Children. Conflict. Play.

Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

The Intersection of Story)

In mathematics we learn that one vector defines a single-dimensional space. It is a line or a direction, a single, unchanging thrust into space.

Two vectors, however, can define a two-dimensional space. A field, a landscape, or an infinite blanket of ideas.

Three vectors and you get a three-dimensional volume. Length and width are joined by depth, form and figure emerge, a complex structure that has to be considered from different perspectives to understand the whole.

This principle holds true when developing a story as well. The genesis of most stories occurs when the writer’s mind finds an interesting connection of different vectors. Ideas that had seemed unrelated show a surprise connection, and as the mind explores that space it concocts a story to aid in the process. And like turning the knobs on a faucet we are free to crank one of the core ideas up and dial the other back, to leave one out entirely and then gradually introduce it to full force, each combination has its own potential. Notice how many story pitches are delivered in exactly this way: describing the intersection between different ideas.

“A romantic comedy, but one of the characters is blind and the other is deaf.”

“A classic Western, but it takes place in space!”

“The story is 1980s America, but if the Cold War had escalated to actual combat.”

Through these combinations we find a field of discovery, a curious volume to explore, an entire story of material…maybe even multiple stories of material! Entire worlds are discovered and our story is the spaceship by which we tour them.

For Example)

In fact, my most recent stories have all been ways to explore the same three ideas’ intersection. The Favored Son: Alternate, The Time Travel Situation, and The Punctured Football are all examinations on the themes of children, conflict, and play.

In The Favored Son: Alternate there was a very specific aspect of children, conflict, and play that I wanted to consider. I thought of all the times that I have seen children playing a game that shifts from innocent fun, to lively competition, to hurt feelings, to an all-out fight. Children at play and children at conflict are sometimes not very far apart!

I explored that concept in this story by continually returning to the competitions that the boys undergo as part of their training. At the outset these appear to be light-hearted affairs, just a group of children pretending at war and hoping to win. But the further the story goes the more these scenes shift into actual conflict. By the end they aren’t playing at all, they are at literal war and not all of them survive it.

Next came The Time Travel Situation, in which the element of play was cranked to the max and never became mean-spirited. There was conflict in the story, but it was only pretend-conflict, a fight where all of the children were united on one side against fictitious enemies on the other. Thus the conflict was never serious, it was all for fun.

It is, of course, an interesting question why we find pretended conflict to be so entertaining, and there are all sorts of theories that have been posited on the matter. For now let’s just accept the fact that we do. Our stories, even our happy stories, are almost always centered around this idea of opposition and conflict. But if we do intend to keep the conflict “fun,” we have to disassociate it from reality. Thus the badguys are totally fictitious beings, like comic book supervillains, or they are extreme caricatures, like moustache-twirling weapon dealers. Conflict is only fun when it is pretend, so I made my story all about a literal game of pretend.

The Punctured Football lays somewhere in between those two others. The conflict in it is not just pretend as in The Time Travel Situation, the characters are sincerely at odds with one another. But it is not nearly so grim as in The Favored Son: Alternate either. The two characters show plenty of hurt feelings, but there’s never any danger to either one. Also the play is more pronounced than it was in The Favored Son: Alternate, but not nearly so exuberant as in The Time Travel Situation. In short this story was all about finding a middle ground that was more realistic than either extreme. The other two stories each had a strong fantasy in their own way, while this one was more firmly grounded.

Moving Forward)

I am going to write one more piece in this series, and with this one I want to incorporate both forms of conflict: the more realistic and the more fantastic. I am going to therefore have two conflicts that occur, one that is between the children and a fantasy enemy, and one between the children themselves. The first being more pretend, the other being more grounded. As for the sense of play, I am going to incorporate that by having one of the characters explore the rules of a newly discovered world.

And by this I will be following a most popular template for stories. As it turns out, there have already been many tales that explore this same intersection of children, conflict, and play. It is the template that C. S. Lewis popularized with his Chronicles of Narnia series. Consider the first entry, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the children have a conflict with a magical queen, but also a more grounded feud between quarreling siblings. And though there is great danger in that tale, one cannot help but feel a sense of playfulness in how the children are able to explore such a fantastic realm.

It is also the template of Peter Pan, where siblings again intermingle their squabbles with the life-or-death conflict with Captain Hook. And all the while there is that same playful exploration of mermaids and the Piccanniny tribe and finding the ability to fly.

