Sometimes a story doesn’t go the way that you expected. Ideas that seemed so solid become mush when you try to write them out, or the pacing that felt perfect in an outline of a thousand words feels wrong when expanded to a novel of a hundred-thousand.
On Thursday I posted the third section of my latest story, in which the main character ruminated over his Order’s philosophies, had a tense encounter with the antagonist of the tale, and then moved on to “the Trials” (a series of tests meant to transition the rising generation into the seat of power).
And originally, those trials were a very simple affair. The pupils were going to have contests against one another, by which they would establish the hierarchy for their new Order. I started writing the introductory scene of the Trials in that way, but found myself gradually typing more and more slowly until my fingers came to a halt. All the momentum was gone, and I just couldn’t bring myself to push forward with the story anymore.
So instead I tried to identify why this scene felt so wrong all of a sudden. After a little examination I identified two major issues.
First of all, it felt so very, very generic. Students undergoing a competition against one another has been done many times already. From the graduating class at star fleet academy to the witches and wizards performing in the Triwizard Tournament to the hotshot antics in Top Gun to the savage life-or-death challenges of The Hunger Games.
It could have been a fine trope to include if I had had something unique to offer in it, some way to push the idea forward, but I didn’t. My plan was for the hero student to spar with the villain student, widening a rift between them and pulling the rest of the pupils over to one side or the other. It served my planned story arcs pretty well, but it wasn’t very riveting when it came time to start writing it.
And secondly, the scene where I introduced the Trials just didn’t have the right tone. There is something inherently enjoyable about a tournament, and the “fun” that I was trying put into the opening scene just didn’t match with the scenes that had come before. I was writing the elders as introducing the Trials with a jovial, ringmaster sort of grandeur, and it was in awkward contrast to the deep unease that I had just been describing in Tharol. Every moment of the story thus far had been weighed by a particular gravity. Things had been either serious, contemplative, or laced with suspicion. I needed a scene that expanded upon or brought closure to that tension, not fly in the face of it.
But How to Fix It)
Which explains how I rejected the original concept for the Trials, but how did I end up at the far more shocking scene of a Master rushing at his acolytes with a sword?!
Frankly there wasn’t anything deliberate about it. I just stared blankly at my computer screen, wondering what it was the story really needed in this moment. To help get the ideas flowing I read back over the paragraphs that had been leading up to this moment, and again noted the sense of rising tension in them. I was writing this story like it was expecting something explosive to happen now. As I have already mentioned, at this point in the tale Tharol has been showing a deep unease, the tension in him is mounting, and now would be an excellent time for it burst.
There was a second reason for going this route as well, one that was far more pragmatic. The story needed to get moving, plain and simple. It had had a pretty slow intro, and if it continued along at the same pace it would take forever to get completed. Like Luke Skywalker finding his childhood home suddenly burned to the ground, my story needed a solid kick in the pants.
With those two elements combined (the need to answer the sense of rising tension and the need to thrust the story into its main action) it was clear that this next scene needed to be quite visceral and shocking. And as this was a cryptic Order, where any strange practice might be lurking around the corner, and as I had already suggested that there was always a mysteriously complete transition from one generation to the next, the idea of a war between the students and the teachers came quite naturally.
Where that Leaves Me Now)
But now that I’ve written it and published it I have to live with it. It may have been the right choice for the scene, but I need to make sure it is the right choice for all the rest of the story as well. And frankly, I’m not entirely sure where the story goes from here. I had a loose outline to begin with, and now it has been shredded.
In this situation I have to be okay with letting go of anything that I had planned before. If I try to write the story as originally intended, and also be true to this new arc I have found myself on, then the story is going to be handicapped in both directions.
Now I don’t have to dump everything I had before. Rather I am looking at each individual piece, evaluating if it still has a place in the new arc, and either keeping it, altering it, or tossing it. I’m finding that there are still a few core ideas that I would like to keep, but they will need to be a bit different now to make sense.
Since I won’t be keeping everything, some large holes are going to remain in my outline, and those need to be filled with something new. I’ll use the altered pieces that I retained from the first outline, building off them until the gaps between them have been healed.
Will the new story be better? Well, I hope so. But I honestly can’t say, because I haven’t seen it yet. I think it stands in a more interesting place at this moment, so hopefully that will pay off in the end. My greatest fear is that my next section will come across for exactly what it is: a story reforming itself, establishing entirely new bones at an angle to the old ones. Come back on Thursday to see whether this new beast takes shape in a smooth or disjointed way, and whether it is better for having undergone the change.
Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.
For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.
And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.
The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron
Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.
In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.
Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?
The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron
The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.
Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.
The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron
In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.
And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.
And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.
Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?
Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?
“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”
Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.
“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”
“They don’t upset me.”
“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”
“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”
“Well even so, why read them then?”
“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”
Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”
“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”
“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”
“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”
“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”
“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”
“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”
“I suppose. So?”
“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”
Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”
“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”
“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”
Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”
Tharol looked down.
“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”
“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”
“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.
Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.
But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.
He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.
Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.
The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.
“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.
“I suppose we should.”
The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.
The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?
The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.
A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.
Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?
Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.
Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.
“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”
There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.
“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”
He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.
A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!
On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.
First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.
Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.
You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.
But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the nameless narrator is silently deliberating the plight of an unsuccessful local actor. Just as he comes to this particular piece of consideration, his companion, the ingenious detective C. Auguste Dupin, interjects to say that yes, the local actor talent’s would be better matched to a role in the variety theater.
Understandably, the narrator is confounded that Dupin could have known exactly the matter that he was privately thinking on. Dupin explains that it was merely a matter of simple deduction. Fifteen minutes ago a fruiter had stumbled into the narrator after tripping on the poorly cobbled street. From that point Dupin had anticipated the logical train of thought that his companion would follow, and used little clues to confirm his theories, such as when the narrator would mutter something under his breath, look heavenward, or display a particular expression on his face.
This same novelty is played out to much the same effect in two Sherlock Holmes cases, where he logically follows the thoughts of his companion Watson. It is a bit of a stretch, of course. Only in the perfect world of fiction would one be able to so perfectly predict the exact train of thought of another. Such a thing could never occur in the real world.
A Magical Joke)
Or could it?
When real-life magicians pull back the curtain and reveal the methods of their tricks, they invariably all come to the point that magic is nothing more than the art of misdirection. They conceal where the triumphant reveal is coming from by distracting everyone with something else instead. So they not only know what you aren’t thinking about (the solution), but also what you are thinking about (the red herring).
And this is not the only practice where a performer reads the minds of others. Many jokes are built upon directing the listener’s thought to one conclusion, only to surprise them with another. The surprise at the end only works, though, if you know that the audience is thinking about the wrong conclusion. Consider the example of this joke:
A young woman was checking out at a grocery store.
The cashier scanned her products: one microwave dinner, one bottle of soda, one pillow, and one toothbrush.
"You must be single," he smiled at her.
"Well...yes, actually I am!" she laughed. "How could you tell?"
"Because you're ugly."
Now this isn’t actually funny because of the punchline at the end. It’s funny because of the second sentence, where it directs your thoughts in a particular direction. Hearing a list of one item, one item, one item has us logically conclude that the cashier knows she is single because she is only buying solitary items. And because we have been carefully put into this state of mind, then the punchline actually comes across as surprising, and by extension funny.
Directing the Reader)
So yes, it might be unrealistic to follow a person’s train of thought under normal circumstances, but you can do it if you have laid the track for that train to follow. Once you have a person’s attention, you have the opportunity to steer their mind to a place of your choosing. And knowing where their thoughts now are, you may subvert or confirm their expectations at will.
