Choosing Your Scope

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Last week I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the things that stood out to me was that is a long film. It reminded me of how long watching Avengers: Infinity War felt last year, and as it turns out, those two films have almost exactly the same runtime.

But while these two films share the same length of time, their scopes are drastically different. Avengers features a central cast of nearly thirty and thousands of extras. It is peppered with constant dialogue and frequent set changes. 2001, meanwhile, features four main characters, and maybe two dozen extras. It has very few sets, and extremely sparse dialogue. Avengers seems more expansive, but 2001 seems deeper.

Neither film is wrong for its approach, they are just trying to accomplish different things. Each of them are epic in their own way. Avengers makes you feel like you’ve hurtled across multiple galaxies. 2001 invites you to sit in an environment, and gain a real understanding of its weight and feel. Avengers weaves together numerous points of conflict to ratchet up tension, 2001 accomplishes the same thing by making you witness the slow, methodical betrayal of a single AI.

The idea of choosing a scope is common to all forms of creativity. In the same canvas a painter could either create a sweeping landscape, or a closeup on a pair of hands. Both option has its own intrigue and beauty.

These perceived differences are not random, there is a direct correlation between time spent on a moment and its perceived weight. An author planning out their next work needs to be aware of this fact, and leverage it wisely.

 

The Amount of Time Matters)

It is true that one author might evoke powerful emotions with fewer words than another, and there is no simple formula that can tell you X number of pages will result in a particular level of emotional connection. That being said, we generally tend to give the most value to things that last a significant amount of time. We do this in life itself, but also in the stories we read.

A character that is introduced three pages prior will not be missed like one that has been present through the bulk of a novel. A daring rescue that takes a mere page to perform will not have as much tension as one that spreads across three chapters. Merely using words to suggest extremes are not sufficient. Telling me that the situation is “very, very dire” will never impact me so much as spending a significant amount of time in an oppressive atmosphere.

Also, the amount of time spent on one item relevant to another matters. Not everything in your story can be the most important. You want to direct the reader to the things that matter most by breezing past the unimportant and dwelling on the significant. Thus a waiter that takes the main character’s order should be limited to a sparse description, whereas the main villain would be etched out in detail.

In the example of Avengers, it is an extremely fast-paced story throughout, except for the rare moments where it pauses in scenes that are intended to convey the deepest emotional impact. Just by pausing to let us breathe in that space makes them all the more poignant as a result.

 

Breadth vs Depth)

I mentioned above that 2001: A Space Odyssey felt deeper than Avengers: Infinity War. I chose that word deliberately. The viewer feels as though they are being lowered into its atmosphere and having it permeate them to the core. Every setting in 2001 feels more real because of all the meticulous detail that is in them. The viewer feels like they are inhabiting a place that actually exists.

Avengers, on the other hand, is broader than 2001. Where 2001 evokes only a few powerful emotions, Avengers runs the entire spectrum from joy to despair. Its people and places may feel more pretend, but they have a sense of extending out of the periphery and into the infinite. There is a sense that there is always something more happening just around the corner.

Breadth and depth are mutually exclusive. One cannot write both of them into a scene at the same time. The moment we pause to focus on a detail, immediately we have narrowed the scope of that scene. It is possible to transition between the two, such as having a broad montage that changes to a single scene described in detail, but where one begins the other will end..

 

Finite Scope)

The last thing to consider about scope is that it is limited by its bounds. A common consideration when writing a story is how long it will be. Once that length has been determined, there remains a great variation in what it can cover, but there are some practical limits.

For example, trying to cram an epic into a 500 word short story would test that format’s limits, as would employing a 500,000 word trilogy to cover the events of a single day. Frankly, I have been on the wrong side a few times of fitting a scope to a story’s length. Even my most recent work, Instructions Not Included, is already pushing out of its boundaries.

I am currently writing the last segment of that story now, and I have found that it isn’t large enough to elegantly tie off all of the threads that I began. So instead of having complete closure, I have had to settle for completing the first act. That inflection point brings some sense of resolution, but also begins new arcs that extend beyond the length of my short story.