It is Harry Potter having a spat with Ron Weasley, while also being hunted by the murderous Lord Voldemort, while also uncovering the magical world of witches and wizards.

And now it will be the template for my own playful, conflicted, coming-of-age tale. Come back on Thursday to see it in action with Covalent.

The Lessons of Pretend

Photo by Amina Filkins on Pexels.com

It might be all fun and games for the characters in my latest story, The Time Travel Situation, but for me this all serious work!

Actually, no, there’s been some genuine fun in writing this piece for me, but I have also covered a few important principles while working on the story, and now it’s time to review what all of those were.

The Work of Children)

Fred Rogers once said “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” I absolutely believe that this is true. As a child, everything in the world is new. New sights, new people, new emotions, and new ideas. And all these new things must be processed. They must be worked over and understood, they must be laid out alongside of one another to understand all of their joint implications.

Watch a child playing pretend and you will inevitably see ideas and words and feelings that recently made an impression on them crop into their narrative, working their way through the child’s mind and words, until at last the child feels he or she has a bit more of a grasp on the matters.

This is why I started off this whole series by stating that there are no rules in the play of children. There are no necessary elements of plot structure or character arc or anything else we typically expect in a story. Because children aren’t really telling a story, they are trying to have an experience.

And I tried to make this a guiding principle of The Time Travel Situation. While I did give it enough structure that it could still appeal to more mature audiences, I was careful to preserve the sense of children just wanting to explore all the many different things that fascinate them. Thus the story is full of sensory, exploratory, free-flowing fun.

Something Old, Something New)

And to be true to that sense of children working out all the new things that interest them, I had the children make references to real-world media and history. It just wouldn’t have felt authentic to me if the shows and games they were experiencing weren’t bleeding into their playing pretend.

I explained that I didn’t want to overdo the real-world media references, though. Just a quick comment about Star Trek, a quote from Star Wars, and the opening premise of The Journeyman Project. I didn’t want this story to be a vehicle for homages to media, I wanted the references to only be a garnish to the more original narrative I had to tell.

But more prominent than these media references have been the historical ones. For example I have made Blackbeard a central character, a true-to-life pirate that we can read history books about. But I actually made a conscious decision to not go and look up details from the actual history of Edward Teach (Blackbeard’s real name), because I wanted him to be a work of childlike imagination. He’s larger than life, the way a child thinks a pirate should be. The children know absolutely nothing about what he actually was or when and how he died. All they really know is his name and career choice, and the rest for them is pure imagination. I wanted the story to reflect that same blissful ignorance.

A Rush of Ideas)

I also mentioned how these real-world references were part of how I made different worlds overlap in my story. There is the world of the children, their world of pretend, and the worlds of the historical and media figures they reference. Part of the reason for having so many intersecting realms goes back to that notion of children trying to make sense of their reality and playfully combining them to explore their full implications. I wanted the story to show that the children had a lot of different things on their mind. They are thinking about things that interest them, they are trying to explore relationships, they are trying to find an adventure in life that is exciting. All of those themes come out in the things they give voice to while at play.

But naturally this led to a deluge of different elements, and I was anxious about it becoming overwhelming. I wanted it to be indulgent, but not to the point of excess. My hope is that audiences will be able to flow along with the rapid-fire conversations in the same way that one does when having a conversation with a friend. You shift from one topic to another effortlessly, shifting from work to family to personal interests on a whim. It may be chaotic and all-over-the-place, but you still leave feeling satisfied. Because you and your friend weren’t worried about turning your conversation into a three-act story, you were just trying to get a sense of yourselves across.

In my story I want it to be the same. Yes there is some character development, such as with Blackbeard’s change of heart, but mostly I just wanted to have a conversation with you about these kids and try to give you a sense of them through it.

Broken Deals)

Last of all I spoke about stories where the hero needs to surmount the villain, but also needs to retain their honor to the end. I put the children in a compromising situation, one where they had an unacceptable deal setup with Blackbeard. But I couldn’t just have them break their promise or else they would lose their dignity. Therefore it was important to have Blackbeard break the terms first so that they children could be released from their end of the bargain as well.

And originally my intent was for the children to now trick Blackbeard into his own demise, but I realized that that would still feel dishonorable. So instead I allowed Blackbeard to see the error of his ways and genuinely join the children’s cause. This should allow us to enter the conclusion with an air of positivity where everyone’s honor has been preserved.

