Very early on in The Matrix, we have established to us that the “Agents” are too powerful to be fought against. To stand your ground against them is to certainly die. Multiple times this idea is re-emphasized: “if you see an Agent…you run.”
And so it seems an unthinkable thing when Neo states that he is going to go back into The Matrix to free his mentor Morpheus, who is being interrogated by three of those very Agents. Neo feels that he must do this, though, because Morpheus has only come to this fate because of a misplaced belief. Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One, the being that is destined to save mankind, the only individual who will ever stand a chance of defeating an Agent, and also the computer overlord that they represent.
But Neo is not the One. He is convinced of this, and he cannot have it on his conscience for Morpheus to die for an invalid cause. If he were the One, he would be able to go in there, rescue Morpheus, and save the day. But he is not the One, and so he will go in there, rescue Morpheus, and willingly die to make the trade.
What Neo is not accounting for is that is exactly the sort of selflessness that defines being “the One.” Being “the One” is not so much about having an inherent power, as the ability to break preconceived notions and rules. The rule is “if you see an Agent, you run,” and he is breaking it. He is not running, which means he isn’t the run-of-the-mill side character that he thinks he is. By proving his non-Oneness, he actually achieves the opposite.
Which, of course, is a Catch-22. It is a rare thing for the title of a book to also be the definition of an entirely new term, but the idea at the heart of this novel is so engrossing and so succinct that it was inevitable. The story is chock full of Catch-22s, and it explains to the reader just what it means to be “Catch-22.”
It means a paradox. A very special situation where to obtain what one wishes, one must make the obtaining of that wish impossible. Yossarian does not want to fly any more suicide missions for the military, and he knows that he can accomplish this if he proves that he is mad. However attempting to be insane for the purpose of being thrown out of the military only proves how truly sane and fit to fly suicide missions he must be. If he were truly insane, he would undertake the missions with a cool head. Either way, he’s stuck.
This reminds me somewhat of a situation in the story Les Miserables. Here, runaway convict Jean Valjean has successfully created a new identity for himself under the name of Monsieur Madeleine. He has become known for his warmth and generosity, and has even been made the Mayor of a city. He has genuinely good intentions, and truly lives as a different man from the cold brute he was when in the labor camps.
Things become difficult for him, then, when his former guard at that camp comes to the city. Javert is initially unable to recognize the old convict in the guise of this refined gentlemen, but Valjean is still very careful to not reveal the truth.
Then, one day on the streets, Valjean’s deception is put to the test. A man has become trapped beneath a heavy cart. Monsieur Madeleine, the benevolent master, ought to try and help him, and Jean Valjean, the hardened criminal, has the immense strength necessary to lift the cart all on his own. But Javert is present at this scene, and if he witnesses such a feat of strength he will surely wonder where it might have come from. Valjean is a man divided. The only way to be true to himself is to condemn himself. Ultimately he rushes to the rescue, and just as anticipated, Javert realizes who this Governor really is.
The Tragic Wanter)
There is another example of this in the Disney animated feature Aladdin. Jafar has a terrible lust for power, one that constantly moves from one lofty goal to another. He is already the Royal Vizier, but now he wants to be Sultan. He becomes Sultan, but then wants to be “the most powerful sorcerer in the world.” Still that isn’t enough, and he craves the infinite power of being a Genie.
But as it turns out, while Genies do possess unfathomable power, they are powerless to control it. They are eternally enslaved beings, only able to flex their power at the behest of a master. Thus Jafar’s pursuit of his most enhanced self only leads to the loss of himself.
This, too, is the downfall of Charles Foster Kane in the Orson Welles picture Citizen Kane. The title character is intelligent and motivated, he possesses a winning personality and good looks, fate has even smiled on him with opportunity and fortune. He has it all, but he is miserable and distrusting even so. In spite of all his having, he is afraid of losing, and so he strives to have more firmly, and paradoxically it is due to that grasping that he ends up losing what he had.
Take, for example, his relationship to Emily Norton, and later to Susan Alexander. Each of these women is perfectly content to love him, but he keeps trying to buy their affections even so, to push them to greater happiness and fulfillment, smothering them until there doesn’t seem to be anything sincere left to their romance any more. And so it continues until each of the women that he has leaves him.
In my own story, I have written a character who has also painted himself into a corner. Julian gave in to a moment of temptation and ate extra portions of food that belonged to his shipmates. He assured himself at the time that they would not survive anyway, and no one could therefore condemn him for the crime.
But they did survive. Now Captain Molley has awoken, and Julian’s greatest fear is that he will be found out for his treachery. So he has lied, suggesting that Captain Molley has been asleep for a number of days, which explains why there are more portions of food missing.
As we will see in my next post, though, this lie will lead Captain Molley to give up on their search for the fabled Pirate’s Cove. He will assume that if they have drifted aimlessly for so many days, that any attempt to navigate to such a small destination is impossible.
Thus Julian finds himself in quite the pickle. Does he come forward with the truth, and damn himself as a food-thief? Or does he remain silent, and damn the whole crew to wander without any course? Either way he has broken himself. Come back on Thursday to see exactly how this will play out in the story’s finale.
“What?!” Captain Molley shot out of his sleep and looked about wildly, trying to make sense of what was going on. His eyes settled on Bartholomew slumped in the bottom of the boat, a small amount of blood pooled under his head. “What have you done?” he cried, and reached down to check Bartholomew’s pulse.
Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek uncomfortably and lowered his oar back into the water. “He was–he was taunting me.”
“So you brained him?!”
“I–I didn’t mean to. It just–I lost my temper.”
“No, you’ve been itching to murder him ever since we brought him aboard. You just waited for me to go to sleep, then killed him because you can’t stand him, didn’t you?”
“Captain you don’t know how it is!” Julian snapped. “Every day he sits there behind me, and every minute I expect to feel a knife slipping between my ribs. You take your rest and I have no one to watch my back!”
“And so you tried to kill him…” Captain Molley concluded.
Julian blinked at that. “Tried? You mean? He’s–“
“Still alive…for now.”
Captain Molley drew back from Bartholomew and levelled Julian with a terrible stare. He was silent a very long time, and Julian fidgeted a great deal, coming to the cusp of speaking a several times, but backing down each time.
“What am I to do with you, Julian?” Captain Molley finally asked. “What am I to do?”
“I don’t think–“
“No, let me think! If these were normal circumstances I know exactly what I should do. You’d be locked in the brig until we made port and then tried for your crimes. But of course these are not normal circumstances. We have no brig, and no promise of ever making port. No…this is uncharted water we’re in, Julian, and it requires a different sort of law.” And as his mind settled on that thought he pushed back his coat and ran a finger along the knife at his side.
“Captain…no. Don’t do this! I’m for you, Captain! I couldn’t manage with that pirate, but there’s been any rift between you and I.”
“There is, Julian! There most certainly is a rift between us.”
“Only if you make it. I have no quarrel towards you. None!”
“And so you’d say do away with justice, I suppose? Never mind that you just tried to kill your own crew?”
“You were right, Captain, these are different waters, and we have to have different laws. But why not a more tolerable law? A kinder law! Why make it be more cruel? I’ve done wrong, I confess it, but let’s just wash it away and be shipmates.”
“Did you let Bartholomew’s wrongs wash away? Did you show a kinder law to him?” Captain Molley flicked the blade out of its sheath in a single, fluid motion.
“Please, Captain. Please!” Julian was on his knees, hands clasped over his breast, and sobbing.
“You’re not the messenger of a new gospel, Julian! You’re not here to give out grace and mercy! You’re just here to save your own, mean skin, and that’s all you’ve ever been about!”
“Help me, Captain. Oh help me!”
Captain Molley began rising to his feet. He was building up the hate in himself to carry out his wrathful justice. What would he do, he wondered. Kill the man, or only take a finger? But in his rising fervor he forgot his wound, and he carelessly let his weight fall onto the wrong side.
“Unngh!” Captain Molley cried, then collapsed backwards into the boat with a crash!
Julian bounded over Bartholomew’s unconscious body and landed by his leader’s side. The boat rocked precariously, but did not tip over. Captain Molley tried to push the man away, but his strength failed him. His face was pale and heavy beads of sweat wreathed his brow. Julian had the wounded man’s jacket and shirt open in a flash and saw the infected gash there, three inches long and entirely untended.
“Captain you should have treated this!”
“Didn’t–want you to know.”
“I knew, you fool.”
Julian reached out of the boat, cupped some seawater in his hands, then scrubbed it against the wound.
“Ach!” Captain Molley moaned in pain. He looked like he might faint at any moment. “Stop it. It doesn’t matter.”
