Never, Ever Head Hop

A Common Rule)

There are a few pieces of advice that always turn up when you start learning how to write. “Show, don’t tell,” is a famous one, meaning that you should describe events directly, and communicate characters’ emotions by how they act. There’s also “write well-rounded characters,” which means that your characters have nuance and personality, with more than a single dimension to define them.

A third rule that is oft repeated is that you should “never, ever head hop,” which means to shift from one character’s perspective to another in a single scene. If you begin the scene with Max telling you about his inner thoughts and feelings, then you shouldn’t have Eleanor doing the same just a few moments later. You don’t want something like this:

Max picked up the papers and lifted them across the table.

"It's just a contract," he said "it's just business." Why does she always have to take these things so personally? he wondered.

Eleanor ignored the papers, angrily tapping her fingers on her arm. Doesn't he realize that nothing is 'just business' anymore? 

Why Not?

But why not write it this way? It’s understandable, isn’t it? So long as we clearly label where every thought and feeling is coming from the audience will be able to follow along, so what’s the problem with it?

Well, yes, we could write a novel this way, and if we made clear distinctions at every change then yes, the audience would understand. In fact, many of the audience may not even realize that we are doing something that is frowned upon. But even if they don’t pick up on it consciously, the audience will lose a little bit of their reading flow every time we make a change.

Jumping from one context to another requires a small, mental effort to reorient oneself. After all, in reality we only inhabit one headspace–our own–and when we read a novel, we also try to inhabit just one headspace. We try to attune ourselves to the thought patterns and feelings of Max, and when the story suddenly jumps to Eleanor’s perspective, we have to get ourselves in that context instead.

Of course, this isn’t meant to suggest that you can’t let the reader know what both of these characters’ inner thoughts are, just that they need to be told to from one perspective.

So, for example, consider this passage, where we communicate the same information, but only as interpreted by Max:

Max picked up the papers and lifted them across the table.

"It's just a contract," he said "it's just business." Why does she always have to take these things so personally? he wondered. 

He watched as Eleanor tapped her fingers on her arm, which was one of her tells when she was angry. He understood that this wasn't 'just business' to her.

Another option would be to tell the story from an omniscient, outsider’s perspective. In this case the mind that the reader is inhabiting is that of the narrator. We can still describe each characters’ inner thoughts, but it is the narrator who relays them to the reader, not the characters.

Max picked up the papers and lifted them across the table. 

"It's just a contract," he said "it's just business." To him there was nothing personal about it.

Eleanor ignored the papers, angrily tapping her fingers on her arm. To her it absolutely was!

It Happens to Us All)

Of course, the reason why this is such a common piece of advice is because we authors are so frequently in violation of it. And that includes me, too. I fully understand the principle, yet I realized that I broke it a few times already in my latest chapters of The Salt Worms.

Consider the last chapter, where Nathan ran across the salt fields while being shot at by a sniper and pursued by a truck. I never got into anyone’s head but Nathan’s, but I did make sudden jumps from his inner thoughts to the city wall where the sniper was lining up her next shot, something that we clearly weren’t seeing through Nathan’s eyes.

I offended the “no head hopping” rule more egregiously earlier, when Nathan was fighting with Everett in the bowl. I jumped into Nathan’s head as he came to the realization that his foe had run out of bullets, then I jumped into Everett’s head as he came to the realization that Nathan had come to that realization.

Admittedly, I struggled a little when writing those sudden, sharp transitions. They just felt off to me, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that it was because of this rule I was violating. If you’re ever having a hard time making a smooth transition in your story, it might be because it’s a transition you shouldn’t even be trying to make!

How Did I Get into This Mess?)

But why do we writers make this mistake in the first place? If these are transitions are so unnatural to read, why do they seem natural to us when we write? From looking at my own experience, this issue seems to crop up as a combination of two factors.

The first is that I don’t plan ahead. I usually don’t give much thought to my story’s perspective when I start to write it. Most of us will naturally settle into a close third person, where the view is not directly from within a character’s head, but close to it. But I don’t take the time to make that decision consciously, and so I don’t ask myself at the outset of each scene how I’m going to keep that perspective.

The second factor is that I want to have my cake and eat it, too. In yesterday’s chapter I wanted to see how Nathan reacted to the bullets raining down on him from far away, but I also thought it would be neat to show the person who was pulling the trigger as well. To write that scene from one perspective would have meant having to cut out half of those moments.

And I think the reason why I imagine scenes that hop back and forth between characters in the first place is because I picture them like a scene from a movie. Movies, you see, are not beholden to this rule of no head hopping. In a movie all you have to do to change perspective is literally just cut to a shot that is centered on another character. You don’t have to write something like “back at the city wall, Maxine locked the next bullet into the chamber….”

Thus, these past few chapters of The Salt Worms would have worked just fine for a film adaptation, but they are strange in a novelette. Moving forward, I want to decide beforehand what the perspective of my stories will be, commit to them in each scene, and always remember that I am writing a short story, and not a screenplay.

Though maybe I should start writing some of these stories as screenplays in the first place…

Form in the Function

Higher and Higher)

We will soon be in the Christmas season, during which time innumerable Christian churches will be putting on a performance of Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio that tells the story of Jesus Christ, first composed some two-hundred-and-eighty years ago by George Frideric Handel. It is, perhaps, the most famous of all Christmas music pieces, especially its Hallelujah Chorus.

It is also an excellent example of something called “word painting,” which means music that is written to imitate the text that is being sung. So, for example, take that most-famous movement we just mentioned: the Hallelujah Chorus. Look at the notes alongside of the text and you will see there is a deliberate connection between the written words and sudden changes of pitch.

