The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is all about finding the happy medium. From porridge that is too hot, too cold, and just right to beds that are too hard, too soft, and just right, Goldilocks is on a mission to find the happy medium.
Which is ironic, because while she may not be too reclusive of a neighbor she certainly is too invasive! Throughout the story she fails to find that “just right” middle ground of being sociable but still respecting privacy.
Writing a story is often a balancing act between too much and too little as well. To have a well-rounded story one must ever be looking for that “just right” between two extremes.
The first story I ever wrote was for a school assignment. I was supposed to come up with my own idea of what happened to Henry Hudson after his crew mutinied against him.
In case you’re not familiar, Henry Hudson was an English explorer born around 1565. He, like so many other explorers of the time, was obsessed with the idea of discovering a naval route to connect the western world to the eastern. Like Columbus, Hudson took multiple expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean, searching for some body of water that would press through the American continents and into the Pacific.
For the last of these expeditions he decided to explore the perimeter of a massive bay in Eastern Canada, now called Hudson Bay (named after this same explorer). Though he scoured its edges for a passage to the other side of the continent, he never found it. Even worse, he spent so long looking for it that the winter months came and froze the water over, trapping his boat and causing his men to starve. One by one, the crew began to die.
Henry Hudson had been intoo much. Too little a sense of adventure and one would never discover anything, but too much and you consign your crew to a watery grave. Eventually the men had had enough and they sent Hudson and those loyal to him adrift in a small, open boat. Then the rest of the crew returned to England and reported their mutiny. Several search parties were sent to find Hudson, but not a one of them ever succeeded. To this day we do not know what became of him.
Which, of course, is where my school-assignment story came in. The point of the homework was to be creative and fun, our stories did not have to actually be plausible. My mind rushed with ideas until at last I settled on a story of Hudson and his men rowing to a nearby island, surviving for a time off of the wild, encountering a civilization of cannibals, and ultimately destroying one another by a tragic descent into madness.
I set down to the computer and wrote the entire thing out. This entire epic saga took me…four pages.
It was pitiful and I knew it. But I was young, inexperienced, and I really couldn’t fathom any way to stretch it out any longer. I didn’t know how to let a scene breathe, how to develop a character over time. All I knew to do was state one set of events after another, writing a story that was little more than a summary of a larger novel.
But in spite of the disappointing performance something had woken up inside of me. I realized that I had stories I wanted to tell and I was going to keep trying at it. Bit-by-bit I learned how to dress up my scenes with dialogue and prose. Several stories later I had a piece about a superhero that weighed in at 20 pages. My next story, a medieval fantasy, was double that. I then wrote a series in five parts, each of which came in around 40-60 pages for a combined total of 200-300. At this point my parents informed me I was now using too much printer ink so my next fantasy piece was a handwritten novel of 300 pages.
When I got to the end of that story I realized that while I had increased a great deal in volume, I had only marginally improved in quality. I cringed every time I looked back over the works I had written, scribbling out mistakes and writing above the line in miniscule pen like a school teacher. I realized that I, too, need to draft and iterate, just like everybody else.
And so I started a second draft of that handwritten novel…but I never got through it. My problem was not that I had too little ambition or desire, if anything it was too much. I couldn’t sit still on a single project for too long, not when I wanted to write so many other things. Too many ideas, too little time, no happy medium anywhere to be found.
It wasn’t until a few years after college that I decided to give storytelling another try. Interestingly enough, it was another school assignment that helped bring me back. In the opening lecture of an ethics class we were told that we must launch a blog and post on it every week our thoughts about the issues we discussed through the semester. These weren’t stories that I was writing, but I started to see the benefit of short, public posts. They were manageable, allowed the author to cover a plethora of different subjects, and could easily be adapted to telling stories.
To satisfy my continued appetite for story I decided to launch this blog three years ago. I determined that I would write each piece as fully-bodied as if they had been excised from a fuller novel, but they would be only chapters and introductions, a hint of something bigger, and then on to the next thing.
This approach allowed me to be both voracious and measured at the same time, putting time into detailed scenes, yet getting to try my hand at every genre. And this approach has greatly helped me to turn writing into a constant pastime.
Yet lately I have found myself lingering too long on my “short stories,” not only carrying them past what I’d intended, but also too long for their own good. Every creator needs an editor (whether internal or external) to focus the ideas into their most ideal form, to trim off the excess and leave the vibrant core.
I’m going to try and exercise that internal editor of mine with my next story. I intend for it a very simple, very straightforward drama between two young friends. It’s a story that should be bite-sized, at the very most two posts long, and I intend to keep it that way. I’ll go ahead and flesh out each scene, but the total number of scenes should be kept to a bare minimum. Come back on Thursday as I try to walk the line between too much and too little, ever in search of that “just right” medium.
“Alright, let’s get to it!” Mavis said, steering the Time Capsule down towards the train once more. “This is going to be tricky,” he grit his teeth as he phased the Time Capsule through the walls of the high security car.
“You can’t tether here!” Ellie exclaimed. “The Time Capsule is wider than the car. If we become physical we’ll smash it to pieces!”
“Trust me,” he said, calibrating the Time Capsule’s speed so that it maintained pace with the car. “Okay, Chase and Nell, be ready to take the wheel. I’m setting up a localized tether,” he explained, glancing up at the monitor before him. “Just a single burst that will connect a small section of the Time Capsule with the current moment. I’ll center it right…there” he pointed to a space of empty air right in front of the main control panel. “All of our air in that spot–and anything inside of it–will fall into the high security car. Starting the countdown now.”
“This is so Star Trek,” Chase grinned.
“No it isn’t, Chase. They don’t time travel in Star Trek.”
“They totally do!”
“Quiet! You’ve got to take the wheel now.”
Chase stepped up to the steering panel and Patrick, Mavis, Ellie, and Blackbeard moved over to the patch of space Mavis had indicated.
“Better hold on to me,” Blackbeard cooed to his raptors.
“The localized patch ends a foot off the ground,” Mavis warned the others. “So you’d better jump if you want to keep your feet.”
“What?!” Ellie shrieked.
“Jump!” Mavis ordered and they all leaped into the air. A surge of power coursed through the entire vessel, focusing itself on the area where the children and Blackbeard were now springing into the air. There was a dull popping noise as that patch of air was sucked out as if by a vacuum. Meanwhile, inside of the high security car there was a whoomph! as the extra air and the time travelers forced their way into that space.
“Yeah!” Chase cheered from the console as he and Nell watched their friends successfully enter the timeline.
“Nice,” Nell smiled. “Now get us to the back of the train and we’ll get into costume.”
And off they went while the rest of the crew began poking around the high security car. It was very dark, given that all the windows were shuttered and no lamps were lit inside. They could make out a massive, metal box in the center, though, which divided the car into four perimeter hallways.
“Ahh,” Patrick whispered. “It’s a safe. This is where they keep all the valuables that they have to transport.”
“But where be the time offenders?” Blackbeard asked the children in a low growl.
“Probably not here yet,” Mavis stated. “We’ve arrived before they showed up in this timeline.”
As if on cue there came a series of rapid popping sounds all around the room. Six of the time bandits burst onto the scene, each wearing the same armor as the ones from the other periods of history.
“Let’s get them!” Patrick surged forward.
“For history!” Ellie joined the charge.
“Quietly, please!” Mavis added as he dove into the fray.
“At them, my beauties!” Blackbeard ordered his raptors and leaped to the battle.
All became utter chaos as arms and legs and heads and bodies flung about in a tumbling brawl!
“Excuse me, ma’am. Excuse me, sir.” Chase was walking down the aisle of the passenger car, dressed once more in period-correct clothing. He now came to the row that young Abraham Lincoln sat on and he couldn’t help but turn his head sideways to stare the man’s profile. Lincoln had his eyes fixed on the back of the person that sat in front of him, but his eyes were unfocused, as if he was lost in deep thought.
Chase had not been paying attention to where he was walking and had just collided with a server coming the other way. Chase spun around just in time to see the man drop a tall stack of glass plates. He threw his hands out instinctively, barely managing to grab the stack out of the air before they shattered on the floor.
“Sorry!” he handed the plates back, then quickly moved away. He lowered to the nearest open seat, the one that Nell was already seated next to. “Whew, that was close, wasn’t it? You don’t think just that bump will have much of a ramification on the timeline, will it? Definitely would have been worse if the plates had broken though!”
But Nell wasn’t listening, she rotated backwards in her seat, attention locked on the conversation that Abraham Lincoln was now having with the man beside him.
“On your way back to Illinois, Lincoln?” the short, stocky man with vibrant, dark hair said to the future president.
“That’s right, Douglas.”
“To take up your law practice again?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Good for you, old boy! I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but the courts do suit you far better than the Senate ever did. Best favor I ever did was beating you in the elections!”
Abraham Lincoln sighed and looked away. “Well aren’t you gracious?” he asked sarcastically.
“Oh come now, Lincoln, there’s no shame in that! It’s just that some of us are born to interpret the law and others are born to write it. You’re the first and I’m the latter. There really wasn’t anything more for you to do in politics, anyway, you just have to play the role you’ve been given and be glad with it.”
Lincoln looked like he was about to retort, but then shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right, Stephen.”
