The Favored Son: Part Nine

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

Tharol nodded solemnly, then turned and streaked down the hall. He heard the clatter of swords behind him, but he didn’t turn to see whether Master Zhaol would be able to hold the other two back or not. All that mattered now was getting to any of the other students who were still alive.

He raced out of the main abbey doors and across the grounds. There were no more stone columns to launch himself off of, but he pounded his feet into the hard earth and was lifted into the air by a force that far exceeded the amount he had thrust down. He sailed through the night, rose up higher and higher, then he peaked, and as he came down he expanded his Shraying Staff as a net of fine tendrils to slow his descent into something that wouldn’t shatter his legs!

He repeated this process, bounding in great leaps over the tall, silver-green grass, until he came to the entrance of the stone hedge maze. In the dark shadows he could just make out a scuffle taking place at the central archway.

Instead of leaping upwards, this time he propelled himself forward, streaking ahead like a loosed arrow. The dark figures raced up to him and he formed his Shraying Staff into a single-edged sword. He drew it back and swung it forward, trusting his reflexes to guide him, still not sure of his target. One of the bodies turned towards him and started to raise its arm in defense. For a brief moment Tharol saw its outline quaver, like the elders when they were shifting into and out of one another. Without hesitation he angled his already-swinging sword and let it cleave through that body.

The elder fell to the ground, dead.

Tharol’s feet hit the earth and he skidded to a halt in the midst of everyone else. Now he could make everyone out in the soft moonlight. His allies were huddled back-to-back, trying to hold off the remaining elders around them. They were Marvi, Bovik, Meelta, and Yaihs, the only other survivors of the night.

“Hold firm!” Tharol instructed. “I’ll try to throw back their first attack, and then the rest of you–“

“They’re doing it again!” Yaihs shrieked, and he pointed to one of the elders, who also started to quaver around her outline. She lost her features for a moment, and became an obscure mass. Then two figures separated and stepped apart from that mass: the same woman as before and Strawl. No one else emerged, though. Apparently Zhaol had taken Oni down with himself.

“Five of us and four with us,” the five elders counted in unison.

“Yeah, fall back,” Tharol panted, then lurched forward at the elders, swinging his sword wide. They easily sidestepped his blade, and the two elders nearest the stone hedge used the opportunity to reposition themselves in front of the entrance and cut off the youth’s retreat.

“It’s over!” Yaihs cried. His hands clutched the side of his head, panic set in, and then he began to quaver violently.

“He’s being taken!” Bovik yelled.

Tharol looked around frantically. What was he to do? He had pushed himself to places he didn’t even know he was capable of tonight, but even so the situation had slipped more and more out of his control. Now it was lurching out of his grasp entirely!

He roared in desperation and flung himself through the air at the elders blocking the youth’s retreat. The elders there were waiting for him, and no sooner did he touch ground than two swords pierced him, one in the leg and the other in his already-wounded shoulder.

“Just go!” he panted to the others, then thrust his Shraying Staff out as vines, momentarily restraining the elders there. He would hold them down for as long as he could, and after that he could only hope that the youth would find a way to save themselves.

Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta youth dashed past him. Three of the elders followed close behind. Yaihs–who was nearly fully taken over–and the two ensnared elders stayed with Tharol. Tharol regarded those two for a moment. It was Master Strawl in front of him, and Master Umir behind. Each was just about free from Tharol bonds.

Tharol looked down to the ground and panted heavily. There was no catching his breath, though, for his exhaustion went far beyond a shortage of air. His own life was flowing out of his wounds, leaving him closer and closer to darkness with every passing moment. Part of him wanted to just succumb to his wounds…but that would not help his friends.

With a shout Tharol drew back his vines, reforged his Shraying Staff into a sword, and thrust it at Strawl. Strawl blocked the blow, so Tharol immediately flung his sword backwards, extending it as a pole with the hope of catch Umir. A dull thud told him he had succeeded, but Tharol hadn’t hit him so hard as to take him out of action.