For starters, go 29 seconds into the piece where they start to sing “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” Notice how relatively low the first phrase is sung at, with the Hallelujah’s suddenly exalting to the stratosphere?

Now go forward to 1:17, and see how they are singing “The kingdom of this world” with notes dragging along at G4, down as low as the world and all measly its kingdoms. But then with the following words: “the kingdom of our Lord,” the notes suddenly shoot up an entire octave, mingling with the heavens!

And finally go to 1:59 for that famous “King of kings, and Lord of lords!” There are these two phrases repeated three times, for six individual statements. And notice how each statement is a few notes above the previous, giving a sense of constant ascension, like that of Jesus ascending above all other kings and lords.

And this same pairing of text to note is evident in other movements in this oratorio. Consider this one from All We Like Sheep.

Right at the start notice that the four-part harmony is kept in unison through the first phrase “All we, like sheep.” But then, when they sing “have gone astray,” the notes go all over the place. In fact, they not only wander, but they wander differently from each other. The sopranos are going astray one direction and the tenors in another!

Thus, Handel did not only write music that was pleasant to listen to, he also wrote it to have special significance when paired with its words. That is a very impressive feat, and no doubt part of why this piece remains so compelling nearly three hundred years later.

Assigning Meaning)

Of course, what does more rapid vibrations in the voice of soprano really have to do with Jesus being the king of kings? Well, nothing, I suppose. We artificially decided to call notes at a more rapid frequency as being of “higher” pitch, and decided to call one person who rules over others as also being of a “higher” status. And so, the pairing of “higher” notes to Jesus being of a “higher” status is somewhat arbitrary. It really only makes sense if your language happens to tie those ideas together.

Suppose it had been more common in our culture to say that a ruler was of a “lower” status than everyone else, because the leader was the foundation of them all. Then Handel might very well have written his piece so that it was the bass’s who belted out Jesus was the lowest Lord of them all.

And to be sure, this phenomenon of symbolism being changed by cultural and linguistic meaning really does occur in life. In the west we typically associate the color red with anger and harm, which is why the color is reserved in Star Wars for Darth Vader’s lightsaber and the emperor’s personal guards. But in China red is a good color, signifying luck and fortune. Thus, in the Chinese film Hero, a major sequence is shown with the heroic characters clothed in red, protecting a calligraphy school from a barrage of arrows. Seeing the protagonist dash about in streaming red may make for a strange, conflicting image to western audiences, but it wouldn’t have in China.

Literature)

And, of course, the written word is also used to accentuate the feelings that the author wishes to convey. Deep, thoughtful moments are written with long, adjective-ridden sentences. Sudden, impactful moments in short, direct phrases.

And I tried to follow this same wisdom in the last chapter of my story. During a moment of battle, I described its sequence of events in a short staccato:

Everett delivered a heavy uppercut and Nathan was sent sprawling to the ground. Everett whipped out his pistol. It was empty of bullets, but he flipped it around to wield it like a club. He gave a powerful, overhead swing that Nathan barely got his arm up in time to block! Everett raised the gun back overhead, but Nathan suddenly pelted the rock hidden in his hand at Everett's face. Everett fell backwards, and in a moment Nathan was upon him, knife clicked open, and blade pressed against his throat.

The battle concluded, and I suddenly started to put a lot more detail into my sentences, taking the time to make the painful effects of the fight sink into the character and the reader:

Everett lay there on the ground, panting and wheezing and crying, urging the throbbing in his gut to quiet down enough to move. He ground his teeth together and clenched his fists, distracting himself from the pain enough to roll back onto his knees. Slowly, laboriously, he pushed his way up to a stooping stand.

Whether in music, or cinema, or literature, it isn’t just what you say that matters, it’s how you say it. Each of these mediums are very robust, they are able to convey an extremely wide range of mood and expression. Anyone that uses them should become familiarize with each of these forms, so that they properly know how to apply them to the appropriate function.

If you can capture the spirit of your scene’s action in the structure of your sentence, then it no longer is a case of you telling the reader what has happened, you are causing them to experience it directly!

Well, Isn’t That Convenient?

The Wonderkid Chet)

When I was young I loved reading the Hardy Boys mystery stories. This famous series began in 1927, first conceived of by Edward Stratemeyer but written by many ghostwriters over the years. The novels all involve the eponymous brothers, Joe and Frank Hardy, who are sons of a detective and anxious to lend their sleuthing skills to any difficult and dangerous case.

The two brothers also have a friend, Chet Morton, who is enthusiastic and jolly, but also chubby and foolish. He’s a silly companion, yet also surprisingly useful. Because without fail, Chet is always learning some new hobby in the Hardy Boys’ stories, and it always just so happens that that hobby is exactly what the boys need to get out of a bind later on.

Which is, of course, coincidental to the point of being ridiculous. Actually, it comes up so often that it becomes a sort of running gag. Thus when you read Case #45: The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge, and Chet starts talking about his new shot-put fascination, you’re already in on the joke, trying to guess in what way it will come into play. You’re sure that somehow the bad guys are going to set things up so that the only way forward requires hurling a heavy ball a very great distance…and that is exactly what happens!

What’s This, Q?)

Another example of eye-rolling good fortune comes through James Bond’s quartermaster Q. In every Bond film Q has invented some new and fantastic contraption which, while clever, does not appear to have any immediate value. At least it doesn’t until the villain catches Bond in a trap which just so happens to be broken by that very same gadget! Take, for example, the famous laser wristwatch that Bond receives in GoldenEye, and which proves to be the perfect thing for Bond to cut his way through the metal floor of a train that is rigged with explosives.