“It wasn’t that bad of a cut, but you haven’t let it heal. It’s been aggravated with all this rowing and it’s getting infected because you won’t let it close up.”
“No, Captain. You rest. Bartholomew and I can–” Julian came to his senses and stopped before he finished the sentence.
Even amidst his agony Captain Molley couldn’t help but smile at that irony. “You brained your last hope, Julian. Now you need his hope and you’re all alone.” Then he lost consciousness, and Julian was all alone.
Julian blinked nervously.
A few moments later and he cut the Captain’s jacket into strips and bound up his side, then left him to rest in the back. He bound up Bartholomew’s head as well, and laid him out to rest in the middle. Then he sat in the front of the boat, faced backwards, took an oar in each hand, and started to row. It was all to him now, and humbled by his guilt, he was determined to do his duty.
It was a very erratic sort of rowing that he did, though. The man didn’t know how to keep a straight heading. Of course he knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but he couldn’t tell the difference between ten degrees and twenty, to say nothing of that zigzag pattern Captain had set them on. Had they been slanted a little east of their mark, or a little to the west? Julian couldn’t remember. Did he dare try to straighten out? What if he tried to guess but went even further the wrong way? Of course if Captain did recover, he would want to know how far they had progressed and in which directions, and Julian would not be able to provide that information.
As the sun started to set Julian realized it was time for his daily meal. He put up his oars and devoured his hard tack and salted meat in a single mouthful, then started to close up the bag. He paused before it was quite put away, though, and greedily eyed Captain Molley’s and Bartholomew’s portions. Would they ever be awake to eat them?
“Not now,” he shook his head. “Just not now. See what happens with them over the next day or two. If things don’t turn out well…there will be food enough then.”
He set the bag down, but he did not close it. And if one of them did die, which would be the better for him? Julian was ashamed that the thought occurred to him, and immediately pushed it from his mind.
Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.
But in all an empty ocean, with nothing else to distract him, it was impossible to keep the questions at bay. What were the pros and cons, then, if either man were to die?
It was difficult to say that either man was more valuable to him than the other. If they ever did make it to the cove and Bartholomew was still alive, then surely the pirate would try to kill him. The pirate’s long-term survival depended on not having Julian and Captain Molley around to turn him over to the authorities, to say nothing of the fact that Julian had just pounded him in the head!
Captain Molley, however, was no friend either. He had hated Julian from the moment they first entered this craft, and would not rest until justice had been served. And given their last conversation, Captain might not still be willing to wait until they made port to turn him over to the authorities for a trial. No, Captain Molley had a personal vendetta against him now, and Julian was very right to be afraid of him.
“I have no friends here. I only have me,” he muttered. He looked about him. Took in all the open, empty sea. “But only me isn’t enough. I can’t make it on my own. I don’t even have the strength to keep rowing like this any longer.”
The food bag was calling to him. He eyed it once more and licked his lips.
“It’s as much to their benefit as mine that I keep up my strength. If they were awake they’d tell me that I should eat. They’d say that I’m their only chance…. What will they know of it anyway? If they wake up and two days’ ration is missing, how would they know that they simply weren’t unconscious for that long.”
He seized the bag and reached inside. “Just one biscuit. No better make it two…. Well, if I’m taking a whole day’s ration of biscuits, it wouldn’t do to leave the meat, now would it?”
For a moment there wasn’t a sound but the crunching of the hardtack, the gnawing of the meet, and the slurp of him licking the crumbs off his fingers. Then the glug of the bottle as he washed his sins down.
“There. Far better. Now I can really work!” So saying he took the oars and began his strokes with greater fervor. He so continued for fifteen minutes, before he realized he had not revitalized himself nearly so far as he thought. He put his hands on his knees and panted, scared that he might pass out.
“It’s just–it’s just too heavy. One man rowing three? And in such a long boat? It just–it just isn’t feasible. And for what? They’re probably dead in a day anyway, and then I’ll have been carrying their weight for nothing!”
He looked over to the two bodies, but then shook his head. “Not now…give them a chance. A day. When they’re doing even worse in a day I can rid them with a clean conscience.”
But they were not dead, nor dying. Shortly before midnight Captain Molley stirred.
“What?” he asked no one in particular. “Who’s there?”
Julian had slumped forward in sleep, which he suddenly started from. “Oh, I’m here, I’m here. It’s Julian.”
“Oh…” Captain said slowly as his mind reclaimed its memories. “We’re…still on the boat?”
“Yes, of course we are.”
“Where are we?”
“Um–I’m not too sure.”
“Which way have we been going?”
“Mostly the same as before.”
“Which way was that?”
“You don’t know?”
“I–I can’t remember it just now. You don’t know?”
“I never knew. I just turned when you told me to turn.”
Captain Molley looked up to the stars, trying to make out the constellations. But his mind was still swimming, his vision was still blurry, and he couldn’t stop his pounding headache.
“I–can’t,” he sighed. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
And the men went straight back to sleep.
Neither of them were stirred by the sunrise, it was nearly midday when Captain Molley slowly woke. He reached his hand out of the boat and cupped some water to splash on his face. His head still twinged from time to time, but at least he felt more alert now.
“You there,” he rasped out. His dry voice nearly failed him, but it was enough to awaken Julian at the front of the boat, who rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then handed Captain Molley the bottle. “Thank you,” Captain Molley said after his throat had been refreshed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Not so well.” Captain Molley took in his surroundings, noticed the cut-up jacket bound around his side, noticed the similar binding around Bartholomew’s head. Noticed the two oars at Julian’s end of the boat. “You took care of us while we slept.”
Captain Molley looked down guiltily. “I know that I am a proud man, Julian. It would be a lie to pretend otherwise. But I am not so proud that I can’t admit when I have done wrong. I lost myself for a moment there. I still say you did wrong to Bartholomew, but I was intending to do wrong as well. I thank God that He intervened in both of our behalf.”
Julian didn’t know what to say to all that.
“Right…well…best we figure things out now. For the life of me, I don’t remember a single thing that was said last night. What’s our heading?”
“I don’t know, I was just trying to follow the same line we had been going at as best I could.”
“And which way was–“
“I don’t know. I thought you would.”
Captain thought for a minute, blinking quickly as he sought for the memory in his mind. “Well I don’t know. As things are now I’d say we’re a little to the east. Would you say we’ve been going a little east this whole while, and never a little west?”
“How far over would a little west look?”
Captain pointed his right arm down the line of the boat, then raised his left arm to point at an angle to it.
“Can’t say. I might not have kept it straight enough that it didn’t stray a little that way or the other.”
“Or stray a lot?”
Captain Molley sighed.
“I’m not a trained navigator!” Julian’s voice raised slightly. “I’m sorry Captain, but I did what I could. These were only estimates we had in the first place, weren’t they? So we’ll just have to estimate again.”
“Yes, we could, but with a wider zigzag to account for the even greater uncertainty. Much wider. And it takes more time to cover that wider arc, time that we already don’t have!”
“I did what I could!”
“But these are the facts all the same!”
Captain Molley’s head throbbed with his raising temper and he winced sharply. His hand flew to his brow, kneading it, trying to release the tension as he slowly calmed back down. “These are just the facts,” he said softly. Then, after another long pause, “And how long have I been unconscious?”
Julian was glad that Captain Molley’s head was in his hands, so that he couldn’t see how Julian chewed gnawed the inside of his cheek and braced himself for the lie. “It’s been three days.”
“Three days?!” Captain Molley looked up with incredulity, but by now Julian had molded his own face into an expression of complete sincerity.
“Yes,” Julian spoke like one telling of a great burden they have borne all alone. “Three days.”
On Monday I spoke of characters that are sincerely good, characters that are sincerely evil, and characters that only put on a face good, willfully ignoring all the unscrupulous things that they do. In the case of this story Captain Molley is moral and strict and he owns it, Bartholomew is devious and wicked and he owns it, too. But Julian has claimed to be virtuous, while also trying to cheat and abandon his shipmates.
As I explained, the characters that an audience will respect are the ones who are honest about their true nature, and they will tend to dislike those that are two-faced. Julian is the most detestable character in this story, though not because he has done the most detestable things in his life.
With this section I tried to have him retain his petty self-delusions, but also become a more sympathetic character to the audience. Though I don’t intend for my reader to approve of his eating the other men’s food, I at least hope that they’ll appreciate how hard of a situation he is in. They don’t have to condone his behavior to still feel sorry for him.
But, of course, his situation is only getting harder now, and all because of his own deceit. Now that he has done something wrong, he must now tell lies about how long the men have been adrift at sea. And this lie will have unfortunate consequences that he has not accounted for. He is going to be caught between the horrible choice of coming forward with the truth, and being killed by his shipmates for it, or else maintaining the lie to his own destruction.