Back and forth Tharol flailed. His head snapped from one foe to another, watching for their own strokes and madly thrusting his weapon to parry them. His Shraying Staff changed form a dozen times. Now it was a shield to catch a thrust he couldn’t see properly, now it was a pole to punch through a small gap between Strawl’s arms, now it was a hooked blade to try and snag Umir’s weapon.

Tharol stopped thinking through the transitions anymore. He simply felt the flow of battle, turning and reacting by pure reflex. He moved as if in a dance. And when Yaihs was completely taken over and joined the fray, Tharol merely let his rhythms flow in that new quarry’s direction as well. He called on his limbs for strength and speed, and they responded.

That surprised Tharol. He should be bleeding out right now. He should be growing weaker and fainter, not stronger and surer. So confident did his body feel, that Tharol even drew out his standard blade with his other hand, and wielded it as if there was no hole through his shoulder.

Tharol was too preoccupied with the battle to examine himself closely, too distracted to see how the sections of his Shraying Staff were unfolding from their place on the weapon, and reassembling themselves over his wounds, forming as artificial muscle, tissue, and bone, all just as responsive to his commands as his natural flesh.

What he eventually did notice, though, was that the weapon in his hand was growing smaller and smaller. Eventually so much of the Shraying Staff had dissipated through his body that his weaponized arm had reverted back to its regular flesh and blood, holding nothing more than a small dagger in its palm.

Tharol frowned in confusion, but that moment’s hesitation was more than he could afford. Yais pinned Tharol’s natural sword against a rock. In exactly the same moment Strawl and Umir thrust their blades forward, each driving straight for Tharol’s heart.

But once again Tharol felt his way through. Instinct, more than memory, told him that Strawl and Umir had already cut him with those blades, stained their weapons with his blood, and thus surrendered control of them to him.

He opened his palms, and felt Strawl’s and Umir’s weapons forming in his hands. They were left defenseless. The flung themselves backward, out of reach. Tharol considered which of them to lunge after first, but before he could all three of his foes quavered and dissipated, no doubt merging back with the other elders pursuing Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta.

And so now Tharol must chase as well! He turned to the stone hedge entrance and rushed onward. Down the first pathway, on to the next, and to the next and the next. He beat on through the maze, faster than he had ever moved through it before.

As always, the walls began spinning in reaction to his every move. And at speeds like these, there was very little time to react to their erratic pivots. So once again, Tharol relied on instinct, dodging the extruded walls without a single thought, leaping over the stone risers by reflex, ducking under the popping-out ceilings on whim.

He thrust out one of his newly acquired Shraying Staff limbs as a claw, gripped the top of the stone hedge, and flung himself high into the air. The stone tapestry whirled up with him, continuing to surround and spring obstacles on every hand. He converted his other Shraying Staff into a claw as well, and used both to grip the tumbling stone and dodge and weave his way through.

Then he reached the height of his ascent and angled back downwards. The stone continued to warp around him, and now he formed his Shraying Staff arms into thin tendrils, scraping the edges of the stone as he slid down their chute. Every now and again a sudden barrier sprung at his feet, and he used those tendrils to seize on the rock and jerk himself to the left or right as needed.

Every now and then a stray block caught him. Every now and then he took each blow and tumbled into the dirt. But he simply rolled back onto his feet and continued on as if nothing had happened. It didn’t matter how hard it hurt, he had to keep moving forward.

A shout in the distance rang out, and he heaved himself forward, willing his body to find every small crevice and crack to slip through at only a moment’s notice. One wall spun out of his way, and beyond it he saw Meelta, collapsing with a sword through her heart. Bovik and Marvi were just beyond, and the elders were pressing in from every direction.

With a shout Tharol flung himself forward again, threw his Shraying Staff arms out as a protective web. They formed two half-circles that encompassed him and his companions, closing them all together in a thick-wired ball. The elders hacked at his netted barrier, but Tharol wasn’t sticking around to fight with them. With another cry he flung himself forward again, carrying all three of them forward through the maze.

Blades and walls and broken tendrils filled the air around them. It seemed a blow hit them from every direction at once, and it was only by sheer grit that they forced their way onward.

“We have to be near to the centrifuge now!” Bovik cried.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marvi wailed. “We won’t be able to figure out how to get in with them right on us.”