I’ve run into this issue with my short stories before. Without meaning to, this blog has been a place where I can test-drive longer form stories, and see which ones I remain interested in after the first ten thousand words. Sometimes you need to start writing a story first, until you understand what it wants its scope to be. Then you can select the length that will accommodate it. In any case, come back on Thursday to see the conclusion to Instructions Not Included, and I’ll share a little more about what I think its scope and length should be. I’ll see you there!

Or I Could Just Ramble On and On

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Triple Writer’s Block)

It seems that every part of creating a story is tricky. Knowing where to begin is tricky, maintaining interest through a middle is tricky, and ending it all is tricky. In different stories, though, one of those three parts will be harder to pull of than the other two.

Beginnings are usually hard when your outline started with something vague like “there is a conflict between two families.” Perhaps you wrote that because you knew that your hero needed a background of strife to emerge from, but now you struggle to define just what the nature of that strife is. The beginnings of a story are usually used to establish the tone and atmosphere of a tale, something difficult to do when all you had accounted for was events and dialogue.

Middles are difficult when you know where your characters come from, and you know were they wind up…but not how they get there. This is an easy dilemma to get into, because the first ideas for a story are often based around an interesting contrast. Something like “a man wakes up with awesome power, but eventually he learns to relinquish it for love.” That’s great, there’s a beginning, an ending, and an interesting voyage suggested in between. But now you have to turn that “suggested” into something more concrete.

And finally, endings are difficult when the initial motivation for writing the story was to explore an atmosphere or concept. Writing is a very meditative exercise, and sometimes an author simply wants to hash out an idea that’s weighing on their mind, to slowly walk within themselves and process what they find. Such sojourns can be quite fruitful, leading to an entire gold mine of new discoveries. That is all well and good for a beginning and a middle, but now how does one cap off such a wistful wandering in a way that is satisfying?

Today we’ll focus on just this last quandary, how to end a story that doesn’t want to finish.

 

See What Your Story Wants to Be)

My story Does What He Must actually began with no particular ending in mind. My notes simply stated that I wanted a character who did increasingly impressive feats one after another, always rising to the occasion to do what had to be done. And then he was supposed to face some penultimate and impossible task, something the audience would feel he couldn’t do because it broke the laws of physics or something like that. But then, to their surprise, he would simply grit his teeth and do that impossible thing, simply because that was just the natural continuation of his arc. And that was as specific as my notes on the story were.

So I just started writing. I came up with his background at random, and started working through a series of escalating challenges for him. All the while I was trying to figure out what this nebulous “penultimate and impossible task” would be, but nothing came to mind. I simply continued writing until I reached the point where the final act should go, and then I paused.

At this point I reread everything I had written, looking for some subconscious arc that I might have imbued into the tale. Much to my delight, there absolutely was one. I realized that the whole piece had been very family-centric, and so the ending should maintain that theme. I also realized that I had shown my main character performing miracles for his wife, his friends, his brothers in arms, and even strangers, but still had not done one for his son, who was the narrator of the tale. And thirdly I realized that this Old-West-Tall-Tale format practically begged for him to become a legend whose influence extended beyond the grave.

As I made note of all these points the only proper ending was obvious. I needed for my character to die in one of his miracles, but then still come through as a ghost (or an angel) for his son. This end fit with all of the themes I had been writing, both conscious and sub-conscious, and it made the whole experience complete.

 

Fictionalize Your Epiphanies)

As I mentioned at the top, a most common reason for beginning a story without an ending is because you just want to explore a concept that you are curious about. It might be a new technology, a strange setting, a philosophical question, or a real-life drama. You want to wrap your head around it, and writing gives you time to walk around in that concept and get a real feel for it.

In these situations, the answer to how to end your story might be staring you in the face. The fact is, people that spend enough time exploring an idea often find out something about it, something that wasn’t obvious from the outset. Though it is easier said than done, all an author needs to do to close their story is have it teach those same epiphanies.

