There is a scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry and Cho Chang are at a café in the wizarding town of Hogsmeade. Harry, of course, has a crush on Cho and is hoping to cultivate a relationship with her. As they sit together at the table he starts to tell himself that he should reach out and hold her hand.
A few more minutes passed in total silence, Harry drinking his coffee so fast that he would soon need a fresh cup....
Cho's hand was lying on the table beside her coffee, and Harry was feeling a mounting pressure to take hold of it. Just do it, he told himself, as a fount of mingled panic and excitement surged up inside his chest. Just reach out and grab it. . . Amazing how much more difficult it was to extend his arm twelve inches and touch her hand than to snatch a speeding Snitch from midair...
But just as he moved his hand forward, Cho took hers off the table.
Seeing or reading about a character’s awkward discomfort often gets a visceral reaction from the audience. Seeing smiling faces has a chance to make you feel happy and frowns could possibly make you sad, but watching someone squirm in a socially painful situation seems guaranteed to turn your own insides as well.
This is because most of us who read about Harry’s internal struggle are immediately brought back to similar moments in our own life. All of us who have dated can share experiences of such times where we felt paralyzed between the excitement of potential success and the horror of potential rejection. Whether to hold a hand, or put an arm around the shoulders, or to lean in for a kiss, we’ve all been there, and this evocative scene immediately taps into those personal emotions.
Of course there are other stories that go as far away from these relatable moments of ordinary life as possible. They don’t dwell on typical social dramas, they project amazing power fantasies instead!
Consider the scene near the end of the first Matrix film where Neo and Trinity storm the building that Morpheus is being held captive in. Clad in black leather, hair slicked back, shades permanently affixed to their faces they stride past the security checkpoint like they own the place.
A team of heavily armored guards rush out to meet them with shotguns and assault rifles at the ready. Guns are whipped out, techno music kicks into high gear, and we are treated to a scene of exorbitant action! Neo and Trinity are flipping off of walls, rubble and smoke fills the air, baddies drop like dominos. This is not a duel between evenly matched forces, it is a scene of total domination!
The whole thing is entirely over-the-top and absolutely nothing like real life. Of course no one could relate to a scene like this!
Except that yeah, I totally did.
I mean, no, never in my life have I ever been a situation remotely like this, but long before I saw this scene I had already been rehearsing moments just like it in my head. And I’m far from the only one.
This scene landed so powerfully with audiences because it tapped into the power fantasies that each of us hold in our private moments. We love to imagine a problem that calls for a new hero to enter, us. We arrive on one the scene looking the very epitome of cool, and then cut the baddies down left and right with our ridiculously overpowered arsenal.
The scene in The Matrix might ring entirely false in the “real world,” but it is very, very true in the imagined one. Some scenes can be relatable in how they capture the nuances of ordinary life, and some in how they capture the nuances of deepest desire.
Somewhere In Between)
The painfully awkward and the power fantasy. Must a story choose one style of relatability over the other? Is it possible to be both grounded and fantastic?
The 2011 film Moneyball is a sports film that feels far more true-to-life than most other sports films. It is about the business of baseball, the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of managers trying to synergize the perfect roster. It is about budgets and algorithms.
Thus it is a very grounded take on the sport and it is filled with all manner of down-to-earth, understated, totally relatable scenes. Take for example when the film develops the relationship between the main character and his daughter. They are both in a guitar store and he is trying to coax her to play a little song for him. She’s nervous because they’re in public, but with a little encouragement she recites a few simple lines from a song.
It’s one of very few scenes in the entire film that the main character shows strong emotion, nearly brought to tears at the delight of seeing his daughter just doing what she loves. It’s a moment both small and large, both mundane and fantastic.
Furthermore, the entire film is all about that main character trying to make something of substance by very simple, deliberate means. Each scene by itself seems of little consequence, advancing goals by only the tiniest of margins, immediately relatable to the slow march we perceive in our own lives. But by the end of the film something truly special comes to fruition, immediately relatable to the hope we each have that our slow and steady march is leading to somewhere grand. Both the mundanity of real life and the fantasy of our deepest desires are fully represented.
In my current story I have been trying to take the opposite approach to Moneyball. Rather than adding mundane moments until they become a fantasy, I have begun with a fantasy setting tried to fill it with mundane moments.
I showed this last time where the two main character discussed conspiracies while chopping firewood and where the main character’s moment of boldness was just to grab a paper without being seen by another. Important things are happening, but they’re intentionally being couched in basic moments of life.
Of course as things continue the fantastic will win out, but hopefully even then it will be in a way that remains relatable to our private fantasies. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of The Favored Son to see how I pursue that goal.
“How are Beesk and Inol behaving?” Reis asked as he and Tharol chopped firewood behind the main hall.
“Hmm…think they’re plotting something?”
“No…I hadn’t really considered that. The Night Watch is right around the corner, isn’t it? Obviously they’d be nervous about that, right?”
“Yes, that could be. But I have to ask, why don’t you suspect that they’re up to something.”
“I don’t know, I just–I don’t have any reason to distrust them.”
“Really? I mean you certainly don’t have reason to trust them.”
“No, I guess I don’t. I just–I just don’t think that way.”
“Yes, and that’s why you’re so easy to beat in our competitions,” Reis grinned.
“Oh, so you’ve noticed. Well that’s good. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”
“Have you personally seen anything extra suspicious from Beesk and Inol, Reis? Or do you just generally think they’re likely to be up to something?”
“I haven’t seen anything. I just know what you tell me. So you say they’re acting jittery. Well yeah, maybe it’s just nerves about the Night Watch…or maybe they’re getting ready to stab you in the back. Whether or not that’s actually the case don’t you think it would be prudent to protect yourself from that possibility?”
“That’s a good point. Maybe I should start wearing a breastplate backwards under my shirt?”
Reis laughed. “So the rest of you finally caught on?”
“Just me I think.”
“Well it took you long enough! I was starting to think I’d be able to get away with it forever.”
“Well I have to say, it kind of ruined your duel with Golu for me. Once I realized you weren’t actually putting yourself at risk…”
“Of course it was a risk!” there was genuine offense in Reis’s tone. “You think that’s an easy blow to take, even through a sheet of metal?! And suppose he hadn’t happened to strike on it? I had no guarantee things would turn out as well as they did.”
“Shhh,” Reis hushed Tharol as Master Palthio passed overhead on the main hall’s parapet. Reis watched him all the way until he reached the end of the parapet and disappeared down the trapdoor to the apothecary. “More than winning duels with you lot I want to see how long I can keep the old man in the dark,” Reis said. “It amazes me how oblivious he can be.”
“Or just turning a blind eye.”
“Yeah, or that. Probably taking a cut of whatever Beesk and Inol haul in, don’t you think?”
Tharol didn’t answer. He actually didn’t think that that was very likely anymore. If Master Palthio had been in on Beesk and Inol’s little scheme then wouldn’t he have just put one of them over the Night Watch instead? Tharol hadn’t wanted to appear too pushy by asking Beesk and Inol what they knew about Palthio’s loyalties, but everything they had done so far suggested that they didn’t want him to know what they were doing. So if Master Palthio was corrupt it was in his own way. And if he wasn’t corrupt, then he must be a fool, just another lazy pawn for Lord Amathur.
“Do you think he’ll even do anything when we expose Beesk and Inol?” Tharol asked. “Anything of substance?”
“He’ll probably just expel them, then continue like it’s business as usual.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Like I said, we can’t rely on the order as it is today. We’re the order within the order now. If he won’t put the safety measures in place we’ll do it ourselves. I don’t mind telling you I’ve been waiting quite some time for this. The old order is broken and needs to fall so something stronger can take it’s place. That’s exactly what we’re laying the groundwork for here today!”
Reis was holding his hands out wide, face shining with the excitement of the moment. Tharol could tell that this was a speech Reis had been wanting to give for a long time.
“It sounds nice Reis,” Tharol sighed, “but I don’t know that our little operation here is going to make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things. We might stop Beesk and Inol this time, but the whole district is corrupt.”
“Oh yes, this whole area is filthy! Even up to Lord Amathur!”
It was a bold statement but Tharol didn’t hesitate to nod his agreement. “It’s true. And so what can you and I ever do about that? It would take forever to try and reform this place one step at a time.”
“That would never work, the tide against us is too strong faster than that. There needs to be dramatic change. Immediate change.”