This idea of a character having painted themselves into a corner is a staple in literature. There is something fascinating about the karmic justice of a person that is impaled on their own sword. Come back on Monday as we explore this concept further, and then again on Thursday as we see how Julian falls into his own conundrum.
One decade ago I served a mission for my church, and there were a lot of rules that we missionaries were expected to abide by. Our days were regimented out on a very specific schedule, we were to follow a rigid dress code, we avoided all forms of entertainment media, and we were expected to uphold a very careful image.
Some missionaries took the rules to heart. They sincerely tried their best every day to follow them to the letter. Other missionaries, considered them to be suggestions, and were known for being perpetual rule breakers.
What I found very interesting was that the strict missionaries and the lax ones would butt heads over protocol, but both sides still got along with one another as friends. Even if missionaries disagreed, even the lax ones could respect the sincerely strict, and the strict ones could respect the sincerely lax.
But there was a third class of missionaries, and these ones rubbed everyone the wrong way: the two-faced missionary.
There were a few missionaries that would put on pious airs whenever they were around our mission president, and then cut loose whenever they were in private. No one was able to respect them, because they were too slippery to really know who you were dealing with.
After observing this pattern, I have come to see that it is true everywhere. We can have disagreements with others, yet still respect them so long as they are sincere. But insincerity, or two-facedness? No one is comfortable with that.
The Slimy Villain)
Consider Tony Wendice from the classic Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder. The movie opens with him plotting to murder his wife, Margot Wendice, and blackmailing an accomplice into carrying out the deed for him. His watertight plan runs into trouble when his crony, Charles Swann, bungles the task, and ends up being killed by Margot in self defense.
Not willing to be defeated, Tony wrangles things so that he can instead frame his wife for murder, making it appear that Charles had been blackmailing Margot, and she had killed him in cold blood. This is, of course, a sticky operation, and Tony must deflect every suspicion of his own involvement. He goes to to great lengths to appear as noble to the inspectors as he can.
This has an interesting effect, because we, the audience, know that he is lying through his teeth with every word. And so the more positive he makes himself look to the other characters in the story, the more shameless and depraved he becomes to the audience. When he finally does get his just desserts, it is a very satisfying payoff for the viewer.
The Insincere Peddler)
Getting the audience to hate the villain by casting him as insincere makes sense. Interestingly, though, it is also possible to begin with a character that is slippery, and then transform them into the hero instead. Indeed, a common protagonist is that of the insincere peddler. This is a character who goes to great lengths to convince others of something that they, themselves, do not believe in. Their character arc thus begins as slippery snake-oil salesmen, but they can evolve into genuine believers by the end.
Consider, for example, Professor Emelius Browne in the Walt Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The man is a sham, who copies spells and incantations from old books, then sells them to any sap who is dumb enough to believe in such nonsense. He is in for a surprise, then, when one of his students, Miss Price, turns up on his doorstep and demonstrates that the spells work perfectly well for her and always have.
Through a series of adventures Browne begins to care for Miss Price, and also for the orphaned children under her care. He feels the pull towards family, but he resists it. Just as how he has dodged his nation’s war, he also runs away from this responsibility, ever remaining the shill.
But then, of course, fate intervenes and Miss Price and the children are captured by Nazi soldiers. Browne desperately wants to come to their rescue, but doing so is going to take a little bit of magic on his part. For the first time, he has to start believing in something.
He manages to pull it off, and it becomes the turning point for his character. By the end of the film he has supported Miss Price in her battle with the invading forces, pledged to be a father to the orphaned children, and joined the army to do his civic duty in the war. We didn’t care for him at the outset of the story, but he really does win us over by the end.
The Disbelieving Missionary)
Another fine example of a character who does not practice what he preaches can be found in the film I Can Only Imagine. This is the story of the real-life band Mercy Me, and specifically of its lead-singer Bart Millard.
Bart is desperate for success in the spiritual music scene, and is undoubtedly a very talented musician. But what he gets told over and over again is that he comes across as fake and insincere in his message. He talks about grace and healing, but is himself brimming with resentment and hurt. The last thing he wants to do is reconnect with his abusive father who wounded him, but it makes every song about forgiveness ring hollow.
After he has had his hopes and dreams crushed a few times he finally goes back to the skeletons in his closet, finds closure for past wrongs, and ultimately feels the very grace he’s been trying to sell to others. At long last his songs ring true.
These positive examples begin with the insincere and jaded, and end with the genuine and believing. There is a great cathartic satisfaction in that transformation, and the greater the dislike at the beginning, the greater the enjoyment in learning how to love these characters by the end.
Now in my own story we have a particularly two-faced character in Julian. The man continually attests to his own virtue, but shamelessly claws for every advantage that he can. This is interesting, because he is not the pirate in this story.
Bartholomew, on the other hand, is a ruthless cutthroat, but he has the decency to admit as much. He isn’t a worthy character, but we respect him for at least seeing his own flaws clearly. We may not approve of him, but it is easier to like him.
Captain Molley, of course, is the truly virtuous character. He has his principles and he holds to them sincerely. He isn’t a particularly warm character, but again we can respect him because of his being so true to himself.
I want to take these characters, their convictions, and do some interesting things with them in the second half of the story. Julian is not going to have an arc of redemption, this isn’t the right sort of story for that, but I do want to make him pitiable. I want to let my audiences remain disdainful of his slippery nature, but also feel bad for his plight.
For Bartholomew, I want to reveal a more slippery side than we have perceived thus far. Indeed, I want the audience to realize that he is no more sincere than Julian, he’s only better at hiding his second face.
And for Captain Molley, I want to put a few chinks in his armor. It won’t be that he is a two-faced liar, though, just a man under considerable strain, who feels his grip on himself breaking.
And so began the long tedium. Each man took his rest, the others continued rowing during the interim, and then all progressed forward as quickly as they could. Though each of them knew that the island could not possibly appear during these first days, still they could not help but gaze along the horizon, watching for any shadow where the sky met the sea.
And they saw nothing. Always nothing. Again, this was only to be expected, yet even so it began to weigh on their hearts like a stone. Every additional hour that the horizon remained stubbornly unchanging, the more impossible it seemed that it could ever be otherwise. Indeed one started to wonder whether such things as land and ports and the country of one’s childhood had ever truly existed. It almost seemed more likely that all their lives had been spent in this eternal sea, and they had only ever dreamed the existence of soil and grass and trees.
But then, a part of the mind would refuse that resignment. Then they would be taken by a flurry of fits, their limbs twitching violently, them pivoting about in their seats, and only barely stopping short of throwing themselves into the water.
“Calm down, man!” Captain Molley would shout.
“I can’t–I can’t help it!” Julian would cry. “It’s–it’s claustrophobia. I have to get it our or I’ll go mad!”
“Claustrophobia?” Bartholomew asked dryly. “Out here in the middle of the ocean?”
“It’s a claustrophobia within!”
And so it was. It was the part of the soul that dared hope feeling the grips of despair crowding around it, smothering it, burying it in the grave. And it would whimper and it would protest, and then, just when it was about to be extinguished, it would thrash about violently and refuse to go down.
“Laugh all you want, Briggs,” Julian shot back. “You don’t seem to think it so funny when the fits grab you!”
And so they did. At times they even came over Captain Molley, though usually he suppressed them to only a twitching of the eye or the trembling of the hand.
When the men weren’t having fits, they would sometimes suddenly leap to their feet, shield their eyes, and scan all the harder along the horizon. As if believing that if they could just stare hard enough, then they would will their refuge into existence.
Worst of all, on occasion they really did see something, and had a moment of pure joy, only to realize that they were mistaken.
“There! Over there!”
“It’s the shadow of that cloud.”
“But this! Over here!”
“A breaching whale.”
And so it continued until Julian finally saw a dark mark that could not be denied.
“It’s land!” he breathed. “As I live and breathe, I swear it! It really is land this time.”
“But–it can’t be, Bartholomew protested with a nervous lick of his lips. “We aren’t far enough.”
“You had it wrong. Hard to tell distances in a ship compared to rowing. We got there sooner that you thought.”
Captain Molley said slowly shielded his eyes, staring out at the dark spot in the distance. “I think it is land.”
His words went through the other two men like a bolt of lightning. He was, by far, the most grounded of them, and if even he could see the feature, then surely it wasn’t just another mirage!
“But it is very small,” he sighed. “Probably just a sandbar.”
“Bartholomew said it was a small island,” Julian suggested enthusiastically.
“Not that small,” Bartholomew shook his head. “No, that isn’t our cove, but it might be something else. Even if it is just a sandbar, then perhaps there’s a larger breach somewhere near by.”