This is why the final scene between the Joker and Batman is so effective at the end of The Dark Knight. In this film our hero has been foiled by his nemesis time and time again. The Joker has expertly pulled the strings in one game after another, outwitted any who have tried to stop him, and hurt people that we thought were untouchable. All of his prior successes trains us to assume that he will only continue to be successful.
Not only this, but his antics, though terrible, are also fascinating. We find ourselves morbidly curious to see how each of his little experiments will play out. Will Batman break his one rule to save the woman he loves? Which will he choose between personal desire and the heart of the city? What does it take to topple a paragon of good?
And under this context we come to his plot at the end. There is a ferry filled with everyday, working-class citizens, and there is one filled with convicts. Each has been fitted with a bomb, and each boat has been given the detonator to the other boat. So who will destroy the other first? The hardened criminals, because that’s the obvious choice? Or the citizens, because their hearts are really just as self-interested as anyone else?
Joker has had his way every time before, so our intuition is that he will do so again. And the conundrum he has set up, while unethical, is fascinating. Both of these facts leave us expecting to see it resolve in one ship blowing up or the other.
And because the film has so carefully maneuvered us to this expectation, it is now able to surprise us. Because neither of the two possibilities that we anticipate are what come to pass.
Rather than preserve themselves, each boat decides that they would rather spare the other, even though it might mean their own undoing. No one dies at all. It is an incredibly impactful moment, but it only works because it catches us by surprise. If from the beginning we had been thinking that this outcome was possible, we would not be so moved when it happens. By controlling our minds, by knowing what we were thinking, The Dark Knight made a moment deeply meaningful.
In my own story I have just introduced Tharol’s conundrum: he depends on the order for support, but also taking issue with some of that order’s tenets. He wants to be a good student, but he just can’t make sense of these philosophies.
This line of thought is going to be continued in my next piece, encouraging my readers to grapple with these questions themselves, and to anticipate the story to continue its ponderous, theoretical bent.
But it’s not going to. The story is going to take a dramatic shift that I intend to have be extremely shocking. So much so, that it will hopefully be some time before the audience realizes that we’re still dealing with the same philosophical questions from before, just from a much more active, hands-on approach.
Reis clasped his hands and paced back and forth, as if giving a lecture. “There is a new era coming. We all know this. The mentors train up the next generation, then must pass on and leave things to the next. The Order becomes the sole possession of the new, and they are not to be anchored by the follies of the past generation. They reinstate what laws they find worthy and they abandon the ones that are now antiquated. I think we all know…that time is coming soon. The elders have made it very clear that the Trials are nearly upon us, and it would be wise for us to consider how we will make the transition after they have passed.”
“The elders are not gone yet,” Tharol frowned. “It doesn’t feel right to talk of sweeping away their laws even while we’re under them.”
“Of course I’m not suggesting an insurrection,” Reis rolled his eyes. “We will be nothing but loyal servants so long as they are our elders. But my concern is that we might fracture ourselves after they are gone. Suppose we haven’t already worked out our philosophies beforehand, here and now, when it’s all just theory. Today it would be nothing more than competing ideals, but after we come into power it might be civil war!”
Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Did you have something controversial to propose?”
Reis matched the narrowing of the eyes. “I would think that you of all people should see the need for reform. Aren’t you always coming on the wrong side of Master Palthio?”
Tharol shrugged. “I don’t see what that has to do with this.”
“I know that there are reforms that you’ve considered. Things that you would like to change about how we do things in the Order. Like have a more proactive defense against the Invasion.”
“Curious. Even I don’t know what I want.”
“But we all heard you in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day…”
“I was asking questions. Perhaps there are flaws in our current system, I don’t know, but I also don’t know for sure what I would replace it with.”
Reis shook his head, realizing that he was quickly descending into yet another debate with Tharol, and that was not what he wanted here and now. This was supposed to be about him.
“Never mind all that,” he said. “The point is that now is the time for us to start raising our own banner. Of course we’re going to obey our elders,” he shot Tharol a dirty look, “but we can do that and start drawing lines for the future.”
“Like…lines of allegiance?” Bovik asked.
“Yes. Why not?”
“I don’t know,” Bovik looked sheepishly to the rest of his peers. “Aren’t we all on the same side already?”
“Of course we are,” Reis said shortly. “That’s the point. We’re already aligned to each other, and that gives us a solid foundation to formally unite under a common cause. Well why not make our pledge to that here and now? Why not give a solemn oath to continuing our cause and protecting our people?”
“Oh, well that’s alright then,” Bovik said with relief. “I thought you had meant electing a leader or something like that.”
“Bovik, I’m not sure that you’re bright enough to be here,” Reis let his irritation show. “Of course we would have a leader. Not a person, though, our leader would be our cause! However it may also be wise to elect one to safeguard that cause. Someone we could trust as a steward of its principles.”
“Well of course that would be you, Reis,” Marvi said sweetly. “And I’d be more than happy to give you my oath of loyalty right here and now!”
“Well how about it then?” Reis said to the others, leaping on top of a small, broken column. “Every order has its Senior Master, doesn’t it? The last thing I want to see is the elders pass on and we’re left with a mad scrabble for power. But if you’ll pledge your loyalty to me today, I’ll pledge my loyalty to governing rightly. Together we can make the future be what it should be.”
Marvi crowed her approval, and barely had she started than Inol echoed it, too. Bovik shouted his agreement quite loudly, no doubt to make up for any hesitancy he had shown earlier. One after another all of the youth shouted their assent.
Except for Tharol.
Reis pretended to not notice the one outlier, and leaped down to the ground, extending his hand, palm upwards.
“Let’s just make it official then, and after that I’ll be able to take you into my trust and show you another of Raystahn’s secrets.”
One-by-one the youth gathered in a circle, extending their hands to rest them, palm-downwards, on Reis’s. This time, Reis could not ignore the singular absence.
“Are you against us, then?” he shot viciously at Tharol.
Tharol shook his head. “It’s not like that Reis. It’s too early to be drawing lines for or against. We can have this conversation when the time is actually upon us, but this is premature.”
Reis opened his mouth, intending to shout something about how Tharol wasn’t welcome in this place anymore, but before he could the youth had already turned his back and started walking away.
“Hmm, never mind him,” Reis tried to shake off the slight to what was supposed to have been his unanimous coronation. “If the rest of you are ready…”
They all bowed their heads and recited in unison. “We place our strength upon you.” And then pressed slightly on his hand.
“I feel the weight of responsibility,” he replied, holding his own arm firm.
Tharol had barely stepped across the stone entryway of the monastery than Master Palthio approached him from an adjoining hallway.
“Ah, young Tharol, what a pleasant surprise,” the old man smiled. Tharol didn’t believe it for a moment. There was never any coincidence when it came to a meeting from Master Palthio, of this he was convinced.
“There is something you wanted to discuss with me?” he asked.
Master Palthio chuckled softly. “Ever the one for business, young Tharol. Walk with me.”
The two of them strode to the end of the entrance hall, then Master Palthio steered them towards the garden path.
“You truly are the most vigilant and attentive student I have ever seen, Tharol,” Master Palthio began.
Then why are you wasting time on opening pleasantries? Tharol thought to himself. He verbally said nothing. He found it was the best way to get people to move on to the actual purpose of their conversation.
“But I see you don’t care to discuss that,” Master Palthio nodded. “Tell me, Tharol, do you always feel a great impatience with the rest of us? That we take so long to come around to things of substance?”
It wasn’t the first time that Tharol wondered if Master Palthio was reading his thoughts, even though such was strictly forbidden.
“I just feel…” he paused, struggling to find the words. “I feel there isn’t enough time as it is already.”
“Mmm. You are weighed by a great deal, then. And afraid of what will be lost by our laxness?”
“Well…yes. I mean, I know that we ought to embrace the moment to its fullest, ought to be able to find the significance in all things.”