As with The Hardy Boys, every time a new gadget is introduced we aren’t surprised when it happens to be useful, we are surprised that the writers were able to come up with a way for it to be so!

There is a time and a place for inside gaffs like these, but as a general rule, unless you’re using the coincidence as a way to wink at the audience, you probably don’t want to write any Chet Morton’s or Q’s into your story. Audiences will quickly lose patience with a tale where the protagonists “just so happen” to have exactly the thing they need to get out of a bind. It smacks of lazy writing, as it takes very little skill to write your hero into an exciting predicament, but a great deal more skill to get them honestly out of it.

Unraveling the Knot)

When a hero gets out of a problem by coincidence then they never really overcame the obstacle and they didn’t earn their success. And that is always a dissatisfying resolution for your readers. As a writer, if you took the time to tie an intricate and massive knot, then you ought to come up with a more clever way for your hero to dismantle it than to just hack through it with a sword. Which, come to think of it, that’s exactly what Alexander the Great did!

The legend is that Gordius, father of King Midas, once tied a knot so elaborate that no man was able to undo it for hundreds of years. Further adding to the knot’s fame was an ancient oracle’s prophecy that the man who could tease apart its secrets would conquer all of Asia.

Well, many years later, when Alexander the Great heard about this famous knot he came to solve its puzzle and claim the associated reward. He stared into its intricacies for a time, but then proclaimed that it didn’t matter how the thing was undone and cleaved right through it with his sword! Then, true to the Oracle’s prophecy, Alexander extended his empire throughout all of Asia minor.

So, did Alexander cheat the solution and get away with it? Well, at first it might seem so, but one ought to consider the rest of his story before making their final judgment. For just as Alexander brute-forced his way through the Gordian Knot, so to he captured his swaths of land only by the power of his sword. And in his haste to acquire, he never learned the secret of the far more difficult task: how to keep. He didn’t puzzle out the intricacies of how to lead a massive nation or win the hearts of its people.

Thus, no sooner did Alexander die than the entire nation broke apart, his brother and child were murdered, and the rule of Asia slipped from his household forever. Alexander may have appeared clever and powerful in the moment, but he hadn’t really solved the mystery of the knot, or the mystery of how to rule. Whether in legend or literature, a cheap solution is always fleeting.

Earn It)

Yes, it takes more effort to come up with a clever way for your protagonist to earn their way out of a tight spot. Truly ingenious plotting requires a truly ingenious mind…or at least a mind that’s patient enough to wait for the right solution.

In my story I recently had a character sneak up on my sleeping protagonist with his gun drawn and at-the-ready. The would-be assassin came within a few yards of the main character, aimed his weapon, and fired at the protagonist’s head! Now obviously I didn’t want to kill off my main character, so I needed a way for that bullet to miss. But I didn’t want to rely on some lazy convenience, such as the assassin tripping on a rock or the hero just happening to turn over at the right time.

For a while I couldn’t think of a way for my unconscious hero to get out of the bind that didn’t feel contrived, but at last an idea did occur to me. What if he was in the habit of protecting himself from just such an attack by always sleeping with his head behind a rock? What if he had learned to do that from previous night-encounters. Then my would-be assassin’s bullet could bounce harmlessly off of the stone, and it wouldn’t feel like my main character cheated. He has earned the triumph by his wit, not by dumb luck.

And I’m going to hold true to this standard as I continue to write my main character into and out of more dangerous situations. No coincidental hobbies, fantastic gadgets, or cheap shortcuts will pave the way for him, his only success will be what he has earned.

I Am Your Aggravator

The Indisposed Villain)

Who is the one, great source of opposition in The Lord of the Rings? Of course the answer is Sauron. It is his will that compels every other foe that the heroes face up against, he is the one pulling of all the strings, his is the one life force that absolutely must be destroyed.

However…as a literary character Sauron has almost no presence whatsoever! He is more of a disembodied force, an idea, impersonal and vague. Yes, he is evil, but he isn’t a foe that the heroes can actually cross swords with.

And that is why The Lord of the Rings also has characters like Saruman, the Witch King of Angmar, and Gollum. These are villains with bodies and voices, villains who are able to compete over the same physical space as our heroes, villains who have to be dealt with as individuals. Boromir might not be the main villain of the story, but when Sauron bends his mind to try and take the ring from Frodo, that physical attack suddenly makes Sauron seem less like a vague concept and more like an active presence in the world. Thus, to be victorious, our heroes must not only overcome their more base natures, but also slay a few orcs along the way!

This same situation of a disembodied evil can be found in the first half of the Harry Potter franchise. Lord Voldemort is unquestionably the main villain of the series, but until the end of the fourth book he only exists as an intangible soul. Like in The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series remains visceral by then adding more corporeal henchmen to stand in for Lord Voldemort, flesh and blood enemies that the heroes must face up against. Professor Quirrell, Wormtail, Barty Crouch, Fluffy…all of these characters stand in as bodies that the audience can hate and fear until Lord Voldemort finally gets one of his own.

The Theoretical Made Real)

You can see this same notion in the final soliloquy of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. This John Steinbeck novel follows a family during the Great Depression, as they migrate to California in the hope of finding work. Instead they find one disappointment after another, several of their number die along the way, and they are made to witness all manner of extortion and corporate abuse.