“That’s our best chance,” Captain Molley agreed. “Just make sure you don’t run us into any shallow reefs. We haven’t the strength to be dragging this boat over shoals.”
Yet in this moment they found strength that they didn’t know they still had. All of them, even Captain Molley, began to row with a fervor.
Julian, in the front, leaned forward, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the distant mark. He watched for it to grow larger and larger, and his expression grew dourer and dourer as it did not. Rather it felt as if the closer they got, the smaller it became, and the hopes of finding trees and shade and food and fresh water began to be crushed in him.
Captain Molley, in the back, didn’t watch the nearing shore at all. He knew it would not be a place for refuge. Instead he looked beyond, scanning for any sign of a larger landmass yet to come. But he saw no birds taking wing, saw no dark smudge on the horizon, saw no change in the color of the water. He quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that there was nothing else here.
Bartholomew, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed with his two companions. His eyes flitted forward towards Julian, back to the Captain, trying to read their expressions. Were they dejected? Were they angry? He knew that he was still the odd one out in this crew, the one most likely to be targeted if violence broke out. And there was no telling what would break out when men grew desperate.
And then, at last, the ship scraped sand and Julian flung himself over the edge. Bartholomew and Captain Molley followed more reservedly.
The sandbar barely even lifted itself above the water level. Their feet splashed in the water, then squelched along the damp shoreline. Not a single plant grew in the eight feet of bare earth, and then everything gave way back to the water.
“There must be–somewhere else out there–” Julian pirouetted to look in every direction for another breach of land.
“There’s nothing,” Captain Molley said with finality.
“No,” Julian gasped, and clenched his fists while salty tears flowed to his scraggly beard.
“The pirate’s cove is so valuable a secret because it is the only one like it in the entire sector,” Bartholomew stressed. “That’s the one we have to watch out for, and when I see it, I will know it.”
Julian rounded on him like a wounded animal. “Is there really any cove?!”
“What? Of course! So because there wasn’t anything here…that has you thinking that I’m lying?”
Something about that answer stirred Captain Molley the wrong way. “Bartholomew,” he said slowly, “these are not uncharted waters, you know. The trade line is a profitable course, it has been sailed by many ships, at many variations. It seems a strange thing that this cove of yours would have escaped their net.”
“Aye, well, like I said, not worth the ink. Maybe it was seen–once or twice–but no one would have thought anything of it.”
“Not even if they saw one of your pirate ships docked against it?”
“It’s not like we stay there very long. And when we do dock we have a little inlet that we hide the boat in. You could barely make it out in the shadows.”
He said it all with such a refined clarity and confidence. His voice suggested that he was entirely unconcerned with this line of interrogation, yet his eyes shifted about from one man to the other, constantly calculating the situation.
“Let’s leave him here,” Julian moaned to Captain Molley. “You’ve said it yourself, you don’t trust him and I don’t either. Aren’t things bad enough as they are, without worrying about him taking us on some random goose chase?”
“Why would I being lying to you?!” Bartholomew protested. “It doesn’t do anything for me! If the cove didn’t exist it would have been in my own best interest to keep rowing up the trade route, too!”
“No, because you know we’d turn you in as a pirate, and they’d send you to the noose!”
“In which case I would still live longer and die more quickly than suffering out here at sea!”
“No one is being left behind,” Captain Molley stressed. “We’ve had to leave behind too many already.”
And he said nothing more on the matter, he just turned and made his way back to the boat. As he lifted himself into the vessel he gave a sudden groan, and his hand flew to his side. Almost immediately he righted himself, and glanced over his shoulder to see if the other two had noticed. Julian’s eyes were on him, but as soon as he saw Captain Molley noticing his gaze he looked away. Bartholomew was already staring off at a distant cloud, and seemed entirely oblivious to anything that had happened. Perhaps too oblivious to be believed.
The men pushed off and continued forward with their zigzag course. Julian and Captain Molley still did not trust Bartholomew, but they had no alternative path to follow. In the end, even a doubtful hope from him was their best hope.
A few hours later Captain Molley took his turn to rest, and Julian and Bartholomew were left rowing on their own.
“So…” Bartholomew ventured, after he was sure that the captain was no longer conscious. “Where were you hiding during our battle?”
“What?” Julian snapped.
“When me and my crew was fighting with yours. How’d you make it out alive? Where were you hiding?”
“I wasn’t hiding, I was in the rigging with my mates, getting up a bit of canvas that your grapeshot had snapped the lines of. The sail was just billowing about, messing up all of Captain’s maneuverings.”
“Ah, but why are you still here then, but your mates who were helping you in the rigging are not?”
“Their misfortune. Why? Where were you?”
“By the time our captain said to board I already knew the cause was lost. So when I found a moment, I ducked down with the barrels on our ship. Barely made it off in time before your Captain sunk her.”
“So you’re a coward.”
“That’s right. But at least I’m willing to admit it, unlike you.”
“Why I’ve never done anything yellow in my life! I’ve never even–never even–well I’ve never done anything cowardly at all, and that’s all there is to it!”
Bartholomew laughed coldly. “Let me give you some free advice, Julian. There’s a right way and a wrong way to tell lies. When you lied about desperately trying to save your ship up in the rigging, that was very good. But that bit about never doing anything cowardly? Please.”
“If you were smart, you’d just be quiet now!”
“And here’s the difference. A man can tell lies, but he has to know that he’s lying. He has to be honest enough with himself to know what he’s being dishonest about. You knew you were lying about why you were up in the rigging, and so you said it very carefully. Said it like you’ve been rehearsing it in your mind. But your testimony for never doing anything cowardly? You’ve convinced yourself that that’s actually true, so you try to speak from the heart…but the heart betrays you and chokes the words up.”
Julian looked daggers back at Bartholomew, then his eyes flicked past him to Captain Molley–only for an instant–and back again.
“Don’t worry, he’s still asleep,” Bartholomew smiled. “You know that he knows, don’t you? And that scares you. Well it should. You know he’s just keeping us alive now to finish his righteous duty, but if we ever make it ashore he’ll turn me over for being a pirate, and you for being a deserter.”
“Stop speaking…or I’ll kill you,” Julian turned his back on Bartholomew.
“So yes, Julian. I’m a coward and a liar, but at least I’m honestly and boldly so. You’re a coward and a liar, too, but you’re too yellow to be honest about it.”
Julian whipped back around, oar swinging through the air. It caught Bartholomew right in the head, and the pirate fell into the bottom of the boat with a sickening crack!
On Monday I spoke about characters who keep some of their information close to the chest, not even divulging their secrets to the reader. I mentioned that a major reason for this is to create suspense in the story, as the knowledge that there are untold secrets often builds anxiety in the reader.
In this story we have several layers of secrets. First there are secrets that characters are trying to maintain, but failing utterly to do so. Consider the fact that Captain Molley is trying to conceal his wound, not wanting to betray a weakness to the other men. The audience knows what he is doing and so do the other men, but the fact that no one is talking about it makes it an area of tension between them.
A slightly deeper secret has been what Julian was up to during the pirate’s attack. Bartholomew is accusing him of hiding while his own crew was murdered down below. This accusation may not have occurred to the audience before Bartholomew suggested it, but hopefully it provides a clarifying insight to Julian’s behavior. In any case, the audience should certainly be skeptical of him now.
And then, of course, is the secret of whether the pirate’s cove really does exist or not. Bartholomew is untrustworthy, which colors everything he says as suspect, but that doesn’t have to mean that everything he claims is false. What will become of this tenuous alliance if the men find it? What will become of them if they do not? By not letting the audience know whether the island can possibly be found or not, they can’t anticipate how things are going to fall out in the end. This is my pivotal secret meant to build up tension and uncertainty in the audience.
Something else I want to touch on is how Julian’s attack at the end of today’s piece has him firmly pinned down as the villain of this tale, if he wasn’t already. Even though he isn’t the pirate, he has been the most shiftless and toxic of all three characters. Yet Bartholomew is certainly not a “good man,” and has probably done even worse things than Julian.
With my next post I’d like to take into consideration what it is that makes a character likable or not, and how to win audiences over to the side you want them to support. We’ll see how I have implemented these patterns in Boat of Three on Monday. See you there!
Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.
Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.
Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!
That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!
Flip the Script)
Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.
This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?
The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.
Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.
And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.
Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.
But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.
Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.
Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.
His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.
We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.
True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.
I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!
Days Writing: 10 New Words: 3060 New Chapters: 0.7
Total Word-count: 50,146 Total Chapters: 14
With July I decided to do things a bit differently. I got rid of tracking partial days and full days, I got rid of minimum amount to work each day, and I just made it a simple commitment to do something on my novel every day.
