were in its final iteration.

Evidently Harper Lee had more than one idea for how to tell her story and more than one message that she wished to convey. It is easy to assume that a large, literary novel would encompass the entirety of an author’s opinion on a matter, but clearly this is not always the case.

Creator’s Intent)

In fact, famous directors like George Lucas and Ridley Scott have proved that their original work did not encompass their entire vision, by revisiting their prior films and altering them. “Director’s Cuts” and “Re-Releases” have become particularly popular of late, though they have their roots far back in cinema, such as when Alfred Hitchcock recreated his film The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Cecil B. DeMille redid his Ten Commandments.

In many of these cases, Directors have stated that they were simply unable to capture their vision as originally intended, either because of studio interference or because of outdated technology. Sometimes these changes are appreciated by audiences, but other times they are reviled.

Other times Directors have simply been of two minds as to which version of a story they should use. Thus there were two endings filmed, edited, and scored for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. These endings are not simply different takes on the same idea, either, each one dramatically shifts the outcomes for its characters. Both fit well with the rest of the film, though, and there is a case to be made for each. But of course, the film had to only have a single, official version in its theatrical release, and so the creators settled on just one ending, regulating the other to the Special Features section of the DVD.

Pacing Back and Forth)

What if a story didn’t have to have just “one official version” though? What if it could be an idea that the author goes over multiple times, from all sorts of different angles? And what if each iteration was just as valid as all of the others?

The Beginner’s Guide is a collection of short games, each of which represents the main character’s way of processing his feelings in life. Thus they are games that are less about being fun, and more about dwelling on a specific state of mind.

At another point there is a group of games that belong together in a series. It begins with the player in a prison, one that is filled with nice, living room furniture and a window. That’s all there is to it, and then the next experience loads. This one brings the player to the same room, but suddenly the walls and ceiling start receding, creating a massive room, one that is filled to the brim with layers upon layers of this same IKEA-style furniture. Next things are inverted, and the walls of your prison are covered in wallpaper that looks like the sky you had previously been seeing outside. Next the player is in the prison room upside down, with the furniture up on the ceiling. And then, in the last one, the player enters a telephone booth and speaks with their past self, who is still stuck in the prison. They encourage the past self that they’ll get out of there one day, and then the sequence ends.

Thus it is a collection of experiences, all around the same idea, but each with its own beginning and ending. Together they allow the creator to come at the same problem from every possible direction, and to give voice to all of the muddled, interwoven elements of what it feels like to be trapped. There is an honesty to this, as in real life our experiences are often much too complex to be expressed in just one way.

Endless Wells)

Which might seem like a very unique way to tell a story, but actually it’s not. How many times did Arthur Conan Doyle get to revisit the great detective theme? He got to explore his one detective in as many different situations as he could imagine, sometimes creating cases that hewed very closely to one another, but presenting a slightly different possibility in each.

Or Isaac Asimov crafting one tale after another about science fiction and advanced technology and robots? Stories where he can explore one possible version of the future, and then in his next piece explore yet another.

What about Mozart writing symphony after symphony, concert after concert, more than 600 pieces in less than thirty-five years, and still finding new expression in them clear through to the end?

No, it is not unusual at all for a creator to revisit the same well over and over, and still find something new to say each time.

There are reasons why marketing campaigns only ever want there to be one, clear version of a product. But from a purely creative standpoint, there’s no reason why your one piece of work has to be the final and total measure of all you have to say on the matter.

Given the freedom of the blog-structure, I’ve realized that I have a unique opportunity with my latest story The Favored Son. I have had two different versions of the story in my head, and I could potentially publish them both.

I haven’t yet decided if I will go that route or not. I want to finish my current version as it is, and only then decide if there are still important things left unsaid. Perhaps I’ll be able to get enough of the old version to come through in the new iteration that any further work would feel redundant. Perhaps I won’t want to write an entire second version, but rather just publish a critical scene or two from what it would have been. Or perhaps I will, in fact, give it the full treatment as soon as I’m done with the first. The point is there are no restrictions. I have my ideas, and I, like any other creator, have the privilege to develop them at my pleasure. Come back on Thursday to see where I go with that in my next section of The Favored Son.