Currently, I am trying to find a way to take this same approach for Instructions Not Included. I began that story with the desire to explore a simple notion: the process of scientific research and discovery. I thought it would be fun to take an idea that is usually so stiff and prickly, and turn it into something fun and playful. As I did so, I found my mind coming to rest on an important principle of inventions: creativity is a great power, and he who wields it is responsible to employ it well.

Like I said, turning an epiphany into a plot point is easier said than done. I’m still trying to figure out a way to actually implement this idea in my story, but I do have hopes that I’ll figure something out by Thursday!

 

Let a Meditation be a Meditation)

If the above approaches fail for you, then my last recommendation is that you perhaps just let your story be what it is: endless. I think stories with rich endings are wonderful things, I think they are important, I think humans depend on this structure to learn some of life’s greatest truths.

But none of that means that every time a pen touches a page it has to create a story with an ending. There’s no need to be so limiting in our idea of literature. Not everything has to neatly fit into categories like story, research paper, or instruction manual. Some things can just exist within their own sphere without having to justify their existence.

One of my favorite short pieces on this blog is Deep Forest, and that particular piece really doesn’t have a proper ending at all. I began writing it by wanting to explore an atmosphere that was so ancient it had become timeless. I wanted to capture a deep and heavy nature, one that knew no civilization or history. I had a lot of fun writing it, but when it came time to finish I didn’t have a proper ending in mind. I couldn’t see any arcs that needed to be concluded and there weren’t any epiphanies that it had to offer, it just kind of was what it was and that was it. So I posted it anyhow.

In hindsight, I realize it would have simply been wrong to tack an ending onto an exercise in timelessness. The fact is the only way for that story to have ended was without an ending at all. Though I did not realize this at the time, I am glad I went with my instincts.

 

All of these solutions come down to the same root though, that first idea of letting your story be what it wants to be. If you’ve written your tale properly, then it has its own ambience and tone, its own themes and styles, its own wants and desires. By knowing your story thoroughly, you will naturally gravitate to the end that is right for it.

On Thursday we’ll see what sort of ending I come up with for Instructions Not Included. Presently my hope is that I’ll be able to incorporate that epiphany I mentioned earlier, thus giving it a sense of thematic closure. At the same time I want to leave it with a sense of ongoing adventure, and so I will want to leave the plot somewhere more open-ended, as I did with Deep Forest. But more than anything else, I want to give it an ending that feels right with its personality. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!

Giving Out Information

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On Thursday I posted the second part of Instructions Not Included, at the end of which I noted that some readers will see more significance in the discoveries being made by the main protagonist, Gavin, then he will. Gavin is a bright child, but he still has a lot of education and life experience ahead of him, which prevents him from seeing how his inventions fit into the bigger picture. I don’t believe readers will hold his ignorance against him, though, that ignorance is simply the story being true to his character.

If, however, Gavin had been written as a grad student at a University working on a PhD in molecular biology, things would be different. If he had had that background and still wasn’t seeing the deeper significance behind his discoveries, we would feel frustrated at him for not knowing the things that he should already know.  And this, in fact, is the first guiding principle for how how much knowledge a story’s protagonist should have of their own world.

 

Characters Should Know What They Should Know)

Though it sounds obvious, there are many stories that fail to write characters whose knowledge or intelligence is consistent with their background. Consider the common complaint of horror films that the behavior of their victims is stupid beyond plausibility. The average viewer will say “I would know not to split up when a serial killer is on the loose, so why don’t you know not to do that?!”

Now, to be fair, the author of the horror film probably isn’t ignorant of their subjects’ ignorance, they know perfectly well that their behavior is unbelievably stupid. The thing is that the horror story has a unique requirement. Its purpose is to make you, the audience member, face situations that you wouldn’t subject yourself to in real life. It is necessary for you to be dragged into a situation that is uncomfortable so that you will become jumpy.