And, for the first half of the month, things went quite well. I wasn’t getting every single day, but I was getting more than half, and I was on track to have my best month since January. Then, in the second half, I once again stopped working altogether.
I feel more okay with my lack of productivity for this month than I did for May or June. Things have been very strained these past few weeks, with us getting our house up on the market, preparing to move, and an intense deadline being thrust on my team at work.
It’s difficult to decide the balance of “just get something done, anything, no matter how chaotic the rest of the day has been” and “have some understanding, it’s okay to get less done during hectic days.”
But rather than dwell on what didn’t get done, I want to relish the first part of the month where I was really working on the story. It felt so good. I feel like my changes in how to approach the work removed all of the stress, and left the pure enjoyment of it instead. I’ve craved that these past couple weeks, and want to get right back to it.
So I’m going to keep that same format for August, and hopefully I’ll be able to find a little more time in the nooks and crannies of each day.
Before I head out, here’s a little snippet from my work this month. Enjoy!
“Oh look, there’s some new flowers over there!” Clara suddenly points excitedly to a small cluster of black morning glories perched on the slope that rises on the other side of their stream. They grace a particularly steep portion of that incline, crowning a sheer, rocky outcropping that presses out of the green growth that otherwise makes up the hillside.
“Oh…” Clara says slowly as she regards the precarious position. “We don’t have to get those ones…if you don’t want to.”
Eleanor’s eyes narrow.
“I hadn’t expected you to be scared off so easily, Clara.”
“What? No, I’m not scared, I just–“
“It’s alright. You just wait here where it’s nice and safe and hold my bag.” Eleanor hands Clara the sack and then begins to ascend the hill. She goes up the gentle-sloping side until she is about level with the flowers, then moves sideways to the rocky face. The flowers’ ledge is a little more than two feet higher than her feet now, so she grips the rock face with her left hand, stretches her left foot up to plant it on the rocky shelf, then firmly swings the rest of herself up and onto the ledge. A few moments later and she has plucked a few of the flowers’ finest representatives.
Getting off the ledge is a somewhat trickier matter, though, as now she must step down onto the slanted surface of the hill. Clara sees her mother’s hesitation and quickly scrambles up the hill to be beside her.
“Here,” Clara says, “take my hand.”
“And send us both rolling down the hill?”
“I’ll be firm.”
Clara plants her feet squarely, and keeps her hand out until Eleanor concedes. The maneuver is made simply enough, and the two quickly ascend to the top of the incline.
“Weren’t you frightened, mother?”
“But—but then why did you go up there in the first place?”
“Because you thought I was frightened.”
“But you just said that you were! And I knew you were the whole time, even though you pretended not to be!”
Clara’s tone is frustrated and chiding, and Eleanor cannot help but laugh.
“I’m sorry, Clara, you’re absolutely right. It was silly of me, but…well, I don’t know…I suppose it’s just a hard thing for a parent to let their child know when they need help.”
Julian shook his head firmly. “I don’t trust him, Captain. I don’t trust this man at all!”
“No, I don’t trust him, either,” Captain Molley sighed. “But frankly, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Though I may not like it…he did surrender to us. Maritime law is very clear that he is now under our protection.”
“You can’t be serious!”
Captain ignored Julian, and spoke instead to the pirate. “Tell me, man, what is your name?”
“Bartholomew,” the pirate bowed his head. “Bartholomew Briggs. And…thank you Captain…for speaking up for me. I don’t know many that would.”
“Could you even speak up for yourself, Briggs?” Julian shot from behind. “What would you do if you were in our situation?”
“I am in your situation.”
“No. Me and Captain have been together for nearly a year now. We are two-of-a-kind. We’re crew! You’re something different.”
“I’m telling you, Julian,” Captain Molley strained, “Bartholomew is now a member of our crew as well.”
“Captain, no! There’s a difference in this boat, you must see that! What would you do, Briggs, if it was you and your captain in this boat, and you had come across one of us in the water?”
Bartholomew shrugged. “I’m a pirate…I suppose I would do what pirates do.”
“There, you see it, Captain?!” Julian exclaimed. “We can’t trust someone like this!”
“Like I said, trust has nothing to do with it.”
“Has nothing–?!” Julian’s words were lost in his incredulity.
Literally caught in the middle of the argument, Bartholomew suddenly gave out a wheezing laugh.
“What are you doing that for?” Julian snapped.
“Just the irony of it all.”
“Oh, you say there’s a difference in this boat. Say that I don’t belong. Now I told you truly, if it had been be and my captain who came across you in the water, we would have cut your throat and been on our way.”
“Where’s the irony in that?”
“Why it’s the very same thing you want to do with me now, isn’t it? Seems you and I have a lot in common, Julian, quite a lot, indeed. In fact there is a difference in this crew, you’re right about that. But it’s that your Captain here is the only one of us who has any honor.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Julian spat. He stared darkly into the water for a time, then looked up to Captain Molley with deep anger. “Captain…I’ll never be able to forgive you for this.”
Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed, trying to discern the full weight of what Julian meant by that. He held the gaze for a few moments, then turned back to Bartholomew.
“What you have told us–about the pirate’s cove–this is true? You swear it?”
“What good would it do me to lie? I might as well die now, than deceive you and die later.”
“Do you swear it?”
“Yes, alright then. I swear it.”
“Well then, what is our bearing?”
Bartholomew craned around in his seat, his hands moving in front of his face, tracing lines on an invisible map.
“Well–I didn’t keep the charts myself,” he said nervously. “But–we’re about…a hundred miles southwest of Isla Barro? Yes?”
Captain Molley lowered his forehead to his hands and sighed heavily. Julian was far less reserved.
“You don’t know?! You really don’t know?! You’re planning to lead us back in with your best guess?!”
“I’m a sailor, not a navigator!” Bartholomew shot back. “You could do better, Julian?”
“Have you even seen a map of it?” Captain Molley asked pointedly.
“I’ve seen maps, and I know where it would be on the map, but obviously we don’t inscribe the mark where just anyone can see! Imagine if that canvas fell into the wrong hands! No, we keep it in our heads.”
Captain Molley reached into his coat and pulled a damp piece of parchment from one of his pockets.
“Show me that you know where we are.”
“Without a pen?”
“I have no pen. But trace things out with your finger, and I’ll follow along. To answer your question, we are two hundred miles south-by-southwest of Isla Barro. So what would that look like?”
Bartholomew swallowed and hovered his finger over the paper for a long while.
“It’s–it’s like–so, Isla Barro would be here, of course, in this corner. And we would be here…he drew a line down and slightly to the left.”
“Well at least he knows how a compass works,” Julian remarked sarcastically.
“Now the surrounding area,” Captain Molley urged.
“And–so– Venezuela is down here…a way’s. And Tartina is a bit up here, between us and Isla Barro. And Isla Veo is here, a bit before that.”
He rattled off a few more ports, common ones, in sequence heading back from where they were now, moving north-by-northeast, until he got back to Isla Barrow.
“And what is down here?” Captain Molley asked, prodding the paper further south-by-southwest.
“That’s–um–that’s Mina Terna? Or else Port Stephens?”
Captain Molley was dejected. “Because those were the two next ports that you heard your captain discussing berthing in.”
Bartholomew frowned and blinked quickly, as if he didn’t understand the accusation.
“You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you were headed. You only know where you’ve been, the line of ports your crew stopped in from Isla Barro to here.” Captain Molley traced his finger over the few places that Bartholomew had made mention of. “You don’t know the broader waters at all!”
“Can you tell me one thing that isn’t on this main line here? Anything that isn’t just reciting the last three weeks of your course?”
Bartholomew paused for a long while again. “Venezuela is…down this way,” he offered sheepishly.
“No!” he cried. “Not useless. That cove I was telling you about, it’s back along the way we’ve come. We spied it on our way here, just a few days ago. I can get us back that far!”
“A needle in a haystack!” Julian spat.
“Well what would you prefer?” Bartholomew looked angrily back and forth at his companions. “I wish that I had a perfect tattoo of the map on my thigh, but I don’t! But what I do have is better than anything else either of you have to offer!”
Captain Molley and Julian quieted down at that. It was true. A needle in the haystack was still better chances than trying to move forward or back along their route, hoping for the odd merchant vessel to happen across their way.
Captain Molley sighed once more. “You just have to be honest with us, Bartholomew,” he said heavily. “We each have our part to play in this if we’re to survive, and we can’t afford to be holding secrets from each other. You have to be honest.”
Bartholomew nodded and tapped his finger back on the paper. “If we’re here, and Tartina was here, then the cove is…here.”
“Nearly straight north.”