Reis looked very earnestly at Tharol, as if burning to tell him something, but after a moment’s pause he shook his head and said “Let’s worry about Beesk and Inol today, and see about the rest later. We have to focus on what’s immediate.”
“Alright. And so long as we’re on the subject, we need to figure out our plan during the Night Watch?”
“I thought we already had that all figured. I’ll pretend to be sick, head to the latrine, then come rushing back in time to catch Beesk and Inol before they unfasten the gates. I’ll make an almighty ruckus and everyone will come running.”
“But where am I?”
“You? You’re in the barracks with the other boys, waiting alertly to hear an almighty ruckus and come running.”
“No. We can’t leave you out there alone with the two of them, all the more so if you’re ducking out to the latrine. What if they already have her in before you doubled back?”
“I can manage this. Trust me.”
“It’s not a question of trust. It’s just an unnecessarily risky strategy. Having a second pair of eyes will always be better.”
“They told you not to be there! They told you they were supposed to bring her in themselves! Now you’re going to risk that they’ll see you, realize something is up, and call the whole thing off!”
“I can manage this. Trust me.”
Reis bit his lip furiously. Tharol wasn’t sure why this seemed to matter to him so much. Could Reis really be so vain that he had to catch the perpetrators all by himself? That seemed so petty after all the ideals he had just been gushing about.
“I’m sorry Tharol, I don’t trust you” Reis finally said. “I mean I know your heart’s in the right place, but I can’t risk you messing this up.”
Tharol’s eyes narrowed as he swung his axe and halved the last piece of firewood. “I’m sorry Reis, but that’s your problem then,” and he left the chopping block.
After his conversation with Reis, Tharol started to be more observant of Inol and Beesk’s behavior. Even outside of his private pow-wows with them he would follow their routines whenever he could, observing if they were having other conversations without him, doing anything to suggest an upcoming betrayal.
He learned the patterns of their daily movements, the ways they ducked out of work they didn’t want to do, and where they each kept their stash of goods from the bribed merchants. He picked up on particular waifs who would occasionally bring them notes from the market. Tharol managed to get ahold of a few of these and learned that most of the illegal merchants Beesk and Inol brought in were referrals from ones they had already helped in the past. They didn’t have to go out of their walls to find new clients, the business came to them.
He also learned their routine for getting notes from the statue woman. Each evening one of them would stroll across the battlements, hand gliding idly over the rough stone of the outer wall. It appeared completely innocuous, but he understood that this was them feeling for the new letters. He wasn’t sure how the woman was able to get notes up on the wall without being noticed, but apparently she did have a way.
Tharol very much wanted to find one of those letters. He was sure there would be some final correspondence between them and the woman just before Reis’s Night Watch and he yearned to intercept it. But he was also sure that Beesk and Inol would notice if he took to walking the battlements each afternoon, so he contented himself with watching them from afar.
He had a system for accomplishing that. He would excuse himself after afternoon practice and rush up the Western Tower. If he was quick, he could survey the entire stretch of stone wall below while Beesk or Inol began their walk at the other side of the battlements.
And he did this routine every day, though nothing came of it, until at last his diligence payed off on the day before the Night Watch. Afternoon practice had just concluded and he left the courtyard, rounded the barracks, bounded for the perimeter wall, and stormed up the steps to the battlements. He passed Reis along the way, who was just on his way down from the Afternoon Watch.
“No time to talk,” Tharol called over his shoulder as he reached the top of the steps, coming out onto the long walkway that Beesk and Inol strolled each afternoon.
The Western Tower was immediately to his right and in a moment he had passed through its door and was racing up the spiral staircase. He ascended the first level and before going up the next flight he quickly glanced out the rampart-side window, checking to see if Beesk had arrived on the walkway yet.
And then he saw it.
There, fluttering in the breeze, was a piece of paper stuck against the outside of the wall, one block down from the very top.
Tharol froze, suspended between two conflicting desires: one to grab that paper and see what it said before Beesk and Inol could hide its information from him, and another to remain covert and careful, not risking being seen by the two boys.
He snapped suddenly into action, bounding back down the steps three-at-a-time until he banged out of the tower door and rushed along the ramparts. In one, smooth arc he swung his hand around the top of the wall, snagged the paper, turned on the spot, and sprinted back for the tower.
Every step he expected to hear an accusing voice call from behind or for another boy to come up the steps ahead and block his way. But nothing of the sort occurred. He cleared the door into the tower and flung it behind him, closing off the outside world. Before it shut completely, though, he spun around and looked through the narrowing opening of the doorway, just in time to see Beesk mounting the steps at the opposite end of the ramparts. Then the door clicked shut and Tharol found himself alone in the dark.
He had made it!
“See something interesting, Tharol?”
Tharol jumped a full foot into the air as he spun around in shock.
He had to blink a few times in the dark before he was even able to make out the silhouette of the figure before him. That figure reached up a hand and lit the overhead lamp. There before him stood Master Palthio, silently watching from the far side of the room. He must have been there the whole time, quietly observing all of Tharol’s bold behavior.
I’m a few posts into this revised final act now, and I’m pleased to say that I am very much liking how it is turning out. There were a lot of wrinkles to sort out and more loose ends than I’d realized, but I believe I have my road clear to the finish now.
It is worth saying that there were elements of the original final act which I did enjoy and which I was sorry to see get cut as a result of this change. While the central twist of it felt particularly weak to me it was then followed by an interesting game of cat and mouse that I had a lot of fun writing.
Fortunately I was able to translate many of those elements into my new work. For example, in the old version Tharol had a period of weeks where he knew about Reis’s treachery and he tried to trail that boy’s every move. This is partially represented in today’s post where Tharol tails Beesk and Inol, though it is in less detail here.
Also, similar to today’s chapter, Tharol observed that Reis walked along the battlements every afternoon to receive letters and he managed to steal one of them. That letter informed him that Reis was planning to meet with the statue woman outside of the keep that very night.
Then came a little twist. Tharol was sure that this was a red herring. He was certain the boy had been too shrewd to not notice Tharol tailing him. Tharol was therefore convinced that the letter was a ruse meant to mislead him, getting him out of the way at the convenient time, and so now he needed to feint like he had fallen for it, but then double back to see what was really going on. As you’ll see in my next entry, however, the contents of the letter have changed a great deal from the original version and will thrust the story down a very different path.
Before we get to that, though, I wanted to consider another aspect of today’s chapter. It’s the moment near the end where Tharol sees the paper waiting on the ramparts and hesitates, wondering to himself whether he should try dashing out to retrieve it, or else be cautious and wait inside.
I believe that describes a moment that many of us can relate to, the moment of indecision between boldness and safety. Whether it be debating if we should hold a crush’s hand or steal home plate, we all have that moment on the precipice between daring and shrinking. I’d like to take a look at examples from other stories that describe an experience that is immediately relatable to readers. Come back on Monday as we consider that, and then again on Thursday for the next entry in The Favored Son.
I mentioned at the end of my last post that I was dramatically altering the final act of The Favored Son. The original version of it just didn’t feel right there weren’t any minor change that would fix it, so I just rewrote the entire thing.
So where did that change take place? Well, it remained the same through Tharol breaking his leg at the end of the second competition, and also through his finding out that several of the students assume he has lost his conscience.
But after this point my current version and the original split apart. In today’s version the next scene is Tharol having a conversation where Reis emboldens him to lean into his “bad guy” role. In the original version he instead discovered that Reis was conversing with the strange statue lady at this point. He saw Reis exiting the parapets with the Order’s pet hawk on his shoulder, he walked out onto the parapet himself, he looked over the grounds, and suddenly he saw the statue lady’s bodyguard sprinting from the city walls with a letter held firmly in hand. A letter presumably carried to him by a bird!
Dun dun dunnnnhh!
Upstaged by Self)
Actually not so dun dun dunnnnhh. This revelation felt very tepid, and this was the main reason for scrapping my work.
This twist just felt incredibly weak compared to the rest of the story. Consider, for example, the earlier scene where the boys are in their second competition and Reis reveals that he swapped a fake crystal with Tharol. That twist was far more clever and far more satisfying. Even though readers were told to expect some trickery, I imagine that most still wouldn’t have seen that particular maneuver coming.
But this scene of Tharol realizing that Reis is in communication with the statue lady? It just sort of…happened. There wasn’t any real suspense leading up to it, there wasn’t anything particular clever to how he figured it out, he literally just stumbled into the revelation by accident.
