I remember the first story I read that didn’t have a proper ending. It was one of the many tales in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this particular one the hero discovered a magic flying carpet, and by it managed to overcome the villain and was promised the hand of the beautiful princess. His every desire having been met he decided to take one last celebratory ride on the carpet the evening before his wedding day. At that point the carpet decided to get a mind of its own, and whisked him far and away, never to be seen again.
I thought that was a very strange and dissatisfying story, but it stuck with me. It seemed like it was supposed to mean something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then, several years later, I came across another story that brought me closer to an understanding.
This was a piece called Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli (or Strife of Love in a Dream). The basic outline is that a man is deeply in love with the beautiful Polia, though she spurns his every advance. He falls asleep and travels through a strange dreamscape, pursuing his love and assisted by all manner of mythic characters. In the end he finally does manage to win her heart, and is finally about to embrace her forever…when she vanishes into thin air and he wakes up alone.
Again, a very strange tale, but one that also lodges itself in the mind at least somewhat by virtue of that strangeness. So what is this all about? Well, it all came together for me when I heard the legend of how Alexander the Great became inconsolably distraught after he conquered all the known world powers, his one great dream. He had reached his “happily ever after” and that was the greatest curse of all.
Having only that one hope, the accomplishment of it, of consequence, must put an end to all my hopes; and what a wretch is he who must survive his hopes! Nothing remains when that day comes, but to sit down and weep like Alexander… (Way of the World, Act 2: Scene 3)
Now the message of those prior stories became clear. They are speaking to the natural destiny of man to ever have one dream to chase after and then another. If ever you achieve the goal you pursue, then that ideal vanishes and goes somewhere further ahead. It is the mirage you ever follow but never obtain, pressing onward without an ending.
To reiterate, it’s not that one can never obtain a reward, one might indeed gain the new job, the lover, the prestige; however it is the knowledge that even if they do so there will still be another mountain to climb after that. Which is worse, to ever drink and still be left thirsty, or to find a satiation that never allows for the sweetness of desire again? Alexander the Great seemed to feel that the latter was the greater curse.
Because really Alexander’s sorrow is simply due to never becoming any better. The literal definition of damnation is not be thrust into fire, but rather to be halted in all forward progression. If we are not improving, then what is the purpose for our continued existence? To have no path for growth is to frustrate the nature etched deep into our very souls.
These thoughts and others like them have haunted me ever since I read and pondered over these stories. That is the power of a narrative: to set a trajectory to the infinite, then leave it to the reader to follow the implications as far as his mind dares to explore. Or to put it another way, stories like these plant a germ within a new host, and then let it take root and branch itself out into other original expressions. As a result I have found myself writing new stories around this idea of the chase, of how achieving one objective is only to be followed by pursuing another.
Power Suit Racing)
My latest story was my most direct effort at giving that original expression. A story of a man chasing for the ideal, and upon obtaining what he thought it was, he now realizes that it has moved on to somewhere new. As with the tale in One Thousand and One Nights and also Hypnerotomochia Poliphilli, this is a story where there is a man, a woman, and a chase. But in this case the chase is away from the woman, trying to find a new and greater definition to life.
Of course the chase away from the one woman leads to a chase towards another. But as is common in these sorts of stories that woman is only a representation of something more. She is a type for discovering one’s true self, for finding a purpose and cause, she is the reason to become.
Of course Taki doesn’t know that this is the case until the end. He isn’t sure what he is chasing, but he knows that something is stirring inside. His moment of clarity doesn’t arrive until he is offered back what he had before. Sometimes it takes looking into the mirror of the past to be able to discern the change that has occurred, and to extrapolate the trajectory of the future. That is the case for him. His hesitation has been due to balancing between holding onto the past and reaching for the future. He sees the past, he is repulsed by it, and so he dives into the future.
In this particular story I changed the end of the script to be different from most others, though. Taki rushes alone into the great unknown, and this time it is the girl who chases after him.
Before Power Suit Racing I tried to do a different take on the chase with Washed Ashore. The chase in this tale turned out to be something very grim: one man pursuing another with fatal intent, each seemingly called by fate to ever pursue and be pursued. It was hinted that there was extensive collateral damage in the wake of their battle, yet neither was willing to relent.
With this story I meant to make reference to the chases that occur in a continual round within the same individual. The inherent weaknesses we are born with, the never-ending struggle we make with them, and the years of anxiety produced as a side-result of that conflict. You see this sort of approach in a story like Citizen Kane. The entire life of Charles Foster Kane is one continual struggle between his child-self and his overcompensating-self. The two sides wrestle for control, giving him alternating faces of sincerity and hypocrisy.
A more lighthearted example of this from my own life is that I am divided between introverted and extroverted tendencies. I want to feel comfortable, but also want to step outside of my comfort zone for some “betterment” of myself. And so that means a constant war between two sides of myself, one advocating for a sense safety and the other for healthy interaction. Thus neither side will entirely win out, but the hope is that the conglomerate of all my parts, the overall self, will be better for balancing between the two.
This is perhaps the most common way we experience an eternal chase within ourselves. Not so much an ever-progressing journey as a circling struggle between our different natures. Temptation, weakness, and fear challenged by virtue, resolve, and courage. Perhaps one doesn’t move forward so much as hold their ground, which can be a monumental victory in its own right. These are great races that are won by merely standing firm.
Mixing it All Together)
So here we have two very different takes on the chase. We have the one that is linear, moving on from one state to the next, achieving one dream and using it as a launching-off point towards another. Then there is the other that is cyclical, the one that finishes back at the beginning to go another round.
Now that I’ve written a story with each of these approaches I’d like to try and blend the two together. I recently saw the film I Can Only Imagine that did just this. In this film the main character found himself in a cycling struggle between his wounds and his faith. He holds out a belief that he was made for something more, but he also holds a fear that it just isn’t so. The cycle continues, it alternately raises him and breaks him down, and then he finally manages to break that cycle and finally chase on to the new.
On Thursday I’d like to take my own crack at that sort of story. I am going to present a man who carries two burdens: both very heavy, and each in danger of drowning him, one in anger and the other in grief. One of those burdens is one that can never be let go of, the burden of grief. He will always strive with it. The other though, one of hate, he will begin to realize it is possible to move on from, to cease chasing vengeance in order to pursue something better.
“Hello there, Taki,” Rhuni said. She spoke brightly, sweetly. Certainly far more than she had at their last conversation.
“Hello,” Taki said numbed.
She smiled and looked downwards. “I suppose… I must be the last person you wanted to see.”
“That’s not–well, I wasn’t expecting to see you, I suppose.”
“Hmm, no. I can’t imagine you would after how horribly I treated you. I wanted to apologize about that, by the way, first and foremost.”
He nodded. “And after that?”
“Oh Taki, don’t be so formal with me! It’s terrible. Can’t we talk to each other how we used to?”
“I don’t know that Warden Molo would appreciate that.”
She winced. “You’re bitter. That’s alright. You have every right to be. Like I said, I treated your horribly.” She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “I was wrong Taki, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I was stupid and–and… oh Taki, I’m so sorry!” The tears suddenly burst out and she flung herself forward onto him, sobbing into his shoulder.
Taki patted at her hair awkwardly. It seemed the sort of thing to do, but it felt so strange to him now. Once it would have seemed so natural.
“Please don’t be so cold to me,” Rhuni continued. “All I’ve known these past weeks has been coldness. I knew Molo didn’t really love me, but he’s been so mean, so sneering and condescending. You don’t know how it’s been.”
“No, I don’t suppose that I do… What did you come here for Rhuni? Really?”
She looked up to him, eyes shining beneath tears. “Take me away from here, Taki. Can’t we go back to the dreams we had? Just you and I?”
Taki bit his lip, conflicted. He felt sympathy, he had to. But that didn’t mean he wanted the same things he once had.