Eventually this all leads to Tom Joad killing a man, and he knows he has got to make a run for it, as much for his benefit as for his family’s. His mother wonders how she will know where he has gone and what has become of him, but he replies that it doesn’t matter.

I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there....I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.

Tom is talking philosophically. He is seeing himself as being a part of humanity’s all-encompassing soul, which is necessarily a vague and impersonal thing. But then look at how he goes about describing it. He sees it in the corporeal, physical moments of hungry people fighting, a man being oppressed by the police, angry people shouting, and so on. To be sure, an idea is a real thing, but Tom needs to personify it in order to feel and express its realness.

Own Worst Enemy)

This same phenomenon is at play in the noir film Double Indemnity. In this movie Walter Neff is an unassuming insurance salesman, who then begins assuming far too much when Phyllis Dietrichson seduces him and convinces him to murder her husband! The idea is that he will be able to set up a double indemnity clause in Mister Dietrichson’s account, allowing for a large insurance payout when he dies.

But what seems to be a foolproof plan begins to unravel as the murdered man’s “accidental death” falls under suspicion of murder. Further complicating things is the fact that Phyllis is untrustworthy and unpredictable, likely to blow her cover when Neff very much needs her to keep a cool head.

So, what is the villain in this story? Lust and greed, of course. These are the vices that drive every bad thing that happens and leads to the story’s tragic ending. But of course, Walter and Phyllis are the villains as well. They are the ones who hold the vices, and so they stand in proxy of them, directly incurring the ire of the audience. Lust and greed might be their downfall, but also they are their own worst enemies.

My Story’s Villain)

Without characters like Boromir and corrupt cops and Phyllis Dietrickson, these classic tales would have felt philosophical only. They would have been like Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is more of a thought experiment on the nature of good and evil than an actual story. But by having the idea of evil fronted by a person of evil, each of these stories is both philosophical and literal at the same time.

In The Salt Worms I have also had a couple nebulous forces lurking in the background. For starters, giant worms are behind the story’s destruction, but we have not yet directly interacted with any of these, much like with Sauron and Lord Voldemort. My story also features a humanity that is competing with itself to survive, much as in The Grapes of Wrath.

I needed to make these unseen enemies manifest themselves physically, though, so I’ve introduced a physical antagonist in the form of Ranger Everett. This man takes all of the various forces that have tried to prevent Nathan in his quest and distills them into a clear and physical adversary, much like Boromir and the Death Eaters. He isn’t intended to obscure the deeper forces of opposition that Nathan faces, but rather to bring them into sharper focus.

I also made Nathan Prewitt something of an enemy to himself, similar to Walter Neff. Virtually all of the affliction that Nathan faces in this story is a result of his stubborn disregard for the needs of others, and his attempts to override them with his own intentions.

And I will continue to introduce new characters to keep Nathan’s struggle fresh, all the way until he comes face-to-face with the greater evils of giant worms and broken philosophies. Because, after all, that is the entire purpose of the smaller antagonists in these stories. They are there simply to keep driving the hero forward, pushing them on until they can finally face the larger, existential threats waiting at the climax of the story.

The True Character Revealed

Dodging the Truth)

At the start of the 1999 film The Matrix, Neo already knows that the world is hiding something from him. Somehow the life that surrounds him seems off, and he is trying to find a reality that resonates more truly. Finally that new reality reaches out of the shadows and greets him. A mysterious figure named Morpheus offers to show Neo the truth, but he makes clear that once Neo sees it there is no going back.

Thus begins Neo’s trip into the real world. He discovers that the life he has known is nothing more than a simulation in a computer. His mind has been connected to that simulation, called “the matrix,” while his body floats in a massive power grid, feeding energy to an all-powerful AI. Neo is awoken in the real world, which is a truly bleak and grim reality. Here the last free humans are hiding from sentinel machines, trying to mount a resistance against their robotic overlords.

But now that Neo has discovered the real world, he still has to figure his role within it. One theory is that he is “the One,” a prophesied savior who will be able to rewrite the matrix and lead all of humanity to salvation. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t resonate with Neo at all. At this point he is full of questions only, he doesn’t have any answers for the larger world.

Morpheus takes Neo to met with the Oracle, though, who is a prophetess that look into a person’s eyes and sees their ultimate destiny. Neo meets with the woman in private, and she frankly tells him that Neo is not “the One.” Neo is visibly relieved, but it is short-lived, as almost immediately afterwards Morpheus is captured by agents that work for the computer simulation.

Though it seems a suicide mission, Neo goes to rescue Morpheus, and inadvertently rewrites the simulation’s code when disaster is about to strike. One danger after another comes to bear, and Neo finds himself able to rise to them by discovering one unknown ability after another. Then, at the end, he is able to finally “see” the simulation for what it is: streams of code that he can touch and manipulate as easily as flipping a switch.

Neo truly is “the One,” the Oracle only told him what he needed to hear at the time, leaving fate to prepare Neo to receive the truth. Finally, at the conclusion of the film, Neo knows and accepts who he really is.

Remolded)

There are, of course, many stories like Neo’s. Stories where the main character either denies or is ignorant of their foreordained destiny, but then they are brought into that role by extreme necessity. Sometimes, though, we have a character who doesn’t necessarily have to become the hero, yet they do anyway.

This is the case with Chuck Noland in the 2000 film Castaway. Chuck is an executive for FedEx, traveling the world to increase the productivity at packing and shipping facilities. On one such trip his airplane is destroyed in a storm, crashing into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Chuck is the lone survivor, and washes up on a small island, thousands of miles from civilization.