And one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is just to halve the IQ of every main character. Now you are tethered to a moron that will make choices you would never make, and put you in situations you would never want to be in. It works…but it also leaves the viewer in a frustrating relationship with the film.

Of course characters shouldn’t be too intelligent either. A child can be precocious, but once their wisdom stretches the limits of plausibility they start to be annoying. I admit this is one area I am worried about with Gavin in my story. I believe it is plausible for him to be curious and experimental, but I am anxious as to whether his scientific testing goes a bit too far. In the end I’ve just had to make a judgment call, and it will be up to the individual reader whether I rendered him in an acceptable way or not.

 

Choose an Appropriate Perspective Character)

The obvious takeaway from the previous section should be that you need to choose your story’s perspective with care. And to be clear, your “perspective character” is not necessarily the same as your “main character.”

For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird the main character is “Scout” Finch as a young girl. The perspective character, though, is Scout many years later as a mature woman. You see the story is being told to us as something that happened quite some time ago. This construct skillfully avoids the pitfall of an overly-precocious child, because the social commentary comes from the mature version of Scout, not the childhood one. This is a wise choice, because the story deals with heavy themes, including racism and abuse, which young Scout simply doesn’t comprehend. The end result is we get a voice of wisdom on these matters, but without having our illusion of younger-girl Scout compromised.

Another example of careful selection in the perspective character can be found in Moby Dick. In this tale Captain Ahab is the protagonist, but the story is told through the lens of Ishmael. This setup is well-chosen, because it allows for us to witness Ahab’s insanity from the grounded perspective of a rational observer. In fact this approach adds an element of mystery because the exact depths of that insanity are only made known to us as they become apparent to Ishmael.

Once a perspective character has been chosen, then the author needs to be respect the union that has been made between that character and the audience. The audience expects to be this person in this world, and they won’t take kindly if that relationship is cheated.

 

Don’t Show Things to the Perspective Character and Not the Audience)

So what do I mean by cheating the relationship between the perspective character and audience? Once the reader has identified which character facilitates their view into the story they expect to be privy to everything that that character is. Furthermore, they expect to be kept ignorant of everything that that character is, too.

Let’s look at an example of this in the Sherlock Holmes. In these Doyle has chosen as his perspective character John Watson. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the star, but Watson is the one telling us things as he sees them. And Watson is extremely serviceable in this function. He is an intelligent man, but he is not the demigod of intuition than Holmes is. Watson observes only as much as the average audience members would observe if we were in these situations, and that allows us to be delightfully outsmarted by Holmes.

Take for example the often-repeated sequence where the great detective will reveal astounding things about a complete stranger, all deduced from the vaguest of clues. The audience is never frustrated with Watson for having overlooked those same clues, because they wouldn’t have noticed them either.

Sadly, though, this careful selection of the perspective character has somehow been lost on most film and television adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. In these the perspective has always been changed to be Holmes’s. In these shows and movies we hear Holmes thoughts, we zoom in on the object that he’s looking at, we see his problem-solving process firsthand. We don’t ever have these same insights for Watson, he is now just an unnecessary side-character.

This could still work out, but then the show/movie reach a climax with an ultimate revelation, one where Holmes pins the big badguy down by an amazing show of insightful perspective… And most often he does it by pointing to evidence that we never saw. Suddenly we feel cheated. Holmes revealing that he secured a clue while the camera was turned the other way is not impressive, it is insulting.

When we share the detective’s perspective, then we expect to be able to solve the case ourselves if we are intelligent enough to manage it. If they solve it and we do not, it needs to be because they were smarter than us, not because they had secret information. Again, it’s fine for them to have secret information if our perspective character was Watson, but not if it was Holmes.

 

Don’t Have a Character Perspective)

Of course another solution that some stories can employ is to just not give us a perspective character. Instead of seeing the tale unfold through one of its actor’s eyes we instead have the events recited to us by some omniscient narrator/author. In this setup the reader’s perspective is their very own selves. And here an interesting little development occurs.