“How would that even work, Rhuni? Molo is a powerful man, he knows everything that goes on in the city.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “We would have to keep a secret, wait a while until we could leave this planet. Just as we always dreamed we would!”
“So…wait and hope on those dreams? Just like before. Except waiting and hoping apart now, instead of together.”
“It wouldn’t be so long. I’ve heard about your success here in the races…in fact, that’s why I came today.” Rhuni pulled away from him and opened her shoulder-bag, rummaging for a moment and then pulling out a reference card like she was revealing a great treasure. “I’ve spoken with one of the sponsors in those leagues. He’s willing to represent you. From what I understand he’s one of the best, and he’s willing to see you get more than a fair cut of the winnings.”
“In return for you convincing me to run his colors…”
“Well…yes. See now we’re working together for our future,” she smiled brightly. “Just as it should be.”
Taki sighed. “I have dozens of these cards already Rhuni. Anyway, I thought you always hated these races.”
“I hate how they endanger you! And yes, I still do. But you’ve decided to do them, and from what I hear you’re quite good at it. Ready to move on to where real money gets made.”
“And to where things are all the more dangerous.”
“Well if you’re afraid of it then don’t do it,” she pouted. She blinked quickly and shook her head, then pushed that prior softness back into her face. “I’m sorry, Taki. No, of course I’d prefer you didn’t do this at all. I just thought you were already planning to, and thought I could help then. But–really, don’t do it–unless you want to.”
She bit her lip and Taki found he didn’t find that so cute anymore. She did it whenever she was afraid that she wouldn’t get her way. Had she always been like this?
“Actually I wasn’t planning to run in the higher leagues, Rhuni,” Taki finally said, folding his arms and leaning back. “They’ve been trying to bring me over for a while now but something just hasn’t sat right with me about it. I couldn’t place what it was until now. The problem is it would mean playing their game. The game of people like Molo, Zantar, Sovereign Prow… Those higher races are just propaganda for them. They finance the leagues, they set their runners against one another, they build lavish stadiums to show off, their sick money just flows through the whole sport like its lifeblood.”
He shook his head in disgust and then continued. “And all of it built on the backs of people like us. You know what the mortality rates are like for the engineers making those arenas. But what can they do? They say it’s illegal for us to grow our own food, but then they inflate its price until we’re too desperate to not take their contracts. No Rhuni, these illegal alley tracks are the only place a runner can compete with a clean conscience.”
“It’s wrong, but it’ll be happening whether you run there or not. Let them play their game, we’ll be the ones laughing when we leave this world with their money.”
“I can’t do it Rhuni.”
Rhuni nodded slowly, but her pursed mouth gave away her incredulity. When she spoke it was with barely-suppressed rage. “So then…you’re going to throw away all of our dreams, just for the principle of the matter?!”
“Far better than when you threw our dreams away for a lack of them.”
It was the first intentionally hurtful thing he had ever said to her. It was also the most honest. Rhuni’s lip trembled somewhere between anger and pain, and without a word she forced her way past him and out the door.
As the door closed behind her, he found himself alone at last. Taki put his hands over his eyes and exhaled slowly. Had he really just done that? It surprised him…but he didn’t regret it. A few more silent moments passed, and then he heard the muffled voice of the Master of Ceremonies, calling for the racers in the next race to approach the starting line. Well, it was time to move forwards again.
Taki exited Boro’s shack and glanced to either side. The mechanic wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but Tala was still waiting for him.
“Whew,” she whistled impressively, “that girl looked real mad when she stormed out of here!”
“I’m not in the mood to discuss it, Tala,” Taki sighed as he began stumping towards the raceway. She hurried to keep pace with him.
“Well good, because I didn’t really want to talk about her either. But just tell me this, how do you feel?”
“What? I’m fine. Actually… now that I think about it I guess I feel pretty good!”
“Atta boy!” she slugged his armored shoulder, then winced and shook her hand. “So what’s next?”
“I’m not sure Tala. I do know that I won’t be moving on to the higher leagues, though. It just wouldn’t feel right to run for the men I’ve spent my whole life hating. And it doesn’t make sense to keep running around in these lower circuits either, pretty soon no one will compete against me anymore…I guess it’s time for something new.”
They had reached the starting point of the race. Taki took his stance and started looking over the track in front of him. Before he could really take it in though he felt a hand tapping his shoulder. He turned and Tala was still there. She was supposed to be back with the other spectators, but instead she was gesturing at his faceplate.
“What?” Taki said, pressing the button to retract the glass shield. “Is it coming loose.”
Instead of answering Tala gripped the metal plates on his shoulders and pulled him near. “I told you earlier, I don’t like boys who are angry and running away. I like a boy who’s chasing for something.” And with that she kissed him hard.
Taki was momentarily aware of the other racers glancing over awkwardly, and as if from a mile away he heard the Master of Ceremonies shouting out “Go!” Then, just as forcefully as she had pulled him near, Tala gave him a shove and pushed him off the precipice and into open space.
He fell backwards, staring up at her shrinking form. He grinned, flicked his faceplate back closed, and turned around to greet the ground. He reached the bottom with a full reservoir of stored energy. He looked off to a low boundary wall, angled his arm, and thrust himself towards it with all he had. The ground buckled at his departure, and in one smooth arc he closed the distant to the barrier and sailed clean over it.
The crowd behind him gasped in shock. Some of them even cried.
He had not only fallen out-of-bounds and forfeited the race. It so happened that that particular boundary was also the edge of their entire city, indeed of their entire world. Everyone knew it, yet somehow he had willfully, even enthusiastically, bounded over its matrix and dropped into “the chasm.” Now he would plummet for over fifteen thousand feet. He would hit terminal velocity and his suit would easily dispel the force on impact, but having once cast himself off of their space-scraper he would be forever lost to a strange and unseen realm: the ground-level.
Indeed, no one from their megastructures knew what lay down, down, down where he was going. Its murky depths hadn’t been explored for at least seven generations. Some said it had long since been entirely reclaimed by the wild, others said it was home to a brutish civilization straight out of the stone age. Still others said it was the only free place left on the planet, and that the beginnings of a rebellion took refuge there.
“Oh my,” Boro breathed out in awe from his perch among the other spectators. A strange glint of excitement twinkled in his eye, contrasting the horror that gripped everyone else. “Did you see that Tala?”
He turned, but the girl was not by him anymore.
“Tala?” he called, then noticed that the door to his workshop was open. He cocked his head in confusion, but before he could go over to investigate a silver streak came charging out of it.
Clothed head-to-foot in Taki’s spare suit, Tala was bounding towards the raceway.
“What are you doing?” Boro roared, but she dashed past him and swan-dove over the race’s launching point. Like a bullet she streaked down to the ground, her face etched with deepest resolve. She landed on the ground in the same crater Taki had left, and she similarly bounded from it, arcing high and wide over the same edge that he had vanished from.
The crowd exclaimed in shock again, the last sound she would ever hear from them. Their echoes fading behind, she turned her head downwards and dove again. Deeper, deeper, deeper. Chasing after him into the unknown.
Last week I spoke about the technical details of moving a story through time and space. I mentioned that the author has the power to flicker between different locations at will and quicken and slow the timescale freely. These are powerful abilities, and I tried to be cautious with them in this last post so as to not jerk the reader around in an uncomfortable way.
I knew, of course, that the ending of the story was quite dramatic, expanding the world in an instant into something many times the magnitude of what had been seen previously. I knew there were sharp shifts in the flow of time, such as when I froze it to dwell on the singular moment of Taki’s escape, immediately followed by a blistering account of how Tala followed after him.
My intention with that particular sequence was to blitz through Tala’s decision so quickly that it simply became a continuation of what came before, half of an orchestra beginning the crescendo with the rest joining in to finish it. It was a tricky transition, and maybe you could think of a way to better way to write it.