Like Neo, Chuck does not identify as a hero at the beginning of his story. His attempts to survive are awkward and uncoordinated, and in a moment of doubt and loneliness he even considers taking his own life. But like Neo, he awakens to inner abilities over time. Through trial and error, practice and refinement, Chuck becomes a survivor. Several years pass, and he has been molded into a lean and efficient hunter. He also becomes incredibly resourceful, and finds a way to make a raft with his limited supplies and sail off the island.

But it never feels like Chuck had to become the survivor. There was no prophecy that foretold he would be, no greater purpose that was served by his transformation. Chuck eventually comes back home, and looks from the outside in at the life he might have had if not for his years-long detour.

The story suggests that Chuck could very well have not been stranded on an island and become a hardy hunter. There were actually many possible identities that he could have lived through those years as, and things just so happened to reveal the warrior one of those.

So do we become the person that we were born to be, or are we crafted from our circumstance and choice? Perhaps both.

Too Important to Hide)

Another type of character revelation is to have the protagonist already be in their true form, but then have them conceal it until the end.

In the play A Man For All Seasons we are introduced to Thomas More, a lawyer in the court of appeals who is privately opposed to King Henry’s divorce of his wife, a practice that was illegal at the time. One by one the nobles and lords voice their approval of the divorce, but Thomas More remains persistently silent. He has no intention of coming out in open rebuttal, but he will not contradict his conscience either.

Thomas wishes to be left quietly alone, but he is simply too important of a man for his silence to go unnoticed. Thomas is extremely well-respected, and even the Lord Chancellor of England. There is too much attention surrounding him for the king to let the man just not take a stance on the issue.

And so Thomas’s story is not about how he evolves into his true self, he is already his true self right from the beginning. His story is about how he tries to conceal that truth through one legal maneuver after another. He is too clever to be tripped up by honest means, so eventually his enemies fabricate a false story to force him to the gallows. With death laying ahead he has nothing else to lose, and so he finally does voice his true opinions. He lays bare his disapproval of the divorce…but also his undying devotion to his king.

My Story)

In The Salt Worms I have had my main character conceal parts of his true character, like Thomas More, and through flashback sequences I have progressively exposed those parts to the reader. I have also hinted at the transformation that led the main character to be the man he is today. He had traversed a dangerous world, and by every adversity became more and more hardened to his cause, like Chuck Noland in Castaway. Soon we will have the last flashback sequence, in which we will see the singular moment that completed his evolution, like Neo’s awakening in The Matrix.

One of the key pleasures of story is how we get to know a character layer by layer, until at the end we have a complete understanding of who they are. I hope the revelation of Nathan Prewitt’s character has been satisfying for my readers as well, and will continue to be so as I press on to The Salt Worms’ end.

Pay the Price

Committed)

The 2006 film The Prestige is about 19th-century magical performers, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, who will go to any lengths for their art. At the beginning of the story they are partners, but after a tragic accident they become rivals, trying to ruin one other by any means.

Their competition drives each of them to improve their craft. They each want to be seen as the better magician, and their shows become more and more impressive as a result. Each of them seeks to craft a trick that will completely baffle the other and receive the acclaim of the world, and eventually both of them accomplish just that.

Angier has woven a particularly vicious barb into his trick, though, as through it he fakes his own death and frames Borden for murder. Yet even after Borden is convicted and executed, he somehow shows up at Angier’s warehouse to confront him in the film’s final scene.

Or rather, half of Borden shows up at the warehouse. For as we now have revealed to us, Borden was a composite, a man that was played by two twin brothers. Since before the beginning of the film the two have kept this secret from everyone, even Borden’s own wife. Angier says his assistant had suspected it was two men all along, but Angier had rejected that as too simple, too easy.

“No,” Borden replies. “Simple, maybe, but not easy.”

His words are spoken over a flashback of the two brothers at an earlier point of the story, just after one of them lost two fingers in an accident. The one who did not lose his fingers takes a drink from a gin bottle, splays his hand out on a table, and the other twin chops off the good fingers so that they match his own wounded hand.

It’s a very shocking scene, but it works. If anyone had any doubts as to how committed these men were to their craft, they have none now. We then see how driven Angier was as well, risking his life every single time he did his own masterpiece trick, possibly having died and been resurrected as a clone each time.

It is a satisfyingly cathartic finale to the whole film, but it is also weighed by a depressing realization. For now that we understand the full depth of their commitment, we realize that there was never any chance of them quitting from this mutually destructive cycle before it was too late. Things were always going to end in tragedy.

Set Sail)

There is another example of being willing to pay a high price in The Truman Show. Truman Burbank is your average sort of guy who lives an idyllic life in American suburbia. He is absolutely comfortable in every imaginable way, with a nice home, a pretty wife, and a cozy job.

There is just one detail about his life that he is ignorant of, though, which is that the whole thing is a complete sham!

Since before he was born, Truman was selected to star in a long-running sitcom, which has followed his life through its every moment. But he has never been told any of this. He believes that all of this is real. He has no idea that his life is being used for the world to vicariously enjoy a world free from trouble or tragedy.

Well…almost free from tragedy. There is that one matter of his father dying in a boating accident, which was staged so that Truman would be deathly afraid of the open water that surrounds his island suburb. In fact any time Truman comes close to traveling outside the confines of the city-sized studio all manner of deterrents suddenly pop up in his way.

Slowly Truman starts seeing a connection in all of these strange events though. He’s not sure what it all means, but he can’t shake the sense that he is trapped. He keeps escalating his attempts to break free of whatever it is that’s restraining him, and though each effort ends in failure, he continues to persist at it.