“Blackbeard, over here!” Patrick called. He was hanging with all his strength to the back of one of the guards. Mavis had the same guard’s right arm pinned down, Ellie was restraining the left. Blackbeard dropped the guard he had been slapping silly and administered a massive haymaker to the one the children were grappling with, knocking him out cold. With that there was only two of the time bandits left, each of whom were entangled with Blackbeard’s raptors.
“Well this is going to be easy!” Patrick crowed.
“Reset!” one of the armored guards said to the other. “And bring in reinforcements!” The two remaining guards them trembled for a moment, then suddenly started moving in reverse. They’re bodies remained moving forward in time, but everything about them was happening backwards. Their armor became undented, their fallen comrades rose back to their feet, and they all returned to the starting positions where they had first arrived. Not only this, but there came another series of popping noises and six more of the guards arrived in the car.
“You just had to jinx us, didn’t you?” Ellie accused Patrick.
All of the guards surged forward. The children, Blackbeard, and the raptors tried to hold them off, but they couldn’t withstand the greater numbers. One of them pinned Mavis’s arms behind his back, another lifted Patrick high into the air, another held Ellie against the wall. Four of the guards restrained the raptors and another four…well…those four tried to restrain Blackbeard, but he continued thrashing around with them in a never-ending struggle.
Meanwhile the last guard pulled out a metallic briefcase and opened it. He began fiddling with its controls, configuring the bomb that rested inside!
“That’s their idea of being quiet?!” Nell hissed as she and Chase heard the ruckus coming from the high security car. “We’ve got to start a distraction!”
But as it turned out, there wasn’t any need.
“Oho there!” Douglas stood up next to Abraham Lincoln and pointed out the window to the highway robber that was riding out to stop the train. A moment later and the engineer turned up the speed, slamming everyone back into their seats. Several of the passengers screamed, and everyone was much too distracted to pay attention to the continuing thuds that sounded from the high security car.
“The engineer’s going to crash us!” Douglas exclaimed, gesturing to the wooden barricade.
“Everyone hold on to something!” Abraham Lincoln ordered, and a moment later the entire vehicle lurched through the wooden beams with a deafening crunch. Everything inside went bump! bump! bump! as some of those beams passed under the wheels of their car. Then came an even stronger bump, one that tipped the whole car sideways and was followed by a terrible grinding sound of metal on wood.
“What’s happening?!” a passenger shouted.
“Look there!” another passenger leaned out the window and pointed to the back of the car. “One of those blocks of wood is lodged under the wheel, we’re dragging it along.”
“If the wheels don’t have contact with the track then they won’t be able to make the turn!” another passenger pointed up towards a bend in the tracks just before the rails turned onto the bridge. “We’re going to derail!”
Blackbeard grabbed one of the guards and slammed him into the wall, knocking him out cold. But then came a trio of punches to his gut and even he couldn’t withstand all the abuse. He fell to his knees with a thud.
“Come now,” the guard who had finished assembling the bomb tutted. “There is no point in fighting against the inevitable. You’ll only bloody your lip and things will still come out the same. We are The Mass and The Mass is irrefutable!” And with that the guard pressed one last button on the bomb, starting a timer that began counting down from thirty seconds!
“You’re crazy!” Ellie strained against her captor. “You’re going to blow yourselves up along with the train?!”
“Actually, that won’t be necessary at all.” The guard nodded to the four who were restraining the raptors. Each of them touched a time-recall unit on their chests and disappeared with a pop, taking the reptiles out of the timeline with them. “All of us will leave, and you will remain with a bomb that you cannot deactivate. For you see, this bomb has already exploded, and that detonation is only traveling through time to meet the device where it currently resides.” He gave another nod and the guards holding Patrick, Mavis, and Ellie released the youth, then touched their time-recall units and disappeared with a pop. “So go ahead and look for a wire to cut, or a button to press. The deed has already been done, the detonation is irrefutable!”
“All of us are dead!” Stephen Douglas wailed in the passenger car.
“Out of the way!” Lincoln commanded as he pushed the man aside and leaned out the window in the back of the car. “We’ve got to get that block out of there.”
“Oh come off it, Lincoln!” Douglas scolded. “There’s nothing for you to do. You’re not a backwoodsman anymore, you’re a lawyer!”
“I’m not a backwoodsman or a lawyer!” Lincoln cried as he gripped the frame of the window, swung his legs out, and kicked the block of his wood with all his strength. The entire car shook and the piece nearly dislodged itself, but not quite. He gave another kick, and with a tremendous crash the car fell back onto the rail, just in time to make its turn. A flurry of hands reached out and grabbed the hero around the shoulders and hauled him back into the train, just as it turned from the cliffs and onto the bridge. “I’m Abraham Lincoln!” he declared as the car erupted into cheers. “And you couldn’t be more wrong about me Douglas. There is much I have left to do, even in your precious halls of government!”
The armored guard looked back to the quickly-dwindling time: 5 seconds left. He nodded to the other guards who were holding Blackbeard and they, too, disappeared into thin air. Only the one guard remained.
“As I said before,” he said as he touched his chest, “we are the Mass, and the Mass is irrefutable!”
“Only Blackbeard is irrefutable!” the old pirate snarled. Then he sprang to his feet and charged forward.
But Blackbeard wasn’t leaping for the bomb, he was aiming for the guard. He slammed the foe straight in the chest, just as the guard’s time-recall unit powered on. Blackbeard grit his teeth as he angled the two of them through the air, redirecting their fall so that they landed on the bomb just as the time recall fully energized. A slight ripple of blue light began to emanate from the bomb, but then it and Blackbeard and the guard disappeared with a pop, carrying the explosion to another moment in time!
Just like that…it was over. All of the children looked at each other with mouths agape.
“Did that–” Patrick spluttered in disbelief. “Did they–did we just pull that off?!”
“Blackbeard pulled it off,” Ellie corrected. “I guess his honest streak won out in the end.”
“Yeah…I guess was wrong about him,” Mavis admitted. He shook his head with a smile. “Hey guys, let’s get out of here.”
Mavis activated his walkie talkie to report their success to the others. Nell and Chase quietly slid out of the passenger car and back to the Time Capsule. They picked up Ellie, Patrick and Mavis, untethered from that moment of time, and sent the machine flying back to the present.
“Well I call that mission a success!” Mavis grinned.
“Yep,” Nell approved. “Impossible as it seemed, we’ve tied off every last, little thing.”
“Well…not everything,” Patrick interjected. “We still don’t know where those time bandits even came from. How did they have better tech than us? Are they from the future? But then why would they be trying to mess up history? Seems liked they’d be destroying their own lives as much as ours!”
Right on cue a massive alien spaceship materialized right in their own bubble of time warp!
“Humans!” a voice spoke through the Time Capsule’s speakers. “You have crossed us for the last time. The Mass is irrefutable!“
Mavis looked to the other children in awe. He was about to bark out orders…but just then the school bell started ringing. Recess was over.
“We’ll have to pick it up next time,” Ellie sighed, and with that the adventurers scampered off for their backpacks.
Well there it is, the end of The Time Travel Situation! There really were many things that I enjoyed about writing it, but honestly I spent a great deal of my time trying to beat it back down from ballooning into something much larger than I’d originally intended. And this is not the only story that I’ve had seen get bloated of late. Pretty much all of my recent stories have run away with me for far longer than I’d intended for them to.
But this hasn’t always been a problem for me. In fact I’ve had plenty of stories that were far shorter than what I’d intended as well. In fact one of the most difficult things for me when writing a story seems to be keeping things to the length that fits them best. I’d like to share a bit more of my experience with that in my next post, and perhaps I’ll learn a few things that I can bring into my next story on Thursday.
It might be all fun and games for the characters in my latest story, The Time Travel Situation, but for me this all serious work!
Actually, no, there’s been some genuine fun in writing this piece for me, but I have also covered a few important principles while working on the story, and now it’s time to review what all of those were.
The Work of Children)
Fred Rogers once said “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” I absolutely believe that this is true. As a child, everything in the world is new. New sights, new people, new emotions, and new ideas. And all these new things must be processed. They must be worked over and understood, they must be laid out alongside of one another to understand all of their joint implications.
Watch a child playing pretend and you will inevitably see ideas and words and feelings that recently made an impression on them crop into their narrative, working their way through the child’s mind and words, until at last the child feels he or she has a bit more of a grasp on the matters.
This is why I started off this whole series by stating that there are no rules in the play of children. There are no necessary elements of plot structure or character arc or anything else we typically expect in a story. Because children aren’t really telling a story, they are trying to have an experience.
And I tried to make this a guiding principle of The Time Travel Situation. While I did give it enough structure that it could still appeal to more mature audiences, I was careful to preserve the sense of children just wanting to explore all the many different things that fascinate them. Thus the story is full of sensory, exploratory, free-flowing fun.
Something Old, Something New)
And to be true to that sense of children working out all the new things that interest them, I had the children make references to real-world media and history. It just wouldn’t have felt authentic to me if the shows and games they were experiencing weren’t bleeding into their playing pretend.
I explained that I didn’t want to overdo the real-world media references, though. Just a quick comment about Star Trek, a quote from Star Wars, and the opening premise of The Journeyman Project. I didn’t want this story to be a vehicle for homages to media, I wanted the references to only be a garnish to the more original narrative I had to tell.
But more prominent than these media references have been the historical ones. For example I have made Blackbeard a central character, a true-to-life pirate that we can read history books about. But I actually made a conscious decision to not go and look up details from the actual history of Edward Teach (Blackbeard’s real name), because I wanted him to be a work of childlike imagination. He’s larger than life, the way a child thinks a pirate should be. The children know absolutely nothing about what he actually was or when and how he died. All they really know is his name and career choice, and the rest for them is pure imagination. I wanted the story to reflect that same blissful ignorance.