It was true. There wasn’t time to wait and puzzle out the right way in. They would be caught just outside of their sanctuary and have to take a last stand against the elders and Yaihs.

Or…not.

For right then each of the elders raised their hands forward, sent out a beam of light, and the walls directly ahead exploded into pieces, exposing the centrifuge beyond.

“They can do that?!” Bovik said in shock as the three bounded into the central clearing.

Tharol drew back his protective cage, and formed his arms back into blades. “They’re proving to us that there’s no sense in running anymore, and they’re right. We stand and fight here. Maybe we all die, or maybe one of us gets out alive. Either way we–“

A strange clicking noise from behind distracted Tharol in the middle of his sentence. Slowly he turned, and saw there the artificial creature that had been forming over the past weeks, the one he had spoken about to Reis before all this nightmare had begun.

It was moving now, and its head was complete. It stood nearly as tall as Tharol did on long, spindly legs. It had a horizontal body, angular features, and a head that was long, flat, and alert. It was pointing that head towards the elders.

“Um,” Tharol started to say, but then the artificial creature burst forward like a shot. It crossed ten yards with each bound, closing the distance to the elders in no time at all. The elders threw their Shraying Staffs up as shields, but the creature cleaved through them instantaneously. Its next strokes slew each foe instantaneously.

Just like that…the massacre was over. The artificial creature looked back at the youth, then turned and bounded deeper into the maze, lost to the sprawling pathways beyond. A deep sigh seemed to emanate from those dark chambers, the unclenching of a prolonged strain.

Tharol, Bovik, and Marvi stood there in silence for a long, long while. At first they stared blankly at the blasted hole in the centrifuge wall and at the corpses of their former masters and fellow student, Yaihs. Then they let their eyes silently roam over the broken columns and moss-covered boulders that were scattered all around. Everything was quiet and very, very still. There wasn’t even the sound of crickets or wind.

It was Bovik who finally spoke.

“What do we do now?”

With the spell of silence broken the other two youth came back to the present moment.

“There’s nothing,” Marvi shook her head. “Everyone’s gone.”

“We’re not,” Tharol countered. “We’re still here.”

“We’re three people! We were supposed to be an Order, we were supposed to carry the torch on. But–but–“

“But that flame’s gone out,” Bovik finished and Marvi nodded.

“That’s true,” Tharol nodded. “It’s gone now, and it isn’t coming back. Not for a long, long time at least…and maybe not ever.”

They all stood another moment in silence.

“So let’s go do something else,” Tharol said with conviction.

“What?” Bovik asked.

“Something. I don’t know. But let’s go out there. First we’ll just worry about surviving, and later, when we know more, we’ll build something new.”

“Of course you would say that,” Marvi frowned in contempt. “Leave this all behind and start something new, because you never did like the Order!”

“That’s not true. I loved the Order. It confounded me, but I loved it. Now, though, I think it was an imperfect structure built on a perfect idea. And for right now I want to get to know that underlying idea better. I can’t do anything more until I understand that. There’s so much we don’t know.”

Marvi pursed her lips and thought for a while before responding. “What about the traitor?”

“The what?”

“The traitor that Reis was telling us about. He believed it was you.”

Tharol shook his head. “I’m sorry to say this, but Reis was a fool.”

Marvi whimpered.

“It’s true. And the fact is, I think he was the traitor that his let medallion was warning of. Not knowingly so, but his fear-mongering and personal insecurities opened the door wide for tonight’s disaster. There’s no reason why twelve of us should have been killed tonight!”

“Marvi, it’s true–” Bovik started, but she held up her hand to stop him.

“Can you just–let me be? I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

Tharol and Bovik made eye contact and nodded. She clearly needed some time and space to mourn.

“Well…so what do we do now?” Bovik returned to his initial question.

Tharol turned from the hole in the wall, and looked over the top of the stone hedge maze to the sprawling valley outside of the abbey walls.

“I need to get away from tonight. I think we all do. My next step is out there…. Beyond that, I’ll figure it out as I go.”

“I’ll come with you,” Bovik agreed.