From this setup it doesn’t matter so much what knowledge you do or don’t give to the reader, they will accept it. You can tell the story with the wisdom of a sage, or the petulance of a child. You can selectively withhold information, you can even tell the audience member that you are withholding information. You  can tell them one thing, and later tell them that you lied and really it was something else.

And all of this is okay.

Consider the film The Usual Suspects. This film is shown to us entirely in flashback, the events explained by a convict taken in for questioning. He is our narrator, and what he tells to us and the police is a complete lie. At the very end his deceit is revealed, but the audience feels satisfied rather than cheated. Why? Because we weren’t actually there when these supposed events were happening, we only ever heard about them secondhand. The film has not broken the relationship it established with us from the beginning.

There is clearly a lot of power possible in a story that has no character perspective, though the trade-off is that it can be harder for the audience to immerse themselves in the tale. An author will have to weigh these different strengths, and choose what is best for their own situation.

 

On Thursday I will be posting the third section of Instructions Not Included. The perspective in that tale has been a little mixed, the voice telling the story seems to be a dispassionate narrator, but the events are limited to only what Gavin sees. The audience is absorbing the same facts that he is and there is a small bit of Gavin’s mental process on display, but virtually nothing of his emotional state.

I have been alright with this so far, because this whole segment has been meant as the introductory chapter to a theoretical larger work. If this were ever part of a bigger story this would just be the introduction where the ground rules are established, and then the real character-driven plot would follow immediately afterward.

I’m going to start signaling that transition by reintroducing Gavin’s brother with this next section. His presence will require us to settle more firmly into Gavin’s perspective, just in time for the dramatic shift at the end of this sequence.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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On Thursday I posted the first section of a story which was written in homage of Shane Carruth’s work. Shane is the writer/director/producer/star/composer for two films called Primer and Upstream Color. They are two of the most original stories that I know of, and each pushes the boundaries of imagination in exciting ways.

He has also written a script for a third film called A Topiary, but that one failed to receive funding years ago and will likely never come to fruition. The description of it, though, was that a group of boys would discover a strange machine that allowed them to piece-by-piece begin building mechanical creatures. The formation of these would be based upon a few fundamental rules which would compound and escalate to alarming degrees, eventually resulting in epic battles between the boys and the giant machines they wielded.

This work sounded incredibly exciting to me, particularly due to how Carruth’s previously released films each showed how skilled he was at stacking small and simple concepts into something beautifully complex, like a mosaic. His work follows a very strict pseudo-science, and he authentically captures the delight of methodically combining simple laws to discover new ones.

I basically wanted to take the exact same approach for how I wrote Instructions Not Included. So what I did was reduce the description of A Topiary to the simplest form I could. “A boy discovers a device that allows him to form new creations.” Then I gave it a very simple direction to follow, inspired by the experiences evoked in Carruth’s stories. “The euphoria of discovering new combinations and inventing new things.” And with that I started to write.

Now my own plot does not hit the same beats as any of Carruth’s work, and it does not take place in the same narrative universe. I do not copy the same mechanics he has invented nor the discoveries related to them. I do not even imitate his writing style. In this way Instructions Not Included is inspired by his work, but it is not a recreation of it.

This is one way of writing a work so that it has been influenced by another. In all, I would say there are three clear distinctions of how old work is used to influence a new one.

  1. Using the Essence of a Story
  2. Using the Style of a Story
  3. Using the Plot of a Story

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

 

Using the Essence)

As I’ve suggested, this approach simply involves looking at what it is that makes a story interesting, and then trying to inject that same interest into a story of your own. Usually these are core concepts that you can capture in a single sentence.

For example we can lift “the Hero’s Journey” as one of the core essences behind Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many, many others. The stories of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each provide the same essence of “brilliant mystery deduction” yet each is distinctly different in their own right. 1984 and Animal Farm are both “cautionary dystopian tales,” though again quite different in style and overall plot.