“If your scale is right, seventy miles, against the current. How large is the island?”
“Maybe half-a-mile across? Small.”
“Alright. We move North, but in a narrow zigzag. Widen it out the further we go…cover a larger and larger area the closer we get.”
“But won’t that take quite a lot longer?” Julian asked with a tremor in his voice.
“Yes it will. You can be sure, we’re all going to get quite thinner over these next two weeks. But this is the best way forward.”
“Why better than moving for it in a straight line, then searching about if we happen to be a little off?” Bartholomew asked and Julian nodded.
“We will be off,” Captain Molley stressed. “Seventy miles? Without proper instruments? We’re blindfolded and throwing the dart backwards over our shoulder. I guarantee you we won’t hit a bulls-eye. And how would we know that we had now reached seventy miles and not sixty-five? Or eighty? And when we got there and saw no island, what direction then? Madly row due east, hoping it was there? And then when it wasn’t madly rowing back all the way back and continuing west? Spiraling in and out like dogs chasing their tails? No. We aren’t going to try and stick a perfect jab that’s sure to fail. We’re going to feel our way to it.”
Neither Julian nor Bartholomew appeared entirely convinced, but also neither of them could come up with as impressive of a speech as the Captain’s to counter his opinion. And so they lowered their eyes and made themselves ready for orders.
“Our heading…” Captain Molley pointed one arm towards the setting sun and moved the other in an arc from it until it was at a right angle, “is that direction. I’ll try to estimate our speed, and the amount of time we continue in this direction. When the stars get up we’ll correct course as needed, but for now we row straight.”
So saying, each man took hold of an oar and began their journey forward. As they did, the sun continued to sink in the sky, eventually extinguishing its flame in the eternal ocean, its last traces of light streaking out of the East, giving way to the encroaching night. Still the men rowed forward as dusk settled in, and stars began too peep out, and the onset of night fell on them. Still they worked. They worked, and they worked in total silence. Having no common ground for discussion, each was left to somberly reflect on how poor their chances were.
But though they did not vocally discuss how dire the situation was, each knew that that was where they other’s thoughts were. And every continuing moment of silence only reaffirmed to each man that the others were similarly being weighed by the poor chances of their situation. Indeed they communicated much of helplessness and resignation in their mutual silence.
What was there to be done, though? There might be a time for panic, a time for despair, a time for venting anger, but it was not now. Now was the time for waiting and watching.
It was Captain Molley who finally broke the tension. He pulled up his oar and set it across his lap. The other two men felt the greater burden of rowing the boat by themselves and looked back to him.
“We’ll need to conserve our strength,” he said to them. “We have to keep moving forward, but we have to have the energy to do that. We’re going to ration our food and sleep in shifts. One man rests while the other two continue rowing. Always two of us will be rowing. At the very least we have to prevent the current from undoing all our progress.”
The other two nodded.
“We’ll rest in two hour shifts. At the end of each cycle all three of us will row for six hours.”
Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Two hours of rest a day each?”
“Four. And twenty of rowing. Our bodies are going to break down over time. We will have to reassess that as we go along. But now, while we have our energy, we must do as much as we can. Make no mistake, this is no marathon. We must sprint if we are to survive.”
“A twenty hour sprint!”
“What would you have us do, Julian?”
Julian had no answer for that.
“We’ll let Bartholomew rest first–“
“Everyone will get the same rest, Julian. It doesn’t matter who goes first.”
“Let him go first,” Bartholomew gestured to Julian. “I don’t mind. I’ll go last. And I don’t need two full hours. Maybe one.”
“I’ll go last,” Captain Molley avowed.
“And when you do, Captain, might I suggest you move one seat further, to the very back of the boat. The better to feel if either of us was approaching.”
Julian and Captain Molley both narrowed their eyes and looked at Bartholomew suspiciously.
“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Captain Molley asked.
“What? You don’t think–? Well I’m sorry if I made you both uncomfortable, I’m just stating the facts here. Like I said before, Captain you are a man of integrity, one willing to endanger himself to save another. Julian–Mister Holstead, is it?–and I are made of blacker cloth. So when I’m sleeping and you’re awake Captain, I already know you won’t let any harm come to me. And when Julian sleeps he already knows you won’t let any harm come to him, either. But as there isn’t a man of honor to watch while you sleep, so best you should put yourself snug. Back where you could feel even the stealthiest of approaches. Is that–is that wrong?”
“Now you listen to me,” Julian breathed out darkly. “My wanting to rid the world of a murderer and a thief like you is one thing, but to suggest that I would ever do harm to a true shipmate?! There’s a world of difference in that! How dare you!”
But Captain Molley only looked down in contemplation. He did not share what it was he reflected on, but after a moment he quietly said. “No harm in taking all the possible precautions, though. I will sleep in the back.”
On Monday I discussed how many stories feature a sense of hostility between protagonists, where they must work together, but do not like each other. In many cases, they don’t even trust each other.
That is certainly the case with my current story, and nowhere is that more clear than in the last exchange of this section. Bartholomew wears his cynical views on his sleeve, Julian is very vocal of his distrust of Bartholomew and his disagreement with the Captain Molley’s every decision, and with companions like these, who can blame Captain Molley and his own statement of doubt in them at the end.
But of course, by affirming his distrust in the other men, Captain Molley weakens their ability to trust him as well. Now they know what he thinks: that they might kill him for their own gain. And knowing that he thinks that, it doesn’t take much to start wondering how his own sense of loyalty to them is being eroded. What if he were to decide the only to way to be safe from their betrayal was to betray them first?
There is a significant moment in this final exchange, the part where Captain Molley sits in silent contemplation before announcing that he will indeed sleep in the back of the boat. I actually knew full well what he was thinking about, that moment where Julian suggested he wouldn’t rescue a third sailor, even if it was a proper shipmate. I went back and forth about whether I should share that part of his thought-process with the reader or not. In the end I chose not to, and I would like to consider the power in leaving elements of your character shrouded. On Monday I would like to explore this concept more, and then we will continue our voyage of distrust with the third section of Boat of Three next Thursday.
Early on in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Jack Sparrow and Will Turner find themselves at odds aboard a stolen ship. Will Turner is deeply conflicted about working with a pirate to save the woman that he loves, and Jack Sparrow is secretly planning to sell the young man over to the pirates to aid his own agenda.
During their impasse, Jack Sparrow gains the upper hand, and has the opportunity to drop Will Turner into a watery grave. But then he explains that while he can kill William, he cannot man the boat on his own. And so he rescues his uneasy compatriot, and William realizes that it is the same for him. He may not like Jack Sparrow…but he does need him.
This scene is extremely entertaining in its own right, but what I find particularly brilliant is how it gives the audience the thesis for the entire series moving forward. For throughout the rest of this film, and each following one, the tangled web of begrudging alliances only grows and grows.
William becomes a pirate to rescue the woman he loves. Elizabeth pretends to love Jack so that she can chain him to the mast for the Kraken to eat. Governor Swann becomes a pawn of the East India Trading Company to protect his daughter. And Jack Sparrow…well he winds up manipulating anyone and everyone just to wrangle his ship back!
And all this makes for a very engaging premise. Knowing that every pair of allies might become mortal enemies at the next opportune moment keeps us eager to continue watching. Though the films have executed on that premise to varying levels of success, the premise itself is still strong.
Desire for Drama)
Why is this so engaging though? Why do we like to see natural enemies forced to work together? What is so entertaining about volatile compromises? Are we just old gossips that crave drama? Perhaps.
But I think that there is more to it than this. The simple fact is that a story where the characters have no tension is not a story at all. It is stagnant. Momentum only builds when there is friction for each scene to push off of, characters only develop if they are required to face competing ideals, and themes only become powerful when they withstand challenges. In short, if a story features no tension, then it simply states its opening situation, and then every following scene can only reaffirm that.
Of course, virtually all stories do feature tension, which comes in the form of a central antagonist, but usually that antagonist is not present with the main characters for the majority of their their journey. Much of the story, by necessity, will take place when there are only friendly characters present, in which case the only way to have tension is by sowing it among those friends.
Jack Sparrow and William Turner each have a central antagonist in the form of Captain Barbossa, but each is far more defined by the friend-enemy relationship they share with each other.
Tension to Build)
Of course, one should not write tension into a story just to write tension into a story. Do not make your two central characters hate each other simply because that is the thing central characters do. If you are sowing character tension in a narrative, it should be for a purpose.
The first possible purpose would be to have tension that is pushing a character towards their transformation. The character is going through their arc, and the tension is necessary for getting them to change in the way that you need them to.