“You are just reciting canon now. You don’t believe these in your heart, do you?”
“Perhaps not. I think luxury and casual enjoyment are fine things…but we’re members of the Order, we’re the guard set to watch, aren’t we?”
“To watch what?”
“Why for the Invasion, of course?!”
“Mmm,” Master Palthio nodded, then continued in silence.
Tharol kept waiting for Master Palthio to resume speaking…but he did not. The old man just kept walking along as if he had no other intention than to enjoy this walk in silence with his pupil.
“Master, didn’t you–” Tharol finally ventured. “Surely, you had something else to talk to me about, Master?”
Master Palthio smiled softly. “You really don’t believe it possible that I just wanted to spend some time in your air, Tharol?”
“Well, I thought for sure you would be here to do something important.”
“And sharing your company could not have been what was important?” Master Palthio shook his head sadly. “When I speak of your vigilance and attentiveness, must that only be a segue to things of importance, and not the matter of importance itself? You are waiting for significance to come to this moment…and don’t consider that the moment itself was already significant.”
Tharol felt both touched and ashamed. He concerned himself with the study of his feet, not knowing what else he could possibly say to such a pronouncement.
“That is all the business I had Tharol. But if there is anything else that you wished to discuss with me, the rest of our walk is all yours.”
Tharol looked back up to his Master. An open invitation to discuss anything at all? One idea chased another through his mind. The strange creature growing in the maze, Reis trying to draw lines of loyalty among the students, Tharol’s struggle to find ‘the center inside him’ that his teachers spoke of, the impending Trials that the elders always spoke so gravely of. But above them all, there was one concern that arrested his mind more than all the others.
“Well…there is something, Master.”
Master Palthio smiled broadly. “I hardly assumed there wouldn’t be.”
“It’s a matter that I discussed briefly in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day. Perhaps you heard of our conversation?”
“Even if I did, I would rather we speak freshly from your perspective, not from some other, biased, second-hand account.”
“Oh yes…well…the conversation happened to be around the Imminence of Invasion, of how futile it is to try and prevent it, because the nature of man is to relent to it sooner or later. He was teaching how any semblance of control must be surrendered, and simply vigilance maintained instead.”
“You don’t sound particularly favorable towards that notion?”
“Well the thought occurred to me, that if the Invasion is not withstood, if it is a sure thing to come in its cycles, then what is there to prevent it from breaking out among those that are supposed to be vigilant?”
“You mean what if it began within our own Order.”
“I just think that if I were the Corrupt Mind, our monastery is the very first place I would focus all my efforts. Especially if I knew that our Order will do nothing to prevent it.”
“Do we not train minds?”
“But you see that as only a defense, and you would rather we take a more aggressive stance?”
“I know that is contrary to everything the Order stands for. But wars cannot be won by only defending, can they? At some time or another one must attack!”
“Hmm, you make an excellent point. I suppose the Order must be wrong.”
“I thought you’d be relieved. Don’t you feel a great burden lifted?”
“Because–I don’t mean to destroy the Order. Obviously I wasn’t arguing for that!”
“What if the Order should be destroyed? What if it’s entirely wrong?”
“I can’t accept that.”
“It’s–it’s the only foundation we have.”
“Mmm,” Master Palthio said again. “Quite a conundrum. Our Order is your foundation, but you find yourself at issue with some of its foundations.”
Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably.
“No, don’t feel that you must hide such misgivings. There is no shame in this. If each of the Masters was being honest with you, you would learn that we all have our difficulties with one of the Order’s precepts or another.”
“You have? Well…what do you do about that?”
“Oh dear, you have struck upon the question, now haven’t you? Let me see if I can provide a coherent answer. Give me a moment…”
They continued on in silence. An awkwardly long silence, one where Tharol began to wonder if Master Palthio had entirely forgotten their conversation. Just as Tharol was about to speak up Master Palthio answered.
"When I continue along my way And I come across a rock that I can push Then I push it And continue along my way.
When I continue along my way And come to a rock that I cannot push Then I go around it And continue along my way."
Whatever reaction Master Palthio expected, he evidently had not anticipated the utterly confounded look that Tharol now gave him. The old man’s face split into a wide grin and he laughed out loud.
“I’m sorry, I suppose that sounds like a riddle to you. But honestly I can’t think of a more complex answer that I can give to help you.”
“Complex?! I’m looking for something simple!”
“No, you’re not. You’re trying to tie yourself in a knot, connecting two competing beliefs together in one. You wanted me to give such a profoundly intricate solution that you could do just that. But I didn’t give you that. I gave you something too simple for you to abide. And I am sorry, but that it is still my answer. It is the only one I have to offer.”
“I–” Tharol shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I can’t.”
“No, I see that. To be fair, there are few who can. And tell me, do you feel that this conversation has been fruitless?”
“I’m even more muddled than when we began!”
“I am not surprised. Forgive me for being so blunt, but you do not understand because you are not ready to. You have a notion in your head of what form the answers to your questions must take, and so long as you hold to those preconceptions, nothing that I can say to you will mean a thing. You will never find the words to make sense of a paradox.”
“Well what am I supposed to do then?” Tharol could not keep the frustration out of his voice.
“Stop being the paradox.”
And with that Master Palthio turned and walked away.
On Monday I spoke about how some stories began with an extended introduction, before they get to their main arcs. I suggested that my previous section in The Favored Son was just such an introduction, where we became acquainted with the world and characters, but really don’t have a catalyst to drive them forward.
Today we started to tease at those main arcs, as we explored Tharol’s struggle to understand his Order’s dogma, which suggests an arc that will resolve his dilemma. And, ultimately, the story will, but not in the way that he anticipates.
But we’re not fully into the meat of the story even now. We still have our great inciting incident yet to come, which will occur when we reach the Trials that turn pupils into masters.
Before we get to that, though, I want to take a look at my characterization of Master Palthio. The elder is written to be kindly, even-keeled, and assured. Whether or not the audience is not able to make sense of what he is saying, my hope is that they will feel like they should agree with him. Because he seems good-natured, we naturally assume that he is right. Just as we tend to take the advice of real-life people when we perceive them as having our own interests at heart.
There is a particular trick that I used to give Master Palthio the voice of truth, though. He calls out Tharol’s status as being exactly what we, the audience, have likely determined ourselves: the boy likable but conflicted. By having Palthio speak aloud the same notion as is in the reader’s mind, we trust him as having sound judgment.
With my next post I’d like to further examine this technique of setting up the reader to think something, echoing that thought in your story, and how this builds a connection between reader and writer. Come back on Monday to see how that turns out.
In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back we watch as the core heroes are divided into two groups, and we follow each one’s different arc until they converge back together at the end. Thus Luke and R2-D2 travel to Dagobah where Luke undergoes tutelage from Jedi Master Yoda, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are pursued in a long, extended chase, pursued by the relentless reach of Darth Vader.
But while these are the main arcs of the story, we don’t even get started on them until we’re more than a half hour into the film. Instead we open with an extended prologue, one where our heroes are trying to survive in an ice-planet’s secret base. Luke is nearly lost, but manages to survive with some newly-introduced force powers and the help of his friends. Then Imperial drones locate evidence of the base, and finally the Empire arrives out of hyperspace to eradicate the Rebels. A massive battle takes place before the Rebels must retreat, in which our main characters split into the two parties mentioned above.
Does having such a long introductory sequence serve a purpose then? Could it have been removed or abbreviated, to make a tighter, more efficient story? Given how well regarded that film’s story is, it would seem that audience’s weren’t upset for the prolonged intro. In fact it was such a successful formula that Star Wars repeated the same pattern with the Han Solo rescue sequence at the start of Return of the Jedi.