In any case, that brings us to the conclusion of Power Suit Racing. There has been a strong central theme to this story, one that was even reflected in my previous piece Washed Ashore. It is the idea of the chase, one of the most common plot structures in all of storytelling, and one that is forever adaptable to new interpretations. Come back on Monday where we will explore this concept more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
Time is an interesting thing in stories. Where in life we are constrained to move only in one direction and at a constant rate, stories give us a higher level of control. The author possesses the unique ability to travel forwards and backwards in time, to pause it, to speed it up. They can even break time if they so desire.
Consider Darren Aronofsky’s poetic epic: The Fountain. This film takes place across three different timelines, one in the past, another in the present, and another in the future. In each of these timelines different incarnations of the same man run into the same fundamental problem: the death of the woman that they love. Each one of them quests to save her in their own way, but each is missing a piece of the puzzle necessary to do so.
Then, at the film’s dramatic climax, the three timelines begin to reach through their own temporal constraints to deliver comfort and closure to one another. There has not been anything previous in the film to suggest that this is possible, but on the other hand there was also nothing to suggest it wasn’t. I think it works really well for that story, and it gives each arc a hefty emotional resolution.
It’s not as though this film was doing anything very extreme either. Every story breaks temporal rules, even when its characters never do. From the reader’s perspective flashbacks are time travel, switching scenes is teleportation, and knowing a character’s thoughts is telekinesis. One of the reasons we love stories so much is because they allow us to view the world in a way we simply can’t in real life. We sidestep all of the mundane time-and-space-constraints that otherwise define our world, and instead cut right to the chase.
But while authors can make sudden leaps of time and space in their stories, they need to have respect for the fact that this is fundamentally different from the reader’s regular life experience, and therefore inherently unnatural. Therefore one must take care to make that transition as smooth as possible, or else you’ll start to give your audience whiplash.
Over the years there has been a language of transitions established, ones that readers have been trained to understand and expect. They are so ubiquitous that its almost hard to even notice when they happen. One doesn’t know why the story they are reading works so well, just that it does, and they wish that they could do the same in their own work. Well let’s pull back the curtain and see what these tools of the trade are.
Change of Pace)
Perhaps the most common superpower an author uses in storytelling is the ability to speed time up and slow it down. Real life is comprised of sudden and significant moments preceded and followed by long durations of monotony. It wouldn’t do to translate this same experience to the page, no one would read a story that recounted every second that the main character slept at night. Every author naturally wants to blitz from one high point to the next.
On the other hand, those moments of intense significance might bear dialing the timelapse down to “super-slow motion.” The author dramatically captures the microsecond where the sword makes contact with the iron shackles, giving off a thunderous clang, a shower of sparks, and thus frees the dejected captive.
This problem of shifting between two different timescales was one I encountered in just my last post. In part three of Power Suit Racing I needed to cover a wide ground of character growth in as few words as possible. I needed to turn up the speed from giving the action second-by-second to week-by-week. If this were a movie I would have cut to a montage sequence, but this is a written story so a montage wouldn’t work…or would it?
The fact is that one form of storytelling can teach audiences new patterns which can then be translated over into another medium. We have all grown up watching movies and television, and most of us visualize the stories that we read as if they were being filmed by a camera. With that in mind the author can borrow some narrative tricks from the more visual mentality.
With my story I established a trajectory with the last scene of the slower timescale. Taki was determinedly marching off for his next race. Then I just continued that same trajectory with the following scenes of those races, it just so happened that they were brief glimpses separated by hours and days from one another. Hopefully because there was a shared through-line between the greater detail scene and the more sparse ones the transition came off naturally.
Change of Setting)
That idea of transitioning based on a shared through-line is going to show up several times in this study. It’s simply one of the best ways to keep the reader in a familiar context while the set dressing changes around them.
Speaking of changing the set, what about when an author wants to change from one scene to another, but doesn’t want to lose the thread that they were following? Do you remember that scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi rescues Luke from the Sand People? Luke has questions for Kenobi, but he suggests it might be safer to discuss them back at his home. The screen wipes to the interior of Kenobi’s home and their conversation continues. It’s essentially a continuation of the same scene as before, just divided between two locales.
And this transition is able to work because a musical cue begins at the end of the first setting and carries through to the second. It forms a bridge that the viewer’s subconscious uses to connect the two scenes. Stories obviously don’t have musical cues, and they don’t have the ability to softly fade from one image to another, but they can still provide bridges between different settings.
Consider this example:
“Please don’t leave yet,” he said. “I’d like to talk more.”
“I don’t know,” she sighed indecisively.
“You said you were hungry, right? Come on, I’ll show you where to get the best wings in the whole city! I promise you’ll be licking the extra barbecue sauce off your fingers.”
Well, he was right, she thought to herself while taking the last bite of wings fifteen minutes later. They were at a corner shop next to…
By finishing one setting with an item and then starting the next setting with that same item there is a bridge formed. It creates a natural continuation between the two, and once again both halves are sharing a common trajectory.
A Distracting Bridge)
There is another kind of bridge you can use as a writer, and this is the “distracting bridge.” In this one you want to join two scenes that don’t naturally fit together. The second scene isn’t such a natural continuation of the first, but you want to move to it quickly without coming to a cold stop in-between.
I wanted to do this exact thing in my first entry for Power Suit Racing. Taki had his heart broken by Rhuni, and then I needed him to appear in the underbelly of the city next to the racing circuit. I needed a way to connect the two scenes, and so I decided to craft a bridge that flowed from the first scene, twisted round, and then connected with the second.
So what did I do? Taki leaves Rhuni and begins wallowing in self-pity. This is the first bridge, and the reader is seamlessly transitioned from the actual conversation to his thoughts about that conversation. He starts wondering what is left for him in life now that all of his dreams are gone.
At this point the twist occurs. His thoughts take a subtle sidestep into reflecting about his finances. This is still related, because he is wondering what to do with all of the money he had been saving up for his future with Rhuni. Now that the question of what to spend his wealth on has been raised, though, we are able to touch down with our second scene. He hears a street vendor offering competitive prices on a Power Suit, and he comes out of his reverie to pursue his new future.
Sometimes your character is going to naturally come across a mire of unimportance. The next meaningful moment is coming up soon, but you need to get the reader through an idle moment on the way there. It is at these points you use the “distracting bridge.” It’s a magic trick where you wave one hand to capture their attention, and then use the other to stuff the rabbit into the hat.
Not a Transition At All)
This other trick of the trade is so obvious it’s easy to overlook. This is when you don’t need a seamless transition. It’s the full stop, fade to black, forget-about-this-last-scene-and-get-ready-for-the-next. For that the process is simple: just finish the chapter and start a next one. Reader’s have learned to see these large breakpoints as a signal to let go of their current context and start the next area fresh. It’s completely second-nature.
Every now and then it is import for an author to pause and review the fundamentals of storytelling. No matter how good your ideas are, you still need to know enough of the technical details to bring them to life. Management of time and place is one of those techniques that is one of the easiest to overlook because it is so ubiquitous. In fact you’re already doing it whether you were consciously aware of it or not. Usually the first time you realize that you were doing it is when you find that you were doing it wrong.
A movie could be comprised of the most phenomenal writing, acting, and filming, but if the man in the editing room doesn’t know how to weave these elements into a smooth and cohesive whole then the entire thing comes apart. Make sure that once every so often you don your own editor’s cap to ensure that your own transitions between time and space are both intentional and comfortable.
In my next post I’ll be publishing the last section of Power Suit Racing. It will open with a simple conversation in a single setting. That conversation and a second begins, which remain in the forefront while the characters walk to a different location, creating a seamless transition of space to a second setting. That conversation will end on a particularly charged note, one that will create an emotional and physical trajectory that carries clear through the last scene to the end of the story. See if you can pick out those moments when I publish the piece on Thursday, and until then have a wonderful time!
“Add me to the next race,” Taki called out to the registrar, who was seated once more at a small desk and taking applications.
The man looked Taki over, noting the shredded suit barely still hanging onto his battered body.