But the audience needs to see more than just persistence from Truman. For his freedom to feel earned we have to see him being willing to pay any cost for it. And so the film’s finale sees him setting sail, right into the heart of his deepest fears! The producer of the show orders a storm to drive him back. Wind whips faster and faster, waves raise higher and higher, and lightning bolts strike the boat. Truman falls off the vessel, but manages to swim back to it. Rather than being deterred, though, Truman is emboldened.

“Is that the best you can do?!” he screams to the sky. “You’re gonna hafta kill me!”

The producer kicks the winds up even further, capsizing the boat and drowning Truman. Then he cuts off the storm, and everyone watches in horror as the boat rolls upright, with Truman’s lifeless body draped across it. For a moment it seems to be the end, but then Truman’s body flinches and he coughs.

He has survived. He may not have actually paid the ultimate price for his freedom, but clearly he was willing to if necessary. Now, at last, the audience is ready to accept his triumph. Truman goes back to sailing his boat, it pierces through the wall of the studio, and he finally finds the door to the outside world.

Make it Count)

It can be hard to find ways to make your audience feel the weight of your character’s loss, but it is imperative that they do. Nothing that your hero accomplishes will feel deserved if they don’t have to pay some ultimate price to secure that victory.

In my own story Nathan is trying to escape from the New Denver elders with his backpack. But he knows that to do so he is going to have to let them hurt him. In other words, they are the audience that he has to sell his story to, and only by seeing him pay a great price will they ever be satisfied. In my next post we will see what that cost is, and my hope is that by paying it his following victory will feel justified to the reader. Come back on Wednesday to see how it turns out.

The Shattered Protagonist

Arabian Mishaps)

In the Disney animated film Aladdin, our protagonist is a lowly street thief who dreams of a better life. From the very beginning he speaks longingly of having enough wealth to live comfortably and not be pushed around by the palace guards.

When he is offered a job to retrieve a lamp for untold riches he jumps at the chance, but the operation doesn’t go as planned. By the end of the job Aladdin finds himself alone, buried in an underground cavern, with no way out. All he has to show for his efforts is that one, little lamp he was supposed to deliver to his employer.

But then, of course, he realizes that this is no ordinary lamp. It is actually the home of an all-powerful genie, who will grant Aladdin three wishes. Aladdin quickly uses the first of these to make himself into a prince, and then makes a dramatic entrance to the city, riding atop an elephant with a magically-generated entourage of a thousand servants!

At long last Aladdin seems to have come into life he always dreamed of. He has wealth, he has security, he has respect, and he is able to catch the attention of the woman he loves. Yet ye soon finds out that he has traded one set of troubles for others that is far more dangerous. The palace guards may not be a thorn in his side any longer, but now he’s in the sights of the royal vizier Jafar.

Jafar proves to be a much more capable foe, and soon he has stolen the magical lamp, taken over the kingdom by force, and blasted Aladdin into exile. For Aladdin, it would seem that getting everything he wanted didn’t actually actually get him everything he wanted!

Everything You Ever Wanted)

Compare that to the similar experience of Billy in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Billy has spent his whole life dreaming of joining the ranks of the most powerful supervillains in the world. At the start of the show his alter ego, Dr. Horrible, has finally caught the attention of Bad Horse, who is the leader of the prestigious Evil League of Evil. Billy might be allowed into the league himself, but only if he can prove his worth with a particularly dastardly deed.

At the same time Billy gains the notice of someone else he has been vying for the attention of: Penny, the pretty girl he sees every week at the laundromat. Penny is a completely selfless and giving soul, and the more Billy spends time with her the more her sunny disposition clashes with his lust for world domination.

This dilemma is all resolved, though, when Billy’s nemesis, Captain Hammer, start developing a romantic relationship with Penny. Billy is now doubly motivated to kill Captain Hammer; on the one hand so that he can enter the Evil League of Evil, and on the other so that he can pry Captain Hammer and Penny apart. He hatches a plan to assassinate Captain Hammer, which goes remarkably according to plan…until he gets cold feet at the moment of pulling the trigger.

His hesitation gives Captain Hammer a chance to retaliate, which indirectly results in an explosion going off. The blast cripples Captain Hammer, but also kills Penny, who was hiding nearby. The press interprets the event as an intentional and evil deed, and Dr. Horrible is immediately ushered into the ranks of the Evil League of Evil. In the show’s final musical number he sings that he has finally gained everything he ever wanted, but as his thoughts turn to Penny his expression becomes one of numb brokenness.

Need vs Want)

There are plenty of stories where the heroes knows exactly what they want, pursue it, and at the climax of the tale finally achieve it. But many other stories have learned to add a layer of nuance by making what the heroes want be different from what they actually need.

Aladdin wanted wealth, but he needed self-acceptance. Billy wanted the position in the Evil League of Evil, but he needed love. If the hero learns to give up what they want for what they need, then the story has a happy ending, such as with Aladdin. But if they don’t, then the story becomes a tragedy, such as with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

Accepting Loss)

Of course there are other cases, too. Sometimes what the hero wants isn’t strictly opposed to what he needs, but he still don’t get it anyway. In these cases the story isn’t about how the main character learns to sort out his priorities or achieve success, it is about how he deals with failure.

This is the situation of Kunta Kinte in Roots. Kunta is a youth in Africa during the mid-18th century, but he is kidnapped and brought to America as a slave. He then proceeds to make one escape attempt after another, never losing his fire for freedom, even after the front of his foot is chopped off as punishment for trying to run away.