An Old Pattern)
But it isn’t as if Star Wars was unusual to employ this sort of story-telling structure. James Bond and Ethan Hunt always open their spy thrillers with some heist that introduces the characters and world before getting into the real meat of the latest conspiracy. The Matrix shows a relatively unimportant run-in between Trinity and the agents before we’re introduced to Neo. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone details Harry’s regular life a full three chapters (more than a sixth of the entire book) before he even finds out that he’s a wizard.
It isn’t as though Star Wars was breaking new ground with its pattern either. The Lord of the Rings novel, published two-and-a-half decades prior opens with a birthday party that has virtually nothing to do with its epic saga. Bilbo could have easily given Frodo the ring in a much more succinct way. And we can go back even further. A Tale of Two Cities, written two centuries earlier, spends its entire first chapter only laying the backdrop of the story. Then it spends nearly the entire second chapter with flavor-text, until we finally reach some dialogue that is relevant to the greater story right before the beginning of chapter three.
Clearly these stories are doing something right, though, for these are some of the most beloved, enjoyable tales of all time!
When I try to think of stories that don’t utilize this particular pattern, I realize there is a set of examples from after the centuries-old novels of Charles Dickens, but before the recent films of modern Hollywood.
Older films, those made in the first half of the 20th Century, were far more likely to take off with the main arcs right from the get-go. The Magnificent Seven opens with us seeing the main villain and his gang of bandits oppressing the city that will hire gunslingers to protect them. Charade opens with a man being thrown off a train, whose death will catalyze everything that follows. West Side Story opens with a musical number that summarizes the tension between the two gangs that is quickly driving towards serious violence.
So what is it that each of these films has in common? They are from the era where films featured the credits at the beginning of the movie, and would play the main themes from the film’s score while they were being displayed. This created a critical period for the audience to settle into the mood of the story, even before the first act began.
Later films moved the credits to the end, and obviously novels have always had the ability to skip straight to the pages of Chapter One. In these mediums it becomes necessary to start from a much colder opening. Thus we see in these examples the wide use of an introductory sequence just to get the audience warmed up to the story and its styles before really getting underway.
Go to an orchestra and notice how the musicians tuning their instruments prepares you to receive their symphony. Or go to a rock band and see how the smaller group that opens the show gets you pumped up for the main event. Notice how television shows often include a short title introduction where they play the main theme and show short clips to get you into the right mindset.
Audience members are coming in from any variety of contexts when they first set down to a story. Because of this, novels, films, television shows, and music all make use of an extended introduction to get the audience out of that prior context, and into the story’s. By the time the initial heist, or musical number, or side plot has resolved, the audience is well tuned to the story’s rhythms, and can now give the main arcs their full attention.
Of course this is not a rule. Not every story takes such an approach, and not every one needs to. Perhaps your story really does need to start off at full force right from the start, but it is well worth considering whether the technique will help you with what you are trying to accomplish or not.
On Thursday I decided to experiment with this structure, having an entire first chapter that has very little to do with the rest of the story’s narrative. But what it did do was introduce the world, the tone, and two of the central characters. In a short story this sort of introductory period might not have been the best fit, but I enjoyed the practice.
On Thursday I’ll be posting the second piece of that story, and we’ll see whether the time spent in the introduction helps the rest of it move more smoothly or not. Come back then to see how it turns out.
“There’s no elders around to see,” Bovik rotated his head on a swivel. “Show us, Reis.”
“You think it’s a matter of being caught by the elders?” Reis frowned disapprovingly. “You don’t think anything of the principle of the matter?”
Bovik sighed. “Explain to him that it’s not like that,” he said to Marvi.
“Reis…no one wants you to do anything you shouldn’t,” Marvi purred softly. “We just–we just thought there was something that you could show us. Something without breaking any rules or anything like that.”
“There might be,” Reis mused, but then he turned and continued leading the group deeper through the stone-hedge. As he went the columns twisted and contorted, re-arranging their layout, opening a path before the gang of youth as they walked, then closing it behind them. Thus they could progress deeper into the maze, but could not be followed, and any of their number who hesitated, or failed to keep up, would also be shut out as unworthy.
Reis took a glance over his shoulder then began to charge forward aggressively. He made one quick turn after another, his gang of followers struggling to keep pace. After a particularly tight hairpin turn he raced up a steep incline and leaped out into the air, a leap of faith, trusting that the stone columns would bend to catch his feet from one step to the next. They did so, spiraling up from the ground to meet his feet with each bound, fifteen feet up in the air.
Marvi, who was directly behind him, followed in perfect sync. Reis could feel her presence without even looking. He unexpectedly paused on his current pedestal, one second longer than his prior steps, then leaped forward again. It was just enough of a change to his cadence to throw her off. She had anticipated his movement, already committed herself to the air, and now the stone pedestal would not leave his control and reform itself where she wanted it in time for her to land on it. She fell all the way to the mossy ground below.
Reis let himself descend back to the surface level and took another glance back at the few of his compatriots still in pursuit. He turned all the way around and locked eyes with Bovik and Talo, the two front-runners. Reis began spinning left and right erratically, side-stepping as he did. The stone walls on either side began fluctuating in response to his movements, rapidly thrusting out barricades and then receding them.
The two boys grit their teeth and tried to follow the dance. They watched Reis’s movements, anticipated the changing walls, and dashed forward or held back as appropriate. Or at least they did until an unexpected riser came sliding across the ground and took Bovik’s feet out from under him.
“Oof! That one was from you!” he snapped at Talo.
“Sorry,” Talo shrugged. It couldn’t be helped that the two boys’ movements were adding an extra complexity to the churning Reis had already started. “We’ve got to go one-at-a-time.”
And so he left his comrade and pressed on ahead, disappearing behind a particularly tricky spiral-turn. Bovik leaped to his feet and followed after, trying to stay far enough back to not be caught in Talo’s wake, but not so far back as to lose Reis entirely.
Fifteen seconds later he found Talo laying on his back, massaging his side.
“He hit me!” Talo told him indignantly. “And not with a wall, mind you! I had just finished dodging a sweeper and he actually, literally reached out and punched me!”
“He wanted to see if you were distracted,” Bovik shrugged, reaching down to pull his friend back up to his feet, “and I guess you were.”
“Well it was still a cheap move.”
“Ahh, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the real test anyway. Keep up with him isn’t what this is all about, now is it?”
Talo thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up as understanding set in. “Oh! Of course. We’re supposed to know where he’s headed and just meet him there.”
“The centrifuge!” they concluded together.
Farther ahead, Reis continued charging forward at a blistering pace. He could not see any of his compatriots over his shoulder any more, but he wanted to be absolutely sure that there weren’t any hangers-on before he made his way to the center of the maze.
Of course it wasn’t just about reaching the physical center of the maze. This was a living, morphing place after all. To truly find the center, you had to approach it in the right way. And that right way was different every time you tried to find it, and different depending on which direction you came at it from.
So at last Reis slowed his run, stopped churning the stone walls around him, and instead starting paying attention to the maze itself. How was it unfolding itself to him this day? What was the pattern–the rule–that naturally dictated its openings and closings?
He came to a full stop, breathed deeply, and took in all his surroundings. Then he took a single step forward and watched how the stone shuddered as a result. A step to the right. A step to the left. A quarter turn. Then ten paces forward in a straight line.
“Alright,” he said to himself as he walked. “Openings naturally on the right side, obstacles naturally on the left.” He continued walking down his current aisle until it came to a 90-degree turn then continued along the next chamber. “Openings still naturally on the right. So I’m circling round. Go a layer deeper.”
He stepped into one of those openings in the right-hand wall and came into a neighboring path. He continued his walk down it now.