“That race is in less than half an hour,” the man sniffed, ” and you don’t appear to be…ready.”
“I have my other suit being prepped right now,” Taki waved. “I’ll be ready to run.”
The registrar gave Taki another look-over, this time tabulating all of his scrapes and bruises. He shrugged. Taki got the impression the man didn’t like him very much, but had no doubt been instructed to maintain a very low bar to entry.
“Well then come back here when your other suit is ready to be scanned in. And in the meanwhile get yourself over to the medical tent.”
“Thank you, will do.” Taki strode back to Boro’s shack and deposited the shambles of his current suit, then went to the tent the registrar had referenced. There were no medics inside, this was only an Alley Tier raceway after all, but there were all the basic bandages and disinfectants, and any racer had free access to them. Taki started working on a particularly nasty gouge on his shoulder when he heard a step behind him at the tent’s entrance.
“Hello, Tala,” he nodded as he turned to face her.
“Are you looking forward to a grudge match?” she asked, eliciting a bewildered expression from him.
“What do you mean?”
“That runner who tried to throw you last race, you remember him? You grabbed him and hit the boost together.”
“Well he spun out hard after the boost and he’s been tailing you ever since you got off the spectator’s platform. Right after you signed up for the next race he did as well.”
“Could be a coincidence.”
“Sure,” she scoffed. “It could be.”
“I guess I’d better watch out for him.”
“I guess you’d better.”
There was a heavy pause, an awkwardness from Taki wanting to continue the conversation but not knowing quite how.
“Well, I better go help Boro if you want to get your suit in time for the next race. Good luck not dying out there spark plug!” Then she dashed away before he could say another word.
Spark plug? Was that supposed to be a good thing or not? It didn’t sound particularly flattering. Taki shook his head and tried to focus back on his work. All the adrenaline from the race was fading, and he was only now starting to realize how sore and tender he really felt. It was going to be a hard second race…especially if one of the runners had it in for him.
Well, that was how it was sometimes. One couldn’t wait for fair weather when all of life was a storm.
By the time Taki had himself patched up Boro was putting the final touches on the new suit. It was just as haphazard as the last, but Taki wasn’t so concerned about that anymore. Taki got into the outfit and clunked his way over to the starting drop for the next race. There were seven other racers there, one of which was in the same green suit as the racer Tala had warned him of. That racer’s mask was tinted, so that Taki could not see his expressions. In any case Taki thought it a good idea to position himself as far from that racer as possible, then he looked down at the track beneath them.
As always, the track had been changed between races. Each of the various components that made up the raceway were either on moving arms or else fitted with small thrusters, allowing for an architect to craft a new experience each time.
The change to the track for this race wasn’t particularly interesting. Really it just looked like some giant had shaken the whole track, jumbling the pieces around in a random fashion.
Perhaps the one thing that was interesting was the placement of the race’s end. That platform had been moved to the middle of the track and highly elevated. This would be a more vertical race, then, one where the racers would circle around the final platform, trying to build up enough inertia to vault all the way to the top.
The key to those sorts of races was to find a cycle of boosts, dives, towers, and gravity wells, all linked together and looped through over and over while storing away an ever-increasing reserve of inertia. Then, when one’s banks were full the racer could do an almighty thrust up to the finish.
Taki had been so caught up with the raceway he had completely missed the countdown. As with the first race he vaulted over the edge a moment later than all of the other racers. Or rather, later than all of the other racers but one. Out of the corner of his eye he happened to notice that the green racer had held back, waiting for him to jump first.
Taki spun around as he fell through the air, turning face-up just in time to see the green racer plummeting down to him. It was too late to get out of the way, and so he braced for the impact.
Taki’s suit had already built up enough of a reserve to take the hit without him feeling any of the collision, that wasn’t a concern. What was a concern was that now the other racer had wrapped his arms around Taki’s, locking the two of them together. With the two of them pinned this way the other racer began burning through his own inertia, propelling them downwards like a rocket. The two of them hurtled past all the other racers, screeching towards the pavement below.
This wasn’t a strategy for winning. It was purely a revenge move, one that was entirely illegal and lethal. Taki gritted his teeth and tried to wriggle out of the other man’s grasp, but the lock was too tight and there was no breaking it.
Taki’s eyes fluttered from side-to-side, trying to find some way to escape. His roving eyes happened to light upon the corner of his HUD where his conserved inertia levels were indicated. He had a massive excess there, not too surprising given all of their extra speed.
Taki craned his head backwards, measuring the distance to the ground: 20 meters.
He glanced at the other corner of his HUD which gave the estimated impact force: 34 torques and counting.
Looked back to the ground: 10 meters.
Taki gave a sharp pulse from his own thrusters, not upwards but in a spin. The two of them rolled, now placing Taki on top. The other man thrashed in shock, finally letting go of Taki’s arms.
Right before impact Taki placed his feet on the man’s chest and kicked off, angling his suit to propel him upwards. There was a massive crack and he burst into the air, climbing through space just as quickly as he had been falling through it.
Taki didn’t know if the other man’s suit would have enough energy reserves to displace the force of both Taki’s thrust and the ground beneath. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. It was on that racer’s own head.
Instead Taki was intent on his target: the end platform. All his incredible excess of energy streamed out as billowing pockets of compressed air, vaulting him high into the sky, lifting him to the level of the winning platform. He passed above it, then angled himself down again, firing with his thrusters for a nice, soft landing on the pavement.
And just like that, he had won again.
Taki dropped to his knees and sighed out long and low. He had managed to survive, but his hands were clammy and his body was shaking. He thought he might be sick.
Power Suit Racing tended to attract some of the most desperate and degenerate of society. Frustrating as it was, revenge-mongers were just a part of the sport. Taki didn’t have long to stay alone in his shock. Already the spectator platform was descending to him, and everyone on-board seemed quite animated. The speed of his run must have broken a number of records.
Taki stood to meet them, feeling his resolve return and deepen. This was just a race, one of many. It was over and now it was time to move on to the next. No stopping, no waiting.
Less than an hour later Taki was in the next race, running sideways along a beam, reaching his arm out for a pole. He gripped it and swung himself around to another platform, planting his feet and sprinting towards the finish platform. He had burned too much of his inertia and couldn’t propel himself quickly enough. Another racer in gold won that race and Taki took second. Not as big of a payout, but he would still receive something.
“So you said you came here because you were mad,” Tala said to him as he used a spanner to refit the gloves of his suit. “Tell me about that.”
“Why do you care?”
Tala shrugged. “I like to know what drives a man, I suppose. So, did you kill someone?”
Taki had his feet planted in a wide stance, trying to keep his balance as he slid down an angled platform, coming down the home stretch to the final. Another racer suddenly careened at him from the left, trying to take him out. Taki barely got his hand up and fired a blast just in time to send that competitor spinning away.
Taki’s decline leveled out, came to an end, and he shot out through open space. He threw his hands out and caught the lip of the final platform, but in his moment of distraction had failed to jump high enough to mount it. He gave a blast from the boots of suit, causing his whole body to swing up and around like a pendulum, flipping him onto its surface. He had made it, but during his slight delay another racer had just barely beat him to the win. Second place again.
“Not any sort of crime?” Tala asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Hmm, okay then.” She looked disappointed. “So what are you running from, then? A girl?”
Taki rolled his eyes. “Why couldn’t it be that I’m running towards something?”
“You said you were angry. People don’t run towards things when they’re angry, only when they’re passionate. Anyway, definitely sounds like a girl.”
Taki landed in the center of the gravity well. Here a racer would be suspended in midair, lifting and falling with the pulsing energy. The trick was to figure out the cadence of that pulsation and press against it during an expansion-interval. That resulted the in the runner being catapulted out at terrific speeds. Taki tried to calm his panting breath, looking for that stillness which would allow him to sense the subtle shifts of the pulses.