Marvi didn’t say anything, but nodded.

“Do you think the Invasion is happening out there, too?” Bovik asked.

“I expect so. But–at least we’re still together. Maybe we can find some more survivors, too.”

And then the three of them walked out into the night.

Well, there we are, all finished with The Favored Son. It’s been quite the journey, and quite the sprint to the finish! To be perfectly honest, I was starting to hate this story in the middle, because I had no idea where I was going with it. But here at the end I feel I finally settled into an understanding, things came together nicely, and I am quite pleased to add it to my collection.

Speaking of my collection, The Favored Son represents a special milestone for my short stories, and I’m going to do a little something to commemorate that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain what I mean, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

The Self-Examined Son

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Usually at the conclusion of each story, I leave a little space at the end to review all the different lessons I gained from writing it, and to summarize all the elements I had been trying to imbue in it. But sometimes these stories run nine chapters long, and there is too much to cover in the little space at the end of the last post. So instead, I will use this entire post to review my current story, The Favored Son, all the things that I think went well, and what I think could be improved on.

Manipulation)

Right before I launched into this story I shared a post discussing how an author gets readers to trust and distrust certain characters from the outset, so that then the audience will accept or reject the philosophies connected to them.

At the time I pointed out how I wrote Tharol and Reis in particular ways to make one likable and the other not, to get the readers to assume one would become the protagonist, and the other the antagonist. That expectation was wholeheartedly affirmed.

A little bit later, I wrote about how this style of manipulation allows the author to guide the reader’s mind to a particular state, and then, knowing what they are expecting, they can either reaffirm or subvert those expectations.

And so, having had this affirmation of Reis as the antagonist and Tharol as the protagonist, I knew the reader would now assume that there would come a standoff between the two of them, a point where they duel over their different ideals and the protagonist would finally overcome the enemy.

And again, this was affirmed in my last post as Tharol defied Reis’s orders and convinced the other youth to do so as well. At that point it may have seemed obvious for Tharol and Reis to cross swords, but I wanted Reis’s downfall to be strictly due to his own hubris, not because Tharol happened to fight better. And so that is what occurred.

You might have noticed that I also setup an expectation for things to go horribly wrong with the battle against the elders by foreshadowing trouble multiple times. There was Tharol feeling uneasy, Tharol going along despite the protesting of his own conscience, and the youth encountering many surreal and unsettling sights along the way. All this was meant to create a sense of discomfort in the reader, and prime them for a scene of failure. Which, again, is exactly what occurred.

Appetizer)

I next wrote about stories that begin with an extended prologue, which gets the audience settled into the tone of the story before the main thrust of the tale begins. I suggested that this was my approach with the first sections of The Favored Son, where the youth first gathered at the centrifuge and Tharol spoke with Master Palthio about his dilemmas of faith.

At this point it should be abundantly clear that the real story was not about those elements, but about the war between the elders and the youth. And its themes evolved into letting go of old expectations to begin something new and about the need to preserve one’s soul even in the most dire of situations.

This isn’t to say that the introduction was entirely disconnected, though. Those opening scenes still laid the roots for several elements in the main story arc. In them I established the basic ideas of Reis’s hunger for power and Tharol’s efforts to listen to his conscience. Thus while my intro largely stands apart from the rest of the tale, it does still remain in connection to it, too.

Things Go Topsy-Turvy)

Then I reached a critical juncture in my story. I was having trouble making that transition into the real thrust of my tale, and suddenly I thought of a better way to go. But that better way changed a great many things, and meant that all the rest of the story would have to change accordingly.

I explained this in great detail at the time, and also shared my realization that it is a perfectly fine thing for an author to have more than one version of their story. Our minds work in tangents, and it is vain to assume our story-crafting won’t branch into multiple interpretations as well.

At the time I considered releasing an alternate version of The Favored Son. I had wondered if that would be redundant though, after all that I would end up writing in this new version. And now that I am at the end of this branch, I actually think there are still a lot of original, worthwhile ideas that have been left on the cutting-room floor.