A Rush of Ideas)
I also mentioned how these real-world references were part of how I made different worlds overlap in my story. There is the world of the children, their world of pretend, and the worlds of the historical and media figures they reference. Part of the reason for having so many intersecting realms goes back to that notion of children trying to make sense of their reality and playfully combining them to explore their full implications. I wanted the story to show that the children had a lot of different things on their mind. They are thinking about things that interest them, they are trying to explore relationships, they are trying to find an adventure in life that is exciting. All of those themes come out in the things they give voice to while at play.
But naturally this led to a deluge of different elements, and I was anxious about it becoming overwhelming. I wanted it to be indulgent, but not to the point of excess. My hope is that audiences will be able to flow along with the rapid-fire conversations in the same way that one does when having a conversation with a friend. You shift from one topic to another effortlessly, shifting from work to family to personal interests on a whim. It may be chaotic and all-over-the-place, but you still leave feeling satisfied. Because you and your friend weren’t worried about turning your conversation into a three-act story, you were just trying to get a sense of yourselves across.
In my story I want it to be the same. Yes there is some character development, such as with Blackbeard’s change of heart, but mostly I just wanted to have a conversation with you about these kids and try to give you a sense of them through it.
Last of all I spoke about stories where the hero needs to surmount the villain, but also needs to retain their honor to the end. I put the children in a compromising situation, one where they had an unacceptable deal setup with Blackbeard. But I couldn’t just have them break their promise or else they would lose their dignity. Therefore it was important to have Blackbeard break the terms first so that they children could be released from their end of the bargain as well.
And originally my intent was for the children to now trick Blackbeard into his own demise, but I realized that that would still feel dishonorable. So instead I allowed Blackbeard to see the error of his ways and genuinely join the children’s cause. This should allow us to enter the conclusion with an air of positivity where everyone’s honor has been preserved.
“Nell, you ready?” Mavis hissed to his side. The two children were on top of the speeding train, crouched behind the skylight on the roof of the passenger car. On the opposite side of the car was an armored guard, seated with his back to the children.
“I’ve been ready,” Nell sighed in exasperation. “Are we doing this or not?”
“Okay, okay, I just want to be sure we don’t mess anything up.”
“Then don’t mess anything up!” And without further ado Nell sprang from their hiding spot and lobbed a metal plate she had pried from the top of the car through the air. It arced like a frisbee, sailing straight and true into the back of the armored guards. With a sickening thud it…
“…simply knocked him out and he fell off the train!” Ellie interrupted quickly.
“Hey, didn’t you say that the person who takes the bad guy out gets to describe how they die?” Nell accused.
“Then if you don’t want to hear what happens plug your ears.”
Ellie did exactly that, watching deafly as Nell spoke on and on, gesticulating wildly with her hands, flailing them at her side, wrapping them around her neck, and motioning a breaking-in-two. Then Nell mimed falling over sideways, pointed down to the ground, and splayed her hands out in front of her, eyes flashing and mouth moving with feverish excitement. Finally she clapped her hands together and gave what appeared to be the final detail of the armored guard’s epic demise. Ellie pulled her finger’s out of her ears just in time to hear all the boys exclaim in disgust.
“Oookay,” Mavis said with widened eyes. “I guess we move on.”
Just then Chase’s voice came rising from their walkie talkies.
“Hey, are you guys seeing this?”
“We got a rider approaching.”
Mavis and Nell shielded their eyes and looked across the plain. As Chase had said, a lone rider was quickly approaching the train, coming from the direction of the bridge. He was waving a red flag and gesticulating to a wooden barricade that had been laid across the tracks a quarter mile before the bridge.
“It’s a robber!” Mavis concluded. “He’s trying to stop the train!”
“One of the Time Bandits in disguise?” Chase asked.
“I don’t think so,” Patrick’s voice joined the walkie-talkie conversation. “I think this must have really happened in Abraham Lincoln’s past, just it never got written about in the history books. There’s more of those train robbers down here. They’re the ones that put the dynamite on the bridge. Probably what the rider is there to negotiate things with the engineer.”
But what exactly the rider had to say to the engineer was never found out. For right at that moment the engineer gave two blasts of the train’s horn and turned the engine’s speed up to its maximum! The locomotive lurched forward, barreling clean through the wooden barricade, jolting wildly as the splinters of it passed under its wheels. The highway robber was left back in the dust.
“We’re going to go onto the bridge!” Nell squeaked. “They’re not going to stop and the highway robbers are going to blow the bridge away! Have you got all the dynamite off that bridge yet?”
“We only cleared one side!” Ellie said in a panic. “Kind of got distracted!”
“Get the other side now!” Nell ordered. “Otherwise they’ll be picking their loot from the wreckage at the bottom of the ravine! We have to stop them!”
“No!” Mavis said forcefully. “Crazy as this looks, it already played out once before in history and we know Abraham Lincoln didn’t die here. We have to let it play out the same way here and now. Somehow–I don’t know how–but somehow it all works out. Patrick and Ellie, do not interfere with the bandits on the bridge. I repeat, do not interfere.”
“Yeah…about that…” Ellie groaned as she and Patrick watched Blackbeard deliver a spinning haymaker to yet another of the highway robbers, dropping the man off the bridge to join a half-dozen of his companions at the bottom of the ravine! As Blackbeard continued punching through the front of their forces his raptors slithered around to the back and attacked from the other side!
“Maybe it won’t matter,” Patrick suggested hopefully as he and Ellie crept along the bridge’s girders to its far side. “Maybe they messed up with wiring the dynamite or something. Maybe they would have blown themselves up instead, so Blackbeard taking them out makes everything similar enough that history won’t be changed.”
“We can’t take that chance,” Ellie sighed. “But I just don’t see how we can undo what’s already been done.”
By this point they were close enough to the far side of the bridge that they could see the two highway robbers who were crouching behind the boulders there. Running between them was the fuse that went along the underside of the bridge, connecting to every stick of dynamite.
“Those must be the guys who are going to set off the dynamite,” Patrick observed.
“I don’t think so,” Ellie shook her head. “Look, the fuse runs past them and up into that mountain pass.”
The two of them quieted down as the sound of the two robbers’ conversation became discernible.
“You think the boss is actually going to go through with this?” the one on the left asked nervously.
“I dunno,” the other returned. “He really thought the train was gonna stop. I don’t reckon he meant for it to actually come to this.”
“Well he’s going to go through with it, mark my words. I know Big Jakes and he’s never one to be made a fool of! He’ll gladly kill them all just for the spite of it!”
“Well that’s no good, we’ll all be wanted for murder! That wasn’t what I signed up for!”
“Me neither! I’m cutting the fuse!” And with that the robber bounded out from behind his boulder and grabbed the fuse with his hand, drawing his knife from its sheath.
“Oh good!” Ellie whispered excitedly. “This is why the train wasn’t destroyed in history.”
But then, all of a sudden, a rock came hurtling through the air, struck the robber in the head, and he toppled to the ground with a thud. The fuse had been left uncut!
“A-HAHAHAHA!” Blackbeard’s rolling laughter came from behind the children. “All the people in this time have gone soft!” The pirate was clearly thoroughly enjoying his little tousle.
“Not good!” Patrick exclaimed. “Get off the bridge!” The two children bolted forward, but they were too late. Whoever “Big Jakes” was, he had just set off the dynamite! All around the children was pure chaos as the bridge burst into a million splinters! A deafening, rolling explosion lifted the entire structure high into the air. Even Blackbeard’s triumphant face became etched with shock as he and his raptors felt the ground fall out beneath them. All together the children, the pirate, the raptors, and the tons and tons of broken wood fell through the air and down into the ravine!
“Reset! Reset Reset!” Chase screamed into his walkie talkie as the train hurtled for the cliff edge. The engineer slammed on the brakes, but it was going to be too late!
“Not yet!” Mavis clenched his teeth, sprinting forward along the roof of the train.
“Patrick and Ellie are dead!” Nell sprinted after him. “And we’re about to be, too! What are you waiting for?”
“We still don’t know what the time bandit’s play is!” he shot back.
Mavis had nearly made it to the front of the train where a high-security car with metal shutters sat right behind the coal car. It was the perfect place to for a time-traveling interloper to be hiding something.
“Mavis, we can’t wait any longer!” Nell cried out, and she was right. Just ahead of them the front of the train was already careening over the edge! It disappeared from view as it plunged down to its doom, followed by the coal car, the high security car, and the first of the passenger cars. Nell and Mavis held one another close as they went flying over the edge, their ears filled with the screams of all the train passengers plunging to their deaths!
“Punch it!” Chase roared into the walkie talkie.
Nell and Mavis reached for the control on his chest at the same instant. A strange, crackling filled the air while time continued forward another second, and in that second the shuttered windows of the high security car flashed with the very beginnings of a strange, bluish, ion explosion. But before those shockwaves could ripple out, everything froze. A surge of electricity coursed through the remote activator, shocking both Mavis and Nell and breaking the device, but it had already done what it needed.