He paused, waited through a few seconds to be sure he had it right, then thrust! Right as he burst forward another racer slammed him from the side, spinning him to the ground and out of the race.
“They keep targeting me directly!” Taki fumed to Boro.
“You’ve been doing well,” Boro shrugged. “They figure you’re their toughest competition.”
“Well I’m not very flattered.”
Boro sighed. “Listen kid, most of the runners in these races are losers. Now every so often a loser happens to have a little talent and they win a few races, but that streak lasts only four, maybe five races. Because really they’re still a loser, and they don’t know how to make the transition to being a winner. Then the other losers will pull them back down every time. It’s the how it works in this world.”
“But if you do make the transition to be a winner?”
“Then they can’t ever stop you.”
“How do you do it?”
Boro put down his tools and leaned close to Taki, looking him right in the eyes. “You did it once already. In that second race when the guy tried to squash you on the dive. You took his attack and you used it.”
“Really I was just trying to survive.”
“Well from now on winning is surviving. Look, they’re gonna to be coming after you like that. Every. Single. Race. You gotta run with their attacks now, not against them.”
Taki nodded to show he understood. “It sounds hard.”
Boro returned to his work. “Only a winner ever manages it.”
Taki saw the other racer out of the corner of his eye, but he was too late to avoid the hit. The two collided and the other racer threw him into a nearby boost. This boost was not a useful one, though, it was angled upwards, pointing uselessly out to the skies. Sometimes boosts were setup this way, providing red herrings for racers that weren’t paying attention.
Taki hurtled up in the air and spun around, taking in his new, less than ideal surroundings. In this race the final platform was quite low, 50 meters directly beneath him now. The problem was that the fall between him and it was entirely littered by various obstacles. There were a couple platforms running at odd angles, another boost going in the wrong direction, a giant, horizontal fan spinning dangerously…
Taki gritted his teeth, there was nothing but to go for it. He thrust himself downwards, adding his stored inertia to the natural pull of gravity. As he plummeted he gave a sharp twist and wound around the first of the platforms in his way. Now the next platform was coming up quick and he needed to go sideways, so he threw a thrust to the side, scraping across the last few feet of the platform as he rounded its edge.
He burst right, then left, not daring to slow his dive one bit. He needed to keep up as much momentum as possible for the end. The last obstacle was a wide tarmac shell that stretched over the entire top of the finish platform. It was intended to force runners into taking a sideways route to the end.
Taki streaked down to that shell and slammed his feet down against it, simultaneously throwing a downwards thrust and letting his suit’s impact resistors kick in. Under the triple blow the rock burst apart and he fell through the hole and onto the finish below. Finally a first place.
“See I like guys who have a passion for something,” Tala explained.
“I’m really not sure why you keep telling me about what you like and don’t like in guys. I mean I haven’t ever even asked you to dinner.”
“And yeah, about that,” she said accusingly. “What’s your problem there?”
“Oh…uh, well if I did ask would you say ‘yes’ to me?”
She scoffed. “No way. I only like guys who have a passion.”
Three weeks past by in a blur. Every night Taki went to bed sore and exhausted, each morning he raced the next day away. He was surprised at how much frustration he had to burn, but finally he seemed to be getting through it. He had already topped the Alley races and now he was being barraged by sponsors from the higher leagues, each asking him if he was ready to make the transition to the big time. He had made enough winnings to pay off both of his suits, and had even commissioned Boro to make him a third one with higher-grade parts. It would be perfect for an advance to the Street Tier.
But now that he was standing on the precipice of the future Taki felt himself hesitating. The whole point of these races had been to just plunge ahead without a plan, now he was being asked to decide what came next. That sounded a lot like having a plan again.
It was with his muddled around thoughts of the future that he walked off of the observer platform towards Boro’s shack, fresh off yet another win. As he neared the small structure he was pulled out of his reverie by a sense that something was off. Both Boro and Tala were standing outside with arms folded, watching him with apprehensive expressions.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Someone came down to talk to you, boy,” Boro said.
“What? Another sponsor?”
“No,” Tala said softly.
Taki frowned, but clearly the two weren’t going to be forthcoming about this. He sighed and walked through the door. There was a richly dressed woman he didn’t think he knew standing with her back to him. As she heard the door open she turned around to face him.
It was Rhuni.
I mentioned on Monday about the common story archetype of rebirth. I explained that in today’s post we would see Taki fighting to fill the measure of his new identity. Certainly he started this adventure with some natural skill and an inclination for how to race, but as he became more of a threat to the other runners he had to learn to adapt to their attacks.
This growth in his technique is meant to parallel his growth within as well. He is no longer able to identify as just another part of the pack, he is becoming more elevated than the rest of the rabble he runs with. This is leading to a point of decision, evidenced by the conflicting feelings he has for graduating to the higher leagues of the sport. Though that path seems natural and obvious, a voice inside is resisting.
It is at this point of indecision that we are finally ready to see the final component of a character’s transformation: the return. In this case it is the return of his old love interest, come to invite him back to the life he thought he had lost. Next week we will see how he deals with this temptation, and whether he has truly changed or not.
Before that, though, I want to take a brief look at something more technical. I wanted to cover a lot of ground with this section of the story, and that led me to including a montage sequence. All at once the entire timescale of the story shifted to something far more rapid, and then it had to ease back out for the final scene. How exactly does an author manage a shift from one timescale to another anyway? Come back on Monday as we take a deeper dive on that subject, and then on Thursday we’ll have the last entry in Power Suit Racing. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
It’s always interesting to meet an old friend after years apart. Sometimes the person has changed entirely, and it feels like you’re new acquaintances all over again, meeting for the very first time. You’re trying to figure out who this person has transformed into, and perhaps a bit sad that the old friend is gone forever. One of the most common fears we have is the fear of change after all.
But at the same time, the worst fate I could think of is to have a life of never changing or evolving. I wouldn’t want a friend, someone that I care about, to be trapped in some sort of Peter Pan situation of never progressing. I would rather want for each of us to be moving forward to bigger and better things, improving ourselves and making accomplishments that we can be proud of. It’s been said that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying after all.
I remember the first time my family moved. I was about fifteen and I felt deeply divided between excitement for the new possibilities, and sorrow at the loss of all I had known. Having conflicting feelings for the same situation is inherently interesting, and naturally invites creative exploration. No wonder then that the idea of “change” has always been so central to literature.
Stories have long dedicated themselves to examining the phenomenon of change from every possible angle. There are stories where the change is quiet and subtle. Consider the novel Mrs. Dalloway, where Richard decides that he wants to tell his wife that he loves her, though it has been years since he has done so. And then, of course, there are times when the change is quite sudden and dramatic, such as from the very same novel when Septimus decides he will die rather than surrender his private soul.
Most stories are a combination of both subtle and dramatic changes, but obviously the latter grab our attention more. Dramatic changes can be recognized as the momentous occasions which serve as inflection points to the entire narrative, the bends in the river that shape the way it flows.
But we can limit our scope even further. There is a subcategory of changes in literature where one character ceases to be the person that they were, and thus becomes someone else. This sort of total transformation can be found in even the most ancient of fairy tales and religious texts, across all different cultures, and in a great number of stories of today.
It is interesting to note that these sorts of rebirths are very often composed with the exact same symbols and forms as one another. It seems that deep in our psyche we all believe that transformations such as these tend to come with specific trappings. There are four of them in all: an element of a loss, a calling, a mask, and a return.
Loss is inherent in transformation. Subtle changes might allow for a character to remain essentially the same, but transformation demands that something is let go. For every butterfly that emerges from a chrysalis there must come first the loss of a caterpillar. The loss is always something very significant too, something that is often taken against the main character’s wishes
Think of Luke Skywalker, Simba, and Bruce Wayne. Each lose their parent figures at the beginning of their tales. Edmond Dantes loses his freedom after being wrongfully accused. Paul, the Apostle, loses his sight on the road to Damascus.