“Openings on the left…obstacles on the right,” he frowned. It had flipped. The maze was trying to suggest that its center was in the opposite direction of where it had been just a moment ago. He stepped through a hole to the left…back to where he had been before…and again the openings were on the right, not the left. “So what? Back and forth between the two? A test of persistence?”
That didn’t feel right. Every time he stepped right the maze wanted him to go left, every time he stepped left the maze wanted him to go right. There was a puzzle here, and he was supposed to somehow use this mechanic to progress in only one direction. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?
Reis’s body was wandering as much as his mind now. He carelessly strode down the pathways, stepped through the openings, back and forth, just trying to let something click. If he stepped through an opening to the left, then back to the right, did the path he came back into appear different from before? No. If he went through one opening, went around a right-hand turn, and then stepped through the opening back to the previous path had things changed…hmm, no, that didn’t seem to help anything.
Perhaps it had something to do with how one went through the opening? He tried stepping through very slowly, no change. Headfirst, no change. Backwards…wait! He had gone backwards through an opening to the right and the rule had flipped. Now the openings in the next pathway were still on the right-hand side!
“It’s not right or left!” he crowed. “It’s that the openings appear behind you as you step through.”
Grinning, Reis continued his retreat. He didn’t dare turn his head to see where he was going, for fear of breaking the effect. He just trusted the maze to guide him. Path by path he moved deeper and deeper, until at last he passed the carved stone pillars which he knew so well. He turned around and saw the centrifuge before him: a massive stone column fragmented into many pieces, each spinning at its own rate and in different directions.
And Tharol was standing before it.
“You’re here already?” Reis cocked an eyebrow.
“Didn’t waste time trying to keep up with you.”
“You understood right away?”
“Of course…you’re obsessed with this place.”
Reis grinned and paced leisurely around the central column. “And why not? It is an obsessive place.”
“Have you seen this?” Tharol, all business, gestured to a small, spindly something perched on the ground. It was as if a thousand tiny, black sticks had been fused to one another until they were roughly in the form of a four-legged, lanky creature.
“It’s still growing?”
“Well it’s never showed any signs of slowing, has it? Definitely some sort of creature.”
“But still no head on it.”
“The elders still don’t know what to make of it.”
Reis shrugged. “This is a place of mysteries. Be all the more unusual if there weren’t unusual things growing here.”
“Well I don’t like it.”
“Doesn’t it strike you as–I don’t know–like something from the old legends? Creatures springing out of the rocks sounds straight out of the Cryptics!”
“And nothing good ever game out of the Cryptics,” Reis repeated the well-known saying. “I don’t know. It’s not a creature springing out of rock, it’s the statue of a creature. It’s not as though this thing shows any sign of life.”
“Well I don’t like it.”
“So I’ve heard.”
There was the sound of crumbling rock behind them and they spun around to see Inol dashing through a tear in the wall. Then came the sound of rapid footsteps to the right, and they turned to see Bovik and Talo come bounding over the top of the wall there. Marvi entered next from the left, fixing Reis with a scowl, evidently none too pleased for having been dropped during the chase.
“Sorry,” he said. “I did make sure we were over the moss at least.”
One-by-one more of the youth arrived, until there were thirteen of them in all. Reis waited quietly as they came, seated on a crumbled pillar, until there was a period of five minutes without any new arrivals. Then he stood up and clicked his tongue.
“I guess everyone that is going to be here is here.”
“You’re going to show us the amulet now?” Bovik asked eagerly.
Reis frowned at him, not pleased at all with being interrupted.
“I will show you what I will show you. And what I show you will be what I already chose to show you…not because you asked to see it.”
Bovik looked down to his feet and took a step back.
“Now then…” Reis glanced around, as if to dare anyone to interrupt him again. “Master Palthio’s instructions were that I keep Raystahn private, but I interpret that as private between myself and close friends. I feel that I may share it as I see fit, so long as I do so with prudence and care. Each of you,” he nodded to the gathered congregation, “I consider worthy of seeing.”
Without any further explanation he reached into the folds of his tunic and drew out a golden amulet. All the youth leaned in closer. Even Tharol, who usually maintained a more aloof air about such artifacts, squinted at it curiously. It was golden disc, with many layers and sections and foil strands twisting from one edge to another.
“There’s some sort of markings between the arms,” Marvi observed. “But they look more like patterns than writing.”
“Patterns can convey knowledge as well,” Reis stated. “And they aren’t static, watch this.” He took a step towards Marvi, and as he did so the etchings rearranged themselves slightly. “They change based on their context.”
“A compass!” Talo exclaimed.
“A compass only tells you which way you’re headed,” Reis tutted. “But these, I believe, tell one where they are.”
“A map, then.”
“Something like that. Only I still need to figure out how to read the symbols properly.”
“Have you asked Master Palthio what he knows about it?” Bovik queried.
“No, of course not. An amulet is a very personal thing, not some everyday tool with a manual. You’re supposed to figure this out for yourself. In fact, from now on I’d better not lead you on with what I’ve already puzzled out. You may observe, but keep your thoughts and discoveries to yourself.”
Everyone was silent for a few minutes, craning their necks from side-to-side, taking in all the complexities and hidden compartments on the device.
Reis grinned at their fascination. “There is something else I could show you about it. I won’t say anything about what I think it means, but you would still find it fascinating.”
All the youth locked eyes with him eagerly. All except for Tharol.
“But…like I said. This is very personal. Really I’m the only one who should know all this stuff about Raystahn. If I’m going to share more with you…I need you to be a part of me,” his eyes flicked meaningfully from one youth to the next. “I’m going to need…an oath.”
On Monday I wrote about how we cast characters in certain ways, making them likable or unlikable to the reader, so that the reader will accept or reject them accordingly. But of course, the reader is not only accepting or rejecting the character, they are also accepting or rejecting all the character’s ideas and everything that they stand for. The character is the Trojan Horse, hiding the writer’s agenda within.
With today’s post I introduced characters only, and did not yet reveal their ideologies or beliefs. In this way I have the reader already drawing opinions on them, even before they really know them.
My belief, and my intention, is that readers will find Reis a pompous and insincere character, one who they dislike, and are prepared to reject the agenda of. Almost all the other youth I intend to be seen as simpering and weak-willed. Tharol is intended to come across as likable, but cautious, someone that the readers wish to be closer to. And as we will see in the story, all these feelings that the readers hold towards the characters will be perfectly aligned with the messages that the overall story communicates.
As I suggested on Monday, there is an undeniable element of manipulative design in all this. The onus is on me to remain honest and sincere in the messages that I put forth this way, which is part of the reason that I am writing these paragraphs down here in the first place. My intent is not truly to manipulate, if it were, I would not be pointing out how the manipulation is being done. My intent is to help us all be more discerning readers and more sensitive writers.
For now, though, I’d like to move on to examining another piece of this story. This opening segment, with the youth traversing the maze, is ultimately not a critical element of the story. It is to give a little flavor of the world, but as soon as it ends we’ll get going on the main thrust of the story.
This is not an uncommon approach to story-telling, where a sort of prologue piece gets the audience warmed up before the main tale goes forward in earnest. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on a few examples of this, and why we use it in our stories. Then, on Thursday, we’ll really get going on The Favored Son.
Days Writing: 17 New Words: 3001 New Chapters: 0.75
Total Word-count: 53,133 Total Chapters: 14.75
August continued with the greater success that we saw in July. I’m not at the 6,000-words-per-month level that I was at the end of 2019, but I’m more than double the low point of 1,376 words in June.
Interestingly, I did 17 days of writing in August, a significant increase to July’s 10, but wrote nearly the exact same number of words. I don’t mind that my average performance each day was less, though I wouldn’t want that trend to continue down further.