And so I will be doing another take on The Favored Son. I think I need to rework the opening sequences to better support that alternate form, so I will be rebuilding it from the ground up. Certain elements will be similar, some passages will probably be copied over verbatim, but eventually the two will permanently diverge, at the point where the elders attacked the youth in my current version.

Familiar Haunts)

Next I spoke of stories that revisit the same location multiple times, and how using that familiar backdrop can be used to highlight the changes in the main characters by contrast. The location I was using for this effect was the centrifuge. Previously we saw the students there in a moment of innocent drama. They were quibbling about politics that didn’t really matter, and their fears and anticipations were only minor things.

The second visit took place after the initial attack of the elders, at a point where things had become horrifying, and probably seemed like they couldn’t get any worse. Now we see them returning for the third time, when things have absolutely gotten much, much worse! The unchanging nature of that centrifuge is helping to highlight the darker and darker situation among the youth as it unfolds. Where the location’s broken columns and crumbled stone were originally just an amusing piece of set dressing, now they can be recognized as a foreshadowing for the entire Order.

Pizzazz)

Finally I spoke of inventing new things in a story, simply to entertain the reader. I mentioned as a counterpoint to this, though, that all these crazy, new inventions still need to feel like they belong together. So long as the new creations feel like they originate from the same place, then our illusion of that place as somewhere real can be preserved.

In The Favored Son there are quite a few new creations. There is the strange behavior of the Invaded elders, the reforming Shraying Staffs, the strange physics when one is connected to their core self, and the cryptic hints of the Order’s doctrine.

I like to think that there is a sense of cohesion between all of these, although if I’m honest I kind of just wrote them down as they occurred to me, realized that they didn’t gel together, and then refactored them in my rewrites to bring them more in line with each other. Generally I like to pin down the system and mechanics of a world first, but in this case I kind of just took flight and corrected things as I went. And in the end, I don’t think it was half-bad!

Well that was a lot to cover! Now all that’s left is to finish the tale. Next I will be posting the last section of The Favored Son, and I hope it all comes together in a way that makes the journey satisfying. Come back on Thursday to see the result of that, and then a little bit later we’ll look at the alternate form of it, and consider which version lands better.

A Place Most Bizarre

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Big and Small Minds)

I have never had much luck explaining the message behind allegories to my son. I can tell him a story about the tortoise beating the hare, and he’s with it clear until the end. But then, once I start to say “so you see, the moral of the story is…” it all goes in one ear and out the other.

He can learn from fables, but like most children, he must do so by osmosis. Without anyone telling them what they’re supposed to think of it, children simply intuit what is right and true in the story, and what is wrong and evil.

But the other side of this coin is that children are able to embrace their imagination wholeheartedly. When Alice eats a cake and shrinks down to the size of a bug, and then meets a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah…children don’t bat an eye. They know that none of this happens in real life, but why shouldn’t it in a story?

Adults, on the other hand, are far more likely to get hung up on all the details and want an explicit explanation for it all. What exactly is meant by a caterpillar that smokes? Is this character an allegory for vice and its influence upon the youth?

They find it more difficult to accept that a caterpillar might just be strange for no other reason than to be strange.

A Wonderland)

Of course these are only a very few of the many, many things that are strange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a world that boldly refuses to be normal, surprising us instead with one oddity after another. We have talking cats, a kingdom of cards, croquet mallets that are really flamingos, walking on walls, and riddles during a mad tea party.

And can the less imaginative adults find a hidden subtext that grounds all of this to our regular world? Many scholars have attempted to do just that, suggesting that it is an examination of insanity, or an allegory of the coming-of-age experience, or a thinly-veiled shot at the tyranny of British rule.

But even if you don’t try to find any deeper meaning, the story still presents an experience that is undeniably captivating. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not require any deeper meaning to already be a fascinating adventure. Perhaps it is supposed to have one, but even if not it is already worth the ticket of admission.

And Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the only story that presents a strange land detached from reality. Indeed, most fantasy stories are even more severed from regular life. Where Alice at least begins her adventures in the real world, tales like Lord of the Rings and The Way of Kings are entirely based in foreign lands. They neither begin nor intersect with the real world at any point, they are completely divorced from our reality.