Now you may have noticed that this idea of “core essences” just seems to be another way of saying genres. And that is because each of the ones I’ve mentioned so far are old and well-populated, so that they have been cataloged into genre terms. But newer titles that fit into a smaller niche still have an essence, even if they do not have a named genre yet. For example, a few years after Harry Potter came out there followed a number of magical adventures involving teenagers, and there wasn’t a name to refer to them by. They shared an essence, but that was all, until the term “teen fiction” was coined.

 

Using the Style)

But perhaps you don’t just want to just be inspired by the same things that inspired your favorite author. Perhaps you want to write a story that they might have, if they had been given a chance to do so. Imaging, for example, if an artist decided to paint cell phones in the style of Picasso. As Picasso died in 1973 he never got a chance to tackle that subject, and maybe he wouldn’t have interested in them even if he had. Even so, one could wonder how he might have rendered them and try to create the image themselves.

Imitating the style of another author is difficult to do. When Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr) the general consensus was that they felt quite different. Style is derived from life experiences and the author’s own individuality. Thus you may put on an act of being like another person, but it is hard to actually think, feel, and be that person. It’s probably impossible.

But that’s not to say that no authors have been successful in imitating a style. One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to provide England with a mythology that it was lacking. The Greeks had Zeus and Heracles, the Egyptians had the sun god Ra, the Indians had Rama, the Prince of Fire. Tolkien wanted to gift to Britain its own deep legacy, and so determined to write his work in a mythological style. He would use larger than life settings, slow drama, and core themes of good triumphing over evil. The result is one of the most authentic modern works of mythology to this day. It really feels like it came from an ancient age, though it actually released the same year as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!

 

Using the Plot)

I’ve abbreviated this section as making use of another author’s plot, but you could also say to use their characters, world, or creatures. There are not many authors that have tried to create a modern mythos in the way that Tolkien did, but there are many that have tried to invent new stories within the world of Middle Earth, or borrowed from his personifications of elves and dwarfs, or used the idea of destroying an object of immense power.

The thing is that most of these stories leave a lot to be desired, because they actually capture very little of Tolkien’s essence, and they produce very little of their own. I’m not saying that all fan-fiction is bad, just that there is a lot of bad fan-fiction.

More interesting is when an author takes the plot of another work, but then deliberately alters its original essence or replaces it with something entirely new. Ulysses really doesn’t read much like The Odyssey, though they share so many of the same plot points. And while Ulysses lacks that Ancient Grecian flavor, that absence is more than made up for by its being having such a rich James-Joyce-style instead. The Lion King might on paper sound like a recreation of Hamlet, but it really feels much more like a tribal African legend than a medieval drama.

 

Across all three of these forms of imitation there is one consistent principle. In each case the new work is still immensely original. Though you might pay homage to another author, you really want that influence to amount to little more than a footnote on your otherwise totally originally tale. Otherwise you start to stray into the realm of plagiarism instead.

I like to think that I have been firmly in the balance of original work with Instructions Not Included, and I’m very excited to get on with that story. Come back Thursday to see where it is going next!

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Character Wrinkles

portrait of man
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At the end of my last story I teased the fact that I used a character’s name to imbue the story with an extra dose of personality. What I meant by this was that almost no one ever refers to the main character by name. He is known primarily as “my father” and later on as “Pa.”

There are only two times where the character is actually named, and both times it is said by his wife. I thought it was a nice touch to show a sort of reverence for the man. As if all the world is too in awe to call him by name except for the woman he loves. The story never spells out this detail, and I would imagine the wrinkle won’t even be consciously noticed by most readers.

My hope, however, is that the reader’s subconscious will pick up on it, and view the man with greater respect without even knowing why. Whether this attempt of mine actually worked or not is probably impossible to test, but it was a fun way to add more depth to the story nonetheless.

Little quirks like these show up in stories all the time. In the 2011 film Warrior, Paddy Conlon is frequently seen listening to Moby Dick on audio-cassette. It is emblematic of his character’s own personal chase, one to regain the hearts of his sons. Also it draws a parallel between Paddy and the character Captain Ahab, as both have chased their demons too far, perhaps to their own demise. None of these similarities are ever spelled out explicitly, they are  just picked up on naturally by the viewer. It makes the Paddy’s character all the more rich and evocative just by lingering in the background.