The good news is that my family and I are officially done with the move! We’re still acclimating to our new surroundings and we’re still busy with unpacking boxes, but the main effort is over. Hopefully that means more time for writing, but honestly even if I maintain this baseline I will be content.
I had an interesting experience with writing this month when I wasn’t sure how to start a particular scene. After trying to find the “right answer” for a while and failing to do so, I just plowed ahead with the first idea that came to mind. I finished feeling that what I’d done was garbage, and that tomorrow I should just erase it and try again.
When I looked at it the next day, though, it was actually pretty decent. Really it was only the very last paragraph that I still had an issue with, which was probably what had put the bad taste in my mouth to begin with. So I kept everything else from before, only rewrote the last paragraph, and happily continued. It was a good lesson in not being afraid to let go of problem areas, but also to step away and look with fresh eyes for value that I might have missed in the heat of the moment.
Before I head out, here’s a little snippet from my work this month. Enjoy!
Across the island, John arrives back at the field, bringing with him the last bundle of sugarcane for William.
“Thank you,” William exclaims, hobbling over to take the sack from him. “Sorry again to make you come all the way down here. I think there’s still some porridge in the pot if you wanted to sit down a moment.”
“No, I had better get back to the workstation.”
“Of course. Well sorry again.”
John waves his hand dismissively, but he cannot help but consider that if it had been he who was bringing in the sugarcane yesterday, he surely would have found a way to bring in the full measure, even with a sprained ankle. Although, more likely, he probably wouldn’t have sprained his ankle to begin with.
“I admire your passion, son,” he says as soon as he is out of earshot, “it gives you vision and motivation. But sometimes you let it get you worked up, let it get you jittery, and then you make mistakes. Yes, I want to give you the fulfillment that I never had, but not at the expense of the grounded surety that I have had. I want it to be possible for you to dream and achieve, but also for you to be focused and deliberate. Otherwise you won’t have it better than me, just different. And I want you to have it better.”
Eddie Mannix should not take the new job offer from the Lockheed Corporation. He should retain his faith in the magic of cinema instead, for the silly stories they make in their studios really do make a difference in the lives of those that view them, and he must never forget that fact.
These are the great truths in the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar, and I can pick out the solitary scene where I became completely convinced of them. It happened about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Mannix was tempted once more by the Lockheed executive to leave behind the “kid stuff” of Hollywood for a real job.
Up until this moment the Lockheed executive has seemed to have some valid points, but then he does something undeniably slimy. In a previous meeting he offered Mannix a cigarette, to which Mannix had responded by saying he was trying to quit. Quitting the unhealthy habit is important to his wife, to his family that he cares for, and a way that he genuinely wants to improve himself. Here, in their later meeting, the Lockheed executive can see that Mannix is conflicted, and once again offers a cigarette with a knowing smile.
Just like that all of the valid points of the Lockheed executive become only the cunning arguments of a devil. This man does not have Mannix’s best interests at heart at all. He is willing to compromise and manipulate him, to use the man’s weakness against him in the guise of friendship. Mannix turns him down. Turns him down for the smoke, turns him down for the job. I cheered him on for it, and I bought into the same realization that he did at that moment: that the make-believe of movies is more real than all the cynicism of the “real world.”
But then, as I thought about it, hadn’t I just been manipulated myself? The movie wanted me to feel a certain way about Mannix’s choice between dreams and practicality, and so it had intentionally cast the voice of practicality in a body that was slimy and conniving. Couldn’t it have used the same trick in the opposite direction and just as easily persuaded me the other way?
Devils in Angel’s Clothing?)
Now let’s bring in Exhibit B: George Bailey. This man is the main character of It’s a Wonderful Life, and he finds himself caught in a very similar conundrum as Eddie Mannix. All his life he has burned with an intense desire to chase his dreams, to build wonders, to travel the world. But unlike Mannix, he is not actually living that dream. At each step practicality has gotten in his way instead. Duty to family and friends has kept him far from the life he wishes to lead, and he’s grown very depressed as a result.
Then, in the film’s final act, a charming little man appears to convince him that the life of wonder he’s always wanted has been in front of him all along. Clarence the angel is sweet, innocent, and loyal. He speaks with a simple, uncomplicated wisdom, and uses it to make clear the great benefit one accomplishes just by doing their duty.
Is it really so wrong to make sacrifices for your family after all?
By the end of the film George Bailey is convinced and so are we. The film’s best trick is temporarily severing him from the life that he had. The sudden loss of wife and children cuts both he and the audience very deep, and we rejoice with him when they are reunited. We want nothing more than for him to never lose them again.
And as with Hail, Caesar, we have been manipulated into agreeing with the film’s core thesis.
Bias, Bias Everywhere)
So…each of these films manipulate our emotions to get us to agree with their message. But honestly, if we’re going to take offense at that, then we’re going to have to throw out essentially every story ever told.
Just consider how elements like swelling music in a film tugs at your heartstrings and makes you feel the emotions that the director wishes you to feel in that moment. Consider how Shakespeare’s heroes give a passionate soliloquy to win the audience over to their cause. Consider how the author lays bare their characters’ minds to prove the virtue or vice behind their actions. All of these make declarative statements of what is right to think about a situation, and what is wrong. Just as with real people, every story is going to have a bias, and to ask them not to is to to ask them not to be made by people.
Every now and then there is a story that tries to take a neutral stance, tries to show both sides of an argument equally. But even then there are biases towards what “equal” means.
Turn it Over to the Jury)
Any story that has a message is going to frame it in whatever way best supports that message. Some stories are going to have an overall message that you do not agree with, and are going to utilize character archetypes that you feel are incorrect and even harmful. And other stories will give an overall message that you do agree with, and utilizes character archetypes that you feel are fair and accurate.
But these are actually the exception. Far more common are the stories that will fall somewhere in between. Stories that you only partially agree with the message of, or that you do agree with, but still use archetypes that you still feel are incorrect and even harmful. I have read books and seen films that I liked every piece leading towards the central theme, but still did not like the central theme itself.
And this is fine.
People are not so delicate that they cannot handle mixed messages. You aren’t going to break someone by challenging their preconceived notions and you’re not required to coddle their every opinion. Every day people are exposed to conflicting opinions, and we have learned how to parse through the pieces, reject the ones we disagree with, and hold to the ones that we believe to be true.
In the moment we might feel that Hail, Caesar makes a good point, and we might feel that It’s a Wonderful Life makes a good point as well. But after we’ve had some time, been able to weigh them against our own conscience, we’ll still make our own decision on the matter. In fact, we might find that we can believe in a balance between both practicality and dreams.
And so I don’t feel guilty that in my last story I influenced the reader to reject the father’s ideals by painting him in a negative light. That was my archetype to support my central message, and you can take or reject it as you feel fit. On Thursday I will post the first entry in my new story, and in that chapter you can bet I will already be casting my characters in positive and negative lights, trying to influence you to side with some and against others. Pay attention to how I do that, and also consider how you are doing the same in your own stories.
“Billy’s really sick, isn’t he?” Tommy’s eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears.
“Yes, you know he’s sick,” James said. “We’ve been talking about that for more than a week now, haven’t we?”
“But I mean really sick. Like…he might not get better,” Tommy barely whispered the last words.
James squirmed uncomfortably, the common dilemma of a father who doesn’t want to be forthcoming.
“Everything will be fine,” he finally promised. “Whatever happens…everything will be just fine.”
Tommy looked far from convinced, but there was something in his father’s tone that let him know the matter was concluded. And so they completed their night-time ritual and he was left to fall asleep. His mind was racing, though, and it was nearly an hour before his dreams finally took him.
Strange dreams they were, too, where he was running through a field, searching for his missing dog. He kept on thinking he saw it’s steel-gray flank before him, but upon nearing it always found something else. “Billy!” he called. “Billy!” But no one answered.