And the thing is, I knew that this was a weak twist even when I first wrote it, but I didn’t have anything better to replace it with. It was the first thing that popped into my head and I wrote it down as a placeholder. I kept expecting to have some epiphany for how to improve on it…but nothing else came.
And just so you know, I write placeholder stuff like this in my outlines all the time, hoping that I’ll be able to find a better solution before it comes time to deliver. And usually I do. In fact Reis swapping the crystals during the second competition is an example of where this method worked perfectly! In my outline I originally just wrote “some trick should happen at this point,” and trusted myself to figure it out when I got there. That’s exactly what happened and it was incredibly satisfying. But when I tried to use this same method for my bigger reveal?…Nothing.
Eventually I decided I had to just take the weak plot point as it was and move on. I set it in stone, wrote several other chapters on top of it, and very nearly published things that way.
Time to Deliver)
Like I said, usually I’m able to come up with richer plot devices to replace my initial placeholders, but each of us will occasionally miss our shot no matter how proficient we usually are at making them.
Literally, in some cases.
Paul Millsap is a current player in the NBA and a four-time All-Star. He is able to play the game at a very high level. On November 15, 2015, his team, the Atlanta Hawks, were playing against the Utah Jazz. With 3.8 seconds remaining the Hawks were down 97-96, but found themselves with a chance to make a basket and win the game. The ball was bounced in to Paul Millsap, he expertly sidestepped his defender, pulled back, jumped up, and sent off a beautiful shot. There was no other player to obstruct his view, no one in position to swat his shot out of the air, and he was at an excellent angle to make full use of the backboard. It was a very easy basket to make. The sort of basket that Millsap makes all the time.
But he missed, and the Atlanta Hawks lost the game.
And this is not rare occurrence. Every season in every sport there are numerous instances of an athlete stepping up to a shot they’ve made a thousand times before and still missing it. Because at the end of the day none of us are perfect at making our shot. All we can do is increase our percentage chance of hitting our mark but it never becomes a 100% guaranteed thing. When I took a shot with Reis’s betrayal during the boys’ second competition I scored a hit, but when I tried again for his alliance with the statue lady I just came up short.
Endings and New Beginnings)
And this certainly happens in the broader world of storytelling, too. I’m sure we can all recall stories that begin with an excellent premise, but then fail to cash in on that potential with their final act. I believe that many of these misfires are simply due to the author being faced with a hard deadline. In those situations no matter how well you’ve trained yourself for a high percentage chance of success, sooner or later you’re going to slip and deliver something that is beneath your standard.
Fortunately for me, I write my stories a few weeks in advance, which affords me the chance to take a second shot at things.
Two weeks after writing that weak twist I found myself able to view the trouble-area with fresh eyes. I realized a new direction I could take the story in. It would mean scrapping most of what I had been writing ever since, but ultimately I decided it would be worth it. I made the change, published it, and the story you have been reading ever since is the result of that transition. I truly feel that my story is much stronger with this new direction.
Hopefully this little peek behind the curtain has been helpful for you. At the very least I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate that:
Everybody misses. We might reduce the frequency of those misses but they will always still happen.
Failure truly isn’t the end of the story. So long as you keep writing you’ll be able to take that shot again. And chances are you’ll make it that time.
On Thursday I’ll be publishing the next chapter of The Favored Son. At the end I’ll also be revealing a little more of how this version varies from the original. Come back then to see what you think of the differences!
It wasn’t until later that evening that it truly hit Tharol what he had done. He had assisted in treason. He had improved on the plan that Beesk and Inol had put together. Had shown them the mistakes in it and prevented them from an obvious error. He had pushed them one step closer to sneaking a dangerous outsider into the Great City.
Of course his ultimate objective was to prevent their betrayal and by helping them he had prevented anyone from accidentally taking a fatal dose of poison! His intentions were pure. But it still felt wrong. He just didn’t like being a part of this world. It made him feel tainted by association.
Well, so what if it did taint him? Maybe that was just the sacrifice he bore to do what was right. If someone had to dirty their hands, why not he?
Reis certainly didn’t have any qualms with what Tharol had done.
“So were you guys able to get the poison?”
“Yeah,” Tharol said somberly. “Already in the wine, in fact.”
“Excellent! Where is it?”
“Tucked away in the corner of the cellar.”
“Fine, that’s perfectly fine! So they’ve got everything set up how they want. They must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves!”
“Reis, I helped them. They were likely to make a mistake and get themselves caught but I’ve been making their hairbrained idea an actual possibility! And I’m not at all comfortable with the fact that there’s poison just sitting around in the keep!”
“Why? I already told you, I won’t drink any that night. Just a little sleight of hand and they’ll be none the wiser.”
“That’s taking an unnecessary risk. Also an unnecessary risk for if one of the other boys sneaks into the cellar and chooses the wrong bottle!”
“But you said it was tucked away. I assume the back line and bottom row?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“North or south side?”
“North,” Tharol furrowed his brow, not seeing why this really mattered.
“Yeah, no one’s going to come across it there.”
“Let’s just pour it out in the trough now and put some fresh wine in there. Beesk and Inol probably won’t even notice.”
“No, I want to hold onto it as evidence. I want to be able to show everyone exactly what they were trying to do. And you just let me take care of myself that night. Okay? You’ve told me what to watch out for and now it’s my responsibility to take care of it, not yours.”
Tharol sighed. “Fine.”
With that the two of them left for their afternoon training with Master Palthio. As they arrived at the central courtyard they found it equipped with blocks of wood set in a large circle and wooden staffs littered across the ground.
“How can you be surprised by that?” Janeao asked. “It’s at least once every week!”
“I always hope it’ll be the last day of the week. Master Palthio is less demanding when he knows we’re tired. Anyway, what’s the point of my practicing? I’m the worst and I always will be.”
“Well that’s exactly why you should practice,” Tharol pointed out.
Their conversation was cut short as Master Palthio clapped his hands for the boys to begin their exercises. Each of them picked up a staff and chose a pair of wooden blocks to stand on top of, quavering back and forth until they settled into their sense of balance.
“Now,” Master Palthio began, “let us start with Mora-Long.”
Each of the boys turned to a neighbor and assumed the stance for Mora-Long, which was a slow, powerful form, one of Master Palthio’s favorites for warming them up.
The clatter of colliding staffs rang through the courtyard. There was always one or two boys that lost their balance here at the beginning. They grunted in frustration, got back on their blocks, and Master Palthio told them to begin again. After a few false starts they finally came into rhythm.
Tharol was facing against Janeao and he was having a hard time of it. The measured, powerful stances of Mora-Long were perfectly suited to Janeao’s greater strength. Whenever Tharol blocked one of Janeao’s blows there was so much extra energy that he would have to give a little hop to dispel it, hoping that his feet would be able to feel their way back onto the blocks as he came back down. Better to keep up the attack, then, and make Janeao block instead. Thus Tharol increased his aggression, but Janeao merely scowled and moved to keep pace.
“Easy, easy,” Master Palthio said as the din of Tharol and Janeao’s crossing staffs doubled the cadence of every other duel. “This is a warm-up, boys, not a competition.”
Janeao slowed, then grinned and let out a powerful, wild swing. Tharol didn’t even try to catch it, he ducked downward, barely in time. Then he popped back up, flicked his wrist forward, and brought his own staff right beside Janeao’s face. He did not strike him, but he hoped the message to calm down would come across.
“Swap sides,” Master Palthio instructed as he continued pacing around the boys’ circle.
Tharol turned to his other side and faced Inol.
“Feto stance,” Master Palthio ordered.
Feto was a tricky form, particularly when one was limited on balance. You spent half the time on a single foot, moving your staff through long, looping arcs. Paradoxically, though, it was also the best form when on poor footing…if you were a master at it. Then your constantly shifting balance spilled into the momentum of each swing, causing you to bound and cavort like a mad top, whirling out crushing blows with every leap.
Tharol paused for a moment before crossing staffs. As an overall fighter Inol was on the same level as Tharol. They each had their preferred forms, though, and Feto was definitely one of Inol’s. So Tharol decided to wait and see how Inol would approach.
Inol smiled as he understood Tharol’s hesitation, then swung his staff down to his side and leaped high into the sky. Tharol’s eyes went wide, bracing himself for the blow that would follow. He would have to catch it on the end of his stick and let its force spin him through a complete circle.
Inol reached his apex and came rushing downward, staff spinning wildly. Tharol tried to predict where the blow was coming from, thrust his own staff out to meet it, and began to spin his body to catch the excess momentum.