But as the years go by Kunta falls in love with another slave, marries her, and has a child. Now he is divided between his continuing desire for freedom, and his desire to be with his new family. For a time he wavers between the two, but ultimately chooses to remain with his wife and child.

The story isn’t trying to say that Kunta “wants” freedom but “needs” family, more like he needs both but can only have one. He must make a choice between them, and that’s just the way it is. No matter what his choice there is a significant loss, and he must make his peace with that.

Another story, Of Mice and Men, is also about characters who don’t get the things that they want or need. The story opens with George Milton and Lennie Small, traveling companions who forever dream of settling down on their own piece of land.

Unfortunately, they are in the thick of the Great Depression, a time that ate hopes and dreams for breakfast. For a little while it looks like they might actually realize their plans, but then tragedy arises, and Lennie dies at the hands of George, taking with him any hope for a brighter future.

How to Respond)

Failures are interesting in a story, because the way that a characters responds to them reveals the deepest layers of their personality. It is most often in their deepest disappointment that you learn who they really are.

In my own story I just had my protagonist meet a terrible setback. He has spent seven years bringing a prototype weapon to the westernmost province of the United States. All this time he has imagined being welcomed as a savior, but what he finds just the opposite. The people are afraid that his plan will backfire and they want nothing to do with it. Now he has to decide how he will react to this setback. Will he surrender his plan and find a new purpose…will he wander aimlessly away…or will he harden his heart and press on regardless? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to his character you already know that he’ll choose the latter. He is going to persist, even in the face of broken expectations, willingly shifting from an ally of the city to its foe.

Who Even Are You?

The Mysterious Man)

The 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion was a bit of a surprise to its audiences. Its main star, Cary Grant, was known for always playing a heroic or romantic lead, but the advertisements for the picture suggested that this might be his very first turn as a villain!

And though the film begins with Cary Grant’s character, Johnnie Aysgarth, being presented as a humorous, playful bachelor, there is also a sense of insincerity and foolishness about him. For example consider the very first scene, where he is called out for being in a first class train compartment with a third class ticket. He tries to laugh his way out of the situation, but eventually has to bum some extra change off of the lady he is sharing the compartment with. That may not seem like much of a concern at first, but awkward flubs with money become a defining characteristic of the man. After he wins the heart and hand of Lina McLaidlaw, she discovers that he has absolutely no money to his name, and is hoping to siphon money out of her rich parents instead!

But more surprising than Cary Grant playing such a shifty character is how natural a fit he is in the role! At this point Cary Grant had established a career defined by charisma, suaveness, and humor. In this film, though, he is outright immature and selfish, and he plays it very well, spending half the time with a stupid grin while everyone else is trying to have a serious conversation with him.

Worse than a freeloader, though, Lina starts to believe that her husband might actually be dangerous. As the burden of his debts continue to grow, he starts exhibiting some darker behaviors, which get her wondering if he wouldn’t kill her for the insurance money! Most concerning is a scene where he speaks with Lina’s friend, a murder mystery novelist, about whether there are any untraceable poisons.

The whole thing escalates to the climatic scene where the husband and wife are driving along a cliffside road. Lina’s door falls open and Johnnie reaches over. Lina recoils in horror, believing that he is trying to push her out. He sees this and breaks down in anger, asking if she is so repulsed by him that she would lunge away, even when all he is trying to do is pull her back to safety?

At last the truth comes out, about how he has been so ashamed of himself, so miserable that he has dragged not only himself, but also his wife, into financial ruin that he has been considering suicide. Yes, he has been a flawed and dishonest man, but he is not the remorseless killer that the advertisements would have had us believe. The couple drive for home together, resolved to face their challenges together.

Suspect Again)

Interestingly, Cary Grant would revisit the suspicious lead two decades later in 1963 with Charade. This was one of his very last films, and up to this point he still had never played a villain. Would this be his one take at being the bad guy?

This film opens with Regina “Reggie” Lampert discovering that her estranged husband, Charles, was murdered while on a train from Paris. This opens up a series of revelations to her, culminating with her learning that Charles was actually a spy, and that he had in his possession a considerable amount of wealth which several governments and his former colleagues have been trying to reclaim.

Coincidentally, Reggie makes a new acquaintance right before she hears of her husband’s death. Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, seems totally disconnected from the drama surrounding Reggie’s dead husband, but he soon becomes embroiled in her efforts to deter Charles’ former colleagues, who now suspect her of knowing where the missing money is.

Reggie is growing more and more emotionally attached to Joshua, her only friend in a quickly-shifting world. But then a great emotional blow comes when one of Charles’ former colleagues tells Reggie that Peter isn’t the man he is pretending to be. Joshua is trying to get the money from her, just the same as the rest of them.

Reggie confronts Peter and he admits that he lied about his identity. He now tells her his “true” identity: Alexander Dyle, whose brother had died on a former mission with Charles. But later in the movie that identity will be revealed to be a lie as well. Reggie had been falling in love with Peter/Alexander/whoever he is, but now she wonders if he won’t betray her as soon as it serves his interest to do so.

Everything culminates in a shootout between Cary Grant’s character and another man who may or may not be the actual murderer of Charles Lampert, the man who was presumed to have died in that former mission. Reggie is caught in between the two men, unsure of whom she should trust. Finally she follows her heart, joins sides with Cary Grant’s character, and this proves to be the correct choice. Together the two of them manage to overcome the would-be assassin, who was the last surviving agent who had intended Reggie any harm.