All at once time slammed backwards, scooting the train back out of the ravine, pulling all of the splinters up through the air and reassembling them into a bridge, compressing the explosions back into their dynamite sticks, lifting one bandit after another back onto the bridge as Blackbeard moved backwards through their ranks, and chugging the train in reverse through the smashed wooden barrier. Chase, Nell, and Mavis changed back into their modern clothes and stepped back into the Time Capsule. The Time Capsule lifted off the back of the train, went forward and Ellie, Patrick, and Blackbeard jumped backwards into it. The Time Capsule lifted high into the air, surveying the scene in reverse, all the way until it reached the moment when it first arrived. Time reverted back to its forward motion. Everything had been returned to its prior state…except for the remote activator. That remained a burned-out wreck in its station. This time there would be no second chances.
“Never mind that, Blackbeard,” Nell was tutting in response to his comment about ironclad ships. “We had a deal and you need to have your mind on the mission at hand.”
Suddenly everyone’s eyes roved about wildly as they remembered everything they had just been through. They all looked at each other in shock.
“We had a deal!” Nell rounded on Blackbeard furiously. “You were supposed to take care of the mission!”
“You got us all killed!” Ellie added, hot tears splashing down her cheeks. “All of us! Even your own, slippery self!”
For the first moment the children saw something in Blackbeard’s eyes that they had not witnessed there before: remorse. The old cutthroat looked down sheepishly, not at all unlike a child caught in the wrong.
“Yer–yer right,” he sighed. “I messed things up something considerable before, didn’ I?” He regarded his boots a moment longer, then looked back up to the children sadly. “Iffen ye could find your way to give me another chance…I won’t be false with ye again.”
He held out his hand once more, this time without any spit in it. The children looked to each other, then each of them fit their small hand into his giant one and shook it.
“Alright,” Chase said. “So what’s our play? All we’ve figured out so far is where the time bandits aren’t.”
“That’s not true,” Mavis smiled. “Just before the reset I saw where an explosion coming out of the high security car. It was definitely futuristic tech.”
“Okay…” Patrick rubbed his chin. “So we land on that car with that Time Capsule, lock on, and pull it away with us through time. No problem.”
“Yes problem,” Nell shook her head. “Remember. This time the historical figures survive, which means they can’t witness something that will change the course of their lives. Like a flying time machine taking away a train car! We can’t get rid of some time distortions by introducing new ones!”
“Okay, so we break into the car and deactivate their bomb from the inside.”
“That’s better,” Mavis approved, “but still risky. We’ll be in close quarters, and we’re going in blind…but I don’t think we have any other option.”
“Then that’s what we do,” Ellie nodded.
“Yeah…and to your point Nell, we do want to be discreet…but , things are going to change here, that’s unavoidable. If we’re careful about it, though, it will be such small variations that they won’t make ripples of change throughout history. A small noise here, a little jolt there, everyone will forget about them by the time they step off the train and go about their lives as previously planned. The timeline will continue the same.”
“Fair point,” Nell agreed. “I think we’re ready then. How about Chase and I drop off in the passenger cars. We’ll keep an eye on the crows in the passenger cars while the rest of you take out the bomb.”
On Monday I shared about stories where the hero needs to defeat the villain, but it is important for them to not compromise their honor along the way. I spoke of stories where the hero battles with the villain, defeats the villain, but then leaves them alive out of mercy, only for the villain to perish by their own hubris. I also spoke about stories where the hero is permitted to kill the villain, so long as it is done in self defense.
I also mentioned that not every one of these conundrums has to do with the hero needing to kill the villain, though. Sometimes the villain is able to use the hero’s integrity against them, tricking them into a promise with hidden strings attached. The hero can’t just go back on their word, so they need a way to get out of the deal without compromising their honor.
This occurs in the Disney animated film Hercules. Hercules is tricked into making a deal with Hades, giving up his powers to protect Meg. Then the villain reveals that Meg has actually been working for him all along and was not in any actual danger. Even so, Hercules is required to hold to his end of the bargain, he can’t just break his bonds because he is the hero and must remain honorable.
Later, after Meg has died, Hercules makes another deal with Hades, desiring to exchange his life for hers. Hades agrees, though again he is trying to cheat Hercules. Hercules, though, is being perfectly honest. He genuinely intends to trade his life for the woman he loves. Of course this heroic act elevates him to the status of a god, turns him immortal, and thus ruins Hades’ trick. Hercules did not fool Hades, though, he was sincere with his intentions the whole way through. He can’t help it if fate happened to intervene in his favor.
Blackbeard similarly forced the children into a bargain that was sharply in his favor. They needed to get out of it, but I deliberately made Blackbeard be the one to break the bond first, not the children. Now Blackbeard has learned his lesson, though, and we’re ready to close out this story. Before we get to that, though, I need to pause and look back at all the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Come back on Monday as we reflect on those, and then on Thursday for the finale!
The final act of a story is where the hero has been truly converted to their guiding philosophy, and now they will trust in it to overcome the villain’s philosophy. Consider Disney’s animated film The Lion King. Simba has tried to run away because he feels responsible for his father’s death. But though he hides for a time, his royal calling comes back to him. He is convinced that he must take up his rightful place at the head of the pack. Thus he heads out to confront the villain of the story: Scar. At this moment Scar needs to be defeated. He needs to die so that Simba’s arc can reach its full closure.
But now the story comes to a snag: this is a Disney film, one that is targeted towards families and children. The idea of the main character killing anyone, even a cold-blooded murderer, is unacceptable. Simba has to show that he is better than Scar, has to show that he is capable of killing him…but then he needs to stop just short of actually doing it.
So what happens instead? Scar and Simba fight, Simba gains the upper hand, Scar asks if Simba is going to kill him and Simba says no, Simba tells Scar to leave the kingdom instead.
But rather than fade into obscurity, Scar throws some burning embers into Simba’s eyes and lunges at him once more! In self defense Simba kicks Scar off of the rock and down to a pack of hyenas. Unlike Simba, the hyenas do not have any halo to preserve and they are able to kill Scar without any moral scruples. Thus Simba proved his superiority over Scar and he maintained his honor by offering Scar a way out, but then Scar became a victim of his own malice.
And this is hardly a unique concept. Many animated Disney films make use of similar conveniences to get rid of their villain while preserving the hero’s innocence.
Consider Beauty and the Beast. Just like Scar, the villain Gaston tries to kill our hero: the Beast. Just like Simba, the Beast overpowers Gaston, but orders him to leave, rather than deal the killing blow. Just like Scar, Gaston isn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He later sneaks up behind the Beast and literally stabs him the back. The Beast cries in pain and flings his arm back as a natural reflex. The movement dislodges Gaston, causing him to fall all the way to his death. The Beast won in a fair fight, Gaston caused his own demise, and the Beast’s innocence is preserved.
Personally, when I watched these films as a child I wouldn’t have had any concerns about the good guy dealing a fuller measure of justice to the villain, but I guess the Disney executives didn’t want to chance it. Other studios have had to deal with the same issue, though, and some of them have found different solutions to it.
Shooting in the Back)
For example, take a look at the Old Western. The cowboy or lawman has to be able to outgun any bandit along their way and has to show off that expertise many times over. But we can’t exactly turn them into a ruthless murderer, now can we? What we can do, though, is have a lot of lethal self defense! So long as the baddies start the duel, it is okay for the hero to finish it.
And so it is that these films are full of scenes where the hero tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a volatile moment, but then the villain reaches for their gun as soon as the hero’s back is turned. Someone calls out a warning or the hero hears their movement, then spins on the spot and guns down the would-be killer.
This same idea of lethal self defense has been carried into many other films since, and remains one of the most popular ways to both showcase the hero’s prowess while retaining their integrity. And this approach has the added benefit of making the hero’s prowess shine all the brighter! Evidently they are so confident in their abilities that they can give every bandit a head-start and still finish first.
Consider the classic western High Noon. Here the sheriff is made aware that his old rival has been released from jail, and has arrived in town with three of his cronies. Now everyone knows that the four of them are here for the express purpose of killing the sheriff, but he can’t exactly arrest them (or gun them down) until they’ve actually done anything wrong.
So he sneaks up behind them and calls out their names. He won’t shoot them in the back of course, but he watches for them to wheel around and try to shoot him. Once they do, he outdraws them, taking out one of the bandits right off the bat.
There’s also the example of The Magnificent Seven, where Britt is egged into showing his speed with a knife. He throws his blade at a target at the same time as a blowhard shoots at his own. Britt claims to have won the race, but the other man disagrees and suggests they have a duel to prove it. The rowdy man even shoots at Britt’s feet and threatens to kill him right then and there if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. At this point Britt can’t be held accountable for what follows. It’s either his life or the other man’s.
This time there’s no disputation. Britt wins and the other man falls dead. Lethal self defense.
Of course not everything has to be a matter of life or death. In the last chapter of my story I had my protagonists forced into a promise with a villain that they needed to get out of. But I can’t have them just renege on their agreement because that would make them dishonorable. Thus it was the villain that had to break his contract first, freeing the children to let go of their end as well.
All was chaos once more as pirate and children chased each other all about the Time Capsule. Blackbeard was a more persistent predator than the raptors, though, far less prone to being distracted. Despite the children’s efforts best efforts he soon had Patrick by the scruff of his neck.
“Alright then!” he roared. “All of ye will be calming down now, ‘less you want any harm to come to yer crewmate here!”
Mavis, Chase, Nell, and Ellie glanced at each other, then slowly lowered the boxes and chairs they had been about to throw.