But at the very last second Inol pulled his staff back, drove its end deep into the dirt behind, and used it as a prop to help steady himself as he landed back on the wooden blocks. Tharol, meanwhile, thrown off by the complete absence of a blow, lost his balance and tumbled to the ground.
Tharol rose back to his feet and gave Inol an approving nod. It had been an excellent feint.
Tharol dusted off his tunic and returned back to his fighting stance, but Inol wasn’t ready to spar again. He was staring off to the side where Reis and Golu were dueling. In fact all of the boys were slowly pausing their own scuffles to see the match between the order’s two grandmasters.
Each of the boys were leaping and spinning at a breakneck pace, staffs colliding like thunder, then whirling a full 360 degrees to crash on the other side. They moved in staccato, each attempting to break cadence and catch the other off guard. It was impossible to state which of them was attacking and which was defending, rather it seemed each was doing both at the same time.
“How did they get that good?” Tharol wondered aloud. “They’ve only had the same training as the rest of us.”
“I don’t think either of them would have managed it alone,” Inol responded. “They each needed the other to push them.”
Perhaps the best evidence of what Inol said was in how well the two understood the other’s style. By now they were spinning so quickly that they spent half the time with their backs to each other, not even seeing the blows careening at them, but still able to land every block, knowing by sheer familiarity where the other boy was sure to strike.
“I think of late Reis has been edging ahead of Golu,” Beesk said from the other side of Inol.
“You’re crazy,” Inol countered. “Golu’s form is clearly better.”
“Yes, but Reis has stopped trying to beat him on form. He’s going to win because he’s more willing to sacrifice.”
No sooner had Beesk said the words than they proved perfectly true. For Golu had just made a round, swinging attack aimed at Reis’s side. Reis swung his own staff as if to meet it, but at the last moment turned his wrist so that the two weapons missed each other by a mere fraction of an inch.
Everyone watched in shock as Golu’s staff, unhindered, closed the gap to Reis’s body. Reis didn’t seem to regard it at all, though. He kept moving with the momentum of his last swing, twisting his body until he faced away from Golu. Golu’s staff made contact and broke across Reis’s unguarded back! All of the boys flinched and Reis gave a loud grunt of pain, but he did not lose his focus. He was now three-quarters of the way through his turn, staff whistling through its murderous arc. Golu’s own weapon was in splinters, and even if it wasn’t he would never be able to get it around to block Reis’s staff in time. Golu tried to dodge, but was still caught full on the shoulder and sent flying through the air to the ground.
Reis had won.
“How did you know he would do that?” Tharol looked past Inol to Beesk.
“He did something very similar during the last competition. You probably missed it while you were holding your broken foot. It was how he won. He’s been taking all the standard forms and modifying them with intentional mistakes to lure his opponent in.”
“And since when did you become such an expert on fighting?” Inol raised an eyebrow at Beesk.
“Just because I can’t move properly through a fight doesn’t mean I can’t read one!”
“What’s everyone standing around for,” Master Palthio rounded on the students, only just now noticing that they had become as engrossed in Reis and Golu’s battle as he had been. “Get back to practice!”
The boys scrambled back into position and proceeded with their fights. Tharol’s mind was only half on his duel with Inol, though. He kept replaying that last maneuver Reis had used in his head, unable to believe what he had seen.
He had always known that Reis was willing to take a risk to win, he had witnessed that in the competition where Reis used himself as bait while his teammates overwhelmed Janeao at the tower, but this was something else. It was a wonder he hadn’t had his ribs broken taking that blow full on from Golu! But crazy as it had seemed, it had worked.
Tharol got a good parry in and Inol was sent revolving off his block. He smiled in satisfaction, then used the moment’s respite to look over at Golu and Reis. Reis was lifting his staff high overhead to deliver a powerful blow, arms coiling like springs, shirt bunching up behind him.
And it was bunching up in a very distinctive square shape. A distinctive, unusually well-defined square.
Tharol frowned and a thought occurred to him, one that he couldn’t shake. He dwelled on it all through the rest of practice and also while they changed back to fresh clothes before dinner.
One-by-one the boys left in their new tunics. Reis was the last to leave their dormitories, but he ran to catch up with Avro and Bovik on their way to the main hall. Behind them Tharol emerged from the shadows and dodged back into the now-vacant dormitories.
He made his way directly to Reis’s cot and rapidly searched it. He lifted the pillow, prodded across the mattress, looked between the boards…every nook and cranny he could find. Nothing.
He turned to leave, disappointed. But just as he made his way towards the exit he saw it! Hanging over the barracks door was one of the antiques of their order: an old breastplate that had belonged to an ancient warrior. It was an old-fashioned piece, a small square with wiry ropes attached at each corner for fastening in the back.
Or, if you had no one to help you put it on, fasten the ropes in the front with the breastplate covering the back.
Tharol lifted himself up to look at the breastplate more closely. It was a relic of actual battles, and as such was extremely battered. Among all the centuries-old dings and cracks there was one dent across them all that must have been made more recently. It was just the right width for Golu’s staff.
Now to be perfectly frank, the idea of a mole who gradually learns that his handler is a traitor isn’t entirely original. It has most famously been played out in films like Internal Affairs and The Departed. But while the theme is not entirely new, I do strive to make the implementation of it be original. Just as how West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet but is also an extremely fresh take on that idea. And if I do say so myself, I believe this story also stands apart.
But being original is difficult and prone to running into corners. In fact I had written this final act once before, then scrapped the whole thing because it wasn’t coming together the way I wanted.
I’ve enjoyed pulling back the curtain on my process in the past, and I’ve decided to do it again here. Come back on Monday where I’ll share a little more about what originally went down in this part of the story and why I decided to change it. In the meantime have a wonderful weekend!
Most stories have a villain, which is a character who embodies the opposition to the protagonist. The protagonist must overcome this opposition, which means the villain must be destroyed, in most stories violently so. As such, the villain needs to be painted in a very negative light. So negative that the audience won’t have any qualms about them meeting an untimely end.
And such a common problem has a very common solution: make the villain do something so reprehensible that everyone will deem them unfit to live. The most obvious choice is to have them kill someone else early on, an innocent bystander who doesn’t deserve to die and who therefore must be avenged. Perhaps the bystander makes a small mistake and incurs the villain’s disproportionate wrath, or maybe the villain just kills them for the fun of it. Once that happens no more arguments have to be made. The audience hates the villain and will cheer their downfall!
Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all because this is the six-hundredth time they’ve seen this sort of scene play out. Every year there comes a deluge of films, television series, and novels that overuse this formula until it has lost any meaning whatsoever. Each of these scenes come and go like all the rest and we just can’t feel anything about them anymore.
Let’s Make a Good Guy)
Of course things are hardly any better in the hero department. Want to make the main character likable? How about we see them do an act of charity to someone pitiable? Perhaps share a loaf of bread with a beggar, or cheer up a crying child, or help an animal that is hurt. There, now the audience knows that our protagonist’s heart is true and they love them for it!
Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all. It just gets so hard for us to assign any feelings to a hero like this because they feel exactly like what they are: a contrived formula, not an actual person.
But what’s interesting is that each of these clichés usually have their root in a story that was actually impactful once upon a time. Take the example of the hero helping an animal that is hurt. Perhaps the earliest instance of this is in the tale of Androcles, where a runaway slave takes refuge in the den of a fearsome lion! The lion is in no condition to chase Androcles, though, it is suffering from a large thorn stuck in its paw! Androcles takes the thorn out and the lion is intelligent enough to feel immense gratitude for it. The two become fast friends, which friendship eventually leads them to a life of freedom.
Once upon a time that was a moving tale. But it’s been stolen from so many times that it becomes formulaic and incapable of eliciting emotion. Ironically, by the time someone first hears the story of Androcles today they will likely have heard so many other rip-offs that they won’t be able to appreciate the weight this original used to carry.
Shortcuts in Communication)
The main culprit in all this derivative work is good, old human efficiency. We are a species that ever endeavor to optimize and simplify. And while this is an excellent practice in many cases, it neuters the emotions behind any humanizing experience.
Consider the example of how we strive to communicate ourselves in more and more succinct terms. I must say, I find it very amusing how older generations will decry the vowel-missing lingo of modern text messaging, utterly failing to realize that this is only the natural progression of a trend that they themselves pushed forward. Far before the advent of cellphones prior generations were already greatly abbreviating our style of communication. First formalities were dropped, then grammatically complete sentences, and now vowels. Is that really so surprising?