Now all that remains is to finish the thing! Come back on Thursday as we’ll do exactly that, after which we’ll be on to something different.

Good Guys Don’t Shoot in the Back

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

The Impotent Domination)

The final act of a story is where the hero has been truly converted to their guiding philosophy, and now they will trust in it to overcome the villain’s philosophy. Consider Disney’s animated film The Lion King. Simba has tried to run away because he feels responsible for his father’s death. But though he hides for a time, his royal calling comes back to him. He is convinced that he must take up his rightful place at the head of the pack. Thus he heads out to confront the villain of the story: Scar. At this moment Scar needs to be defeated. He needs to die so that Simba’s arc can reach its full closure.

But now the story comes to a snag: this is a Disney film, one that is targeted towards families and children. The idea of the main character killing anyone, even a cold-blooded murderer, is unacceptable. Simba has to show that he is better than Scar, has to show that he is capable of killing him…but then he needs to stop just short of actually doing it.

So what happens instead? Scar and Simba fight, Simba gains the upper hand, Scar asks if Simba is going to kill him and Simba says no, Simba tells Scar to leave the kingdom instead.

But rather than fade into obscurity, Scar throws some burning embers into Simba’s eyes and lunges at him once more! In self defense Simba kicks Scar off of the rock and down to a pack of hyenas. Unlike Simba, the hyenas do not have any halo to preserve and they are able to kill Scar without any moral scruples. Thus Simba proved his superiority over Scar and he maintained his honor by offering Scar a way out, but then Scar became a victim of his own malice.

And this is hardly a unique concept. Many animated Disney films make use of similar conveniences to get rid of their villain while preserving the hero’s innocence.

Consider Beauty and the Beast. Just like Scar, the villain Gaston tries to kill our hero: the Beast. Just like Simba, the Beast overpowers Gaston, but orders him to leave, rather than deal the killing blow. Just like Scar, Gaston isn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He later sneaks up behind the Beast and literally stabs him the back. The Beast cries in pain and flings his arm back as a natural reflex. The movement dislodges Gaston, causing him to fall all the way to his death. The Beast won in a fair fight, Gaston caused his own demise, and the Beast’s innocence is preserved.

Personally, when I watched these films as a child I wouldn’t have had any concerns about the good guy dealing a fuller measure of justice to the villain, but I guess the Disney executives didn’t want to chance it. Other studios have had to deal with the same issue, though, and some of them have found different solutions to it.

Shooting in the Back)

For example, take a look at the Old Western. The cowboy or lawman has to be able to outgun any bandit along their way and has to show off that expertise many times over. But we can’t exactly turn them into a ruthless murderer, now can we? What we can do, though, is have a lot of lethal self defense! So long as the baddies start the duel, it is okay for the hero to finish it.

And so it is that these films are full of scenes where the hero tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a volatile moment, but then the villain reaches for their gun as soon as the hero’s back is turned. Someone calls out a warning or the hero hears their movement, then spins on the spot and guns down the would-be killer.

This same idea of lethal self defense has been carried into many other films since, and remains one of the most popular ways to both showcase the hero’s prowess while retaining their integrity. And this approach has the added benefit of making the hero’s prowess shine all the brighter! Evidently they are so confident in their abilities that they can give every bandit a head-start and still finish first.

Consider the classic western High Noon. Here the sheriff is made aware that his old rival has been released from jail, and has arrived in town with three of his cronies. Now everyone knows that the four of them are here for the express purpose of killing the sheriff, but he can’t exactly arrest them (or gun them down) until they’ve actually done anything wrong.

So he sneaks up behind them and calls out their names. He won’t shoot them in the back of course, but he watches for them to wheel around and try to shoot him. Once they do, he outdraws them, taking out one of the bandits right off the bat.

There’s also the example of The Magnificent Seven, where Britt is egged into showing his speed with a knife. He throws his blade at a target at the same time as a blowhard shoots at his own. Britt claims to have won the race, but the other man disagrees and suggests they have a duel to prove it. The rowdy man even shoots at Britt’s feet and threatens to kill him right then and there if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. At this point Britt can’t be held accountable for what follows. It’s either his life or the other man’s.

This time there’s no disputation. Britt wins and the other man falls dead. Lethal self defense.