Downstairs in the house, James gave their Siberian Husky a long, hard stare. The dog was laying flat on its belly, jaw resting on the carpet, but eyes open and lazily regarding their master. There was a deep wistfulness in those eyes, and it seemed to understand where James’s thoughts were. It was the father who broke the gaze first. He turned his back to the pet and went to the phone on the wall.
As he hung up at the end of his call Susan stepped into the room.
“Did you tell Tommy? Before he went to bed?”
“He’s going to be crushed.”
“He doesn’t need to know.”
The next morning Tommy came down the stairs and found the dog kennel empty.
“Billy?… Billy!” he called. “Billy!” He rushed from room to room, calling the dog’s name, but found nothing.
He ran out the front door, frantically looking up and down the street. Had the dog wandered off, sick and confused? Had his parents taken it without telling him?
“BILLY!” he shouted, his bare feet pattering down the sidewalk. He called the dog’s name, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be any answer. Slowly he came to a stop, and felt the tears forming in his eyes.
The boy spun around and saw his mother coming out from working in the backyard.
“Mom! Where’s Billy?!”
“Get over here, you’re still in your pajamas! Your father took Billy to the vet this morning.”
“To put him down?” hot tears splashed down Tommy’s cheeks.
“No. I don’t–your father said it’ll be alright. He said you wait and see when he comes home.”
“How? Billy’s too old for the vet to do anything for him.”
“You’ll just have to wait and see, but come indoors.”
That evening James came home…alone. As soon as he opened the door to the house he found himself face-to-face with his son, accusation etched over the boy’s eyes.
“You’ve killed him!” Tommy declared.
“You took Billy to be put down!” Tommy teetered on the edge of losing all composure.
“No,” James said firmly. “They’re seeing to him now. I thought he’d be ready to bring back this afternoon but he’s not. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
Tommy squinted suspiciously at his father, but there wasn’t anything concrete to justify his doubts, so he merely trudged away, shaking his head.
Susan looked up from peeling carrots after the boy had left.
“Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?” she asked. “Putting it off for today is only going to make things worse when we do have to tell him.”
“Actually, it’s all been arranged. I’ve been in contact with a kennel in Springdale. ‘Billy’ will be vaccinated and ready for his new home tonight.”
Susan did not match his smug smile.
“I don’t know, dear,” she said slowly. “I honestly feel like that’s just going to be worse.”
“Well you never had any pets growing up, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me, will you?”
The next morning was the weekend, so both James and Susan were waiting for Tommy as he came down the stairs and saw Billy back in his kennel.
“What?!” he said in awe.
The dog stood tall and alert, his fur coat full and shiny like it hadn’t been in months.
“I told you to count on your old man!” James crowed.
“But–how?” Tommy asked. “He was just old, I thought. What can a vet do for just being old? I was afraid he–“
“Well that’s just the problem!” James interjected. “Dogs can smell fear, can’t they? Old Billy could feel how afraid you were, and that was just a whole other stress for him to deal with. Had him worried sick. I think spending some time away from all our fretting was the best medicine he could get! But what are you waiting for, boy? Come say hello to your old buddy!”
The dog craned its head up to look at its master, regarding him with curious eyes. It heard a movement ahead and saw the small boy drawing near with hand outstretched. Instantly a growl resonated in its throat.
“Billy?” Tommy asked and the dog barked loudly.
Tommy frowned and side-stepped to the shelf of doggie treats and toys.
“Look boy, a biscuit!” he held the treat aloft, then lobbed it over. It feel between the dog’s paws, and it glanced down, then locked eyes with Tommy again.
Tommy picked a clicker off the shelf and clicked it two times.
He clicked it two times once more.
“What’s happened, dad? He doesn’t remember me or anything!”
“Well…” James’s eyes roved as he sought to explain. “Can you blame him? He’s been through so much lately, hasn’t he? Not to mentioned being out of practice for the past few weeks. So yeah, maybe he’s a bit muddled and confused, but he’s still our boy, isn’t he?”
“Just give him some time. He’s got to get used to being well again, but everything will be right as rain soon, you’ll see.”
James happened to catch the look of concern in his wife’s face.
“You’ll see,” he repeated.
But over the rest of the morning there was no denying that Billy simply did not like Tommy. Did not like him one bit. The boy couldn’t come near without the dog starting to growl and bare his teeth.
Later that day Susan had the dog lay on its side and she petted it soothingly, while Tommy offered the dog a treat. The dog only snarled until Tommy placed the treat on the ground and backed away, then it lapped the biscuit up. But as soon as the snack was down the dog went back to fixing the boy once more with an imperious glare.
“But he was my friend!” Tommy wailed. “How come he isn’t my friend anymore? I want my Billy back, not this bully!”
“Let’s try and find something the three of us can do together,” Susan suggested. “Something distracting. Billy always loved going for his walks, didn’t he?”
“Do you think he still would? He seems to hate everything that he used to love before.”
But Billy did enjoy the walk. He even let Tommy walk alongside him without any growls, as he was too distracted by all the new scents and sounds to be mean.
“Can I have the leash, Mom?”
“Can I take him for his walk by myself tomorrow?”
“No, you’re too little.”
“But you always let me before. You said Billy could keep me safe.”
“Well…I think Billy still has to do some more getting used to you.”
James was present later that afternoon when Tommy tried to offer a treat to the dog again. Billy barked and Tommy dropped the treat in fright.
“No, Thomas,” James scolded as Billy lapped the treat up. “You’re teaching him that he can bully you and still get rewarded for it. We have to be tougher with him. If he doesn’t behave, he doesn’t get a treat. Grab another of those treats and let’s try this again.”
James crouched down by Billy, his arm across the dog’s back.
“Now bring that treat forward, and don’t act scared. He’ll never respect you if you act scared around him.”
“But he used to respect me.”
“Never mind what he used to do. This is how he is now. Bring the treat.”
Tommy started to extend the biscuit, and as expected Billy’s lips drew back over his lips and he started to growl. In a flash James had struck it across the nose, eliciting a small yelp.
“Don’t hit him!” Tommy cried.
“I know how to raise a dog. Now offer him the treat again.”
Another growl, another slap, another yelp.
This time James clamped his hand around Billy’s snout, forcing the dog to swallow his growl. The dog strained to leave, but James held him firmly in place, held him until the dog stopped straining.
“Good. Now pet him.”
“He’ll do nothing. I have him under control. Pet him around his collar and leave the treat at his feet.”
Tommy did so, then took a step back so that his father could release the dog.
“Not too far,” James instructed. “He still has to understand he only gets his treat when he lets you be near.”
Then he released the dog. Billy whimpered at James, eyes downcast and ashamed.
“You brought it on yourself,” James said sternly. “Now take your treat.”
Billy sniffed idly at the biscuit, and gave it a little lick.
“You see, Thomas? That’s how it’s going to be. We’ll have him in his place in no time.”
“But I don’t want him ‘in his place.’ This is mean. He never had to be put ‘in his place’ before, he was just a good dog already.”
“You don’t approve? Then I guess I’d better take him back to the kennel now,” and having said so, James made to grab the leash off the rack.
“What?!” Tommy exclaimed. “You’re going to get rid of him?”
“Why not? You don’t want him anymore.”
“I didn’t mean that! Please daddy, no! I’ll make him respect me, I promise.”
“Doesn’t it sound too mean, though?”
“No, it’s fine! I’ll do it. I promise!”
“Hmm…well I guess I’ll wait on it for now then. Why don’t you go play?”
Tommy scampered off, and James turned around to meet his wife’s frown.
“What? That was actual progress!”
The next morning Tommy came downstairs early, before either of his parents had awoken. Billy was still asleep as well, and hadn’t fully roused before Tommy already had the leash hooked up to his collar.