“Very good!” the pirate approved. “Now it would seem I am requiring a new vessel. This” he gestured to the time machine “will be that vessel. The lot of you will teach me to command such a craft and I…will let you live.”
“Don’t do it!” Patrick shouted. “We can’t let him get power over all of history!”
“Well perhaps not all of ye will live!” Blackbeard hissed into Patrick’s face.
“Don’t hurt him!” Nell shouted. “We’ll help you.”
“What?” Mavis looked incredulously to Nell’s worry-etched face.
“Very good,” Blackbeard approved. “Now if ye would be so kind, lass, direct me to the helm of this vessel.”
“It’s over here,” Nell stepped to the central panel and flipped a few switches, causing the Time Capsule to shudder as it hurtled along its way to the future.
“Curious…” Blackbeard took a step nearer, still holding Patrick firm. “No wheel?”
“No. Switches and dials.”
“Let the boy go first.”
“If I be letting the boy go, then you will have no reason to obey.”
“Trade then,” Nell held her arm out to Blackbeard. He paused for a moment, as if trying to detect a trap, then gripped her wrist. As soon as he had her secured he let Patrick go. “I’ll tell you everything,” she said, “and you can keep our ship. But in return we’re going to need your help. We have an important mission to fulfill and we’re down to its last stage now. You see us through to the end, drop us off at our home berth, and then our ship and the knowledge to run it will be yours.”
Blackbeard laughed, then spat in his hand and held it out to her. Nell nodded and spat in his hand, too.
“Er…” Blackbeard stared at his hand in confusion, but waved the matter away with a careless shrug. “It’s a deal then!”
“Perfect,” Nell turned back brightly to the other children, only to find them staring at her with mouths agape. “What?” she asked innocently.
“Could I have a word, Nell?” Mavis hissed as he grabbed her elbow and escorted her out of Blackbeard’s earshot. “What do you think you’re doing?! We can’t give the Time Capsule to Blackbeard!”
“Well he’s going to help us finish our mission first. We’ll come back home with history having been righted and that’s the extent of our job, Mavis.”
“History won’t be righted! Blackbeard was supposed to die in that storm.”
“We don’t actually know that. It’s only a legend that he died there. And anyway, he’s still been taken out of that timeline one way or another, hasn’t he?”
“Oh really? You’re using the same defense as Patrick with his raptors now?At least he wasn’t giving them a time machine to go mess up whatever moment in history they want! There’s no telling what that old cutthroat will get to if he has the Time Capsule!”
“Alright!” Nell conceded. “It’s an imperfect solution. We’ll just have to figure out the rest as we go. What matters is that I took care of what I had to in the moment.”
Mavis narrowed his eyes. “You mean saving Patrick.”
“Yes, saving Patrick, Mavis. What’s the matter with that? He’s a member of our crew, isn’t he?!” And with that she jerked her arm free and returned to the rest of the crew.
“We’re about to come out of timewarp,” she observed, “and I’ve got a feeling this will be the most dangerous task we’ve faced yet.”
“The time coordinates say its the mid 1800s,” Chase announced. “Coming into the United States…looks like central Missouri.”
“1800s!” Blackbeard clapped a hand to his head. “What manner of ships might one find in such a time as that?”
“Oh, some really cool ones,” Patrick grinned. “They’re about to invent invent the first ironclad warships.”
“Ironclad?!” the pirate exclaimed. “I’ll be unstoppable!”
Mavis shot a furious glare at Nell.
“Never mind that, Blackbeard,” Nell tutted. “We had a deal and you need to have your mind on the mission at hand.”
As if on cue the Time Capsule began to wind down for final approach. It was now slow enough for its occupants to make out the landscape before them. The ocean of water had been replaced for one of dust. A single, flat, empty plain extended for as far as the eye could see in every direction.
Well…almost empty. Snaking through the void was a single, black snake, which as the Time Capsule descended lower and lower revealed itself to be a railway line. And upon that line a single steam train chugged from east to west.
“A train?” Chase said in surprise. “Why would the time bandits be interested in a train out in the middle of nowhere?”
“Probably there’s something important on the train,” Ellie observed.
“Yeah…hang on…” Patrick stepped over to the panel, started fiddling with the Time Capsule’s optics, and the screen overhead zoomed in to a close-up view of the passenger car. There, framed against the fifth-window-from-the-back they saw a tall, thin man. He did not yet have his famous beard or stovepipe hat, but he was already recognizable to the children.
“Abraham Lincoln?!” Mavis exclaimed.
“I guess this time they’re not trying to save monsters or tyrants,” Nell concluded. “They’re trying to assassinate someone prematurely, take him out before he can steer the course of history.”
“What manner of witchcraft be this?” Blackbeard approached the panel and view screen in awe. He reached a hand out to the dials but Mavis slapped it away.
“I’m working,” Mavis said, then spun the dial so that the outside optics moved forward along the train tracks. “Obviously a train is an isolated, easy target to destroy. The question is whether they’re trying to do that from within the train, or from outside of it…oh…”
A distant bridge had just come into view on the display panel. It was a strip of nearly a mile, stretched precariously over a gorge that was over a thousand feet deep. And down on the supporting beams had been strapped many massive clusters of dynamite!
“Alright,” Mavis sighed. “Looks like we know their play.”
“Well what about on the train itself?” Nell asked. “Any additional threats there?”
Mavis spun the dials and the viewing screen shifted back to the engine. It slid along the outside of the long vehicle and the children watched for any anomalies.
“There!” Chase pointed. “Two of those armored guards lurking on top of the cars.”
“Nuts…” Mavis exhaled through clenched teeth. “You guys understand, we can’t just stop the bridge from exploding, we have to handle it discreetly. We might save Abraham Lincoln, but if the people on that train see something that they weren’t supposed to, the ripples through time might still be enormous! This is going to be a much harder task.”
“Is the remote activator working now?” Ellie asked. “So we can reset the timeline if things get too screwy?”
“Yes,” Mavis checked the glowing harness. “But we can’t get sloppy because we’re depending on it. We can only reroll the dice once, then the remote activator will break forever. I’ll be the one wearing it and I won’t activate it unless we absolutely have to.”
“So what be the orders for me and my little reptile friends?” Blackbeard grinned toothily. He was stroking the heads of the two raptors he had brought aboard, which having finally regained consciousness now seemed to regard the pirate as the leader of their pack.
“Somehow I don’t see you as being the sort to handle things discreetly,” Mavis’s eyes went wide. “So you’re going to be as far from the train as possible, handling the dynamite on the bridge. Ellie, Patrick, you go with him. Chase, Nell, and I will take care of things on the train. Everyone ready?”
They all nodded and Mavis punched the thruster, whisking the Time Capsule through the air and over to the bridge. Mavis very briefly tethered to that timeline, just long enough for Patrick, Ellie, Blackbeard, and the raptors to jump out onto the tracks. Then he untethered the Time Capsule and raced to the back of the train for a soft landing.
“Looks like that’s the storage car right in front of us,” Chase observed as the machine tethered once more to that moment of time. “We can probably find some more time-appropriate clothes in there.” Chase was correct, and very quickly they were all dressed accordingly. Then they split up, Nell and Mavis going up top to take out the armored guards, while Chase moved into the passenger car to make sure that no one was noticing the soft thuds coming from above the ceiling.
“You say there is a great bomb inside of this little stick?” Blackbeard peeled one of the pieces of dynamite off the bridge with glee. “What will the British Navy think when they see me hurling this at their decks?!”
“Blackbeard, remember, you can’t go back to your olden days!” Ellie reminded him as she pulled another stick of dynamite off the bridge and handed it to Patrick, who was carefully removing their fuses. “You can’t do anything to change history. That might erase all of us so that we don’t exist!”
“Nay,” Blackbeard shook his head. “If I understand you correctly, then I only must only go no further back than the day you found me in the storm.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I were to go to my history then it would undo the makings of me,” Blackbeard explained. “But so long as I only tamper with my present and my future, then I shall come to no harm.”
“But…we might!” Patrick said in exasperation. “You’re forgetting that your future is our past!”
“Nay,” Blackbeard said again as he removed the last stick of dynamite from the bundle they had been working on. “What is forgotten is that I now have the only fused explosive, and ye are at my mercy!”
“What are you doing?” Ellie exclaimed in shock. “We had a deal!”
“And now we have a new one,” Blackbeard sneered. “Ye will forget this ‘quest’ ye are on, ye will return me to the ship, and I will maroon you all in this savage time, taking your vessel for meself! Raptors!” he snapped to his newfound pets. “Surround them!” The lizards obediently flanked the children on either side.
“You won’t get away with this,” Patrick said, and before another word could be uttered by any of them the sound of a shot rang out! The children and pirate ducked as a bullet pinged off the side of the bridge only three feet away!
“We’re being shot at!” Blackbeard roared, pocketing the dynamite and reaching for his flintlock pistol.
“But by whom?” Ellie wondered aloud as she and Patrick used the distraction to move under the girders of the bridge and away from Blackbeard and his raptors.
“Think about it, Ellie,” Patrick replied. “Wasn’t there something strange about that dynamite?”
“No…it just looked like the regular stuff to me.”
“Exactly! But everything we’ve seen so far from the time bandits stood out like a sore thumb. A high-tech cannon in the age of dinosaurs, jet thrusters on a pirate ship…but this dynamite has been totally period correct.”
“So you don’t think it was the time bandits who put it there?”