Obviously increased efficiency is desirable in many walks of life and even in communication it has its uses. Knowing the right combination of gesture and tone can allow us to convey a complex meaning in a fraction of a second. But It can be taken too far and render the whole experience redundant.
Brian Christian makes note of this fact in his book The Most Human Human. Here he points out that we now have entire conversations that are nothing but short clichés in which no actual substance is ever communicated.
“Hey, good morning.”
“Good morning. How are you?”
“Doing well. And you and your family?”
“All doing well, thanks for asking.”
“Nice weather, today, isn’t?”
“Yes it is. Oh, you know what, I’m afraid I’ve got to run!”
“Oh, me too. We should catch up later.”
“Definitely. Well, see ya!”
There is literally nothing communicated in exchanges such as these. The entire give and take is performed on pure autopilot. Half the time we’ve already got our default response loaded in before we even hear the what the other person says to the last robotic statement we made.
Stories Should Say Something)
And I’ve read and watched entire stories that were exactly the same way. A synopsis of these tales could very accurately be given as “it begins, the usual stuff happens, and then it ends about how’d you expect.”
To be fair, I get it. Originality is hard. I myself feel the temptation to take a trusty cliché rather than invent a new way to express what I want in a story. I ran into this exact problem during the last section of The Favored Son. Here I wanted to show that a leader was really a tyrant, and I kept slipping into the tired, old routine of him losing his temper at some innocent peasant and brutalizing them.
Fortunately I fought down that temptation. I stuck with it until I felt I had something a little more original to say. This more original scene was also far more complex. In it I introduce a group of slaves who are dragging a massive stone behind the tyrant, for a reason that is never explained. It is clear that they are a broken people, though, paying a penance of some sort. Then the members of a resistance ride onto the scene and urge a few of the slaves to escape with them! One of them does, to which the other slaves seem quite distressed. The reason for this is made clear when the royal guards chase off the resistance riders and the tyrant makes the remaining slaves atone for their missing fellow by slaying one of them.
The final outcome of this scene was the same as the cliché: the tyrant kills an innocent waif. But the path to this was far more intricate and involved. One gets a sense of political struggles, of victims being manipulated by competing powers. It is different, it is original, it took effort, and it is therefore far more likely to make an impression.
I will endeavor to keep fighting down the pull towards cliché, and instead imbue my stories with something more thoughtful. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of my story and pay special attention to how I incorporate original ideas instead of settling for something more trite.
“You want to poison Reis?!” Tharol asked in shock.
“Well not lethally,” Beesk said quickly. “Just enough to make him sick that night. We’ll get some Tinstin next time we go to market. A couple grams in his dinner cup and two hours later he’ll be bolting for the latrine. He’ll be busy retching a few minutes, long enough for us to have the gates opened and closed like nothing every happened.”
“You’ve thought this through.”
“Well of course we have!” Inol exclaimed. “This isn’t exactly the sort of thing you leave up to chance, now is it?”
“Alright. So what’s our plan from here on.”
“I’ll get the Tinstin,” Inol offered. “I know just the apothecary that’ll have it in the backroom.”
“And I’m going to stash everything we need on the barracks over the next couple weeks,” Beesk added. “Two barrels of oil to make sure the gates don’t make any noise that night, a rope in case we need to improvise, and a couple bird-whistles for us to signal each other if anything goes wrong.”
“Alright,” Tharol nodded. “And me?”
“You’re pretty close to Reis aren’t you?”
“Sure, we’re friends I guess.”
“Great. Keep close to him and see what if he suspects anything. He was there when the statue lady first met us and he’d roast us all if he knew what was going on. You have to let us know if he so much as catches of a whiff of what we’re doing.”
Tharol nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. And where are each of us during the night of the entry?”
“One of Beesk and I will be opening the gates and getting payment,” Inol recited. “The other will be watching Reis and running distraction if he starts to come back early. And you will be waiting in the barracks, watching for if any of the boys try to come out for any reason. You start blowing on that bird whistle if they do.”
“I want to be out on the field with you.”
“No,” Inol shook his head firmly.
“It was very clear requirement of the statue lady,” Beesk added. “We can bring a third in to help with setup, but she only trusts the two of us to greet her at the entrance.”
“Alright,” Tharol tried to wave it off like he didn’t care. “I’ll make sure Reis stays in the dark in the meantime.”
“Excellent!” Reis smiled when Tharol told him the entire scheme. “We’ll do it!”
“Of course, we’ll make sure that absolutely everything plays exactly the way they want.”
“But they’re going to poison you!”
Reis waved that away. “They’re going to think that they poison me. I’ll fake a drink at dinner and then make like I’m sick during the first hour of watch. We have to make them believe that everything is going according to plan. We can’t catch them red-handed if they’re not confident enough to expose themselves.”
“I suppose not…”
And so Tharol found himself helping cover for Inol at the market just a few days later. Golu was with them, and so it fell on Tharol to keep the boy distracted while Inol obtained the Tinstin.
“We could have Inol grab the salt and wine if you want to help me with the whetstones, Golu,” he proposed.
“Sure,” Golu shrugged.
“Yep, works for me,” Inol said brightly. “Got my money?”
Tharol counted out the appropriate amount and sent him on his way.
“Well I guess we’d better–” Tharol started to say to Golu, but he was interrupted by a large commotion coming from behind them. For some reason the marketplace throng was pushing itself backwards into the two boys. They spun around and saw that the crowd was clearing a column in their middle, making a wide pathway down the throng.
“What’s this?” Tharol asked.
“It’s Lord Amathur,” Golu answered.
Tharol looked back to the clearing and sure enough a procession of guards now moved down it. They were soon followed by a man wearing brightly colored silks and a three-foot feather sticking out of his cap. This was the closest Tharol had even been to Lord Amathur, near enough to make out the features of his round, boyish face. He was all smiles and joviality, waving at the merchants and calling many of them by name. They responded in kind and several of them held out samples of their wares as gifts. He waved his hand at that and tutted, but still seemed charmed by their gesture.
“He seems a popular man,” Tharol observed.
As Tharol continued to watch a strange gravelly noise started to rise, though, growing and growing until it became a tremendous cacophony, drowning out all the sounds of mirth and frivolity. Craning his head to the side Tharol finally saw the cause of the noise. A hundred feet behind Lord Amathur, but still a part of his procession, there came into view thirty slaves, stripped to their loincloths, straining with all their might against powerful ropes set around their shoulders. And all of those ropes ran back to the same singular stone, a massive boulder, shaped like a low cylinder, at least twelve feet across. It must have weighed thousands of pounds! All those slaves dug their heels into the cobbled road in unison and lurched the burden forward inch-by-inch. The flat underside of the millstone scraped horribly across the cobblestones and gouged the road in places. It would take weeks to repair.
“It’s like–it’s like when we have to do our hauls with the stone,” Tharol observed, though obviously on a much larger scale. “This is a punishment?”
None of the rest of the crowd appeared particularly surprised by the display, though many of them covered their ears and took a step back from the road. Some of them even started returning to their usual business now that Lord Amathur was advancing out of view.
The scene wasn’t quite over yet, though. All of a sudden a group of merchants began to scream as four horsemen charged through the crowd!
“Out of the way!” the riders roared, then left it to the rabble to clear out before being trampled. Before long they had entered the roadway and skidded to a halt before the slaves bearing the stone. All four of them drew their swords, eliciting more screams from the crowd, but they only used them to hack at the ropes binding the slaves to their stone. As soon as four of the prisoners had been freed they they reached their hands down and offered them an escape. Three of them shrunk back immediately, hands held up in pleading, as if begging to not be liberated. The last slave looked hesitantly to his fellows, then back to his would-be emancipators.
“Quickly!” the forefront rider strained, glancing up the road to where Lord Amathur and his guardsmen were sprinting back down the route, charging to the disruption!
With one more look to his fellows the hesitant slave leaped up, took his savior’s arm, and was carried onto the steed. As one the other slaves howled in a fury and flung themselves at him, scrabbling madly to pull him back down, in pieces if necessary.
With a click of his spurs the horseman lurched out of their grasp, just as Lord Amathur’s guards arrived on the scene. Rather than trade blows the group of riders thundered back through the throng of merchants and down the same back alley from which they had appeared, the royal guards in hot pursuit.
“Do you think they’ll catch them?” Tharol asked Golu breathlessly.