Each of my tales in this latest series of stories has featured examples of these character wrinkles. I’ve already mentioned the one from Does What He Must, but now let’s take a look at the others.

In I Hated You, Jimmy my distinguishing characteristic was a little different. It was selected primarily for a more functional reason. Throughout that piece our narrator is describing to us events that are now years in past, and ones that he has made his peace with. Or at least it would seem that he has, except for how he becomes lost in the emotions of the moments he is recounting, even going so far as to make a particularly cold comment about the death of a school bully at one point.

My intention here was not to make our narrator a contradicting character, or to suggest that the peace he claims to have found was false. Instead I am merely trying to lend the emotion that fits for that particular moment of the story. I didn’t want my character to talk about the angry years of his youth with a sober, mature voice, it would have felt unnatural. And so I make it instead as if his voice is aging in step with his memories. Perhaps it makes for a narrator that doesn’t quite make sense, but I think it goes down more smoothly anyhow.

For Harold and Caroline I featured two main characters who were about as different as could be. Harold was flustered and sarcastic, Caroline was mousy and uncoordinated. I did, however, want the two of them to share one trait: each of them is holding back the things they want to say.

I believe that my readers got the sense that Harold was constantly biting his tongue. Every sarcasm and sigh of exasperation was but the tip of the iceberg of what he would like to express. Meanwhile Caroline was unwilling to be vulnerable, and so had to squash down all of her problems and frustrations. She is more open with her friends, but not at all with Harold.

My hope then was that each character would have a sense of being more than they appeared. That way it would feel fitting at the end that Harold has a secret charitable side, and that Caroline has a loving and supportive family. In that final scene each character is for the first time really seeing the other.

The Anther-Child was a piece in which we didn’t even meet our main character until halfway through the story. Up to that point he had only been described as part of a group, the Anther-Children as a whole. And even when he is first singled out it is done very impersonally as “one of the males.”

He is not being treated as an individual because his identity has not been individual until this moment. Then he is slowly given more and more focus. Each of the following sentences deals more and more with his experiences, and less and less with the other character’s. Soon all of the other characters depart entirely and he becomes the sole focus of the piece. At this point he expels his old essence and absorbs a new form from the ground around him. He has a new identity, and it perfectly coincides with how at this moment he has finally become the central character of the story.

Once again, the functional details of how the story is written are reflecting the characteristics of the protagonist and indirectly giving him greater depth.

I wanted to do one last story in this series, and it is going to take the idea of adding subtle character wrinkles in a different direction. I want to write a story about a character that is coming apart. I don’t want to add wrinkles to better define him, I want them to fray him and make him more obscure. I am going to try and write a piece from the perspective of a man who is dying, and as he does so gradually loses his grip on memory, reality, and finally his own identity. It sounds like quite the ambitious exercise, and I can’t claim any confidence for how it will turn out, but frankly I’m excited just to try!

Principle and Example

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photographt
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Repeated Tales)

In old France a beautiful woman named Belle is shocked by the hideous exterior of a cruel Beast. Fate intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, a spell is broken, and the two live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, over in Old England Elizabeth Bennet is shocked by the haughty snobbery of Mr. Darcy. Fate again intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and again over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, previous hurts are mended, and the two live happily ever after.

Despite the similarity between these two stories, Pride and Prejudice is not assumed to be a reinterpretation of Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps Jane Austen was subconsciously influenced by the themes of that earlier work, but then every author is at least somewhat shaded by the ideas that have gone before.

It’s especially interesting to me how similar these two stories are, even when the setting of each is so different. Beauty and the Beast comes from a land of magic and fantasy, Pride and Prejudice is grounded strictly in a natural world, though perhaps one inhabited by caricatures.