On Monday I shared about chaotic stories, ones that make use of a huge cast of characters, or noisome settings, or quickly-shifting themes and objectives. I spoke about how these tales can still remain coherent by remaining true to some central idea, and in the case of The Time Travel Situation the central idea is trying to stop all of these changes to history.
It’s not a particularly strong through-line, though. It’s not as if the time bandits have a central villain to serve as the story’s primary antagonist. Each jump to another place in time essentially resets all of the tension, with little carrying from one stage to the next. The through-line is only providing a reason for these time-hops to occur, and that is enough for my needs.
The other thing I mentioned about chaotic stories is that some tales embrace the chaos, simply wanting to take you for an entertaining ride without concerning themselves with telling a meaningful narrative. The Time Travel Situation falls far more firmly under that category. It’s central purpose is to present children playing pretend, no more and no less. I might briefly incorporate relationship drama between Mavis and Nell and Patrick, but that’s only an entertaining aside, not an indicator of deeper character development to come. Nor does Blackbeard’s betrayal have any more nuance than it initially appears to. It is a straightforward piece of cheating, used as a convenience to get the the children out of their promise to him.
This is something that happens in stories all the time, by the way. The hero will be held back from utterly destroying the villain because of some promise or sense of duty. Of course they could renege on those promises or duties, but then they would be immoral. This conundrum is then resolved by the villain doing something deceitful, something that either removes the hero from the obligation of their promise, or allows them to destroy the villain in an act of self defense.
It’s a bit contrived, to be sure, and can certainly be overused, but let’s take a look at a few examples of this in other stories with my next post. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then see the next chapter of The Time Travel Situation on Thursday.
Days Writing: 22 New Words: 1525 New Chapters: 0.25
Total Word-count: 71,186 Total Chapters: 19
My goal for March was to work on the novel every single day. Even if I accomplished very little, I just wanted to learn how to be consistent in having some daily effort. And so far as that’s concerned, this month was a fair success. In all I worked on my novel for 22 days. Not my best ever, but certainly better than any months of late.
Obviously the 1,525 words written isn’t anything special, though. I only finished writing chapter 19, did an edit on all of it, and wrote a small piece of chapter 20. This continues a depressing trend in my performance. During the second year of working on this novel I have accomplished far, far less than I did during the first. Much of the time I feel like I am only scratching out the story a single grain at a time, and this feeling leads to a negative cycle. I feel dissatisfied from accomplishing so little, which makes me less motivated to put more time into it, which obviously makes me accomplish even less.
One of my major problems is that there are so many other things I want to fill my free time with. I want to have relaxation and recreation, just like everyone else, and I also struggle with more hobbies than I know what to do with. With these two forces combined it is a very hard thing to just say “no, write your book instead.”
I’ve been thinking about this, though, and there’s an experiment I’d like to try. While I might find it impossible to close the door on all my other ventures until this novel is finished, I don’t mind temporarily scaling them back. During the month of April I want to work on my novel every day, and I want to write or edit 500 words at least on each of those days. And so long I haven’t met that quota, I won’t do any of my other side activities during that same day.
I’ll still go to work just as much, I’ll still spend quality just as much time with my family, I’ll still take care of all my errands…there just won’t be any of my other personal treats until the novel has been cared for. And it might be that this excessive, and it might not even be sustainable…but that’s alright, because I can always recalibrate at the start of May.
I’ll let you know how this experiment goes next month, and in the meantime here’s one of the new pieces I wrote this month. Enjoy!
“Unless you want to take your chances, you should give the woodworker a drawing of exactly what sort of mirror to make,” John explains.
“Like how it should be shaped and all that?”
“Yes, exactly. Here, stand on this stool and look at what I’ve got laid out on my table: schematics.”
“No. Schematics. Drawings are fanciful and imaginative, but schematics are technical, shown to scale, giving the exact dimensions so that anyone can create the thing you want to perfect detail.”
“So for my mirror…”
“The woodworker wouldn’t only know how it should generally look, but the exact size and shape of it as well.”
“Alright, how do I make one?”
“I will help you with that. Let me get a fresh sheet ready. Alright then, how tall should it be?”
Clara lays two hands on the paper and John makes a mark at top and bottom.
“And where should the handle come to? Very good. And how wide at the widest part? Excellent. Mind you, we can alter this as we go along if it doesn’t come out quite how you wanted, this is just to get us started. Now tell me exactly you wanted this to look, and let me know any time I start to go wrong with it…”
An hour later and the schematic is complete.
“Do you like it?” John asks Clara.
“It’s wonderful! I just wish I could hold it!”
“Not a bad idea. Better to look at a physical model than just a drawing–“
“Yes, a schematic. Go look for something that’s the same size as this handle and see if it feels right in your hand.”
It was once a selling point for movies to show a huge mass of people on camera at the same time. Epics like The Ten Commandments or Gone With the Wind would proudly boast of having “a cast of thousands.” And to be sure, it must have been quite a feat getting so many extras costumed, placed, and rehearsed.
Sometimes it wasn’t just extras, though. Some films would go to great lengths to pack one cameo into their film after another. Films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and How the West Was Won sold themselves on having a “star studded cast.” We still see shades of this today, where the latest Avengers films work every major star of the franchise into a single, epic package. Of course most of these stars are only side-characters. Once you start writing primary motivations and arcs for more than four characters, things become exponentially more difficult.
This was one of the core pillars of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, though. The series was known for not only having a wide cast, but a cast that all had very specific, very mutually exclusive objectives. Each of them crosses the others in a multitude of ways, and it becomes a daring feat just to keep track of it all.
In the first film the intricacy was limited to the competing motivations of Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa, and Admiral Norrington. By the end of the third, though, you can add to that list Davy Jones, Tia Dalma, and Lord Beckett, as well as several secondary characters with individual objectives, such as Governor Swann, Bootstrap Bill, and Captain Sao Feng. It’s very impressive that the writers were able to keep track of them all, but also it becomes overwhelming in some cases. A common complaint of the later films was that it was impossible to keep track of everyone’s motivations, and why exactly they were doing the thing that they were doing at any particular moment.
Of course a large cast is not the only way to add complexity to a story. The Lego Movie has a more standard-sized cast of characters. Emmett, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, and Lord Business are your main crew, with support from Batman, Good Cop/Bad Cop, and Finn. But what sets this movie apart is how it is bursting with style and ideas.
The animation is frequently chaotic, with so many pieces moving across screen that it is impossible to track them all. Settings change at a blistering pace, too, from a modern city to the old west to a cloud paradise to an evil businessman’s lair to a live action basement in modern suburbia. The dialogue and the jokes come rapid-fire as well, hardly ever allowing a moment for the audience to settle before being whisked off to the next piece of humor.
Yet for all this complexity the film is not incomprehensible. For while the periphery is in constant motion, the underlying story is relatively straightforward. Emmett is believed to be a prophesied chosen one, come to save the world from the oppression of a tyrant. To do so he must learn a special set of powers, as well as overcome his own insecurities. In other words, it’s a classic hero’s tale, one that the audience is abundantly familiar with. It does add a unique wrinkle or two to that formula, such as Emmett not being the chosen one and him befriending the villain rather than destroying him, but its ideas are still so grounded that we are able to follow along in spite of all the visual pandemonium.
Chaos for It’s Own Sake)
But would it work for a story to change its settings as constantly as The Lego Movie, with a cast as wide as Pirates of the Caribbean, and refusing any sort of grounding narrative to carry the audience through?
As horrible of an experience as that might sound, Monty Python and the Holy Grail fits the tumultuous bill and remains a very satisfactory piece even so.
To begin with this film is nothing more than a series of comedic skits, one after another after another. They are tangentially related to a central quest for the holy grail, but are all still very disjointed from one another. Every scene goes to a completely different setting, with absolutely no attempt to place it in the broader landscape. They all introduce new characters that are absolutely central to that one skit, but then dropped afterwards. Whole plot threads are begun without ever being concluded…including the film’s central quest of finding the holy grail!
At the very end of the film the band of knights may or may not have found out where the grail is being held, and either way they decide to have an epic battle on the matter. Thousands of soldiers appear on either side of a wide field, with a shout they surge towards one another with weapons raised…and then get stopped before they can clash together by the police and are all arrested. The End.
It is the film’s final joke, a way to make clear that this whole thing is not about the quest, nor about the narrative thread, nor about the character development. It’s about the skits. And that’s it. And if you liked them then that’s great, but if you wanted a more traditional narrative experience you’ll have to go look elsewhere.
I would say that my current story has fallen under that same category of being about its individual moments instead of an overarching narrative. The reason to read about these children playing pretend is because you like to read about children playing pretend. There really hasn’t been a greater plot or character development or greater message to it.
I have thought about adding one. I toyed with the idea that Mavis could be moving away and this is his last hurrah with his friends. But honestly I think that would distract from the central idea of having fun for it’s own sake.
What Monty Python does well, though, is not overstay its welcome. Playful indulgence remains a delight for only so long. It is best when consumed as a nice, little bite. The Time Travel Situation used to be a great deal more longwinded, it was on track to be as much as eight posts long. But thanks to writing these a couple weeks in advance I had the opportunity to go back and trim it down a great deal. Hopefully it will be fun and rambunctious, but then leave before it becomes too much. Come back on Thursday as we follow it into its final setting.