Golu didn’t answer, though. His eyes were locked on another scene, and Tharol realized that all the crowd had just gone deathly silent. Following Golu’s gaze Tharol saw that Lord Amathur had not joined his guards in the chase, he had slowed his run to a bracing walk instead, and was only now approaching the mass of huddled slaves. His smile was long gone, his face was steel.
“One?” he turned to the taskmasters standing silently on either side of the cowering prisoners. They nodded.
Lord Amathur reached down a hand and pulled one of the slaves up to his feet. The other hand drew his sword and in one motion and plunged it through the slave! All the other slaves wailed, but the price had been paid, no more of them had to be slain that day. Lord Amathur ripped off the dead man’s loincloth, used it to clean his sword, then turned and left without another word, leaving nothing but heavy, silent air behind him.
Tharol turned to Golu in utter shock and saw that the boy was just as dumbfounded as he was.
“What was that?” Tharol askedin horror, not really expecting an answer.
“It was something terrible, Tharol. That’s all it was.”
A few moments later and the crowd of merchants began moving again, but with a very subdued atmosphere now. No one dared to even speak above a low mutter. Tharol and Golu finished their business as quickly as possible and kept their silence the whole way back to the keep. Inol had been in a different wing of the marketplace and missed the entire drama, but after hearing a brief recounting of it he had the good sense to keep his silence as well.
Tharol was lost in his own thoughts, trying to even fathom what sort of reasons could be behind the scene he had just witnessed. He also kept wondering what sort of man Lord Amathur must be. He kept picturing him in that moment of advancing with such a cold and precise malice. He had never known someone could be so firm and so cruel.
Tharol was so lost in his thoughts that he even forgot about Inol’s plot to secure the Tinstin. It was only when they came to the keep’s courtyard and Beesk approached them, eyebrows raised in an unspoken query, that he remembered about the plan.
“Hey Beesk,” Inol greeted. “Help us carry the wine down to the cellar?”
Tharol and Beesk understood the cue, and together the three of them filled their arms with the clay pitchers and made their way into the dark underbelly of the keep.
“So? Did you get it?” Beesk demanded as soon as the cellar door was safely shut behind them.
“Yeah, I got it,” Inol replied.
“Well where is it?”
“Didn’t exactly want to be seen coming into camp carrying a whole sack of toxic compounds, now did I? I hid it.”
“A whole sack?! We don’t need that much.”
“Well that’s how much I was given.”
“So where did you put it?”
Inol nodded his head downward, towards the jug of wine he was carrying.
“In there?” Tharol asked.
“That’s right. All ready to pour out for Reis at the Night Watch!”
“An entire sack of poison in there?! That’ll kill him for sure!”
“Not all. As soon as I had enough in the jug I discarded the rest in an alley.”
“How much did you put in then?”
“I don’t know. Half?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a bit less?”
“Let me see that.”
Tharol grabbed the pitcher and jerked off the stopper. He gave it a deep inhale and immediately perceived a strong, bitter aroma mixed with the scent of wine.
“No, this won’t do,” Tharol said. “Beesk, hand me that empty pitcher. He took the vessel and poured the poisoned wine into it until each jug was only half full. “Now some fresh wine,” he ordered. This he used to fill the second half of each jug, then gave both another whiff. The bitter aroma was still there, but faint enough that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for it. “There,” he said. “That’s more about the potency we want. Let’s hope that Master Palthio doesn’t take inventory anytime soon.”
“But what if you made it too weak?” Beesk asked.
“I seriously doubt that…. Honestly I’m still not sure that this is diluted enough.”
“And we don’t need two jugs. We don’t even need one! Just a single cup. Suppose one of these jugs gets brought up tonight at dinner and we all get sick!”
“Good point. Let’s stow these in the back where no one will grab them for a while. We’ll have to get rid of them at some point after.”
“Aren’t you afraid of forgetting which ones are the right ones?”
Tharol paused. That was a good point. “We need some way to mark these, a way to be sure that they hadn’t been handled. And marked in a way that would be inconspicuous to all the other boys.”
“I’ve got it,” Inol said, and reaching up he lowered one of the lanterns from the ceiling. “Let me see those jugs, Tharol.”
Tharol handed them over and Inol tipped the lantern sideways over them, dribbling a few drops of wax between the stopper and the body of the jug.
“There!” he proclaimed. “A little seal. So small no one will notice but us.”
“Yes, well done,” Beesk approved. “And if we ever notice that the seal is broken…trouble.”
“I think if anyone opens either of these jugs we’ll know about it anyway,” Tharol sighed, laying the jugs in the back corner of the cellar and stacking safe jugs in front of them. “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t like this setup. There’s still too much chance that we’ll get the whole order poisoned!”
Inol and Beesk’s eyes narrowed.
“But I guess it’s the best plan we’ve got. I’ll go along with it.”
On Monday I spoke about a few of the different shapes that a character’s arc might take. I observed that I had Tharol slowly pursuing a path of suspicion and doubt when suddenly the rug was pulled out from underneath and he realized that everyone else was coming to be suspicious of him instead. Then he went from curious to dejected, numbly going through his days with as little feeling as possible.
Now he has entered a new arc, leaning much more heavily into his relationship with the order’s more unsavory characters. Of course he cannot really rely on these pretend friends. As previously implied, he will only grow more and more isolated until he is totally alone.
For now, though, I want to turn my attention to a particular scene in this chapter, the one where Tharol and Golu witness Lord Amathur’s procession and the riders coming to free the slaves.
I got so far in the scene as Lord Amathur walking through the crowd and saluting the merchants, but then came to a dead stop. I knew the second half of this scene needed something that would portray Lord Amathur in a villainous light, but each time I tried to write it I kept running it into the most bland of clichés. Usually some variation of an innocent passerby crossing Lord Amathur on something trivial and Amathur letting out his rage on them in a moment of disproportionate violence. A thoroughly overused and unimaginative scene if there ever was one.
All too often writers fall back on clichés like these instead of putting in the work for ingenuity. They craft a story through tropes instead of through original ideas. And as I just shared, I can certainly understand the temptation to write a story this way. I have experience that temptation firsthand.
Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to publish something so cheap, and I did dig deeper until I found something more imaginative. With my next post I would like to examine why it is that we fall back on cliché, and what we can do to fight the pull of it. Come back on Thursday to read about that.
The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.
At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.
But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.
So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.
What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.
We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.
This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.
But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.
There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.
Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.
But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.
Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.
The Sharp Turn)
There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.
There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.
To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.
The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.
At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.
And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.
On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.
And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.
Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.
Coming into December I knew that it is usually a difficult month for writing, given how heavy it is on holiday festivities. I was also afraid that if I started missing multiple days back-to-back it would be all too easy to give up on it entirely until the new year.
So at the start of the month I made a commitment to not have two days back-to-back where I didn’t work on the novel. A lofty goal…and I made it!
The days that I missed were the 6th, 12th, 21st, 23rd, 25th, and 27th. As you can see, at the end I started missing every other day as the festivities ramped up, but I successfully managed to sandwich each absence with at least a little bit of work before and after.
And how about that grand total of 25 days writing?! I believe that is a new record for me, and I do think it was directly due to this idea of no back-to-back days off. 4003 words written means that each of those 25 days was a little light, but that’s still the most I’ve written in a single month since March.
If you’ve been following my progress, then you know I have tried a variety of different routines to get the most out of my writing and some of those have been more successful than others. I’m pretty excited about this new no-back-to-back-misses approach, though, and will certainly be carrying it forward!
So here’s hoping for another great month in January, I’ll let you know in February how it went. As usual I’ll send you off with a piece that I wrote during this month. Enjoy!
Then begins the crafting stage. Of all the phases, this one is the most routine and repetitive. There are many identical pieces and all must be cut to exact length and precisely shaped, so that they may be bolted together in a perfect fit. And as the full quantity of these has already been tabulated, John has a quota for exactly how many pieces to construct each day. Like a machine his arms memorize the movements and repeat them over and over, parts flying off the table in rapid succession until the full tally has been made.
Of course he cannot completely assemble the pieces of the mill at his workstation, for then they would be too heavy to carry down to the river. Thus he forms them into as large of pieces as his little wheelbarrow can bear, then he will carries them down to the river and completes their construction on-site.
This transportation phase requires some adjustments to the wheelbarrow, though. A single wheel and two leg supports has made for a most agile vehicle, but it simply won’t do when supporting massive constructs of lumber. So he gets rid of the legs, adds three more wheels, expands its bed, and raises its walls. Now it is a proper cart.