Growth through pain seems to be one of the universal truths of our world, so it makes sense that it would accompany the transformations we write into our stories. For a character to have space for their new identity, then something about their current identity has to be taken out first. Now there is a hole inside of them, and what follows depends on how that hole is handled.
If the hole remains vacant then the character becomes a hollow shell of who they once were, an old husk that never recovers from their wounds. If it is filled with bitterness then they become a villain, broken and shaped by a cruel world. If it is filled with something noble, then they become the hero. It will only be filled with something noble, though, if that something noble calls out to them.
It is always right when our character hits bottom that something comes along to call them to something higher. This is one of the few times in a story where perfect timing will not be accused of being a coincidence. This isn’t dumb luck, you see, this is fate. The loss only happened because the calling was coming, or else the calling only came because the loss summoned it. Either way readers naturally accept that there is a cause-and-effect relationship here, and so they do not question the convenience of it.
And so Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to learn the ways of the Force, the ghost of Simba’s Father reminds him of who he once was, Bruce Wayne commits himself to fighting injustice, Edmond is given both an education and a secret by Faria, and Paul hears the voice of the Lord.
The presence of callings in our lives means that our loss is not merely suffering for suffering’s sake. It suggests that our pain might be happening for a reason, that there is a purpose to it all. It takes the pessimism out of the pain and gives us hope for a healing.
As I mentioned above, the character that does not find their calling grows cold and cynical, they come to see the world as a place of random chance and inherent injustice. However there is also the possibility that the calling did come, but it was ignored. The calling will never be to do something easy, it has to require an entirely new way of life after all.
To the character willing to answer the call things will never be the same again. The calling shrouds that sufferer in some new, and now the transformation truly begins.
In real life it is commonly observed that after one has gone through an experience of personal transformation they somehow now “look different.” Exactly what has changed might be hard to pin down: a light in the eyes perhaps, a glow in the face, a subtle altering of the complexion. Some sort of ethereal mask seems to have lowered over their face, a change that is sensed more than seen.
In stories these changes are usually made far more explicit. Luke dons the robes and weapon of a Jedi Knight, Simba grows into an adult with a full mane, Bruce Wayne crafts a cape and cowl, Edmond assumes the title of a Count, and Saul begins to call himself Paul. They all now have a new identity, an image, or a name. It is something that makes their change tangible and quantifiable. Other characters and the audience can see the difference in them and know they are dealing with someone new.
We humans are remarkably capable of perceiving things that are invisible, imaginary, and internal. Even so, we usually seek for ways to bring physical representation to them all. We have our crucifixes, our sobriety chips, our gold medals, our college diplomas, and our wedding rings. None of these add directly to our faith, our strength, our intelligence, or our commitment, but they can be useful as reminders of them. Sometimes people fail to use their greater strength simply because they forget that they even have it. Similarly a hero in story often uses their mask to remind themselves of their new identity, and to steel their fortitude whenever the validity of their calling is challenged.
Finally, the full effect of a transformation can only be fully appreciated after the character is compared to what they were before. This might be as simple as having them come home to their humble beginnings for all their old friends to gape in awe at them, or else it might be to revisit an old temptation that they previously succumbed to. Either way the change is made evident in how the familiar situation now has an unfamiliar outcome.
Luke saves the friends that initially thought so little of him, Simba goes home to face the uncle that drove him away, Bruce brings justice to the man who unjustly killed his parents, Edmond exacts both revenge and mercy upon those who misused him, Paul joins the disciples and suffers the same way he once made them suffer.
It is the return that proves to us that the change is real. Until we are put back into the same scenario we might believe that it is only our surroundings which have been altered, and not our core natures. Returning to the same state, then, is the control which proves the transformation has been internal and not external. We truly are something new.
Thus far in Power Suit Racing I have incorporated the first phases of transformation in Taki’s tale. It began with him losing the love of his life, and with it his entire sense of purpose and identity. He wandered with a hole, unsure of his identity when he heard a voice calling out with an invitation. That invitation was to pursue a new venture, one that non-coincidentally involved donning a suit which altered his appearance.
But as we’ll see in my next post, sometimes when one puts on the garb of the future they find it doesn’t quite fit yet. Thursday’s entry will show the process by which he is able to fill the measure of this new person that he is becoming. And then, a week later, we will see the return where he will be compared to the person he used to be. I’ll see you then.
Taki felt a slight sense of reassurance as his suit hummed to life, filling its reserves with all of the kinetic energy he was generating. The unique function of Power Suits was their inertia-displacement-network, an interior mesh that could take his momentum and either absorb it or redirect it in another direction. The result was that Taki’s own body felt only a small fraction of the actual inertia, allowing him to survive impossibly high drops and make hair-pin turns at tremendous speeds.
All that was assuming that this crazy mishmash suit even worked, of course, and Taki was about to test that point. The ground was looming up to him at an incredible rate, and he spun his head to choose a target to bounce to. There was a vertical wall hanging from steel cables nearby, one that was low enough to reach with a small thrust.
Taki rolled in the air, changing from his freefall pose to a crouch, readying himself for impact. His feet hit the ground with a tremendous crack as he kicked off from it, angling in the direction of that vertical wall. The pavement beneath him buckled under the force of his departure and he spun up into the air, flung out with all the converted momentum of his freefall. Although to him it didn’t feel so much like a powerful fling, safe inside his suit it merely felt like a slight tug in that general direction.
Taki turned his head on a swivel, looking out for the other racers. Four others had chosen to peel off in a different direction, and the other three were following him to this vertical wall. That could get a little tight, but that’s what you got when you went for the most obvious route. In the end it didn’t matter which path you took to reach the destination, only that you got there first.
Taki rolled in the air, turning so that his feet would be planted against the wall. He extended his arms to signal the suit to divide his momentums. As his feet touched the walls’ surface he began running with most of his inertia propelling him forward, bounding down the length of wall at high speed. A small reserve of his momentum was consumed pushing him towards the wall, though, enabling him to defy gravity as he ran sideways along its surface.
It was a good start to the race, but Taki started looking for his next push. No matter how much energy you gained from that initial drop, it was never enough to carry you all the way to the finish. During the race one had to always be on the lookout for fresh sources of inertia.
Taki spotted another wall, this one horizontal, and it was painted in the bright yellow color that designated it as a “boost.” It was across and slightly up from him, far enough that it would strain all his remaining momentum to reach it. If he missed, he would clatter back down to the ground, bereft of any inertia, and would be unable to finish the race.
Timing was everything. Taki positioned himself, then pushed down hard with his last step and shifted his suit’s momentum towards the boost. His suit flung him in the desired direction, but it gave an ominous whine at the upwards strain. The noise distracted him so that he didn’t notice the green-suited competitor nearing him from behind.
A sickening thud sounded as the other racer collided into him with brutal force. Such moves were legal in the game, though they were still dangerous. Each suit could only tolerate so much of an impact before they would break apart and the racer would be exposed to all of the tremendous forces slamming into their body.
This other racer wasn’t specifically trying to break Taki’s suit, though, more so just shove him out of the way so that he would miss the boost. Instinctively Taki threw his hand out and gripped the ankle of his opponent, letting that racer’s suit continue to pull him in the correct direction. The two of them tumbled sideways onto the boost, and it propelled them forward with a blast, spinning them wildly through the open air.
Taki released his competitor and spun away, trying to get his bearings well enough to plan his landing. There was a tower just ahead of him, a hollow shaft that rose high into the air. He pointed his feet towards it, and on impact he kicked outwards and upwards, propelling himself higher up the inside of that shaft. He came near to another wall and kicked outwards and upwards from that one as well, returning to the first wall at a still higher point. He repeated this over and over, zig-zagging his way up the structure, hoping his momentum would last all the way to the top.
Once he cleared that top he would have a broad view, a big drop, and a lot of fresh inertia to work with. Hopefully that would be enough to make up for the considerable amount of time he was expending in here.