All at once the Time Capsule’s engines groaned to a halt and the time travelers became tethered to this current moment of history. Now the spray of ocean water came peppering through the holes in the Time Capsule and the wind howled through every crack. The children and the raptors froze where they were, startled by the sudden change in their surroundings.
“Where are we?” Chase glanced to the main panel. “Hmm…Pacific Ocean…1700s…looks like we’re on an old sailing ship!”
“Not just any old sailing ship,” Ellie pointed her finger to the mast where a jolly roger blew fitfully in the breeze. “A pirate ship!”
Before the children could say anything more the raptors had snapped out of their initial shock, and returned to the matter of terrorizing the children.
“Ahhh!” Chase flung himself backwards just in time to avoid having his face bit off. As he fell he threw his hand out to catch himself, accidentally pressing the cabin decompression button along the way.
The doors of the Time Capsule slammed open and all of the children, raptors, and broken pieces of the machine were expelled instantaneously. They burst across the upper deck like little cannonballs, spraying splinters and splashing puddles of water onto the crew of pirates assembled below.
“Lookee there!” the Captain of the cutthroats shouted. “Sirens! No doubt the same ones what conjured up this blasted storm! They be here to sink us to the very depths! Bring me their hearts if ye want ter live!”
All five time travelers gasped at the face of the man. It was the most grizzled, scarred, and burned visage they had ever seen. Over his head he wore a crimson three-cornered hat, and extending from his face was a beard so scraggly and sprawling that it appeared like an explosion on his chin. It was also as dark as night.
“This is Blackbeard’s crew!” Ellie whispered in shock.
“Yes, and they’re coming to murder us!” Chase panicked, for at their Captain’s behest the entire crew was now surging for the upper deck, belaying pins and cutlasses waving in every hand!
But they never made it to the children. For no sooner did the raptors see the rushing tide than they concluded these larger humans were much more of a threat than the small children. The lizards rose to their feet and dashed into the fray, clashing into the pirates on the stairs, slashing at them with murderous intent!
“Let’s go!” Mavis ordered, bounding for the nearest rigging and climbing away from the commotion. The others quickly followed, discussing their situation as they went.
“Why would the time crooks have come here?” Patrick wondered aloud.
Mavis pointed to the massive storm drawing ever nearer. “Legends state that Captain Blackbeard terrorized the seas until he and his crew were drowned in a terrible typhoon. This must be the moment where the greatest menace to ever sail the ocean died!”
“Unless he didn’t,” Ellie caught on. “Unless someone went back to save him, just like they were about to with the dinosaurs.”
“And who knows what sort of devastation that old cutthroat might get up to if he doesn’t die here,” Nell agreed. “Our whole society might be changed because of it.”
“Alright,” Mavis concluded. “We’ve got a moment while the raptors have the pirates distracted, but it won’t last for long. All of you look for the time crooks and stop whatever they’re up to. I’ll try and get the Time Capsule back to a workable state again. Everyone clear!”
“Clear!” came the chorus of responses. All of the children flung themselves from the rigging, grabbed the nearby ropes, swung to different parts of the deck, and dashed off in search of the time invaders.
“I’ll sweeping the cargo hold,” Nell said into her walkie talkie, ducking under some crates to avoid the gaze of nearby pirates.
“I’ve got the sleeping quarters,” Ellie finished her rope swing by kicking a raptor clean over the railing.
“I’ll check the exterior,” Patrick swung hand-over-hand along the outside of the ship, moving as effortlessly as if he were crossing monkey bars on a playset.
“I’ll look in the Captain’s quarters,” Chase offered, and so saying he pushed open the great door and sidled into the dimly lit room. There was a great desk in the back, a heavily marked map upon it, and a chest down by its side.
“Blackbeard’s treasure!” Chase gasped, then reached a trembling hand to open its lid. All manner of gold and jewels twinkled up at him, an incredible wealth untold. “Patrick was dumb to bring a living raptor with him,” he said. “But who would miss a few gold coins destined to be lost at the bottom of the ocean?”
“I would,” a dark voice breathed out from behind. Chase spun around in the dark and found himself face-to-face with the silhouette of Blackbeard himself! Before Chase could dodge out of the way, the burly man flung out a massive arm and seized him around the neck, lifting him high into the air.
“Guys, help!” Chase choked into the walkie talkie. His legs kicked wildly and his eyes roved his surroundings for anything help him out of the situation.
“Ye know that they say: there be no honor among thieves!” Blackbeard snarled. “Now ye’ll feel the full measure of an honorless death!”
A slight movement caught Chase’s attention and his eyes shifted to a nearby porthole just in time to see the baby raptor slink into the room. “Hey ugly,” he grinned down to Blackbeard, “you ever been bit in the butt by history?”
With a crash the baby raptor’s mother burst through the porthole, took one look at the giant of a man standing near to her baby, and snapped her teeth into his great posterior.
“Yeeeooowch!” Blackbeard dropped Chase and twisted round, trying to clobber the raptor.
“Alright!” Chase crowed into his walkie talkie. “Never mind on that rescue!”
“Would you be quiet!” Nell snapped back. “I think I just heard something!” She put the walkie-talkie down and pressed her ear to the wall at the back of the ship. There, on the other side of the hull, she could just barely make out a faint, machine-like whirring. “I found them!” she hissed. “They’re hanging onto the outside of the ship!”
Ellie swung around the outside corner of the ship and did a double-take. “I can confirm,” she said. “I’ve got eyes on them and…uh…you guys better grab onto something!”
“Wait, why?” Chase asked as he lifted a handful of gold coins and rubies from Blackbeard’s treasure chest and deposited them in his pocket.
Before Ellie could give an answer the futuristic thrusters that had been attached to the back of the ship activated. Two jets of fire streaked out above the ocean as twin beams of light, propelling the entire ship forward at turbo speed!
With a shout Blackbeard and the raptor flew through the room and smashed into the wall at the back of the sleeping quarters. The raptor was knocked out cold.
“Uh oh,” Patrick gulped.
“Now it’s yer turn!” Blackbeard approached Patrick with a toothy grin.
“What’s going on?” Mavis’s voice came over the communicators. Up above, he scrambled out of the Time Capsule and rushed to look over the rear of the ship.
“They’re using thrusters to push the ship away from the storm!” Ellie replied, flipping through the air and landing on one of the metal platforms that the time bandits had erected to hold those thrusters in place. There were two more of those armored guards standing upon it and the nearest of them rushed forward to attack Ellie. “We got to get these out of commission,” she concluded before ducking under the guard’s first punch!
“I’m here!” Patrick sprang out a rear-facing window and fell onto the platform beneath the other thruster. He turned up his arm just in time to block a punch from the other armored guard, then swung his own fist into the menace’s side with a loud clang. “Owwwww!” he moaned.
On the other side of the hull Chase threw the chest of gold and jewels at Blackbeard. The heavy trove slammed into the pirate’s face, then slid to the ground without so much as fazing him.
“Yer a fool!” Blackbeard snarled, then gripped the back of Chase’s shirt and flung him clean through the wall. Chase slammed into the guard attacking Patrick, knocking the enemy over the edge and down to the water below.
“That’s one down!” Patrick crowed.
“But a new one still to go!” Chase pointed to Blackbeard forcing his way through the hole he had thrown the boy through.
Ellie ducked and weaved around her own assailant, trying to avoid the foe’s crushing blows.
“You don’t have a chance!” the guard snarled. “No armor? No augmented strength? No weapon? How do you expect to defeat me?”
“I don’t!” Ellie shot back, standing to her feet and raising her fists.
The guard gave a wild cry and charged forward at full speed. Right before impact Ellie gave a quick sidestep, causing the guard to pummel full speed into the thruster stream that Ellie had been standing in front of a moment before.
“I expect you to defeat yourself,” Ellie concluded as the guard’s armor and skin melted off and its bones turned to dust…
“No!” Ellie interrupted Nell’s narration. “I beat the guard, so I get to describe it! Shee just gets caught in the thruster stream and carried out to sea. No blood or melting or anything.”
“Hey you guys, we’re still moving away from the storm!” Mavis pointed out as he tried to screw a panel back into place.
“Yeah, we know!” Chase strained as he ducked one of Blackbeard’s giant fists. “This situation is a mess! We still have that remote activator thingy charged? Let’s reset and try again.”
“No we don’t,” Mavis sighed, looking up at the broken module. “I better get that back online, but now we’ve only got one shot at this. We have to get it right!”
“Don’t worry!” Nell called into her walkie talkie, sprinting as quickly as she could through the hull of the ship. “I’m bringing backup!”
Nell clipped the walkie talkie to her pocket and sprinted even faster. She flew into the Captain’s quarters, off the desk, and through the hole that had been broken through its back wall. She vaulted over Blackbeard’s head, then came to a skidding halt on the edge of the thruster platform.
“Arrgh! Another one!” the buccaneer snarled, stepping into line with Nell. Then, all of a sudden, the two other adult raptors slammed into his back! They had been chasing Nell all through the hold of the ship and he had stepped into their way. A moment later and the pirate and lizards were flailing in their fight, the children left entirely forgotten.
“Good work, Nell!” Patrick approved. “Any luck on your side, Ellie?”
“Almost…got it…” Ellie had spent the last minute straining at the bolts on the thruster on her side. She had managed to remove its outer panel and was trying to pry the largest cable out of its socket. “There!” she exclaimed as the cable came loose and the power to the thruster cut off instantaneously. Everyone shouted as the entire ship now careened to one side, driven through a tight curve by the other thruster that was still online.