And then, in the film’s final scene, it is revealed that Cary Grant was a US government agent all along, who had been working undercover to solve this whole case. So once again Cary Grant’s halo remains intact, even if it came dangerously close to falling off!

The Pleasure of Being Unsure)

Of course, it is very unusual for the audience to not know whether a lead character is the hero or villain of the story. Virtually every story establishes these roles right from the beginning, making it clear who exactly you should be rooting for and who you should hate. Some stories might reveal a surprise betrayal later on, but typically those come from supporting characters, not the main protagonist.

Both Suspicion and Charade are unique in making the audience spend the entire film with a lead character that they still don’t know the loyalties of. Both of these films must walk the razor-thin line of giving their female leads more and more reasons to distrust Grant’s character, but not so much as to actually abandon him altogether. The tension can only continue if they stay both near to and fearful of him at the same time. It is truly remarkable how each of them manage to pull this off so well.

In my own story I introduced a main character that audiences will immediately assume is the hero. He is at the end of a great quest, has come to rid the land of a great monster, and will free the community that is living under its terror. He is like Saint George come to kill the dragon, clearly a heroic character.

But as the story goes along, the more suspect Nathan becomes. Bit-by-bit we have learned that he lies, that he steals, and most recently that he even kills! The three core qualities of a story villain.

My hope is that the audience will be conflicted and intrigued, wanting to finally get to the bottom of who this guy actually is. But unlike Cary Grant’s characters, the answer won’t be so black and white.

Something Old, Something New

A New Voice)

Romeo and Juliet has been a classic since its premier in 1597, and like many of Shakespeare’s works it has been reimagined countless different times. What if the story were set in a different timeline? What if the characters’ sexes were swapped? What if the ending was tweaked? But typically these reinterpretations remain closely tied to their original source, they feel like a branch off of its trunk.

Every now and then, though, a reimagining comes along that is notably different. And one such example occurred in 1957 with the release of the Broadway musical West Side Story. West Side Story is unmistakably based on Romeo and Juliet and shares many plot developments with it, but it really does feel like its own thing. There are two main reasons that I can identify for why this is the case.

The first is that the world of West Side Story is completely reimagined from the ground up. All of the dialogue is original, with even the most classic of lines (“Wherefore art thou Romeo?”) replaced by entirely new speech. New characters like Officer Krupke are incorporated, even though they don’t have any direct analogue in Romeo and Juliet. Also entirely new plot points are added, such as the council where the two gangs decide the terms of their rumble.

In short, nothing from the original story was deemed sacred, and none of it had to be adhered to if it didn’t fit West Side Story’s new setting. The feud in West Side Story is based on racism in New York, not on a royal family quarrel, and that fundamental change meant that many connecting elements of the story would also need to be altered to remain consistent. The writers of West Side Story made all those changes without reservation. In fact, when all is said and done, it hardly feels appropriate to call West Side Story an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at all. It is its own thing, with the ties to Romeo and Juliet being little more than an homage.

The other reason why I believe West Side Story stands apart is because it is designed within a completely different genre. Romeo and Juliet was a classic tragedy, while West Side Story is a modern musical. The integration of big band music, dazzling dance choreography, and soulful lyrics take West Side Story beyond just looking and sounding different from Romeo and Juliet, now it feels different as well.

Unrecognizable Familiarity)

Perhaps an even more drastic reinterpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story was the 2013 film Warm Bodies. Like West Side Story, this film takes the tale into a totally new genre, this time zombie horror. And once again it throws out all of the dialogue and relationships and characters that don’t make sense in that world, and incorporates new ones that do. So dramatic of a shift was this film that I didn’t even realize it was a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet until it reproduced the famous balcony scene in its own amusing way.

The Lion is King is also a reinterpretation of a Shakespearean classic: Hamlet. It features the king-father who has been murdered by the evil uncle, a son whose duty is to right that wrong, and a long period of soul-searching before he is willing to face that calling. Virtually everything else, though, is dismissed for an original narrative, just like our other two examples.

When I try to think of what one should call stories like West Side Story, Warm Bodies, and The Lion King, I really don’t think terms like adaptation and re-imagining do justice to how distinct they are from the original material. I think a better term might be that they are a reincarnation. They have held on to a few key characteristics of the original, but everything else has been conceived as an entirely new body.

My Own Invention)

I’ve been trying to do something similar with my latest story: The Salt Worms. It’s a story that is molded after the traditional hero’s quest. Our main character, Nathan Prewitt, has traveled across the entire United States, bringing with him a weapon to destroy the giant sand striker worm that keeps the entire populace pinned down. This is his great calling and burden, much like Frodo carrying the one ring to Mount Doom.

In fact, Lord of the Rings is the story that I am most trying to “reincarnate” with The Salt Worms. Our main character carries an item of awesome power, he has a faithful companion, Manuel Castillo, and those that learn of his possession want to steal it from them.

But the differences between Lord of the Rings and my story are far more numerous than their similarities. Rather than trying to recreate that classic I am throwing out all the things that don’t fit, and adding things that do. I am also changing genres, trading out high fantasy for post-apocalyptic near-future. The changes are so vast that I doubt most people would pick up on the connection to Lord of the Rings without having me point it out to them.

Now my little story isn’t going to begin to make the same sort of waves as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, nor will it be as revolutionary a reincarnation as West Side Story or The Lion King, but it’s been a fun exercise in how to pay homage to a classic while still remaining a story that is entirely my own. Keep an eye out as I continue The Salt Worms, and see if you can pick out more ways that I reference the original while putting my own twist on it as well.