“Come on, ” Tommy said officiously, “we’re going for our walk.”
Billy gave a little snarl, but was still too groggy to do anything more.
“None of that! You’re going to respect me now, boy.”
A dangling treat and a tug on the leash and Billy reluctantly rose to his feet and plodded with the boy down the stairs. Once the two of them were outside the cool morning air woke the dog up fully, and it started walking along at a brisk pace.
“Attaboy!” Tommy said brightly. “I don’t know how you’ve forgotten so much, but you and I are best friends. And you’re gonna remember it.”
They came to a street corner and Billy made to turn.
“No Billy, you know we’re not allowed down there. Daddy and Mommy don’t want us anywhere near the rail yard.” He tugged the leash to guide Billy back, but the dog whipped back with a snap of its teeth.
“Billy, no!” Tommy said firmly. “I don’t want to be tough on you…but I will be until you agree to be friends with me again.”
A deep growl started to reverberate in Billy’s throat. Tommy thought about letting go of the leash, but he knew he just had to be tough. Knew he just had to push on until he finally got through to his beloved friend. He lifted his hand and slapped the dog across the nose.
And that was that.
James and Susan came down from their bedroom less than hour later.
“Tommy? Are you down here? Tommy?”
They saw the empty kennel, saw the leash missing on the rack. They each fixed the other with the same look of horror, bolted out the front door, and streaked down different roads.
“Tommy!” they called. “Tommy!” But no one answered.
“TOMMY!” they shouted, their bare feet thundering down the sidewalk. They called their son’s name, but they knew in their hearts that there wouldn’t be any answer.
On Monday I spoke about stories that repeat the same messages, or even the exact same lines, in order to reinforce or evolve a central idea. The very end of this story, of course, ended with the two parents searching for the boy that they would not find, and I used the exact same phrasing as when I wrote about Tommy looking for the dog that he also would never find.
And my hope is that this symmetry will hammer home the main theme of my story: searching for that which is lost, searching for that which cannot be found. Even after “Billy” has been restored back to Tommy, Tommy is still searching for his old friend. There is a dog before him that answers to the same name as before, but it is just a facade, the relationship is still missing. Sadly, Tommy is too young and naive to understand that the old relationship cannot be regained, for the beloved dog he is looking for is already dead.
But it isn’t just the true Billy that has been lost, Tommy has been lost as well. And Tommy was lost even before he took the dog out that fateful morning. By the loss of his pet, and by being the victim of deceit, his innocence has been taken from him. His parents, particularly his father, had already arranged his demise. By trying to protect him, they doomed him.
Which, of course, was written with a specific message to convey. This story is a statement that not being allowed to mourn the wound only creates a greater wounding. Hiding pain only makes it become worse, just as telling lies only increases the sin. The immoral comfort of today only ensures retribution for tomorrow.
I tried to prepare readers for that take-away, by first making it clear that the father’s approach to the whole situation–buying a new dog to replace the second–was wrong. By knowing his behavior was wrong, they could start asking themselves why. But how did I tell the audience that the father’s behavior was wrong? By making him do unpleasant things, such as be condescending to his wife and pompous to his son. In this way I signaled to the readers what their feelings towards him and his philosophies should be, even before the outcome of them was seen.
Is that manipulative? Maybe…but I think that question requires a deeper analysis than we have time for here. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on this common pattern in story-telling and whether it is fair for a writer to employ it or not. I’ll see you then.
There is a classic folk rock song called Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin, and every time I hear it I have a lot of emotions stirred up inside me. The structure of the song is a story told through a series of snapshots, with the chorus being repeated between each chapter/verse. The person singing tells the part of a father who is so busy with business that he misses the birth and first steps of his own son. At the time he affirms that they will have time together someday, and takes comfort in the fact that his son is destined to be just like him. The same pattern repeats when the son is ten, and wants to play catch, but the dad is again too busy.
At this point the song takes a turn. The next snapshot is that of the boy having just graduated from college. The father is so proud of him, and wants to talk to him, but all the boy wants is the keys to the car. There will be time to catch up later, after all. And then comes the final chapter, where the father is now retired and has a bounty of time on his hands. He calls his son, expressing his desire to connect, and the now-adult son affirms his own desire to do so as well…if he could just find the time. And then the father realizes that the boy really did grow up to be just like him.
It is an emotional story all on its own, but the format of telling it through a song allows Harry Chapin to drive its themes even more deeply into the heart. Because, after all, songs have choruses and repeated lyrics, which Chapin cleverly utilizes to reinstate prior ideas, and even twist them.
Thus the the line
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad”
“You know I’m gonna be like you”
in the first verse is full of pride and anticipation. It is the father relishing a son that will emanate all of his virtues. But when it returns at the end as
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
it is overflowing with regret. It is the father realizing that his son instead inherited all of his flaws. And Chapin doesn’t have to spell things out for us in a blunt or heavy-handed way, he just repeats the same line under a new context, and the irony hits us like a ton of bricks.
Echoes of the Past)
This sort of repeated statement is utilized multiple times in the musical rendition of Les Miserables. An idea is sung in one song, and then later returns in another. However these restatements are not only used to twist an idea into something ironic, sometimes they are to give a fuller, more reinforced weight to the same idea.
Consider the song Valjean’s Soliloquy, in which the protagonist struggles to accept the grace that is being offered him. The cynicism in him says that there is too much hurt and sin in him to ever change, yet even so he feels the pull to be a new man. He concludes this song with the following words:
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin
And so he concludes the life of a sinner and begins a new journey as a saint. It would already have been a powerful moment if left in isolation, but later it gets doubled down on by Javert. Javert is the man who has absolutely refused to let go of Valjean’s old sins. He feels a great need to prove that Valjean’s “new leaf” is nothing more than a con-artist sham. Javert is the embodiment of that same cynicism Valjean once held for himself, that there is too much sin for one to truly change.
But then, finally, Valjean manages to convince Javert. He has the opportunity to kill his old tormentor…and he sets him free instead. In the face of this Javert has to accept the reality that he is wrong. Valjean is not the scheming blackheart that Javert has tried to cast him as. This brings us to Javert’s Soliloquy, which ends in these words:
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!
And so he concludes the life of a condemner, and throws himself into the Seine. Just like the segment from Valjean, but twisted to condemnation instead of salvation. The reborn Valjean is simply too expansive a presence for pessimists and abusers to share in his world. His rise requires all the others to disappear into the shadows one way or the other, and the musical makes this message crystal clear by repeating its ideas under different contexts.
The Perfect Storm)
In my most recent story I also tried to implement repeated statements for amplified effect. My approach, however, was to create three different statements, one for each of my characters, which were then each repeated together at the end of the tale. Thus the final scene does not present any ideas that weren’t already given before, it just stacks them all together until they become an overwhelming chorus.
In Bartholomew we saw that he was pulling on his shipmates’ strings, goading them into violence when he provoked Julian into lashing out. That was immediately followed by us seeing how Julian was unafraid to resort to violence to silence his enemies and cover his sins. That was followed by us seeing how Captain Molley was reaching the limits of his temper, champing to execute his justice on Julian.
Each of those moments overlapped only briefly, but then, in the final moments, Bartholomew goads Julian into choosing sides, Julian feels himself teetering back towards violence, and Captain Molley starts poking old wounds rather than pacifying the situation. Every isolated voice is now reinforced by the others, and so the climatic fallout at last occurs.
With my next story I am going to take this tool of restating in a different way. I am going to try and replicate the example in Cat’s in the Cradle and Les Miserables, where an actual line is repeated verbatim (or close to verbatim), but under different contexts that give it entirely different meaning. But the two different meanings combine to make one, reinforced idea together. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.