Consider the example of Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. He begins his arc as a jaded scoundrel who openly admits to caring only for himself. He has to be goaded into every good deed by promises of wealth, and through it all he gripes and complains. He is adding a great deal of tension to every scene he is a part of, and it is tension that establishes how his heroics are forced and go against his natural grain.
And that is why the payoff is so satisfying, when at last he is able to run away from all this heroic nonsense…only to come charging right back into the fray, all of his own volition! It turns out that all his reluctance and moaning wasn’t him fighting his fellow protagonists, it was him fighting against his own conscience. A fight, thankfully, that he loses.
Tension to Break)
Of course, tension can also be sown to break apart unions. Perhaps two characters are able to set aside their differences when their interests are aligned, but what about when those interests shift? It is fascinating to read a story where each new scene might be the moment that the tension breaks into full-on conflict.
For this consider the temporary alignment of Gollum with Frodo and Sam. In their first encounter, Gollum attempts to murder the other two and steal the One Ring that is in their possession. He finds that they aren’t such easy prey, though, and overpowering them no longer becomes an option.
Now the tension begins. Gollum has to be near the Ring, his entire soul is wrapped up in it, but he cannot possess it while Frodo does. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam obviously cannot trust Gollum, but they do need a guide into lands that Gollum happens to be very familiar with.
And so an uneasy alliance is formed. Gollum becomes a member of their party, and the trio continue their trek towards Mordor. And all the while we, the audience, keep wondering when that union will break. We are sure that it will only be a matter of time until Gollum sees an opportunity to dispose of the two hobbits.
Opposite the example with Han Solo, the tension is implied, rather than explicit. For on the surface Gollum acts endearing and agreeable, he pretends that there isn’t any tension whatsoever, yet all the while is seething with malicious intent. Our anticipation for their fallout is finally satisfied in the horrors of Shelob’s Lair. In that moment Gollum truly seals his fate. He has proven the irredeemable nature of his character, and his eventual condemnation is assured.
Sowing discord among your allied characters can create intrigue for your audience. But more importantly, it can be an excellent tool for developing characters, and bringing them through a dynamic and changing arc.
In my current story I feature three characters who have a great deal of tension between them. They must work together as the sole survivors of a shipwreck, but also they are motivated to kill one another to preserve their limited resources. In what ways will this tension develop their characters and solidify their fates? Come back on Thursday to see!
A slap across the face and Julian snapped awake with a gasp of horror. In his mind’s eye he still saw the ship’s mainmast falling for him and his hands quaked in front of his face to protect himself from that phantom.
“Row, you fool!” Captain Molley snapped, throwing an oar grip into Julian’s trembling fingers.
Julian shook his head head and sat upright. All the world bobbed around him, and he came to the realization that he was in a lifeboat. Not on the ship, then? No. Evidently not. For there was the ship twenty feet behind them, mast broken and engulfed in flames!
Julian snapped around and plunged his oar into the water. He moved lazily, though, as if in a daze while comprehension still set in.
“Row, man!” the Captain shrieked from the back of the lifeboat, plunging his own oar earnestly on the starboard side.
Julian looked back. There was a chorus of cracking sounds as the ship’s wood, weakened by the fire, started collapsing under its own weight. The whole thing began folding inwards, and water was spewing out the portholes. It was sinking! And…Julian and Captain Molley were still so near to it that they would be dragged under in its vacuum!
“Captain–?” Julian asked in terror.
Finally Julian dug his oar into the water with earnest. The two men carved the water in a fervor, flailing back whole gallons of the stuff with each stroke. Their small craft lurched precipitously, bounding sideways through current of the ocean, threatening to tip into the drink any minute.
But they did not dare slow down. All the while they continued to hear the sounds of cracking and burning and spewing, all the while they tasted smoke and flecks of ash, all the while they imagined a chain about their ankles, pulling them back to the watery deep.
Then it happened. They heard a deafening roar of a frothing foment behind them, their oars skidded over the water as if it was glass, and their little craft lurched violently backwards. Both men lost their balance and slammed their faces into their knees. Never mind that, they simply sat right back up and scrabbled their oars madly in the sea, hoping against hope to feel friction again.
There came a loud popping sound, the water swelled back where the vacuum had been, and a long, tall wave lifted the men and their boat high into the air. Their hands gripped the edges of their vessel and tried to stay balance as they were rushed forward to safety. Death had refused their admittance today.
At last they came to a halt, and they rested their hands and panted heavily. Only after they had regained some composure did they turn around to see what remained of their ship and crew: naught but splintered beams and oil glossing the surface of the water.
“What–what happened?” Julian asked. “The last thing I remember was the mainmast falling towards me.”
“Yes, it hit you,” Captain Molley said simply, “and knocked you unconscious. Fortunately for you, you fell next to the lifeboat. I threw you in just before shoving off.”
“But–the rest of the crew?”
“All dead before I pushed off. If it hadn’t been necessary to save you…I would have stayed on the boat to go do with the rest.”
Julian shook his head in sorrow. He had been up above deck when things had started to go wrong on the ship, working the rigging while his mates had fought with the pirates down below.
“And the marauders?” he asked.
“It would seem that they did all go down with the ship.”
Captain Molley had managed to sink the corsair’s frigate, but not before the scoundrels had boarded his own ship, the Equinox. The pirate invaders, seeing that they had lost their own vessel, fought with a terrifying ferocity, desperate to take the Equinox for their very own. Somewhere in that chaos, a fire had broken out on their ship. It was that fire which had brought Julian down to the deck, just in time for the mast to collapse on him.
“Well we don’t have map or compass on us,” Captain Molley took stock of their situation, glancing about the tranquil water, as if half hoping to see his cabin chest ascending from the depths. But, of course, there was nothing. “We might as well accept the reality that this is a–delicate situation.”
The color drained from Julian’s face. “Just how far are we from land?”
“But I still have our heading,” Captain Molley continued confidently. “I know where we are, I know which way we’re pointed, and I know what we will do. We’re going to set ourselves that way,” he pointed northeast, “and we’re going to row back along the shipping route. If fortune continues to smile on us, we’ll find some merchant coming along the way.”
“So we’ll be rowing back towards…Port Smith?”
“Which port we left seven weeks ago?”
“We’re not any closer to the next port instead?”
“How much farther is it?”
“We can’t last seven weeks!”
“No. I did instruct First Mate Blythe to store a supply of food in each lifeboat, but what we have would barely last us a week. So we will hope to pass a merchant along our way. Or a naval ship. Or anything that we can hope for.”
“We will do what we can do. I have given you our course, now start row–” Captain Molley’s faced winced sharply and his hand instinctively flew to his side.
“Captain?” Julian asked in concern.
“No,” Captain Molley stated firmly and rose himself back to his full height. “Just a stray blow from one of those pirates, but I’m fine.”
To prove the point he took oar in hand and began rowing again. Only the slightest flicker in his eyes betrayed the pain that the action caused him. Julian saw it, but did not say any more on the matter. He simply turned and continued rowing.
They only went a few more feet when their attention was arrested by a flurry of splashes to port. A frantic voice rang across the water to them: “You! You there! Please help!”
“There’s a man there!” Captain Molley observed. “Turn to port!”
They turn their little vessel and quickly closed the distance. Just before they reached the sailor though, Julian slammed his oar into the water to halt them.
“Take no note of him, Captain, it’s a pirate!”
“No!” the floundering man cried. “You must help me! I can’t–I can’t–“
His head started bobbing beneath the rolling current.
“Let’s turn, Captain, he won’t be able to reach us if we row just a little farther.”
“Hold on a moment,” Captain Molley muttered.
“Captain!” Julian said incredulously. “You can’t be considering–“
“I haven’t decided. But this is a delicate…Pull him up. That’s it, pull him up. At the very least we’ll give him a quick death.”
“Pull him up!”
Looking like he would rather grab hold of a shark, Julian reached down and seized the man under the shoulders while Captain Molley leaned to the other side to balance out the shifting weight. A heave and a drag and the man was laid at the bottom of their lifeboat, in the middle, between the two other men. He rolled onto his belly and coughed water out onto the floor. Even after his lungs were clear he remained prostrate on the floor, limbs trembling for fear, half expecting to feel a knife between his shoulders at any moment.
“Look at me, pirate!” Captain Molley said sternly.
The man turned just enough to look at the captain out of the corners of his eyes. “Please sir, I surrender.”
“We’re hardly in a position to take on prisoners,” Captain Molley shook his head.
The pirate turned more fully to face the Captain and clasped his hands at his breast. Behind him, Julian was reaching for the rope coiled at the front of the boat.
“I am unarmed!” the pirate protested. “There’s just the one of me, and two of you!”
Captain Molley didn’t appear swayed.