Taki closed the distance to the top of the shaft. His suit was straining to meet his repeated calls for more energy, but with a little extra tug from his arms he managed to clear the lip at the top.
For a brief moment Taki was suspended in midair, high enough that he could scan the entire rest of the raceway. He only had a split-second, but for him that would be enough.
First he picked out the finish line: a raised platform some hundred meters still distant.
Then he counted off every racer he could see still moving through the pitch. Two…three…four. The others must have crashed or run out of inertia. One of those four was hanging low and slow, likely not in the running for much longer. The other was up high on another tower, and the last, one in purple, was probably on track to reach the finish soonest. It was always hard to tell for sure in such a non-linear race.
Taki processed all of this, and then felt the rush as he began to plummet down towards the earth. His last act was to pick out his next series of moves. He would have to move quickly to catch the leader, that meant being bold and trusting that the rickety, old suit would be able to keep up.
As the air shrieked past his form he angled a tiny portion of his inertia to propel him slightly forwards. Thus he fell at a slant, gaining speed from the drop but also steering to be on approach to a distant boost laid out on the ground.
The bare ground rushed up to meet him, and with only three feet before impact Taki flung his inertia forward, reserving a tiny portion to push him upwards from the surface. The result was that he zipped forward like an arrow, barely skimming above the ground and avoiding all of its slowing friction.
He rocketed forward and hit the boost with some inertia still to spare. He pocketed that and watched the meter rise on his HUD as he flung forward with still greater speed. An upwards-sloping wall rushed outwards to fill his vision and he was running up its vertical stretch without a second thought. He summited that, then found himself looking down to the finishing platform just ahead. It was a single drop away.
His moment of elation wavered as he saw the purple streak of that other racer making for the prize. That racer was coming at it from a more grounded approach, sliding down a narrow beam that ended with a small jump to the platform. The racer was going to make it to the end before Taki.
“14 torques, right?” he thought back to that pretty assistant’s claims.He twisted for his approach and punched his inertia forward. He lurched both forwards and downwards, maintaining a straight shot for the victory. As he fell through the air his suit filled up with kinetic energy, which he immediately called upon to propel him still faster. And with that faster falling came still more energy, and still he strained it for greater speed.
His eyes flicked to the display on his HUD that estimated upcoming impact forces. 11 torques. 12. 13.
He streaked past a purple blur. At least he wasn’t going to lose, then, it was just a matter of being able to live to tell anyone about it now.
He gave one last push to correct his angle of approach and then prayed that there would be something left in the reserves to dispel some of the blow he was about to take.
The black-and-white checkered paint flew beneath him. Taki spun in the air to set himself up for a roll.
The hard, gray pavement grew near enough to make out its every dent and crack.
Taki touched the ground. A small plume of smoke erupted around him as the meager reserve of energy remaining in his suit dispelled as much of the forces as possible. Then, with nothing left to power the inertia-displacement-network, Taki truly felt the ground.
It was like a sledgehammer being swung into his knees, sending shockwaves up and down his legs and dissolving all his bones. He couldn’t have remained standing if he wanted. He fell to his side and flung sideways across the ground in a cyclone whirl. He hit the ground the crunch, metal pieces breaking off his suit and zipping through the air like shrapnel. The ground battered his ribs and punched the air out of his lungs. Then he ricocheted up into the air, only to slam back down again, this time taking the sledgehammer on his back.
The entire world was a rotating blur, and Taki didn’t even see what it was that slammed into his legs and threw him into a spin. Now he both rotated and spun, but he also noticed that he was starting to slow down. He punched down with his entire forearm, grinding the limb into the ground. The acrid smell of burning metal filled his nostrils and his arm felt like it was being sanded to the bone, but he held it down firmly and at last felt himself slowing to a stop.
The patch of world he could see outside the helmet became stationary, but his insides were still churning like a storm within. Every square inch of him was aching, but at least that meant he was still alive! He started to laugh, but stopped when that brought sharp pains from his bruised ribs.
He was facing up towards the sun and he just lay there, not wanting to move again for as long as he lived. Suddenly a face slid into view, looking down at him from above. It was that girl, the one that worked for Boro.
“That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said flatly.
“Yeah,” he winced. “Were you impressed?”
She scoffed and walked away.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he called after her, tenderly pushing himself up on his elbow. He winced, but slowly made his way back to his feet.
The girl was still walking away, pressing against the tide of other spectators that were rushing forward to greet the racers. They had all just arrived on the floating platform that hovered over the raceway and gave them a view of the action down below. The master of ceremonies swaggered forward and clapped Taki heavily on the back, a gesture Taki’s sore body did not appreciate.
“What a strategy!” the man bellowed. “I admit you had me scared there, but it seems you pulled through alright–”
“Yeah, yeah,” Taki said distractedly. He held out his digicard impatiently. “My winnings?” The man tutted at Taki’s bad manners, but swiped the card through a panel mounted to his arm and handed it back.
Taki elbowed his way through the small crowd and found Boro’s assistant moving away from the throng. She still had her back to him, but she was walking slowly. As if she wanted him to come talk to her more.
“Hey, hold up,” he called, hobbling his way over to her side. She didn’t try to get away from him, but she didn’t look at him either. “So wait, you’re mad at me?” He asked. “I won, didn’t I? And that’s good for you, isn’t it?”
“What do I care if Boro gets richer?” she said shortly.
“Well…what do you care about then?”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“What? Were you worried about me?” His voice was hopeful.
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Well I don’t see why else you’d be upset.”
“Maybe I just don’t like to see a waste of good machinery.”
“Oh come on, it was my first race in years. I’m still getting back the feel of things.”
“And just what is it that brought you back here for your ‘first race in years?'” she asked pointedly, finally targeting him with her accusing glare.
He felt exposed and awkwardly fluttered his eyes downwards. “It was just–time for a change, I guess.”
“Uh-huh.” She folded her arms, unconvinced.
“I guess I was angry.” He surprised himself at the admission.
Her eyes narrowed, but some of the hostility seemed to dissipate. She leaned forward. Close, very close. Taki swallowed nervously.
“Well I don’t like boys who are angry,” she breathed so softly it was barely audible.
He blinked back at her, but she turned and stomped her way back to the spectator’s platform. He didn’t try to talk to her again, he shuffled onto a different side of the platform and silently wondered at the confusion that was churning inside of him.
Why was he worrying what some girl thought of him? Hadn’t coming here been about not caring what girls thought anymore? Well… and apparently also about being angry. Why had he said that? And now that girl seemed angry, too. Why did that bother him? Why did it excite him?…
What was her name?
Taki was pulled out of his reverie when the floating platform returned to the starting point of the raceway and all of the passengers disembarked. He looked forward, his former resolve crystallizing again in his heart, redoubling even. He strode purposefully over to Boro who was smiling broadly from the doorway of his shack.
“That was quite the stunt you pulled, sonny. Couldn’t have managed something like that with one of the pretty models, I promise you that.”
“Your suit did good,” Taki affirmed. “I imagine it’s going to take a while to repair it now?”
“Well yes…and there’s not going to be much of the winnings left after we detract the cost for that. But I like the way you run, so I’ll let you keep a full thirty percent of the remainder!”
“Keep it,” Taki said. “Use it for the down payment on my second suit.”
“Yes, I’m running in the next race available. Meanwhile you fix the first and I’ll swap back and forth between the two, paying off both as I go.”
“That’s…not standard practice,” Boro said in bewilderment, still trying to wrap his head around the notion.
“No it’s not, but I intend to run a streak that isn’t standard either. Now you said you liked the way I run and I’m giving you the opportunity to double your earnings. Do we have a deal or not?”
Out of the corner of his eye Taki saw the pretty assistant approaching the two of them. He pretended not to notice, instead giving Boro all of his attention. The squat man was squinting, sizing Taki up.
“Alright, deal,” Boro finally concluded, holding out his hand.