Then he treks down to the river, one load at a time. It is not easy to haul such large pieces over such a distance. The ground, while relatively flat compared to the rest of the island, is still far from a paved road. Indeed John thinks to himself during the process that he will have to prioritize making some roads during the off-season when he has a spare moment.
But for now there are no spare moments. He is still holding himself to a rigorous schedule and he must make many trips back-and-forth, every single day. By his copious experience he knows full well how much strain is behind every numbered task. He knows the exact amount of work to be accomplished and the amount of pain to be endured, and he does not let his day finish until he has met both quotas.
There wasn’t much for Tharol to gain from ruminating on Master Palthio’s words, but he couldn’t help himself from turning them over and over in his mind. What had his master meant by saying he had made sure of Tharol’s failure in the contest? Had he formed the land such that the jump was impossible? Had he been involved in the deceit that Reis played on him?
If Master Palthio had simply meant to express a lack of faith in Tharol’s abilities he could have just said that. But he didn’t. He said he had made the missed jump happen. And he had told Tharol as much to put this worm in the boy’s mind, to make him irritated to understand the reason why. To make him ask himself all these exact questions!
When Tharol realized that he spat on the ground, right in the middle of the battlements as he marched his morning watch.
If that’s what Master Palthio wanted then Tharol wouldn’t waste another second on it. Let the old fool keep his secrets. The man was likely a traitor to the city anyway. Getting too close to his mind could only corrupt him. Better to keep his own counsel.
Not that he had much choice in the matter. Master Palthio stopped looking for audiences with the boy, even stopped making eye contact with him during lessons and training. He just cut off all connection at once and that suited Tharol just fine.
In spite of his professed indifference, though, Tharol couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when Master Palthio showed a special favor to Reis.
It occurred the morning after the competition while all the boys were gathered with Master Palthio for their morning lessons. At the end of the lecture Master Palthio shifted to the plans for the day, and when he came to the assignment for the night watch gave the same phrase the boys had always dreaded:
“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to me.”
The boys sighed and looked down.
“However…” Master Palthio continued and all the boys’ heads shot back up in an instant! “I have decided that in one fortnight the night watch will fall to…Reis.”
The boys gasped. All of them congratulated Reis warmly, and most of them expressed the feeling that he really did deserve to be the one to break that barrier for them all. Even Tharol made himself smile and offered a kind word.
Inside, though, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The fact that this decision came immediately after their last competition made it likely to Tharol that the two events were connected. Reis had won the competition and Tharol had lost. Reis was chosen to take the night watch and Tharol was not. Well, perhaps Tharol deserved the snub, but it was still a hard thing to accept.
None of the other students seemed to feel that Tharol had been looked over, though. Or if they did they never expressed it to him. In fact, much like Master Palthio, Tharol found that most of the other students didn’t want anything to do with him at all. A couple of them remained indifferent, but he could feel a strange shift in how most of them were perceiving him. There was a cold silence that started to fall when he entered a room, a refusal to meet his eyes in conversation, a series of extremely curt replies. Somehow he had been made into the most detested boy in their order and he didn’t have any idea why.
Or rather he didn’t have any idea until the next week when it was his turn to be Marshall over the next patrol. He had just come out of the armory and was crossing the road to where the line of boys were awaiting his instructions: Reis, Bovik, Janeao, and Avro.
“Everybody ready?” he asked nonchalantly, looking down at his waist as he buckled his sword on.
There wasn’t a response. Normally Tharol would have thought nothing of it. It had almost been a rhetorical question, after all, a mere formality. But once again he could sense a bitterness in the quiet. He looked upwards and all of the boys were staring firmly back at him…just not saying anything at all.
“I said is everybody ready?” He strained.
The boys nodded idly.
“I said is everybody ready?!”
“Yes, sir,” they returned sullenly.
“If any you are feeling discontent with the situation then I’m sure you’d agree we should resolve it before proceeding further,” he said officiously. “So what’s going on?”
A moment of heavy silence, then Bovik spoke up.
“I think we’d be more comfortable if someone else took command today, Tharol.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why don’t you assign an acting Marshall? You have that right.”
“Maybe if I was wounded, but I’m perfectly capable of carrying out my responsibilities as is!”
“Bovik’s right,” Janeao spoke up. “Why don’t you let Reis take charge?”
“Is this because I beat you out of the last competition?” Tharol shot back, deciding that as long as they were having this argument they might as well be honest about where it started. “Still sore on that?”
But to his surprise Janeao only chuckled and shook his head.
“What about you?” Tharol rounded on Bovik. “Would you be alright with Reis taking command?”
“Even though he knocked you out last competition?”
“Once I saw you making an alliance with Beesk and Inol it was clear how things were. Sure enough, you sent them straight away to bully Avro into joining your little regime, too. Reis and I figured our only chance was to infiltrate your crew from the inside. So Reis told me his plan to trick you into throwing away your crown and I happily laid down to a count of four and let him take my crystal!”
“Hey, come on guys,” Reis started to speak up. “Tharol’s Marshall today. We’ve always followed the schedule for patrol.”
But Tharol wasn’t about to let things go. “So I played to win,” he countered. “So what? That’s what we’re supposed to do. Is that why you don’t want me to be Marshall?”
“No, that’s not even close to why,” Bovik sighed.
Tharol held up his hands in defeat. “Then what is it?”
“You let Beesk have private conversations with outsiders even though it’s against Standard Procedure. And you took a bribe from him when we went to marketplace.”
Tharol was taken aback, completely bewildered at what Bovik said. But then it dawned on him that he had never told Bovik about the street thief he had left the money to at the market. All Bovik had seen was Tharol hand an empty money bag back to Master Palthio when they had returned that afternoon. And of course Bovik didn’t know anything about how he was trying to win Beesk’s friendship to learn more of his plot.
Tharol looked down, his anger slowly dissipating. He finally realized how bad he must have made himself look to all of them. “You guys–” he said softly, “it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.”
A heavy silence followed. All the other boys expected him to try and explain himself, but Tharol realized that would mean showing a hand he was ashamed of. He would have to admit to them that he had been suspicious of them, that his reason for getting close to Beesk and Inol was to find out who else might be a traitor in their midst. He couldn’t say it.
Tharol moved through the next few days feeling completely detached from himself, numbly drifting from moment to moment. The hateful feeling of the other boys was only a small part of his hurt. Far more was that he agreed with them.
How had he come to distrust his friends so? Where had he learned to assume the worst in them? Yes, they had always been undisciplined, but to assume that they were traitors? How had he given up faith in them so easily? They deserved better.
If anyone had been corrupted or tainted, it felt like it was him. He had let himself become cynical and pessimistic.
There was only one bright spot that remained for Tharol. Reis still supported him, even if only in private.
“The other boys wouldn’t understand if we were seen together,” he said during one of their secret conversations.
“I get it,” Tharol sighed. Reis wasn’t compromised in the eyes of the other boys and it was better to keep things that way.
“And while I’m sorry about your reputation, the fact is we found out exactly what we needed to. Avro, Janeao, and Bovik are sincere. I think we can be certain of that now.”
Tharol nodded numbly.
“And I’m still on good terms with them…and you’re still on good terms with Beesk and Inol. Look, I know it’s a terrible thing to ask, but we’ve just got to play the hands we’ve been dealt. Eventually everything will come out right. We’ll set a trap for Beesk and Inol, and once we spring it we’ll be able to explain to everyone your real role in all this. You’ll be welcomed back a hero! Think of this as your sacrifice for a greater cause!”
Tharol nodded. Reis was right, he still had a role to fill. Since he already looked guilty to the rest of the boys he might as well lean into that. He would keep tabs on the dishonest side of the order, Reis on the honest.
Now he moved forward with a singular purpose: to get to the bottom of Inol and Beesk’s plot. He kept watching for a moment where the two of them were isolated from the rest of the group, and he didn’t have to wait long. Just the next afternoon he spied them chatting together behind the lumber stash. He approached them and they looked up expectantly.
“Hey…can we talk…openly?” he asked.
They looked to each other. The same look they had made just before leaving him to defend their crystals in the competition.
“Yeah…” Inol said finally. “I think we can.”
“Alright well–I want in,” Tharol shrugged.
“Yeah, you can be in,” Beesk nodded and Tharol was surprised at how smoothly this was going!
“I want–I want to be part of whatever’s going on with that lady we met out on patrol.”
“Funny you should say that,” Beesk said. “Because we just received permission from her to bring a third member into our party.” He tapped a piece of parchment hanging out of his front pocket.