“But more than that, I’m your shipmate now! Truly! You think I have any sort of loyalty to those back-stabbing pirates? I curse them!” He spat over the side of the boat.
“I’m far more concerned about your loyalty to your own skin. As soon as it was in your best interests, you’d cut our throats while we slept.”
“No sir! You can’t brand me the same as all them! Yes I’ve been wicked, to a degree, but never so cruel as that. I’m loyal! And here, you two are the only ones to be loyal to anymore. There’s no one else, it’s just us.” He gestured to Captain Molley, himself, and back towards Julian. As he did so he saw the length of rope Julian was wrapping around his hands. His eyes went wide with terror and he snapped back to Captain Molley. “We three are the crew now! We have to work together! You need me and I need you!”
“Not a lot of good you do us,” Captain Molley said darkly. “If anything, having more mouths is a problem.”
“I–I won’t eat. I won’t, you keep it all. I surrender, sir. I surrender to you! You have to protect me.”
The Captain’s brow furrowed, and it was clear that he was a man divided. All of his arguments against sparing the pirate went contrary to his sense of honor. With each pleading word his conscience was slowly being won over.
“Captain,” Julian raised his voice from behind, “this has gone on long enough. If he eats, we run out of food. If he doesn’t eat, he won’t have strength to row…. Honestly, even let out the fact that he’s a pirate. We couldn’t keep him even if he was another crewman!”
Captain Molley’s eyes flashed at that, and Julian realized immediately that he had said the wrong thing.
“Even if he was another crewman?!” he spat. “If you’d rather we make it two, then why not make it one?!”
“Go on, that’s the obvious next conclusion, isn’t it? Throw our prisoner overboard, then kill me off and keep all that’s left for yourself!”
“Sir, I never said any such thing! I would never attack you!”
“No, of course not,” Captain Molley said sarcastically. “Never even crossed your mind, I’m sure. Not that it would do you much good.” He pushed back the side of his coat and exposed the large knife held at his waist. Both Julian and the pirate leaned back. “You make me very nervous being my crew Mister Holstead. Very nervous indeed.”
All this while the pirate’s eyes had been darting about, weighing his two companions, one thought after another racing through his mind. At last he seemed to come to a final determination, and when he saw the opportunity to speak up he did so.
“Captain…I may actually be able to provide a solution. A way to save us all. I can see that it’s time to lay all my cards on the table….. So…you wouldn’t know it, but there’s actually a pirate’s cove quite near to here.”
“A pirate cove, a hideout for when we need to get away from patrols, or bunker down in a storm. It wouldn’t be on any of your maps. It’s a very small rock, not worth the ink, but bounteous in hidden supplies and refuge. We’re about–” he seemed to be doing some figuring in his head, “well, seeing that we’d be rowing, we’re about two weeks away.”
On Monday we spoke about stories that are built around a single, critical idea. They either begin with a compelling premise, or they build up to a single lynch-pin finale. In some cases they do both.
Wait Until Dark, for example, opens with a very strong premise. A blind woman has unwittingly come into possession of a doll smuggled with drugs. A trio of criminals descend on her home, intent upon getting it from her by any means possible. This sharp imbalance of power makes the story fascinating to us, right from the get-go. It is a strong foundation, one which amply supports all the twists and turns that follow.
But then, all those twists and turns are actually working towards a penultimate finale. Everything that has come before is setting up for the final confrontation between that woman and the lead villain, after he has decided enough of all the games, he’s just going to hurt her until she gives him what he wants. They face each other down in a battle of wits, in which the woman proves that she has been severely underestimated by these men.
The premise suggests a great imbalance, where the poor woman is helpless. The payoff rejects that notion of helplessness, and changes all character and audience perceptions in a single stroke.
In this first section of this story we see how I am trying to start things off with my own compelling premise. The idea is very simple: a noble captain, a surly sailor, and a cutthroat pirate are alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, tied together under the most tenuous of stalemates. The pirate claims to know the location of the only refuge for miles, which is the crux of the bond between them. This, I feel, is a very promising premise, it is a foundation sown with intrigue, strong enough to support all manner of twisting threads, character drama, and rising tension.
These men are going to have to work together, but they certainly aren’t going to trust one another. And that friction is going to continue building up until it breaks out in our pivotal finale. Hopefully this will result in a story that, like Wait Until Dark, has two all-important lynch-pins. One at the very beginning and one at the very end, with a rich and engrossing story laid out in between.
But before we see it through, I want to say a little bit about that tension and friction between my main characters. It turns out that this sense of a fragile alliances is a staple of story-telling. There has long been a tradition of characters being bound together by need, but also harboring deep mistrust for one another. The friction of having to be together, but not wanting to be, is a place we love to experience as an audience. Let’s take a closer look at why that is with our next post, and then we’ll see how I maintain that tension in the next section of Boat of Three.
Life is comprised of many moments, most of which are not very distinct from one another. Our arcs tend to be the result of a million different experiences and choices, which all compound gradually and imperceptibly. So subtle are the shifts, that when we pause to look back at it all we are baffled to know how we ended up where we are.
There are also very dramatic moments, points that hit with incredible impact, and that we immediately know will change our life forever. One that comes to mind was when my first child was born. A moment before he was only a person that I imagined about, the next he was an actual individual with a face and a cry, and who I would be spending the rest of my life connected to. Just like that I was a Dad, and life would never be the same again.
Stories feature both sorts of shifts as well. They have the slowly building moments that ever-so-subtly shift us from the beginning to the end, but also they have the dramatic scenes which turn the story on a hinge into an entirely new domain. Indeed there are many stories that come down to one of these single, focused ideas. A particular scene, or situation, lies at the heart of it, and all the rest of the story is either built as a foundation to support that key moment, or else is an edifice upon it.
First let us consider the stories that begin with a very singular premise, from which an entire tale springs out. These are stories that we can almost hear the writer saying to his friends “here’s an idea for a story…” and then gives the single, central idea that he will then riff on for all the rest of the tale.
One such story would be The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I can easily picture the studio executives sitting in a room during the Cold War, spit-balling different ideas, and then one of them says:
“Here’s an idea for a story…a Russian submarine runs aground on a quiet, American island. So now the Russian sailors have to go ashore and try to find help, but all the locals think its an invasion!”
“Golly, gee! So what happens next Fred?”
And the rest, as they say, is history. From that single germ an entire set of hijinks follow, one after another, running from one comedic standoff to the next. Honestly the plot of the rest of the film isn’t that important, it’s simply about having an interesting situation and exploring that space for a while until the end credits roll.
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is all silly, good fun. But the dramatic premise can also be utilized to build a story of deep significance as well. One year later Hollywood gave us Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is similarly built around a single core idea: a young, white woman brings her fiance to meet her parents before they are married. Her fiance, notably, is a black man.
This film came out at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, where the nation was still reeling from its new norms, and there was, of course, an abundance resistance to those changes. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dives right into that conversation, reliving the exact same discussions that were happening in real-life homes across the nation. By intentionally seeding itself with the most volatile premise imaginable, that of interracial relations coming straight into the home, it gave itself an ample foundation for all of the social commentary that the filmmakers wanted to deliver.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the stories that build up to a central idea, rather than emerge out of one. The creators of these stories seemed to have a very clear idea of where they wanted the story to get to, and then asked themselves what sort of narrative could lead up to that.
Consider the example of the famous short story The Lady, or the Tiger? The title alone tells us what this tale is all about: a very simple, but important choice. The key point of the story is to give the reader a situation, and then ask them what they would do in it. The situation is a bit strange, though. A princess loves a man who is in love with another woman, and now she must choose whether to trick him into his own death, or else let him go off happily with that other woman. Either way she loses him, the only question is in which way.
Honestly the rest of the story that leads up to this central point just doesn’t matter. It tries its best to justify the reasons for why this particular situation might exist, but the scenario still seems implausible. This is a thought experiment, pure and simple, and that’s really all the justification that was needed.
The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is an excellent example of a story that is already interesting in its own right, even before it gets to its lynch-pin twist at the end. That twist is far from just tacked on, though. It has been meticulously set up for, and without it the film might have been “good,” but not “unforgettable.”
This is the best use of a keystone point in a story. It is built on a strong foundation already, but then transforms the whole to an entirely other level.
With my next story I am going to try and combine both types of story cruxes. I am going to begin with a situation that I think is interesting in its own right, that of a captain, a sailor, and a pirate in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. From that foundation I will build out a story of mistrust, morals, and desperation. But then, at the end, I mean for it all to come to a head with a focused finish, where we see the key point that everything was building to. I’m excited to try my hand at something very tight and focused, and hope that I’ll be able to deliver a compelling little tale from it all. Come back on Thursday to see what you think of it.