Of course not everything has to be a matter of life or death. In the last chapter of my story I had my protagonists forced into a promise with a villain that they needed to get out of. But I can’t have them just renege on their agreement because that would make them dishonorable. Thus it was the villain that had to break his contract first, freeing the children to let go of their end as well.

Come back on Thursday as I will bring his betrayal to its full fruition, which will cause his own demise and allow the children’s path to prevail over his. See you then!

Taking a Look Back: Part One

Photo by Shukhrat Umarov on Pexels.com

Here we are approaching the end of The Favored Son: Alternate. It’s been a long road, and there’s been a great deal learned along the way. I want to pause and do a review on those lessons, because while it is important for me to practice my writing, my improvement accelerates when I then critique that practice and learn from it. There’s a lot to go over, so I’m going to have to split this review into two posts: this one today and another in a week. Now let’s get started.

Big Changes)

The whole thing began with a post about the struggle of humanity’s reach exceeding their grasp. Like Frankenstein I wanted to try an experiment that I had never attempted before: to take the same foundation from an earlier story and construct an entirely different experience on top it.

Last week I took a look at what I’ve written so far and decided that the answer to that question was yes. The two versions of The Favored Son are very different from one another, not only in the events that occur within them, but in style, themes, and message. As I shared before, this second version of the story hews much more closely to my original vision. In fact, the title “The Favored Son” really makes a lot more sense in this second take than it ever did in the first attempt.

That being said, I found myself starting to drift again during the writing of this second tale, too. Towards the center of it I had Tharol uncovering Reis’s plot in a way that was weak and unimaginative. This revelation was supposed to be a hinge of the entire tale, but it just came off as a cheap coincidence. I struggled for a little while to find a better way forward, but eventually an idea suggested itself to me, which improved the rest of the story. Things transpire much more organically now, and that has meant the final product is much lengthier than I had expected, but it is also more complete.

Little Changes)

There were smaller course corrections as well. Early on I mentioned that I was feeling bored when writing a certain piece, and realized that the audience would probably be bored when reading it as well. I saw an opportunity to introduce a small bit of inventiveness to the tale, which led me to create the “statue lady” who is trying to buy her way through the city gate.

While she has not been featured very much in the tale, she is absolutely essential to the entire thing, and I’ve realized that taking the time to give her distinctive qualities should have always been my plan. We’re about to see a lot more of her in these final two chapters, and I’ve realized that her stone nature is going to be a prominent piece in how the final action plays out. I sure am glad I acted on my boredom and breathed this new life into the tale!

Shortly after that sequence I came to yet another trouble area. My initial action scene felt a bit lacking, and given that I intended to write several more of those over the course of the story I figured I ought to do some research on the form. Ever since then I have tried to incorporate the lessons I learned of rapid, yet evocative sentences for every scene of combat. Some of these have come out better than others, but overall I am quite pleased with the result.

But while I was improving my technique in writing action scenes, I then stumbled into another issue of how to transition from them into more conversational pieces. I paused to examine the awkwardness in those scene changes, identified the conditions that led to them, and found a way to do smooth them over.

Last of all, I was dissatisfied with a sequence that showed the leader of the district as a clichéd villain. I wrote about why it is so easy to slip into using tired clichés rather than come up with more thoughtful solutions to our stories. Fortunately I paused and found a more creative way to vilify Lord Amathur, a way that will lead into the broader theme I intend to conclude this story with. In these last posts I am trying to make clear that Tharol exists in a much larger world than he realized, one that has politics and ideologies that he was unaware of, one that is torn between competing ideas and agendas that he doesn’t know his own side of.

This theme of uncovering a broader world was not part of my original vision for this story. It was an element I only discovered while writing out the first version of The Favored Son. It has become the binding theme between the two of them.

One way I will emphasize this theme is in my use of the “statue lady.” In my next post she and her forces will be presented in an extremely antagonistic light. But in the post following that we will see signs that she may not be as evil as we have thus far assumed. In a larger tale she might even have even become the hero.

Come and see this idea in play on Thursday, and then again next Monday where I will cover all the other lessons learned from writing The Favored Son: Alternate.

Keeping You In Suspense

Photo by Griffin Wooldridge on Pexels.com

The Fuse)

Last summer was the first time my son appreciated holiday fireworks. Before then the suddenness and the loudness of them were just too overwhelming. During those earlier years I noticed that there was a particular part of setting off a firework that filled him with the most dread, and it was not the explosion at the end. It was the fuse fizzling before the boom.