Fake Reality)

And yet these totally fabricated world can still feel real to us. They can seem as authentic a place to us as our own home. Though their magic and mechanics might be impossible, we accept them without the bat of an eye.

And people have always been able to do this. Encountering gods and titans was not a common occurrence to the everyday Greek. Even if they believed in the real-life existence of characters like Zeus, they were not personally acquainted with the individual. The everyday citizen probably never encountered magical threads, minotaurs, poisoned centaur blood, flying horses, or gorgons…yet they were perfectly content to listen to stories about them!

As with Alice in Wonderland, even the most fantastic of tales can remain convincing and intriguing just as it is, even when separated from any sort of symbolic meaning. And even when viewed under the lens of pure fantasy, we can still feel like these places are real.

Keep Your Story Consistent)

Or at least…we can find them intriguing and believable if they have been done well. But this isn’t always the case. Every now and then I find a story that I totally accept as real for the first act, but which then shatters its own illusion in the second. And as I’ve considered these disappointments, I’ve realized there is a common failing to each of these, a particular sin that is sure to make a story break its own illusion every time.

And that is when they change the rules of their own world partway through.

A story is able to be as fantastic as it wants, it can remain completely untethered from our own world if it wishes. But is must remain tethered to itself. It needs to be consistent to its own rules.

After Alice has seen a white rabbit in a waistcoat we are perfectly content to accept companions like a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter. But if she went around the corner and met a Greek god? Or a French revolutionary? It wouldn’t have fit with the established tone, and it would have shattered the illusion. All at once we wouldn’t see Alice as a real girl who lives in a real world and has real adventures. She would have been simply a “fictional character,” written by an “author,” and existing in a “fabricated story.” Totally fake.

I usually try to avoid calling out specific negative examples in these posts, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge in one here. I believe the main reason why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was rejected by many audience-goers was because it changed the tone of the story too severely. It frankly wouldn’t have mattered whether it was a “good story” or not, because it simply felt too different from everything that came before. Characters and themes seemed to be at odds with their prior selves, and thus they couldn’t be believed in anymore. The illusion of “a galaxy far, far away” was broken, and instead the awful truth was laid bare: Star Wars was simply a film franchise, made by movie studios, with different creative minds behind its entries.

Is it ever okay to pull out the rug, change the rules of your story, and subvert a reader’s expectations? Of course. There are always ways exceptions to the rules, and ways to break them that create a fascinating and worthwhile experience. But tread carefully if you go this route. It is very easy to take it too far.

If you do break the reality of your story, perhaps you could consider breaking it into a greater reality, one that can encompass the first. That is my intention with The Favored Son. I spent the first three posts trying to establish basic ground rules, then disrupted them with the fourth, and have spent the next few in a place where nothing seems grounded. My hope is that as I come to the end I’ll be able to catch the fractured pieces into a new, greater whole. I’m really not sure if I will succeed. There is a very real possibility that I do not, and the story will finish with a sense of having been at war with itself.

I hope that isn’t the case, but if nothing else the effort should be very educational! Come back on Thursday to see how I try to catch all the broken pieces.

Just Dazzle Them

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Movie Magic)

Old time cinema was used for more than just telling stories. Indeed, several of the original films were particularly light on story, with only threadbare plots and single-dimensional characters.

The Great Train Robbery, for example, did not strive to dissect the mind of the criminal, or provide an important moral lesson to its viewers. What it did do, though, was allow audiences to experience something that most of them would never encounter in life: the danger and thrills of a heist on the rails! And as cinema continued through its infancy, this idea of showing people things they had never seen before only grew.

High action stunts and feats of derring do abounded everywhere. From Laurel and Hardy dangling for dear life from a skyscraper, to the entire front of a building falling around Buster Keaton, to Houdini leaping from the wing of one plane to another, people saw things they had never witnessed before. The camera could take them to places they wouldn’t dare go on their own, and showed them wonders that no other form of entertainment could claim.

Artificial Wonders?)