Batman is the Scarlet Pimpernel, but with more radiation-powered bad-guys. The James Cameron film Avatar is the same story beats as Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, but now set on an alien world. Star Wars takes the feudal Japan of The Hidden Fortress, and trades it for the vast emptiness of space. Ulysses drops the mythic gods of The Odyssey in favor of 20th century Dublin.

It seems perfectly clear that themes and basic plot constructs are not confined to particular genres or world-settings. It is possible to tell the same story with entirely different trappings. What then is the difference between a story set in realism and another set in fantasy? Are there certain strengths to each, or are they truly interchangeable?

 

Example vs Principle)

I’ve known several women who have said they want to find a man like Mr Darcy. I don’t think I know any, though, who have said they want to find a man like the Beast. Though their stories are the same and both characters are works of fiction, the Beast seems somehow more pretend to us. It feels strange to say that one would want to live in a world so completely given over to fantasy.

A story that is grounded in reality provides for us an “example.” Though it is not real, it feels real. It is an instance of life that reminds us of similar realities we ourselves have experienced. The applications of its lessons are obvious and direct, one can immediately understand that one should never judge a book by its cover in matter of the heart. However, because the lesson is so closely coupled with a lifelike situation, it is more limited in its application. For example it would be a stretch to apply the principles from Pride and Prejudice to issues of racial strife, but it is a far easier thing to do with Beauty and the Beast.

This is because more fantastic stories tend to provide us a “principle.” Principles might be tougher to chew on at first, but they are considerably more adaptable to a broad spectrum of scenarios. The Beast isn’t really a person, he’s an idea: ugliness. And ugliness can be recognized in all manner of different forms.

So which method should we learn by? Example or principle? Well… both, really. We try to teach our children principles, and then we model those principles by our example. A mathematics lesson usually begins by illustrating the principle in the form of a proof, and then shows its application with an example problem. Aspiring artists are educated on the theory behind color, shape, and balance, and are then shown specific examples from the masters that showcase the implementations of these principles.

Each of us is partial to one form of learning or the other, although we all benefit at least somewhat from both. There’s more than enough reason, therefore, to write stories that fall on either side of reality.

 

Blends and Exceptions)

Of course not every story falls neatly onto just one side of the spectrum or the other. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a story set in a realistic world and populated by believable characters. It’s just that two of those characters happen to be different incarnations of the same man, brought about by use of a fantastic serum. In Utterson we find a realistic example of a man dealing with a friend in trouble, and in Jekyll and Hyde we have a more allegorical depiction of addiction.

In recent decades the trend has been to take the more fantastic worlds, and inhabit them with more lifelike characters. Where superheroes like Superman were initially written to be allegorical idols of perfection, now they are usually just everyday people like you and me in a world just like our own. I’m not sure if that is better, worse, or neither, it’s just an interesting trend to note.

And of course, there are many stories that don’t have a point at all. They aren’t made to be relatable to us either by example or principle, they are merely meant to entertain us through a swashbuckling adventure. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, lacks a relatable setting, is full of hyperbolic characters, and does not attempt any meaningful allegorical lesson. It is, however, just a lot of fun. I’m not sure how long these sorts of stories are remembered over long periods of time, though, they may be brief touchstones that garner a moment of attention and nothing more.

 

If you haven’t already, it’s well worth asking yourself what the lesson behind your own stories is meant to be. Whether it is a lesson taught by example or principle, whether in a realistic setting or a fantastic one, whether with lifelike characters or caricatures. All combinations of these are valid options, what matters is that whichever configuration you choose you do so intentionally.

Here in the United States of America we have a narrative type called “tall tales” which blends the two styles in an interesting way. These are stories of individuals that are said to have lived among ordinary people in an ordinary setting, but that performed superhuman feats when needed. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and more are larger-than-life characters that were too big for the reality they were cast in.

Previously I’ve written a lifelike-example in the form of I Hated You, Jimmy and also a fantasy-principle with The Anther-Child. This Thursday, though, I’d like to try my hand at a story that straddles the two extremes in the same way as one of these American “tall tales.” Come back then to see how it goes!