Once the actual eruption occurred he was usually fine. Then he could see that it was only a small shower of sparks coming out, and he knew there wouldn’t be anything too overwhelming. But before that moment of realization, to his young mind anything might come out of that small cardboard tube. No matter how many assurances we gave him that we had only bought “small ones,” he remained unconvinced until he could see it for himself. Thus at the lighting of the fuse he wasn’t yet sure that he was safe and now it was too late to halt the process!

The master of suspense in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, hit on this very same point. He once said “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” There is an excellent example of this in his movie Rear Window. In this film’s nearly two-hour runtime there is almost no action from beginning to end. But there is plenty of burning fuse.

Our main character, Jeff, is stuck at home with a broken leg, snooping on the neighbors in the apartment across the courtyard. A certain one of those neighbors starts showing a series of suspicious behaviors, leading Jeff to believe that the man has killed his wife. At one point he sees an opportunity to uncover incriminating evidence, but as he is stuck at home with a broken leg his girlfriend (Lisa) decides to carry out the mission for him. The fuse is lit.

Jeff makes an anonymous call to the neighbor, telling him he knows what he did and organizes a blackmail meeting. Jeff has no intention of actually meeting the man, but it gets him out of the house while Lisa breaks into his apartment and finds a damning piece of evidence. But of course she discovers it just as the man returns back home!

The fuse is very hot now. We’re all anxious for the explosion that is about to follow. At this moment that fallout might hold anything, including a second murder. We watch helplessly as Lisa hides, the man finds her handbag, searches for, and finds her! He starts drilling her with questions and she tries to make a break for it, but he grabs her and turns off the lights! All the way to this moment nothing decisive has happened, but we are withering at the burning of the fuse! As before, so long as it continues to burn, any gruesome outburst is still on the table.

But then the explosion doesn’t happen. Jeff called the police at the first sign of the man returning home and they arrive just before Lisa can meet a violent end. At this point violence didn’t really have anything more to add to the film. The terror had already been maximized by the long suspense.

I have tried to implement this same idea of the burning fuse with the most recent post of my story. In it we already know that Reis is planning to betray the order, but we are left wondering as to how. Any outcome is possible right now, and we have to wait to see it.

How To Wait)

Alfred Hitchcock also said that “suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.” And this is true of that same scene in Rear Window, for we see the man coming up the stairs to his apartment before Lisa knows that he has returned home. That, in fact, is the moment where the suspense burns the brightest, even more so than when he is actually having his altercation with her. She is ignorantly wasting her last possible seconds for escape because she doesn’t know what’s about to come through that door and we don’t have any way to warn her.

But how to include this ingredient of suspense in The Favored Som? The most obvious choice would be to reveal Reis’s plot to the audience before Tharol uncovers it. Then Tharol could ignorantly walk into the snare, all while the audience squirms in anticipation. But I didn’t want to go that route. Thus far Tharol and the audience have uncovered each piece of the truth together, and I didn’t want to break that balance.

What I realized I could do, though, was invert the element of suspense in this story. Instead of the audience knowing about Reis’s trap, and Tharol being oblivious, I could make the audience aware of Tharol’s trap, and Reis would be oblivious. And thus I wrote the scene of Tharol increasing the dose of poison in the wine.

At this point Reis doesn’t believe that there is any poisoned wine remaining. He has no reason not to drink the cup that Beesk and Inol will bring to him. And as he toys with that cup I think the audience will enjoy a sense of anticipation for what it about to follow.

Because anticipation is the positive counterpart to suspense. Where my son used to see the fuse burn and was filled with dread of the unknown, now he bounces excitedly, anticipating that same unknown. It’s the same basic idea, it’s just inverted from fear to excitement.

Suspense is a powerful tool in how it keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. It works best by suggesting to the audience that something dramatic will happen, something that the characters involved are unaware of, but while still leaving an air of mystery as to what exactly the coming fallout will look like.

With my next post I won’t get to payoff for all this suspense, though. First I’m going to ratchet up the tension with a twist that will be as surprising to the audience as it is to Tharol. My hope is that this will make the anticipation of the poisoned cup raise even higher in the chapter after that. Come back on Thursday to see what you think.