More recently, the prevalence of CGI and extensive editing in recent years have been both a source of greater and lesser thrills in cinema. On the one hand, filmgoers have been transported to fascinating and impossible worlds, such as the lush jungles of the Navi and the halls of magic in Harry Potter. But on the other hand, films have also felt increasingly artificial and animated.

Perhaps that is a strange thing to say, given that movies have always employed a healthy amount of smoke and mirrors, even before the advent of digital effects. But at least even the smoke and the mirrors used to be actual, physical objects, not purely digital effects. A bad take was a bad take, and one did not have a hundred others to smooth it over. A mistake was a mistake, and one did not have editable pixels to cover it.

As a reaction to that fakery, there has been a push among some filmmakers to keep the marvels authentic. So Tom Cruise still does his own stunts, Christopher Nolan still crashes real planes, and Alfonso Cuaron still makes his actors memorize their roles for very long takes. It is still possible to go to the cinema, see something that you’ve never seen before, and believe that that something is really real.

Another Kind of Marvel)

Yet presenting a marvel to the audience is not the exclusive purview of visual mediums. Forget about CGI or smoke and mirrors, the written novel is nothing but pure imagination, yet it has still been able to inspire readers for centuries.

A novel has a much more limited currency to deal in than movies or songs: it has only its own ideas. And even so, the written word has still managed to spark the imagination of readers everywhere, and put into the mind notions that are entirely new.

Thus long before any alien movies, readers had already explored space travel with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Before the high-octane stunts of today’s secret agent, Sherlock Holmes was matching wits with Moriarty, the “Napoleon of crime.” Before audiences were horrified by the visage of monster makeup artists, they were held in captive-dread by the Headless Horseman and Frankenstein’s monster. And long before children were taught morals by animated, anthropomorphic creatures, they were enthralled by the whimsy of fairy tales and fables.

As I said, the currency here is the “idea.” Authors invented the narrative idea of space-travel, and detectives, and monsters, and readers fell in love. Though it wasn’t only genres that can be invented in a story. Tragic love, cathartic resolution, an ironic twist…these are all notions that have their first forms in the written or spoken word. And these sorts of inventions are just as capable of grabbing the imagination of their audience, and making them form connections that they never have before.

New Clothes)

However not every new idea in a story has to be a new narrative concept or a new genre. It is possible to write a tale that provides absolutely nothing new on an outline level, yet still captivates by dressing it in a way that feel fresh and new.

Consider the basic idea of Harry Potter: a chosen youth discovers a greater world that he had been blind to, and along the way learns truths about himself that are necessary to overcome a great evil. There is nothing new in this. From Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Narnia to It, there have been countless similar monomyths throughout the centuries.

But having that greater world be a community of witches and wizards that are concealed within our modern-day reality? That was something new, and it hooked the imagination of readers everywhere. It hooked them because it made them picture something they had never pictured before, and people love it when stories ask them to do just that.

Invent or Be Forgotten)

And so yes, an author should put a great deal of effort into making a solid story, one that has a good outline at its core, compelling characters, and dramatic arcs. Authors should learn how to describe a beautiful setting and to write gripping dialogue. They should learn to structure their sentences in ways that are both precise and beautiful.

But if they accomplish these, and still do not spark the imagination of the reader, then it will all be for naught. A flashy story without substance is superficial, but a story of substance that does not spark the imagination is quickly forgotten. If you truly want to make your mark, you need to say something that matters, and you need to say it in a way that has never been said before.

I’ve always wanted to put interesting, new ideas into my stories. I’ve wanted to craft worlds and mechanics that felt unique. With my latest story you can see examples of this in the multi-stage acted-out password that Tharol used to enter the armory, the weapons that fold into the characters arms, and the gang of elders morphed into a single body.

Obviously the best inventions are ones that integrate directly with the drama of your story, and if I’m being perfectly honest I haven’t achieved that particularly well with The Favored Son. The novelties of my last session were mostly just interesting for being interesting’s sake, not representative of any greater meaning, and not likely to carry any special significance in later events. Perhaps I’ll be able to find a way to integrate them more into the story of the architecture moving forward.

Come back on Thursday to see how I continue striving to put images and ideas in the readers’ minds, and hopefully ones that they have never considered before.