“Hold on!” Ellie panted. “Hold on!” She watched as the ship raced through an arc of 45 degrees, 90 degrees, 135 degrees… “NOW!” she shrieked as it turned a full 180, then thrust the cable back into its socket, bringing the second thruster back to life. Now the ship was facing back towards the storm and blistering forward to meet it!
“Time to go!” Ellie called to Patrick, Chase, and Nell…but none of them would be leaving anytime soon. Of course all of their commotion had drawn the attention of the pirate crew, who were now billowing out of the holes in the back of the ship and vaulting over the railing, filling up every open space of the platforms that the children stood upon. Ellie flicked her eyes left and right, but the only escape was into the swirling ocean water.
“Arr, Captain was right!” one of the pirates snarled. “They be sirens, come to sink us in the depths!”
“Well now we have them on the end of a plank,” another laughed. “Let’s make ’em walk it!”
“Mavis, are you hearing this?” Ellie asked fearfully.
“Yeah, yeah…let me think…” Mavis closed the last of the panels he had been repairing and rapidly flipped some switches. “Things are even shakier than before,” he wiped his brow, “but I think the Time Capsule might hold out for another jump.”
“You’re going to leave us?!” Nell screeched as the pirates slowly advanced, cutlasses out, forcing the children to back up to the edge of the platforms.
“Trust me,” Mavis returned, scrutinizing the three-dimensional time-space hologram in the center of the Time Capsule. “And…activate!” He flicked three switches, turned a dial, and pulled a slider all the way to its activated position. The Time Capsule hummed to life, detaching itself from that moment and floating weightlessly forward through time and space.
“He is leaving us!” Patrick pointed frantically at the outline of the Time Capsule as it flickered out of their reality.
“Shut yer mouth!” Captain Blackbeard snarled, each of his fists was closed around the tail of an unconscious raptor. ” And jump to yer doom!”
Up in the Time Capsule, Mavis had each hand on a separate dial, turning them in tandem to maneuver himself through space with careful precision. Now that he was detached from any moment of time the machine’s matter would not interact with the pirate ship. He was able to steer his vessel clean through the wooden walls, coming out the back of the ship, just underneath the platforms his friends were about to fall from.
“Okay,” he wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “I’ve got to time this just right.”
“I said off!” Blackbeard shouted up above, then swung the limp raptors at the children. Ellie, Chase, Patrick, and Nell took another step backwards, lost their balance, and plunged off the edge!
“Whoops!” Mavis said as the children fell clean through his vessel and down to the water below! He spun another dial and time slowed around him, paused, and finally reversed, scooting the children back up into the air. He spun the dial the other way round, returning time back to its forward motion. At the exact same moment he punched a button, retethering himself to that instance of spacetime, causing the Time Capsule to become physical once more. Chase, Evie, Patrick, and Nell fell through the Time Capsule’s open hatches and landed with a thump in their seats.
“Gotcha!” Mavis crowed.
“How many tries did it take?” Nell demanded.
“Just one, of course.”
“Come back here!” Blackbeard shouted from above, then leaped off the platforms, raptors still dangling from his hands.
“Get us out of here!” Chase shouted.
Mavis punched the controls again, sending the Time Capsule hurtling into the future. As the flow of time accelerated outside, the children watched the pirate ship streak past them at superspeed, jets propelling it straight into the storm! They had done it. They had restored time to its proper outcome. A little messy perhaps, but fate had been restored. Now there was only–
“What manner of witchcraft be this?!” a gruff voice interrupted from the corner of the Time Capsule. For Blackbeard had fallen into the vessel before Mavis had finished making the jump forward in time. He was hurtling towards the future with the children!
On Monday I spoke about stories wrapped around stories and ones that have intersecting realities. The Time Travel situation features the story of real-world children bookending the inner fantasies that they live out on the playground. It also has multiple, different settings bleeding into each other, such as when the raptors came onto the pirate ship and now Blackbeard into the future.
This free-flowing approach to settings and reality was exactly the reason why I wanted to write this story. Usually when writing a fantasy it still has to be grounded in some way, but the backdrop of children playing pretend made just about anything possible for me.
That isn’t to say that chaos can’t be taken too far, though, of course it can. Even with this story I’m anxious that I will throw in too many components, until things fail to even register anymore. When a story is weighed down by too many ideas then eventually the reader becomes saturated and all the other ideas have to roll off, even more useless than if they hadn’t been there at all.
And this is not all. A story must also be able to give its chaos greater meaning. If it has many intriguing ideas, but no compelling narrative behind them, then it will still remain dissatisfying. With my next post I want to consider some other examples of successfully chaotic stories, ones that are bursting with thousands of ideas, yet also grounded enough for those ideas to bear weight. Come back on Monday as we consider these examples, and then again on Thursday as I try to implement their lessons into the next entry of The Time Travel Situation.
The Princess Bride is an interesting story within a story. The novel version is presented as being an abridgement of the actual story, an edit of the original down to just its “good parts.” Of course in reality there is no original, it’s all just a humorous commentary on how great stories can be weighed down by too much dross. The film version of The Princess Bride presents things a bit differently. It opens with a grandfather reading the fantasy story to his sick grandchild, which then transitions into the scenes within the book.
In both cases the outer story impinges on the inner story from time-to-time. In the novel the author interrupts the flow to say that the original went into numerous pages describing Buttercup’s wedding gown and he’s not going to recreate that here. In the film we have the grandchild interrupting when the story nears a kiss, stating that he doesn’t want to hear about that mushy stuff.
This technique of enclosing a story within a story is one that I have thought about a great deal. The novel I am currently working on falls into the exact same category. At the heart of it is a simple, straightforward tale about a group of explorers that come to an island and try to make their fortune upon it. Bookending (and occasionally interrupting) that tale is another one of an explorer that is viewing this other narrative as a memory, coming to terms with the tragedy that he/she knows will come at the story’s end.
There have been many times when writing this piece that I have wondered whether I wasn’t unnecessarily complicating things. Why not just write that inner story, the one about the explorers on the island, and drop the outer layer? Why doesn’t the Princess Bride work that way, too? It could have been just a straightforward fantasy story, why add a layer about a middleman relating it to the next generation?
The consideration, I’ve realized, is whether this layering of story is tied to the true purpose of the overall tale. In the Princess Bride there is a rich and complete fantasy story at its center, but at the end of the day that wasn’t the core story William Goldman (the author) was trying to relate. He was trying to talk about how we preserve stories like these to the next generation. And in my novel there is a complete story about explorers making their fortune, but that’s really not what my core story is all about. It’s about the regret of breaking something beautiful, and coming to believe in second chances.
This is also the same situation with my current short story: The Time Travel Situation. For this story I needed to wrap everything inside of an outer story of children playing pretend for it to even make sense. Incredulous things are happening that no one would accept from a straightforward sci-fi story, but when couched in the context of “these are kids playing pretend” anything becomes acceptable. But more importantly, The Time Travel Situation isn’t really about the adventure that makes up the bulk of text, it is about the kids who are playing it and the freedom of their imagination. The depiction of their real world might only make up a small minority of the wordcount, but it is still what the story is really about.
In these stories the “extra stuff” isn’t extra at all! It might only appear briefly, but it is the heart of the entire tale.
There is yet another way to weave together multiple worlds in a single tale. It does not only have to be bookends that encapsulate the rest, it can also be multiple distinct threads wound into one.
This occurs numerous times in the Christopher Nolan film Inception. Here the protagonists invade the subconscious of another man, travelling through multiple layers of his dreams at the same time. But in the rules of the film, when one dives to a deeper level of dreaming, they also remain in the higher state as well. This leads to some complex interactions, such as a van falling off the bridge in the topmost layer, creating a sense of weightlessness in the layer below.
It isn’t only physical states that carry down from one level to the next either, emotional and mental states do as well. Thus a question about a dying father’s last words becomes an obsession at the next level as the implications are processed by the dreamer’s innermost core. And the lost love of the main protagonist continues to haunt him in more and more pronounced ways the deeper he goes, becoming a single emotion that defines everything about him.
This is deconstructionist story-telling, where everything is taken apart so that it can then be put back together. But while some lessons are learned at the deepest level, others only come into focus when stepped back into their full context. Thus the dying father’s words when examined on the micro level change the life of his son, but the all-consuming lost love of the protagonist is reminded that she cannot be the only force in his life when he returns back to the surface.
I have applied this technique only briefly in my current short story. In the last section of The Time Travel Situation I laid out two separate issues: one group of children were trying to stop a laser before it fired and the other were trying to protect their time machine from a raging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Each of these threads continued separately, hopping back and forth with no connection between. But then everything came together when the first group of children managed to push a massive boulder into the path of the laser. This blocked the laser, but also burst the rock into a million pieces of shrapnel, some of which flew over to the second group of children and punched through the Tyrannosaurus Rex, resolving their issue as well.
Perhaps not as emotional of an interweaving as the examples from Inception, but far more entertaining than if I had made the two threads resolve themselves independently. The surprise connection provides a delightful surprise to tie off the chapter.
Now the children are moving into a new area, though, and I am going to add another element of intersecting worlds to their tale. Every time they jump to another point there are going to be some stowaways that come along with, enhancing the chaos in each successive under domain. The first of these is the raptors that come from the age of dinosaurs to terrorize a pirate ship. Come back on Thursday to see this in motion!