“Beesk, you have that out for everyone to see?!” Inol shrieked. “Get that put away!”
Beesk rolled his eyes, but he folded the paper again so that it was hidden entirely from view.
“You’re in communication with her?” Tharol asked.
“She leaves us notes in a notch along the outer wall. Honestly don’t have a clue how she gets them up there, but we check it every day. Send her our own messages in the same way.”
“Okay. And you asked about bringing me on board?”
“That’s right. Actually we made the request earlier because we were hoping you would be given the first Night Watch. Guess that didn’t pan out.”
“You want to bring her in during the night?”
“Yeah, it would be more secure. Everyone else is asleep then, right?”
“Sure, but…well, how have you brought all the other merchants in?”
“Just left a rope hanging over the wall during the competitions. No one’s keeping watch then.”
“There’s still the guard golems then.”
“Yeah, and Inol and I always be sure to set up our two side-by-side, slightly rotated opposite directions so there’s a blind spot in between.”
“Okay, fine. So why aren’t you bringing the woman in that same way? Why wait for night?”
Inol and Beesk shrugged their shoulders.
“It’s her requirement,” Beesk said. “She insists she’s got to walk in through the gates. Don’t know why. Probably afraid of falling off the rope with that big, stone head of hers or something!”
Tharol smiled at the joke, but was secretly mortified at how nonchalant Inol and Beesk were about leaving the entire gates open to a stranger. Their carelessness really was more dangerous than malevolence.
“So are you planning to wait for Master Palthio to choose one of us three to be over the Night Watch?” he asked.
“No, she’s impatient,” Inol said. “We want to move forward with when Reis takes the Night Watch. That’s when security will be the weakest.”
“But Reis is such a stickler for the rules,” Tharol pointed out. “I don’t think we can win him over.”
“Yeah, well, that’s why we’re going to poison him instead.”
On Monday I spoke of heroes who face their challenges alone. I pointed out how in the last competition Tharol’s support slowly dwindled away until he eventually he had no one. Then he was forced to make a desperate jump as his only chance for saving face. In that particular moment he failed, proving that he didn’t have what it takes. And that theme carried through in today’s chapter. Tharol is dejected and ashamed, abandoned by all of his authentic friends, forced to pretend an alliance with the more unsavory ones.
In short I am taking my time in bringing Tharol to his moment of total isolation. While it is a lengthy process overall, it has featured some dramatic shifts, such as in today’s scene where Avro, Bovik, and Janeao suddenly reveal how Tharol has made himself look to them. I was excited by the opportunity to take him from lofty and confident to far more friendless and depressed in a single, fell swoop.
It was a very dramatic transition to make, and I feel that that flair was exactly what was required at this point in the story. For some stories this wouldn’t be the correct choice. Some stories need characters that slowly push towards change until all at once they make a sharp turn. Others should go through several swings, back and forth, before coming to rest somewhere along that pendulum. And still others should remain constant in an otherwise changing world.
I’d like to spend some time exploring these different styles of character arc with my next post. I’ll look at examples of each type in other stories and consider the strengths of each. Come back on Monday to read about that.
Angels in the Outfield features a team and a coach that are all washed up, the disappointment of every fan who still believes in them. Then, in both the 1951 original and 1994 remake, the team starts receiving some divine assistance. Unseen angels interfere slightly, ensuring that a missed catch makes its way back into the mitt, an inexperienced batter finally gets a hit, and a pitcher’s wide throw curves back into the strike zone. The team starts to make some real progress, putting one win after another under their belt, until–to everyone’s great shock–they find themselves playing for the league pennant!
And in that game, the angels don’t show up.
It is explained that some contests have to be won on their own. And so the team tries to go it without the angels…and discover that they have what it takes! This whole last season they haven’t just been being handed victories by the angels, they have been being coached by them into discovering their natural potential. The angels were only training wheels until they could ride on their own, and in the end the team does win the pennant!
And really this does seem to be the fairest outcome. If the team had won the championship with the angels’ continued intervention it would have felt like cheating. In the end they needed to show that they could earn it, they needed to prove that they’re worthy of the advantage they had been given.
You see this same concept in The Edge of Tomorrow, later rebranded as Live. Die. Repeat. In this film Major William Cage is imbued with the unique ability to reset each day whenever he dies. This comes in very handy because he is in the middle of a war between human forces and invading aliens. Any time the battle gets out of hand and he dies, he simply wakes up before the fight, ready to try it again.
Slowly he fights his way through the enemy lines and follows a series of clues until he finds where the alien leader is located. This entity controls all of the other aliens, and taking it out would rid the invasion once and for all.
But then, of course, Cage loses his all-important ability. He receives a blood transfusion while unconscious which has the side effect that he cannot reset the day if things go wrong anymore. Not only this, but the army doesn’t believe his intel, so he and his team are going to have to strike at the heart of the enemy territory alone. They’ll have just one shot, and if they fail it really is game over for good.
Once again, this setup just feels the most fair. It gives real weight to the final encounter and it lets Cage and his team prove to the audience that they have what it takes all on their own. It shows that they don’t require a crutch anymore.
Discover Your Own Power)
Let’s consider a little more this idea of a hero standing without a crutch and learning for themselves that they have what it takes.
Consider the example of Aladdin in the Disney animated film. At the outset we see that he his a wily trickster, able to wriggle his way out of every tight spot. Throughout the course of the film, though, he comes to depend on the power of others instead; specifically the acrobatics of a flying carpet and the wish-granting abilities of a magic genie. He uses these to redefine himself and assumes the pretended role of a prince.
Eventually this impostor lifestyle leads him into trouble, though, and an evil vizier named Jafar manages to gain power over Aladdin. Bit-by-bit, all of the crutches Aladdin has come to depend on are taken away. The genie is enslaved to Jafar, the magic carpet is reduced to threads, and even his pet monkey Abu is turned into a toy. Suddenly Aladdin finds himself all alone, with no one to count on but himself.
And there, in that moment, he remembers himself. He is a trickster, not a pompous prince. And so he does what he does best: he cons Jafar into his own demise. It works, but Aladdin had to lose all of his support first to find the right way forward.
The Will to Do)
Another major reason for making a hero stand alone is to show that they are the only one who is able to do what has to be done. All of the Mission: Impossible films surround Ethan Hunt with a team of operatives, but at the end there is always one last battle that he has to fight alone. And it’s not because he doesn’t want to have his team working with him, it’s because they literally can’t keep up with his pace. He’s the only one standing against the end of the world because he’s the only one who can get there in time.
And sometimes it isn’t a matter of the hero being the only one physically capable of rising to the occasion, but being the only one who has the right motivation to do so.
In Glory, Colonel Robert Shaw is assigned command over the first black regiment in the American Civil War. Things aren’t very smooth between these men and their commanding officers, though. Years of oppression have raised a strong resentment in the slaves for any white leader, and on a few occasions they are given reason to be cynical of the Union’s promises. Colonel Shaw must even make decisions against his own men at times, in order to keep them from falling under the control of worse commanders.
Even so, Shaw’s pledge to lead and vouch for his men is sincere. His constant campaigning leads them to being taken seriously by the rest of the Union army and they are given chances to prove their valor on the field. This escalates in the final act when the regiment volunteers to lead the charge against a heavily defended fort.
Here the process of heroic isolation begins. First they march out from the rest of the army, proceeding alone to the assault. Then all the horses and drummer boys are sent away, unnecessary casualties that Colonel Shaw would rather avoid. Then the charge begins and one man after another is gunned down the closer they come to their target.
Eventually the opposition becomes to great, and they come to a stop, too petrified to make the last charge up the walls of the fort. Colonel Shaw tries to rally his men but they refuse to push up. There simply isn’t anything for them to believe in enough to face that last, great hurdle.
So he goes it alone. Sufficiently motivated by his vision of a better future he takes the charge against the enemy himself. And then, when he is gunned down, his regiment catches the fire of his sacrifice and finishes the charge.
There is nothing as heroic as a hero standing alone. It shows that true heroes are pioneers, the ones who are willing to go and do what no one else can or will. In the last chapter of The Favored Son I also made my main character stand alone. In his case it was not towards triumph, though, it was to a bitter defeat.
As I come towards the end of the tale, though, his triumph will ultimately be revealed. And it will be a very lonely one. Come back on Thursday as I drive the wedge between him and his friends still deeper, and pay attention to all the different ways I am trying to isolate him before the grand conclusion.