Taki shook it, then turned to sign up for the next race.
“Tala,” the girl’s voice rang out from behind him. “My name is Tala.”
He turned and smiled to her. She had a curious expression on her face, not one of approval, nor one of disappointment. Just curious. It was like she was sizing him up as well, wondering what he was capable of.
“Thank you, Tala,” he said politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” And with that he resumed his walk back to the grandstands. He, too, wondered what he was made of. Well, soon they all would have their answer.
On Monday I mentioned that for this post I needed to pull off an action sequence that would be both interesting and exciting. If this sport fell flat then the whole story would as well, as it is the central setting of the work.
To achieve the “interesting” I wanted the mechanics of the game to be unique and intricate. To achieve the “exciting” I wanted the pace to be snappy and action-packed. These two requirements put me in the middle of a difficult balancing act.
You see explaining the mechanics would be best if I went over them in the very moment of action. A big exposition dump that details everything beforehand just gets glossed over by the reader, with very little information actually being absorbed. Educators have long known the best method for teaching is to give a short description, followed immediately by active illustration. In your writing you should always strive for the same.
But I also knew that I couldn’t be bogging the action down with these explanations either. It’s supposed to be a fast-paced sport, and wedging a fat paragraph of exposition between every lightning-fast maneuver would absolutely kill the pace. Never forget that when two moments are interrupted by a wall of explanatory text between, it will feel to the reader as if the action took as long to happen as the time it took to read everything.
A lot of my effort therefore went into getting my descriptions as short and precise as possible, which is a very worthwhile exercise for its own sake! I’m personally pretty happy with the results, though I do feel some parts still flow better than others.
Another important part of this segment is that we see our main character undertaking a drastic change in his life. He is literally diving headlong into a fast and visceral world, hoping to find some missing part of himself therein. This idea of a character being reimagined as something new is a classic of literature. There has always been something epic in the notion of a character’s rebirth.
Often when an element is so integrated with literate we find that it comes with a whole train of associated tropes, and “rebirth” is no different. On Monday I’d like to explore those common trappings further, and then next Thursday we’ll start to see how Taki faces this push to evolve. I’ll see you there, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
I wonder which gymnast commentator was the first to excitedly shout “…and he sticks the landing!” It’s become a staple of the sport, used to signify that the athlete has performed some particularly difficult dismount, and still managed to land with perfect finesse. In this sport it isn’t so much about how many flips and twists you can do in the air, it’s how many you can do while still maintaining your control through to the end.
This is “theory versus execution,” and “easier said than done,” and “not just talking the talk but walking the walk.” In so many circles of life people are far less impressed with what you can imagine, and more so with what you can actually do.
And yes, this applies to writing as well. The fact is, coming up with a great idea for a story is not that hard. Go attend any writer’s group and you will meet dozens of people who all have “great ideas.” And it’s not that they’re wrong, either. Every person has a genius inside of them, and when they really set their imaginations to something the result is both exciting and awe-inspiring.
Yet very few of these would-be magnum opuses ever actually get written. It’s one of the greatest tragedies that so much creativity goes unrealized, so much potential goes squandered. And why does this happen? Well, “easier said than done.”
I’ve written about this before, the gap between imagination and execution. The talent is not in having a great idea, it is in being able to give a voice to it. We do not praise Da Vinci for having the image of the Mona Lisa in his mind, we praise him for actually getting it onto the canvas.
Failure and Fear)
I’m sure we can all think of experiences where an author has gone for something impressive and left us disappointed. Just recently I read a novel that had me cringing as the main character had a story related to him, one that was meant to be wise and profound, one that would compel him to action. And while the main character was nodding his head and expressing amazement at such “profound wisdom,” I was just rolling my eyes at such shallow kitsch.
Of course some authors may wish to avoid falling flat on their face like that. And so, if the story calls for a moment of grandeur they try cheat their way around it. They will say something impressive happened, but they don’t actually show it. I remember a film where the main character stood up to give a rousing speech at the film’s conclusion. Instead of actually coming up with something meaningful for him to say, though, the movie simply drowned out his voice with sentimental music and slowly panned past a row of people, all nodding as if they were hearing him say something very moving.
That’s hardly any better, and it’s quite possibly even worse. So what then? Well some authors will just avoid including anything meaningful at all. There’s no risk of flubbing an impressive sequence if there just aren’t any impressive sequences. Or maybe they figure out how to do one thing right, and then they just churn that out over and over with every story. It’s like that childhood friend who could draw Fred Flinstone really well…but only from this one angle and in one pose.
In my work-life these sorts of limitations are not tolerated. The software industry is ever-changing and ever-evolving. If you stand still and never stretch yourself, then you will not keep your job. Perhaps your work is poor quality, you will get feedback on that and you will be expected to improve. To improve you are expected to ask for training and put in the hard work to master that area. Once you have mastered that task, then the process starts over as you are expected to now take the next step.
Sometimes you see the moment of epiphany in a new developer’s eyes, the moment when they finally get it. Their daily work isn’t the software, it’s the improvement. We aren’t asking them to “do their task,” we’re asking them to “own their craft.”
That transformation is where the worker becomes the true professional. Steven Pressfield, a very accomplished author himself, explored this very notion in his book The War of Art. Here he explains that being professional isn’t about being paid, it is about being a master of one’s craft and not accepting any personal limitations. The professional author is a true artist of the page, one to whom creativity is both the means and the end.
If a professional writer found he couldn’t stick the landing he wouldn’t rewrite the scene to hide his weakness. He would say “well, I guess that’s what I need to learn next.” When the professional writer publishes her next book she doesn’t “play it safe” and just rehash everything she did before. No, each of her entries is a testament to how much she’s challenged herself, and how she’s grown to meet those challenges.
My Own Downs and Ups)
The second short story I published on this blog was called The Houses’s Finest Hour, and it was my attempt at doing an ambient piece. For the entire post I ignored characters and plot, and instead focused on describing a location, using all of the long and flowery sentences I could muster. I did it because I knew it was something I didn’t do very much, and I wanted to give myself a challenge. Well, I certainly succeeded in that regard.
It was one of the most difficult things I had ever written. I just wasn’t any good at it. I wrote and rewrote, and second- and triple-guessed every sentence. It took tremendous effort to post what I did, and frankly even then it still wasn’t very good. I knew it wasn’t very good, but it really was the best I could do then.
At that moment I knew I had found the next thing for me to learn. Throughout the entire year that has followed I have returned numerous times to this same task, not willing to let that freshman effort be my final word on capturing an atmosphere. Almost all of my work has involved scenery-painting in one form or another, and a few have even been built exclusively around it. Sculpting Light, Deep Forest, and The Last Grasshopper all represent milestones in my journey to improve in that regard. In fact, just two weeks ago I posted Washed Ashore, which represents my latest attempt at writing a piece that conveys a palpable mood.
I would say there is obviously still room to grow, and I still haven’t given my final word on that subject. But I have actually improved, and I am glad I didn’t try to shy away from a portion of storytelling just because I wasn’t very good at it initially.
Being able to pull off an impressive narrative sequence is, in some ways, what being an author is all about. It is a large part of what characterizes and defines all of the most celebrated writers. If you really want to make your next piece sing, you’re going to have to write that is hard.
That’s what I’m personally going to be doing with my very next post. In my current story I’ve already introduced our main character Taki, and established that he is about to engage in some sort of futuristic and dangerous racing competition. Now this particular sport is going to be central to all the rest of the story. So I really need it to be something that is exciting and original, somewhere that the reader will want to spend time. The reader needs to readily understand how this sport works, they need to be utterly captivated by it, and they need to be curious to know more!
If I fail in this ambition, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. As I said, the meat of the story is going to be taking place around the race track, so if that track isn’t an interesting place to be then the story isn’t going to be interesting to read. I’m flipping off the pommel horse and I may just fall flat on my face. But I’m all for the challenge. In fact I’m excited about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!